The Polar Bear Adventure: Part 1

Frozen Churchill

You know things are either off to a brilliant, or ill fated start when you learn that your charter flight which flew at the crack of dawn was the only Churchill bound flight that left the airport. As a bit of an obnoxious optimist, and in light of the minimal turbulence we were experiencing, I tossed it into the brilliant category and stared out my window….daring/hoping the northern lights to come out. Sadly they didn’t, but the early morning quickly gave way to a pleasant twilight and then dawn as we made the 2 hour flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba.  The dull roar of the historic but well maintained Nolinor Convair 580 we were on added to the mystique of the whole experience. The plane was comfy, well maintained and safe. It brought back distant memories of flying on another 580 as a young kid in the late 80s – what was likely the first flight I ever took. The roar of the engines were loud and pulsed the throb of adventure into us.  At the same time I also watched with a chuckle as condensation formed in the back of the plane and then froze onto the inside of the wall around the rear exit. The stewardesses frowned at it, scraping some of it off to fiddle with but otherwise were unconcerned.

Frozen Churchill


After touching down in Churchill it was a quick wait while our transportation arrived:  An old converted Ford school bus that had braved more than a few cold Churchill winters.  One side was completely slicked in a frozen layer of ice.  Apparently freezing rain had struck the night before effectively re-painting half the vehicle in an icy coat of white. One large piece that had started to slide down the front windshield before freezing in place remained transfixed to the glass.   To say it was cold would be an understatement.  To say it was freezing painfully obvious.

Frozen Churchill

The wind blasted and buffeted us as the windows quickly fogged up.  We’d made it.  We were in Churchill.  The weather was far from ideal, but our guide assured us that the forecast looked promising.  A day and a half of cutting wind and blowing snow and then poof – sunny skies, polar bears, and grand adventures!

Crashed Airplane, Churchill

Before long we’d passed the corpse of an old cargo plane that misjudged the runway and made a dramatic, if safe, crash landing a decade or two before.  Then it was down and along the coast of the Hudson Bay which was, at this point, a churning mass of frozen waves and icy tidal flats.  Another brief pause to learn about the geological nature of the area and then in to town to settle into our rooms.

World Famous Gypsy's Bakery

If you ask people about Churchill, they’ll inevitably mention Gypsy’s.  They may call themselves a bakery, but in truth they’re a great little restaurant that has the feel of a roadside cafe that just happens to be combined with overflowing trays of baked goods.  The menu meanders through a wide mixture of options ranging from steak to soup to pasta.  It’s one of the only places to eat out in Churchill. It’s also one of the central social hubs which means you’ll find yourself sitting next to locals and enjoying a hearty mixture of people.

Eating in Churchill

The setup was simple – go in, order whatever you want, it was all included in the tour price. Given how frustrating a component of many organized tours the eating part can be, from getting stranded in over priced tourist cafes to flashy food that looks good on a plate, tastes like cardboard and leaves you starving, it was nice to see how the company we were with, Frontiers North, handled our meals. While Gypsy’s food may not win them a Michelin star, it was a lot better than I expected.  Especially considering how difficult it was to get things into Churchill and how remote we were.

Churchill Train Station

We spent the majority of the afternoon and the following morning wandering the town. This included stops at the local Eskimo Museum and a walk through a cool exhibit about the history of Hudson Bay and the Churchill region at the local train station.

Eating in Churchill

The rest of our time was spent ice-sailing along the streets as we were blown from shop to shop, desperately trying to avoid falling into a heap and laughing hysterically at the awkward arm swinging, yelps of alarm, and near-disasters that went with it. Dinner was served at the Tundra Inn Restaurant which had a great menu that included things like Bison, Elk, and local fish, cheap wine and local beer.  I really enjoyed the food and once again found myself impressed by the way the whole thing was handled.

Curling Game

One of my favorite accidental discoveries while wandering Churchill occurred in the recreation complex. A sprawling government building built for a city that was expected to grow significantly, but didn’t.  The end result? A beautiful complex that serves as a mini-Churchill within the heart of the city.  Eager to hide from the brutal weather, we ducked into the building and quickly proceeded to stumble on a curling match.  The locals welcomed us warmly into the heated viewing box that overlooks the ice, and we paused enjoying a drink, and fighting the urge to dive into the steaming bowl of Chili they had set up next to the bar.  I’ve watched curling on TV from time to time, and was familiar with the basics, but had never seen it played live.   It’s a surprisingly fun sport to watch though, I’m still unsure on how enticed I am to actually give it a try. Too much work with a broom.

