Discover Your True Self – #Studyabroadbecause

From time to time I’m asked to do interviews about my travel or study abroad experiences.  In the past I’ve been bad about sharing those here on VirtualWayfarer.  These interviews surface a different side of my travel experience and offer me a chance to offer advice through a slightly different lens.  As a result, I’ll aim to be better about linking to the most content rich of these interviews when I do them. The latest of which was an invitation to weigh in on why people should study abroad while simultaneously sharing my own study abroad story. I’ve re-produced the first two questions in the Q&A here. Make sure to click over to Wandering Educators for the full interview.

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

My story is fairly complex. As a kid, my parents homeschooled my brother and I in place of 5th and 7th grade. 5th grade was spent backpacking Europe. 7th grade was spent in a 32-foot 5th-wheel trailer as we took a year and drove across the United States. I did my first study abroad the summer of my Freshman year of College. I was incredibly nervous despite the childhood trips. It was a 6.5 week Honors study abroad program in the British Isles. I debated doing a full semester or year and really wanted to, but could never work up the nerve. The summer program ended up being a great experience. Despite loving it and really flexing my travel muscle, I still never quite worked up the courage over the remaining 3 years of my BA to do a full semester or year abroad.

When I graduated, I turned around and tossed caution to the wind. After 4 years of being worried about doing a solo semester abroad, I closed my eyes and jumped into a 3 month solo trip through Europe. I figured it was now or never. It was amazing. I returned to a full-time job in Mergers and Acquisitions, where I managed two 16-21 day trips a year for the next 3 years. Then, tired of Arizona and eager to return for a Master’s, I applied to a number of schools selected based purely on reputation, the appeal of their location, and if they had a communication program. My methodology? A list of the top 50 Universities in the world and an afternoon of research. I ended up with 8 Universities split between 4 PhD programs (trying to skip the MA) and 4 MA programs. Of these, 3 were in Europe. All of the PhDs rejected me and the MA decision came down to Georgetown in D.C. or the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Georgetown wanted $30k in tuition a year. University of Copenhagen offered me a complete tuition waiver…as well as a 2 year visa to live in and explore Europe. The opportunity to do what I hadn’t had the nerve to do previously was too enticing to resist (and that tuition waiver helped).

Despite having only spent 2 days in Denmark during a trip the year before, I relocated figuring I’d see what happened and give it a go. It was one of the best and most pivotal decisions of my life.

Meeting Royalty Abroad: A Danish Prince

The Streets of Copenhagen

As an American, I find the concept of royalty intriguing. I can’t say I really know where I stand on the issue.  On the one hand, it seems like a fun nod to history and a great added cultural dynamic to help represent a nation’s culture, heritage, and identity without many of the political trappings that go with elected delegates.  On the other hand, I have my American bias which bubbles up almost instantaneously with the screech of a bald eagle, its cry heralding freedom and the taste of apple pie and hot dogs. This may be the perfect connection to resolve my inner turmoil and begin to understand the Dane’s adoring relationship with their royal family.  After all, as a hot dog vendor outside Vesterport Station once told me, New York and Germany may get partial credit for the hot dog, but it actually originated right here in Denmark. I suppose wars have been started over smaller claims, but in this case, perhaps it is a great illustration of the many core ideals, principles and cultural components that the US and Denmark share.

Meeting with HRH Prince Joachim

I’ve gotta’ admit that over the last year and a half my respect for the Danish Royals has grown exponentially. With rare exceptions, the Danes absolutely love them.  They bring in NYE with the Queen’s speech. An event which somehow manages to get a country full of extremely happy, energetic, and firework-crazed party-goers to set down their explosives, take a sip of their drinks, turn on the TV, and listen in dead-silence for half an hour. As someone who also comes from a country that loves mixing loud conversations, high-explosives, and alcohol – I’ve gotta say I was not only impressed but also a bit shocked.

Martin Lidegaard

But, perhaps I shouldn’t have been … after all, the Danes have a lot to be proud of and are without a doubt one of the most patriotic groups of people I’ve encountered outside of the United States. They don’t just love their royals, they take great pride in their flag – the oldest in the world – their culture, their heritage, and their country as a whole. So, it was a very special and unusual honor when I learned that HRH Prince Joachim of Denmark would be doing a Q&A session with a small group of us.  It’s a highly unusual opportunity to have the chance to meet with royals,  an even rarer opportunity to meet with beloved royals, and even rarer still to be able to pose a series of questions during the meeting.

Meeting with HRH Prince Joachim

I’m a member of the Danish Youth Goodwill Ambassador Corps. We are a relatively new initiative that has been launched through a partnership between a number of different Danish organizations as a youth/student talent development program. Our charter is straight forward – to connect with other international students with a passion for Denmark and to share the knowledge we’ve accumulated during our time in Denmark with the world at large.

