Travel With More Meaning – Part 1

I’m a firm believer in immersive travel. Sometimes, your destination is not the main point, but rather a special setting for a life experience.  While the desire to see somewhere new is sufficient reason to travel, some of my most memorable experiences abroad have been when I have journeyed with a purpose.

In 2006, I partook in a summer study program in Prague, spending my days learning about religion, art, and European history and my nights either in dance or dialogue with fellow students. As an undergrad, it was an opportunity to study subjects unavailable through my regular engineering curriculum. Having a purpose bought me time, and having time bought me the ability to notice little things. Metro pass in hand, I would take the tram to a random stop and wander my way back home. The need for me to run everyday errands took me beyond tourist areas in search of fabric, vegetables, and even a place to thread my eyebrows. I stumbled upon the Wallenstein Gardens not through the main entrance, but through a small wooden door in a tall stone wall that sparked my curiosity every time I rode past it on the tram.

Old Town Square in Prague during the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final

Old Town Square in Prague during the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final

Most importantly, I was learning the whole time, earning university credits, and building friendships that continue to inspire me today.  Best of all? Thanks to a generous scholarship, my cost for two full-credit courses, accommodation, and breakfast for five weeks was less than $1500 USD.

In 2013, I followed my nose to the French Riviera after reading Patrick Suskind’s perfume, and followed a tip from my friend Andrew to use Help Exchange to find a working holiday placement. As fate would have it, I was able to spend a week working at the beautiful 18th century Bastide St. Mathieu on the outskirts of Grasse, earning my room and board in an otherwise very expensive region by helping the housekeeper with breakfast, taking on projects around the manor house, and acting as the host’s liaison with the guests.

Bastide St. Mathieu

Bastide St. Mathieu

My mornings of (easy) physical labour were a welcome change from my desk job, and I had most of my afternoons free to explore the area or write by the pool. Once again, my most memorable experiences were brought through my interaction with the hosts, the staff, and the other guests.

There are many ways to travel with more meaning (and often less money).  I will be interviewing other intrepid explorers over the next few posts, each of whom went abroad learn/share/create/do something. I hope you will be inspired to take a Trek of your own, in search of a special experience or an opportunity to contribute.

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What makes lounge access worthwhile?

Food offerings in the SJC Airspace Lounge

Food offerings in the SJC Airspace Lounge

Frequent flyer forums abound with gossip about airport lounges. From the promise of massages at the Royal Thai spa lounge, to tales of disappointment at the tea selection, they are a hot topic among the jet set. Entry into airline lounges is typically gained via airline frequent flyer status and credit card based access, which our friends over at Creditwalk.ca have thoroughly analyzed. For the less frequent traveler, there is the option of paying for a one-time pass (or using a gifted guest pass). Here are the scenarios where I think that approach might be worthwhile, based on when I have found lounge access to be most worthwhile.

1. When you need a no-distractions environment in which to work

With many airports offering free wi-fi, the business centre aspect of airport lounges have lost some of their appeal. It isn’t the ability to connect, but rather, to disconnect from all distractions, that make a lounge worthwhile for the times you have a long enough layover and a fast approaching deadline. For the $27 it once cost me to enter the United Club (whose snack selection is fairly dismal), I was able to zone in and get about three hours worth of work done. Of course, day passes can range from $25 through to $75, so it depends on your circumstances. If you’re tighter for productive time than for money, this may be a worthwhile option for you.

2. In lieu of a hotel

I once had an eight-hour layover in Beijing Airport on my way to Malaysia. At the time, I was lucky enough to use my frequent flyer status to get into the Air China lounge, but I would have gladly paid for entry to this haven. After a long overnight flight, I was able to take a four-hour nap in a sleeping pod, enjoy breakfast, shower, get some reading done, eat lunch, charge my phone, and keep my luggage safe when roaming the airport. This was especially useful in a place where I would have needed a visa in order to go into town.

3. When they are serving a proper meal

On our recent trip to Hawaii, Mr. Pointster and I were debating which of our layovers to use our one-time American Airlines Admirals Club access. I mistakenly thought it would be more useful in San Diego than our departure point of Toronto, since our San Diego layover was longer than the one hour we had left before our flight. What I forgot to take into account was the fact that we hadn’t yet eaten dinner and were about to board a six hour flight with only food for purchase. We ended up spending about $40 on our meals and a frustrating public wi-fi connection. I now admit that we should have used our one-time pass then, but I still don’t think it would have been worth outright paying for, since different lounges offer differing degrees of meals and snacks. I’ve been disappointed with the ‘carrot-sticks and cheese-and-cracker’ offerings of the United Club, been satisfied with the Maple Leaf’s soup, salad, and sometimes pasta bar, and have been absolutely delighted with a full Turkey dinner at the Plaza Premium Amex Lounge in Toronto on Christmas Eve.

