69 posts categorized "Travel"

12/09/2013

Brace Yourself: Winter Trip Delay is Coming...

I had a great meme here about bracing yourself because winter is coming. The suits, however, didn't agree with me that it was as entertaining as I thought it was. So here's a picture from one time where a giant snowstorm forced me into a 4-hour trip delay on an airplane. Now you know why winter travel always equates trip delay and trip cancellation in my mind.Okay, the title is a misnomer. Winter trip delay is already here. I believe we discussed this right around Thanksgiving time?

None the less, winter storm season is now officially in full effect. Over this immediate weekend (the weekend of December 7-8, 2013), thousands of flights were cancelled or delayed due to winter storms. And on Monday, December 9th, USA Today is reporting nearly 3,000 flights are delayed or cancelled as a result of winter storms. And the storms and situations aren’t just isolated to certain parts of the United States: major hubs like Dallas/Fort Worth, Philadelphia, and Chicago are suffering the worst in delays, creating major trip delay log jams in places like Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Greater New York (JFK/LaGuardia/Newark). As airlines start trying to play catch-up, there’s not a whole lot we can do except brace ourselves – for winter trip delay is coming.

While I feel that I write about this every winter season, the message remains entirely relevant. Winter storms, at their worst, can be unpredictable, and create some very instable conditions for traveling across any method. Regardless of whether you’re taking a road trip, running on a train, or taking to the skies, winter weather can force you to delay your departure, your arrival, and can entirely change your situation once you get where you’re going.

Until we complete work on the weather control device straight out of our favorite Science Fiction movies (the one from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is one of my favorites), I’m afraid that we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature when it comes to winter trip delay and trip cancellation. However, there are things that we can do – before our trips, at the airport, and after we get back – to make sure our winter adventures are as smooth as possible. Here’s what I recommend when planning around winter travel:

  • Plan for extra time in your trip
    During the winter months, I’ve grown very accustomed to adding extra time into my trip – be it traveling the day before to make sure I get there for the meeting, or planning on not being into work until the day after I’m scheduled to get back. By building extra time into my trip now, I can better buffer myself for trip cancellation or trip delay – and be flexible if the opportunity comes up to miss a flight for an airline credit.
  • Know the alternate routes
    This is just good advice regardless of how you’re getting to where you’re going. Sometimes, the most direct route just isn’t available by any means: be it weather related or otherwise, the most direct route can breed trip delay and trip cancellation woes. Wherever you’re going, know if there are alternate routes and routings available to you, and how to work those into your schedule. Taking the long way about can save you some time ultimately, and also assure that you get to where you’re going on your time.
  • Reach out for help
    Sometimes, despite our best planning around factors such as the weather, we’re just not able to make everything come together. And when you’re standing in a huge line at the airport, the last thing you seem to want to do is wait for half an hour to figure out what to do next. When you’re stranded, those friendly(?) faces at the desk can be your biggest assistance in figuring out what to do under a trip delay. If you don’t want to stand in line, there are other options available to you: frequent travelers can try the airline lounge for assistance, while others might go to Twitter to get help from the airport directly. Shaking a hand instead of a fist might be the ticket to get you out of your winter travel situation.
  • Consider travel insurance for winter travels
    In all seriousness, travel insurance plans can come in handy when considering your winter travel options. In the event you have a trip delay, or are forced to cancel your trip due to extenuating circumstances, travel insurance may be able to assist in some of your costs. From benefits for extra charges to lost luggage, travel insurance may be able to assist you in the midst of the winter travel season. Plus, if you don’t want the hassle of purchasing travel insurance for every trip, an annual plan might be better suited for your needs.

While we can’t control winter storms and the trip delay that comes with them, we can control how we manage the situation. And a little planning and management now can help you get to where you’re going when you do travel. How do you manage trip delay or trip cancellation in the height of winter storms? Let me know your plans in the comments below!

12/02/2013

Cyber Monday 2014 in Travel: Escaping Winter on the Cheap

Yes - more generic clipart! What did you expect me to put in here? Stacks of money raining down from the rafters? While it might feel like that when you book your Cyber Monday deals...I thought this would be a better fit for the space. Next blog, I'll use something from the personal archives.The American Thanksgiving weekend has come to an end to much fanfare of turkey and football. I don’t know about you, but this year I had a lot to be grateful about: aside from health, happiness, and my needs being taken care of, I’ve also earned status at three hotel chains, two airlines, and one rental car company. A lot of elite benefits to be thankful for this year!

