Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: International Travel (page 1 of 4)

Fly Around the World for $1,000? Yes, It’s Possible!

A while back I challenged myself to put together an around-the-world itinerary for $1,000. While I failed at the time (not by too much as it was only $1,300), I have been interested in trying other options.

So this is take #2 of that endeavor. I’ve gained a lot more knowledge about cheap routes, cheap airlines, and especially the best places to look for cheap one-ways in the past several months. With those tools in my belt, I decided it’d be fun to explore the cheap around-the-world idea some more.

An around-the-world trip for a grand?

Given that I live in northern California, I decided my starting point would be the Bay Area. The San Francisco Bay Area has 3 major airports. Although SFO may dominate in terms of traffic, the other have some of the best deals.

For example, I found a one-way ticket from San Jose to Shanghai on Delta for $268 a couple weeks ago. Similarly, Oakland has some deals to Europe on Norwegian. I decided to start things off with their Oakland-Barcelona route, and things just fell into place from there.

The itinerary I compiled was the following:

  • Oakland to Barcelona for $186 on Iberia LEVEL
  • Barcelona to Rome for $34 on Ryan Air
  • Rome to Athens for $35 on Ryan Air
  • Athens to Tel Aviv for $65 on Aegean
  • Ground transfer to Amman, Jordan (is this cheating?)
  • Amman to Delhi for $234 on Gulf Air
  • Delhi to Kuala Lumpur for $97 on Air Asia
  • Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong for $59 on Malindo Air
  • Hong Kong to SFO for $308 on Delta

The full itinerary is 7 destinations and only $1,016. That’s pretty insane. Catch a couple fare sales within that ticket, and you’ll be back under 4 digits.

Previously, the toughest segment to find cheaply was the one-way transpacific leg. But it appears you may be able to score a deal if you are patient and/or search thoroughly, as this Hong Kong to San Francisco segment is more than $100 less than what I found the previous time I did this exercise.

Tips for putting together around-the-world itineraries

Around-the-world itineraries are definitely possible with a number of different mileage currencies. Two of my favorite programs for these itineraries are ANA Mileage Club and Asia Miles. I’ll write more on this in another post.

But if you’re looking to put together an around-the-world trip with cash, like I was, things are a bit different. Here are four tips to help you put together a cheap around-the-world itinerary:

Do your research

This is the heart of everything in this hobby. Putting together an around the world itinerary might seem daunting. But if you have some tools in your belt and know what you’re looking for, it isn’t all that bad. It took me maybe half an hour to compile the ticket I did.

Research the low cost carriers in various areas. Know which airlines price round-trips as one-ways as the summation of two one-ways. And know those that don’t (e.g. Austrian). For many airlines, cheap one-way tickets are only available on certain routes.

Norwegian is a great airline for finding low cost long haul flights.

Find the airports that tend to have deals. Or the entire regions. Also, look for secondary airports at major destinations, such as London Gatwick or Rome Ciampino. These might not give you the full “airport experience”, but they will often have better fares.

Get familiar with Google Flights

Google Flights is my best friend. If you haven’t used it, you should spend some time trying the interface out. They are my #1 go-to for finding standard flight prices between a given origin and destination. The search speed plus intuitive UI makes it the hands-down best place to start.

I priced out my entire itinerary using Google Flights. I would open a new tab for each segment, plus in the previous endpoint, and then start searching for another potential destination. The map view is especially helpful, as it lets me quickly identify cities I can get to cheaply.

Subscribe to fare sales

This is one way to find cheap flights in general. My favorite site is Secret Flying, who typically send out daily alerts for cheap flights around the world. If you’re patient, you can often snag a round-trip flight to major destinations in either Europe and Asia for about $400. Sometimes more like $300. With fares falling in general, you can find standard fares to places like London and Beijing for $500 all the time.

Other good fare sales sites include Airfarewatchdog and The Flight Deal. I might even consider looking into the Mileage Run thread on FlyerTalk since people will often report great (or unique) deals.

Fill in the gaps with miles

Maybe you’re putting together an around-the-world trip, and you just have to visit Mauritius. Well…there is realistically no cheap way to get there. You could burn more on a one-way ticket to the island nation from Europe than you would flying a transpacific round-trip.

