September 19, 2008

What I Talk About When I Talk About Travel*

road-less-traveled

The title comes from Haruki Murakami, who in turn took it from Raymond Carver.

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Since I started this site in March, I’ve been to more than 20 countries in pursuit of my goal to visit every country in the world. It’s going well so far, and I’ve made even more progress than expected. Next year I suspect it will get much harder, but we’ll take things one trip at a time.

As the community here has grown, I’ve noticed that I receive at least several emails a day with the same kinds of questions about travel. I’m making a full FAQ later for the upcoming site redesign, but I thought I’d go ahead and publish this one now.

Each of these questions has been asked by readers via email, Twitter, or the comments sections. If I missed something, feel free to let me know, and we’ll add it in.

OK – here we go.

Plane Tickets

  • How do you arrange your flights?

This requires a multi-part answer:

Round-the-World (RTW) —
For most of 2008 I’ve been traveling on OneWorld and Star Alliance RTW tickets (one of each). These tickets have a great deal of value, especially if you optimize them well and begin the trip from certain countries that are cheaper than beginning in the U.S., Canada, or Europe.

For example, my Star Alliance ticket was purchased way back in the summer of 2007. I traveled on it then for quite a while, including visits to Uganda, Taiwan, and Malta, and then I used an awards ticket (see below) to come back to Seattle for the rest of the year.

RTW tickets are valid for a full year and are quite flexible. Date changes can usually be made free of charge, and you can even reroute the entire itinerary for a reissue fee of about $150. When I went back out the second time, I re-routed so I could visit Northern Iraq, as well as Poland and Bulgaria.

Regional Passes – Like RTW tickets, regional passes are fairly flexible and allow you to visit multiple countries for a fare not much higher than a simple round-trip flight. In late 2006, I took my first “Circle Pacific” trip on Star Alliance, which allowed me to visit Hong Kong, Vietnam, Burma, and Singapore. I stopped off in Seoul on the way in and in Auckland on the way out.

After that experience, I was hooked and started learning more about the whole process. I haven’t done a regional pass since then (because I’ve been using the RTW tickets), but I’m thinking about doing another one sometime next summer.

Awards Tickets – Because I’ve earned so many Frequent Flyer miles, I use them to get to and from a jump-off point. I don’t like to be away from home for more than two weeks at a time, so I will sometimes break off a long trip in the middle, come home for a month, and then go back out for the second half.

One good thing about the process is that after you get it started, you’ll naturally earn more miles, and then by the time you need them for the next trip, they should be in your account.

Budget Airlines & Overland Travel – To get from place to place once I’m in a region, I prefer to travel overland if possible, and then on a local, budget airline if not. There is a great site called Attitude Travel that maintains a directory of budget airlines all over the world. Some of these are better than others, naturally, so do your research before buying a ticket.

  • How can I learn more about RTW tickets?

There is a lot to the process (I’ve probably spent more than 100 hours learning about it over the past year), so at some point I plan to write an eBook specifically about the subject. But you can also learn a lot on your own if you’re willing to put in the time, and you probably need just a few hours to get the basics.

The two major airline alliances offer the kinds of RTW tickets that I use: OneWorld and Star Alliance. I also participate in the FlyerTalk forums from time to time, which have helped me a lot. If you need an expert for a specific question, Flyertalk is definitely the place to go.

  • Whenever I want to book a Frequent Flyer ticket, the airline tells me no seats are available. What should I do?

This is one thing I don’t like about the airlines. In short, you don’t usually have to take no for an answer. If you check on specific routes yourself and keep calling back, you can usually make something work. I’ve booked dozens of awards flights now, and only had to give up on two attempts. But you’re right – the airlines definitely don’t make this easy.

(For more, check out the Unconventional Guide to Discount Airfare. 100% satisfaction rate so far, and lots of great reviews.)

  • What is the best Frequent Flyer program?

