We LOVE to travel, so I’m always looking for ways to maximize our dollars without sacrificing our experiences. Now that we are rapidly approaching the three quarters of a century mark, some of the things we found satisfactory when we were much younger aren’t quite so appealing now. These days, we are not interested in hostels or camping, but fortunately there are many other ways to make travel more affordable. One of them is find a travel company that meets your needs and then stick with them. More and more are offering loyalty programs to encourage you to look no further than their offerings.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that Mike and I have used a variety of companies, but lately we have found that OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) has been providing maximum value for our travel dollars. We like the small group size, the itineraries, the guides, the activity level, and for us, the right balance of free time and structured activities.
It also doesn’t hurt that they have a great loyalty program. Here’s how theirs works. When you take a trip with OAT,(or with their sister company, Grand Circle) you earn a 5% credit toward a second trip, if taken within a 12 month period. If you take two trips within a calendar year, you get a $250 per person discount on the second trip.
Another way to save is to pay by check, 12 months in advance. That will earn you a 7.5% discount. Of course, if you do so, you don’t get the points on your credit card, and you may forgo some of the benefits you card offers. It isn’t hard to do a quick cost/benefit analysis. If you have one of the premium credit cards, it is worth checking out whether it offers generous trip insurance benefits. If yes, those benefits could outweigh the 7.5% savings for advance cash payments.
On your FIRST OAT trip, an easy way to save $100 per person is to be referred by another OAT traveler, so check with friends and family to discover if they have ever taken an OAT trip. When you make your reservation, you simply give their traveler number, and voila, you and your friend have both earned a $100 credit toward future trips. If you don’t have a friend who has traveled with OAT, I would be delighted to be your friend. Here’s my number: 001564068. After YOUR first trip, YOU can refer travelers, which will earn YOU a $100 credit toward your next trip. Easy, right?
More information about all of these programs is available on the OAT website. Once you get there, click on the “Why OAT” bar at the top of the page and this is what you will see:
In addition to “Ways to Save”, you should also check out “Last Minute Travel Deals” if your schedule is flexible.
Normally, I plan our international travel MANY months in advance, usually well over a year, so we can take advantage of that prepayment discount. But there’s another reason. Because OAT groups are limited to only 16 travelers, the popular times fill up quickly. It seems we all want to travel when the weather is most favorable for our destination, but when it is not over crowded with tourists.
This year, however, we decided to do something different. A trip we have been wanting to take popped up as a “Last Minute Travel Deal” and it just happened to be the ideal time of year for us to visit South America. Sometimes, the last minute deals are for less popular travel times.
This last minute deal saved us $1,000 per person. And because we are taking another OAT trip later this year, we saved an additional $250 per person, for a total of $2,500. These savings really DO add up.
I was a little concerned that the airfare would devour all of our savings because we were booking so late. Fortunately, OAT was able to get us great seats on a direct flight to Santiago with LATAM Airlines. Yeah, I never heard of them either, but a quick internet search allayed my fears. It is the result of a recent merger between LAN Argentina and LAN Chile. Let’s hope it is a HAPPY union.
We are arriving a day early, just in case we get uncooperative weather –not unheard of in the New York/New Jersey area in winter. If we luck out, and arrive as scheduled, we will have an extra day in Santiago to combat jet lag and see the sights.
So, what about you? Do you have a favorite travel company? Ideas for extracting the most value from you travel dollars?
What could be better that Northern Italy in the fall? Right now, nothing comes to mind, which is a good thing, because that’s where we will be for 19 glorious days.
