6

I’ve wondered when we would get a real-time wearable translator. The makers of “ili” say that it will be this Summer. Watch their first commercial.

Note this disclaimer: “UPDATE: In light of viewer feedback, we would like to clarify that the man and women are all actors and actresses; no one was forced to act against their will in any way.”

The commercial shows the actor’s British English being converted to Japanese in real time, though I have no way to judge the quality of that translation. The commercial doesn’t show any Japanese being converted to English, though I imagine it works in both directions. It also doesn’t show any other languages or that the device can recognize American English. I am sure we will learn more about its capabilities in the coming months.

I definitely think travel will be enhanced by wearable translators, and it devalues my plan to make my future children natively trilingual. Excuse me while I spend the rest of the day daydreaming about being able to speak and understand every language in the world.

Thoughts? How much are you willing to pay for an ili?

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

6

My beautiful, old, extra-pages-added-later passport was set to expire in May 2016. Since many countries don’t allow entry unless your passport has at least six months remaining validity, I knew I should aim to get a new passport by November 2015. I was in Argentina from October to December 2015 before coming back to Hawaii for 10 days before heading to Asia for a month.

Those 10 days in Hawaii would be my only chance to get a new passport, so I would need to apply for and get the passport within 10 days. That’s very easy to do.

In a life-or-death emergency, you can get a passport pretty much immediately.Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 7.49.18 PM

Obviously I didn’t qualify for that, but I did qualify to apply in person at a Department of State Passport Agency.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 7.49.46 PM

There are a few dozen including one in Honolulu.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 7.57.27 PM

I called 877-487-2778 to make an appointment for December 19, the first weekday after my arrival.

To the appointment, I brought:

  • Appointment confirmation number (given to me when I called to make the appointment)
  • Proof of international travel (a printout of my itinerary from Honolulu to Tokyo in United Business Class)
  • Passport application form (made sure to check the box for a 52 page passport, since it doesn’t cost extra and I ran out of room in my last 28 page passport)
  • My then-current passport
  • One passport photo
  • A credit card to pay the $170 fee ($110 for a passport renewal + $60 expedite fee)

I arrived at the appointed time, walked to the check in line that had no one else in it, handed everything over, and took a seat. A minute later, I was called up to pay the $170. I was given a pick up time three days later.

I didn’t ask whether that meant I could pick up the passport at my leisure any time after the specified time or whether I had to arrive at the exact specified time. I unintentionally found out the answer.

I was in and out on the day of my appointment in under 5 minutes. I imagine busier passport agencies are slower.

On the day I was supposed to pick up my new passport, I went on a hike with three friends. We got hopelessly lost, but through a combination of the GPS on our phones and the basic survival skill of following a river downstream, we eventually got back to a trail, having hiked hours longer than expected. (One friend rushed off, arriving just in time for the start of her shift as an ER doctor.) I had missed my passport appointment, and since it was already 4 PM, the office was closed.

The next morning, I headed to the passport agency at 10 AM, not sure what to expect. I went to the check in line–again no one was in it–and explained that I had an appointment to pick up my passport the previous day and showed my driver’s license. The lady at the check in counter had my passport at her desk and handed it and my old passport–now with a hole punch through the cover to show that it is no longer valid–to me. Woo-hoo!

In only four days, I had a brand new passport and my old one back. One day the old one will just be a souvenir, but for now I have to hold on to it for its still-valid Brazil visa.

Bottom Line

The normal passport processing time is six weeks. The normal expedited time is three weeks. I applied in person at a passport agency and got mine in three days.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

21

I just walked to the airport for the first time in my life in Da Nang, Vietnam. The 3.4 mile walk took about an hour and 20 minutes including a 20 minute stop at a KFC along the way.

I have been wanting to walk to an airport for some time for the novelty factor. In Chiang Mai, Thailand a few weeks ago, I had the time and an even shorter 2.4 mile walk, but the 90 degree heat and my friend’s heavy bag made walking impractical.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 12.22.48 PM

In Da Nang, I was alone and the weather was cool with a slight drizzle. The walk took me over down a dirt road, across the dragon bridge, and finally to the airport along a very easy and safe for pedestrians route.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 12.34.18 PM

I have never seen an airport that is so smack dab in the middle of the urban development. If I had stayed in the main nightlife and restaurants district on the west bank of the river, I would have had an even shorter walk than from my Airbnb close to the beach. My walking time rivaled driving from downtown Los Angeles to LAX, Washington DC to Dulles, or Buenos Aires to EZE in traffic.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 12.02.48 PM

I only saved abut $3 by walking instead of taking a taxi, but that wasn’t the point. I just wanted an enjoyable stroll and to be able to say that I once walked to an airport.

Have you ever walked to an airport?

I remember once finding a site that listed walking and biking options to airports worldwide. I can’t find it now, but some individual airports, like the San Diego Airport, provide walking instructions.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

7

Visa requirements change all the time. Check out the current visa requirements for Vietnam for Americans here from the US State Department.

Americans need a visa to get into Vietnam. We can either get one from a Vietnamese consulate or embassy before travel or one on arrival with some pre-planning.

I just landed in Vietnam and got a visa on arrival. Here was the process:

  1. Renew my passport because it had less than six months validity and Vietnam like many countries requires six months validity to let you in.
  2. Book an international flight to Ho Chi Minh (SGN), Hanoi (HAN) or Da Nang (DAD) airports.
  3. Pay Cheap Vietnam Visa $8 to get a letter emailed to me that entitles me to a visa on arrival.
  4. Print out that letter and bring it to Vietnam, along with a passport sized photo, $25, and a completed arrival form.
  5. Hand a Vietnamese agent my passport, the letter, photo, $25, and arrival form. Wait about 30 minutes and get my visa.

1. Renew My Passport

My passport was set to expire in May 2016. Vietnam requires that your passport have six months remaining validity upon entry. (For that matter, so do several other countries I am visiting at the moment.)

I am rarely in the United States, so I took advantage of being in Hawaii over Christmas to get an expedited passport renewal at a passport office. I will write about that experience soon.

