All posts in Travel Lean

How I earn over 4% back on all credit card spending.

By Brad Beckstrom

You read that correctly, over 4% return on credit card spending. This includes rewards points on business and personal spending. Quick disclaimer: if you carry debt on credit cards, or don’t pay your bill off (in full) each month, any gains you have from points will be likely negated by interest charges. Once you have zero credit card debt and are ready to use cards to earn rewards points/cash back, then you’re ready to put together your rewards points plan. Here’s mine.

To keep this simple, I’m going to use Chase credit cards as examples. They have one of the best rewards programs out there that meet both my business and personal credit card needs. This program can be put together with other cards, but my best experience so far has been using a combination of Chase cards to get the 50% point bonuses and benefits, I’ll describe here.

Like many cool things, I stumbled upon the Chase Ultimate Rewards program while reading about travel hacking on personal finance sites. I was consistently seeing the Chase Sapphire cards and their Ultimate Rewards Program listed at the top of most lists for high reward, high credit rating cards.

My Ultimate Rewards set up

My setup with Chase utilizes one personal card and two business cards. The personal card is the Chase Sapphire Reserve that came with a monster 100K point sign up bonus. Normally I would not pay annual fees over $95 for a reward credit card, however, this high fee card applies $300 of the of the $450 annual fee to the first $300 in travel expenses each year. It also includes 3X bonus points on all travel and dining with another 50% point boost when you book travel through Chase. It includes an additional $100 credit for TSA Pre / Global Entry programs, travel insurance, sky clubs, and other perks. So after doing the math, this is a great value. See points bonus calculation red boxes.  Read more…

The Home Swap. A grand experiment in international travel.

By Brad Beckstrom

The proposition I made to my wife was pretty simple: “If you could spend two weeks in Europe every summer, would you be interested?” Of course I got an enthusiastic “yes”, until I brought up home exchange. Home exchange is just what it sounds like. It’s a website with over 65,000 homes in 150 countries. You list your home on home exchange, include all the countries you’d like to visit, and wait for opportunities to appear in your inbox to swap homes in places like Spain, and Italy, Brazil, and all over the world.

It’s vastly different than Airbnb as you are not paying a stranger to stay in their home. With Home Exchange, you are simply staying in their home while they stay in yours: a true exchange. The network is large enough to match up eager travelers from around the world who want to visit your town. Larger homes tend to attract like-minded families, while tiny apartments attract singles and couples. What they have in common is a sense of adventure and openness to meeting new people and trying new things.

As I started to browse through some homes along the Amalfi coast in Italy, or the Le Marais neighborhood in Paris, I started to realize our home is just not ready to attract the type of visitors we would like to exchange homes with for a two week trip. At this point, I am no more near ready to do this than I would be to start renting a room out on Airbnb. There is so much to do before I would even post some photos or create a profile. Sure, our house is in a great neighborhood less than 4 miles from DC, but it’s a big step to make it ready for some long-term visitors.

That is, unless I look at this as an opportunity. The great thing about the opportunity is at the end of the project, my reward is two weeks abroad. Not just this year, but nearly every year. That’s something worth working towards.  It’s also a grand experiment in the sharing economy.  So far we have truly enjoyed our experiences using Airbnb and saved tons of money using UBER and Lyft all over the world.

I was a bit discouraged when I started looking at some beautiful spotless homes in Italy and France, but then I looked up some US properties, even some in our neighborhood. I could spot the familiar clutter that didn’t seem to deter these folks from listing their homes. If we can just get our home somewhere between good and great that would be a start. I’ve always been adept with frequent flyer miles but found that hotels drain them too quickly, especially after you’ve coughed up enough miles for 4 transatlantic tickets. Doing a once a year home swap would be a perfect solution. Adding 14 nights of free accommodations to free airfare can really put some punch behind your travel plans. The great thing is we don’t have to accept any offers for a home swap if we aren’t interested. Read more…

Are GPS apps rendering part of your brain inactive?

How to vastly improve your experience with maps and keep your head from getting lost in the map on your smartphone.

By Brad Beckstrom

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Cartography –  The study and practice of making maps.

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Remember paper maps? I’m talking about the big unfolding kind they used to give you at tourism offices, AAA or full-service gas stations. How about the slick plastic coated ones that you could access with one hand on the steering wheel trying to navigate in a city like Rome or Washington, DC? Or the jumbo 50 page city or county map books they used to sell at office supply and convenience stores for about 18 bucks, still popular with some realtors and salespeople who work in remote areas or haven’t jumped on the smartphone bandwagon yet. Or the mother of them all, The Rand McNally Road Atlas hundreds of pages just waiting to be explored. I always had a thing for maps. I was always up for exploring out-of-the-way places, and maps helped me get there.

