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Lessons Learned From 39 Days On The Road

By October 3, 2013 December 10th, 2013 3 Comments

On Sunday, after 39 long days of living out of a suitcase and traveling around the world, I finally made my way back to Chicago!

My final trip took me to the following 18 cities and logged me around 25,000 butt-in-seat miles (although most of the miles were on Awards)!

Copenhagen, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Rome, Seychelles, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Dublin, Amsterdam, Zagreb, Dubrovnik, Mostar, Split, Hvar, Munich, and New York.

All in all, my trip was absolutely amazing and to my surprise there weren’t any major hiccups (like missing flights, etc)!

School is in full swing but I am in the process of doing the trip reports and uploading the pictures to Facebook, so keep a lookout for that in the coming weeks.

Also FFU will be migrating to BoardingArea in the coming days / weeks!

Lessons Learned

Not surprisingly, when you travel for 39 days straight you quickly pick up on some interesting observations, so here are a few things that I think are worth sharing.

Of course, you don’t have to take any of my advice, I am just putting it out there.

39 Days Is A Long Time

This might seen obvious in hindsight but much like when you order way too much food when you are really hungry, when I booked this trip, I was really hungry to travel so I went all out and decided to do 39 days straight!

While I didn’t mind the actual traveling part, certain parts of being on the road do get old, like eating out for every meal and living out of a suitcase.

That being said, I met so many Australians who were on the 9th month of their 2 year around the world excursion that 39 days is barely a drop in the bucket in comparison…

If you do ever end up doing an extended travel trip, make sure you know your limits and don’t over extend yourself!

Don’t Sweat The Small Points

While it is great to have Elite Status, fly in Premium Cabins, get free breakfast, have Lounge Access, etc, from this trip I realized that most of those benefits fall into 2 categories; essential and non-essential. 

For example when we were at the Sheraton Zagreb, we booked the room using my friend Eric’s SPG Platinum status. While we were told there would be a welcome gift in the room, when we went up it wasn’t there and never showed up. In the grand scheme of things is not getting a welcome gift the end of the world? No! 

Similarly in Abu Dhabi, since we were flying Business Class, we were entitled to be picked up by Etihad’s chauffer service. Unbeknownst to us, you had to book the chauffer 24 hours before departure, which we didn’t do so we missed out on it and had to pay $10 to take a cab to the airport. Again, while it would have been nice to have been picked up, it was only $10 so not the end of the world. 

In both cases, we could have spent time calling Starwood or Etihad demanding we get the benefits we were promised, but instead we realized that we were on vacation and those benefits were not essential and it was better just to let them go and enjoy our trip. 

Now if for some reason let’s say we had to fly in Economy when we paid for Business or we reserved a hotel room and they didn’t have it, then those would be essential problems that it would be worth fighting for, but most other stuff it is better to just let it go because the value of the benefits is probably not worth your time.  

Always Negotiate

As Americans, negotiating on prices is not something we are accustomed to. However in most other countries, negotiating / haggling is the norm and is usually built into the price.

When we were in Dubrovnik, we saw a day tour to Bosnia for $80 a person. We were interested in going but thought $80 was a bit much. Since it was nearing the end of the summer season, we figured the tour buses were probably departing half empty, so we attempted to do some serious negotiating and offered $80 for 2 tickets instead of $80 each. Not surprisingly, they accepted our offer! The tour was awesome and a great deal for $40, and leads me to my next point.

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

When most people hear Bosnia, Zagreb, Croatia, etc, they think WAR ZONE!

To be fair there was a war in Croatia / Bosnia…..in 1995. However these days, Croatia is better than fine and just joined the European Union in July, while Bosnia (below) is quickly getting back on its feet!

Most of the information we get about other countries comes from the news, which conveniently only shares information when it is either extremely bad or extremely good.

For example, if you watched the news or read the newspaper recently, you would think the entire country of Kenya is under attack by terrorists.

While I wouldn’t suggest going to Afghanistan or Iraq anytime soon, in another 10 years it might be fine, who knows?

My point is do your own research about where you are traveling to but listen to people who have actually visited the country and have first hand knowledge, over listening to people who are basically armchair travelers and get all their information from the media. 