But after Thanksgiving comes those now infamous sales to ring in the consumer holiday season. I’m talking about Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And today, there are plenty of opportunities for travelers to cash in on discounts for travel at the end of this year and into next. They may not be as good as the Wiederoe mistake fares put up earlier this month, but the discounts can still add up! Here are some of my favorites I’ve found across the internet so far this Cyber Monday 2014:

Flights: Looking to fly away for the holidays? Southwest Airlines is offering select $100 fares (one way) for travel on December 24 & 25, as well as December 31 and January 1, 2014! The entire list of $100 (or less) fares can be found by clicking here.

Frontier Airlines is also offering a 15% discount on flights purchased today through their website on travel between January 16 and March 15, 2014. Use the code CYBER15 when you book. Click here to read more about it on the Frontier Airlines website.

Virgin America is also offering discounts on flights booked today as well – up to 20% on flights booked between December 18, 2013 and March 6, 2014. Use the promo code GAMEPLANE when you book. Click here to read more at the Virgin America website.

Hotels: Once you book the flight, you need a place to stay, right? Lucky for you, there are also great deals to be had on hotels as well! Marriott, for example, is offering a 30% discount at over 300 hotels in the United States between December 20, 2013 and March 31, 2014. Use the promotional code 16C when you book your travel. Click here to see the promotion on the Marriott website.

Starwood Hotels are also offering a Cyber Monday deal worth noting. For stays between January 26 and April 27, 2014, Starwood is offering up to a 40% discount on travel. For more information, click here to visit their page.

It seems that no matter where you want to go this Cyber Monday, there's a discount for you in the works! Do you plan on taking part in these Cyber Monday deals? Or have you found better deals out on the internet? Let me know where you stand (or what you’ve found) in the comments below!

(Ed. Note: No compensation nor incentive was given to mention any product or service in this blog. Travel Insurance Services and its affiliated companies do not endorse nor guarantee any product, service, or brand mentioned in this or any blog. However, we sure would love to hear about your experiences with them!)

11/26/2013

Winter Weather and Holiday Travels: Too Soon for 2013

Yes, this was the mess I was greeted by on December 26, 2012, right outside my door. This year, I thought I'd have a little more time before holiday travel season and winter travel season collided. I've got a bad feeling it's going to take more than 8 reindeer and mistletoe to keep me jolly this winter travel season...This year, two seasons that usually create conflict for travelers – both seasoned veterans and holiday travelers – have come together in a perfect storm (no pun intended). And if you’re planning to board an airplane or take to the roads…you may have a bad time.

Thanksgiving week every year marks the beginning of the holiday travel season. And by all indications, this year will be as busy as any other year: AAA projects that 43 million Americans will take to the roads to visit friends and family this week alone, and the U.S. Department of Transportation predicts a 53% increase in all travel. To make matters worse, Winter Storm Boreas is creating a potential travel nightmare for everyone who plans to get on the road or in the air this week. As if the skies and highways weren’t busy enough, the winter storm can only add to the chaos.

It’s already been a hard week for travelers. On Sunday, airlines flying out of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport were forced to cancel hundreds of flights as a result of bad weather in the area. If this is an indication of what else is coming this week, we could all be in for a hard holiday travel season.

None the less, for many, holiday travel is a necessity. Be it traveling to see friends, getting together with family, or just to create a holiday memory for years to come, there’s always some reason or want to get out and see the world during the holidays. And for those who want to make holiday travel part of your plans, there are things you can do before you begin to try and make your travels easier. Here are my tips for surviving both the holiday travel season, as well as the winter travel woes:

1: Know before you go
This may seem like a tip from Travel 101, but it’s very easy to forget in the midst of packing, preparing, and double checking your list. If you’re making your holiday travel by road, make sure that you have your route planned and check for any deviations in the plan. If you’re traveling by air, make sure that you’ve checked your flight statuses, and be prepared if you end up with a trip delay, or a flight gets cancelled. If you’re worried about having your travel affected by the storms, contact your travel provider – in situations where winter weather threatens storms, airlines may allow travelers to change their plans without fees.