2. Book an international flight to Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, or Da Nang

I flew today from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City on a very cheap Jetstar flight.

Land crossings and arrivals at airports other than SGN, HAN, and DAD do not allow for visas on arrival.

3. Pay Cheap Vietnam Visa $8

To get a visa on arrival in Vietnam, you need to have a letter with you that says you are authorized to get a visa on arrival. Many Vietnamese companies will send you this letter. I used cheapvietnamvisa.net because they were the cheapest I found.

Their prices range from $8 to $82, depending on how quickly you need the letter and whether you want a private letter.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.33.49 PM

I chose the slowest option and the group letter.

Immediately after paying, I got a confirmation email.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.12.11 PM Then three days later, I got the letter I needed as an attachment to another email.Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.12.41 PM It was three pages. Because I hadn’t chosen the private letter, I was among about 20 people granted approval in the same letter. The letter lists all of our names, genders, birthdays, passport numbers, and arrival dates.Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.12.47 PMPay the extra money for a private letter if you don’t want strangers to have that information about you.

4. Bring your passport, the printed letter, a passport photo, $25 cash, and an arrival form to Vietnam

  • Bring your passport (duh!)
  • I printed all three pages of the letter.
  • I brought $25 USD. I didn’t see an ATM before the visa on arrival area. I did hear some people paying in other currencies, so I believe other currencies are accepted, but why not pay in the currency they ask for?
  • I brought six standard passport/visa photos you can get anywhere in the world. Only one was requested from me, but I believe online sources say two are required.
  • I pre-printed and filled out the arrival form because I heard there is sometimes a line just to get this form.

5. Hand all that stuff over and wait

I was out the door of my flight at 8:24 PM and headed straight to the visa on arrival area, which is before and to the left of passport control at Ho Chi Minh City’s airport (SGN.) There were a few dozen people waiting for their visas, but no one in line to hand in their forms.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.41.56 PM

I handed over my letter, passport, photo, and arrival form. Then I waited.

A woman was calling names of processed visas. She called my name at 9:02 PM, after I had waited 35 minutes. I paid her $25 and got my passport back with a 30-day, single-entry Vietnam visa in it.

Four minutes later, I had cleared immigration and customs where there were no lines.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

3

American passport holders got good news recently for travel to three countries: China, Vietnam, and Brazil.

China allows Americans a 72 hour visit to several cities without a prior visa as long as you fly into China from one country and fly out to another country. My brother and I used this transit visa to hike the Great Wall of China near Beijing.

more than 50 countries

Soon (no exact date given) China will lengthen these transit visas to six days (144 hours.) That is great news as we would have loved a few extra days to see Beijing.

In OctoberVietnam cut the price of a single entry visa from $45 to $25. Other visas are more expensive. Americans either need to get their Vietnam visa in advance of travel or pay a company to provide a letter that allows for a visa on arrival. I will have a review of a visa-letter company soon because I am going to Vietnam next week.

Last week, Brazil announced that Americas, Canadians, Japanese, and Australians do not need a visa for travel from June 1 to September 18, 2016 for stays up to 90 days. I am not sure if you just need to enter by September 18 and can get a 90 day stamp that runs through December or whether you need to exit Brazil by December 18.

The normal visa costs Americans $160.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

8

I just spent two days in Tokyo, and the most fun I had was playing “Tokyo Metro The Underground Mysteries,” a game that sends you around the city by Metro to solve puzzles.

It took me three hours of hopping on and off trains, heading from place to place. I would not call the game a great way to see the city–although I did see some parts of the city I wouldn’t have otherwise–because you spend most of your time underground; instead I am recommending it to puzzle enthusiasts who are seeking a unique cultural experience.

The Puzzles

You get a folder that was meticulously crafted, so that everything included comes into play multiple times in sometimes unexpected ways.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 8.59.39 PM

You race around the metro system solving puzzles. The puzzles range in difficulty from “Show Up and Look Where They Told You to Get the Answer” to “Hopefully You’ve Memorized Every Item in the Folder Because You Need to Find a Green Star Somewhere” to “Read Carefully the Exact Words That Were Written, Not What You Think Was Written” to “Really Hard.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 8.59.28 PMThe experience was fun for me, and I kept thinking how my 9-year-old niece would have loved it too. I’m convinced that anyone who enjoys similar things like crosswords, award booking, and riddles would have a blast playing this game.

The later puzzles are very difficult. I never would have finished if I hadn’t latched onto a pair of Japanese women from the fifth puzzle on. We were a good team. They did most of the solving, though I had two key breakthroughs on the last puzzle that sped up their solution.

 

 

I saw several Japanese people playing the game in groups during the day. I didn’t see any other foreigners. Apparently the company behind the game, Scrap, has many such games available throughout Japan and the world, and my teammates had played another one in Tokyo the day before.

How to Play

Go to the Tokyo Metro Pass Office at Ueno Station between 7:40 AM and 8 PM, and ask for an English language game. The cost is ~$18, including an all-day metro pass. The game’s website says it runs through December 27, but I played it December 28, and I think the sign I saw said the game had been extended until January 31, 2016.

If you don’t get to Tokyo until after the Metro game ends, there is a different, permanent game by the same company that you can play. Be warned: my teammates said they had failed in their attempt at that game the day before.

The company also has upcoming events in New York and San Francisco.

Hints (Not Spoilers)

When the puzzle book says “alphabets,” it means “letters.” That was the only place where the English wasn’t perfect.

When you get to the “public art display” puzzle, they tell you to play a well-known Japanese game but don’t tell you the rules. The only rule of the game is that you have to move in a continuous path from left to right and every time you come to an intersection, you have to turn. (The answer is the rice ball, if you still don’t get the game.)

When you have down time in transit between puzzles, look through everything in the folder for unnecessary shapes, colors, holes, etc. They aren’t unnecessary. You just don’t know how you’ll use them yet.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

7

Since 2010 (I think), Argentina has had an official exchange rate that was a complete fiction. You could not buy dollars at the official rate. With this piece of economic lunacy, Argentina joined such economic basket cases as Venezuela, Vietnam, and Cuba.