In cases like this, don’t be afraid to burn your hard-earned miles. Remember than this is your trip and not just an exercise to see if you can fly around the world for less than a grand. If you want to see an out of the way place, miles can make it happen for cheap.

Conclusion

Here are my thoughts on a cheap around-the-world ticket in a nutshell:

  • Around the world itineraries are possible, and much cheaper than you might think
  • Do your research to find which airlines and airports often have cheap fares, especially cheap one-way fares.
  • Watch for fare sales. One-way fare sales *do* happen, but they are a bit more rare than round-trip.
  • Consider filling in the gaps with miles.

Some of this advice applies to ideas beyond an around the world itinerary. For example, you can use the low cost carrier Norwegian Air to reach Europe, and then hop around on budget carrier Ryan Air to multiple other destinations.

A final note: you’ll more than likely have to travel light to save on baggage fees if you put together a cheap itinerary. Many of the airlines that you can utilize to keep costs down will charge you for checked luggage (and maybe even a carry on). So be prepared to travel with little more than your backpack. The lighter the better, in my opinion. I headed to Australia for a week with nothing but my weekender backpack, and it was perfect.

Happy circumnavigating the globe!

Our First Time Flying with Kids

On Saturday my wife and I *finally* returned to the U.S. with our kids. The adoption trip was long, and we almost didn’t get to come home on the Southwest flights we booked. But in the end it all worked out exactly as we hoped.

The trip was our first time flying with kids. We’ve traveled plenty as a couple, and at this point the process is routine. But traveling with three children is an entirely different experience. We were a bit worried how our kids would react to their first time on a plane. Overall, our trip went quite well, something for which I am extremely grateful.

Much of our success is likely due to the fact that our children (thankfully) didn’t have any severe anxiety about flying and are well behaved on the whole. But part of our success can likely be attributed to some proactive measure we took. Here is the rundown on our first time flying with kids.

Combating kids’ fears of flying

Our kids were a bit nervous about their first flight, but they were also excited. I tried to play off the latter as much as possible. Over a few weeks before the trip, I took some time to show them some photos of us on previous flights, some YouTube videos of takeoff, and pictures of airports.

Even with those measures, they still expressed some doubts and fears. The question at the forefront of their minds was the safety of the experience. They seemed a bit incredulous when I explained to them that flying is safer than driving in a car. That age-old issue of perceived versus actual risk.

Since statistics are impossible for them to fully comprehend, I switched to relying on personal experience. I told them that I have flown a good amount (LOL – a mere 120,000 miles) and have never been on a flight that has had serious problems. My one diverted flight doesn’t really count since it was due to a medical emergency.

Checking all the baggage and navigating security

We arrived at SJO airport with our six checked bags, one carry on, and five personal items. This was waaaay more luggage than I’ve ever wanted. We brought FOUR checked bags to Costa Rica. Sadly, we had to buy one more to fit all our kids’ stuff. Adding in my mother-in-law’s bag finished the half dozen. I hope to never, ever travel with this much luggage again.

Fortunately, we were flying Southwest, so the ridiculous amount of luggage didn’t cost us anything. The kids were eager to roll around a bag, so that took one off our hands. The toddler worked against us, though, as he insisted on carrying the backpack we’d (over)packed for him, but needed mom to help hold it up with one hand.

The kids curiosity morphed into restlessness at the check-in counter since things took so long. One bag was 55 pounds, so we had to do the last-minute shuffle with the contents (I’m sure everyone else in line hated us). Since the three kids were pretty much only getting in the way, I finally had them go wait with grandma. This is when I reminded myself that I needed to talk them through everything.

Taking time to explain things

Kids definitely do best when you explain the plan to them ahead of time. It was amazing how much better things went once we got all of us into a routine during our stay in Costa Rica. Knowing what is coming next helps them immensely.

When we are about to do something new (such as flying), I try to explain the situation and experience as much as possible. I also try to brief them on potential problems we may encounter. This is a great thing to do for activities beyond flying, but it definitely helped us during our first time flying with kids.