2: Be travel friendly
Remember that there’s going to be a lot of travelers on the road and in the air starting now, and not stopping until the end of the year. If you’re going by air, make sure that you know the rules when it comes to packing, baggage allowance, and fees that might arise from checking bags. Additionally, remember the rules for passing the TSA checkpoint – especially the rules about laptops out of bags, and the 3-1-1 liquid rule. For those going on the road, know that you’re not alone: 43 million Americans leaves a lot of cars remaining on the road. Plan for extra time on your travels, as road conditions and traffic patterns may change suddenly and unexpectedly.

3: Prepare for the worst case scenario
Nobody wants a delayed flight. Nobody wants to spend a night in a transit city. But yet, as we work through the holiday travel and winter storm seasons, the worst case scenario can take place. When planning and managing your trips, always be prepared for the potential of baggage loss, trip delay, and cancellations. This can be as simple as adding more time to your travels and packing an extra change of clothes in your bag, to purchasing a travel insurance plan.

How are you preparing for the winter storm season? What are your tips to make it through holiday travels in one piece? I’d love to hear your tips – leave me a comment below with your best ideas!

11/19/2013

The Trip of a Lifetime: Making Air Travel Safer

IMG_1555The final day of Star MegaDo 5 saw our very own charter flight take wings over North America. If you’ve never experienced something like this, let me put it this way: imagine flying on a fully-catered flight with 130 of your best friends and fellow travel enthusiasts, all the while exchanging tips and tricks about how to make the most of your travels. The flight itself was an absolute blast – even though I did get stopped at Customs for a brief amount of time (Pro traveler tip: when asked “Do you have any food to declare…” on your customs form: popcorn and chocolate counts - even if you brought it from the United States), the flight and airport experience was an absolute blast! This will be a flight I’ll be talking about for quite a while to come.

Our travels took us from Toronto to Tuscon, Arizona, where we were treated to a tour of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group – otherwise known as the place where military aircraft goes to retire. The tour was an awesome experience, and allowed us to stretch our legs before hopping back on the airplane to our final destination: San Francisco.

At San Francisco, we were treated to a one-of-a-kind hangar experience with United (our public charter carrier), and got to go behind the scenes with their aircraft repair operations. United sees and repairs aircraft of all kinds at the San Francisco facility – and not just mainline aircraft! Many pieces and parts were stripped for our inspection at the hangar – with many specialists there to explain how it all works!

At the hangar, we learned all about how aircraft are kept safe and sound, starting from the ground up. New technology allows for new ways to keep passengers and crew safe at 30,000 feet above the earth. Here’s some of the ways aircraft crews are making sure you stay safe at cruising speed:

Regular maintenance isn’t just for engines and moving parts
When an aircraft comes in for maintenance, it’s not just the moving parts that get inspected. Advanced technology allows for the continued testing of everything from avionics to in-flight entertainment. And in the event that something is detected as malfunctioning, or comes up questionable, maintenance facilities make sure that testing equipment is available, and prepare backups if necessary. This allows them to switch out the bad gear for testing and repair, and keep you flying as scheduled.

Making sure only qualified parts make it to the airplane
Everything on an airplane – from wings and flaps to landing gear – has a finite operational life. So how do they make sure everything runs safe and secure throughout that life? In the case of landing gear, at least two full landing gear assemblies are kept in stock at all times. This ensures that parts are available as needed, and full landing gear can be replaced. With this stock available, maintenance crews can pull apart old landing gear, and replace or rebuild as needed. In the event that a part has reached the end of the road, that part is pulled and destroyed, so that it can’t end up as a compromised part in another plane. Many of those parts can then be recycled into something new.

Recording safety is priority one
In addition to the moving parts and pieces that are managed and rebuilt, the “Black Boxes” (which are now orange, entertainingly enough) get regular maintenance and rebuilding as well. Made out of an incredibly durable construction (so that they don’t get destroyed), the boxes are regularly serviced and switched out as well, to make sure they record what goes on in flight properly. The “Black Box” unit is actually comprised of two units – one that records two hours of cockpit voice communications, and one that records 20 hours of flight mechanical data. In the event of an emergency, these two items can give valuable insight on what went wrong – and how to fix it for future flights.

