August 21, 2014

Preparing to travel on a whim

I just booked my trip to Croatia a week ago, and exactly one month from now, I'll be coated in sunscreen and paddling my way around the Adriatic Sea.  I think I booked this trip on something of a whim.  I know time is relative and all that jazz (and physics), but I'm not Neil deGrasse Tyson, so I'm not going to get into all of that.  But I did actually do a bit of prep work in order to book this trip as last-minute as I did.

Now, if you're rolling in dough and have Kardashian as one of your best friends, then traveling prep work is not necessary for you.  But if you're a cheap bastard like I am and don't want to pay a sick amount of money to be able to take a trip at a moment's notice, then setting a few things in motion long before you might want to go somewhere is totally worth the effort.

There are 2 main items that made my Croatia trip possible:

  1. Knowledge of companies and websites that offer reasonably priced or discounted trips that are highly regarded.
  2. A wealth of frequent flyer miles, none of which I accumulated from actually flying.

Let's talk about #1.  I didn't have any specific place I wanted to go, but I did have a date range that I needed to work with.  Since I'm mildly obsessed with travel in general, I already knew of a few places to look for trips that I thought might interest me.

There are places all over the internet offering trips, so that can feel pretty overwhelming.  One excellent company that I've heard about for years is Intrepid Travel, which offers small group tours all over the world.  Nomadic Matt has recently entered into a partnership with Intrepid, and if they're good enough for Matt, then they're, well, good.  And if you're unfamiliar with Nomadic Matt, he's pretty much the Jesus of budget traveling.

Another excellent place to look for trips offered by many different, smaller outfitters is The Clymb, and this is where I found my Croatia trip.  The Clymb offers not just trips (most are activity-based), but all kinds of outdoor clothing and gear at a discount.  Not all the trips they offer had user reviews, but every trip that did have reviews had nothing but fantastic ones.  And since booking my trip, I've also found the company to be very responsive when I've had questions.

Now on to #2, which is a little more complex.  First of all, in order to pull off #2, you MUST have a decent credit score and be financially savvy enough to not ever keep a balance on your credit cards.  Ever.  That's because the easiest way to bulk up on frequent flyer miles is to sign up for credit cards that offer awesome deals just for signing up and using the cards for as many every day purchases as possible to get even more miles.  This is one of the most frequently used strategies in what's called travel hacking.  That's a subject for another day, but the bottom line is, if you keep a balance on your credit cards, this method is totally not worth it.  You'll just lose a lot of money to interest, and any miles you gain from signing up and using a card will be completely negated.

Now that we have that little lecture out of the way, I'm going to assume from here on out that you are able to pay off your credit cards every month.  If you want to try for #2, you need to find and sign up for a credit card or two to sign up for that offer sign-up bonuses of at least 30,000 miles (or points that can be converted 1:1 into miles) and one year fee-free.  For many of these cards, you also have to charge a certain amount of money to the card in the first 3 months.  But, if you just charge every day expenses and bills to your card as mentioned above, this will not be a problem at all.  I would also advise against signing up for a whole bunch of cards at one time.  If they all have charge minimums in order to get the sign-up bonus activated, you'll have to spend that on each card during that time period, and unless you are a super big spender in general, this would be difficult to pull off for more than one or two cards.

But there are thousands of credit cards out there for you to choose from.  While there are many that are worthwhile, I'm going to focus on just a couple of them today.

The first one I'd like to mention is the British Airways Chase Visa.  Once every year or 2, they offer a crazy-ass monster deal that is, well, the best sign up offer I've ever seen.  You get 50,000 just for signing up alone - no strings attached.  And if you spend a minimum amount on the card in the first 3 months, you get another 50,000 miles.  They don't waive the fee for the first year, but paying just $95 for 100,000 miles?  That's nothing! This is THE deal to pounce on when it comes around.  Also, you can totally book flights on British Airways partner airlines with the points.  I flew from DC to Santiago using miles earned from this card, I didn't fly British Airways, nor did I come anywhere near Great Britain.  If you find out about this deal when it happens, drop what you're doing and freakin' sign up for this card.  But if you don't want to wait for this insane deal, this card is still a good deal at any time with a normal sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles.

The second card I'll talk about is a good deal any time:  the Chase Sapphire Visa.  This is the card I used to book my flights to Croatia.  There is a sign-up bonus with a minimum spend amount in the first 3 months, but there's no annual fee at all.  This card builds generic points instead of miles on a specific airline.  But you can redeem the points at a 1:1 ratio for miles on a whole mess of airlines.  And when you use the card for either travel or dining out, you get 2 points per dollar instead of 1 point for everything else.  But one of the best things about this card is redeeming the points - you can use the Chase travel center to book flights with your points.  Their travel site searches all available airlines that the points can be redeemed with, and there aren't blackout dates.  It's like using any other flight search engine.  It is SO easy.  While I love my British Airways card, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out if I could use my miles with them to get to Croatia. I spent a long time trying different options with British Airways and came up with pretty much nothing that would work for me.  But with the Chase travel center?  I had viable options in 3 minutes.

