...constantly searching to find the best travel deals and places to visit. A never-ending quest for adventure!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Need a year end charity idea? Try Kiva!

As we near December 31st, you might be trying to decide on final charity organizations for the year (and for coming tax purposes).  Besides several non-profits I support, I always turn to Kiva as one of the best options for giving during the year.  Kiva is a non-profit lending organization, which describes itself as a company that "works with microfinance institutions on five continents to provide loans to people without access to traditional banking systems. One hundred percent of each loan is sent to these microfinance institutions, which we call Field Partners, who administer the loans in the field."

Should you decide that Kiva is also in your plans and you're a new account holder, I would be honored if you used my referral link to join:


The benefit I receive through the link is the ability to send out more loans...always helpful!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013

Place of the Day: Phnom Penh

I seem to recall Cambodia as one of the countries on "Where in the world is Carmen San Diego" that everyone had a hard time locating.  It's definitely on my list of places within the region to visit once I get that far, with such a rich culture and history to explore.  I tend to not let regional instability get to me too much, and I'm fairly confident that Cambodia has been relatively peaceful of late.  Hence, a future visit:

I think the one place I'd like to visit (at the top of my list) is the Silver Pagoda (which by the way is named due to 5000 silver tiles).  Holding a rare repository of Khmer Art and civilization artifacts, the Pagoda managed to survive the rule of Pol Pot in the 70s, but just barely.  A highlight continues to be the life-size gold Buddha adorned with more than 9500 diamonds - a site to be seen!

Most of the major airline alliances can get you to the region, so using points or miles shouldn't be too difficult.  If you can spare the time, you may also be able to sneak in a visit to Vietnam or even Thailand.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Place of the Day: Willemstad, Curacao

I haven't made it a priority in my travels to focus on the Caribbean as an aspirational destination - I've just always felt there is much more to see and do in Europe and the Middle East.  There are a few places that I wouldn't mind visiting (Aruba, Bogota, and Caracas come to mind), and I also saw a recent location to add my list (although I'm never sure exactly how to pronounce it):

The Dutch colonial buildings are enough of a draw for me to consider visiting this place, but the tropical atmosphere might be a close 2nd.  The Museum Kura Hulanda is also an interesting place to consider on your trip, along with the many snorkeling and diving sites that have become standard when visiting this region.  And while you're at it, why don't you try one of the amazing street cafes?  Willemstad also has the distinction of being one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.

Hato International Airport is what you're looking for during your flight searches, and flights aren't typically too expensive depending on the time of year.  Connecting from Miami you can find flights as cheap as $392 on American right now, and that's pretty much the only way to get there from the US outside of Copa Airlines.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Coming up short of 1K for 2014

Back in July and August I was theorizing to myself about whether or not I would make 1K again, given the recent devaluations set forth by United.  I was hopeful at the time that my travel planning might include enough trips to get me by for one more good year of 1K and all of its perks.  But as 2013 comes to a close and 2014 approaches in two weeks, I'm disappointed that I won't make the 1K threshold for this coming year.  That being said, I will have Platinum status on both United and American for the year which means a relatively good bonus return on miles and decent perks for award redemption.

But after next year, the jury is out on what my mileage earning potential will be.

With United adding the Premier Qualifying Dollar (PQD) to the equation, I'll be lucky to get Gold status next year given my yearly spend.

And I'm hesitant to just jump ship for American, as it's unclear what the US Airways/AA merger will look like 6-8 months down the road.  Not only that but mileage awards in Star Alliance are much easier to find/come by.

For now I'll continue to maximize my flying on United - I feel as though that will give me the best return as well as the greatest number of options for award travel down the road.  But I'm also going to take a long, hard look at the Alaska Miles program.  Since I'm still on the West Coast, there are quite a few options in that program for redeeming miles, and they have a decent partner airline portfolio (though I'll never fly KLM or Air France).

Friday, December 13, 2013

Place of the Day: Rangiroa

At the top of my list of things to learn to do (besides German and learning to fly a helicopter) is snorkeling and diving.  I have travel aspirations to visit a number of different places (Yap, Maldives, etc) that almost make learning to snorkel an important thing to do before arriving.  I know how to swim (thanks mom), but to really understand and be able to see what's going on in some of the most beautiful places on earth I think I'll need to do those things.  One of the places that I hope to get to is in French Polynesia:

What is this place's claim to fame?  How about being the world's second largest atoll and a nickname to cover the significance of its sea life (God's Aquarium).  Rangiroa has pink beaches similar to Bermuda and has some of best dive sites in the region, along with working pearl farms and a host of small villages.  It seems like there is never enough vacation time in places like this in order to capture the essence!

