MileValue

20

Please welcome Sarah Page Maxwell as the newest member of the MileValue team. She will write several articles a week of the type you already enjoy on MileValue. She’ll also bring her own voice and travel experiences to MileValue to complement mine.

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Boipeba, Brazil

Sarah Page has been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina for four years, and we met through the expat community there a few years ago. Besides regular trips back to the East Coast to visit family (she grew up in Raleigh and family now lives in Charleston), Sarah Page has also traveled throughout South America and to Africa and Southeast Asia recently with miles. Like me, she is a free agent when it comes to airline and hotel loyalty. She just collects big credit card sign up bonuses and uses the miles and points efficiently for high-value redemptions.

I know you’ll enjoy Sarah Page’s posts because you already have been. Sarah Page has actually already been contributing to this site for months, writing articles with me that were ultimately published under my name.

This training wheels period was very important to me because MileValue is my baby. I won’t name names, but there are some blogs that have brought on new writers who are not good writers, not miles/points experts, or not either, and quality has suffered. There are other blogs that have moved beyond a single voice and been enriched. That’s the model we’re following.

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Railay Beach, Thailand

Mastering miles and points requires mastering earning and redeeming. Earning is usually easier, and most blogs understand that part. What makes MileValue different is that we know to redeem miles to get maximum value, which informs all of our posts. For instance, you can’t know whether a credit card offer is a good deal unless you know how to use the bonus miles. So I worked a long time with Sarah Page on her knowledge of redeeming miles. We started with the theoretical (“memorize the Star Alliance plus United’s non-alliance partners by tomorrow”) and moved to the practical (“let’s work on these MileValue Award Booking Service requests together, so you know how to redeem United, AA, Delta, Aeroplan, BA, Asiana, Flying Blue, and Alaska miles.”) Only when I was satisfied with her knowledge did I let her write.

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Four wheeling across the desert in Namibia

The other thing that makes this site unique is that writing. Many topics are covered by literally every miles and points blog. I always want the MileValue post on those topics to be the most clear, succinct, and best at anticipating what the reader will want to know. I’ve worked with Sarah Page on getting her to write like that–hopefully without stifling her unique voice because I enjoy reading it.

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Machu Picchu, Peru

You’ll know whether a post is written by me or Sarah Page based on the signature at the top of the post under the title.

The majority of posts will continue to be written by me. Sarah Page is not replacing me; she is in addition to me.

Sarah Page’s joining the team has made MileValue a better source for miles junkies, so I hope everyone will give her a hearty welcome.

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Her biggest passion along with miles is her Boston Terrier, Omar.

18

I’m a nomad. Here are my current travel plans. Also see Late 2015 Travel, Early 2016 Travel, and Where I Slept in 2015.

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

I am spending a few weeks in Brazil to visit friends and position for Singapore First Class flight. I was only planning on spending four days in Brazil, but it is unseasonably cold in Buenos Aires, so I am leaving a week earlier than planned. I’ll spend the extra time in Bonito, Brazil, which looks absolutely gorgeous.

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I am spending the first two weeks in Europe in Barcelona, visiting friends in Germany, and in the Czech Republic, where I can’t believe I haven’t made it to yet–Prague seems like it is right up my alley. Then the heart of the trip begins.

My main goal for the Summer of 2016 is to learn the Serbo-Croat language. I really enjoy languages. I studied Latin and Spanish in high school and am a bit of a grammar nerd in English. After years of living and traveling in South America and Spain, I am fluent in Spanish. I could, of course, improve further, but I figure that I am good enough that the amount of effort I’d need to improve in Spanish would be better spent learning a completely new language.

In the past I’ve considered Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, and Serbo-Croat. I don’t like Brazil or Portugal enough to want to spend the months there to learn the language, and Bucharest (Romania) is a step below Belgrade (Serbia) and Zagreb (Croatia) in my mind, so I eliminated those languages. Russian was my top choice, but the hassle of getting a Russian visa (I’d have to come back to the United States and wait for days or weeks while the paperwork cleared) and the fact that it rains 15 days a month in St. Petersburg and Moscow during the Summer led me to pick Serbo-Croat. (Yes, I also considered learning Russian in another country but decided against it.)

The benefit of learning Serbo-Croat is that (please don’t start a linguistics debate in the comments over this sentence) it is the language of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. I can travel throughout those countries while learning the language. I think I’ll spend June in Belgrade with daily language classes to get a base and September in Zagreb. July and August when European capitals thin out as people head to the sea, I’ll head to the Montenegrin and Croatian beaches, and at some point I’ll find time for at least Sarajevo, Bosnia and Plitvice Lakes National Park.

