Thursday, October 31, 2013

Are You a Travel Hacker? (It's a Good Thing)

Travel Hacker--one who travels by searching for deals, coupons, frequent flyer miles, etc.  to maximize travel opportunities, packing in the most adventure possible for the least amount of cost.

I was a travel hacker long before there was a name for someone like me.  My sailing career started by sending in a boxtop from a carton of cigarettes (a vice discarded 40 years ago) & $88 dollars for an 11 foot sailboat.  Ok, so it was styrofoam & the green & white sail had "Kool" emblazoned on it, but after Rocket Man took over the living room for a few weeks fiberglassing & painting it green to match the sail, the LSB Leakey was quite a fun vessel for two at a time.  Ever after, when I walk into a boat factory it smells like home to me, & over the years, from a very small beginning I've racked up thousands of sea miles under my keel.

One of the best things about travel hacking is that with an open mind you never know how far your sleuthing will take you. 

Back a few decades ago, before Eastern Airlines went defunct (alas), they had a special go-anywhere fare deal for $800.  That was a lot of money back then, but ticket was good for three weeks, & in those days that was about the same price for a refundable airline ticket across country & back.  On a single ticket you could go to any destination once, including internationally, any place Eastern Airlines flew.

Back then I worked in downtown Los Angeles & spent a great deal of my time traveling back & forth across the U.S.  Instead of booking 3 different round-trip tickets to three different cities, returning home each weekend, I would book a single go-anywhere ticket for my meetings, then use the weekends for personal travel on the same ticket.  No, my employer didn't care where I traveled on my own time, & I actually saved him a great deal of expense money by traveling all on a single ticket.

So the deal was that if I had a conference in Northern California, then a meeting the following week in New Orleans, & another one the next week in Washington, D.C., I had some glorious weekends traveling on my own before I had to be back at my Los Angeles desk.  If I took a day or two of personal time somewhere in that time period, all the more adventure was possible.  All I had to do was choose my in-between destinations.  Miami?  Freeport, Grand Bahama?  San Juan, Puerto Rico?  I'd have to decide on a family visit to the Midwest or quick trip to Guatemala.  Though I did make some guilt-induced family visits, suffice it to say that I also got in lots of sun & some amazing diving on my own time for merely the cost of weekend hotels & meals.

After my retirement, when the go-anywhere tickets were still available, Rocket Man & I devised a unique 3-week itinerary.  Prior to departure we shipped tropical attire & scuba gear to a family member in Rhode Island.  We packed woolies & flew to New England to enjoy a fall week aboard a 19th century schooner sailing coastal Maine.  After a week of coastal cruising we rented a car & drove from Maine to East Providence where we had a lovely visit & shipped our longjohns & sweaters home to California.  We re-packed our earlier shipment of island gear & wear in our suitcases, then flew to the Bahamas to scuba dive & eat great food in out-of-the-way spots.  It was the first time we had dived together & that was a real thrill.

From Freeport we flew (still the same tickets) to New Orleans, where I introduced my man to the cable cars, the sounds of Bourbon street & the street food of the French Quarter.  Our next leg took us to Florida, where we spent a single night before again taking off for the airport, this time going to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, where we boarded another windjammer for a cruise of the Islands.  This was a totally different type of cruise than we'd experienced in Maine, though also a casual one.  We didn't have to help out in the galley this time, but in the mornings we did have to step over the sleeping bodies on deck (the result of the free rum punch).  A week later, three weeks after our departure, we finally flew home to California, where much to our surprise, we later discovered that we had been awarded enough frequent flyer miles for our trip to each make a free round-trip cross-country.  Our $800 per person tickets turned out to be a super bargain, & the memories have lasted three decades.

This particular deal is no longer available, but great ones pop up all the time.  Travel Hacker "Nomadic Matt" gives a good example how to use online searching & booking to land great airfares.  I didn't have plans to visit London a few years ago until I discovered a deal for $89 each way from New York.  OK, we were in North Carolina at the time, but quickly organized a trip that involved renting a car to visit family & researching genealogical records in New England, & a stay with friends on a boat in New York prior to jetting off across the Atlantic.  The $89 tickets were not just a savings, but inspiration for an incredible journey.

