Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Cheap Independent Travel---My Way!

How many glossy travel brochures have you looked at and wished that you could go on these adventures, but when you checked the price for the air and vacation package the cost was huge and well beyond your budget?

For example the University of Washington Alumni Travel—as an alumni, I get their ads—- offers mostly 2 week guided tours to many of the places I have visited:
India for two weeks, including airfare, costs $5,174——average daily cost is $370.
Machu Picchu-Galapagos for 17 days, including airfare, costs $8,193—average daily cost $482.
Myanmar for two weeks, including airfare, costs $$4,998—average daily cost $357.
Patagonia for 17 days, including airfare, costs $7,969—-average daily cost $469.
Vietnam for 2 weeks, including airfare, costs $4,257—average daily cost $304.

If you are a single traveler like I am, the tour operators add on a single supplement charge ranging from $1,600 to $2,700 which increases the average daily cost to between $418 and $627.
With costs this high, your travels will either remain dreams or you will manage to save up enough to take just a few in your lifetime.
If you truly want to travel more, try independent travel. I mostly travel independently for about 40 to 70 days at a time to various places in South America and Asia. I save on the cost of travel on these trips by only using frequent flyer miles for my travels from my home in Seattle, WA to Asia and South America, and by staying from 40 to 70 days on each trip. I have taken 29 international flights using just frequent flyer miles. With these international flights, I sometimes am able to do stopovers along the way. My stopovers are either at the beginning of my trips or the end in such places as Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I generally limit my stopover stays to about a week.

I can recall my early fears when I traveled on my own to Delhi after clearing immigration and customs, I encountered many security staff carrying AK 47s as I made my way to the taxi drivers as crowds of hawkers vied for my attention. I just looked and nodded to the guy directly in front of me that I would hire him as others tried to pry my backpack from me. The road to my reserved hotel was dark, crowded with people cars,bikes, tuk-tuks and cows. It was a bumpy twisty ride—-nothing like the airport highways typically found in the US. I made it safely to my hotel and felt pretty good about how I made it through the Delhi airport mosh pit to my hotel. Getting about on future travels was a breeze compared to this early introduction to independent travel.

By using frequent flyer miles for my travels from home to Asia or South America, I save from $1,050 to $10,500 in air fare per trip. My only travel costs using frequent flyer miles are the airport fees and taxes which range from $70 to $121 for each round trip flight.

To get enough frequent flyer miles, I combine what is called “churning credit cards” with using credit cards for almost all purchases—even small ones—and recurring bills. Just remember for this to work well, you MUST pay off the balance on ALL of your credit cards. Churning credit cards is when you open up credit cards that offer frequent flyer miles or points. The best offers now are 40,000 and 50,000 miles from United Air, Chase and Capital One. Some cards offer 2 miles or points for every dollar spent. Here are two websites I use to check out the best credit card frequent flyer or travel points offers: creditcardinsider and frugaltravelguy.

Once you get to your destination the other biggest way to save money while traveling is to stay at cheap hotels and hostels. I do not make advance reservations unless I arrive after dark. I find the Lonely Planet country guides are essential for me to navigate around the cities and to locate where to find cheap hotels. I also find that is a very good resource because of the information, photos, location maps, and traveler reviews. You get a real sense of what kind of place you might be staying at and the kind of travelers that are staying there by reading these reviews. As soon as I can get a frequent flyer flight to Cuba, I plan to try out Airbnb and stay with residents instead of the somewhat tired out hotels many tour groups use.

When I stay at hostels, I find that they are generally cleaner than some of the cheap hotels and they have several amenities that many travelers enjoy such as a gathering place with other like minded travelers from around the world, wifi, swimming pool, book exchanges, bicycles for free or rental, breakfast included sometimes, kitchens—-for those that like to cook or save money—and tour options. Some hostels also have private rooms available.

When I stay at hotels, they have TV with a few English speaking channels, A/C, hot showers, in room wifi, tour options, and breakfast included sometimes. I stay in hotels when there is not much cost difference between hostels and hotels and also when I want to be by myself.

Although I could have saved more money my limiting my meals to just street food or cooking in the hostels, I enjoy spending money at good restaurants trying out the local dishes.

In comparison to the high costs of the typical guided tours trips described above, here is a summary table of my more recent trip costs. You can go to my blog where I began to describe my travels starting with my 2012 trip to Brazil. It is:

Places                                                     Total Days     Cost/    Hotel /    Food/   Travel/
                                                                                           day        day          day        day
2016 Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia $3,230    62      $52       $20        $23            $9
2015 Colombia, Ecuador, Peru                $6,000    60    $100       $10        $22           $68
2015 Philippines, Thailand                      $4,218    61      $68       $20        $41             $7
2014 Trans-Siberian Train-Russia           $5,298    67      $79       $18        $33           $28              Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Thailand,
2013 Thailand, Laos, Vietnam                 $2,949   47       $63 $21           $23            $19
2012 Brazil, Argentina                             $3,894   45       $87   $17           $29            $41
2011 Japan, Thailand                                $4,701   61       $77      $24           $30            $23
2011 Chile     $3,784 47        $81 $21           $30            $29

Average Cost per day for these trips   $34,074/ 450 = $76 

In those trips where the Travel/day costs are higher than the others, I took guided tours that ranged in cost from $20—island/snorkel trips—- to $3,300 —two week guided tour to Lima, Cusco and trek to Choquequirao, Sacred Valley, Peru.