Don’t Rely Only On Trip Advisor

In the age of the internet, we have all become somewhat accustomed to checking reviews for every single thing possible, whether it be shopping, food, hotels, etc.

While there certainly is some value in checking reviews to avoid having bad experiences, like anything it has to be done in moderation because otherwise it turns into an obsession.

Trip Advisor is probably the most guilty of this because when people use it to find restaurants, it changes their expectations and they basically expect perfection every time.

“Oh this restaurant was ranked #1 on Trip Advisor so it has to be absolutely amazing!”

However when reality gets in the way and the Trip Advisor recommendation only turns out to be average or bad, then people get mad that Trip Advisor let them down. 

We used Trip Advisor sparingly during on our trip because we quickly realized that if a restaurant had the number 1 ranking on Trip Advisor, then it was solely frequented by other tourists who had also used Trip Advisor. We also realized that many of the “top” restaurants on Trip Advisor have figured out how to game the system and push their businesses to the top.

While Trip Advisor did make some good recommendations, it also made some pretty bad recommendations. Not surprisingly, while exploring on our own, we also found some good restaurants, as well as some bad ones…

Moral of this story is that if you are traveling without a guided group tour then everything is basically a crap-shoot. So you can either spend hours pouring over Trip Advisor or you can just go out and explore. More than likely you will get the same results. Some good finds and some bad finds! 

In my opinion, a better option over Trip Advisor is to simply ask locals, who actually live in the neighborhood, where they go. Again, their recommendations might be good or bad, but at least it should be somewhat authentic.

One of the coolest experiences we had was in Prague, when we went to a small 10 person neighborhood bar someone recommended at our Hostel. Of course, we said we were only going to have “1 drink”, but ended up staying until 6am because we were having so much fun talking to the locals. Since this bar was so small and off the beaten path, if we had only relied on Trip Advisor, we never would have ventured in because it isn’t a bar that is frequented or reviewed by tourists!

Take Time To Smell The Roses

Most of us lead fairly hectic lives and when you only have 2-4 weeks of vacation a year, even the vacations can feel rushed. Similarly, when miles, points, and free nights are so easy to come by, it is easy to get jaded and not fully appreciate how lucky we are.

It didn’t occur to me until after I left Seychelles, but it is sad that 99.9% of people in the world will never get to experience firsthand seeing the sun set in Seychelles. So take time to appreciate your surroundings when traveling! 

Have Flexible Plans If Possible

Unless you have Elite Status or are flying Southwest, having flexible plans isn’t exactly something most people are accustomed to (myself included).

However on this trip, between Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, we opted to take trains which allowed us some added flexibility to continue onwards at our own pace.

When I met up with Eric, our original plan was to go from Dublin to Athens to Munich, however since he is United 1K,  we were able to make some fairly serious changes for free. Instead of going to Athens, the night before our flight, we changed our tickets to go to Croatia and threw in a 23 hour layover in Amsterdam. 

In Croatia, since we changed our tickets the night before, we had no real idea where we were going in Croatia and thus didn’t book any hotels. Instead, we ended up going to each city and seeing how we liked it. We then would make the decision to continue onwards or stay for a few more days. This allowed us to stay only 1 night in sleepy towns like Zagreb and Split, but stay 3 nights in both Dubrovnik and Hvar where there was more to see.

Of course, this means operating on a certain level of ambiguity and it certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you can travel with flexibility, I highly recommend it.

One Thing A Day Rule 

This tip is actually Eric’s but is definitely something I am going to adopt going forward.

Basically instead of trying to jam 100 things into your day, just select 1 thing and commit to doing that. This takes a lot of stress out of your day and also helps take you off the mentality of having to “stay on a schedule”.

This works even better if you are in a group because you all can pick 1 activity for the day and then after you are done the people who want to shop, go the beach, walk around, etc can do whatever they want.

Try And Talk To Locals, They Might Just Surprise You

Talking to locals is something I realized that most people don’t do while traveling, unless it is at a bar.

I highly encourage everyone to be more active in talking to people while traveling because the results can be unexpected.

In Seychelles, we were walking up the hill looking for a convenience store and saw a bunch of young men playing dominos in someone’s yard, we asked them for directions and then continued up the hill. Coming back down the hill we thanked them for the directions and asked if we could join them in their game.