The weather made further exploration of Churchill difficult.  The town is an interesting place with a rich history that dates back to and played a major role in the formation and exploration of Canada.  With a year-round population of about 900 and a tourist season population that likely doubles that, it’s a city forced to wear a wide assortment of hats. There was more to it than I expected, but it’s still a small working town at heart.

Churchill Train Station

Logistics, Cost and Pricing

There are two ways to get into Churchill.  You can fly, which takes between two to two and a half hours or you can take the train which will take about 44 hours and has a reputation for experiencing delays.  The flights range in cost between $800-$1,600.  As I write this post, searching for a flight during polar bear season 2013 is $1,289 USD.  A similar glance at the Via Rail page (do your own search) returns a ticket price of $369 CAD for an economy class ticket.  It’s important to book your flight well in advance if planning the trip on your own as tour groups tend to reserve large blocks during peak season.  Or, of course, you can do what I did and join a tour. I was blown away by the quality, service, and general experience provided by Frontiers North/Tundra Buggy, so definitely keep them in mind as an option.

Accommodation within Churchill also fills up quickly and needs to be reserved well in advance.  The rates that I’ve heard quoted for independent travelers were about $250 a night for a standard room during high season.  That being said, TripAdvisor returned several results for $150 in January, so it may be possible to find cheaper rooms if you book far enough in advance.

Dog sled tours – The group that we did it with was Wapusk Adventures.  I was really impressed by the way they treated their dogs, and how knowledgeable their team was.   They offer dog sledding in October and November and the cost is $90 per person.  They also offer bird watching tours between May and September.

Polar Bear Safaris – There are two dominant companies servicing the Wapusk National Park which is along the Hudson Bay.  These are Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North who I did my trip with and Great White Bear.  The price is typically about $400 a day per person, which may sound like a lot but is comparable to similar Safari’s I’ve done in Africa which for context can range from $350-850 USD a day.  This is assuming that you’re trying to structure the tour on your own and not doing one of their packages.  It’s also important to keep in mind that if you do day trips, you have a 1.5 hour commute to get out to where the polar bears like to relax.  Thus about 3 hours of your day are spent in transit (which doesn’t mean you won’t see things, but it’s less likely).  These trips also can have up to 40 people on them (in one vehicle) while many of the packaged tours have caps at 20.

I was REALLY impressed by Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North.  Our guide was fantastic and really put in an incredible effort.  As a blogger and photographer the fact that both he and our driver were excellent photographers was also a huge asset.  They knew what made a good shot, how to read the bears and to work with the light/snow.  They offered advice on how to best photograph the bears and took several shots of their own during the trip.  I was also able to stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge which made a major difference in the experiences we had, and what we saw.  The bears were most active early and late in the evening and a lot of our bear watching occurred within 1/4 mile of the mobile lodge.   The Tundra Buggy lodge is located deep inside Wapusk National Park and right in the heart of the area all of the day-tours use for their safari circuit.  Great White Bear maintains their own lodge, but it’s about 45 minutes to an hour’s Tundra Buggy Crawl closer to the edge of the park.  While I imagine both companies are excellent and will provide a great experience, the fact that National Geographic and Polar Bears International have repeatedly used Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North really says a lot about the quality of the service they offer.

Also, keep in mind that there are other more expensive custom lodges in the area that offer top-end polar bear viewing opportunities.  Similarly, Churchill has more to offer than just dog sledding and polar bear tours.  You can visit Churchill to view the northern lights, beluga whales, and to go birding.  Frontiers North has an assortment of different options worth exploring.

I’d like to remind you all that I visited Churchill as a guest of Frontiers North and the Canadian Tourism Commission through a trip I won. As such, I was not responsible for my own booking, and did not deal with the majority of the logistics or cost process.  The information I’ve included in this post is based on after-the-fact research, and conversations I had while on the trip.  It is provided as a general guideline, but you’ll need to do your own research to find out the latest in availability, pricing, and options.

THIS IS PART I – STAY TUNED FOR PART II (Dog Sledding) AND PART III (The Polar Bear Safari).

Best Airline Seats For Tall People – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from James K. he asks,

Q. “I believe I read that you are fairly tall. As a tall person where is the best place to sit on an Airplane?

A. – You’re correct! I’m right around 193 cm or just under 6’4″ depending on the mode of measurement you want to use.  This means that I JUST fit in most airline seats.  It also means that I have a deep seated hatred for people who press the recline button and then throw their weight against the seat back without warning to recline as quickly as humanly possible.  I’m not sure the exact thinking but I assume it is tied to the old “If I do it quick, maybe they won’t notice” line of thinking.  Given my knees are usually flush against the back of the seat in front of me, and align perfectly with the tray arms I do notice.  Every time.  Painfully.  As a result it’s not uncommon for me to finish a flight with lightly bruised knees.