Going behind the scenes at United gave a lot of insight as to how everything operates at a major airline maintenance facility, and gave me new respect for what it takes to keep hundreds of flights in air every day. Have you had a flight safety experience that was mitigated by ground crew? Let me know your experiences in the comments below!

(Ed. Note: No compensation nor incentive was given to mention any product or service in this blog. Travel Insurance Services and its affiliated companies do not endorse nor guarantee any product, service, or brand mentioned in this or any blog. However, we sure would love to hear about your experiences with them!)

10/31/2013

The Trip of a Lifetime: Making Travel More Rewarding

IMG_1390By the end of the Star MegaDo day two, I was already overwhelmed with information. It was like taking a long drink of travel information through a fire hose – and for me, that wasn't a bad thing.

As if the tour of Rimowa wasn’t enough to get any travel aficionado started, day two had us spend the day with both Marriott and Air Canada. On this day, we got to go “behind the scenes” and understand how they do business for travelers of all kinds – from casual travelers passing through, to regular business travelers who call a hotel home for months at a time.

Each of the presentations provided a very unique look into how travel providers operate, especially when it comes to the customer experience. Making sure that each customer has a pleasant experience, from start to finish, is paramount to the success of a trip. Travel providers understand that, and work towards creating an experience for travelers of all kinds. Here’s what I learned about how they try to achieve it:

Study the consumer for best practices
With every customer that flies the skies, or stays at a hotel, that much more information is gathered about the customer’s habits. This allows each of the providers to learn what customers prefer – and don’t prefer – during their travels. Having one bar of soap in your hotel room, or boarding by zones, are all the result of research and feedback by you: the end customer. Of course, your experience may vary. And there might be times where you need an extra bar of soap, a pillow for comfort, or an item not originally provided in service. In those cases:

It’s okay to ask for more
If you need that extra soap, feel free to call housekeeping and ask for more. Within reason, travel providers are more than willing to accommodate your requests. So if you’re in need of that sip of water while flying, or the extra pillow in your room, let the front desk or flight attendants know of your request. In some cases, they can (and want) to help you. Remember to keep your queries as requests and not demands – you’ll always be able to get farther with honey.

Creating a better experience for everyone – not just elite travelers
One of the things that became apparent in both of our sessions on day two were the need to create elite experiences for everyone who steps onto an airplane or into a hotel lobby – whether or not you have status with them. To those means, travel providers are working to make required much more simple – from the check-in process to the boarding process. New, more intuitive software is being installed into kiosks to make checking in less of an ordeal, and checking in on a mobile device or 24 hours ahead of time is also becoming more available for travelers. Of course, for those elite travelers, airlines are continuing to find ways to reward you for your status – with everything from dedicated lines, to (in some airports) entrances that lead you directly to a lounge.

My thanks to Air Canada and Marriott for the behind the scenes look at how they operate with the customer in mind. Have you had a customer service experience that has changed your outlook recently? Or have you noticed your experience getting better or worse? Let me know where you stand – and if the changes you’re seeing are making a difference – in the comments below!

(Ed. Note: No compensation nor incentive was given to mention any product or service in this blog. Travel Insurance Services and its affiliated companies do not endorse nor guarantee any product, service, or brand mentioned in this or any blog. However, we sure would love to hear about your experiences with them!)

10/23/2013

A Trip of a Lifetime: Preparing with NEXUS

 

Nexus-security-e1361422707710
Photo Via: Techcitement.com

After nearly a year of anticipation, the week is finally upon me. All this week, I'll get to be up close and personal with nearly everything Canadian travel, as I join the ultimate pilgrimage for travel aficionados like myself: the annual Star Alliance MegaDO.

The first Star Alliance MegaDO (or SMD, as those in the know abbreviate it) was dreamed up five years ago, when a group decided they wanted to charter an airplane and tour where it (and many like it) were made: the Airbus factory in France. Five years later, MegaDO has become an annual tradition that gathers many frequent flyers, industry influencers, and other excited travelers, much like myself.