The market (or as I prefer to call it, “real”) exchange rate often offered 50-100% more pesos per dollar than the official “fake” rate, leading to a black market for dollars called the “dólar blue.” During the dólar blue years, savvy travelers have eschewed changing money in banks or using ATM cards or credit cards while in Argentina. Instead, the play was to bring crisp $100 bills and change them in cuevas, illegal exchange houses.

For instance, on Monday I exchanged $100 in Buenos Aires for 1,440 pesos on the black market. Taking them to a bank would have offered only 978 pesos.

Today, that all changes. Argentina is scrapping its official exchange rate, meaning that you can legally buy and sell dollars at the market exchange rate. That means you can take pesos out of ATMs or use your no-foreign-transaction-fee credit cards in Argentina and get a fair rate. (Make sure to get this ATM card, which has no fees worldwide.)

This is exciting news for me, since I spend so much time in Argentina. It means I will no longer have to take thousands of dollars in cash every time I head to my favorite country.

This is also exciting news for Argentina because it means that the new president is actually following through on campaign promises that should liberalize the Argentine economy, which has battled 20%+ inflation for several years.

This is good news for you if you plan to travel to Argentina because it means renting cars and buying domestic plane tickets will be a lot easier. Both previously required paying in cash, which was a big hassle, to avoid paying a third more than Argentines pay.

Congrats to Argentina on rejoining the rest of the world today by letting its currency’s value be decided by the market.

PS Argentina, while you’re doing smart things with your currency, can you please introduce 200, 500, and 1,000 peso bills? The fact that the largest current bill is worth less than $7 makes transporting cash annoying and paying group restaurant bills comical.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

25

Update five days later: in the post, I estimated how my behavior would change. Now I have some data. For one day, I was (irrationally) afraid to walk the streets at night. That’s gone.

I am still taking my new phone out a lot less on the street, usually holding it in two hands and taking a look around to make sure no one is nearby first.

I have also started to feel less bad about getting ripped off as I’ve walked the streets day and night and frequently been within arms’ length of someone else’s phone. They are all absentmindedly checking their phone like I was, and I could snatch their phone just as easily as mine was snatched. “Be careful” is always good advice, but realistically almost everyone is a huge, easy target. Luckily getting something stolen is a low probability event in Buenos Aires and most places.

Last night, I had something stolen for the second time ever while traveling. If you’re in the market for an iPhone 6 Plus, there might be one for cheap somewhere on the black market of Buenos Aires.

After an amazing dinner with friends at a (not so) “secret” parrilla in Buenos Aires last night where we learned after we’d finished that each bottle of wine we’d bought entitled us to a free bottle of champagne, I headed out with a few guys. I called it a night early for Buenos Aires at 2:30 AM and was walking the three blocks home that I’ve walked dozens of times at all times of day and night.

As I got within 10 steps of my door, I had my cell phone in one hand and my keys in the other. A short guy came up behind me grabbed the phone right out of my hand and took off.

I started chasing him. I wasn’t sprinting because I didn’t necessarily want to catch him. He hadn’t shown a weapon, but who knows, and I didn’t even want to fight. I just wanted to make it clear to him that I could run all day, so that he would just drop the phone.

I hadn’t taken into account that he had a getaway car, and a block and a half into our jog, a regular city taxi turned onto the block, and he hopped in. There was a moment when I could have maybe grabbed the driver or hopped in myself, or stood in front of the car, but I didn’t do any of those. And probably none of those would have been smart.

The car had another man and woman in the back seat, and the driver was clearly part of the team, so at least four idiots went out to steal cell phones last night.

As the car drove away, I tried to remember its license plate, but I can’t 100% say that I got it–all that free wine and all.

Another taxi driver pulled up 15 seconds later and said he saw what happened and to hop in. We turned down the street they had turned, but we didn’t see them and gave up the search after a few blocks when we saw two beat cops. (In Palermo, Buenos Aires, there are cops throughout the neighborhood who stand around on a certain corner for hours on end. Generally it makes the neighborhood very safe, though these cell phone snatches occur with some frequency.)

I told them the story, and they sent me to the nearest police station to fill out a report. I gave the officer taking the report the license plate as I remembered it, and she said that would be turned over to an investigator today. Hopefully I remembered it correctly, and that leads to the taxi driver being collared and me getting my phone back. I do consider that unlikely though.

Last night I was exceptionally angry for obvious reasons. I kept replaying the chase in my head, but this time I caught the guy and doled out various forms of physical retribution.

I was also embarrassed for less clear reasons. Maybe it’s because I always heard stories of other people getting robbed, pickpocketed, and stolen from in Buenos Aires, but thought that it couldn’t happen to me. Reality is, it can and did happen to me. (By the way, I consider Buenos Aires to be just as safe as most places and definitely safe enough to visit.)

I’d like to draw a grand lesson for me and you, but frankly I doubt I’ll learn much from this. When I have another phone, I will definitely still use it on the street, which will capture my attention, which will make this type of thing possible again. Maybe I’ll be able to stop it next time because an approaching person will set off an alarm bell to grip the phone tighter or because I will sprint after him anticipating I don’t have much time to catch him before he hops into a car.

—————————————————————————————————–

The Story of the First Time I Had Something Stolen

I rented a moped on Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua for a few days and was heading back to the town to take a ferry the next day to the mainland. I fell off the moped by forgetting that you can’t steer while breaking. I was near a clinic, so I went there just to have them clean and dress my cuts. When I came out of the clinic, a very strong rainstorm started, so I decided to take refuge in a nearby restaurant where I had asked the cute waitress for directions a few days earlier.

She was still working, so we started flirting, and I sat down to order something while I waited. I completely forgot that I had put down my backpack when I entered the bar, and it was now out of view on the other side of the counter.

At some point over the next two hours, a guy popped in to ask the waitress directions. When I got up to continue driving, I couldn’t find my bag anywhere. I think that guy used directions as a pretense to grab the bag, since he asked from right where the bag was and the bag was out of view by his feet.