A few years ago the $139 Virgin Air fare between Dulles & Heathrow was so good we took a granddaughter along.  She was excited to be visiting England for the first time, but after takeoff we surprised her with a French phrase book.  She was puzzled until we told her we were also taking her to Paris.  Cheap fares can lead to memorable family experiences.

Repositioning cruises are true bargains, & are generally available twice a year, once in the Spring when ships travel from one cruising route in one hemisphere to that in another, & again in the Fall when the ships return.  In the Fall of 2012 I spent 14 nights aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship on a transatlantic cruise between Southampton & Fort Lauderdale.  We made several port calls in Spain & another in the Azores (a definite Bucket List port).   My ticket was $599 ($43 per night), double occupancy with a long-time friend from California.  Next year (2014) we'll be transiting for 16 nights on another cruise ship from Florida to Denmark, via the Azores, France, Ireland & Brussels for $799 each ($50 per night).

Here are five tips for scoring those too-good-to-pass-up deals:

  Read the ads travel section of metropolitan Sunday newspapers.  If there is a special promotion you might find it right there.  The travel section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times is where I once discovered an airline was promoting a new route from LAX to the Gold Coast (think Great Barrier Reef), so $400 round trip tickets to Australia for a daughter & her chaperoning sister made the perfect graduation gift.  This was a long time ago, but as I write this, Norwegian Airline is offering super deals for Summer 2014 between the U.S. & Europe because they also are opening new routes.  For example, book now from $182 each way between New York & Scandinavia or $337 Los Angeles to London.  There are even flights from Fort Lauderdale, so grab these fares while you can.

•  Keep your eyes & ears open.  A dental assistant mentioned to me that a friend had just gotten a good deal on a flight to Costa Rica, & before the afternoon was out I had a ticket of my own [see post on Dental Tourism in Costa Rica].  A family member once told me her daughter had bought tickets to France for $99, which inspired my own online search that scored me two $89 Virgin Atlantic tickets to England, where, after touring for antiques, catching a ferry to France was simple & inexpensive.

•  Combine business & pleasure.  If your company is sending you almost anyplace, get creative & figure out what you can do with that opportunity.  Leave the weekend before, come back the weekend after, explore local sights or use your temporary location as a jumping-off point for adventure.  A meeting in New York?  Book your return trip from Washington, D.C. (probably the same price).  Hop on a train to the nation's capitol post-meeting & spend a couple of days touring the Smithsonian & National Monuments.  Boston in the Fall?  Get an inexpensive rental car & do a New England foilage tour or visit Cape Cod after most of the tourists have left.  Grab your Atlas & see what you can discover.  A little bit of geography can go far in expanding your horizons.

•  Get on mailing lists for newsletters & promotions.  Subscribe to Amazon Local, Groupon & Living Social deals.  Your in box will fill with budget travel opportunities.  While on a transatlantic ship last year I booked attractions, accommodations & tours before docking in Fort Lauderdale.  Saved a bundle ziplining over alligators, swimming with manatees & staying in luxury resorts.

•  Be ready to go on short notice., whether flying or cruising.  Last minute deals can be a steal.  Check your passport to make certain it is not going to expire in the coming year, as some countries will not allow you to enter unless you have more than six months remaining time before renewal.

Travel hacking will not only take you places about which you've only dreamed, but will let you travel on a surprisingly tiny budget.  In addition, you'll have great fun in the process of scoring great deals.  Just think, your next journey could begin by picking up a newspaper or overhearing an interesting conversation!  Keep watching this site, as I'll be posting much more on the Art of Travel Hacking later. 

Update:  Here is another excellent example of of quick travel hacking by author Nomadic Matt, who helped a friend accumulate 110,000 frequent flier miles quickly for a business class trip to the Philippines.  (There is a link to Matt's book on the right-hand side of this page.)

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