If you’ve found yourself in a similar boat then you will have likely heard that the exit row seating or bulkhead row seating is the best place to sit. In general the common narrative when discussing airline seating seems to be that these are the best seats on the plane.  For years I fell into this school of thought and sought them out.  No longer.

Unless you absolutely require exit row seating avoid it.  It sucks. If you’re tall, but still short enough to fit into the standard seat I suggest opting for an aisle and bypassing the exit row land rush all together.  Why?

  1. Most tall men (and women) seek out the exit row.  Tall people tend not to be bone-thin.  If you get unlucky (as I often did) you’ll find yourself sandwiched into tiny seats next to two other large men who can’t help but sprawl. While you may have picked up an inch or two of added knee room you’ve lost it in shoulder and leg room.  Few things make a multi-hour flight less enjoyable than role-playing a sardine in a sardine tin for 8 hours straight.  It’s also worth noting that these seats are desirable for people who tend to be slightly heavier as well, as it makes getting in and out of the inner seats significantly easier.
  2. You have to stow all of your carry on items. While a fairly minor annoyance the requirement that bulkhead/exit row seats require all luggage be stowed in the overhead during takeoff and landing can be fairly annoying. Especially if flying in/out of an airport with sub-par weather and regular post-boarding flight delays.  As baggage fees increase the lack of overhead space can also be a huge pain.
  3. The seats don’t recline.  While some bulkhead seats recline most exit row seating is locked in the upright position.  In many cases I find that this can be more uncomfortable than tight leg room over long haul flights.  While this may be redundant for many tall travelers, keep in mind that most airline seats are designed to offer back and neck support.  Unfortunately, the molding for these types of seats tends to be for  at maximum a 6’1″-6’2″ build.  I often leave long flights and bus rides with sore shoulders because of the way the seats push my upper body forward with the upper back cradle hitting mid-shoulder blade instead of higher as intended.
  4. It’s probably more expensive.  Responding to demand and eager to make a quick buck a lot of airlines have started charging extra for exit and bulkhead seating.  In addition to being a questionable practice for a variety of different reasons, it’s just not worth the extra money.

Keep in mind that different airlines and different aircraft have vastly different configurations.  Sites like Seat Guru ( have done a great job providing high quality research tools which you can use in preparation for your next flight.   Best of luck, and have a safe (and enjoyable) flight!

Would you like me to elaborate on an aspect of this response?  Let me know!

Have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.

Thank you to Budget Car Hire for helping make this post possible.

Tallying Up The Cost: 17 Days in Turkey


Turkey:  A country that spans two continents, has seen the rise and fall of numerous empires, and offers an amazing melting pot of contrasting cultures and geographic terrain.  When the time came to choose the destination for my winter break the choice was clear.  After years of dreaming about a visit, I was more than ready to pack my bags for Turkey.  After doing some research, perusing the excellent posts on the Turkish Travel Blog and talking to my brother, David Berger, who recently visited Turkey, I decided on three destinations. Choosing the three was a challenging task.  The rich history of Turkey, combined with its size and geographic location mean that Turkey has an amazing depth and richness which might initially surprise those not overly familiar with the country.  While I considered several popular destinations such as the ruins at Ephesus and the natural hot springs at Pamukkale, I ultimately decided to focus instead on Istanbul, the Cappadocia region, and Antalya.


Istanbul was a must.  The former location of Byzantium and Constantinople, it offered an incredible opportunity to visit one of the centers of modern civilization and the heart of some of history’s most captivating empires. The reports I had from friends and peers in the travel industry also suggested a city that was far more compelling and engaging than your standard capital city.


Cappadocia has captivated me for years.  Fairly unknown outside of Turkey, Cappadocia’s unusual cities are carved into the sides of the local hills and delve deep underground into  sprawling chambers. Ever since stumbling upon the first photos I’ve had it at the top of my list of unique and unusual places to visit.  However, it wasn’t until recently that I learned that Cappadocia is actually a rather large region, which encompasses a number of small towns and not a stand alone town.  After doing my research I eventually decided on the small town of Göreme to serve as my base while exploring the region.


The final city was Antalya.  I chose Antalya, which is situated at the heart of the Turkish Riviera in part due to climate and in part because I had a strong interest in seeing the unusual Lycian ruins at Myra.  Located along Turkey’s southern coast it offered the allure of significantly warmer weather and the chance to catch up on some time in the sun – something I’ve been sorely missing here in Copenhagen.  While far larger and more widely known, my concern about visiting the ruins at Ephesus stemmed from the belief that they are likely heavily stabilized to handle the number of visits they get annually.  I know it is necessary to protect the site but it diminishes the life of a place. The ruins of  Pompeii are another good example. Despite the small size of the ruins at Myra, and the excessive tourist infrastructure in the Antalya region, I still found them to be charming and well worth the visit. Antalya also offered the opportunity to see the Düden Falls which is located in the heart of the city. It is a picturesque waterfall which cascades over the side of the cliffs and into the Mediterranean below.