The good news is that the bag contained only several days worth of dirty clothes and a few books. I replaced the contents for probably $100. My passport and other valuables were locked in my moped.

Call me a dummy in the comments or share your similar stories.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

3

I first came to Colombia 11 months ago, and $1 equaled about 2,000 pesos. Now $1 equals about 3,000 pesos. Since inflation has been low in the period, everything is about a third cheaper for me.

In the international baggage claim at Bogota’s airport, I saw a money exchange. As everyone should know, money exchangers make their profits from the difference between the prices at which they buy and sell currencies. Airport money exchangers usually have a huge spread between the two. Suckers change their moneys at airports. Pros use no-fee-worldwide ATM cards to get cash out at a much better exchange rate or a no-foreign-transcaction-fee credit card..

In the past, when free cellular data wasn’t so widely available, I would occasionally arrive in a country without knowing the fair exchange rate. In those cases, I would decide whether to use a money changer based on its posted buy/sell prices. In a developing country, the spread might be as little as 1% (I saw 0.3% spreads this summer in Serbia for exchanging euros), and in a rich country, the spread might be 3%.

Getting back to the Bogota airport, the spread was a hefty 9+% as the offers were 2,600 pesos for a dollar and 2,800 pesos to buy a dollar. But the scam was that they almost certainly wouldn’t have given you a dollar for 2,800 pesos as a dollar is currently worth 3,076 pesos. If I had had more than 75,000 pesos in my pocket, I would have tried to buy all the dollars they had for 2,800 pesos each. I’ll bet you a lot more than 2,800 pesos that I would have been turned away.

Bottom Line

If for some reason you can’t get free data from T-Mobile, and you’ve forgotten to look up the exchange rate before entering a country, just checking a money changer’s spread is usually a good plan. However some exchange houses that know that they will only get customers on one side of the transaction may post fake prices on the other side of the transaction. Caveat exchanger.

 

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

I just flew an award that saw me fly four flights in four days between four countries. The award cost 15,000 United miles + $73.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 11.44.03 AM

  • How much can you really do in 23 hours in a city?
  • How much time is eaten up traveling?
  • What are the costs of getting to and from the airport?
  • What happens with your bags?

United has a bit of a loophole that you can fly four segments within Europe for 15,000 miles if you are never on the ground for more than 23:59 between flights. In April, I booked myself this four-segment routing from Bucharest to Zurich, and I flew it this week.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 2.54.22 PM

While I normally like to travel slowly–I had just spent three weeks in Bucharest and four in Belgrade–I also like to mix in this rapid travel from time to time. My theory is that I can do 1-3 awesome things in each place and gauge quickly and cheaply whether I’d like to come back for a longer future trip (Dubrovnik) or whether I’ve seen enough (Brussels.)

How Much Can You Really Do In 23 Hours?

Athens in 22:10

I had 22 hours in Athens. I arrived to my hostel just before 11 PM and went to the rooftop bar for a drink. The rooftop had an amazing view of the lit Acropolis, and I enjoyed meeting a few other solo travelers. The bartender sent me off in the direction of nightlife, but I got lost, and just enjoyed wandering around a bit. I got a good feeling for the atmosphere of Athens on a summer evening.

In the morning I set off on a 2.5 hour “free” (plus gratuity) walking tour of the variety that is now in pretty much every European city. It was an interesting overview of the historical sites, though we didn’t enter any. When the tour ended, I finally went into some sites: the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Acropolis Museum, the Acropolis (Parthenon), and the Ancient Agora.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 2.49.32 PM

Then I had some awesome Indian takeaway for a very late lunch and headed to the airport.

I think Athens is a great place for a 23 hour layover. You can easily see many of the main historical sites, have some Greek food, and drink a little ouzo.

Dubrovnik in 20:05

I had 20 hours in Dubrovnik. I got to my hostel around 10 PM and headed into the Old Town, which is one of the most beautiful places on Earth for a stroll. Two years ago I had cliff jumped at sunset, so I wanted to cliff jump at sunrise. I went to the bar–I think it is just called Cold Drinks–that you have to pass through to get to the cliff jumping rocks. They said their gate wouldn’t open until 8 AM, so my sunrise cliff jump plans were shelved. I headed to bed and set my alarm for 10 AM.

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I jumped for three hours the next day, making friends with the other travelers and locals who were cycling through to test their nerve on the 6 to 14 meter cliffs.

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At around 1 PM, I went for lunch and then took a bus back to the airport.

Dubrovnik is perfect for me for a 23 hour layover. For others, it might not be as good of a fit, but you’ll definitely have enough time to wander the Old Town, walk its walls, take a Game of Thrones tour, have a night out, and maybe even cliff jump.

Zagreb in 19:05

I had 19 hours in Zagreb. I got to the hostel and showered for a Friday night out, which was my top priority. I met up with MileValue reader Max, and we spent the evening drinking pivo in front of a bar packed with locals overflowing onto the street in front.

It was a late night, and in the morning I headed straight back to the airport.

Zagreb is not really the best place for a 23 hour layover because there isn’t that one big thing you can check off in under a day like you could in, say, Paris or Amsterdam or Athens. But I enjoyed myself.

Travel Time and Cost

Including my Uber to the Bucharest airport, my flight to Athens, and the metro to my hostel in Athens, I was traveling for 4:50 on the first day. I paid $11 for the Uber and $16 for the roundtrip metro in Athens.

Including the metro to the airport, the flight to Dubrovnik, and a taxi to my hostel, I spent 4:15 minutes traveling the second day. I split a way-overpriced taxi to Dubrovnik–my share was $19–instead of using the $5 bus because it wasn’t leaving for another 40 minutes. I took the $5 bus back.

Including the bus to the airport, the flight to Zagreb, the bus to the city, and a 2 km walk to my hostel, I traveled 4:40 the third day. The bus in Zagreb is $4 each way.

Including the walk, bus to the airport, flight to Zurich, and train to my host’s house, I spent 4:15 traveling on the fourth day. The train was $7.