There is no best program for everyone, because it all depends on your location and what kind of travel you’ll be doing. I have memberships with at least eight airlines (I lose count sometimes). This year I have been maximizing my flights on OneWorld and using American Airlines. I’ve earned more than 140,000 miles this year on American, putting me in the highest-tier of their elite program. I’ll probably use these miles on another OneWorld partner to allow me to get to a place I haven’t visited before.

If you live in North America (or even just visit there once in a while), I generally find that some of the U.S. Frequent Flyer programs are better than the Asian or European ones. This is in contrast to the airlines themselves, but even when I was living in West Africa, I earned all my miles on U.S. carriers.

Logistics

  • Why do you bring cash when you travel? Can’t you just use an ATM?

ATMs work well in a lot of countries, but not all. I find that it is usually easier to travel with cash in much of the developing world, even in places that have a decent ATM network.

  • How can you travel with no checked luggage?

The secret is that instead of being harder, it is actually easier to carry less stuff. If you’ve never done it, trust me – traveling with only carry-on bags is much less stressful than worrying about a huge backpack or suitcase. Speaking of that, check out the site OneBag.com for some great information about how you can pack everything you need for weeks at a time into one bag.

My system is not as sophisticated as theirs – I mostly just try to avoid taking anything I don’t really need. Running shoes take up the most space.

(Also, I wrote about this briefly in Beginnings a while back).

  • What kind of laptop, camera, and cell phone do you take?

I am a low-tech traveler. I use a $500 Dell laptop, a $150 Canon digital camera I bought on eBay, and I don’t have an international phone. I’ve thought about getting some kind of world phone or maybe a Skype handset, but haven’t done so yet.

About Me

  • Do you travel alone? Do you get lonely?

Yes, usually, and yes, sometimes. But that’s OK – loneliness is not necessarily a bad thing. I do some of my best thinking and planning while traveling. Several times recently I’ve met up with other travelers in guesthouses or bus stations, and it can be fun to travel with others for a while… but I don’t usually plan for it in advance.

  • What does your wife do?

Jolie is a Seattle-based artist. She is nice enough to let me travel around the world and do crazy stuff while she pursues her own dreams of becoming a successful painter. She is the main reason why I usually travel in two-week blocks before coming home.

  • How long do you spend in each country?

It varies depending on where I’m going and what else is happening. The range is from a few hours (Luxembourg) to several years (when I lived in the Philippines as a child, and in West Africa for most of 2002-2006). The average, at least since I’ve been traveling more frequently, is probably about a week. You can learn a lot about some places in a short time, just as it’s possible to stay a long time somewhere but not learn much at all.

  • What is your favorite country?

I don’t have just one. But countries I have especially enjoyed include the Netherlands, Macedonia, South Africa, Ghana, Syria, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.

  • What do you do in each country you visit?

I have no set schedule. Sometimes I meet people, and sometimes I am by myself the whole time. The only consistent thing is that I try to walk around a lot. I walk about 4-6 hours a day most of the time while traveling, although in countries that are especially hot, it’s a bit less. I also need to arrange at least 2-3 hours a day to do some writing and online work. This is easier in some places than others, so often it takes some time trying to get this set up. Otherwise, I do whatever I feel like doing.

  • I live in [country name] and want to know when you are coming so I can show you around.

Thanks! So far I’ve received unsolicited hosting offers from Turkey, Denmark, Australia, Brazil, and a few others. That’s awesome. I don’t really post a schedule in advance of going somewhere, but before a major trip I’ll usually post an update of the expected highlights. Send me a note sometime and maybe we’ll meet up.

Criticisms

  • Isn’t it easy to travel with a U.S. passport?

Yes, compared to poorer countries, it is relatively easy to travel with a passport from the U.S., Canada, European Union, or other “status” countries. However, just because it is relatively easy does not mean that most people do it. There are a lot of North Americans who never leave home. Also, every passport has its quirks—there are a few places that are actually somewhat difficult to visit with a Western passport.