 Analyzing The Cost

One of the reasons I chose Turkey was the relatively cheap airfare to and from Istanbul from Copenhagen.  My round-trip ticket cost $245 USD. Even though it was slightly more than I might have paid using a budget airline within central Europe, it was still reasonable.  The three cities I selected are relatively far away from each other.  This posed a challenge from a transportation standpoint.  The cities are also connected by long-overnight buses, a viable option, but one which I hoped to avoid.  To my surprise Turkish Airlines and their subsidiary AnadoluJet were running specials which meant I could get airfare from Istanbul to Kayseri (Cappadocia), Kayseri to Antalya, and Antalya to Istanbul for virtually the same price as a bus ticket.  In total these in-country flights ran me $179 USD.  The combined cost of all airfare/long distance transportation, excluding regional tours, was $423 for the trip.

For the duration of my visit the US dollar was performing fairly well against the Turkish lira and was typically about 1.75 lira to the USD.  This gave me a significant amount of added buying power as most Turkish prices are structured at what would be 1:1 between the lira and the dollar.   My hostels were usually 20-30 lira per night.  After facing the brutal food prices here in Copenhagen for 6 months, I was eager to splurge on the relatively cheap food in Istanbul.  As a result, instead of opting for the 2-8 lira kebabs, I tended to seek out more filling meals which ranged anywhere from 10 Lira to 30 Lira a meal. I’ll do a more comprehensive post on food in Turkey at a later date. It is worth noting that the area around Sultan Ahmet Square in Istanbul and the old city in Antalya were significantly more expensive as they cater heavily to tourists.  Another item that was surprisingly expensive (but more available than expected) was alcohol.  Beer was typically priced between 6-10 lira per bottle.

Unfortunately, due to the need to use cash for many of my purchases, I don’t have an accurate breakdown of individual expenses by category (eg: food, lodging, etc.). However, the sum for all non-airfare costs over the 17 day period was $1,086. This includes approximately $100 in added expenses for unnecessary clothing purchases.

The total cost for the trip including all primary and secondary expenses, transportation, food, entertainment, etc. was $1509.55 or about $89 USD per day.  I suspect that a traveler operating on a tighter food budget, and doing fewer organized regional tours (I did two expensive day trips in Cappadocia and Antalya) could drop that fairly easily to $60 a day. Similarly, budget travelers moving at a slower speed and adding more legs to their trip could reduce or at least spread out a significant portion of the $179 USD in transportation costs I paid.

Turkey is a wonderful budget friendly destination that has a lot to offer.  Have a specific question not covered in this post?  Let me know and I’d be happy to answer it if I can.

Traveling With or Without a Schedule – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here.  To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later.  Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike.  In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week.  You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Matthew P. he asks,

Q. “Is it better to have a planned schedule or just fly by the seat of your pants?”

A. – In my experience the more an individual travels the less scheduled/organized they become.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way to travel for everyone but in this case, I think it’s a sound source of guidance.  While I’ve never been an overly organized traveler, I know I’ve followed this pattern as well.  I often travel without guidebooks, set itineraries, or advanced reservations whenever possible and have slowly pushed myself to accept people’s spur of the moment invitations to see a place, take a day trip, or embark on some new and surprising (though unexpected and unplanned) adventure. These last minute trips have often turned me onto some of my best and most memorable travel experiences.

I find that the geographic size of the destination(s) I’m visiting, transportation efficiency and cost of transportation play the biggest role in how much planning goes into my trip.  With my Turkey trip, for example, I only had 17 days and intended to cover a large geographic area.  After a little research I learned that flying would shave off three 14+ hour bus rides, for the same cost, if I booked ahead.  This meant that I had to choose my three primary destination cities several weeks in advance of the trip.  A fair trade off, and that’s where my planning ended.  With each destination I figured out what to do once in Turkey a day or two in advance, or once I had already reached my destination. These type of transportation considerations are a key factor when choosing the level of organization and scheduling your trip needs. Others include peak season accommodation and tour availability, or low season routes (eg: the Greek islands only run ferries 2-3 times a week in winter).