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The drawback of Serbo-Croat is that it is a non-romance language with noun declensions, the Cyrillic alphabet (Serbia only), and only 12 million people speak it natively. But I’m going to give it a go and am eager to see what progress I can make in four months.

I plan to spend about 3.5 out of 4 months in Serbo-Croat-speaking countries over the heart of summer. The two weeks outside will be in Spain where I will follow the University of Virginia basketball team as it plays several games against lower division pro teams. (College basketball teams get to take a once-every-four-years international trip over the summer. They do it because it’s fun, and they get extra practices, which are especially useful for newcomers to the program, which UVA has six of this year.) I love Spain, I love UVA basketball, and I am eager to see the new players three months before I otherwise could.

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Finally I’ll head back from Europe to the USA in time to catch my friends’ wedding, visit family in Hawaii, and make the Chicago Seminars. That takes me through mid-October, after which it will probably be time to head back to Southern South America as Spring heats up.

Northern Hemisphere Summer 2016 will see me:

  • change hemispheres as the seasons change because everyone should live in Summer all year round
  • visit family in Hawaii
  • visit friends in Rio de Janeiro and Leipzig
  • return to favorites like Zagreb, Belgrade, Dubrovnik (cliff jumping!), Sao Paulo, and Spain
  • go to the Czech Republic, Bosnia, and Montenegro for the first time
  • explore natural beauty in Bonito, Brazil; a Croatian National Park; and the Adriatic coast
  • watch UVA basketball play four times in person
  • speak twice at the Chicago Seminars
  • …and hopefully learn the Serbo-Croat language

I’ll fly in products ranging from low-cost carrier economy to one of the world’s fanciest First Classes on the Singapore 777.

All of the awards were carefully thought out to maximize miles, so I am excited to explain why I’ve been and will be 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 the Lufthansa First Class award from Europe to the United States, and I will need to wait several months as Lufthansa only releases award space in First Class to partners within 15 days of departure. (Please don’t devalue in the next five months, Asiana!)

I still need to book Virginia-Hawaii-Chicago. Right now the award space isn’t very good, but I expect that it improves dramatically as my dates approach.

Hopefully your mid-2016 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.

8

Saturday was the fourth anniversary of the site’s first post: How Much Are Frequent Flier Miles Worth? A Guide. I celebrated by taking the day off.

Thanks to everyone who has read the site, used the MileValue Award Booking Service, or applied for a credit card using a link on this site. Your support has allowed me to make a living by typing up tips for cheap, free, or luxurious travel on my laptop all over the world.

I decided to start this site in February 2012 when I was in Rwanda. There were other miles blogs at the time, but I was unsatisfied with their explanations and analysis. I thought my writing could be clearer and my analysis more rigorous. When I got back to Los Angeles, where I was living, I bought the domain and sketched out the first post, which I wrote in a hotel in Atlanta where I went to watch the ACC basketball tournament.

In the early days, I wrote a post a day and spent the rest of the time award booking for clients. I got big breaks in terms of new eyeballs when I had an interview published on Million Mile Secrets; when I broke free one ways, which most other miles blogs then wrote about with attribution; when I drew the ire of Rick from Frugal Travel Guy; when the New York Times featured my tips, and when Mashable picked up a blogpost about a reader success story.

Now I write more like 15 posts a week, while also juggling the Award Booking Service, and the other tasks involved with running a blog. Traffic continues to grow even though the rewards environment isn’t as good as it was four years ago. (It is still very good, just not quite as good. Part of this is cyclical and will bounce back if the economy worsens; part of it is the banks, airlines, and hotels wising up and closing loopholes that won’t come back. However there will always be a way for smart travelers to get outsized value unless everything goes revenue based on earning and redemption.)

I would be using miles and points to travel the world luxuriously for pennies even if I didn’t have this blog. However, it is you, the reader, who keeps MileValue going. Thanks for showing up for the last four years, and let’s go at least another four.

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.

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There are a few dozen including one in Honolulu.

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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.

37

Greetings from Bangkok!

With 2015 in the books, and my rundown of last year’s travel here, I thought I’d share my upcoming travel plans.

I pretty much know exactly where I’ll be in January, have a few options for February, see March and April pretty clearly, and then have no idea what I’ll do from May on. Here’s my best guess through mid-May.

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Lines Represent Itineraries Not Segments

First I’m going to hop around Thailand and Singapore with my Romanian friend. We are going to Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, and Krabi beaches (probably Rai Leh). Then I will explore Vietnam–Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and the caves in the middle–with two other friends. Next I’ll visit Chennai, India by myself and fly back to the United States in Etihad A380 First Class.

