How to Fly for Free!

Perhaps the biggest way that we’re cutting down the costs of our trip is by taking advantage of airline frequent flyer miles. We’ve found that a little ingenuity has gone a long way in our quest to hoard hundreds of thousands of miles that could land us anywhere on this big grand earth.

Eric traveled a lot for work over the last five years, so he accrued many frequent flyer miles. I think when we met he was already over the 500k mark. But the majority of these little lovelies has come from churning lots and lots of credit cards and by exploiting the marketing tactics of large banks.

Getting the Miles

There are several ways to accumulate miles. If you sign up for the airlines’ free reward programs, each time you fly they’ll give you one frequent flyer mile for each actual mile that you travel. For example, the point-to-point distance from Denver to Chicago is 888 miles so that’s the number of frequent flyer miles you get each time you take a flight between those two cities.

It takes a long time to accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles the traditional way (“butt-in-seat miles”) if you don’t fly often. Luckily, you don’t have to! Airlines also have branded credit cards that will give you frequent flyer miles each time you use the card. Most give one mile for each dollar you spend, but some give two or three for each dollar. Finally, there are companies that partner with airlines to give frequent flyer miles when you purchase goods or services from them. For example, if you rent a car from Hertz you can get a mile for each dollar spent on the car rental.

[ptcPhoto filename=”cards.jpg” title=”Credit Cards” position=”right”]

Perhaps the best way to get a large number of frequent flyer miles quickly and without spending a lot of money is by taking advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses. Many credit cards give huge sign-up bonuses in the form of miles for just signing up and using their card for a short amount of time. You’d be surprised how many companies will try to lure you in with bonuses of up to 50,000 frequent flyer miles, and sometimes even more. Of course, these cards always come with a catch – usually in the form of annual fees, high interest rates, and a minimum spending threshold within the first few months. We pay off our credit cards in full every month, and we usually close the accounts as soon as the bonus miles become available. Otherwise, the credit card companies win. And who likes credit card companies, anyway?

Right now we both have the Chase Sapphire cards (which had 50,000 mile sign-up bonuses) and the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer cards, which we also caught during a 50,000 mile promotion. With just these two cards we got a total of 200,000 frequent flyer miles! That’s enough for both of us to fly first-class anywhere in the world.

Using All Those Miles

Different airlines have different policies for how and when miles can be used. Most of ours are with United Airlines where a round-trip domestic flight costs 25,000 miles, and a trip to Europe costs 60,000. If you’re like us and only need one-way tickets, then most airlines charge only half of those mileage requirements: 12,500 one-way domestically and 30,000 one-way to anywhere in Europe. There’s a mileage schedule available on their website that shows every possible route, so it’s relatively easy to find out how many miles you’d have to part with in order to take a flight.

You aren’t always limited to the airline you have your miles with to redeem them for free flights. Most airlines are part of what is called an airline alliance. The two largest alliances are the Star Alliance and the One World Alliance. United belongs to the Star Alliance which allows us to use our United stash on any of the 27 airlines that belong to that alliance.

Be aware, not all airlines are created equal. Some airlines still charge a hefty fee when redeeming frequent flyer miles. British Airways, for example, charges a fuel surcharge fee that can cost hundreds of dollars in addition to the miles you’re parting with. For this reason we stay far away from airlines that operate this way. Be sure to read the fine print when you start your collection.

Sometimes airfare is so affordable that it’s not worth using miles to fly. In general, you want to try to get at least $0.02 per mile – if the flight costs less than this, you’re better off holding onto them for a later flight. An example would be a flight from Denver to Boston that costs $350. $350/$.02 = 17,500, but for a round trip ticket you’d have to redeem 25,000 miles. In this case, it’s better to spend the money.

How to Find the Best Sign-Up Bonuses

Sign-up bonuses change regularly. Credit cards come and go, but there’s always a good deal to be had. The best resource we’ve found on the latest deals is Million Mile Secrets. But any Google search on sign-up bonuses will yield a fair number of results showing current offers.

Isn’t Your Credit a Mess?