We arrive in Milan 4 days before our OAT trip starts. How in the world did it happen that one of the least fashion savvy women on this planet will be in Milan during fashion week? I imagine the streets will be loaded with even more beautiful people than usual, wearing exquisite clothes. Will that change my determination to travel with only a carry on and backpack? The answer to that question is “not a chance”. Initially the plan was for us to exit the plane and head for the train without a detour to baggage claim, but then we got a call from our trip leader. She reminded us that although it will be warm in Milan and Tirano, temperatures will drop during our visits to the Swiss Alps and the Dolomites. So, that means we will need bulkier items. I was able to fit everything into my trusty Eagle Creek carry on, but Mike’s clothes are considerably larger than mine. So, one of us will be checking luggage. That’s okay. I’ll get a chance to see whether international flights are as picky as domestic ones about carry on size. On our last domestic flight, I discovered that United has changed the dimensions for allowable carry ons to 9″ x 15″ x 21″. My trusty Eagle Creek bag is 10″ x 13″ x 22″, or 2,860 cubic inches, versus an allowable 2,835 cubic inches. Really? Will the gate person play hard ball? Because we will be waiting at baggage claim anyway, it doesn’t really matter. I’m determined to pack light regardless, because after our first night in Milan, Mike and I will be going our separate ways, and I will be traveling solo by train, bus and boat.
Mike is heading off to Stradavari’s old stomping grounds –Cremona–to hang out with his violin making buddies. While he’s there, I’ll be in Tremezzo, on Lake Como. Wonder if George and Amal will need a baby sitter for the twins? And will I have packed the proper outfit?
Ah yes, packing. I did my usual clothes “auditioning”. It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed to amp up my quick drying wardrobe.
For my last “one bag” trip, I used a laundry service midway, because I spent half of the trip in just one place–Beja, Portugal. This trip, however, I will wash as I go, because over 19 days, we will be staying in 8 different hotels. This also took some serious retooling of my laundry aids. The expandable clothes line I packed last time was pretty worthless when I couldn’t find two suitable attachment points that would also allow me use of the bathroom (thus the need for laundry service).
What I had never done before is something that bloggers Terri and James of Gallivance recommend: try living out of the bag for a week. Of course, they were preparing for an around the world trip lasting several months, while I’m just going to one country for less than three weeks, so I didn’t feel the need to literally live out of my bag. Instead, what I HAVE been doing is limiting myself to the clothes that I plan on taking and washing them out in the sink. So far so good. My LL Bean travel pants have been drying in less than 8 hours!
Some travelers swear by packing cubes. In the past, I relied on my jumbo zip lock bags instead and they have served me well, but this time I decided to give a packing cube a try. This cube opens on both sides, and is divided into two compartments–perfect for stashing things that I will be using on a daily basis. To my surprise, I was able to fit pajamas, underwear, toiletry bag and laundry supplies, plus a few small items–jewelry and scarves. So, I can pull this out in every hotel, and I have the equivalent of two bureau drawers. Take a look.
Best of all, it fits nicely into my carry on, leaving just enough room for everything else. If you are interested in what I was able to jam into my bag, here’s a link to the Google spreadsheet.
Of course, this list could come in handy in the event that my luggage is lost. (Which it was, briefly, on my trip to Portugal and Spain earlier this year.)
I suspect the reason I haven’t used packing cubes was my carry on is already divided into neat sections. As for whether I folded or rolled, the answer is, I did both.
Okay, so enough with the packing. Full disclosure, although I sincerely hope that what I share is helpful to others, I REALLY have recorded it to help me, because I tend to forget what I took, what worked, what didn’t, if I have’t written it down. Yes, a mind is a terrible thing to lose, or waste, or whatever is going on with that empty space atop my shoulders.
On to the other preparations. I got tickets for the train from the airport to our first hotel, from this very helpful website. There are others, but I found Trainline easy to use. Who wants to deal with unfamiliar ticket machines, in another language, while jet lagged? Not me. Being a bit obsessive compulsive, I also got tickets for when I’m traveling solo to lower my anxiety level. From the Como train station, I have a choice of taking either a ferry or a bus to my hotel in Tremezzo. Thanks to the internet, I have the schedules for both, and can decide which option is most appealing once I get there.
What a difference from my travel days in my early 20’s, when I got on a plane to Colorado without any reservations, with very little money, and only a vague idea of where I was going and what I was going to do when I arrived. With google maps, trip advisor and the internet’s search options, I can be somewhat spontaneous, while limiting the risk of bad decisions. (The thought that a bad decision was possible never crossed my mind in my younger days!)
