International Travel Tips

Jan 15, 2017

I'm no international travel expert, but I have learned a thing or two over our years of travel that may be beneficial to anyone interested. Take these tips with a grain of salt, and don't roll your eyes at me if you hate them or if you already knew them. Feel free to contribute more tips in the comments below. 
1) Take advantage of your layovers
I know, I know. Direct flights are ideal, but if you mustttttt have an international layover then you can definitely make the most of it.  Extended layovers can be fun (and somehow reduce jet lag? maybe? wishful thinking?). We got lucky with 12 hour layovers on our last two international trips, one layover being in Dubai and one in Sydney. We had just enough time to go through customs, grab a cab and venture out into the city for about eight hours of food and drinks! The excitement of visiting a new city plus the combination of walking after a longgggg flight seemed to make the new time zone transition much easier. Granted, in our circumstances, the second legs of those flights to our final destination were both brutal- I've never felt more exhaustion in my life. But after that first full night of sleep in a real bed, we felt refreshed and good to go!
P.S. If you are flying from America to Europe, look into flying with Iceland Air or Wow Air. They offer free layovers in Iceland that you can extend for up to a few days.
2) Airline upgrades
When checking in at the airport (if you can't afford first class like us peasants) always always alwaysssssss smile really big and ask the worker if there are any upgrades or empty rows available. We did this for both legs of our New Zealand trip (18 hour flights across the Pacific) and got super lucky with an empty row of four seats for the two of us to share. If you can't afford the luxury of those first class lay down flat pods thingys, then this is quite possibly the next best thing.
3) Avoiding jet lag
For the 24 hours before you land at your destination, try to go ahead and adjust your sleeping and eating patterns as best as possible to "pretend" like you are already in the time zone of your destination. The "experts" say to avoid alcohol as well but let's be real here, who can say no to free alcohol on international flights? Besides, a glass or two of wine for me is basically like getting tucked right in to bed.
4) Airplane mode
From the time we leave the states to the time we land overseas, our phones stay in airplane mode. This prevents any unnecessary international data charges and only allows your texts and apps to work when you are connected to wifi. This applies to iPhones only, I think, because you can "text message" through wi-fi via iMessage. Sorry Droiders, I don't have any tips for ya.
5) Exchange Rates & International Fees
Pay with a card as often as possible, because it automatically gives you the lowest exchange rate. I read this somewhere once upon a time, and I'm not a million percent of the accuracy, but money exchanges scare me, ok? We always avoid them. Having some cash on hand is helpful though, of course in case of an emergency, but also because every once in a while certain places may charge a fee for credit cards. This typically seemed to be between 1-2%. Many chip enabled credit cards these days are offering "no foreign transaction fees" so be sure to check the fine print on your card (more on credit cards in number 8).
6) Visas
Buy your international visas in advance (if they are even required at all). Don't wait until you get to the airport. Most countries will allow you to purchase yours online or mail in the forms via mail. It's usually cheaper to do it via snail mail, but faster if you do it online. We learned this lesson the hard way in Nepal when we arrived to the chaotic Kathmandu airport and found out the visa payments were cash only and the only ATM at the airport was down. Not all countries require Americans to have entry Visas, so some research on your part is definitely necessary. For example, we did not need visas to enter New Zealand, but we did need Australian visas if we planned to leave the Sydney airport during our layover. Thankfully, I purchased these in advance online (for about $20/person). On our return flight we had a 5 hour layover in Sydney and Josh left his iPad on the plane from New Zealand. Somehow *thank you Jesus* we were able to track it down, but we had to physically exit the airport to get it. I'm still not exactly sure why, but if we didn't have those Visas on hand then we wouldn't have been able to get his iPad back.
7) Trip Advisor message boards