Check the Weather…and the Moon

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When planning our few days on Hawai’i’s Big Island, we opted to spend our Tuesday evening at the stargazing party from the patio of the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station. Since Tuesday’s forecast called for clear skies (and the remainder of the week called for rain), we figured it would be the best night to see the stars. After a steep and curvy (but perfectly safe) drive, we arrived in time to jog up to a viewpoint to catch the sunset. Being above the tropical inversion layer, from this height the sun sets onto the clouds. Although extremely windy, it was memorable, and I noted that we were in for a special treat, because the full moon had just begun to rise on the other side of the mountain. We hiked back down to the visitor centre to wait for darkness, and only then did I clue into the fact that a full moon is not a welcome guest at a stargazing party – it’s a gate-crashing disco ball that obscures everything else. For once, the moon was not romantic. It made the sky views from Mauna Kea seem like nothing special compared to what I would see camping back home in Alberta. After chatting with some of the observatory staff, we learned that it didn’t matter if the weather was cloudy farther down on the island – Mauna Kea’s location above the inversion layer meant that it was above the clouds, with clear skies most nights of the year.

We will try going back again on Thursday to take advantage of the hour of darkness between sunset and moonrise, now the wiser for actually looking up astronomy forecasts before going stargazing!

Timeshare and Vacation Club Presentations – How Not to Be a Sucker

Since Mr. Pointster is all about luxury travel on a dime, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to get paid while travelling. Stopping off at a tour-activity booth, we were offered $150 cash for attending a 90 minute presentation for access to travel vacation software. Since we didn’t have prior plans for the 9:00 to 10:30 AM timeslot (we had already gone for a beachside run that morning), and since we trusted our ability to not be sold on a product we didn’t want, we went ahead for it.

We like to consider ourselves smart, analytical people. What astonished us was that, for a while, we actually started considering putting $3000 on the table for something we didn’t really need. We made the wise decision not to buy after the offer failed our tests. After reading the reviews of the vacation software online, we heard plenty of horror stories, and felt lucky to have gotten away. Here are our steps for making sure you don’t end up making a regretful purchase.

1. Do the math, YOUR math

The vendors will always walk you through some sort of equation, explaining how their product will save you thousands of dollars within the early years of your investment. Remember that their valuation is always going to be different from your valuation. So when you calculate how much money you are saving, don’t use their rate for a hotel night/condo week/flight purchase. Use the price that YOU would normally pay for your version of a product/service, which is likely not the same as theirs.

2. Read reviews

Do not let any vendor separate you from your right to inform yourself – Google them! The red flag for us was not only the negative reviews for this company on complaint forums, but also the fact that the site itself had created its own satellite review sites, full of positive reviews that just seemed too much like advertising copy.

3. Check the inventory

Their vacation software listed lots of options for some dates, but when we started to plug in peak season travel, we found that the available inventory dwindled. Our test was to check places that we actually wanted to travel to, when we wanted to travel there. When we couldn’t find the ability to use the program to match our travel pattern, we realized this wasn’t for us.

4. Test the product

This was the moment when we started to feel like the whole website was a full-on scam. Throughout the demo, the agent was the one clicking through the site, showing us all the condo options available to us for a given location. We were not given the chance to ‘drive’ and click-through ourselves. We started to make specific requests, and asked to be taken through right to the final booking page. None of our requests were able to book – every time they clicked on the ‘book’ link, and error popped up. We are glad that we saw this flaw, but couldn’t believe we had spent so much time talking about the software before we even tried this test. This should have come much earlier on for us.

5. Walk away for a minute

I use this trick on any major purchase. I remove myself from the environment, walk away for an hour, and then think about whether I really want to make the purchase or not. This is a great way to prevent impulse buys. Rather than relying on a recision period after a purchase (that may require you to submit something in writing), take time to cool off before the buy. If the deal really makes sense, you will want to go back, and they will always want to make a deal. If it doesn’t, you will be glad you walked away.  We asked to be left alone for some time to discuss – this was enough for us to start putting our minds together and adding up the results of the first four tests. At this point, the choice became clear: walk away.

It wasn’t the $150 we took away that made us richer (really, your time on vacation can be worth a lot more), it was the learning experience, and the fact that we felt like we won some sort of escape challenge.

5 Tips to To Pack Like a Pro

Packing

Five years ago, I picked up my Heys xCase 20” carry-on for $35 at Costco. Since then, it has been my trusted travel companion across six continents. By having only a 20″ x 14″ x 9″ space (plus my backpack) to carry my essentials, I’ve learned a thing or two about packing well.