As we navigated the airport and plane, I did my best to explain each part of the process to them. First, it was the security experience. Then waiting at the gate (or going on little walks in the terminal) before boarding. Finally, boarding the aircraft. Talking them through things really helped everything go smoothly and made our first time flying with kids much easier.

 

Boarding our first flight!

One of the benefits of flying Southwest is the family boarding process. Even though we were assigned boarding positions in the high Bs, we still took advantage of the Family Boarding offered between the A and B groups. Our kids were 3, 7 (barely), and 10, and going by the book, they should have only let one of us board with the youngest. However, the gate agent was very gracious, and we all boarded together.

The kids were super excited as we walked the jetway.

first time flying with kids

I was ecstatic that this was the dominant reaction instead of fear.

Since there were plenty of empty seats when we boarded, we were able to settle into a single row across the plane. Arranging seats as a group of six on a 737 is easy. I sat with the older two while mom and grandma managed the toddler.

first time flying with kids

The kids oohed and aahed a bit at the other planes, especially any they saw moving. San José airport isn’t all that busy (compared to say, SFO), so we only really got to see one other plane take off.

Taxi and takeoff

The kids’ excitement went up a few more notches the instant we started moving. They were both glued to the window. I was just as excited, but more so because taking off meant we were actually headed home.

Our three-year-old was hands-down the most excited. He didn’t take his eyes off the window. Every single plane he saw as we taxied was just as exciting as the previous one. He probably shouted “avión!” a dozen times.

No, he was not seated like this for takeoff

The looks on the kids’ faces was priceless when the plane started accelerating down the runway. Like with everything else, I tried to give the kids a little heads up that we were about to take off and what it would feel like. When the engines spooled up and we started hurtling down the runway, they were all smiles.

Once we were airborne, there was even more excitement as they pointed at the buildings below and at the hills of their beautiful country. With all the change that had happened to them in so short a time, I was thankful to see them smiling and laughing.

Soon we’d climbed into the clouds. With nothing left to view, the kids started digging through their bags for stuff with which to play.

What can you pack besides electronics?

This may be a hard road, but we’re trying to heavily limit our kids’ electronics intake in general. We had an iPad on hand with a couple movies loaded on it, but we hoped the kids could entertain themselves with other things for most of the flight.

My wife packed all three kids’ backpacks with various toys, drawing pads, and snacks. We made sure to hide them so that they would be a surprise for the trip. As we were leaving the hotel, we gave them the backpacks. Even then we made them wait to open them until we were seated at the gate.

The whole idea worked quite well. They *loved* discovering what we had packed for them, and their new toys kept them entertained for quite a while on our flight to Houston. I did break out the iPad for music.

A definite winner was the Boogie Board drawing pad (which I guess is technically electronic). The kids could draw as much as they liked, but without the hassle of pens or pencils and paper. It even allowed us to play several rounds of tic-tac-toe and other games.

In the air – our first time flying with kids

My biggest concern was our *very* active three-year-old who has trouble sitting still for anything. Two 4-hours flights might have been a very long day.

Things started out well.  The little man had two adults to help entertain him, and he had snacks to eat. I got my hopes up that it might be smooth sailing the whole trip.

Alas, this was too much to ask. About an hour into the flight we had our first round of tears. He was getting squirmy, and mom finally had to hold him for a bit. How upsetting that is. Luckily, he doesn’t usually throw a fit for more than minute or two, and soon he was back to playing with his stuffed dinosaur.

There were a couple more incidents of excessive squirming and a few more bouts of tears due to making him sit so long. Fortunately, his crying is subdued enough that I wasn’t worried about it bothering other people too much. It wasn’t an intentional choice, but we’d also managed to sandwich ourselves between two other families, one of which had a lap child. I’m sure they understood completely, if they even noticed.

When a patch of turbulence hit, I got a bit worried. I thought our kids might freak out. But they really didn’t react at all. Granted, it wasn’t all that strong, but I was thankful that this wasn’t an issue (NOTE: on our second flight, a patch of turbulence did end up making our ten-year-old scream). The more frequent comment we got was that it didn’t feel like we were moving at all.