 They are quite the double edged sword; filled with a lot of helpful, valuable information from real people, but also lots of info from negative, grouchy people. We have never used a travel agent; partially because I'm pretty cheap, but also because there is SO much helpful information on the internet. I really trust the input on the message boards in regards to hotel location recommendations, off the beaten path stops, and nightlife/restaurant tips. There seem to be tons of locals who love to provide valuable input. The itinerary planning advice is hit or miss. For both of our recent international trips we were only able to take off work for 6 week days. Counting the weekends before and after, this gave us about 10 days of travel total (bonus tip). I initially assumed this would be "enough time" but according to literally every human on those message boards, you needed "at least 3-4 weeks in said country in order to enjoy it properly". Well we didn't have 3-4 weeks and there's not really anything we could do to change that. We wanted to fully take advantage of our "limited" time in those countries, and we did just that, regardless of what the silly Trip Advisor folks advised. Maybe it's the American in me to thank for the go-go-go mentality. I'm all about taking full advantage of our time and making every second count. From our experience, it has paid off substantially. While in New Zealand, we ultimately traveled about three hours a day, driving a total of over 5,000 km in a counter-clockwise loop around the south island. We were able to see literally everything we wanted and still had time to relax. We never felt exhausted or rushed. Needless to say, totally going against the "Trip Advisors" advice paid off big time.
Side note: A few posts are coming soon on itinerary planning for road tripping New Zealand and backpacking Nepal.
8) Travel credit cards
We got our first credit card (ever) about six months before we went to Nepal. The timing was appropriate because it was a surprise trip. Josh was able to book everything for the trip on that card without me seeing it via our joint bank account that I may or may not check on the reg to analyze his daily excessive gas station purchases. Our first credit card came to us circa 2015, before all the debit cards were forced to covert to chip cards. So by using our brand spankin new chip enabled credit card internationally we were able to avoid foreign transaction fees (Phew! We learned that the hard way on our honeymoon in Iceland in 2012). Following the Nepal trip, we earned about $500 worth of "points" that we eventually used as a credit on our statement.
Yay! Free money!
Our first travel card was a Barclay Arrival Plus card. You earn two points per dollar you spend and there is no annual fee for the first year. So pay it off, use your points and cancel it before the first year is up. Most cards offer bonus points if you spend so much within the first few months, which is pretty easy to do with international flights and hotels.
I haven't researched many travel credit cards, so if you are in the market, don't immediately go sign up for the Barclay card, because there may be way better deals out there now. We are currently using a Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card for all of our travel purchases. (With the main intent of collecting 110,000 miles/points so we can get a Southwest companion pass for 2018-which means anytime we fly we can have a buddy fly free with us! Currently they are offering 50,000 points if you spend $2k in three months).
9) Travel savings account
Create a separate savings account just for travel expenses. Our rule of thumb: We never book a trip on our travel credit card unless we have enough money currently in our travel savings account to cover the cost. Before the Nepal trip, we had always been very anti-credit cards. We ultimately decided to get one (for the points and the "secrecy") but agreed that we would only use it if we immediately pay it off (I've even been known to pay it off seconds after credit card purchases. I'm a money psycho okayyyy but there's no sense in paying the crazy high interest rates if you have the money in your account, right?)
Another tip in regards to budgeting money for travel is using the Mint App. This app automatically scan your bank statement and organizes your expenditures (food, clothing, gas, hobbies, travel, medical expenses) each week/month. You can create different budgets for each category and it will notify you as your are approaching your monthly budgets. It has been very enlightening (almost too enlightening) to see exactly how much we were spending on certain categories *cough* food *cough*.
Ignorance was bliss.
10) Frequent flyer miles
We are lucky enough to live near two major airline hubs: American Airlines and Southwest. Because we fly these two airlines the most often, we've been able to rack up quite a few miles. If you pick an airline and really try to stick to primarily using them, the points can add up mighty fast and the perks pay off. After our 739264822772 mile flight to New Zealand (which happened to be booked through American Airlines, but on a plane operated by Qantas) we earned enough points to get updated to gold status.
One free checked bag + complimentary upgrades. No complaints here. Bag fees drive me absolutely bonkers.
The same rules apply to rental car programs and hotel programs. Sign up for the rewards program because the more you use the same company or hotel, the more perks you get.
So if you live on planet Earth and you like to take airplanes to far away places or stay in hotels or drive borrow vehicles and you aren't signed up for frequent flyer accounts and benefit programs then you need a rather large spankin'.
No excuses.
Free money.
Kind of. 
Happy travels! 