This week, I had to fit everything for a trip to Hawai’i into my little xCase. Since our itinerary includes hiking on Kilauea volcano and stargazing from halfway up Mauna Kea, a handful of bikinis would not suffice. Here’s how to pack for four seasons:

1. Roll, Don’t Fold

This is fairly common advice, but I’ll say it again here – rolling your clothes often takes up less space, and most importantly, avoids wrinkles. So go on, roll it ‘gyal!

2. Use Ziploc Bags

Mr. Pointster jokes that our monthly budget needs a separate line item for Ziploc bags, because they’re my cure-all. The reason why plastic zip-closure bags are so useful while packing is because you can use them like vacuum bags and remove all the air. It’s amazing how much space this can save. Once you’ve rolled your clothes in, close the zip almost all the way, leaving part of it open for the air to escape. Push down on the contents and roll the bag itself towards the opening. Keep your knee on the bundle while closing the zip all the way.

3. Think Modular

There are two ways to pack in a modular fashion. One is to pack each type of item together in a Ziploc bag: undergarments in one, swimsuits in another, t-shirts in another, etc. This makes initially packing easier and makes finding your clothes throughout a trip easier. The second way is the one I use – I pack outfits together, and then put my versatile items separately. I have one bag for undergarments, one for outerwear, and then have the remainder of my tops and bottoms packed together as outfits, at around 2 per bag. I prefer this because it allows me to quickly remove excess items if I can’t fit everything, or allows me to transfer a day’s worth of clothing to my backpack for a quick getaway trip. It also makes getting ready at the destination a lot easier. Most importantly, this method helps prevent me from overpacking by ensuring I take only what I need.

4. Use Layers

Layering is another way of being modular. Rather than taking a large overcoat, I always pack a hoodie, a yoga zip-up, and an ultralight shell jacket with a hood. For ski weather, I can combine all three for warmth that rivals a parka. For tropical rainforest weather, I throw the shell jacket on top of a tank top. The hoodie is perfect for flights, and the shell jacket packs away into its own pocket. By layering, each piece has more than one use.

5. Wear the heavy stuff

It might be a pain to have to lace and unlace your runners as you put your shoes through security, but if space is tight, it’s better to wear your heavier/bulkier shoes on the plane, saving you valuable room in your suitcase (and making it easier to run to the gate in case you get distracted by all the tasty cookies in the lounge – but we’ll get to that later).

Those are the Jet.Set.Tips for packing like a pro. With airlines now charging a checked-bag fee for all flights, it’s a good time to learn how to travel light. Plus, it also makes it possible for you to take public transit to/from the airport. We were able to save about $50 by taking the bus between the Honolulu Airport and Waikiki Beach, and see more of the city as a result.

Travel light, travel on.

How To Marry a Mile Millionaire

He proposed in Quebec City

He proposed in Quebec City

I often tease my fiancé that I’m marrying him for his millions. By millions, I’m not talking about dollars, yen, or rubles. While his and my day jobs as an actuary and an engineer, respectively, provide us with a comfortable enough earning in traditional currencies, my fiancé also managed to accumulate a small fortune in loyalty program miles and points. From Aeroplan, to Avios, to American Express Rewards, it is these points that give us the ability to join the jet set. With all of his knowledge on how to earn and use these points, I affectionately named him Mr. Pointster.

Mr. Pointster and I had been acquaintances during our undergrad years at Waterloo, with many mutual friends. By the time I ran into him at a Thanksgiving party in 2012, I had done a fair share of globetrotting myself: Australia, Southeast Asia, four trips to Europe, East Africa twice…etc. Through this time, I had learned a few tricks of the trade myself – enough so that our conversation at that party played out much like the meeting of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga’s characters in Up in the Air.

He told me then that he was planning to start a blog on how to maximize loyalty program rewards. We bonded over conversations about logo designs, writer’s block, and analysis paralysis. Over time, our friendship grew into something more, and his website grew into Creditwalk.ca. Our first big trip together was to Brazil and Argentina, where we fell in love over great steaks and great scenery. We are now engaged to be married, after an especially memorable proposal, and look forward to travelling through all stages of our shared life. While Creditwalk.ca talks all about the best credit cards for each lifestyle and how best to earn and redeem loyalty program points, I started JetSetTrek to share the stories, advice, and quick tips on how to make the most of the resulting travel opportunities.

Of course, I’m not really marrying him for his miles – I’m doing it because I love him, and because he is the best companion for the long-haul journey that is our future. As a famous African proverb puts it: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

I hope you will enjoy journeying with us.