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When my boys were younger, we used to play a game called “spin the globe”, wherever you land, you have to go there. I remember once my oldest son spun the globe and landed on Yakutsk, Russia generally considered to be the coldest inhabited city on earth with average temperatures of -58°F. He immediately added the city to the weather app on his phone and kept an eye on the place, occasionally sharing the sometimes ridiculous low temperatures. I don’t think I’ll ever see Yakutsk but I have a feeling he might.

Once GPS came along I knew I was hooked. (Finally an answer for my lack of direction in life.)   I played around with some of the earliest handheld GPS units, the kind where you had to load a CD onto your computer then somehow transfer maps to the GPS unit. These early units were popular with boaters because it’s very important to know where you’re going on the water. You also need to know about a third dimension, the depth of the water so you don’t end up on a sand barge, as I occasionally did.  At least I can blame the fricking GPS unit versus my lack of preparation with paper navigation charts. Read more…

If you’re traveling on a budget, plan a trip to a 4 star resort on a Greek Island.

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By Brad Beckstrom

Wait, The Frug hanging out at a four-star resort in the Greek Islands? That doesn’t sound very frugal. The fact is, it’s never been more frugal. This has a lot to do with the strength of the US dollar versus the Euro which is regularly hitting 10 year lows, but it has more to do with Greek  hospitality and choosing the right time and the right island to visit.

Location, Location, Location

While I was researching Greece, I was a bit disappointed to see pictures of summer crowds in places like Santorini and Mykonos. One website even included photos titled “perception” and “reality” showing a photo of beautiful whitewashed houses and windmills on Santorini next to a photo of the same spot, covered in tourists, with every alleyway bursting at the seams with dreaded shoppers and selfie stick wavers.

From the start, I wanted to avoid the crowds. That was going to be tough as our kids weren’t getting out of school til late June and, like many other families. we’d all be hitting the highways and airports about the same time. The strategy we came up with was to visit a few Greek islands that most Americans have never heard of, Paros and Antiparos.  We talked to some Greek insiders including a celebrity chef my 14-year-old son had been chatting up on Twitter and got the scoop on these two islands. They’re in the same Cyclades chain of islands with Santorini and Mykonos, but because Paros is a ferry hub, it’s often the first stop coming and going on the ferry from Athens. This would be our destination.

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Timing

The other key element in our plan was timing. Read more…

7 reasons you should travel like a Viking this year!

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By Brad Beckstrom

Vikings are back. Well, I’m talking about the popular History Channel TV show. Whenever I watch this show I’m amazed at the spectacular scenery. Where is it filmed? Norway? Finland? It’s actually filmed in Ireland and Canada. Regardless, there’s something about the show that just makes me want to explore new lands. So, here are my 7 reasons you should travel like a Viking this year.

New discount Scandinavian Airlines are on a mission to pillage and plunder other airlines business Viking style.

Did you know that the Vikings were the original settlers of Iceland? Now I can fly there direct for $99 on Reykjavík based WOW airlines. This isn’t some firesale you click on and it’s gone. It’s been on their website for months. The cool thing about flying to Iceland is that you’re only about three hours away from Europe. This makes their flights to Europe very competitive. They have a cool calendar view on their website that shows you the cheapest day to fly. If I am willing to fly on a Tuesday, I can get to Copenhagen for $189. The tickets are one way and you’ll be paying some bag fees, so travel light, my Viking friend.  Another airline up for some plundering and pillaging is Norwegian Air.  They have some eye-opening flights out of some Northeast airports, like $69 to Martinique. Yes, that’s the French Caribbean, I might just like to hop on that flight and not look at a map. It’s only $69 from my local airport, I can’t get to Cleveland for that. They also have a one way ticket to London for $194. I also like that their flights don’t have ridiculous layovers or require much travel hacking. I purchased tickets to Paris (in June) for $700 round-trip that have a total travel time similar to major carriers charging about 60% more.  I’ve put together a list of great travel hacking tools for low airfare here and here.

We will ransack your treasury and devalue your currency.

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Over the past year, the US dollar has hit all-time highs, multiple times, against the euro and other currencies. When this happens US travelers can often find amazing deals. The breakfast buffet at my four-star $53 per night hotel in Mexico City set me back a full $4.25 with tip. For lunch I had the best sandwich I’ve ever had, portobello mushroom with avocado and swiss cheese and other secret sauces, along with a cold Mexican microbrew, that set me back $5.50. Read more…