I totally understand that signing up for more credit cards just to bank a bunch of frequent flyer miles might seem a little daunting, or even just straight up crazy and stupid.  I was a bit nervous about it when I signed up for my first card solely for this purpose.  But I've done it many times now (Delta AmEx, Starwood Hotels AmEx, Southwest Visa, US Airways MasterCard, British Airways Visa, and Chase Sapphire), and it's been absolutely worth it.  I've saved thousands in airfare over the past few years, and while it takes more advanced planning and coordination than, say, finding a website that offers quality trips at a discount, the payoff is truly fantastic.  Had I not signed up for my Chase Sapphire Visa approximately 2 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to purchase my Croatia trip last minute on the cheap.  I'm saving about $1300 through my bookings with The Clymb and using my credit card points.

I guess you could say that I started preparing for the Croatia trip 2 years ago when I signed up for the Chase credit card and when I heard about The Clymb website for the first time (that was a few years ago, too).  I know that sounds like a lot of "prep" work for a trip, but browsing some travel websites and filling out a credit card application online doesn't take a whole lot of work.  I actually consider it more "travel maintenance" than anything else - keeping everything in tip-top shape so that when I'm ready to pounce on an opportunity to go somewhere, I have the tools sharpened and ready to make it happen.

August 15, 2014

The next big trip will be to...

... Croatia!

Oh, you didn't know I was planning to take a trip?  Well, that makes two of us.

I've known for a few weeks that I'd have much of September to do pretty much whatever floats my boat thanks to having some time between jobs.  But due to many other factors, I didn't know if going anywhere during that time would be possible or even a good idea.  Maybe it's not a good idea, but I just said what the hell and booked it anyway.  It's on somewhat of a whim I suppose, but in a lot of ways it's really not.  I'm saving that for the next blog post, though.

So what exactly will I be doing?  Kayaking in the Adriatic Sea for a week, that's what. There will also be a little hiking and biking involved, and I'm going to entirely miss the crush of the main tourist season while still enjoying some rockin' weather.  It's been nearly two years since my last international trip, and I've been jonesing to get off the grid and go somewhere completely and utterly different - as in can't read the street signs (if they have street signs) different.

I am just a tad excited about all of this.

How did I decide on Croatia?  Well, for starters, I've never been.  But that wasn't a huge factor, because I pretty much want to go everywhere that I haven't been to yet.  I decided I wanted to do something, not just fly to a big city and mill around.  So I limited my search to a website that I knew would offer exactly the kind of trips I was looking for. - The Clymb.  Then I asked the following questions:

  1. Does this trip sound cool?
  2. Have I been to said destination before?
  3. Does this trip fit my desired time frame?
  4. Can I get there and back using frequent flyer miles?
Boom.  The Croatia trip I found met all my criteria.  Done.  Pass the sunscreen.  It's time to lather up and get pumped.

July 21, 2014

The best alternative to staying at Disney World

If you've never been to Disney World, I would bet a lot of money that you're planning to go.  Even if you've been before, I'd be willing to bet (not as much money) that you're planning on going back.

It's no secret that people freakin' love Disney World, and it's also no secret that it's freakin' expensive to go.  While many people stay on Disney property for all the conveniences of being a stone's throw from their favorite rides, there are plenty more that stay elsewhere for the sake of saving a bit of money.  I can't blame them.  I'm a cheapskate, myself.  If you fall into the latter category, I have just the place for you to stay:

Winter Garden, Florida.

Never heard of it?  I'm not surprised.  I had never heard of it until my cousin and her husband moved there.  Not that I was especially up-to-date on my Florida geography since I'm not a huge fan of the state as a whole.  But the town is only about a 30 minute drive from the heart of Disney, it's ridiculously adorable, and there is not a single touristy thing about it.  It's awesome.

Now, my cousin and her hubby have lived in Winter Garden for a few years, but I didn't really get to absorb all the charm of this little town until my last visit, where I actually stayed in a fantastic bed and breakfast smack in the center of town.  The family converged on the town for a surprise party for my cousin, so we all had to lay low and stay, well, anywhere but her house.  On previous trips to the town, my cousin and I would just hole up in their house catching up, doing something along the lines of drinking PBR and watching Top Gun in our pajamas (which is a glorious thing to do with your weekend, actually).

