Category: nomad resource

Impressions of Ubud: The Tourist

I wanted to cover this particular locale in two parts, as I find it would otherwise have turned into an article of unsuitable length. I’ll start with a tourist’s impression, as that would most accurately describe my first week in Ubud. I hope to have the remote worker’s perspective up in short order thereafter.

 

Going exchange rates: US$ 1 = 14,400; £1 = 18,500; AU$1 = 10,500; €1 = 16,500; NZ$1 = 9,500

 

Arrival

 

The arrivals process at the airport is markedly improved versus my first visit 5 years ago. While I have heard that slowdowns can still occur, it’s been the experience of most of my contacts here that they are processed quite quickly.

When going to Ubud, it’s advised to arrange transport prior to arrival.  A fair rate to Ubud is approx. 250-300k, though drivers have been known to ask from 350-500k if you are negotiating at the airport. For those wishing to use a meter taxi, Blue Bird is the go-to in Bali.

Accommodation

Ubud sports a variety of hostels, guesthouses, homestays, private rental, and hotel options for budgets ranging from “shoestring” ($5) to “sybaritic.”

 

I opted for “Dewaput Guest House” – viewable here on AirBNB. I paid circa US$345 for the month for the equivalent of a 3-star hotel room: air conditioning, clean bathroom, desk, a balcony, tea & coffee, and breakfast (fruit + main item) each morning.

The owner, Dewa Put, has a small building within his compound with two such rooms overlooking his Balinese home compound.  It’s beautiful, with a large music pavilion, Dewa’s art studio, multiple homes, two temples, and a traditional kitchen. I learned that Dewa’s mother vastly prefers using the traditional kitchen for cooking, as she finds it healthier to exercise herself building the fire, keeping it clean, and cooking the day’s rice rather than just using, for example, the electric rice cooker Dewa bought for her. I found this anecdote rather relatable.

I fell in love with my accommodations. Dewa is a musician and painter, so it’s ben quite common to take my breakfast while he plays or teaches a student.  It’s the best excuse I’ve had in years in drag out breakfast and linger over cups of tea. Now I can see why many fall in love with Bali. 

 

I asked Dewa about his grandfather’s family – those who built his home. The marble-walled family temple, gilt woodwork on the main temple, and magnificently wrought front-gate piqued my curiosity. “My grandfather was a king with many rice fields in the area.” Oh Adjusting the answer for Western concepts of royalty, I surmised that Grandad was a landed noble (Kshatriya caste) descended from a cadet branch of the Balinese royal family – Dewa Agung.

Coffee

Given what I am accustomed to in SE Asia, Ubud has an incredible array of high quality coffee shops that would seem cheap to a Westerner.  A latte/flat white can be had for 22-25k, less then US$2.  I’ve had local Balinese coffee or black tea for as little as 5,000 rupiah, under 40 US cents.

Some of my favorite cafes:

 

Anuman on Hanuman: This upper story café is easy to miss, but I love the coffee. The food is quite good and very reasonably priced for being on a main drag.  It’s a great place to park yourself and watch the town go by.

Ipong on Hanuman: More great coffee, solid wifi, and a small but tasty menu.  It’s my go-to if I am caffeine-starved and want a nice flat white.

Green Window @ Outpost:  Probably the best coffee of the three. It offers a mostly western food menu with both carnivore and vegetarian options.

Food

One is spoilt for choice in the eating department.  You have excellent local warungs where Ubud’s workers grab a bite after their shift, higher end restaurants, foreign food, and vegan & vegetarian options. 

Warung Wayan: Cheap, tasty local & western food.  Tasty rice pudding (babur injun) 20-30k for most mains

 

White Ginger: This place is my go-to for Balinese crispy duck. I first stumbled in after being put off by Bebek Bengil due to being able to accommodate tour groups (food factory mentality), accepting AMEX (signals “we overcharge”), and a particularly colorful review speculating that their duck had died of a wasting illness.  Mains 65-85k

Golden Monkey: Ubud’s one Chinese restaurant is surprisingly good. The Malaysian chef does wonderful things with dim sum and duck.  I’m bringing Dewa and his Mrs for their AYCE dim sum brunch on Sunday. I almost didn’t try the main restaurant after some disappointment at their “Express” location in Ubud food court.  Main dishes 70-120k

Siam Sally: One of the two big Thai options in town, I found myself in here circa once per week grabbing dessert.  Their mango sticky rice is a nice little treat, particularly after crispy duck.  Mains 70-120k; appetizers and dessert 50-60k

Sitara:  Their curries and naan breads are my favorites in Ubud. I particularly enjoyed the Dal Makhni, eggplant masala, and “black pepper rice.” Mains 65-110k

Sage: Delicious vegan food that combines (primarily) Balinese, Western, and Latin influences. Hats off to their creativity. Expect to pay circa 100k per person (main + drink).