Meeting with HRH Prince Joachim

This past weekend we held our national conference.  It was a two-day event where YGWAs from Aalborg, Aarhus, and Copenhagen came together to meet, mingle, brainstorm and learn about Denmark.  As part of the conference, HRH Prince Joachim spent an hour with us while answering a variety of questions from the audience.  The questions were very diverse and focused on everything from his entrepreneurial projects, what it is like to balance life as an entrepreneur, parent and royal to questions about innovation, and even a few about how best to enact change in the world around us.  He was joined by the Minister of Climate, Energy and Building, Martin Lidegaard and Martin Bendsøe who is the SVP and Dean of the Danish Technical Institute. The event was moderated by Natasja Crone, one of Denmark’s most prominent Danish journalists.

YGWA Conference 2013

I was absolutely blown away by the introductory talks given by both HRH Prince Joachim and Minister Lidegaard. It wasn’t the usual talking points and dry ramblings you might expect from politicians.  Just as it wasn’t a rushed regurgitation of points exhaled swiftly and barely given time to settle in before  a flurry of hand shakes and the sound of the revolving door swinging shut as is so often the case with high ranking officials. In particular, it was fantastic to see that the Prince arrived at the start of the event and stayed until the end.  More or less a three-hour period, during which time he paid close attention to the Minister, the Dean, and the panel of four local entrepreneurs who also presented.  He also made himself available to us during the two brief breaks and gladly answered questions, paused for photos and chatted with us. Hardly the type of behavior I expected and a real tribute to the Danish Royal Family.  I can’t stress enough just how genuine and sincere HRH Prince Joachim was.

YGWA Conference 2013

The following clip is a short segment I shot on my iPhone (sorry about the quality) as HRH responded to one of our questions.

For my part, I was able to ask Minister Lidegaard two direct questions about the work he has been doing to pass a work visa/green card reform bill which is as exciting as it is progressive. The new bill would automatically grant a three-year green card to all international students who have received a complete MA or PhD from a Danish University.  As I wrap up my MA and explore job opportunities, an automatic work visa would drastically improve my chances of staying in Denmark and greatly ease the challenges that go with finding work here as an expat. Something that would be a net-gain for both my career and for Denmark who would retain me as a business professional, economic driver, and taxpayer while realizing benefit from the money they spent on my Masters.  A far cry from the current system which heavily encourages me to go abroad or return to the United States where I’ll work professionally, likely in competition with Danish companies.  Minister Lidegaard’s talk also had great factoids about Denmark’s renewable energy policy, how to deal with the emerging rift between the renewable energy camp and the conservation/green party, and some powerful points about infrastructure investments necessary over the next 10 years to keep Denmark’s power infrastructure secure and operational.

Meeting with HRH Prince Joachim

At the end HRH Prince Joachim left us with this final thought:

“To me the duty of representing Denmark truly is a privilege. It is very rewarding and I love to see that the work I do can be fruitful to Danish society as a whole. As youth goodwill ambassadors you will reflect on your experience in Denmark and whether at home in your own country or embarking on a new international career elsewhere in the world, you will always remember your time in Denmark and take a piece of Denmark with you.”

On that note I would like to extend a special thank you to His Royal Highness the Prince, the Minister, the rest of the speakers, and the Danish people for a fantastic experience and wonderful, informative, and exciting cultural insight. I can now cross meeting with royalty off the bucket list.  Next up? Working on that knighthood …

*Event photos in this post were provided by the official event photographer and are used with permission*

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.

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.

 

Major Updates & Announcements: A Trans-Atlantic Move to Denmark, Interviews and Other Exciting Updates

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

So far 2011 has been an incredibly exciting year.  The last several months have set the stage for wonderful new adventures and drastic lifestyle changes. These changes and accomplishments have been both personal and related to VirtualWayfarer and the Travel Resource Network.

Moving to Denmark

As some of you may be aware, I’m currently based out of Scottsdale, Arizona where I have worked as a Corporate 9-5er since January of 2008. When not on the road or blogging about it, I’ve served as Director of Research for a mid-market, boutique business sales, mergers & acquisitions company.  I’ve had a wonderful time working with my current team and have the utmost respect for them.  That said, I’m excited to announce that Tuesday July 12th will be my last day with the Company and July 19th will be my last day as an Arizona resident.

Just under a year ago I made the decision to start exploring a return to higher education in pursuit of a Masters degree.  Eight applications and several letters of acceptance later I found myself considering two choices:  Georgetown University in Washington, DC or the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.  Ultimately the University of Copenhagen offered me a tuition waiver and the opportunity to realize one of my dreams – to live (and study) abroad.

I’ve accepted a position as a two year Masters student in their Communication and Cognition program where I hope to focus on studying the impact of social media, the web, and virtual worlds on education, travel and social interactions. The program is taught in English and will serve as an exciting continuation of my undergraduate studies at Arizona State University in the department of Human Communication and as a graduate of Barrett, the Honors College.

