Sunday, April 27, 2014

Around the world thoughts (and a great travel tip)

Yesterday, the night before this around the world trip, I had dinner with a good friend who asked me “Are you excited about your upcoming trip.”  Without much thought, I instinctively replied “Not yet.”  My friend seemed a little puzzled, so I explained that I had been so crazily busy the past few weeks that I hadn’t the time to reflect on the trip itself.

Since I would be abroad for more than 11 weeks (!), a ton of business matters occupied my attention.  Yes, in this age of internet connectivity, I can run my little business from afar.  However, I had never before been away from the office for so long.  Also, from experience, I feared poor internet connections in some of the more remote places.  I tried to resolve as many issues upfront and preplan contingencies.  That took a lot of thought, time and effort.

In addition, the trip planning itself took up much more energy than expected.  I generally eschew travel agents.  Part of the fun of travel, at least for me, is researching and figuring out my own itinerary.  I also tend to get the best results that way, even when dealing with the relatively few competent and experienced agents.  It’s also cheaper.  However, this work can be time consuming, especially when looking at multiple destinations.   Of course, a complex travel itinerary makes the work geometrically more difficult.  This trip ended up very complex.

That is the second point I lamented to my friend:  “I might have bitten off more than I can chew.”  This trip started because I had reasons to be in Southeast Asia in May and in Europe in early June.  I had done a rewarding around the world trip in 2011, so I had a “Eureka” moment of combining the two trips into one and filling it in between with places that I had not been before.  From that simple thought, I sort of got a little insane and added a bit more here and a bit more there, until I ended up with a crazy quilted network of countries.  I am truly excited about each of my destinations, but when looking at it all as one trip, even I have to shake my head.  Was I trying to do too much?  Perhaps.

My natural tendency is always to try to see more rather than less.  Sometimes that ends up with a silly ratio of transit times relative to the amount actually spent exploring the city itself.   I always chide myself, but then sometimes fall into the same traps.  Ultimately, I end up seeing and doing what I wanted, but travel is about the “experience”, not just “seeing stuff.”  So I make an extra effort to interact with locals, really learn something about the country’s culture, and then reflect on what I learned and tasted.  I usually learn something about myself as well.  On that score, I anticipate an eye opening trip.

So where am I going in my 11-plus weeks?  The countries are: Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, India, Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Morocco, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Russia.  I will spend the bulk of my time in cities I have never visited, at least as a tourist.   Other than some “formal” days in Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh, and Paris, the trip is all about seeing and experiencing new parts of the world.  I have visited many places, but never Sapa, Nepal, Agra (India), Poland, Berlin, Munich, Salzburg, the French country side, Morocco, Scandinavia or St. Petersburg.  I get a little tired just thinking about it, but mostly am just very eager to delve into those locales.

The backbone of my transit is the fantastic One World Explorer Award.  Let me digress a bit and say that I have a pet peeve against the frequent flier programs of many airlines.  They increasingly make award travel restrictive and expensive.  Award seats are often unavailable, and the required mileage escalates every year.  For example, my around the world business class tickets in 2011 through Star Alliance set me back about 220,000 United Airlines miles per ticket as I recall.  With that, we visited New Zealand, Thailand, South Africa/Botswana, Turkey, Italy, and the UK.  That same ticket today would cost 350,000 miles, or 50%+ increase in just three years!

The One World Explorer Award is the exception.  For this trip, I spent just 150k American Airline miles to travel business class on the following itinerary: New York – Ho Chi Minh – Phnom Penh – Kathmandu – Warsaw – Munich – Berlin – Paris – Helsinki – New York.  I figure booking that trip for cash would cost about $10-12,000, so the award ticket is a very good deal.  Here comes the travel tip for those who have read this far without being too bored: you can book a similar deal even if you don’t yet have the miles!  I had enough miles in my account, but if you don’t, you should consider purchasing the extra you need.  American Airlines, for example, periodically runs promotions.  Their current promotion (expires April 30, but they run these periodically) allows you to purchase 91k miles for just $1780.

It takes as little as 130k miles (depending on your destinations) to craft your own customized One World Explorer “around the world ticket".  This means that for $1780 and 39k pre-existing miles, you might might be able to buy that dream airline ticket that otherwise costs you over $10,000!

With that award ticket as my travel backbone, I then separately bought the various short haul airline, train, bus and boat tickets to fill out the rest of my transit.  That all took a fair amount of time and research.  Between being constrained by the backbone of the award ticket, and incrementally adding travel destinations on the fly, my transit is not the most efficient.  I criss-cross countries a couple times.  Oh well, no planning can be perfect.

I also had to book my hotels.  This is where most of my family and friends roll their eyes.  I like cheap accommodations.  I require a hotel room only to sleep.  Thus, as long as it is clean, secure, and in a good location with a friendly service staff, why waste the dollars even if I can afford something a bit more upscale?  Better to save money for more beer!  Having said that, I like to indulge myself on occasion, so randomly may book an outrageously expensive place that, in my judgment at that moment anyway, is worth the price.  I know this juxtaposition makes no sense and that I reek of inconsistency.  So go ahead, roll your eyes, too.

My accommodations for this trip will range from $20 to, umm, $1200 per night.  The former reflects how inexpensive Southeast Asia can be when venturing away from the touristy hotels.  The latter, however, is actually “free”; for those two nights, I am using Hyatt award vouchers that would otherwise expire.  But it is one of the best hotels in the world.  Most of my hotels will be small independent outfits that I found on Tripadvisor, with the occasional multinational chain and a couple hostels thrown in for good measure.  I think they will all be fine.

Packing was difficult.  I like traveling light, preferring not to check bags if possible.  Thank heavens that most of my corporate world has gone “business casual” so I (mostly) no longer have to wear suits.  But pack for 11+ weeks?  I was resigned that I would need a large checked bag.  However, when I considered how often I would transit, I kept cutting things out of my packing list.  For example, my SLR camera sadly will not make this trip and I will instead exclusively rely on my trusty point-and-shoot.  The upshot, however, is that I managed to squeeze everything into my roll-on and an additional small backpack.

With all that finally done, I managed this morning to get myself to the airport and board Cathay Pacific to Asia.  From 40,000 feet in the air, in a flat sleeper seat sipping on Johnny Walker Gold (what no Blue?), I finally could relax and breathe a bit.   My full reply to my friend’s first question (“Are you excited?”) had been “I probably will be once I am on the plane.”  And, yes, I am getting excited now.  I am a bit sad about being away from loved ones for so long, especially with summer break coming up when their times will free up more.  Mostly, though, I am psyched to discover new parts of the world, meet people with whom I would never otherwise interact, and learn a bit more about me.  I feel truly blessed for the opportunity and can’t wait to start.

My friend’s last question echoed something others had inquired recently: “Do you like traveling by yourself?”  That’s a complicated question, isn’t it?  On this trip, I will be meeting colleagues or dear friends in some of my locations, but for the most part, will be by myself.  I rarely get lonely.  I truly enjoy the total freedom of solo travel.  I also really like meeting new people on the road and have always found my solo travels immensely fulfilling.  Having said that, we are all social creatures.  We are meant to share our lives with those close to us.  Blogs and Twitter are but trivial examples of that basic desire.  So that complicated question probably has a very complicated answer, but that’s for next time.

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