The Phuket Write-Up

I landed in Phuket on June 24 and would be there for 30 days. Why not maximize the allowance of my tourist visa?

 

While I had visited Thailand before in 2015, I had never visited Phuket. When I was planning my journey earlier this year, I knew I wanted to pass through Thailand, but I wanted to hit a new location. Why not Phuket? I did have some misgivings due to the utter reliance on mass tourism, but a few tourists wouldn’t kill me when out-and-about.  Also, I don’t mind a bit of divertissement if the mood strikes me.

 

I did decide on an out-of-the-way (for a tourist) locale on the eastern side of the island. It’s a town/area called Ko Kaeo, probably best known as the location of the Royal Phuket Marina – a.k.a. “boat lagoon.” There were restaurants, grocers, convenience stores, and such in the area, so I knew I wouldn’t be without life’s necessities.

 

Perhaps a more accurate description of my decision process would be that my decision to stay at Phuket Stash determined my location. Phuket Stash is a co-working spot, and hopefully I’ll get around to producing a write up. It proved a quirky but quiet place to set up shop for the month. In hindsight, I could have found myself a cheaper place (15k baht for the month @ Stash), but that’s not exactly a burdensome sum for a month’s accommodation.

 

Phuket felt larger than I initially envisioned.  The perception of size is magnified by road and traffic conditions, which were prone to substantial slowdowns and bottlenecks even during the nadir of the low season (bars, restaurants, beaches, and resorts were deserted relative to their potential capacity).

 

Public transit is spotty and not immensely convenient (shuts down at 6 pm). You’re  required to change in Phuket town, as the bus/songthaew routes make up a hub-and-spoke system.

 

Taxi pricing is mafia-fixed and extortionate by Thai standards. Even a quick 10 minute 7km/4.5mile drive from Stash to Phuket town was 360 baht ($11) on Grab. A local taxi stand would have wanted 500.

 

When a scooter can be hired for 200 baht (US$6) per day, the incentive is obvious and strong.  For various reasons (lack of need to travel, preference to get work/stuff done versus daily sightseeing, zero experience with scooters/motobikes, Thai driving), I opted against it.  Why invalidate my overseas medical coverage?

 

Food prices are elevated by Thai standards, though it’s really not going to break the bank. Yes, you can get a rice or noodle dish for 30-35 baht in Chiang Mai.  Yes, it costs 50 baht here (60% more!!!). That said, the marginal cost of 50-65 cents is not worth sweating over – for me.  This sentiment was by no means universal, I should add.  

image of mango sticky rice in thailand

See a sample price list below (your mileage may vary):

Item Location & Price (in Baht)
Retail Local eatery Air con/mall Beach/restaurant Tourist drag
Fried Rice 50 90 120-200 150-250
Pad thai 50 90 120-200 150-250
Meat dish 50-60 90-110 140-220 150+
Seafood dish 70 120 180+ 200+
Local beer (sm) 40-55 (s) 60-70 80 80-100 100-200
Cocktail 150+ 150+
Mango rice 50 100-120 150-200 200+
Mango 50/kg
Pineapple 10 (each)
Latte 55 – 110 80+ 110
Water (500ml) 6-9 8-10 10-20 20 20+
Fuel (per liter) 29.7-31

 

Overall, I found it affordable as someone earning and spending USD. Your perceptions naturally will vary.  To borrow a Dutch proverb passed on by a friend, one “cannot look into someone else’s wallet” (i.e. judge how much a dollar/etc is worth to any given person).

 

To describe the categories a bit, “local eateries” are defined as small restaurants where you sit on a plastic chair outside, albeit shielded by an awning.

 

 “Air con/mall” refers to the next tier up, which describes restaurants in air-conditioned buildings or in shopping malls. Newbies to Asia tend to like these places, as it blends “locals eat here” (i.e. more adventurous than eating at the hotel) and “within my comfort zone” for familiarity. I find that you’re primarily paying for the air conditioning and a marginally higher level of English (or other major tourist foreign language).

 

“Beach/restaurant” refers to higher end restaurants catering to expat as well as eateries that are beach-front. Pricing = location, location, location.