Ultimately, schedule disaster is bound to strike in the form of a strike, missed flight, weather cancellation, delayed ferry or something of the sort.  The more rigid your schedule, the more stressed you will be and the more damage these incidents will do to your trip.  Often you’ll find yourself forced to do at least part of your trip by the seat of your pants, no matter how thorough your planning and scheduling has been. So, evaluate your comfort zone and then choose a planning approach which is slightly outside of it and errors a hair more towards the seat of your pants approach than you’d initially like.  You’ll thank yourself and enjoy a much richer trip as a result!

Matthew, thanks for a great question!  To my readers – have a question of your own?  ASK IT!   Want to see previous questions? click here.

How and When to Buy Airplane Tickets – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here.  To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later.  Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike.  In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week.  You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Kate K. she asks,

Q. “When is the best time to buy plane tickets? Are the rumors on when to buy true?”

A. – The simple answer concerning many of the rumors tied to airfare is yes, they still hold true. Despite significant disruption within the industry and major consolidation over the last decade the actual dynamics of pricing and booking flights for more traditional airlines haven’t changed much. For the cheapest tickets, you should plan on flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. If you don’t have time to hunt aggressively for airfare, watch for airfare specials, or to fiddle with your departure dates, the conventional wisdom that booking 1-2 months ahead of time is also likely your best bet.

However, as with most travel related questions there are a number of exceptions. When booking airfare you need to differentiate between budget airlines and traditional airlines. While booking several months in advance with a traditional airline is likely to give you a middle-range/better than average price there’s no such guarantee with a budget airline. This is because budget airlines tend not to be that cheap on a standard flight basis. If we use industry leader RyanAir as an example their generic sticker price is often fairly comparable (and sometimes more expensive) when compared to a traditional airline. Users booking with a budget airline should always book at least 1 week in advance, but also need to monitor the company’s website regularly looking for one of their specials or sales. These sales are often held several times a month and will drastically alter the cost of your ticket turning $150 tickets into $10 tickets, etc. In these cases individuals booking ahead of time without doing their research are almost guaranteed to get an inferior price.

When booking with more traditional airlines it’s important to keep in mind that the airlines have a variety of tiers set up for seats on each flight. While the seats themselves are identical, the airline only offers a certain number of seats in each price range. The more demand, the fewer budget seats available and the higher the price. In the past when airlines were more inclined to under-book aircraft you’d see prices fall closer to departure as the companies rushed to fill empty seats. Now, with most flights overbooked you’ll find this happens far less often making last minute ticket purchases far more risky (and expensive!). This approach to pricing seats is why you’ll see significant fluctuations in pricing from day to day. The advantage of booking early is that it locks you into one of the cheaper ticket tiers. The challenge can be that it also means you may miss airfare specials, or price drops intended to help fill a flight that isn’t experiencing the same demand the airline expected. It’s also worth noting that in my experience airfare prices tend to be pretty stable 3+ months out. While prices vary somewhat, it’s really only in the three months before a flight that you’ll see prices start to shift radically from day to day.

If you know you’ll need to fly on a Friday, Sunday, Monday or close to a major event or holiday your best bet is likely to book as far in advance as you can. The same goes if you’re not able or willing to dedicate the time to monitoring and hunting for airfare. On the other hand, if you’ve got a little time to dedicate to the search, and are traveling on an off-peak period I’d suggest giving yourself a month or two to watch fares before eventually deciding to book. If you have a fairly inflexible schedule and are set on a specific destination, I usually recommend that people book airfare with a traditional airline at least 25 days before their flight. If, on the other hand, you’re looking at a budget airline I’d aim to have your ticket purchased at least a week before the flight.

More/specific questions about airfare? Let me know in a question and I’m happy to do my best to respond to them! You can also visit my Travel Resource List site for a selection of useful airfare search tools.

Kate, thanks for a great question!  To my readers – have a question of your own?  ASK IT!   Want to see previous questions? click here.

This post was brought to you in part by Waikiki hotels.

Credit Card Points and Frugal Travel – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here.  To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later.  Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike.  In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’m launching a new Wednesday feature here on VirtualWayfarer.  Starting today I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week.  Anyone can submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything  – as long as it is travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Lindsay B. she asks,

Q. “What’s the best way to use credit card points/miles to travel frugally? Recommend any cards/programs/strategies?”

A. This is a challenging one because it depends on a wide variety of different factors which vary from person to person, and are constantly changing. I’ve had a very mixed track record in the past, having gone so far as to swear off mileage plans after a particularly frustrating experience, before being lured back by Chase’s 100,000 mile British Airways signing bonus.