This year, the annual gathering centers around one of my favorite places in the world: Toronto. During the trip, we'll not only be flying a private United Airlines charter, but we'll also see where some of the best luggage in the world is made, go behind the scenes at a major hotel operation and airline, and tour the world famous airplane boneyard in Arizona. This week is truly promising to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Of course, my preparation for this trip began quite a while back - before any payments were made and plans were prepared for, this trip began with a much more simple action. To begin this trip of a lifetime, I started by applying for my NEXUS card.

As I've written about several times in this blog, NEXUS is a trusted traveler program for frequent travelers between Canada and the United States. The system effectively pre-screens potential travelers who plan on going back and forth on a regular basis. To apply for NEXUS (or any of the trusted travel programs), one has to start at the GOES website - the Global Online Enrollment System - operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office.

My experience applying for NEXUS was a relatively easy process. I started with the application form - and the hardest part of the form was trying to remember all of the places I've lived in the past ten years! With this information, I submitted my information for a background check by both Customs and Border Protection, as well as the Canada Border Services Agency. While they advise the process can take up to eight weeks, my application did not get processed for the better part of three months. Once it was, it was time for the part I dreaded the most - the screening interview.

I elected to do my interview at Fort Erie, on the other side of Niagara Falls. Fort Erie is one of the enrollment centers which completes iris scanning as part of the application finalization, which meant that I could use NEXUS when flying into Canada as well as at ground crossings. Once there, the interview process took all of 45 minutes. I was asked to submit my fingerprints, and confirm the information stated on my application. Once that was confirmed, I was interviewed by both a CBSA officer as well as a CBP officer, who each explained how the system worked from their perspective, explained all the potential violations that could have my card revoked, and answered any questions I had about the process. At the end of the process, my NEXUS status was approved, and I received my card within a week.

In addition to NEXUS, my trusted traveler card also gives me access to the TSA Pre-Check program (where available and when selected), further expediting my travels through the security checkpoint. Also included with the trusted traveler program is access to Global Entry when I am coming back into the United States - which will make my re-entry back to the US that much easier every time I come back from an overseas trip. For the process of the background check, six-hour drive to the interview, and $50 application fee, NEXUS was well worth the effort - and comes with plenty of benefits as well.

As I land in Canada, I'm incredibly grateful that I'll be able to utilize NEXUS to make my travels through security that much easier. Have you applied for NEXUS or another trusted traveler program? Has it been of much benefit to you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

10/04/2013

Getting a passport during a government shutdown

Sorry, folks - stock imagery once again. I figured since the government was in shutdown, it gave me an excuse to mail it in - no pun intended. Next week, I promise I'll go back to authentic photography once again. Scout's honor! (Ignore the fact I wasn't a Boy Scout.)We’re now into day four of the government shutdown. With the government in deadlock and without a spending bill, many aspects of government services have been affected. Directly affecting travelers continues to be the closures of national parks, monuments, and museums. But as we outlined earlier in the week on the Travel Insure blog, many travelers should not be affected by the government shutdown, as front-line staff are considered “essential personnel.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that other governments, such as Germany, have issued a travel advisory to U.S. bound travelers about potential delays and closed monuments and museums. But so far, despite working without pay in many cases, those essential personnel have been keeping everything moving forward. Border crossings remain open, TSA officers have remained on duty, and there have been no warnings of furloughing air traffic controllers – very different from what we heard when the sequester was a threat to many travelers across the country.

Among the services that were feared to be affected by the government shutdown were American Consular Affairs – that is, the processing of passports and Visas for applicants. The State Department Travel website (http://state.travel.gov) states: “In the event of a lapse in appropriations, the Department of State will continue passport and visa operations as well as provide critical services to U.S. citizens overseas.” Additionally, the State Department states that routine passport service, from application to send-out, remains at four weeks. And blogger The Points Guy reports that offices to apply for and interview for trusted traveler programs (such as Global Entry and NEXUS) remain open as well – despite some unplanned maintenance to the GOES online application system earlier this week.

(Ed Note: Much to my surprise, after interviewing for my NEXUS card last Friday, I received my card in the mail on Thursday – completing the cycle in less than a working week. I’m unsure if my card was made before or after the shutdown happened. But even if it was made the day before the shutdown began, it would still mean that it was mailed out after the events happened as they did. While my evidence is anecdotal, it still bodes well for others applying for trusted travel status during the government shutdown).