The fact that Southwest also loaded us up with snacks every chance they could (I don’t remember this from previous experiences?) really made the kids’ day. Sure, we didn’t think that a diet of chips and coke is the best thing for them, but hey, we wanted them to enjoy the experience.

My daughter did remark that she enjoyed flying much more than driving (yay!). Why? Apparently, it was because I wasn’t telling them “I can’t talk right now” at all. San José traffic and Costa Rica’s mountain roads often required all my concentration, and this is my standard response when they barrage me with questions.

Teaching our kids basic flying etiquette

I couldn’t help myself on this one. As things seemed to be going smoothly enough (i.e. our first time flying with kids was in fun mode and not survival mode), I figured it would be good to start teaching the kids good flying etiquette.

We ran through the basic stuff first: getting out of the aisle, stowing under-seat luggage, not reclining the seat before takeoff. I also ran through seat items such as seatbelt use, air vents (I had to help them, obviously), and the reading light and flight attendant call buttons. I instructed them not to tough the latter.  The older two listened well and did just fine.

Later on, I tackled some other items, such as being gentle when opening and closing the tray table and not using the seats in front of you as a hand hold getting up or down. The latter is a major pet peeve of mine. It turned out that the kids never asked to recline the seat (nor did the people in front of us), so we didn’t have to deal with that at all.

They did well, and I’m sure they will get even better on subsequent fights. But on Day 1, I already feel like they are air travel all-stars.

Landing in Houston

The kids became excited as we started to descend. This quickly turned to a bit of anxiety for our eldest. She did *not* like the feeling of descending in the airplane.

We had a brief freak-out moment as the plane touched down, but this quickly turned to relief as we were now back on terra firma. I failed to explain that taxiing and waiting to deplane part, so we did endure some complaining about not getting off the airplane all that quickly.

We did end up with a dirty toddler diaper on the final part of the flight. I figured we could change this quickly before we got to customs. We had no such luck. As this was our kids’ formal entry into the U.S., the process took quite a while. Customs at Houston Hobby Airport is still worlds better than customs at George Bush Intercontinental. I’m thankful a 3-hour customs ordeal was *not* part of our first time flying with kids. We’ll have to save that for later (or get them all Global Entry).

The final part of our adventure included navigating security, chowing down some pizza, and then rushing to catch our connection to the Bay Area. Five hours later we touched down in California. I never thought I’d ever say I was happy to be back in Oakland.

Final thoughts

Overall, our first time flying with kids ended up going about as smoothly as I’d hoped. We prepped them pretty well, and it paid off. The older two thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and I’m certainly not afraid to take our toddler on another flight, either.

Most of all I hope that this means they’ll all quickly become great little travelers!

Hotel Punta Leona Review – Stellar Price for an All-Inclusive

My wife and I are in the process of moving from just the two of us to a family of five. After literally years of waiting, we are now in Costa Rica adopting three beautiful kids. Our focus during these weeks in Costa Rica is on bonding with our kids. But this doesn’t mean we can’t take them on a few trips to see their own beautiful country. In other words, we’re taking a couple overnight trips while we’re here, and the first was to Hotel Punta Leona.

Our adoption coordinator set us up with a great rate at the hotel for a couple days midweek. Hotel Punta Leona was running a special, and we were able to book a room for $158 per night, all meals included. For a family of five, this is *amazing*.

Arriving at the Hotel Punta Leona

The Hotel Punta Leona is located on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. It is about an hour and a half drive from SJO airport, and a little bit further than that from San José itself. A good portion of the drive is on Costa Rica’s only real freeway, so it is a lot easier to access than many other places in the country.

The turn off to Hotel Punta Leona is a little north of Jacó. Once you turn off the highway, the road is dirt essentially until you arrive at the hotel property.

The facilities reception have a manned security gate. After explaining that we had a reservation, the guard let us through half a minute later. It’s not that Costa Rica isn’t safe. I’ve just noticed that many places have manned security or attendants, including parking lots and other places that would be totally mundane in the U.S.

Check-in went smoothly, except for the fact that the hotel was currently without a computerized reservation system. The front desk even had to use one of the ancient, manual sliding credit card machines. With my Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card that doesn’t have a nicely embossed front. Didn’t work so well. She had to manually write the numbers and other info.