I want to get from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires by mid-February. I am considering stops in Guatemala (Semuc Champey), Colombia (five day hike to the Lost City), Chile (Santiago + Patagonia), and Salvador, Brazil (Carnaval + Chapada Diamantina National Park). I’ll pick one or two of those stops soon and possibly book the way down as a Three One Way award.

The plan is to spend another three months in my favorite city, Buenos Aires, until mid-May but there is some chance I switch things up and head to Europe when it starts warming up (April) or go to a secondary Argentine city like Cordoba or Rosario.

Come mid-May, I have no plans. I love Eastern Europe, so exploring more of the Balkans or trying to learn Russian are options. I haven’t lived in the United States for a while, and moving back is an option. I even know a fun group of guys that is moving to Rio de Janeiro around that time. Decisions, decisions.

With a job I can do from anywhere and no wife and kids, I have plenty of time to decide. I’ll let you know when I know.

Countries on My Radar for 2016 and Beyond

Ones I Have Never Been To That Are Calling My Name

  • Iceland
  • Russia
  • Vietnam
  • Myanmar
  • Laos
  • Sri Lanka
  • Bosnia
  • Czech Republic

Ones I Want to Return To The Most

  • Argentina
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Lithuania
  • Latvia
  • Romania
  • Ukraine
  • Hungary
  • New Zealand
  • Thailand

What are your travel goals for 2016? You really should take 10 seconds and write a comment. The mere act of writing them down increases your chances of accomplishing them. (Your comment may not post immediately. It is in moderation. I will approve it when I see it.)

12

2015 was a great year of travel for me, and hopefully for you too.

The year started in a hot tub in Chilean Patagonia, admiring a lake and snow-capped mountain in the twilight. (That far south, it isn’t pitch black at midnight.)

The year will end, for me, in about an hour sitting in Business Class in a Thai Dreamliner on the ground in Nagoya, Japan.

COUNTRIES VISITED (19)

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In chronological order:

  • Chile (3 days)
  • Argentina (5 months)
  • United States (7 weeks)
  • Panama (6 hours)
  • Cuba (6 days)
  • Colombia (2 weeks)
  • Spain (1 month)
  • Finland (1 week)
  • Estonia (1 week)
  • Latvia (1 week)
  • Lithuania (1 week)
  • Serbia (1 month)
  • Romania (3 weeks)
  • Greece (1 day)
  • Croatia (2 days)
  • Switzerland (3 days)
  • United Arab Emirates (2 days)
  • Peru (1 day)
  • Japan (5 days)

Twelve of these countries were new. My total is now 67 (counting England, Wales, Macau, Hong Kong, and China separately):

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PREMIUM AIRLINE CABINS FLOWN (6)

In chronological order (with links to trip reports):

My favorite flights were definitely the two in Emirates First Class on the A380, which I wish had been twice as long. All the other flights, I enjoyed getting some rest, but I was ready to get off at the end.

MILES FLOWN (73,348)

  • 73,348 miles flown over 39 segments
  • If I had flown all these as paid flights on one airline like United or Delta, I wouldn’t even have the highest mid-tier status!
  • Longest flight: Dubai to Houston in Emirates First Class on an A380 (8,168 miles)
  • Shortest flight: Honolulu to Kahului, Maui (100 miles)
  • Favorite flight: Dubai to Houston in Emirates First Class on an A380. 15 hours wasn’t long enough
  • Least favorite flight: Buenos Aires to Atlanta in Delta economy wins because it was my longest economy flight, but I even got some sleep on that one
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Lines Represent Itineraries Not Segments

FAVORITE MOMENTS OF TRAVEL

  • Winning the Tokyo Metro Underground Mysteries Game
  • Golfing on Christmas Day in 80 degree weather
  • Exploring otherworldly landscapes like the Cerro de Siete Colores near Salta and Jujuy, Argentina
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  • Attending an Argentina/Brazil World Cup Qualifying Game with my dad
  • Shooting a crossbow at Trakai Castle in Lithuania
  • Going to the mid-Summer bonfire on an island near Helsinki
  • Hiking 36 km in one day in Madrid
  • Spelunking in Cuba
  • Watching sunset on Ka’anapali Beach on Maui
  • Hiking on a glaciar near El Calafate, Argentina
  • Finishing a four day trek in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
  • Meeting new friends along the way
  • Visiting family

What were your travel stats for 2015? More importantly, what were your best travel memories from this year?

See also:

6

Merry Christmas, Mele Kalikimaka, and Feliz Navidad to all MileValue readers. I’ll be too busy Christmas shopping and traveling over the next few days to post, so look for new posts on Sunday or Monday… unless another Etihad mistake fare comes up like last Christmas! In that case I’ll post and tweet from @MileValueAlerts.