Getting to Rangiroa might be an adventure for you.  Air Tahiti is probably your best bet, and connects to Rangiroa from other cities in the region such as Bora Bora and Papeete.  For US-based travelers, American Airlines is a partner and miles can be redeemed in one-way segments. Delta is also an option if you have miles to burn.

Can't wait to visit!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Final Istanbul thoughts list

Here are my final thoughts concerning my first time visit to Istanbul:

1. Things are relatively cheap: meaning, I could get a Coke for $1 US, and overall prices on most food products were reasonable.  Restaurant cost depends on how much you are willing to spend, but overall, not terrible across the board.

2. The mass transit situation is easy: Getting from Taksim to the Old City was not a problem via the funicular and tram.  The only confusing part was trying to decide whether to buy tokens or find an Istanbulkart location.  There is a small kiosk on the square that sells them...will remember that for next trip.

3. Watch out for tricky beggars and vendors: I got duped when a shoeshine guy dropped his brush and kept walking away (making me think he accidentally dropped it).  When I grabbed it and got his attention, I was duped...and I imagine he was surprised and upset when I didn't pay for anything as a result.

4. Tons of kebap options mean that doing restaurant research ahead of time (I used Tripadvisor.com) is critical to find good places that have well-cooked food (as to avoid any gastrointestinal problems).

5. Planning out your day is key. That way you know how much time you have and how much admission prices are.  The earlier you can start in a day, the smaller the lines.

6. I highly recommend Suntransfers for transportation from the airport to your lodging.  The price was reasonable and there was never a concern about missing a connection or figuring out an unknown transit system.

7. Prepare to spend a lot of time at the Grand Bazaar.  The deals just keep on comin'.

8. Start shopping for next Thanksgiving travel deals soon!  February/March tends to be the sweet spot, and more deals will be available for the taking!

9. If you're looking for easy Visa options for visiting various countries, I can also recommend Travisa - easy to get a Turkish e-visa and other countries for a reasonable price

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Saying goodbye to Sugarsync

Whenever I travel, I always appreciate being able to access files remotely that I may need for work or other purposes.  Dropbox has always been the easiest to use, but another free service (Sugarsync) was also in my toolbag for using while on the road since it was free and worked with my mobile devices.

No longer, since this message just appeared in my inbox:

Sadly, I'll need to say goodbye to Sugarsync.  Can't afford to pay for the service, especially since it's not as intuitive as Dropbox.

Anyone going to stick with them and pay?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

As 2014 approaches...

This is going to be an introspective post, quite a bit different than my normal travel and points related offerings.  As 2014 draws near, I've been reflecting back on my 2013 and all of the different things have occurred - both positive and negative.  I'm grateful for the many travel opportunities I've had, and am thankful for continued good health that allows me to enjoy my travel and points hobby. 

During 2013 I wrapped up my formal PhD study with a successful research trip and final dissertation defense.  This was a culmination of many years of study, reading, paper-writing, joys, frustrations, and hoop-jumping.  I continue to be thankful for the new friendships I've made as a result of my experiences at USD, and look forward to continuing my work with the Qatari students in Doha, Qatar.  To Bob, Cheryl, and Cyndy - thank you for your guidance, support, and for being a committee that didn't hold back.  My family was also very supportive, and there is no possible way I could repay everyone's graciousness during my study.

On a sadder note I had some family upheaval occur in the last 18 months, with my divorce being finalized.  I'm not sure I could write up words that would capture the pain, anguish, and hurt that I've experienced during the process.  For others who have had a spouse refuse to do counseling and leave your home, I can only share familiarity with the situation.  It really made me reflect a lot on plans that had been prepared and my own role in the process, and I've come away very regretful and sad about what took place.  I also experienced another level of pain and exasperation when I was abandoned by my church and church body during the process, something that I never thought would occur in such a difficult situation.  Individuals that I called some of my closest friends left me by the wayside and offered no support, and despite that I harbor no ill will toward them.  I remain confident in my faith but disappointed in how fickle people can be when they have a perceived agenda instead of a willingness to listen and help.

Through everything that has occurred, I continue to be hopeful for the future and realize that I've still got a number of things I want to do.  Namely:

- One aspiration pre- and post-PhD was to start a family, and I'm hopeful for that sooner than later
- I also want to visit Australia, New Zealand, and Ushuaia if points and miles can get me there
- I'm looking forward to a spring trip to South Korea to visit my friend Jimmy (if schedules permit)
- Professionally I aspire to find an administrative position in Qatar, other countries in the Middle East, or another international school (preferably Zurich or Rome)
- I want to make a more concerted effort to be involved in my church
- I want to do a better job of reconnecting with current friends, and reaching out to make new

I'm hopeful for an amazing 2014, and one that fosters a lot of positive outcomes.  Sometimes it's easy to get bogged down in the negatives that happen, but I remain positive and optimistic about what lies ahead.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Istanbul: Day 2

Did I mention in the last post that we were able to catch the Packers game via Internet stream after our flight finally landed and we got to the Hyatt?  It was a sad massacre of a game, but it felt kind of cool to be able to listen to Wayne and Larry in Istanbul on Thanksgiving...how many people can say they did that?