Selvamar Room…for the 5 of us!

The Selvamar rooms are located a distance from reception and the rest of the facilities, so we had to hop back into the car and drive a couple minutes.

I knew going into this that the room was going to be small. It didn’t disappoint.

It was a fairly standard hotel room with two full-size beds, a desk, TV, and in-room coffee.

The bathroom was adequate. Overall, it was a tight squeeze for all of us for two days. But it was a deal!

The Selvamar rooms are at least in a nice setting. There rooms are arranged in groups of 4 with walkways and gardens in between. At dusk there were monkeys to watch swinging and climbing through the foliage above.

And there were iguanas along the path at times. Even though our daughter is a native Costa Rican, they totally freak her out!

There was also a small pool close to the restaurant and Selvamar rooms. Given the much nicer facilities elsewhere, we never used it.

Hotel Punta Leona Restaurant – Carabelas

Included in our rate were all meals at the restaurant near the Selvamar Rooms. It was a quick two-minute walk away.

Everything at Carabela’s is buffet style. I’d rate the food as above average as far as buffets go. Most tasted super fresh. The beef at our first lunch was amazing. There was typically enough variety that anyone would be satisfied.

They had starters and a nice salad bar.

Every meal featured a chef at the grill or stovetop making part of the meal. The first evening it was churrasco.

Soup.

And other entrees and sides.

Soft drinks were self serve. You could also order beer or wine. A server kindly offered both evenings, but we declined.

In the mornings we had an immersive breakfast experience with the local wildlife. We were approached by both monkeys and a coatimundi.

I had a good laugh when a monkey stole some food from a guest on our first morning. I wasn’t laughing when the same thing happened to me the next day!

Hotel Punta Leona Facilities

The facilities of the Hotel Punta Leona are spread out over a fairly large area. The main highlight for the kids were, of course, the large pools.

hotel punta leona pool

Compared to the other hotel at which we are staying for the bulk of the time in Costa Rica, they were wondrously warm.

There is also an activity center with foosball and other games if you happen to be at the resort during a downpour. Fortunately, the rain that had been a fixture every afternoon let up for both days we were at the coast. On the other side of the pool there is another restaurant. Our all-inclusive rate included snacks here from 10:00 to 5:00. We enjoyed some pizza the first afternoon, and then a raccoon that got a bit too close for comfort.

I promised our six-year-old that I’d take him to mini-golf. On our second afternoon we got the chance. What wasn’t explained to me was that some of the activities cost extra, and this was one of them. I’d figured that most of the activities listed on the paper given to us at check-in were part of the resort package and included in the rate.

So, we ended up paying about $11 for three of us to play mini-golf. Which ended up being a hysterical experience. After trying for maybe a minute to instruct them (as best I can…I’m no golfer), I gave up. They ended up racing through the entire course is a matter of 15 minutes, often swatting the ball as hard as they could and sending into the grass beyond the hole or onto another section of the course. I was content to watch and laugh while proceeding through the course behind them.

This was the worst mini-golf hole ever.

Some of the other activities and facilties offered by the hotel include a butterfly house, a morning nature walk, pool volleyball, and bingo and karaoke in the evenings. We didn’t take advantage of any of these. Turns out that basically all kids want to do is swim.

Playa Mantas

The bulk of the fun was had at Playa Mantas over our stay. We went swimming there the afternoon we arrived and the following morning. The waves were super calm, and the water was heavenly. I’d never swam in water so warm.

Now I finally understand why people enjoy beach destinations so much. I might have to revise my list of places I want to visit to include some more beach destinations. Growing up on the north coast of California has left me with a poor view of “going to the beach”, where the outing typically means a cold breeze and sand flying in my eyes. I’ll pass.

In contrast, this was like a tiny sliver of heaven on earth. I’d enjoyed walking in the surf in Florida in May, but this was even better. I could have swam all day. Unfortunately, swimming ended up resulting in a little incident that cost us a bit of time and money.

Playa Blanca

The final morning we paid the other beach a quick visit. It is a bit further from the facilities of Punta Leona, but it is a whole lot more beautiful than Playa Mantas.