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Hiking from Pali Lookout This Week

In the meantime, catch up with the recent posts on the home page, and have a happy, safe Christmas.

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Surfing Santa, Part of the Christmas Lights in Honolulu

0

I am taking my usual Thanksgiving hiatus until Sunday or Monday. Enjoy your time with family, friends, and great food. We will get back to travel hacking next week. If you want to catch up on some of my favorite posts, see here.

The Economist’s sister magazine, Intelligent Life, published a fascinating map of travel time from London in 1914.

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The map shows that most of Europe is reachable within five days, America in 6-20 days, and the remotest parts of South America, Africa, Australia, and Asia take more than 40 days to reach.

Let me remake the map for 2015. In blue I’ve highlighted places you can get within one day from London:

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Yes, there are a few very remote places that would take more than 24 hours because you’d need to drive, boat, or hike after landing but you can basically be anywhere else in the world within a day because of airplanes, if you’ve got the cash. And of course all of us are here because we want to even eliminate the need to have money to travel.

I am profoundly thankful for the limitless possibilities that air travel and frequent flyer miles have opened up to me.

Next time I can’t find award space on my preferred day, or I am stuck in economy, or my flight is delayed, I’ll try to remember how lucky I am to live in the 2015 travel world instead of the 1914 travel world. Or as Louis CK put it:

3

A Russian airline’s A321 has crashed shortly after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, killing 224 onboard. (The airline’s name is variously given as Kogalymavia or Metrojet. I had never heard of it until today.)

A local ISIS chapter has claimed responsibility, but investigators are calling the cause a “technical fault.” I’m sure this thread will see a lot of follow up in the coming days.

Safe travels!

Hat Tip The Mirror

3

Today I gave a presentation at the Chicago Seminars about taking multi-stop trips including round-the-world trips. The premise is that RTW awards are dead, so the best way to book RTW trips is as a series of mostly one way awards, hitting all the award chart sweet spots you can along the way.

The presentation is an expansion on:

It relies on knowledge of how to redeem several types of miles already, so if you don’t know that stuff, you probably want to buy my e-book that comes out next week.

Check out the slides here (there are a few links embedded in the presentation that expand on it):

13

It is with great pride that I announce the release of the MileValue e-book on Tuesday, October 27–just 11 days from now.

What is the book?

The book will teach people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles how to book their dream trip in First Class in the next 60 days. Nothing like this book exists anywhere.

Why did I write it?

There are free resources that have all the information you need to become a miles expert, like this blog or FlyerTalk. Unfortunately they don’t present the basics of miles and points in an easy-to-follow, logical progression. Instead they present all the information you need to know as it becomes newsworthy or as it pops into the author’s mind. Frankly they are cluttered and overwhelming for beginners. By contrast, my book takes you in the exact progression necessary to go from knowing nothing to knowing enough to travel anywhere for free or just a few dollars.

Why now?

I’ve wanted to write a beginners’ book for some time, but it was always a massive project I kept putting off. Finally three things changed.

First, I’ve been seeing more of my friends succeed with miles lately. My friends are finally getting old enough to open credit cards and use the miles for big vacations like quarter-life crisis trips around the world 😉 or honeymoons. Of course I love when readers email me success stories, but when someone I love has a success story, it resonates even more. When I see my friend Jake take a honeymoon in Cathay Pacific Business Class or my friend Sean be able to take more trips home to California to see his family, it gets me excited to help more beginners.

Second, one year ago yesterday, I flew out of Hawaii, leaving family and friends behind. For the last year I’ve been moving to a new city every few days or few months. My social life is doing just fine thanks, but I definitely have more free time since I know fewer people and am part of fewer organizations in all these foreign cities.

Third, I teamed up with Ideal Me Publishing to do all the work I didn’t want to do on the book. I wanted to craft a step-by-step process that anyone can copy, to do the things I do like bartend and shower in Emirates First Class or head to Cuba for $7. I didn’t want to format an e-book, market an e-book, or deal with any of the other logistical nightmares. Ideal Me taking that junk off my plate made the prospect of finally writing the book much more appealing.

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Where can you buy the book?

A week from Tuesday (the 27th), you can buy the book right here but for now you can sign up to be notified first when the book launches here.

What should you do now?

Sign up on the waitlist page to be notified the moment the book goes on sale. As a special bonus, you’ll get a free report titled “Copy These Trips: How I Flew To Over 65 Countries In First Class Or Business For Free”  I encourage you to check it out for some actionable tips and to share it with anyone else you know who wants to travel more, better, and cheaper.