 

“Tourist drag” in this sense refers to central Patong.  I would argue that you’re enduring the worst combination of high prices and dismal scenery, but Patong isn’t my cup of tea.

 

Every beach/area has its own particular vibe. Ko Kaeo is primarily local, but a small, convivial, and tight-knit community of expat yachters set up there for the Boat Lagoon.

 

Rawai in the south would be my first choice were I to return.  It’s quite proximate to a couple of beaches and landmarks, is relatively inexpensive for “near the water” in Phuket, and is home to the location independent/digital nomad scene.  There are numerous bars, restaurants, gyms, shops, etc to make life easy.

 

Phuket Town is the business hub of the island, home to the best hospitals, a shopping hub, and where you’ll find the relevant consulate if you run into some trouble. It’s also the transport hub of the island. The weekend night market is worth a visit.

 

Patong is the tourism/party/red light hub of the island.  It struck me as overbuilt, dirty, and sleazy (people on drugs, ping pong show offers, and so on).

 

Kata was the preferred surfing beach of the other nomads I met. I didn’t get to spend much time there, but the surfers love it.

 

Surin at this time of year was the picture-perfect white, sandy beach popular with what few tourists were present as well as Thai families. The same goes for Bangtao just a little to the north.

Surin Beach
Surin Beach

Mai Khao would probably win the award for the quietest major beach, as it’s at the northern end of the island near the airport and Phuket’s luxury resorts.

 

Would I return to Phuket? Sure.  Is it my favorite beach destination? Nope, though I’ve been to much worse.  It does have many advantages.  Thai prices (barring taxis), ease of travel to Thailand, food & lifestyle, and a sizeable & helpful expat community all contribute to my overall good impression.

 

We’ll meet again, Phuket.

The Three Best Places to Change Money in Hong Kong

Normally, money-changing is about as note-worthy as waiting at the dentist. Occasionally, it’s analogous to the root-canal if you’re bothered to do the math. I recall during my St Andrews days seeing 20 cent spreads on the USD/GBP rate.

 

Hong Kong is a different story. The core neighborhoods are replete with small money changers looking to buy and sell US Dollars, Euros, Yuan, Baht, et cetera. I’ve seldom seen a truly bad deal like you find in the US or Western Europe. As of this writing, one USD buys $7.85, per the Google “spot” rate. The “worst” rate I saw in Tsim Sha Tsui hovered around(1 USD buys) HK$7.50. That’s better than the offer of $1.85 per £1 back (I did not take it) when it was worth $1.70.

 

My go-to is to pay a visit to Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. CM is one of my favorite places in the world. I jokingly refer to it as the Mos Eisley of Hong Kong – a warren of tiny hotels/hostels, African restaurants, Indian/Pakistani snack stalls, convenience stores, electronic shops, and money changers. Learn more here.  I am simultaneously amazed and delighted that it hasn’t been gentrified. 

 

Coming here is a game to me. I always have leftover something-or-other in my wallet, so I read the boards and shop the rates. Typically, the shops nearest the street have the worst rates, while the innermost money changers have the best.

 

On my last visit, Singapore Exchange Co (green sign, a minute’s walk in) had the absolute best rate for USD. I have used them before to sell HKD and buy NZD (a much harder currency to get a good rate for). On this auspicious day, they were selling USD for below spot (7.845 versus 7.861 that day, according to xe.com). I hopped on that right quick.

They were kind enough to round up to $180.

I wondered if there was a similarly good deal Island side. Over a bacchanalian dinner-feast at the Chariot Club, I asked this of my friend’s girlfriend. She mentioned Berlin in central. Their rates explain why, and the queue for service can be quite long. I also found another one (favored for Chinese Yuan exchange) called Ngau Kee

 

If you have a lot to change (thousands of USD or more) or are bored, HK changers are also open to bargaining versus the posted rates. Have fun! Never overpay. 

Co-living Review: Chapter 2 Hostel, Tokyo

31 May – 17 June; Rate: ¥3,100 per night (2 week+ stay)

In a classic case of cart-before-horse planning travel planning that I so love, I let flight prices substantially dictate my destination. I couldn’t refuse a fare I found on Swiss to Tokyo. As you might expect, that led to the consequential issue of where I’d say in Tokyo. There wasn’t much of a question of staying there (versus traveling around). I wanted some locational stability, and my friends are in Tokyo. The latter consideration has grown more important to me in recent years.