My travel time averaged about four and a half hours per day. My total airport transportation costs were $66 plus the $73 in taxes on my award.

What Happens with Your Bags?

I am traveling with one checked bag because I am carrying my tennis rackets around the world. I didn’t want to have to collect it and re-check it in every city because that would eat into my time. Luckily I didn’t have to.

At the Bucharest airport, I pro-actively asked the agent: “Can you check this bag all the way to Zurich?” She asked if I was sure I wanted it to go all the way there instead of getting it in Athens. I confirmed that I didn’t want to see the bag again until the end of the four flights, and I had packed in such a way that I didn’t need anything in the checked bag for the next few days.

She printed a baggage sticker with all four flights and affixed it to my bag.

She could only check me in for my first two segments (the ones within 24 hours), so I had to check in again in Dubrovnik to get boarding passes 3 and 4.

When I checked in in Dubrovnik, the agent asked where my checked bag was. I said that I hadn’t seen it since Bucharest and didn’t expect to see it until Zurich. She said it was not on the plane or in the system. She suggested I go to Lost Baggage. I said that I would deal with it in Zurich, since I didn’t consider it lost unless /until it failed to show up at the end of the trip.

In Zurich, the bag failed to show up, as I was anticipating based on my conversation in Dubrovnik. I went to the Swissport lost baggage center and filed a claim. They gave me a receipt for my claim, some forms to fill out if the bag were still lost in three days, and a free amenity kit.

A few hours later, I got a call that the bag was found, and it was delivered to me.

I recommend traveling without a checked bag on these itineraries. If you must have one, you can check it to the end or collect it at each stop. If you check it to the end, they may lose it, but you’ll probably get it eventually.

Bottom Line

I wouldn’t want to fly every day, but it’s fun for a few days. If you are planning a two week trip the Europe, why not spend five days in each of two cities and break that up with one of these four-segment awards? They are cheap, fun, and you can accomplish a lot in 23 hours minus travel time.

 

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

11
  1. Bikes exist with motors that are activated by pedaling. The bike share program in Madrid uses these bikes. You feel like you have a super power as each effort shoots you forward much faster than it should. I would love to have one of these to pedal around at home (if I had a home.)
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  2. Spain has the third most tourists in the world.
  3. Finland is terrible at soccer.
  4. I can walk 25 km (15.5 miles) comfortably, and then walking any further becomes hellish. I learned this by walking 36 km (22 miles) with a group that was starting the Camino a Santiago Compostela in Madrid. Most were walking 100 km (62 miles) in 24 hours.
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  5. Countries with a small minority population of native foreign language speakers are willing to accommodate them, even beyond the point of reasonableness. Countries with a large minority population of native foreign language speakers try to curtail the second language’s use. Compare Finland putting every road sign in Swedish for the 5% of people who speak it as a first language versus Latvia, where 34% of people speak Russian at home requiring schools to teach at least 60% of subjects in Latvian and planning to ban Russian as a language of instruction by 2018. (I realize there’s more to these issues than how I’ve presented them.)
  6. On August 23, 1989, a 675 km (420 miles) human chain of 2 million people ran from Vilnius, Lithuania to Tallinn, Estonia. The protesters wanted independence from the Soviet Union.
  7. Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are part of the Finno-Urgic branch of the Uralic language family. Latvian and Lithuanian are Baltic languages that are part of the Balto-Slavic languages of most of Eastern Europe including Russian. Romanian is a Romance language like Spanish and French. Look at a map and try to make sense of that!
  8. In the 15th century, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe.

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    Trakai Castle, Lithuania
  9. Written Serbian is a very rare example of synchronic digraphia, ie when a language has two writing systems at the same time. I saw about 50% usage of the Serbian cyrillic alphabet and 50% usage of the Roman alphabet when I was in Belgrade.
  10. Americans are not the only ones who use fake boats. Most nightlife in Belgrade, Serbia during the summer is on splavovi, which are rafts docked to the Sava and Danube Rivers that look like boats.
  11. I look dumb enough–but I’m not–to pay $30 for a 2.5 mile taxi ride.
  12. The Ottoman Empire stretched much further into Europe, and much more recently, than I realized.
  13. There are majority Muslim countries in Europe other than Turkey.
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  14. In the early 20th century, The First Balkan War kicked the Ottoman Empire out of Europe. Bulgaria started the Second Balkan War because it was upset about not getting enough new territory after the First Balkan War. Ironically Bulgaria lost territory during the Second Balkan War.
  15. Romania started World War II neutral, joined Germany as an Axis Power, was invaded by the Soviet Union, and finally joined the Allies after a coup. Despite being a big help to the Allies in the end, Romania was not mentioned as a co-belligerent at the 1947 Treaty of Paris and ended up losing quite a bit of territory.
  16. Ceaușescu’s bungled final speech and even more bungled attempt to flee were a fantastically fitting end to his reign. Romania’s entire 1989 revolution is fascinating.
  17. The Wikipedia article glosses over the days after the Romanian Revolution, but they’re definitely the strangest part: “On 24 December, Bucharest was a city at war. Tanks, APCs and trucks continued to patrol the city and surround trouble spots in order to protect them. At intersections near strategic objectives, roadblocks were built; automatic gunfire continued in and around University Square, the Gara de Nord (the city’s main railroad station) and Palace Square. Yet amid the chaos, some people were seen clutching makeshift Christmas trees. ‘Terrorist activities’ continued until 27 December, when they abruptly stopped. Nobody ever found out who conducted them, or who ordered their termination.” [emphasis mine] A woman one year older than me told me her first memories are running through the city with her parents during the revolution trying to get to a safe apartment, and playing in the apartment of her uncle and picking up bullets that had gotten into the apartment. Two young Romanians echoed to me the comments that “no one knows” who the “terrorists” were that were fighting for those few days or why they stopped.
  18. Romanians are SO proud to be in the European Union. You rarely see a Romanian flag that is not flying next to an EU flag. Exception: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Carol Park in Bucharest.
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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

I have a clear picture of where I’ll be until about April 2016. Last week, I booked a flurry of awards, mostly with obscure mileage programs to lock in my dates for 2015. Here’s what I’m planning, with links to already written Anatomy of an Award posts:

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Lines do not represent direct flights

The rest of 2015 will see me:

  • explore new cities like Athens, Zurich, and Dubai
  • return to favorites like Zagreb, Dubrovnik (cliff jumping!), Bogota, and Buenos Aires
  • change hemispheres as the seasons change because everyone should live in Summer all year round
  • visit friends and family
  • speak at the Chicago Seminars

I’ll fly in products ranging from economy to one of the world’s fanciest First Classes on the Emirates A380. A plurality of my time in the air will be in Business Class products that are good but not top of the line. Most of the awards heavily prioritized destination over the best products.