Twitter Q&A

The morning of the book release, on October 27th at 10 AM ET, I will host a Twitter chat where I will be available to answer your questions about the book and earning and redeeming miles. I’ll have more information on that in a few days, but save the date!

Bottom Line

If you follow several miles bloggers on Twitter, you’ve surely seen that when a big deal comes up, we all cover it. There might literally be dozens of posts on the same exact topic. Since I don’t have an exclusive scoop, I pride myself on writing the best post of the bunch. Hopefully you’ve noticed that I dig deeper into deals and break down ideas more succinctly and in an easier-to-understand way than other bloggers.

It’s the same with this book. It is not the only way you could learn about miles, but I worked my hardest to make sure it is the best, quickest, and clearest way to learn about miles.

I’m excited for the first success stories to roll in from people who buy the book and follow its steps. And hopefully I’ll see you in First Class soon. Don’t forget to add yourself to the notification list here, and when you do you’ll also get the free report I created called “Copy These Trips: How I Flew to Over 65 Countries In First Or Business For Free.”

3

Did you miss Friday’s $210 roundtrip fare from Boston to Paris? What about the $110 hotel rooms for $10 worldwide? You shouldn’t have. You could have gotten a text message when the stories broke instead of finding out about them hours later when the deals were already dead.

I have two Twitter accounts:

@MileValue is my main account. I tweet from it several times per day, mainly the newest posts but occasionally older posts, giveaways, or travel photos. It has 8,475 followers.

By contrast, @MileValueAlerts is an account that I only tweet highly time sensitive huge deals from. It averages about five tweets per month. @MileValueAlerts is designed not only to be followed, but to send you text messages when a huge deal breaks, so you don’t miss it. It has 2,062 in-the-know followers.

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Because I tweet from it so rarely and you don’t want to miss any of the deals, I recommend setting up your Twitter account to forward @MileValueAlerts to you as text messages.

These are the text messages I get on my phone when I tweet from @MileValueAlerts.

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How to Set Up Your Twitter Account to Text You Every Time @MileValueAlerts Posts in Three Easy Steps

Step 1: Add your mobile number to your Twitter account

Click your image in the top right of any Twitter screen and select Settings.

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Select Mobile from the menu on the left.

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Add your number and confirm the code texted to you.Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 5.01.50 PMStep 2: Turn on SMS Notifications

Under the exact same Mobile Settings tab you went to in Step 1, look for the area labeled“Text Notifications.” Check the box for “Tweets from people you’ve enabled for mobile notifications.”

Step 3: Add @MileValueAlerts Alerts

Go to @MileValueAlerts Twitter page. Follow it. Next to the button that says Following, click the gear icon and select “Turn on mobile notifications.”

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Now you’re set up to receive a text message every time @MileValueAlerts tweets. You can, of course, follow the same process to add other accounts for text message alerts, but I personally don’t want to get a text every time any regular Twitter user tweets.

Setting up text messaging whenever @MileValueAlerts tweets is the easiest way to keep abreast of mistake fares and other limited time deals. How can you make sure you never miss a MileValue post? Sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the posts from the last 24 hours!

 

30

Last October, I ditched my apartment in Waikiki for a renewed stint of vagabonding. Most people just don’t get it.

  • “OK, but where do you live?” It’s equally true that I live wherever I am at that moment or nowhere.
  • “Where’s your home base?” Nowhere.

I’ve learned that I like to stay in a place for at least several weeks to figure out its rhythms and my favorite restaurants, sports activities places to go out, and new friends before I move on. That’s why I spent three months in Buenos Aires, a month in Madrid, and plan to spend a month each in Belgrade and Bucharest.

But I’ve also had short trips to Arizona and California to play in tennis tournaments; to North Carolina to watch basketball tournaments; and to Hawaii, Georgia, Florida, and Virginia to see family and friends. I counted up all my 2015 nights through June 12, 2015 when I leave Madrid to see where I’ve actually slept in 2015.

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Camping: 2 Nights

I wish this number were 10 times higher.

I trekked and camped from December 29, 2014 to January 2, 2015 in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, so that was one night this year.

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I camped a night in Maui at Oheo Gulch with a friend.Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 7.26.32 PMThese were two of my favorite experiences all year, so I would like to incorporate more camping and trekking into my life in 2015 and beyond. I don’t travel with a tent, but that would start making more sense if I were to camp more.

Hostel: 7 Nights

Eight years ago, traveling meant hostels for me, ideally for $5 a night.

Hostels are my back up, back up plan at this point. I only like to stay in them if I will be in a town for 1-2 nights–making Airbnb not a good option–and there are no chain hotels for which I have points–making hotels not a good option.