The average daily cost of my trips was $76 compared to the average of the UW Alumni Tours that ranged in daily cost from $304/day to $627/day—-400% to 825% higher daily cost than my trips.
When you travel with an organized group, these travelers tend to socialize together in a tour guide protective bubble and exposed to the local people and cultures in an orchestrated manner. I am sure the guides provide an extensive narrative about the people, history, environment, fauna and flora that is much more exhaustive that what I get traveling about solo--but I have google.

When I travel solo, I interact with the local people to get all of my needs taken care of including shelter and food as well as interesting attractions and events. I always take the local transportation and avoid taking taxis unless I need to get to or from the airport after public transportation is shut down either late evenings or early mornings. I take some of the local tour offerings advertised in the hotels or hostels I am staying at.

In my blog entries, I describe some of the more interesting experiences I have had while traveling this way. Most of my travels in the countries is by mototaxi, jeepney, metro, skytrain, bus, ferry boat, and walking. I rarely use airlines once I arrive, but AirAsia and other local airlines are cheaper than traveling by boat or bus to some locations like from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Bangkok, Thailand—just $45.

Once you try my approach to traveling, you will really enjoy meeting the challenges of finding your way in new, different, and exotic places.

Whether you try my approach to travel or go with organized groups, here are four final suggestions to make your travel better—-Money, Potable Water, Luggage, and Travel Insurance.

No more travelers check and no more big money belt with a large stash of USD now that ATMs are so popular in all of the countries I visited. The Lonely Planet guide books show you where to find ATMs in the cities they feature. Be sure to use the ATMs at the airport before you leave. They offer a good exchange rate compared to money exchange companies at airports. Occasionally you will find that your ATM card does not work at a certain bank ATM machine or at another ATM machine whose ATM bank machine previously worked. In that case just keep trying other ATM machines.
I begin my trips with about $300 USD in $20s and about 10 one dollar ($1) bills just in case I cannot locate an ATM machine. Since the fee is about the same whether you take a small amount of money or large, I usually get a larger amount like around $250 to $300 USD in the local currency. Many places have a limit of about $100 to $175 that you can withdraw at any one time though.


At many of the hotels, restaurants, and tour offices, credit cards are accepted, but may charge you a fee of 2-3%. When using a credit card internationally, be sure that the card you use does not have a foreign exchange fee—-you do not want to end up paying 6% for using your credit card.
Since I travel for extended periods, I have auto pay for my pension, and my renter deposits the rent money into my checking account. My mortgages, HOA fees, are on auto pay from my checking account. My electric bill, DirecTV. cell phone bills are on auto pay from one of my credit card accounts. To pay my credit card bills and other bills or on line purchases, I use my mini iPad WiFi feature to log in and set up payments for my credit cards from my checking account. I use my credit cards to make on line purchases of goods, services, and charity donations. If you do this, be sure to remember your challenge questions since your computer is at an unknown location.

Potable Water
Many travelers and locals buy and use plastic water bottles. I don’t like to see such a waste of resources with the bottles just going into landfill or recycled. I continue to use a SteriPen Freedom—its ultra violet rays purify the water—-along with a wide mouth plastic bottle. The recharger cable for the SteriPen had a USB connection and also worked recharging my Logitech keyboard, and my Nikon camera so I could use the iPad charger for this without bringing the SteriPen and Logitech charger which saved me about 4 oz. The purification process is quick—-about 1 1/2 minutes of UV light and no chemicals. I have had no intestinal problems during my trips, but some of the Bangkok tap water smelled like sewage.

My Luggage
My total pack weight is about 7 lbs. for a warm climate, and 9 lbs. for a colder climate. My shirts, pair of pants and underwear worked well with the frequent washings. My rain jacket was useful for the occasional heavy rains.
You can go to my April 11, 2012 blog entry— a detailed list of what I carry and what I wear for colder climates.

Travel Insurance
You must have travel insurance any time you travel! Avoid signing up for the travel insurance offered by the airline companies as a part of your ticket purchase because you will end up paying more and getting less coverage, especially if you take multiple trips each year that are more than 100 miles from your home.
I buy annual travel insurance from Travelguard which costs $267 per year. The coverages and benefits include:
accident and sickness medical expenses $10,000
baggage and personal effects $1,000
baggage delay $150
emergency evacuation $100,000
travel medical assistance included
trip cancellation $1,500
trip interruption $1,500
24/7 travel assistance included.

Check out my April 3, 2012 entry to see some of my successful claims. The critical documents you need for successful claims are original receipts on the items that were lost or stolen, and police reports which are sometimes hard to get from the police, but be friendly, patient, and persistent.
When you use your credit card for travel purchases, there are a number of benefits you may qualify for including collision coverage for car rentals, trip delays and/or cancellation, up to accidental death benefits, etc.

This is just a brief description of how I go about my solo travels to exotic and most interesting parts of the world, and I invite you to check out my various blogs entries for my travel adventures and travel suggestions that may make your travels more frequent and enjoyable.

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