Many people have reservations about applying for too much credit and consequently damaging their rating. Thankfully we have no reason to apply for loans or jobs in the near future, so we aren’t concerned if our scores drop a few points. But truthfully, we haven’t had any problems applying for new cards since we make it a point never to carry a balance or have too many open at one time. Creditors like to see that you have a low credit-to-debt ratio since it proves that you’re a responsible borrower, so sometimes it’s good to keep accounts open without charging to them. (We’ll see how this works when we’re unemployed!).

Did we miss anything? Let us know if you’ve used other methods to collect miles!

What’s in Our Bags: Cameras

Three possible travel camera options

Cameras help us capture, share, and remember the places we see, the people we meet, and the experiences we have. For some, the camera on their phone is enough to accomplish these goals, but for many including us, they aren’t enough. Like everything else, selecting the right cameras to take on your long-term travels is a compromise between size, cost, and overall functionality. This is one area where we basically threw out the cost issue entirely. We want the best cameras for our purpose and aren’t willing to settle for anything less.

Size Does Matter

[ptcFlickr id=”8355700978″ position=”right” caption=”Nikon D90″ size=”Original”]

As mentioned here, we are taking insanely small luggage for a trip of this scale. Size is perhaps the biggest tradeoff when selecting a camera for a round the world adventure. SLRs such as our Nikon D90 are capable of taking amazing pictures in all types of lighting conditions. Unfortunately, the size and weight of these cameras and their lenses mean they aren’t practical for this trip (well, not if Sam expects me to have clothes to wear as well). Also, it is often said that the best camera is the one you have with you. We will be traveling in some places where carrying a large camera may not be safe and at the very least will make us a target for touts and scammers.

[ptcFlickr id=”8355700940″ position=”left” caption=”Canon S95″ size=”small 320″]

On the other end of the spectrum are compact “point-and-shoot” style cameras. These are extremely light, can fit in my pants pockets, and would take up no room in our bag. Some of these cameras are actually quite capable. We considered taking a Canon S95 with us on our trip as it has decent low light capabilities, a full manual mode, and it can shoot raw files. This is probably the ideal type of camera if you want good travel snapshots.

After recently completing a quick introductory course on photography we determined that we wanted more than good travel snapshots – we want to create art. For that, point-and-shoot style cameras, even the very high end kind like the S95, aren’t enough. Their inability to control depth of field, the tiny image sensor, lack of interchangeable lenses, and lack of lens filters mean these aren’t the best option if you want to take your photography to the next level.

[ptcFlickr id=”8355701062″ position=”right” caption=”Sony NEX 6″ size=”small 320″]

Up until a couple years ago these were your only two options, a huge camera for artistic ability or a point-and-shoot camera for mobility. Enter the new mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILCs). MILCs are the future of travel cameras. They provide the ability to use different lenses and filters, and they have the same senor as SLRs allowing better artistic control all in a package that’s half the size, or less, than an equivalent SLR. There’s no getting around the fact that they aren’t as compact as a point-and-shoot camera, but for us this was the perfect compromise. After much research we settled on the Sony NEX-6.

Lenses

The 16-50mm zoom lens that comes with the Sony NEX-6 is good but it doesn’t quite meet all of our needs. At it’s wide 16mm end it will be great for landscapes, but it doesn’t offer much of a zoom and it’s performance in low light is very poor unless you are using a tripod and taking pictures of still subjects. To solve the zoom issue we are taking the Sony SEL18200LE 18-200mm lens, and to solve the low light issue we’re taking the Sony SEL35F18 35mm F1.8 lens. These lenses are designed for the NEX cameras so they’re relatively compact compared to equivalent SLR lenses.

Tripods

Tripods are large, bulky and totally impractical for long term travel…we had to have one. Tripods allow you to get many shots that are simply impossible without. Taking photos indoors in low light situations, taking long exposures to make water look amazing, doing any sort of night photography, and many other fun photography tricks just don’t work without a tripod.

So if you are going to make the sacrifice to carry a tripod around the world you really need the lightest most compact tripod you can find. We did quite a bit of research and found two possibilities. The Tamrac ZipShot tripod is made out of lightweight tent-pole style collapsable legs. It takes up very little room, weighs virtually nothing, and can be opened in a flash. However, it’s limited in that it can only be used at one height. With this one you can’t get lower to take shots of close objects.