Let’s start with the basics.  Before you even consider getting a mileage/points card, you have to evaluate your spending and debt behavior.  Is getting a credit card something that  makes economic sense for you?  Can and will you pay it off completely each and every month? Keep in mind that if you carry a balance and are paying interest that’s airfare money going up in smoke.  You’re also going to need to tally up your monthly credit card expenses.  If you put less than $1,000 a month on your credit card you are probably not going to accrue more than 12-13,000 points a year without bonuses.  Given that many point-based cards cost $80-$150 a year and that mileage to fly internationally usually starts at 35,000 miles and is typically closer to 60-80,000 miles round trip, you may actually cost yourself money by getting a mileage card. Ultimately, this is the type of user credit companies are hoping for.  You should also keep in mind that many airlines are in the process of inflating the number of miles needed for various destinations which is in turn driving up the amount of miles you need. Others have discussed switching to a different methodology for counting how many miles are needed from destination to destination.  In general, as you might imagine, very few of these changes actually benefit us as consumers.

On the other hand if you’re flying regularly for business, have business expenses, or your monthly credit card total is over $1,000 then a mileage card might be right for you. These cards often offer airfare bonuses for frequent fliers and if you can accrue points fairly quickly that annual fee becomes less of an issue.  Most cards waive the fee for the first year and offer a hefty mileage reward for signing up for the card.  While most offer 20-40,000 miles for signing up periodic specials are offered where that can be more than doubled.  I mentioned earlier that I was lured back to a miles credit card after having sworn off of them.  Despite reservations the special that drew me back in was a super bonus through British Airways which offered me 50,000 miles for opening the card and another 50,000 miles when I spent $3,500 on the card within the first three months (be very aware that many of these cards have similar requirements).  These miles were roughly the equivalent of two round trip tickets to Europe. So far I’ve had fairly good luck with the British Airways frequent flyer program, and I was able to book my ticket to Copenhagen using these miles without any of the redemption issues I had previously.

As you might imagine, there are a subset of consumers who are focusing on accruing the signup mileage bonuses as an alternative to accruing points on a per-dollar basis.  Keep in mind that even though you may get your points through an airline branded credit card, the points themselves are actually held within the Airline’s mileage program.  So, I can technically sign up for a Chase British Airways card with a 50,000 point sign up bonus, and a Bank of America British Airways Mastercard with a 45,000 point sign up bonus giving me a collective 95,000 British Airways miles.  Many of these users then cancel the card after keeping it for most of a year (thus avoiding the annual fee) while also meeting the $3000-$4,000 minimum spend required to qualify for the points.  So far credit card companies haven’t been thrilled about these users, but have tolerated them. Given that a fair number of people no doubt read up about this way of generating miles and register for cards intending to churn them, only to end up keeping the card I imagine the banks are still doing quite well.

The verdict is still out on just how negative the impact of this type of credit card churning can be on your credit. From what I’ve read it seems that those who tend to put a fair amount of cash onto their cards each month and maintain several old cards with a long credit history haven’t had significant issues.  On the other hand, I’ve also read reports from a number of users who have been blacklisted by various credit card providers.

This space is constantly changing, and varies from provider to provider so you’ll want to do extensive research before deciding what approach you take.  To do that research there are a number of communities that are dedicated to making mileage plans work for you. Keep in mind it’s a game and a complex one at that which is structured in the airline and bank’s favor.  Doing your research, having a plan and sticking to it is fundamental if you’re going to be able to successfully use your miles as a budget travel technique.  For research I suggest reviewing Chris Guillebeau’s posts on using frequent flyer miles via his Art of Non-Conformity Blog.  Additionally FlyerTalk is dedicated to all things frequent flyer based and is a great place to find out what cards are offering the best signup bonuses, how to get the most out of your mileage program, etc.

A few final thoughts – keep in mind that frequent flyer programs may give you the flight for free, but they often do not include taxes which you’re responsible for. For my one-way flight to Copenhagen I saved around $800 BUT still paid $250 in airport taxes and fees.  Also, if your work schedule is very limited it can be extremely difficult to redeem your miles on short (less than 6 months) notice.   On the other hand if you have a very flexible schedule, mileage can be great.  Another key consideration is the quality of the card itself.  Amazingly many mileage based “travel” cards are surprisingly not-very travel friendly.  While it is changing, many older mileage cards charged a 3% international transaction fee on all purchases made outside of the US, in addition to various other fees.  That adds up quick when abroad.   Lastly, consider the possibility of using your miles for a RTW (Round-The-World) style ticket.  These multi-destination tickets can be incredible, and often only slightly more expensive mileage wise than a long-distance international ticket. Though you’ll need to have more than a week or two to properly utilize them.