All of the awards were carefully thought out to maximize miles, so I am excited to explain why I’ve been using so many Asiana and Singapore miles, and why you might want to use them also.

Some of the awards even touch on interesting problems like how long a transfer takes, what to do when there is only space in your desired cabin on some legs, and choosing which miles to use.

I still need to book an award from Buenos Aires to Honolulu for before Christmas. The Asiana miles that I hope to use to book the award in Business Class (35,000 miles) just posted. I may also book a short weekend getaway from Buenos Aires in November, which I could book with cash or miles. Other than that, I’m already focused on 2016 bookings.

Hopefully the rest of your 2015 travel schedule excites you as much as mine excites me. Where are you headed?

I’ll crank out the rest of the Anatomy of an Award posts soon–where I break down how to search the award, how to book the award, what miles to use, and how to get those miles–and I’ll keep this post updated as I do.

 

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

8

I spent the last month traveling from Helsinki to Tallinn by ferry and from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius by bus, spending about a week each in the capitals of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Ferries and buses are cheap, easy to book, and very comfortable in this beautiful part of Europe.

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Ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn

Ferries are the easiest way to get between Finland’s and Estonia’s capitals, which are just 80 km apart across the Gulf of Finland. Several companies have daily ferries you can book online that take 1:40 to 2:30 and connect city center to city center.

Sites like this one aggregate several (all?) of the options for ferries between Tallinn and Helsinki. I chose Linda Line because it is one of the fast ferries at 1 hour 40 minutes, and it had the departure time closest to when I wanted to leave.

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Linda Line is not the cheapest at 31.50 euros ($35) each way, and if you’re very price sensitive, you can book a late night, slower ferry for 25 euros ($28) each way from Viking Line.

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My Linda Line ferry was very nice. Boarding was quick, and the ship was probably only about 1/4 full, so everyone had as much space as he wanted. I’m not sure the baggage allowance, but I brought on one 44 pound bag I would check on an airplane, one 20 pound carry on sized backpack, and one laptop bag without issue.

During the ferry, I had meatballs and mashed potatoes–so Finnish!–for lunch, and it was delicious.

The terminals in Helsinki and Tallinn, were each about 1 km from my apartments in those cities, and I walked in both cases.

There is no immigration or customs on either end as both countries are in the Schengen Area.

Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius by Bus

Buses are the easiest way to travel between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania’s major cities.

Lux Express has several daily buses between the capitals and major cities. Lux Express buses have free wifi, and in some cases video monitors at each seat.

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Tallinn to Riga and Riga to Vilnius are each just over four hours.

For Tallinn to Riga, I paid 23 euros ($26) on a bus with standard 2-2 seating. The bus was only about half full, so I ended up moving back to get my own row of two seats to myself.

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For Riga to Vilnius, I had the chance to upgrade to Lux Express Lounge seating for 7 euros, which I did.Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 3.32.07 PM

Lux Express Lounge seating is 1-1 with a video monitor at every seat and more leg room. For $30 total, I thought this was a pretty outrageously good deal. I highly recommend upgrading to Lounge seating if your bus offers it.

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Lux Express buses are clean, on time, and comfortable. Again I’m not sure the baggage allowance, but I put my 44 pound bag I would check on an airplane and 20 pound carry on sized backpack in the storage hold of the bus and just carried on my one laptop bag.

I passed both bus rides with free wifi and views of the verdant countryside. On my second bus ride, there was even a selection of movies and TV shows I could watch on demand.

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Headphones at my Lux Express Lounge Seat

Lux Express stops at several places in each city. For instance, in Riga, these are possible stops.

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Instead of mindlessly selecting to go from bus terminal to bus terminal, take a look at whether an alternative stop is closer to your lodging. On both my rides, I got on at the bus stations and got off at stops before the next city’s bus station.

Best Way to Buy the Ferry/Bus Ticket

I bought my tickets with the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card, which offers 3x on all travel and gas purchases. Ferry and bus rides certainly count in the 3x travel category. The card comes with 50,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first three months.

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The card has no foreign transaction fees, so it is ideal for foreign travel purchases.

Bottom Line

The Baltic capitals are very close to each other with convenient and cheap non-air transportation options. Next time you’re in this part of the world, catch a comfortable ferry or bus from one city to the next as you take in a beautiful part of Europe.

 

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

5

I’m in the middle of 18 months of travel. I live out of a suitcase and change beds every few days or few months. Here are some of my top travel tips that I use to enjoy my trips more. Test them out for yourself.

How to Always Stay Connected

Specifically I want data and text capability. Here’s how I always have data and text for a low price:

PLAN A: Travelers Should Be T-Mobile Customers

T-Mobile’s basic plans that have no contract include free data and free texting in 120+ countries. If you don’t have a compelling reason you have to use a different carrier, sign up for T-Mobile.

The data you get in other countries is throttled for speed to about “Edge” levels. It’s way too slow to watch a video, but it is plenty fast to load routes on your map, send emails, and send iMessages or WhatsApp messages. This is the basic level of data I need, and for more intensive uses, I wait for free wifi, which is only getting more and more common.

I had heard–I don’t remember where–that a T-Mobile plan cancels if you leave the United States for six consecutive weeks, but that isn’t the case. I’ve been out of the US for 57 days straight now with no interruption of my free data.