[ptcFlickr id=”8354848705″ position=”left” caption=”Siuri T-025″ size=”small 320″]

We decided to go with the lightest, most compact, fully adjustable tripod we could find. The Siuri T-025 carbon fiber tripod is only 11 inches long when folded, yet it can expand to almost 5 feet tall and weighs only 1.3 pounds.
Hopefully we’ll use it often so it’s worth the hassle of taking it along.

We can’t wait to test out our flashy new camera gear and share images from around the world!

Choosing a Pack for Your Travels

backpacks for rtw trip

We chose rollie bags.

OK, maybe not this time around…

Your pack is one of the most important pieces of gear you can buy, but we found that the process of finding one can be a bit of a pain. Between Eric’s long torso and my OCD, we had to check out dozens of packs before we found the right pair for us. I actually bought four different packs in preparation for our trip, so I would highly recommend buying from places like REI that will take things back for any reason.

I tried out the first two (both Gregory packs – I LOVE that brand) on “test” trips to Morocco and Honduras, but then I decided that they weren’t close enough to what I needed. Those went on Craigslist. Zappos took back an Osprey that didn’t cut it, and I finally settled with yet another Gregory after agonizing over it for months. The exercise was only fun for about five minutes. So, how can you cut down on the costs and time involved with finding the perfect thing to put your stuff in? Here are the questions we think you can start with to make the process easier:

1. What Size Do You Need?

We plan to pack as little as possible, although our lust for electronics makes this challenging. We’ve had to ask ourselves over and over: Does this item need to travel the world with us? We find that too many clothes and gadgets literally and figuratively weigh us down. Since we’ll be traveling on budget airlines that nickel and dime passengers who have to check bags, our packs have to fit into even the smallest of overhead bins (we’re aiming for dimensions no larger than 22 inches tall, 18 inches wide and 10 inches deep). By choosing bags that fly for free, we already narrowed down the possibilities.

2. Does it Fit?

The next important consideration is fit. I found many enticing options that gaped here and chafed there. But when you’re running to catch a train with your pack bouncing up and hitting you in the back of the head, giving you blisters, killing your shoulders, or any number of maladies that result from improper fit, the nice color or fancy pockets won’t make you feel any less like checking in to a nice hotel instead of exploring a new city.

Due to Eric’s aforementioned torso size, there were only a few smaller packs that would fit him. After searching for weeks, we had to outsource to Visa. Did you know that if you have a Visa Signature card, they’ll do this type of research for FREE? He called them up and told them the size and specs of the bag he needed, and they found two that would work. He went with the Arc’Teryx Axios 35.

[ptcFlickr id=”8344736670″ size=”small 320″ position=”right” caption=”Eric’s pack”]

3. Is it Functional?

Thankfully, most of the major pack manufacturers use high quality materials and zippers that will last a few years or longer. The most challenging part of pack shopping often lies with pockets and accessibility. I find packs that are solely top-loading problematic. What if you need something that’s not on the top? Then you have to pull everything else out of the bag, showing everyone all of your treasures and making a gigantic mess in the process. Poor Eric didn’t have a lot of options, but this was the biggest sticking point for me. The bag I finally settled on, the Gregory Jade 38, loads from the top, front, and bottom.

[ptcFlickr id=”8344736640″ size=”small 320″ position=”left” caption=”Sam’s pack”]

The side pockets on both of our packs are pretty sad when the main compartments are fully loaded. But I’m convinced that there’s no such thing as a perfect backpack. It’s really about finding the one that fits criteria 1 and 2, and has the fewest things that make you mad when you’re trying to get at your gear. I also like having compression straps that do their job when you encounter one of those cages at the check-in counter where you have to prove that your bag will fit in the overhead bin.

4. What Else Does it Offer?

Features like travel-wardrobe-compatible-colors, built-in rain covers, breathable mesh backs, and safety whistles are a bonus, but we decided not to give much precedence to them because while they’re nice, they generally don’t make or break the bag. We’ve found that ours will hold everything we need (and probably more).

A great pack can make a huge difference when the travel gods don’t send any cabs your way, or when you end up living out of it for days. In the end, we found that it’s worth the investment to find a bag that fits well and meets your needs.

More details on travel gear to come!