In short, most of us can’t change the citizenship we were born with, so I tend to think it’s best to work with what you have and not blame others just because they were born somewhere else.

  • Why do you write about airports and flying so much?

Because I like airports, and I like flying. I try to appreciate the process of travel itself as much as the destination. Some people think that travel in a globalized world is a standardized experience, but I believe it’s more complicated than that. I realize the detailed posts about flying and going from place to place are not for everyone, but many people seem to enjoy them.

  • My country is not on your places list. What’s up with that?!

The list is of places I’ve already been. Don’t worry; yours will come up at some point.

  • How do you feel about the environmental impact of international travel?

To be honest, it wasn’t something that I thought about for a long time. I grew up when being environmentally concerned was not exactly mainstream, at least where I was. Now that we all know better, I do try to limit my overall environmental impact, not just the impact that comes through travel. I don’t own a car, for example, and I use public transport whenever possible.

At the same time, though, I don’t think travel is inherently bad — in fact, I tend to believe the opposite. Instead of trying to convince people to stop flying, I think it’s better to focus on alternative energy sources and creating a sustainable world for everyone.

  • I don’t like the way you travel because a) you do too much research in advance or b) you don’t do enough research in advance or c) you don’t spend enough time in one place or d) something else.

I’m sorry. But I will probably not change to do it your way – feel free to travel as you think it should be done and start your own blog about it. I believe that everyone can find their own travel philosophy based on their own goals and what travel means to them personally. It’s a big world, and we don’t have to all be the same.

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Comment on this article

18 Responses to “What I Talk About When I Talk About Travel*”

  1. September 19, 2008

    Jason Weaver

    Thanks Chris! This makes a handy appendix to your first eBook. I look forward to following publications. Keep it coming!

  2. I love the way you travel! :)

  3. Regarding Skype… I suggest you buy a ‘MagicJack’. For $40 you get a years free long distance, caller ID a voicemail and a local telephone number. Your voicemails can also be sent to you by email for listening to later. It will work anywhere in the world that has access to high speed internet. In essence, just like Skype, you can be in hotel in Paris and dial home for no cost. The USB device is about 2″ by 1″ by 1/2″… You will also need a small telephone handset.

    There have been complaints about configuration and quality of sound. I have installed the same device on two laptops with no problems. Normally, sound quality is no different than my ATT&T service, and better than my Verizon cellular. The Ad says you can plug it into a computer in Internet Cafes… I doubt that, as it does install software on the computer and I don’t think that you’d be given the necessary administrator’s privileges to do so… All in all, though, I now have no ATT&T bill..

    jegan ;-)

  4. Excellent look into your more practical outline for travelling! :) I like some of your answers; I have problems formulating a good response to similar questions I get asked about my travels so I’ll be possibly quoting you.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. Chris,

    How do you pay for the trips?

    -Ted.

  6. @Jason @Success Prof and @Benny -

    Thanks! I get lots of feedback like that and I appreciate it. Every once in a while someone gets upset about something, so that’s why I have the disclaimers. :)

    @John –

    Thanks for the tip! Interesting. I see that Skype now has a similar offer for unlimited calls to a couple dozen countries. I don’t do a lot of calling while overseas (email is much easier), but it’s nice to have the option.

    @Cubicle Warrior -

    Part of the reason I am posting more detailed Travel FAQ posts like this one is to show that it doesn’t have to be that expensive. With the Round-the-World tickets and other strategies I use, I have my flight cost down to about $330 or so now, including lots of long-haul flights. I stay in guesthouses, hostels, and small hotels.

    But at the same time, it isn’t free – and I pay for all of it myself, nothing is donated or otherwise provided free. I am writing the second Unconventional Guide about this subject, which will have about 50 pages of detailed info on starting an microbusiness and creating income without working at a real job.