 

On the surface, Tokyo isn’t a cheap city for accommodation. Hotels are quite expensive for the space you get. The Airbnb properties I looked at were quite peripheral to anywhere I wanted to be. That worked out, given the booking chaos that came to pass during my visit.

 

At some point, my digital nomad research took me to coliving.com. Naturally, I had a look at the offerings in Tokyo. One option was Roam, which was quite expensive (US$2,600/mo). The other was Chapter Two, which was remarkably inexpensive (US$30-ish/nt). As always, I had a look at their website to check the rate of booking direct. As it turned out, I saved a few yen with a direct booking. Yay!

 

Chapter Two’s vibe is part-guesthouse, part-hostel, part-coworking. The pictures on the website exhibited some ingenious design features to maximize space. I decided to gamble on “pod” life (a less sterile take on capsules, which I was curious about trying if only for their quintessential Japanese-ness). The owners, Hiro and Erika, had just opened Chapter Two in March, so I was eager to try a relatively new business.

 

In a fit of flippancy, I did little research into the immediate area. Chapter Two was right above a train station, fairly central, and near numerous food options. Check, check, check.

 

When I arrived at the front door circa noon on May 31, we handled the essential check-in formalities. I had pre-paid via Paypal, but I had to shorten my booking. I was delighted to get a full refund for those five days, which Erika paid in cash. Hiro also surprised me by knowing all the details of my booking. I am so accustomed to Generic Hotel Front Desk that this personal touch had a disarmingly sentimental quality to it.

 

My pod wouldn’t be available until 4 pm, which is fine by me. I just wanted to unburden myself of my baggage and stretch my legs with a stroll around the neighborhood. The 24 hour itinerary from Miami to Tokyo via Zurich gave me a week’s worth of sitting down.

 

After a wee wander around the Sensoji temple, the surrounding area, and a restorative coffee, it was time to settle in. The pod was very private and more spacious than I expected. With a bit of imagination, I was able to unpack my backpack and small roll-aboard with the clothing and personal effects needed for my time in Tokyo. My large bag was stowed in a garage next to the front door.

 

Hiro and Erika have extensive experience in hospitality via Chapter Two’s predecessor and time spent working at a location of the Khaosan hostel chain (where they first met). I found Chapter Two interesting, as the vibe was extremely sedate. This is not a party place (evidenced by the lack of drunk/hungover Australians usually found at hostels). Noise levels at night were zero (yay for sleep).

 

In a conversation in the living room, Hiro told me that he wanted to build a community. I can believe it.  During dinner hours, Hiro and Erika frequently had guests and friends from all over.  The most memorable during my visit was Masa-san, who was the “founder of the feast” on one glorious night, and then on another plied me with fermented sardines. The taste was interesting, but the smell was horrific. That said, I won’t forget it! Any guest is welcome to join them for chat and (frequently) treats.

Hiro displaying a bottle of Chapter 2 sake
Hiro-san and the Chapter 2 sake

The master at work!

 

Various salient info:

The Pod is difficult to describe, so I hope my video + the pictures on their site do it justice. There was a power outlet + usb outlet & a lock box.

 

The cleanliness throughout was stereotypically Japanese – spotless. You would not find a cleaner bathroom at a Conrad or Waldorf (speaking from experience here). The kitchen and common area was also kept similarly perfect.  I noted to Hiro and Erika that coasters would be a great idea, as cold beverages would leave a ring (which I fastidiously tried to wipe up when I had a drink). In 48 hours, coasters materialized. In my observation, this cleanliness is a collective effort.

 

The travelers coming through are really interesting. Masa-san is heavily involved in Ted-X Japan, a Finnish couple were long term travelers – the guy was a walking info-bank of SE Asia travel tips, a Malay-Australian engineer who helped fill in the gaps concerning my knowledge of the Mahathir-Razak relationship, a Tata employee who furnished a bottle of (delicious) Indian chenin blanc, and a blockchain entrepreneur.

 

Coffee & tea are free; a light breakfast (boiled egg, toast, jam) is available in the morning; other beverages are available for purchase (water for ¥100, soda for ¥200, beer for ¥300)

 

Laundry is available onsite. ¥200 to wash; ¥100 per 10 min of drying

 

Wifi is excellent.

 

Hiro and Erika live onsite, and the care they invest in running the place is what you’d expect for someone’s home. This is reflected in the thoughtfulness and quality – recycling wood from the building’s prior business (a party hostel) into the new hostel’s table, quality of kitchen supplies, furniture comfort, etc. I’ve stayed in enough lodging to know what “cheapest stuff from Home Depot” turns out to be, and they opted for the good stuff.