Climate matters. Big time. OCO is much easier when the weather is consistently warm because those clothes are SMALLER and lighter weight.
It gets challenging when the weather at the destination is changeable. Sometimes warm, sometimes cold, like our upcoming spring trip to Yellowstone. Yes, yes, I know. Dress in layers. Still, when the weather is expected to fluctuate between 33 and 75 degrees, with the possibility of thunderstorms and even snow, it becomes tricky. I can wear my waterproof hiking boots on the plane. My parka? I don’t think so.
Self knowledge is powerful. I learned I really hate doing laundry in hotel bathrooms. It wasn’t bad during my two weeks in Portugal, because I was in the same hotel the entire time and had my own room. So, draping my underwear from every available surface didn’t inconvenience anyone else. When I met up with my husband in Spain, however, and shared space, I was glad that I had used the laundry service in Beja, arriving with everything clean, so the need to do laundry was limited.
Another insight? At home, I wash clothes far more than I need to. Because I have access to a washer and dryer, I wear something once, then toss it into the laundry basket. Why? It isn’t as if I spend my days mud wrestling or cleaning sewage ditches. Okay, work out clothes and underwear are “one wear” items, but my black travel pants? I discovered I could easily wear them two or three times with no ill effects. Better for my clothes, and much better for the environment. I’m now doing “multiple wears” at home.
Traveling solo is different from traveling with a group. If I am on my own, as I was getting from Portugal to Spain–by bus, plane and taxi, then OCO makes sense. The hassle of doing laundry is much less than the hassle of lugging a bigger bag when moving from one mode of transportation to another. If I am on a group tour, or traveling with family, then once again, it depends. Why carry on, if you have to wait for others held up at baggage claim? On our group tours, our bags magically move from outside our hotel doors to the van or bus. So easy. On family trips, I have my personal baggage handler, who never expects a tip. Still, if we are only spending two or three nights per hotel, it is so much easier if your wardrobe choices are limited.
The airline may make the decision for you. Just because you PLAN to carry on, doesn’t mean the airline will ALLOW you to do so. If the flight is too full, the airline may force you to gate check your bag. Bonus discovery–if you gate check, your bag is one of the last ones on the plane and one of the first ones rotating around that baggage carousel. Not a bad deal. I’m not sure how it works with connecting flights. THAT could be problematic, especially on international flights, if your bag is not checked all the way through.
Planned activities are an important factor. Will I need a “dress up” outfit? If so, then I will need the appropriate footwear. Sneakers or Keens just don’t look right with a dressy outfit. Normally I limit my footwear to two pairs (one worn on the plane, the other packed-and jammed full of small “stuff”). If I need something dressy, sandals are a good option, don’t take up space and can sometimes be good for walking. And yes, I either use the hotel’s shower cap or a plastic bag from the fruits and vegetable section of the grocery store to protect my clothes from my shoes.
Will we be using a pool or going to the beach? Fortunately flip flops don’t take up much room, and bathing suit coverups can sometimes do double duty.
Packing skills can make or break OCO. There are those who swear by packing cubes. I’m not one of them. I find that zip lock bags work better for me. I can see what’s inside, the bags weigh next to nothing, and they can be smooshed to fit into odd spaces.
A combo of rolled and flat methods allow me to maximize space, with small things tucked into any available space.
For long trips, I find compression bags helpful (except I seem to keep losing the little closure thingy.) Sometimes kneeling on my zip lock bag achieves the same effect.
I LOVE my hanging toiletry bag, especially when traveling with my guy. The hanging bag allows me to let him have the space by the sink, which is usually too small for two. BUT if I am doing OCO, I will give up my beloved hanging toiletry bag, and revert to zip locks in a plastic grocery bag, which I can hang over the bathroom door knob. (Most of the time I use cloth grocery bags, but for the few occasions when I end up with plastic, I save them for this purpose.)
So, there you have it. Before each trip the pros and cons are balanced. Sometimes one carry on makes sense–and other times, my large duffle does the trick. How about you? any packing insights you want to share?