So during this period of government shutdown, how can one actually get a passport or Visa? There are still several ways to make sure that you can get the documents you need to get where you’re going, no matter if you have international travel planned in advance, or just want to have the liberty to go.

For foreign travelers:

  • ESTA remains online and automated
    For those traveling from countries eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, the ESTA service remains online and available for you to use. Just remember the terms of your Visa, make sure you’re aware of how the Visa Waiver Program works, and apply online. U.S. Consular Services may still be open in your country, so feel free to call your local U.S. Consulate with questions or concerns.
  • Visa appointments remain open
    A quick search of the State Department website still had appointments available for travelers who wish to obtain their Visa before traveling to the U.S. During the government shutdown, these offices should remain open, and your appointments should remain valid – but it would not hurt to call and check in the event that the Consulate does close for any reason.

For domestic travelers going abroad:

  • Post offices remain open & accepting passports
    Unlike many federal offices, post offices are self-sustaining, and therefore able to stay open. And every post office in the United States is also a U.S. Passport acceptance facility. You can still have your passport photos taken there, and mail your passport to the regional office for processing. However, know that those offices may be slowed down or closed based on demand, federal building closures, or other unforeseen situations.
  • Trusted Traveler offices remain open
    Because of the role that CBP plays in security (given their “essential personnel” status), their offices at border crossings should remain open, and interviews for trusted traveler programs (such as Global Entry and NEXUS) remain valid.
    Once again, make sure you call ahead of time to make sure their facilities are open and not subject to closure, as some offices may be located in federal buildings (which are subject to closure)
  • Some passport centers may not be available due to closure
    Several passport facilities offering service for travelers who need a passport in a hurry may be closed, due to their location in federal buildings. These locations include: Boston, Chicago, Dallas, El Paso, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York. Make sure your appointment is still valid at these locations – and if you are unable to hold your appointment due to closure, know your options. For instance: the New York office may be closed as a result of the government shutdown, but the Connecticut office is not located in a federal building – and may still be open for business.

While the shutdown is affecting many travelers in many different ways, with a little planning, you can minimize the impact that it has on your travels, wherever they may take you. Are you seeing any impact on your travels so far due to the shutdown? Let me know in the comments below!

09/18/2013

Flying with Both Feet on the Ground

I wasn't sure which image to use here, really. I figure this one would be as good as any when talking about managing credit and budgeting. I could have used a stock chart, but that would have implied something different.One of the curses of having chronic wanderlust (I promise it’s a real condition) is planning around and between trips. My mind is always wandering about when and where my next adventure is going to take place. At least once a day, I’m looking to Google Flights for cheap flights to and from Columbus that I can turn in a weekend. And if I’m not reading websites for ideas about places to go, I’m going over the brochures of my favorite places to see what I’ve missed along the way. What can I say? I was born with a suitcase in my hands.

The subsequent problen is finding the time to balance my responsibilities at home and abroad. How can one continue to adventure if they don’t have the means to do so? Furthermore, how can one make plans to stay in perpetual motion, if it comes at the cost of bugetary hyperextention, or neglect of other long-term plans wherever you call home?

I’m not just talking about working and balancing paid time off. I’m talking about balancing the budgets, keeping an eye on credit, and protecting the things that I care about when both home and away. Keeping my stuff safe from baggage theft and baggage loss while traveling is one thing. Keeping my eye on the bigger picture is something completely different, but equally important while on the road.

So how does one make it all work when trying to see the world at the same time? Here are some of the tools that I use to balance everything together:

1) Credit Monitoring
When traveling domestic or foreign, I’m always using credit cards for the security features they provide me (not to mention some of the awesome rewards). But I also want to make sure that I’m using it responsibly, and that nobody else is using it but me. I like the tools Credit Karma and Credit Sesame to get an overall view of my credit, how many credit pulls I have, and where all of my balances lie. Add in alerts to my smart phone when there's a drastic change in my account (such as a higher balance change, or credit report pull), and I'm prepared no matter where I go. 