Picture of the chapter 2 living room
Note the alcoves on the right. There is space to sit and work there.

Runners will appreciate the riverside location, as there is a promenade along the river popular with runners and walkers. I found it a great way to start the day. Say hi to the local cats and shiba inu dogs. 😀

picture of a white cat

Any questions about Tokyo life, including the train system, food, bars, interesting places, culture etc will be answered thoroughly and patiently by Hiro and Erika.

 

Asakusa isn’t a famous Tokyo location in the West, but there is a lot to appreciate. You’re within walking distance to awesome cultural sites, great food, and museums. The train connections are solid.

 

Summary: This exceeded my expectations on all fronts. I would not be shocked if this hostel becomes famous to some degree in a short time. You’re getting ryokan-level care for hostel prices in a great location.

Keep these documents on you for travelling

Wallet, passport, phone, backpack, laptop, chargers (plural), clothing, camera, and so on. Such is the typical 2018 travel list – be it for a tourist, digital nomad, or backpacker. If you’re like me, it’s 8 p.m. at the hotel, and you’re cursing yourself for leaving the charger at home or at your prior accommodation. Woe unto thee.

 

However, there are a couple of things I never  forget when travelling, particularly to Asia. As I get ready to go off again, these items are in mind. I’ve been stocking the envelopes and passport wallet with them just this weekend!

 

Old Credit & Debit Cards

 

American express credit cardBy luck & planning, I had my major credit and debit cards replaced/updated within the last 4 weeks. Here’s the thing though, my bookings were primarily made with those cards. I didn’t cut up and dispose of the cards. It’s not uncommon on check-in for flights or hotels to have the original booking card requested as a form of security. This is extremely rare in North America, but it’s not uncommon throughout Asia. When I received my replacement cards, the old ones attached to bookings went straight into my passport holder.

 

This can be exasperating for Westerners traveling out of airports/countries where this additional security check is common. The time between purchase and the flight date can be up to one year, after all. In my observations, low cost carriers tend to be far stricter on this check than full-service carriers.

 

What happens if you can’t produce the card? It varies. Jane Doe holding a passport for Jane Doe travelling on a ticket for Jane Doe is probably at a relatively low risk of being denied use of that ticket if she isn’t holding the card ending in 1234 Jane originally used to book 7 months ago. If the carrier is truly a ball-buster, you might have to buy a new ticket at the airport, which can get very expensive.

 

Crisp Cash

 

There are few problems that  Ulysses Grant or Ben Franklin can’t solve, particularly if you deploy him/them en masse. There are numerous reasons why you might want to carry the cash. Budgeting can be psychologically easier than swiping plastic. ATM fees can be extortionate when added up, especially if you have a fee from your home bank on top of something like Thailand’s foreign ATM fees (₿200 – about US$6). Of course, there are always those pesky emergencies like being locked out of your card for “security!”

 

Moneychangers abound in global cities of any size. I have found that Southeast Asia  Hong Kong (Chungking Mansions!) have some of the most incredible rates of exchange for cash I have seen. I calculated a .25% (one quarter of one percent!) difference between the exchange booth and the spot rate when I changed Hong Kong Dollars to Singapore Dollars in central Singapore. Try getting that in a Western country. Surprise: you can’t. 

 

Typically, I advise that one exchange $50 or $100 (if US$) in the best condition possible. For the sake of convenience, it is typically best to carry larger denominations. Moneychangers like them more, and carrying smaller denominations discreetly becomes problematic (over $200 in $20 notes isannoying). Like any rule, there are exceptions. or dollarized economies such as Cambodia, having a stash of $1, $5, and $10 notes is extremely useful for smaller, day-to-day transactions.Picture of a US 100 dollar bill on top of other dollar bills

Do non-Americans need USD? Not necessarily. Recognizable global currencies like Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand Dollars as well as Yen, Euro, British Pounds, South Korean Won, and Chinese Yuan are fine.

 

 

Flight & Hotel Printouts

 

This one may seem quaintly archaic in the era of apps and digital confirmations, but never underestimate the authority and utility of ink on paper. A billing dispute (e.g. prepaid reservation or not) or apparently non-existent reservation magically ends in your favor the moment you can produce a piece of paper with key information.

 

When crossing borders, I find it very useful to have proof of accommodation and proof of an onward ticket. The latter applies more to backpackers, long term vagabonds, digital nomads, et al. When traveling on one-way tickets, the airline checking you in or (on rare occasion) the immigration officer will want to see proof of departure by the end of your allowed stay.