Occasionally the country I’m in will not be on the T-Mobile free list, like Serbia where I am going this week. In that case, Plan B.

PLAN B: Get a Local SIM Card

If you want faster data or to make a lot of phone calls, get a local SIM card. I’ve done this in several countries, and it is usually a 15 minute trip to the local cellular company’s store with your passport and costs only a few dollars for the SIM and much cheaper than you’re expecting for data and calls. For instance, in Argentina, a SIM from Claro is about $1 and unlimited data is about 25 cents per day.

You do need an unlocked phone to be able to just pop a new SIM card in and go.

PLAN C: Google Maps Download

Sometimes you can’t get free data, and your trip is so short that it’s impractical to get a local SIM. In that case, I just download the relevant Google Maps for where I’ll be, and then put my phone in airplane mode.

You can either download local Google Maps by opening up the city and zooming in and out on different areas while on wifi and then closing Google Maps or by following this process. In either case, the maps will be available offline, and your blue GPS dot is always available offline because GPS is a separate thing from data.

You cannot ask the Google Maps for directions offline, but you can see where you are, where you’re going, and eyeball the route yourself.

PLAN D: McDonald’s Wifi

Almost everywhere has wifi nowadays, but some of it is password protected and to get that password you need to buy something. Skip that wifi and walk to McDonald’s–there’s 10 near you in the touristy part of any European city–where the wifi has no password.

Text Like a Local

WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage

In the US, most people use text messages. In most of the world, people use messages that aren’t technically text messages, instead relying on their data allotment.

In South America, Spain, and many other places, people use WhatsApp, a program that is free for a year, then costs $1. In other countries, they use a different messaging app. Most places also use Facebook Messenger at least secondarily, and iMessage between iPhone users is the same principle.

Even if you get free texts, the person you are texting might not. They will prefer to use one of these services, which are free per message. Figure out the appropriate program for the country you’re visiting and download it before you go.

Meet Your Friends

Your long lost friend might live in a city you’re visiting. Meeting up with friends while I travel is always a highlight, but I can’t keep track of where everyone lives. Enter Facebook.

In the search bar, just type “my friends who live in [place]”.

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Facebook will find your friends who list that place as their current city.

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You can also search “my friends who visited [place].” Many of those people will not live where you’re going, but you can get travel tips.

Meeting Locals and Other Travelers

CouchSurfing Events and Messages

CouchSurfing lets travelers stay with locals for free. I covered that here. Not everyone wants to stay at someone else’s house. Even I prefer more privacy and quiet these days, so I can work, but I still use CouchSurfing in every city.

First, I check the local events to see if any interest me. Here are some upcoming events in Belgrade.

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In general, I find the playing sports events to be more fun than the bigger language exchanges/city meetings, which are more fun than the smaller ones. Through CouchSurfing events I found awesome groups that played Ultimate Frisbee weekly in Argentina and volleyball weekly in Madrid.

I also send messages to people on CouchSurfing who look fun. I tell them I already have an apartment lined up, but I am just looking for some local knowledge. If they want to show me their favorite place in the city, I’ll buy them a beer. That gets a great response and leads to some delicious restaurants, local bars, and other off-the-beaten-path opportunities.

InterNations Events and Message Boards

InterNations is similar to CouchSurfing except its members are expats not locals and are 10-20 years older on average. I’ve used the message board for a city to find a tennis partner, and I’ve gone to some of the more promising events, which are usually food and wine based.

[city] [day of week]

If you want to meet locals out, search “[city] [day of week]” and wade through the results to see what bars are the it places on a Tuesday or whatever night you’re looking.

Local Info

Local Transport App

Most bus and subway systems have apps with route maps and GPS tracking to tell you exactly what bus/train to take, when it arrives, and where to transfer. Google Maps usually has the route info and timetables, but not the actual GPS data, which is more important because the buses/trains are rarely right on time.

Yelp Restaurants Open Now

The curse of the traveler is being hungry at weird times either through jet lag or different cultures’ dinner times.

Yelp’s app lets you sort by restaurants that are open now. Search for restaurants in a city, set Open Now as a Filter, and then re-check the results.

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Voila, all the restaurants open at 3 AM in Houston.Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 3.02.04 PM

Unfortunately Yelp is not available everywhere, and I can’t find a reliable way on Google, Google Maps, or Trip Advisor to search restaurants that are open now.

Cheap Private Rooms

Airbnb Rentals

I’ve covered Airbnb before. It is my main source of lodging because it is cheap, located exactly where you want to stay, and you can get as much space and as big of a kitchen as you want.

Full post: How Airbnb Works (Plus a $25 Credit You Can Use for Your First Stay)

Hostel Private Rooms

Even cheaper than Airbnb and just as private: book a private room at a hostel. I did this for $12 in Siem Reap, Cambodia while visiting Angkor Wat.

Save Big on Currency Conversion

In countries with a black market for dollars like Argentina or Venezuela, changing cash is definitely your best option.

But normally, ATMs are your best option as long as you can avoid ATM fees. I have an ATM card that charges no ATM fees, no foreign exchange fees, and even refunds the fee from any ATM I use.

Full post: How I Pay Zero ATM Fees Worldwide

What Can’t You Get or Will Be Inconvenient to Get?

I travel with chili powder, sriracha, a frisbee, and batteries everywhere I go.

Chili is so American that it’s rare to find chili powder anywhere outside the country. Even the constituent spice are hard to find in many places, so I travel with my own.

South America and Eastern Europe don’t eat much spicy food, so most grocery stores have terrible options for hot sauces. I carry my own sriracha. When I run out on the road, I google “[city] Chinatown” because you can almost always find it at Asian grocery stores.

Frisbees don’t take up much space and are the perfect thing to carry to the park. Buying one abroad is not usually easy.

Batteries are super easy to buy abroad and heavy, but batteries usually die when I am in my apartment and do not want to leave it, so I carry 2 AA and 2 AAA for my razor and remotes.

The Biggest Tip

When you’re in a city and have to go, find a casino. Casinos generally have very clean bathrooms, especially in cities where that is rare. This has saved me in Peru and Kenya.