  7. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the info on purchasing tickets, that’s invaluable. Will try it out. The other “FAQs” are good too.

    By the way, why would anyone else travel the same way as you do? Defies non-conformity, n’est pas?

    Robert

  8. Have you considered purchasing carbon offsets for your air travel?

  9. Hi Chris,
    You mentioned that RTW tickets from certain countries are cheaper than from US, Canada or Europe. Will you be able to mention these countries (with cheaper RTW tickets if you start from there)? I’ve been trying to look up information on this as I’m planning to do a RTW soon and it’s a bit hard to find. Thanks!

    ps. great blog btw!

  10. Excellent article. Airline travel can be costly so it is good to know these things. However, i don’t really like RTW tickets. I find that unless you go on the typical route, then can actually be more expensive. Plus it doesn’t take into account the discount carriers you need to fly and if you fly a lot, reward miles can get you places for free!

    BTW – I did enjoy the ebook too.

  11. You lived in the Philippines as a child?! Me too! I was there between 1989-1991, when I was between 5 and 7. We lived in Batac, near Laouag, way up North on the Luzon Island. I haven’t been back since, although my brother & dad went on a trip last year, and I am back in touch with an old friend. I would love to set up some kind of NGO to help students get their degree (the country is so poor and the people are so wonderful).

    Also, you would have an address to stay over in Belgium as well! I live in Leuven, a university town 25 min. from Brussels.

    Best wishes

  12. Hey guys. I’m in HKG getting ready to fly home… details on my trip to Egypt coming in a few hours.

    @Robert,

    I would certainly not expect anyone to travel the way I do. I learned to enjoy travel the most when I started doing it my own way, and I encourage everyone to do the same for themselves.

    @Bo,

    Carbon offsets: Considered, yes. Followed-through, no. I think that business / operation still has a long way to go, since right now a blend of companies and non-profits are offering a lot of wildly different options and there is no consensus on whether it really helps.

    @Catherine,

    Sure – currently Japan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Mauritius are good bets. The last three are better than Japan, but obviously it takes a bit more work to get there.

    @Nomadic Matt,

    Yep, to each his own. RTW is great for me but not for everyone. Although I should say that I do find it a great value, and the tickets are quite flexible if you optimize the itinerary well.

    @Hannah,

    Thanks! That’s great. I’ll add Belgium to my list of host-ready cities. :)

  13. Catherine – there are a lot of savvy travellers on Flyer Talk who use RTW tickets and other special fares to maximise the travel while minimising the cost. In particular the airline alliance forums have price comparisons for all countries and all 3 major alliances, and the mileage run forum also has useful information on cheap fares.

  14. Hi Chris,

    I understand about travelling your own. I have one personal rule to try to not go to 30,000 feet more than twice in one day, three max. Beyond that my head doesn’t go back to normal. Flying home to Juneau from south California though is always a minimum of 3 and can be 4 or 5 with extra stops in San Francisco, Ketchican and Petersburg, even Sitka, all besides the usual stop in Seattle. Ouch!

  15. Thanks Chris, it was wonderful reading this. The links especially were very useful to follow what you said :)

  16. Thanks Chris for taking the time to share all of that. Now I know where to go to get some great information on HOW to travel affordably.

    As I’ve said before, it’s ALWAYS great to know someone else is living outside the box we’re sometimes put in.

    -Jared

  17. “Because I like airports, and I like flying. I try to appreciate the process of travel itself as much as the destination.”
    ….

    Yes, finally somebody who gets it! I enjoy the process of travel a lot too, lingering for an hour in a train station, seeing the activity and all the rest of it.

  18. Thanks for sharing your travel insights. My wife and I have also done a lot of traveling in recent years but for awhile, I felt rather guilty for visiting to so many places in light of the global economic turmoil. It’s as though I should be more frugal in order to conform to what other people think. You’ve definitely inspired me to join the crusade and to be part of the AONC fan club.