2) Budget Planning
This is one of the key pieces of my travel strategy – as having a strong budget allows me to travel anytime I see a good deal.
Aside from the tools that my bank offers to keep track of my accounts, Mint is a good tool as well – as it allows me to plug in my projected expenses for the month, and can help me start saving for my next big adventure.

3) Rewards Tracking
I’ve talked about rewards tracking in the past, but I wanted to mention it again as it can be a critical part of your travel planning. Who doesn’t love to get a free ticket, hotel room, or perks at the hotel? And if you don’t use the points, you’re giving free money back to the companies. For reward tracking, I like Award Wallet, as it keeps my major accounts in one place. The only downfall is that Award Wallet isn’t supported by all travel providers, but it still gives me a good idea of my status and balances across the table – so I can plan for that reward trip that much sooner.

Keeping everything balanced is a key to flexibility. And the better I can balance now, the more fun I can have on the road. How do you keep things moving at home while you’re away? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

(Ed. Note: No incentive was given to mention any product or service in this blog. Travel Insurance Services and its affiliated companies do not endorse nor guarantee any product or service mentioned in this or any blog. However, we sure would love to hear about your experiences with them!)

09/06/2013

How I Learned to Love Travel - as a Student

I found it! After some exploration, I actually found a picture of the place I was at in Germany - the beautiful city of Grafenau, near the Bayerwald, in the heart of Bavaria. This brings back a lot of memories for me! You may now be asking, why didn't I use a photo from my student travel adventures? The answer is simple: those photos are locked away securely in a valut in California - exactly where they should be.
Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

It's been quite a while since we've visited in this space, hasn't it? August has been a busy travel month for me - flying back and forth all over the northeast last month, and only earning a handful of miles for my efforts. While it's been a great month in the air, it's been at the sacrifice of being able to do what I truly love about this job: write about what I've learned in my travel experiences.

While this has been a season of learning for me, being all over the place has made it very difficult to focus on something to write about in this space. So like many blog writers do, I took to Twitter for inspiration - surely, someone was in the same situation I was in, right? After some conversation, one of my friends challenged me to a very poignant blog topic: how did I discover my love of travel?

While I've often alluded to what inspired my initial love for travel, I don't believe that I've written an outright blog about the things that make me enjoy travel so much. So after some thought on the prompt given to me, I would like to share the story of what inspired my love for travel: being a student traveler to Germany at age 17.

In High School, I studied German - in fact, of everthing I studied, it was the most fascinating topic for me. I loved the idea of studying other cultures, and seeing just how interconnected the world truly was. While I had a pen-pal in Germany, to whom I would hand write letters to (well before the advent of e-mail), it wasn't the same as exploring the culture for myself. As a student, I often dreamed about escaping to another culture to expand my horizons for a spell - but scale of economy was the primary obstacle in going around the world to learn more about a culture.

In my junior year of high school, I was presented with an opportunity: my German instructor was made aware of a sanctioned exchange trip to Germany with a very well known organization. While I was afraid that money would be an obstacle in going, my family was very supportive in finding a way to help me explore this dream. So between some help from the entire family, a little savings on my part, and a barbecue to send me off, I was off for my first adventure as a student traveler.

From the minute I boarded that plane in San Francisco, the travel bug had bit. Sure, it was a long 11-hour flight from San Francisco direct to Munich, but every moment on the plane was absolutely worth it. If I remember correctly, I couldn't hardly sleep on the plane - mostly due to the excitement I had of taking my first trip as a student traveler. That first day, I easily was up for well over 20 hours, running on pure excitement and adrenaline.

Once I was there, the travel bug absolutely bit me - and made me spend my time investigating every aspect of my temporary surroundings. During my month in Germany at 17, I spent my time investigating the city, exploring the surroundings, and making friends from all over the world (even a group of Australians that were on exchange at the same school I was at). My tour group visited some of the monuments and castles built by the last monarchs of Bavaria. We saw Salzburg, and the birth home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And everywhere I went, I seemed to pick up something to compliment my adventures. I believe I still have my wandering cane, with all of the medallions of my destinations, somewhere at home.

One month in Germany was certainly not enough. I didn't know how I was going to get back - but after the kindness and generousity of the people of Grafenau and my host family there, I knew that I needed to return someday. That trip also made it clear to me that this wouldn't be my first destination. This student trip opened up my eyes that there's so much more to this world than I could see from my native California. And it made me want to jump on more airplanes than I could remember.