 

Another great part: I don’t need to worry about some god-damned app cooperating, my phone’s charge at a given time, or my ability to connect to WiFi or 4G!

 

On a final note, the sweetness really comes when you’re arranging transport to the hotel. Certain websites, such as Agoda.com, use both Latin characters and local script in the booking confirmation. Life becomes much easier when the Hong Kong or Bangkok taxi driver can read the hotel address in Chinese characters or Thai script rather than figuring it our from the romanization.

Picture of an vintage hotel sign in a lobby

Hilton Honors: From Reward to Rebate Program

When I cash my points in for a flight or hotel booking, I derive an almost criminal pleasure from maximizing the cents per point/mile (cpp) redeemed.  If I can book a nearly $700 per night Waldorf-Astoria resort for 80,000 points (.875 cpp) , why would I spend 40,000 points to book a $120 Doubletree (.3 cpp) when I am on a road trip?

 

“Back in the day,” Hilton used discrete categories to price awards. A category X property would cost Y points. Bear in mind, this was in the past couple of years that this was the case.  This led to awesome opportunities where certain properties ended up being very cheap for one reason or another.  Price spikes due to seasonal or event demand made for insanely good redemptions.  This could be further compounded by Hilton giving away the fifth night free on reward bookings over 5 nights (silver, gold, and diamond elites – silver being available if you have a pulse and a credit score).

 

These days are no more. Properties now price dynamically.

 

 My most recent search for Actual Booking (versus data gathering) has been focused on the Millennium Hilton in Bangkok. I adore the property for its location, food & beverage, and awesome service.  The executive lounge attendant noticed that I was reading a book, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and we geeked out on Chinese history (her major). The view from said exec lounge is the main picture of this website! Rather than a fixed-point price, the price in points adjusts to the price in cash.  When I first searched, it was 36,000 points per night. By last weekend, it dropped to 31,000. Now, it’s 30,000.  I am not complaining, as I will benefit in the coming days.

 

Of course, I would be cursing like an Australian sailor if the points price went the other way.

 

The other Flyertalkers and myself have noticed a rather interesting phenomenon with our math results – the redemptions have a habit of ending up at around .4-.5 cpp, give or take a .1 cpp or so. This has ramifications for how we view the program.  Many Flyertalkers, including myself, are “guilty” of saving up for “aspirational” redemptions, like the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (Hey Ryan!) rather than a free night at a Hampton Inn on I-95.

 

Are there outliers to this formula? Yes.  The Hilton near Vancouver Airport bucks the trend at a whole Canadian penny per point during the summer (really great property, BTW). Such redemptions are increasingly rare. Flyertalk has speculated at the effective rate of a rebate. I’ve seen numbers ranging from 10% to 24% depending how many points are earned.  A diamond elite paying with a top-tier credit card earns more points than a non-status member paying with a non-Hilton card.

 

This begs a key question. If Hilton moves towards a rebate-system with an easily calculated cash value per stay, why bother with not-fun-anymore Hilton handcuffs when you can just sign up with hotels.com and get a guaranteed 10% back with whatever property you choose?  [We’re leaving aside the frequent devaluations that had me comparing Honors points usage logic with mismanaged developing world currencies – use them today because they’ll be worth less tomorrow.]

 

Don’t forget to subscribe below!

 

Featured Image credit: Bill Anastas

Cheap Flights III: Travel Hacking

Travel Hacking – Defined by James’ English Dictionary as the art of maximizing your frequent flyer miles and hotel points for the optimal returns.

FYI DO NOT SKIP: Ticket class shorthand:  First – F; Business – J; Premium Economy – Y+; Economy – Y.

Before I go into further detail, I am not particularly sanguine about this field as an effective and practical option for many travelers.  For any digital nomads reading this, it tends to require “gaming” US-issued credit card rewards, which requires getting a card mailed to you overseas – a not insubstantial PITA. For Regular Person, while the logistics of cards aren’t an issue, hitting the minimum spend bonus can be.

Travel credit card sign-up bonuses tend to involve spending X dollars within Y timeframe.  Expect to see offers featuring a  $1,000 – $5,000 spending goal within a 1-3 month timeframe.  There are three ways around this: a high income, high spending lifestyle should make the spending target easy – duh. Otherwise, one applies before certain large planned expenditures (e.g. a new car purchase, tuition, etc) or engages in “manufactured spending.” 