I can still enjoy hostels in small doses, but they bore me quickly because they are the same everywhere, and I consider meeting other travelers usually less interesting than meeting locals.

Airbnb: 6 Nights

(I’m only counting stays of under two weeks in this category. I also found the 90 nights in apartments on Airbnb, but I consider stays of over two weeks to be of a separate character, and both were actually rented outside Airbnb.)

Renting on Airbnb a place with a kitchen in the part of town where I want to spend my days is the ideal way for me to travel to a city for three days to a week.

These stays in Buenos Aires (while my regular apartment was unavailable) and Bogota were top notch, and I expect to Airbnb on my weeklong trip to each capital in the Baltics in June and July.

Apartments: 90 Nights

If I want to be in a place for a month or longer, I want to be in one apartment with a kitchen where I can cook my specialties and with space to entertain guests. I search Airbnb, Craigslist, and Google for apartments, but I always try to transact directly with the owner to save cash.

These 58 nights in Buenos Aires and 32 in Madrid were perfect. I had an apartment exactly where I wanted to be at a lower average nightly price than a hotel or a short term Airbnb stay.

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My apartment in Madrid

Redeye Flights: 3 Nights

Buenos Aires to Greensboro, Honolulu to Seattle, and Washington to Madrid all involved sleeping on planes.

Hotel: 3 Nights

A friend and I enjoyed Westin Maui for two nights on points, and I used an expiring Hyatt free night certificate at the Grand Hyatt in Washington.

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Grand Hyatt, Washington

I don’t stay at hotels often because I can get a cheaper, better place with Airbnb, but I do like my occasional stays in nice hotels on points. They’re a fun treat.

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Westin Maui, Ka’anapali

Motels: 13 Nights

When I was watching basketball and heading to reunions on the East Coast, I was burning Choice Privileges Points for stays at Econolodges or booking similar $40-a-night motels that are frankly gross. Still I’d rather save the money over a nicer hotel if I’m going to be rarely in the room.

Friends: 8 Nights
Family: 23 Nights

I love visiting friends and family, and I’ll sleep on whatever surface is available from a spare bed to an air mattress to couch cushions on the floor because the couch isn’t long enough.

I especially love that home cooking I can’t replicate myself in foreign apartments, and the extra tennis and golf that family visits entail.

Casas Particulares: 7 Nights

Every night in Cuba, I stayed at a casa particular, which is just Spanish for “private home.”

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Although I had my own entry at both casas, it is still different from a standard Airbnb experience because the homeowner is living on the premises and offers to cook.

Going Forward

The mix should be pretty similar, I see three weeks of Airbnb stays coming up in the Baltics, two longer apartment rentals in Serbia and Romania, and bouncing for a few weeks in the US in the Fall. I’ll post the year end stats as Recap of 2015 post.

I’ve been nomadic for about eight months, and I see that continuing for at least another eight more. I love never paying rent/mortgage on two places the same night which saves me a lot of money over renting an apartment and still traveling half the time, and I love having fewer possessions. Leave a comment if you have any questions about the nomadic lifestyle or my lodging strategies.

41

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 entry and exit requirements for Americans going to Cuba.

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Sunset Over Viñales, Cuba

Full Series

Introduction

I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba because it’s there, specifically 90 miles from Miami, and I wasn’t allowed to.

Other reasons to go include the chance to see communism before it dies, pristine beach resorts, fine cigars and rum, to see crumbling 1950s beauty, and more chances for home stays with locals than in any other country I’ve visited.

Cigar Time inside a Barn Drying Tobacco
Cigar Time inside a Barn Drying Tobacco

The Current Rules for Americans to Enter Cuba

It has never been illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba, but it was illegal to spend money there without prior approval, and a trip there would be considered de facto proof that you had spent money there.

In January, President Obama announced a loosening of travel restrictions. Instead of having to have the Treasury Department certify that you are in one of the 12 approved categories for spending money in Cuba (ie travel to Cuba), you can self-certify with no advanced proof required. From the State Department’s website:

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses within the 12 categories of authorized travel for many travel-related transactions to, from, or within Cuba that previously required a specific license (i.e., an application and a case-by-case determination)… No further permission from OFAC is required to engage in transactions covered by a general license.

The 12 categories are:

  • family visits
  • official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • journalistic activity
  • professional research and professional meetings
  • educational activities
  • religious activities
  • public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  • support for the Cuban people
  • humanitarian projects
  • activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  • certain authorized export transactions

I went for journalistic activity, the product of which you are reading right now.