For Day #2, there was a definite plan of attack given the short amount of time remaining in our schedule.  Having investigated the train system the day before we were much more prepared and ready to go the following morning.  We were quickly out the door and to Taksim station...only problem was that we were so confident we knew what we were doing we accidently boarded the funicular twice.  Lesson learned: calm yourself down before jumping on the first train you see.  After that bit of fun, we were off on the T1 and our first stop: The Blue Mosque.

The line was already a bit long by the time we got to the entrance, but our efforts to join part of an already large touring group were successful and we skipped ahead of the line...sneaky, I know.  Upon entering the Mosque you must remove your shoes and if you are a female, you need to have your head covered out of respect.  Once that is accomplished in the small anteroom near the entrance, you find yourself in the main part of the building - and witnessing an amazing view of the tile and grandeur that is the Blue Mosque.

After leaving the main room and putting our shoes back on, the Hagia Sophia was next on the list - it is located right next door to the Blue Mosque so it was a short walk.  The line was not nearly as long to get tickets, so after waiting about 10 minutes we were in and admiring the history and culture of a building some consider a Wonder of the World.  I found the Roman history portion fascinating - walking in similar corridors as Emperor Justinian made me appreciate the long history and changes that have taken place in the building. The tiled frescoes were also a sight to be seen, despite some scaffolding and restoration work being done in the main hall.

We found lunch after the Hagia Sophia at a small restaurant near the entrance and down the train line - a kebap and cafe that had pretty good lamb.

Our final stop was the Topkapi Palace - we knew there wasn't enough time to visit all parts of it, so we chose to focus on the Hagia Irene and the Archeology Museum buildings near the entrance.  Our patience was tested when a short entrance line to the museum took almost a half hour to get going (for no reason that could be seen), but we were soon in and taking a look at the many artifacts, including the Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great and many artifacts from the city of Troy.

Upon finishing up at the Palace, it was time to head back, find some food, and enjoy the final evening in Istanbul.  I even got duped by a shoeshine guy right outside of the hotel - have to experience it all!

Stay tuned for a post on my final top list of thoughts from the trip...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Spring Fare sale: LAX-BOG for $392!

Yep...amazing deal time again, this time from LAX to Bogota, Colombia:

This is a 3 day itinerary, but the fares extend on limited dates into May.  2-day options are also available throughout spring Jan-May.  In fact, it's cheaper to travel to Bogota than Milwaukee on Easter week ($392 vs $500).

I'm half tempted to do it...any other takers??

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Istanbul: Day 1

I'm not sure what it is exactly about Istanbul, but I found myself being transported back in time while viewing a modern city still trying to make up its mind about what it wants to be.  I don't think I've had a similar feeling since my very first trip to Rome, where the ruins are all around you at the same the cars honk and speed past. 

After getting proper rest from a long day of flying (separate posts will be forthcoming on lodging and food), it was out and about to figure out the mass transit in Istanbul.  This actually turned out to be much easier than anticipated, as the signage is fairly good in each station.  And when all else fails you can just follow the bustling crowd.  We never did find the akbil kiosk - either was so obvious that it couldn't be found or we weren't really looking in the right spot.  In any case procuring tokens from the vending machine was easy and soon we were off down the funicular to transfer to the Tram system T1.  Next trip an investment in an Istanbul Kart will be first on the list to save cost.  The tram is very efficient and stops near all of the major sights in the old part of the city.  Crossing the Galata Bridge was a highlight and soon we were off to experience all the Grand Bazaar had to offer.  Including all of the people and vendors wanting your every attention.

The Bazaar itself is monstrous and a lesson in sensory mastery if you're not accustomed to the hustle and bustle.  It reminded me a lot of visiting Souq Waqif in Qatar and the haggling was eerily similar.  You always have to have a suspicious eye ready to take on whatever bargain you want to discover, and the vendors in the Grand Bazaar do not hold back.  I think we were very successful in haggling for the things we procured and look forward to a return trip to the areas we passed.

Soon after we made an effort to reach the Hagia Sophia, but realized upon arrival that we had the hours wrong for entrance.  The setting sun, though, provided an awesome camera opportunity:

We wouldn't make the same mistake for Day 2...