Hopefully that gives you a crash course introduction to mileage cards.  Make sure to head on over to FlyerTalk for more in-depth information and to do your own research.  To be clear, I’m not providing any financial advice in this article, or suggesting you employ any of the tactics outlined within this blog post.  Only that you utilize the resources available to educate yourself and make your own decisions.

Lindsay, thank you for a fantastic question!

If you end up using these tips to book a trip I’d love to hear about it! Good luck and safe travels!

If you’re looking for additional information, you can also explore what Nomadic Matt has to say. Matt is a premium advertising partner and also one of the most well recognized and respected names in the independent travel advice community.  He has a series of guides and informative posts that cover most of the relevant topics you need to worry about when preparing for a trip.  Of particular interest based on this post consider taking a look at his guide to the best travel rewards cards.  As a long-term traveler who has circumnavigated the globe he also provides a number of insights on how best to book and research round the world tickets.


Renting A Rowboat and Expecting a Luxury Cruise Ship – Let’s Talk Budget Airlines

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

It happened again, I posted an update about an upcoming flight with a budget airline and before long had messages from several friends and readers telling me to be careful or suggesting I book with a traditional airline. I ignored their warnings and happily booked with EasyJet. Why? Not only because they were the cheapest option but because I genuinely like budget airlines.

Wait….what?  Those of you who have been reading for a while will no doubt recall that I have a long history of being disappointed by airline customer service and transparency. From being charged for water by US Airways on a ticket between AZ and Europe to being lied to by British Airways I always groan a little when the time comes to deal with airlines.

I should be the last person ready to sing budget airline’s prices, right? Not exactly. My upbeat opinion seems to lay in managed expectations. When I book with a budget airline I’m not expecting traditional “airline” quality service. I’m booking a ticket on an air-bus. An air-bus that is usually only slightly above the quality of a city bus, lacks the crazy people and has slightly more comfortable seating (though RyanAir is working on “fixing” this). The ticket is cheap, the perks are non-existent, the rules are firm, and it gets me where I want to go. In effect, I book a rowboat to get me where I’m going and expect a rowboat when I arrive. The big problem, and source of endless frustration, complaining, and agitation among travelers seems to stem largely from occasions where people book a rowboat usually knowing it’s a rowboat and then show up expecting a luxury liner.

To be fair, budget airlines don’t make a major effort to differentiate themselves from traditional airlines. Let’s face it, “service for a premium, shitty seats, cramped planes and ridiculous fees but GREAT prices!” isn’t exactly marketing gold. For those who assume most airlines are the same, this can be a massive shock. Especially if they’ve paid sticker price for their ticket and failed to anticipate and incorporate the secondary fees and rules designed to generate the airline significant secondary income.

When I book a budget airline, I book differently.

I do my research on the front end and make sure that I know what the rules are – especially for luggage and check in – and then make sure that I’m well within a safety buffer. If I think there’s a chance I’ll go over weight or that my bag is over sized I don’t assume they’ll overlook it, or that I can just risk it. I incorporate the $10-$20 extra for a checked bag into my fare cost.

I’m also not put off by the $5 credit card fee, the $5 nonsense fee, the $5 made up just because fee or the $7 mickeymouse convenience charge. Again, these are all expenses that I’ve already incorporated into my cost when analyzing which airline I choose to book with. It’s an annoying game and involves some added mickey mouse, but if I can play the game and get a a fare at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of a conventional carrier then so be it. Bring it on!

Additionally, I almost never book a standard or last minute ticket with a budget airline. Budget airlines are cheap within a certain structure. That does not mean, however, that they’re always going to be the cheapest option. In many ways I view them in the same way as department stores – if you’re paying sticker price and it’s not on sale, you’re tossing money away.

At the end of the day I weigh the actual cost of the fare with a budget airline, the length of the flight, the airports I’m flying between, and the cost of more traditional airlines before booking. The end result? I book about 40%/60% on traditional/budget airlines.  There are also a number of budget airlines I just won’t fly.  Groups like Spirit Airlines have chosen fee structures which I find defeat the purpose of flying on a budget airline entirely.  Others have reliability or safety issues which leave me uncomfortable.

For many of you this may be nothing new. For some of you, hopefully it serves as an invitation to re-frame your personal perspective and approach to engaging with budget airlines. Still not convinced? Share your piece in a comment – I always value your feedback!

Flying With British Airways – Why I Will Never Trust Them Again

If you talked to me in the month or so before I caught my flight over to Denmark to begin my two year study abroad session I was probably very complimentary of British Airways.  I’d recently signed up for a British Airways associated Credit Card, received 100,000 miles as the signing bonus and been able to book my international flight with the miles without significant lead time.  Further, I’d talked to the agent with whom I booked the ticket and he had made several suggestions which seemed like they solved the problems I was looking at in getting my luggage (including a desktop) over to Copenhagen for an affordable rate.