I’m not a lawyer, and nothing in this post should be considered legal advice, but, as a traveler, those categories look pretty broad to me. I’m sure anyone who wants to go to Cuba can find a way to plan a trip that involves a religious or educational activity. There are churches and schools all over the country. And, more importantly, I think the changes Obama announced sent a powerful signal to United States Customs and Border Protection (which he heads as the head of the Executive Branch) that they shouldn’t hassle people coming back from Cuba.

You must pick a category, and while I was never asked to prove my category before, during, or after my trip, I imagine it would be a good idea to have some supporting evidence at hand.

The Actual Steps and Paper Work Involved with Entering Cuba

Have ready for your trip:

  • Passport
  • Printed copies of your itinerary, especially your flight that leaves Cuba
  • Proof of Medical Insurance
  • Euros or Canadian Dollars (or less good, American Dollars, more on all this in a future post on money)
  • Evidence of which of the 12 categories you fall into

I checked in for my Copa flights from Washington DC to Panama City to Havana at Dulles Airport. (More on how to book flights in the next post; more on seeing the Panama Canal on my layover here.)

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Source: gcmap.com

Since I was on a one way ticket, the Copa agent asked me for proof of onward travel from Cuba. I showed her a PDF of my Asiana award from Havana to Bogota on my phone, which took me a few minutes to find. It would have been much easier to have brought a printed itinerary.

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She handed me this form in Spanish, presumably English copies are also available, which asked me to specify which of the 12 categories for a general license to travel to Cuba I fell into as well as some personal information.

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I completed the form and handed it back. I do not know whose form it is and whether the US government ever sees that form.

I was given both my Washington-to-Panama and Panama-to-Havana boarding passes by the agent, and I proceeded through security to my gate and a Chipotle burrito breakfast.

Other than that form and showing my flight out of Cuba, nothing was different about my airport experience at Dulles compared to what it would have been if I had been flying to Cleveland.

In Panama

In Panama City, as I was boarding the flight to Havana, I handed the agent my boarding pass and American passport. She handed me an equivalent form to the one I had gotten at check in at Dulles, but in English.

I completed that form and held onto it, and I was never asked for it at any point by anyone.

I asked her, “Don’t I need to get the Cuban visa here?,” and she said, “Oh yes!” You buy the Cuban visa from the airline for $20 cash.

Onboard I was handed the Cuban immigration form. Pictured below is the English form that asks which of the 12 categories I am (left), Cuban immigration form (top right), and Cuban visa (bottom right.)
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Upon arrival in Cuba, I proceeded to immigration. The agent needed my passport, Cuban immigration form, and Cuban visa.

I thought I was in the clear, but then she asked for proof of my medical insurance. I showed her my card that my American insurance company gives me. It is not travel insurance. She looked it over, and asked me, “This just says the number to call if you’re injured in Hawaii.” I pointed to an 800 number that said to call if injured elsewhere.

She accepted that, and gave me back my passport with half the Cuban visa. Do not lose that half of the visa. You need it to leave.

I’m pretty sure my medical insurance does not cover me in Cuba. I understand that Cuba sells travel insurance on the spot to tourists who arrive without proper proof of travel insurance. I have no first hand knowledge of that.

After immigration, there were a few tables of doctors (or nurses?) who appeared to be giving health checks.

Before you get to the doctors, grab a customs form.

The doctors stopped me, but when I showed my American passport I was let through without a check.

I had not checked a bag, so I proceeded past baggage claim to customs. I went into the “Nothing to Declare” line, and the agent asked for my customs form. Apparently I had missed it. It was right back after immigration. I went back, filled it out, and brought it back to the Nothing to Declare line where the agent made sure it was complete and then dropped it into something that looked like a ballot box.

I was free to leave the airport!

Key Points

  • Have passport, evidence of your category for Cuba travel (though this was never requested), evidence of flight out of Cuba, cash, and proof of medical insurance ready to go at check in
  • Buy a Cuban visa from your airline for $20 before you board your flight to Cuba
  • Get a Cuban immigration form on your flight to Cuba
  • Give passport, Cuban visa, Cuban immigration form, and proof of medical insurance to immigration agent in Cuba. Hold onto your half of the Cuban visa for exit.
  • Get a customs form after immigration and give it to customs agent after baggage claim

Leaving Cuba

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Among the Stalactites and Stalagmites of Santo Tomas Cavern

Things you need:

  • The half of the Cuban visa given back to you by the immigration officer
  • Your passport
  • 40-50 CUC (more on what a “CUC” is in the post on money)

A taxi from Vedado (a section of Havana, more on that in the Havana post) to the airport cost me 15 CUC, negotiated upfront. I believe you can negotiate a taxi from anywhere in Havana to the airport for 15 CUC, but if you are a bad negotiator or try to get a taxi outside of a hotel, be ready with 25 CUC.