I’ve been home for a little more than a week. It took almost that long to get back to normal after seven days in Tibet.
I expected to love Tibet. I WANTED to love Tibet. Sadly, very sadly, I didn’t.
Have I turned into an “ugly American”, critical of a country when it isn’t like home? I certainly hope not.
It is entirely possible that I was spoiled by the fantastic guides and the wonderful experiences we had in Bhutan and Nepal, and expected more of the same. Or maybe it was because for the first three days in Lhasa, I was fighting a cold and the Tibetan’s version of Montezuma’s revenge, adjusting to the altitude and possibly reacting to the Diamox I’d taken for altitude sickness. Whatever it was, I was not feeling great. I missed two afternoons of sightseeing in Lhasa so I could sleep my way to feeling better.
Although I had read up on Tibet and had checked the Overseas Adventure Forum before booking the trip, there were still a few surprises. After much soul searching, I’ve uncovered what might have influenced my feelings about Tibet, AND am offering some tips so that future travelers might make their experience more enjoyable.
The China Factor Knowing that China had taken over Tibet was not the same as experiencing the impact of that takeover. This is the closest I’ve ever come to being in a police state. Those two white objects on the dashboard are cameras–one pointed inward so the police could monitor what was going on in our van whenever they wanted.
And yes, that IS a military convoy, in front of us, hauling big guns. Although you can’t see it in the photo, in every truck, two soldiers were pointing their weapons out the back. I was very grateful the road wasn’t bumpy!
Although the hotel in Lhasa offered free wifi, we quickly discovered that google, yahoo, safari, the New York Times, and many email accounts were blocked by the Chinese government.
Being under constant surveillance has to have an impact on the psyche of the population, and I believe it did. Unlike Bhutan and Nepal, the people in Tibet didn’t seem as interested in interacting with tourists. Or maybe they were afraid.
Tip: If it is important to stay in contact with family back home, set up a hotmail account. For some reason, that email service wasn’t blocked. Also, texting works. My iPhone allowed me to send free “imessages”!
Altitude and Air The air is very dry because of the altitude and very smoky from cigarettes and incense. Everyone smokes everywhere–in the hotels, restaurants, on the street. It was like being trapped in a Mad Men episode, but with different costumes. You can request a non-smoking hotel room, but there is no guarantee that you will get anything other than a smoking room sprayed with air freshener.
If the cigarette smoke doesn’t get you, then the incense and Yak butter candles in the temples will.
At times, inside the temples and monasteries, I found it challenging to breathe.
And if you think stepping outside to breathe in fresh air would help, think again. These little chimneys for burning incense are everywhere!
Tip: The 5th floor of the Xin Ding Hotel is the only nonsmoking floor. The other hotels don’t have that option, but 4 of the 7 nights are spent in the Xin Ding, so it is worth it to request a room on the 5th floor. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a wonderful view of the Potala from your room.
The hotel makes sure you can buy whatever you need without leaving the comfort of your room: toothpaste, manicure tools, condoms, mysterious things in plastic bags with Chinese writing on the front…
Long Drives in a Small Van over a Barren Landscape
Fortunately, no one in the group was very large. At 5’8″, I was the tallest. If my 6’3″ husband had been with us, the 8 hour drives from and to Lhasa would have been quite uncomfortable for him.
But the size of the van wasn’t the problem. No, the challenge was the lack of bathroom facilities along the way. Not only that, but we quickly discovered that squat toilets were the only option. The good news? You never had to ask for directions. All you had to do was follow your nose. Another plus? Many of them had no stalls or partitions, so you could make new friends while emptying your bladder. Let me tell you, it was much more pleasant to look at my neighbor’s backside than to look down at what had taken place before I arrived.
It didn’t take long for me to decide that a bush, a rock or a tree was far preferable to the few roadside bathroom facilities. Did I mention that I was drinking more water than usual because of my cold, the dry air and the altitude medication? Those were LOOONG drives!
Tip: Tiger Balm or Vicks applied under your nose blocks out all other smells. Unfortunately, I had neither with me. Women need to practice their squats before embarking on this trip!