However, there were red flags out warning against swimming. Luckily, we weren’t there to swim, but simply to play in the sand for a while and enjoy the beautiful setting. Afterwards we headed back, ate breakfast at Carabelas once again, and then took off.

Conclusion

Overall, we had a good stay. Although it would have been nice to rent a larger room for the 5 of us, we really couldn’t beat the rate the hotel gave us for the single room under the September kids promotion. In contrast, I sent the hotel an email asking what the day-use rate would be per person. We realized that it isn’t all that far away from San José. I almost spit out my coffee this morning when they quoted me $85 per person over 6 years old!

5 Reasons to Visit San Marino

San Marino is one my favorite places I’ve ever visited (SEE: San Marino in 11 Photos). Our few days in the tiny country were some of my favorite of our entire month in Europe (SEE: Thirty days in Europe). Ever since getting The Encyclopedia of World Geography as a teen (which I basically read cover to cover), the tiny country has intrigued me.

So when we were planning our trip to France, Italy, and Ireland, stopping in for a couple days was a must. Here are 5 reasons you should visit San Marino:

It is the oldest republic in the world

The history of San Marino is rich for such a small country. Founded in 301 A.D., the country’s history can be traced back to the construction of a church by Saint Marinus. The recorded history begins to pick up in earnest in the ninth century A.D.

For  century after century, the country has retained its independence, even through major events such as the Napoleonic wars and World War II. During the unification of Italy, it thumbed its nose at the rest of the Italian territories, even housing political refugees during that period of turmoil.

All this to say, the history is rich for such a tiny country. You should absolutely visit the museums, public palace, and other historical features of the city during a visit.

The old city is UNESCO-listed

While UNESCO-listing doesn’t necessarily mean a place is a *must* visit (unless you track those things), it is definitely a good indicator of either a rich cultural site or a pristine natural area.

The old city of San Marino is small, but incredibly cool. And it’s cheap to enjoy. Out hotel offered us coupons for 50% off tickets to the main historical sites in the old city. I think the total came to $15 each for everything, including the Palazzo Publico and the towers.

The streets of the old city are pedestrian-only the majority of the time. My wife and I had to navigate around delivery trucks at 8:00 a.m. (which I guess is early in Italy/San Marino?) when most of the streets were deserted. During the middle of the day, you will likely encounter numerous tour groups and plenty of pedestrians. Make sure you stop for lunch in one of the great cafes!

The views from Monte Titano are spectacular

Seriously. Even with a bit of haze, looking eastward we could see the Adriatic Sea out over Rimini. On the other side, we were greeted with views of Tuscany to the west. There was nothing quite like walking up to the towers on Monte Titano in the morning and simply taking in all the beauty.

Definitely take a walk in the nature park when visiting the second and third towers. The trail snakes along the top of Monte Titano for a good distance, giving you wonderful views to the west and south.

It’s easy to add to a larger tour of Italy

Italy is high on many people’s travel lists. The typical stops, however, are Rome, Florence, and Venice. Now you know better than to skip San Marino.

From either Florence or Venice, it’s barely over a half day of travel to or from the tiny country. You’ll probably have one train connection, and then a connection to a bus in Rimini. We came from Milan, and it was an easy day of travel, with a 10:00 a.m. departure and roughly 4:00 p.m. arrival. Two nights in enough for a visit, so add it on to a visit of the rest of Italy!

It is a true enclave

Ok…this may be something only for geography nerds. San Marino is located fully within Italy, making it a complete enclave. There are numerous examples of enclaves and exclaves (check out this PWaC post on some unique borders) in the world.

Until our visit, however, I had never been to a country that was an enclave. We would go on to visit a second  one that trip: The Vatican City.

Conclusion

If your considering a trip to Italy, make sure you plan a day or two in San Marino. You won’t regret it! Just pick a better hotel than we did (SEE: Hotel Joli: A Review) 🙂

Banff, Alberta in 14 Photos

I have plenty to write after this trip, but I’d figured I’d start with some photos and let the beauty of Banff speak for itself. Without words, that is.




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