The ride to the airport took about 30 minutes, and I got there almost about 2.5 hours before my flight. I almost never arrive more than 90 minutes before a flight, but I was glad I gave myself so much time. It took me 1 hour 26 minutes to get from my taxi to my gate.

I was flying Avianca to Bogota, and Avianca has another flight about 45 minutes earlier to San Salvador. The check in line was packed with people from both flights being checked in by four agents and no self check-in machines. It took me one hour from the start of the line to the end. The agent just needed my passport to check me in.

All other airlines had shorter check in lines for what it’s worth, but you may still want to arrive very early.

After getting your boarding pass, you have to pay the 25 CUC airport tax in cash. The line here was also very long, but the two agents could process people quickly, so I only waited about five minutes.

Next came emigration, which was hard to find because its entrance was blocked by so many Cubans who had come to the airport to see off their friends. The line here was another five minutes. I gave the agent my passport and the other half of my Cuban visa and got through quickly.

At no point during immigration or emigration was my passport stamped. I was hoping they would, but I didn’t ask.

Security took another few minutes, and I was at the gate about 60 minutes before my flight.

The airport does have WiFi. The only way to access it is with an ETECSA WiFi scratch card (more on all this in a post about internet), but none are sold at the airport as far as I can tell. If I had known this in advance, I would have brought one or two with me. There were also computers you could rent, but I didn’t have any more CUC or inquire about their price.

Key Things to Leave Cuba (Arrive very early)

  • Your passport
  • The half of the Cuban visa given back to you by the immigration officer
  • 15-25 CUC for your taxi
  • 25 CUC for your exit tax
  • ETECSA WiFi cards if you want to use the internet

Entering the United States

Global Entry Pitch

I have Global Entry, which means that I never have to fill out the United States paper immigration form and rarely have to speak to an immigration officer upon entering the country. If you have time to get Global Entry before Cuba, do it.

Global Entry saves me a few minutes to a few hours of time in line on every re-entry to the United States all for the cost of a $100 application fee, filling out a lengthy application, and one short interview with a Customs and Border Patrol agent. Plus Global Entry gets me TSA Precheck on all my domestic and international flights, which saves time and hassle when going through security. The $100 fee is totally worth it, but you don’t even have to pay that. Cards like the Citi Prestige® Card offer a $100 statement credit if you pay the application fee with your Citi Prestige. (My full review of the Citi Prestige.)

Entry into United States

After Cuba, I headed to Colombia for four days. This was in no way strategic; I just wanted to visit friends in Bogota. I flew back from Bogota to Miami to Washington DC. When I landed in Miami, I went through immigration. My kiosk experience was the same as always.

  • Scan my passport
  • Take a picture
  • Confirm my arriving flight
  • Answer “No” about bringing anything in that I needed to declare
  • Get my print out

I headed past baggage claim because I had no checked bags and handed my print out slip to the customs agent who waived me through.

Customs Rules

According to the US Customs and Border Protection website:

Can I import Cuban cigars into the U.S.?

Persons authorized to travel to Cuba may purchase alcohol and tobacco products while in Cuba for personal consumption while there. Authorized travelers may return to the United States with up to $100 worth of alcohol and/or tobacco products acquired in Cuba in accompanied baggage, for personal use only.

For further information, see this public notice from CPB.

I brought back about $50 worth of cigars.

What If You Don’t Have Global Entry?

My recollection is that the form that non-Global Entry folks fill out asks which countries you’ve visited on your time outside the United States. I would tell the truth, since if you’re in one of the 12 designated categories listed above, your trip was legal.

Bottom Line

Since January 2015, Americans can enter Cuba and spend money without prior approval of the Treasury Department as long as we self-certify that we are visiting Cuba for one of 12 permitted reasons.

Make sure you have everything you need for entry into Cuba, exit from Cuba, and entry back into the United States before making the trip.

The next post will focus on how Americans can buy flights to Cuba in 2015 with cash or frequent flyer miles.

Request for Comments

Cuba is a hard country to understand sometimes, and often I didn’t ask when I was confused because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Please comment on this and all future posts if you’ve been to Cuba. Did I make any mistakes or omissions? Did your experience differ? Your comments can really help people who are planning a trip to Cuba.

4

I was just on the Rudy Maxa Radio Show discussing Round the World (RTW) trips since the end of Round the World awards.

My interview talked about how to book a huge RTW trip by piecing together underpriced awards. Here’s a master list of such awards:

To get the miles even for these cheap awards, you’ll need to get some credit cards.

Rudy mentioned signing up for my free newsletter.

 

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