Actually staying downtown gave me a chance to really experience the life and flavor of this town.  It's completely different from Disney.  It's completely different from the beach towns and cities.  Being in Winter Garden almost felt like going back in time.   The whole place has an old-fashioned, casual feel.  And on the third Saturday of every month, downtown holds an event called Cruz-N-Cars.  People from all over God-knows-where converge on the downtown strip and show off their classic cars.  Oldies music is blasted from somewhere.  People bring out their camp chairs and just sit on the street enjoying the cars, talking to passers-by, and simply relax.  It's fantastic.  And if you don't like old cars and good music and chilling outside, you are a terrorist.


I don't even care about cars, but this is still cool.
Downtown Winter Garden even has solid food choices.  Good luck finding awesome food anywhere inside Disney except for Epcot.  Thai Blossom Restaurant rocks.  If you're in a pizza mood, Winter Garden Pizza is delicious.  And Moon Cricket Grille is a standard but solid place to enjoy a few beers.

Did I mention that there's a great multi-use trail that also cuts right through downtown?  Yeah, they have that, too.  And a really nice bike shop tucked among all the great food joints in case you're on two wheels get a flat.  Of course, you'll have to brave the oppressive Florida heat and humidity to make use of the trail.  And really, that's one of the main reasons I hate the whole dadgum state.  But at least they have wintertime going for them.

So where is there to stay in this oasis from Disneymania? Well, there's only one hotel downtown, but you won't need another one, because this one is fabulous.  It's the Historic Edgewater Hotel, and it's really more of a bed and breakfast.  The building is beautiful, they have a fascinating old hand-operated elevator, the rooms are charming and cozy, and they even make you a hot breakfast made to order.

I swear, this town really is worth the small commute to and from Disney World.  It's a great place to relax and regroup before diving into the crowds, lines, and expense of the theme parks.  And if you disagree, I'll be happy to pay up that money I wagered.  Which was none, actually, but never mind that.

May 21, 2014

Learn more about NYC by eating

If you look up "hangry" online, you will probably find a picture of me.  Hunger and I do not get along well.  So when my friend Marissa suggested taking a food tour of the Lower East Side in Manhattan two weekends ago, I was all for it.  God, I love food.

The tour was offered by the Tenement Museum, also conveniently located on the Lower East Side.  And despite already having a bagel and a donut earlier in the morning, I was ready to shove more food into my gullet.

We ended up being 15 minutes late because the subway is smarter than we are.  But as soon as we rolled up, we were escorted to our tour group, given a hearty welcome, and promised bottled water at the next stop. I hadn't even eaten anything yet, but I was already happy.

What I didn't realize about the tour was that it's purpose is to give a glimpse into the history of the Lower East Side through the foods that have been made and consumed there through the years.  We ate pretzels from a German saloon as our guide told us about the German settlers in New York.  We ate pickled pineapple from a Jewish pickle vendor and learned about the demise of food carts and old time propaganda claiming that pickles were terribly unhealthy.  We scored hot-right-out-of-the-oven bialys from a Polish bakery - something I'd never even heard of.  And we ate green tea flavored pastries from a bakery owned by the daughter of Chinese immigrants who wanted to fuse French baking with traditional Chinese flavors (and she has definitely succeeded).  


After it was over, I felt both educated and sufficiently not hungry.  The tour gave great insight into various cultures and the history of New York that I doubt you'll ever get in a classroom.  But exploring history and culture through food makes so much sense - it's one thing that is a central part of every human being's life.  I'd never thought of that until I got to stuff my face on this tour.

Our guides were fantastic, and so was the food.  In fact, I was so enamored with the pickled pineapple that I went online and ordered myself an entire gallon of it.  I highly recommend this tour if you find yourself in New York, and I'm pretty darn happy that Marissa discovered it.


And now I will wait for my tub of pineapple to arrive. I'm getting hungry.

May 20, 2014

Announcing the contest winners!

Thank you to everyone that entered the caption contest to win an Embrace Sleep Collar! You people are pretty dadgum funny.  I've had myself a good ol' time reading all the entries that you submitted and a tough time picking a winner and a runner-up. And for once, I'm not going to ramble - I'll get straight to the point:

The winner and recipient of an Embrace Sleep Collar and a Good Night Eye Shade is Veronika from Washington, D.C.  Congratulations!

Maybe I should have taken the Voudon Priestess seriously when she said "Your ass is grass"


And the runner-up is Pierce from San Francisco. Congratulations to you, too!

That's the last time I take THAT shortcut...


I'd also like to give a shout-out of thanks to Designs in Progress that make both the Embrace Sleep Collar and the Good Night Eye Shade.  Congratulations again to the winners, and thank you to everyone that sent in captions.  I have been thoroughly entertained.