That one trip, that my family had to sacrifice a lot for, inspired my love of travel - and has empowered me to live all across the United States, and see the world. Since that trip, I've made a home in Ohio, been to Canada far more times than I can count, and have been able to make friends all around the United States and the world! That one, seemingly simple act of student travel inspired a passion that I still have to this day. Funny how one life-changing event can cascade into something far bigger over time.

My thanks to my friends on Twitter, for drawing that story out of my past. How did you learn to love travel? What made traveling more than just a passive activity for you? Did your student travels play into your affection for adventure as well? Let me know in the comments below!

08/13/2013

What I Wish I Knew as a Student Traveler

Yeah...to my readers, I apologize. I kind of mailed this one in. Mostly because I have no digital photos from my days as a student traveler. Because when I was a student traveler, digital cameras were non-existant! I had to shoot all my photos on a Canon AE-1 35mm camera! Anyways, before I date myself even further, I'll try harder on the next photo.I’ve had some time to look back on my student travels recently– mostly because I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate and reflect on what started my love of seeing the world. In looking back, a lot of it was the ability to be a part of new, unique, and interesting cultures that I had only been introduced to in textbooks. In my student years alone, I was lucky enough to live in Germany for a month, and see plenty of the United States on my travels to and from college. It was during this period in my life that I realized how much I loved traveling – perhaps not necessarily to and from the places I was going, but everywhere in between.

Coming from modest backgrounds, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to put my travel skills to practice - which was apparent by all of the rookie mistakes that I made along the way. Trusting a 19-year-old me to catch a flight home, let alone the right flight, was asking a lot! And when I did miss the plane, I had no idea what the proper methods of finding my way on the next flight were – outside of standing in line, waiting, and trying not to look like a kitten lost in a big city.

In ten years, I’ve come quite a ways from my student travel days – a far cry from where I was coming from. In that time, technology has also come a long way. What used to be a 20-minute wait in line is now a trip to the kiosk for assistance. What used to be a half-hour phone call to a travel agent is now a half-hour internet search across many online travel agencies.

Even at 29, I've seen so much of the travel atmosphere change around me. Because with the conveniences of modern technology, student travelers have it a whole lot easier than I did when I was learning how to navigate the system from scratch. But there are still a lot of ways that student travelers can make their travels easier with a little preparation and forethought ahead of time.

If I could go back in time and tell my student traveler self that someday, I’d eventually become a semi-successful travel writer…I don’t know that my younger self would actually believe that. But what my younger self would genuinely appreciate is hearing how to make the cross-country flying a whole lot easier every time he went back and forth, or that one time he went to Nashville on a whim. So if I could go back and give me some advice, this is what I would tell him:

1: Arrive light, return heavy
Look, I know you want to be prepared for anything that could happen while you travel. But considering that you’re still a student traveler, and on your budget, there’s not a whole lot that’s going to be happening. So go ahead and pack what you need to look like a respectable young man, but don’t bring your entire wardrobe. Besides, you’ll need that extra room on the way back to keep all your keepsakes and memories.

2: Be kind everywhere you go
It isn’t a whole lot of fun to stand in lines and wait, is it? Especially when you’re wrestling with seemingly huge bags, just to end up talking to a very tired customer service agent who is rather disinterested in what you’re going through. I know that it isn’t the most optimal of moments, and it definitely isn't easy to keep your cool. But please be nice and let the customer service agent do their jobs. It will be easier for all involved if you can politely explain the situation you are in, and ask for the best possible solution – even if it means waiting around longer, or getting home later than you anticipated.

3: Pay it forward
Remember that time you ran across an entire terminal to hold an airplane for another student traveler that you never saw again?
That was a very nice thing you did for that person. I’m not suggesting you do something that dramatic all over again, but don’t be afraid to do nice things for people along the way. Smile more. Let people ahead of you in line. And have nice conversations with those who are so interested. You never know where a simple conversation might lead you.

What lessons did you wish you would have learned as a student traveler? What would you go back and do differently? I’d love to hear more – leave me a comment below and start the conversation!