Unfortunately, British Airways managed to burn every ounce of that good will and then some in the 36 hours before my flight.  If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a good old fashioned bait and switch.  When you sell me on a product, sell me the product as delivered or straight to hell with you.

The Pitch: In talking with the agent and explaining what I was doing and inquiring what my options were for getting additional luggage to Denmark he suggested that I book the ticket (30,000+$239 in taxes/fees) and then upgrade for an additional 15,000 miles (a 50% increase in “cost”) to decrease the cost of additional bags.  The way it typically works is that a standard ticket with BA gets 1 free checked bag, 1 carry on, and 1 personal item.  From there the first additional bag would cost me $51 w/ a discounted price if I booked it ahead of time and online. The third bag would then cost $119 (online) or $140 (at the counter).  BUT, if I upgraded to World Traveller Plus for the additional 15,000 AirMiles I’d receive a second bag free and then be able to pay $51 for my third bag, and $119 for my fourth if I needed it.

With a weight limit of ~50 pounds and the need to transport two LCD monitors and a desktop I knew I’d need three bags, in addition to my carry on (backpack) and personal item (laptop). So, the 15,000 miles and additional ~$50 I’d end up paying for the 3rd bag seemed like a great option.  I did some research, thought it over, and then went to book online using their e-portal.  Only to have it error out every time I tried over a 6 hour period.  Frustrated and having been told there were only a few tickets left I called in and manually booked it over the phone repeating my previous conversation to the new agent.  I told him to book the ticket with the upgrade, and he reminded me that there was a baggage discount if paid online ahead of time/during online check-in.

Fast forward to a day or two before my departure.  I was about to enter the 24-hour window for check in. I logged in and went to pay for my additional luggage.  You can imagine my surprise when I added my third bag only to be notified it was going to cost $119. Assuming a mistake with the website I exchanged tweets with @BritishAirways and then began the process of trying to call the executive club member number on my card. I also had noticed that I was never prompted to purchase traveller’s insurance either on-line or in the follow up e-mail.  Wondering if it was included through the insurance on the Signature Credit Card or had been auto-included in fees I paid I was eager to speak to a rep and ask them about it.

After two calls at different points in time (both of which projected 13+ minute wait times) which is absurd for a “premium” member service I tried calling a third time only to learn that the executive office closes at 8PM EST (Good luck westcoasters!). With less than 24 hours left before my flight I called the standard booking number and spent more than 30 minutes on hold before finally giving up.  Keep in mind this is the phone number to BOOK with British Airways.

In doing  some online research I found an additional number for the 3rd party vendor they use and called their 24 hour number only to learn that not only was there not a policy # for my flight, but because I hadn’t purchased insurance from them within a 7 day window after purchasing my ticket from BA, I wasn’t going to be able to buy a policy.    Frustrated I went to bed and woke up early to try calling once again.

Finally after a few short hours of sleep I found myself awake, called and after a relatively short hold time I reached a BA sales agent who I told about the issues with web pricing.  With an incredibly rude tone, she directed me to the website and said that regardless of what I’d be told previously the $119 fee for the 3rd bag was correct.  Throughout the conversation she was rude, unfriendly, and combative.  This led me to escalate to a supervisor who while apologetic and far more friendly was unwilling/unable to do anything to fix the fee amount despite the source of the misinformation being one of their booking agents.

At this point I’d been forced to book by phone because their web portal wasn’t working, been sold an upgrade at 15,000 miles on the premise of discounted luggage fees which were non-existent, faced ridiculous  hold times and BA had no intention of doing a damn thing about it. Not to mention never having been offered the opportunity or informed of the need to purchase third party travel insurance (which only had a 7 day window to begin with).

Unwilling to make the situation right about the mileage upgrade and added fees for the luggage the supervisor did at least take the time to call the insurance provider and to line up a last minute insurance plan which I was able to purchase over the phone.

I am both incredibly annoyed and disgusted by the way British Airways handled the entire thing.  Their lack of interest in making the situation right was only compounded by the terrible performance of their phone and web services. For a major airline and allegedly one of the more reputable ones, their level of professionalism was absolutely lacking.

It’s a pretty sad statement when a customer has to not only work to spend money on an airline, but also has to work with that airline on a buyer-be-ware basis. If this is the type of service and treatment I can expect from them, I’ll be looking forward to the moment when I can dump my miles and cancel my card. It is also worth noting that in sharing this story with friends and fellow travelers, I’ve heard similar story after story that indicates BA has systematic customer service and quality issues.