Manufactured spending involves buying items readily convertible to cash. An old scheme that the US Mint killed involved buying $500 boxes of $1 coins and then cashing them in at a bank.  While the Mint hoped that this would allow the coins to circulate, they just ended up recycled back to banks. Contemporary manufactured spending plans typically involve buying gift cards, in effect front-loading future spending for gas/groceries/etc. 

Strategic Planning

While most airlines, even low-cost carriers (LCC) have frequent flyer programs, legacy carriers tend to benefit from their alliance and non-alliance partners.  An alliance is merely a formalized, substantial, multilateral cooperation arrangement between multiple airlines.  From the customer perspective, alliances allow you to earn and spend miles on partner flights as well as harmonizing frequent flyer elite status. 

Fun tidbit: Alliance partners are responsible for those really annoying gate announcements where Hypothetical American Airlines flight 238 is also called with a number of codeshare partner numbers like being British Airways Flight 4238, Qantas 2238, LAN 1238, and so on.

Non-alliance partners are airlines who have a strictly bilateral rather than a multilateral relationship.  One example is the partnership between Etihad and American Airlines. AA is part of Oneworld, and Etihad is a large non-alliance-affiliated carrier. 

The Three Major Alliances & Their US Carriers

Star AllianceUnited – The first alliance and often considered the premier alliance due to its top notch (Skytrax 5 star) carriers such as ANA, Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Lufthansa, and Eva Air. It’s a favorite for “aspirational” hackers who want to spend their miles in F or J. You’ve also got South African Airways and Air New Zealand if you’re up for a trip to the ends of the Earth as well as Air Canada to take you to the friendliest (if ridiculously cold half the year) place in North America.

OneworldAmerican Airlines – The second alliance formed. This alliance is something of a union of the Old Guard flag carriers. AA and British Airways have the US-UK market locked up as tight as Scrooge’s pocketbook.  Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific are fan-favorites for J and F redemptions, as well as overall awesome service. If men from down under are your thing, Qantas has your back.  [Give my regards to Adam]  Substantial cooperation between some Oneworld carriers (AA, BA, Cathay) and Alaska Airlines is a thing.  

SkyteamDelta – The last major alliance formed.  While it has been disparagingly referred to as the leftover casserole of alliances, Skyteam may have the last laugh. Its member airlines serve some of the most promising economies of the developing world: China Eastern and China Southern, Kenya Airways, Garuda Indonesia, and Vietnam Airlines – to name a few. There’s a lot of potential.  From a customer service perspective, the two best products in the air are going to be Air France and Garuda. 

When doing your travel hacking, it helps to have a plan.  The “best” carrier for you is a product of your home airport, your willingness to take a connection, and where you want to go.   You may find that your hand is substantially forced.  A resident of Atlanta would be highly encouraged to be a Delta/Skyteam, while New York and LA are basically hubs for all players.  Larger cities tend to offer the most diverse array of feasible options.  

Given how award bookings (i.e. when you cash in your miles for a ticket) work, you need specific award inventory to be available.  The availability of seats for cash purchase does not mean that the airline is offering them for mileage redemption. It helps if your city has multiple options for a given alliance’s redemption options.  If you are a Oneworld guy, your epic round-the-world itinerary can be ruined if your Small Home City only has one American Airlines flight per day connecting to a larger hub – there may not be award inventory on that short hop!

 Earning

In the AirThe earning of miles changes constantly as airlines re-evaluate their programs. Currently, we are in a period of peak demand, full planes, a booming economy, and low-ish fuel prices (this may be coming to an end?). Presently, airlines have no incentive to be generous. Currently, airlines are even more disproportionately generous to their flyers stumping up for business and first than ever. Given earning rates for no status flyers/economy flights and the subsequent “burn” rate (the cost in miles for a free ticket), it’s practically pointless to bother being loyal and saving up if you’re an occasional economy flyer. It’s better to just take the cheapest fare with the best schedule.

Example of earning today: Having elite status helps immensely. Airlines offer elites bonuses on mileage earning.  Delta currently offers 5 miles per dollar spent on their flights, but elites can earn up to 11 miles per dollar.

The combined move in the US of rewarding flyers directly for dollars spent versus miles flown has me less sanguine about the Frequent Flyer game than in the halcyon days of yore.

On the GroundThis is where things get interesting, especially for the absurdly generous American credit card market.  Amateur level players might rely on shifting their daily spending to the airline card augmented by a sign-on bonus for a free ticket. American right now is offering 50,000 bonus miles on their co-branded credit card if you spend $2,500 in 3 months. The problem is that a round-trip economy award between the US and the UK on AA costs 60,000 miles + taxes and fees.  This doesn’t impress me.