To our surprise, they were more than happy to accommodate us and we ended up playing dominos with them for hours. We learned a ton about the Seychelles culture from those guys and their perspective on living in paradise, all because we simply made the effort to talk to them. 

After that, we continued to make whole hearted attempts to talk to locals anywhere we went and to our surprise, every single one of them was more than willing to talk to us. Even more surprisingly, they all were really curious about life in the U.S because their knowledge was limited to what they saw on tv.

Pack Lightly

For this trip, I opted to bring my REI Backpack which I talked about here. While I would have preferred to take a roll aboard, due to flying European low cost carriers and having to lug along my laptop and camera, a roll aboard wasn’t an option. I tried to pack as lightly as possible but I still somehow packed way too much stuff!

I honestly suggest packing as little as you can, and then cutting that into half or you will over pack. 

Cash Is King

Although I hate carrying cash and much prefer to use my credit card whenever possible, much of the world still only accepts cash or their credit card machine happens to be “broken” (can’t even tell you how many times we heard that line).

That being said, always carry cash on you because it can be a lifesaver. For example, in Seychelles, we filled the car up with $70 of gas and they only accepted cash!

Of course, to take cash out abroad, I highly suggest getting a Charles Schwab free checking account which gets you free ATM withdrawals anywhere in the world.

Use Wikitravel

I used to really be into getting physical guide books like Rick Steve’s or Eyewitness Travel because they had fairly interesting recap of the history and background about the places I was visiting. However then I discovered WikiTravel and that was the end of buying guide books.

For those of you not familiar, Wikitravel is just like Wikipedia but is only for traveling! 

The reason why you should use Wikitravel is because people edit it with valuable, real time information.

For example, when transiting into cities from the airport, I ALWAYS check Wikitravel because it provides all the transit options and tells you which one is the cheapest.

When I went into Rome, there was an express train that costs 14 Euros which most people take, but thanks to WikiTravel, I found an express bus that was only 4 Euros!

Also just like Wikipedia, you can update the information if you have any tips or advice that you want to share! 

Wikitravel is one of the greatest travel resources out there and it is FREE!

Don’t Center Entire Trip On Miles / Points

Miles and Points are absolutely amazing because they allow us to travel the world for pennies, but as a word of advice, don’t let them dictate where you travel.

By sheer coincidence, on this trip I had the opportunity to fly quite a few Business Class products and stay at some amazing Starwood, Hyatt, and Hilton properties in Seychelles and Abu Dhabi.

That being said, on this trip I also stayed at a Airbnb property, too many hostels to count, and flew 3 European low cost carriers.

The reason for this was simple. There were many places I wanted to visit but there weren’t any award flights or U.S based hotel chains. Instead of not going to the places I wanted to visit, I simply found lower cost options and paid out of pocket.

The best example of this is the island of Hvar in Croatia, not only is there no airport (you have to arrive by 1-2 hour ferry from Split) but there is also no U.S Hotel chains! Talk about #FirstWorldProblems!

While we had no problem with this and took the ferry to Hvar and crashed at a hostel for 3 nights, the reason why I bring this is up is because I have no doubt that there are people in the frequent flyer community who would not go to Hvar for the fact that there is no airport or U.S luxury hotels to earn / redeem points at.

This is obviously crazy because Hvar is absolutely amazing!

So just remember when planning your trips, don’t solely build them around which U.S hotel chains have properties in certain cities or countries because you could be missing out on some amazing places! 

Recap

Anyways, those are my few words of wisdom from traveling for 39 days.

If you have any tips you think might be valuable, please feel free to share them below!

-Parag

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3 Comments

  • Charlie says:

    Well written…Great advice…Thanks

  • SD says:

    This is dreamy – thanks for sharing the particulars.

    A fear of mine (made easier and also a bit harder by a great trip to Paris this summer) is being able to talk to people. I'm from the Midwest, so I'm waging a difficult fight against being monolingual. Did you find gesture or search for common words a lot? Or did people know English enough for you to be able to get around and carry on conversations easily enough?

  • Laurel says:

    Nice recap Parag! Glad you had such a killer time and thanks for all the applicable tips. Enjoy grad school and we <3 you man.

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