May 16, 2014

Washington Deluxe should show Megabus how it's done

Ah, New York City.  So many things to see, and so many ways to get there.  There are probably thousands of planes, trains, and buses that I can choose from to ferry my butt up there from DC.

But planes are expensive, often delayed, and require getting somewhat naked in order to get there.  Nope.

Trains are comfortable and not usually subject to delays, but they're still expensive.  Nope.

Buses are cheap.  So am I.  We have a winner.

And that's how Chris and I found ourselves suffering through a ridiculous ride on Megabus this past December.  We swore that was our first and last trip with Megabus.  I did not forget this declaration as I made plans to go to New York last weekend to hang out with a friend.  After checking rates and schedules with some other, generally less crappy bus companies, I settled on Washington Deluxe.

Let's just say that Megabus could learn a thing or 20 from Washington Deluxe about how to run their operation.  Buses were on time.  Employees were not only competent and informative, but (gasp!) friendly.  Electrical outlets actually worked.  Wi-fi actually worked.  People with reservations actually got seats.  I could understand the driver when he spoke.  I kind of wanted to hug him.

There were some other definite pluses to taking Washington Deluxe:

  • They went directly from DC to Manhattan and vice versa.  They did not pass Go. They did not collect $200.  They did not pick up people in other cities (or stop in another city just to leave people stranded because they can't figure out how a reservation system is supposed to work).  
  • The buses are normal, garden variety sized buses that hold about 50 people.  No double deckers.  Fewer people meant less chaos and confusion and faster loading and unloading.  This was fabulous.
  • Some of their scheduled trips also offer a drop-off and pick-up in Brooklyn.  Since I was staying in Brooklyn, this was also pretty darn fabulous.
The only minor negative was some cramped leg room on the bus up to New York.  But I'm tall, and that's just something that happens in some group seating situations.  I allowed my limbs to spill out into the aisle.  Problem kind of solved.

I have to admit, it was a relief to realize that not all bus companies run a sh*t show like Megabus.  I mean, if I'm only paying $50 for a ride to and from New York, I'm not going to be that picky.  I can barely fill up my gas tank for that amount of money.  I don't expect to be served club soda and peanuts or sit in a cushy nap-inducing seat.  But if you're going to run a business of any sort, you have to do right by people.  And I'm happy to report that Washington Deluxe does just that.

May 5, 2014

Win an Embrace Sleep Collar!

FREE STUFF.

Oh hello, I have your attention now, I see.

I've talked about the Embrace Sleep Collar before, and it's one of my favorite travel doo-dads.  If I know I'm going to need to sleep while in transit on any trip, I have to have this thing.  If you're curious about it, well, here's your chance to win one!

Embrace Sleep Collar

All you have to do is submit a caption about the picture below:

YOUR CAPTION HERE

HOW TO ENTER


  • Tweet your caption entry to my twitter handle, @TheIncNomad and/or use the hashtag #TINContest.
  • All entries must be received by 11:59 pm on Monday, May 12, 2014.  

That's all you have to do.  You don't have to sign up for any newsletters, buy anything funky, or donate bone marrow. Just get creative and tweet me your best.  I have high expectations of you people.

OTHER GOOD INFO


  • One winner and one runner-up will be chosen.
  • The winner will receive one Embrace Sleep Collar.  And, hey-o, the winner gets to choose the color!
  • The runner-up will receive one Good Night Eye Shade. Runner-up gets to choose among the colors black, black, and black.
  • Everyone else receives eternal glory from your entry in the Twitterverse.
  • The winner and runner-up will be notified via Twitter.

CONTEST RULES

  • Contest open to legal residents of the continental U.S. only.  Sorry, no international entries.  And my apologies to Alaska and Hawaii.
  • Unlimited entries allowed.  Put your creative caps on.
  • Any entries deemed inappropriate by The Inconsistent Nomad will be automatically disqualified.  I mean, I like snarkiness and four-letter words and all, but if your entry is nothing but a string of curse words, it's getting tossed. 
  • By entering this contest, you agree to have your first name and geographical location (city, state) published on The Inconsistent Nomad. 
  • The winner and runner up must agree to give a valid mailing address to The Inconsistent Nomad.  And if you're entering, I already have your Twitter handle - booyah.  Contact information will not be shared with anyone outside of The Inconsistent Nomad and Designs in Progress (manufacturer of Sleep Collar and Good Night Eye Shade).  We just want to send you your swag!
  • No purchase necessary, void where prohibited, yada yada yada.

I'd like to give a big thank you to the guys at Designs in Progress for working with me on this.  I'm really looking forward to seeing what you all come up with.  Happy captioning, and good luck!