About the University of Copenhagen (from Wikipedia):

The University of Copenhagen (Danish: Københavns Universitet) is the oldest and largest university and research institution in Denmark. Founded in 1479, it has more than 37,000 students, the majority of whom are female (59%), and more than 7,000 employees. The university has several campuses located in and around Copenhagen, with the oldest located in central Copenhagen. Most courses are taught in Danish; however, many courses are also offered in English and a few in German. The university has 2800 foreign students of which about half are from Nordic countries.

The university is a member of the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), along with University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, Yale University, The Australian National University, and UC Berkeley, amongst others. The Academic Ranking of World Universities, compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, sees Copenhagen as the leading university in Scandinavia and the 40th ranked university in the world in 2010.[1][2][3] Moreover, In 2010, according to University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP),[4] University of Copenhagen is the best university in Denmark and 47th university in the world. The university is generally understood to be one of Europe’s leading research institutions. The university has had 9 alumni become Nobel laureates and 1 Turing award recipient.

As someone who was born in Colorado and has lived most of his life in the United States the opportunity to attend an academic institution which pre-dates Columbus’ re-discovery of the Americas is a pretty exciting prospect.  As an avid traveler, the opportunity to return to student life while re-locating to another country is positively exhilarating. It is my hope that this shift will allow me a significant increase in flexibility and travel opportunities.  Over the past several years I’ve managed to do a lot of traveling.  Still, the lion’s share of that travel was confined to two 18-20 day trips a year where I leveraged weekends, holidays, and unpaid time off to stretch my two weeks of paid vacation to the max. On a student’s schedule and based next to one of Europe’s most modern and central airports, it is my hope that I will have easy (and cheap!) train, plane and ferry access to all of Europe.

What does this mean for VirtualWayfarer? Only good things! It means I’ll be traveling more, writing more, and that in addition to my standard travel advice and travelogue-themed content you can expect additional articles about living, studying, moving, and work internationally!  It also means that I hope to ramp up the time I have available to dedicate to VirtualWayfarer and the Travel Resource Network. That should translate into more posts, more photos, and more advice!  As always, know that I love your questions and am happy to respond to them either by e-mail, twitter, or in a comment here on the blog.  But that’s not the end of the good news!

VirtualWayfarer in the News

The past month has been a very exciting one for VirtualWayfarer and the good news and exciting opportunities are continuing to roll in so expect continued updates and developments.

On the Airwaves

I was recently approached by Portland-based Radio Station KPAM’s Azumano Travel show to do an interview.  The interview was my first radio interview and featured discussion about Iguazu Falls, Argentina and solo travel.  You can listen to the 6 minute interview:  Alex Berger Radio Interview on Solo Travel, Iguazu Falls and Argentina.  The team at the Azumano Travel Show were professional and a pleasure to work with.  I look forward to doing future radio pieces as the opportunity permits.

Becoming A Top Travel Influencer

While I’ve been a vocal voice in the travel social media scene for a long time, I’ve only recently broken into the top rankings.  I’m excited to announce that I’m currently fluctuating between #14 and #20 on the Top 50 list of independent travel influencers in social media.  A rank which is connected to a recent increase in my Klout score which is now fluctuating between 69 and 71.   Klout is the leading social media metric company offering insights into social media engagement, activity and influence.

I’ve also taken steps to actively correct the incredibly inaccurate scores for VirtualWayfarer which traffic ranking sites Compete and Alexa had on file for this website.  This should result in increased visibility for the site and provide the opportunity to break into several other top lists.

Q&A’s

I was recently interviewed by CheapFlights as part of their Waiting to Board Q&A.  You can see the interview here.  I’ve also been approached by several other groups interested in Q&As which should be published sometime over the next few weeks.  I’ll let you know as they go live!

Website Changes and Updates

In addition to working on improving the accuracy of my Alexa and Compete scores I’ve also made a number of important changes to the website.  You may have noticed that there is a new link on the website’s main navigation.  I’ve added a “Press, PR & Advertising” page to the site to make it easier for interested parties to contact me.  I’ve also updated and re-worked the “Alex Berger” AKA ‘About Me’ page with more in-depth information about who I am and what I’m up to.

You may also have noticed the addition of a new free resource to the sidebar. In response to some of the travel-centered e-mail slideshows I’ve received over the last few years I decided to make my own and offer it to my readers for free.   If you enjoy my photography I invite you to view, or download and save, the powerpoint-based travel photo slideshow. If you would like to save it for later, just right click over the link and select either save as or save link as. The slideshow is designed for e-mail and I hope you’ll enjoy it and then choose to forward it on to your friends and family.

I’ve also added a social media bar to the right hand screen, and a visually appealing related posts element which now displays 5 similar posts under each blog to make it easier for you to discover old topics.  You’ll  find several new categories on the sidebar which will sort older posts by region (eg: Europe, South America, Scandinavia etc.).

I am also in the midst of populating content for my new Travel Resource Network website: AirfareBasics.com which is coming soon. Keep an eye on it and stay tuned!

Comments? Suggestions? Questions?  I value your feedback! As always, thank you for reading and making this site and the rest of my network of sites what they are.