The most common method of generating large quantities of miles for the cool redemptions is “churning” with credit cards .  I would advise you that this is an area for the experts, travel fanatics, insomniac planners, and those who do not care about the number of hard pulls/inquiries on their credit report.  The most extensive churning strategies can leave you with a wallet like Ben Schlappig/Lucky of OMaaT.  Last I checked, he claimed to have 37 credit cards.  If you do some digging on the r/churning subreddit, you will see how this can happen.  A strategy might include signing up for an American Airlines credit card for the 50k bonus, then signing up with a card like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express to collect a points bonus that can then be transferred to American Airlines.  A 50k bonus from each could net you 150k miles, enough for 1 business class round trip to Asia.

American express credit card

Ryan Born

The value of an award

No two travelers look at award redemptions in the same way.  One traveler might aim to redeem only in J or F when they can because it is an indulgent treat.  Another may prefer to redeem in Y, as it allows them to travel more often.

I prefer J redemptions myself.  I’ve had the luck to have been part of programs like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic where significant fuel surcharges take the fun out of many (mostly Y) redemptions. Why cash in 40,000 miles +$475 in fuel charges for a Y ticket that costs $700?  Moreover, I have had the best luck on redeeming for short, costly flights. My personal favorite redemption is to spend BA Avios (miles) on Qantas domestic business flights between Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. While short, having priority treatment, lounge access, and baggage makes a tedious 3-4 trip into quite a comfortable experience. At 5,000 avios + US$90 versus AU$650-700 each way, it’s a steal in terms of Avios per dollar.

Nicole Harrington

The easiest objective way to assign a value to miles is by comparing miles spent with the notional cash ticket cost.  Using the above Avios-for-Qantas-domestic-J case as an example, spending 5000 BA Avios to save (US)$450 means that each Avios point was worth 9 cents.  Given how wildly many air tickets fluctuate in price, it is difficult to assign an ideal redemption value, such as “Only spend if your miles are worth more than X cents each!” 

Another favored option is to, again, use BA Avios for regional J on Cathay Pacific/Cathay Dragon within Asia.    I can use a small-ish quantity of miles (5-15k) + a cash surcharge equivalent to a LCC economy ticket and fly an excellent carrier in business, with awesome Cathay service and their lounges in HKIA.  I also found such “equivalent” redemptions using United miles on Thai or Singapore Airlines regional business tickets to be awesome.

Other interesting redemptions (prices each way):

  • American Airlines: US Mainland to Hawaii @ 22.5k – Y
  • American Airlines: Canada-Hawaii @ 25k – Y
  • British Airways Avios on Qantas: Sydney-Brisbane; Sydney-Melbourne @ $87 +5k or $17 + 9k – J
  • BA Avios on Cathay Pacific: Hong Kong-Singapore @ 11,000 + $161.44 – J
  • Delta Skymiles on Saudia: New York to Cairo @ 42,500 + $32.80 – Y
  • Delta Skymiles on Virgin Atlantic: US to Johannesburg @ 50k + $52 – Y
  • Delta Skymiles: US Mainland to Honolulu @ 50,000 + $5.60 – F
  • United on Ethiopian Airlines: US to Africa @ 80,000 + $5.60 – J
  • United: US to Europe @ 30,000 + $5.60 – Y  

An International Health Info Must-Have for Travelling Women

In my meandering around the internet, I came across a discussion about nomad-friendly online resources for women’s health. Give how much of my network travels extensively, I thought that my findings might be of use.

Soroush Karimi

One particular resource stands out: Gynopedia. It aims to provide women’s sexual, reproductive, and women’s health info for cities and countries around the world. Further, the site also takes into account the needs of LGBTQ women. Users will find information on access to contraception, local attitudes that may complicate service provision, cost of healthcare goods/services (in local currency, often with US$ conversions).

 

This page lists the most complete/informative cities. You’ll note that for most countries, only the capital is covered. To my auld St Andrews/UK readers, you might be surprised to note that only London and Edinburgh have reasonably complete pages.

 

To my women readers: if you can spare 5 minutes to add some info or create a page for your city, you’re giving a great gift to community knowledge. For any reader, if you are affiliated or have contacts with a community that could benefit from local knowledge re: women’s health care, please circulate this site. Examples might include support groups/clubs for foreign students, LGBT societies, and recent migrants.

 

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Featured image credit:Hush Naidoo