The landscape on the drive to Gyantse was rather stark.
Our guide had to stop at multiple police check points along the way to show our passports and to complete paperwork, and to have our speed monitored. I didn’t think that was a bad thing, given the narrow winding mountain roads, but Marilynn disagreed. When our driver and guide took a cigarette break, leaving the keys in the van, she offered to take over and get us to the hotel in record time!
Here are the notable sights during our 8 hour drive to Gyantse.
Farmers, plowing with their yaks
Prayer flags looked very different from the ones we saw in Bhutan.
One of the two passes.
Tip: My iPod was my salvation; our guide and driver talked to each other in Tibetan for much of the way, so I was grateful I could plug in and listen to music instead.
Tibet has many wonderful myths and legends; I was looking forward to hearing our guide elaborate and offer the local version of the stories I’d read. Unfortunately, he either was not allowed to relate them to us, or perhaps during the 50+ years since China invaded, the legends stopped being passed along. He certainly couldn’t access Wikipedia to supplement his knowledge!
For example, our guide told us this unspectacular pile of rocks is Mt. Kalish. According to Google, Mt. Kalish is located in a very remote part of Tibet, and is visually spectacular. That “mountain” was neither. But Tibetans do circumambulate its perimeter, and it has been the locale for “sky burials”. (A few days after someone dies, the body is cut up, brought to the mountain top and left for the vultures to consume, thereby completing the circle of life.)
I had hoped to learn more about the Goddess that was transformed into Yamtrok Lake, but once again, our guide wasn’t able to elaborate, so here’s what I learned from my reading. After arguing with her husband, a goddess decided to leave him forever by turning herself into a lake. Boats are not allowed on Yamtrok because the vessel would slice her skin. I also learned that Tibetans believe if the Lake ever goes dry, all Tibetans will perish.
After returning home, I turned to Google, where I discovered that senior monks go to Yamtrok Lake after the Dalai Lama’s death. They throw sacred objects into the lake, then watch for a reflection that will tell them where to find the next (reincarnated) Dalai Lama.
Tip: Learn everything you can about the culture and myths before coming to Tibet. The information the guide imparts could be very limited.
You don’t travel to Tibet for the food. There is a reason Tibetan restaurants aren’t popping up in major cities, still, we had hoped for great Chinese food. Two of our group were born in Hong Kong, spoke and read fluent Mandarin. They were not fans of the cuisine.
Be prepared for very basic meals, with no snacks in between. There isn’t much fruit, however I discovered that you CAN buy bananas.
Tip: I had brought granola bars, but shared them with the other travelers during our long rides in Bhutan and Nepal. By the time we reached Tibet, my stash was gone. Big mistake. It’s a good idea to bring packaged snacks.
For me, interacting with the locals, especially children, is always a high point of my trips. Unlike in Bhutan and Nepal, opportunities to interact were limited.
While in Shigatse, I spent our two free afternoons wandering through the city. I was taking photos of the street when I was accosted by an old man with a walking stick in one hand and a prayer wheel in the other.
He was yelling at me, and for a moment I was afraid he was going to hit me. He apparently thought I had photographed him–although the truth was I didn’t even notice him. I was more interested in the goods on the sidewalk. End result? There are no photos of Tibetan people.
But I didn’t let that one unfortunate incident keep me from trying to interact with the locals.
I had learned to say “Tra-shi-de-lay”, which is close enough to the Tibetan greeting to occasionally get a smile.
During my second afternoon purchasing bananas, I noticed a Tibetan trying to take a picture of me with her cell phone, so I posed for her. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a young man attempting to get into the photo, so I turned, threw my arms around his neck and put my cheek next to him. And the crowd went wild! Not only that, but I got my bananas for half of what I had paid the day before. Sorry, no photos of that exchange because I had left MY camera back in the room. I didn’t want to take a chance of being smote with a stick!
Tip: Learn a couple of Tibetan words, smile and see if you can make a connection.
That’s all for today. Next post will be more upbeat, I promise. There will be photos of what made the trip special.