Hi

Jan 1, 2017

I'm back.
…nineteen whole months and five passport stamps later
I recently spent six months planning a trip to the south island of New Zealand. 
In my research I found myself Googling New Zealand and getting bored and annoyed with the results: links to expedia and trip advisor and travel companies hoping to convince you to purchase a package deal or a guided tour. I learned that adding the word "blog" to my searches would give me much more beneficial and relevant information. I craved information from actual people and their personal, authentic travel experiences. For this simple reason, I have decided that I wanted to get back into blogging. I feel like I've gained some pretty valuable insight from our years of domestic and international travel. Information that could potentially benefit many people out there like me who want to know before you go. After a year and a half away from this blog, I have decided that this go 'round will be less of a "document every ounce of my life" venture and more of a "provide random DIY/food/travel advice for anyone who googles things and happens to find this blog" venture. 
I will also be periodically deleting some most of the garbage that I blogged back in 2012. 
Like this weird-ass post about The Mondo Diet.
Cool?
Cool. 
Some posts you can look forward to:
(I'm putting these here in writing to somewhat hold me accountable)
Advice for international travel on a budget
Backpacking Nepal
Getting around New Zealand in a campervan + guide to RV parks and freedom camping
Seattle to Whistler road trip
Soooooooo stay tuned.
For real this time.

Our quick jaunt across Europe {Southern France}

Mar 26, 2015

After spending about ten hours in the city of love (and eating our weight in croissants, macarons, and baguettes) we hopped on a high speed train headed to the southern coast.
I absolutely adored every ounce of France.
Josh slept through most of the ride, but I was too excited to let jet lag win the battle!
I didn't want to miss a single chateau, the vineyard, or farmhouse.
Every inch looked like a piece of art. 
We took a rental car from the train station in Montpellier to Pezenas, where Josh's family had a vacation home rented for the week.
We spent two nights with the Kerrigans in the cutest darn villa around.
The natural sunlight and fresh coastal air blowing in through the windows was probably my favorite part.
The villa required absolutely no need for electricity and air conditioning (but it sure was nice to have some wi-fi).
Our first night, Josh and I wondered down to a nearby hotel bar to have a few drinks and catch a world cup game.
. . . followed by a quick dip in the pool

It's safe to say that breakfast was my favorite thing about France.
Carbs with a side of carbs (and a dollop of Nutella) 
The town of Pezenas was quite the cutie.
I loved it's cobblestone streets, which no cars were allowed on, and it's bright buildings.
My first (of many) nutella crepes

Sister, sister (in law)
For our second day on the coast, we visited the city of La Grau du Roi.
We thoroughly enjoyed our fair share of France's 1664 beer.
I finally got to stick my toes into the Mediterranean, sort of.
This beach was more of a public, city beach.
It's not necessarily what you would imagine when you think of beaches on the southern coast of France, but we loved it nonetheless.
We even got to see a (semi) real live bull fight!
It was basically a "flag football" version of a bullfight, but still, there were real bulls and real bloodshed!
. . . and it was insanely hot
While in southern France, we managed to get some beer drinking practice before we got to Germany.
We woke up early on day three and took a train (or four) to Switzerland.
Train life is rough, I tell ya.
Next stop: Interlaken, Switzerland!

P.S.
It should be noted that one of our train stopovers was in Dijon, France and I did in fact have a sandwich with dijon mustard.
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