 

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get a $250 Air Travel Credit each calendar year, free airport lounge access worldwide, and your fourth night free on hotel stays. Why I got the card.

I just spent a completely legal week in Cuba, split between Havana and Viñales. An American in Cuba in 2015 is a six part series on the trip. This post will focus on my three days in Viñales.

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Sunset Over Viñales, Cuba

Other Posts

Viñales

Viñales is a tourist town in the middle of a tobacco growing valley dotted with spectacular rock outcroppings known as mogotes and amazing caves to explore.

I spent three days in Viñales walking, spelunking, swimming, scooter-ing, dancing, and mojito-ing.

Day 1: Leisurely Organized Walk

I arrived in Viñales about about noon and headed first to a restaurant that the Cuba Lonely Planet gushes about: El Olivo, a Mediterranean spot.

I got the patatas bravas and three-meat cannelloni.

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The food was fine. It was a bit more complex than food from my casa but no better. I later sampled a few other restaurants on the main drag, and none stood out. They were all 10 CUC or less for a meal and offered OK food.

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After lunch, I set about finding a casa particular to spend three nights. In Viñales, this couldn’t be easier. Literally every house I saw was renting rooms. I popped into one that looked fine, but the owner said the room was rented already and suggested her friend a block away. I headed there, looked into the detached room, negotiated the price down from 20 CUC to 18 CUC and plopped my bags down.

I walked into a tour office at the main square and inquired about hikes that afternoon. I was expecting a challenging, up-and-down hike that would make me break a sweat.

Instead the three hour walk that afternoon was more like a leisurely stroll. It was lovely, just not what I was anticipating.

We basically just walked out of the small village and immediately hit fields. Can you spot the pineapple?Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.13 AM

While Viñales itself is a town that must be more affluent than average from all the CUC coming in at casas particulares, just outside of town, you can see families more representative of rural Cubans, like this grandpa and grandson riding an emaciated horse.
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Early on in the walk, we made two stops intended to earn the guide a little extra cash. The first was at a tiny “bar” to offer us a drink. Similar structures dot the countryside, so I assume tourists are being herded into them for 15 minutes on a variety of tours. There was no pressure, and I just sat there drinking the water I had carried.
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Then we stopped at a tobacco warehouse where leaves were being dried and got a short presentation on cigar rolling.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.34 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.40 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.47 AM

We were each given a free cigar and then offered the chance to buy cigars. Again, no pressure.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.54 AM

From there we walked to a few caves and a pond to swim.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.23.27 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.23.34 AM

Finally, we went to a house with a beautiful view of sunset over the mogotes.
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Day 2: Another Leisurely Organized Walk

The next day, I took another 10 CUC walking tour that was similar but covered different areas.

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We walked down dusty paths past small houses and family farms.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.24.53 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.04 AM

We saw the biggest land mammal in Cuba, this delightful tree rat.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.16 AM

We saw plowing…Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.29 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.42 AM

…super skinny horses…Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.52 AM

…and farmers going about their routine.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.26.02 AM

We got back in time for lunch, so I popped into the first restaurant where I saw ropa vieja on the menu, the dish I most associate with Cuban food.

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It was 6 CUC and, again, fine, but not anything spectacular.

That night, I went to Centro Cultural Polo Montañez, which is right on the town’s plaza. It feature a live show nightly, mostly music with some dancing interludes. Cover is 1 CUC.
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During the music, patrons are encouraged to get up and salsa. Any girls sitting and watching will be invited to dance by the local guys who hang out around the place.

Polo Montañez seemed to draw about 100 people every night, starting at about 10 PM.

There is only one other place in town with live music, Patio del Decimista, on the main drag, but it doesn’t have the dance floor that Polo Montañez has. Patio de Decimista draws maybe 40 people, starting earlier in the evening.

Day 3: Moped Rental

I rented a scooter for the day for the exorbitant cost of around 30 CUC (they’re about half that in Southeast Asia) from a rental place at the same location as Restaurante la Casa de Don Tomás, Salvador Cisneros No 140.

The scooter was a really fun way to explore Viñales because some of its interesting sites and caves are 10 km outside of town.

First I scooted west of town on a paved road toward the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás. I was in no hurry, so I pulled off to follow a dirt trail to a promised view point, which was lovely.

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.27.21 AM

I passed the Mural del Prehistoria, which was a 120 meter long painting with a huge snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters, and humans that symbolized evolution. I’m as confused as you are.

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Finally I got to the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás where I paid 10 CUC to go on a 90-minute group tour of the second largest cave in the Americas.
Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.27.30 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.27.38 AM

This was a highlight of my time in Cuba.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.27.49 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.27.56 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.28.04 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.28.11 AM

After the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás, I went east back past Viñales to check out other caves. I really wanted to see Cueva del Indio where you ride in a boat on the underground river. I paid my entry fee and walked into the cave, but a tour guide in front of me said that the line was probably 40 minutes to get to the 10 minute boat ride, so I just left. Get to Cueva del Indio early in the day to beat tour buses.

Finally I just blasted through the countryside for an hour on the scooter, following road signs to any towns mentioned. It was a fun way to see parts of Cuba mostly unseen by tourists and to see Cubans going about their daily lives.

That afternoon, I used the internet at the ETECSA office in Viñales. More on internet usage in Cuba in this post.

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The wifi works on the front steps 24 hours even though you can only buy the scratch off internet cards during the day. I found that having an extra one with me at all times was nice if I wanted to check email at night.

Getting To/From Viñales

I took a Viazul bus from Havana. Here’s more information on Viazul buses and other transportation options in Cuba.

Bottom Line

I definitely think any trip to Cuba should include Havana and not-Havana, but I can’t say with any certainty that Viñales is the most interesting not-Havana on the island. I can say that I really enjoyed Viñales. It’s close enough to Havana to justify a two or three day trip to see the countryside, caves, and tobacco farms. The city has tons of casa particulares to stay in, a great place to salsa dance, and lots of easy walking tours.

 

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