Month: January 2016

How loyal JetBlue fliers can get free flights to Hawaii

How loyal JetBlue fliers can get free flights to Hawaii


If you live in the Boston area (and maybe even New York/Fort Lauderdale area) and regularly take domestic flights, chances are that you’ve probably flown JetBlue a few times, as they have become the largest carrier operating out of Logan International Airport.

As a 6’7″ guy, I try to take JetBlue as often as I can, given the industry-leading leg room, free TV and wi-fi, and large servings of sodas and snacks.

However, while they have started to do some international service to places like Ireland and Peru, they still primarily remain a domestic carrier serving the 48 states.

If you haven’t been to Hawaii, you’ve probably heard absolutely amazing things about it from friends who have been, and if you have been, you know that all of these amazing this are indeed true. Hawaii really is as incredible of a place as people make it out to be, and I can’t recommend going highly enough.

So what’s the connection to JetBlue? Well, JetBlue, despite not being part of a major airline alliance, partners with Hawaiian Airlines, meaning that you can choose to earn JetBlue miles on Hawaiian Airlines flights, Hawaiian Airlines miles on JetBlue flights, redeem Hawaiian Airlines miles for JetBlue flights, and redeem JetBlue miles for Hawaiian Airlines flights.

Now, redeeming JetBlue miles for JetBlue flights is relatively easy. Select your airports and dates, then select TrueBlue points:


and then you’ll get a screen like this:


where you can choose your award flights. Like Virgin America and unlike the Big Three airlines, the number of miles directly correlates with the cost of the flight. 10,000 miles is equal to roughly a $150 flight. Select your flight, then go ahead and book.

Unfortunately, using your JetBlue miles to book a Hawaiian Airlines flight is a little more complicated, not to mention not as good of a value. 10,000 JetBlue miles are roughly equal to $100 of Hawaiian Airlines flights, and you need to call the TrueBlue service center to do so. More information can be found here.

Still, if you have a large stash of JetBlue miles that you’re just dying to use, a vacation to Hawaii may be just what the doctor ordered.

Have a question about something? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments below.


Cover photo: Ahalanui Hot Springs; Pahoa, HI

How to go to the edge of the world’s largest waterfall – and why it’s every bit as amazing as I expected

How to go to the edge of the world’s largest waterfall – and why it’s every bit as amazing as I expected

Those who know me know that the one thing in nature I love more than anything else is waterfalls.

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to go to Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world, located on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border (note that largest refers to height multiplied by width, and is different from tallest, widest, or most powerful).

More recently, I heard about a natural phenomenon called Devil’s Pool, a natural “pool” formed on the edge of the falls only accessible during the dry season, which is roughly September through December (during the wet season, currents are too strong and people would be washed over). When I heard about this, I knew I had to go.

As I mentioned earlier, Victoria Falls is located on the Zimbabwe and Zambia border, and as such, there is one airport and city in each country that serve the falls: Victoria Falls Airport (VFA) in Zimbabwe, and Livingstone Airport (LVI) in Zambia (named after the explorer David Livingstone who “discovered” the falls and named them after Queen Victoria).

While I would recommend staying on the Zambia side regardless of if you’re going to Devil’s Pool (as there’s a little bit more to do), if you’re planning on seeing Devil’s Pool, I would definitely recommend the Zambia side, as this is where Devil’s Pool is. Using 50,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles plus $33 in taxes and fees, I booked an award flight from JFK to Livingstone via Johannesburg, with the first leg being a nearly 8,000-mile, 15-hour flight on South African Airways which is the longest (distance-wise) flight I’ve taken in my life.

I booked a private room at the Fawlty Towers Hostel in Livingstone for $45, though this would have been cut in half if I was with someone else as it had two beds, and the price can be lowered even further if you’re willing to share a dorm.

Unfortunately, one company holds now a monopoly on Devil’s Pool tours, and they charge accordingly, including meals with the tours in order to charge a higher price, whether you like it or not. There are five daily tours to Devil’s Pool: three morning tours for $95 at 7:30am, 8:45am, and 10:15am which include breakfast, a 12:30pm tour for $155 which includes lunch, and a 3:30pm tour for $135 which includes high tea. More information can be found here. However, the best way to book your tour is through wherever you’re staying.

Not wanting to take any risks given my afternoon flight to Johannesburg, I opted for the 7:30am tour, and was told to meet at the Royal Livingstone Hotel at 7:15am. Unless you’re willing to walk several miles very early in the morning, the best way to get there from either side is via a taxi (though if you’re coming from Zimbabwe, you’ll have to take several taxis due to the international border crossing). The night before, I arranged with a local taxi driver to have him pick me up at my hotel at 6:45am, negotiating a price of 100 Zambian kwacha (roughly $9). In Zambia, while they accept the dollar, euro, and rand, you’ll save a little money by paying in local currency, as most merchants tend to use an exchange rate of 9:1 or 10:1 to the dollar, despite it actually being more than 11:1.

My cab driver arrived promptly, and drove me to the hotel, where, after meeting the others, we hopped onto a boat to begin the journey to the edge of the falls, with the mist slowly getting closer



We hopped off the boat, and were rewarded with views of Victoria Falls like no other, far different from the viewpoints I had experienced in each country’s respective national park the past few days.

Looking out in the distance, we could see the group before us in the pool, getting a sense of what we were in for:


We also passed the plaque for David Livingstone on the way to the pool:


Once we got closer, the guide told us to all give him any phones/cameras that we wanted him to use for pictures/videos, remembering which one belonged to who (there is no need to bring a waterproof camera or waterproof case.

My guide then invited me into the pool first (usually they’ll invite couples together if there any, otherwise people will go by themselves).

He motioned me toward the edge of the falls, told me to lean over, then grabbed my feet, told me to spread my arms, and I took in the absolutely amazing view around me, looking at water rushing down 355 feet. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

I spent about 15 minutes in total in the pool itself, with a few minutes at the edge, and even sitting a bit further away knowing that I was at the very top of the largest waterfall in the world was an incredible, surreal feeling. I could have spent all day. Sadly, we eventually had to go back.

But first, before we got on the boat, we had breakfast at a little table they had set up for us nearby, with freshly made eggs benedict, as well as an assortment of other breakfast pastries. It was surprisingly tasty. I was also quite amused by the nearby “Loo with a View”, an outhouse that had no door in the front, just an amazing view of the falls:


We then hopped on the boat, got back to the hotel, where my cab driver met me and drove me back to the hostel, where I hung out for a bit before getting packed up and going to the airport. Going to Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls however completely lived up to all my expectations, and I hope to return someday.


Update: While this post mentions September through December as the best time to visit, reports of low water levels due to the drought mean that it may be possible to still go this month and even next, but definitely e-mail them in advance before planning any trips.


Do you have your own Devil’s Pool story to share? Questions about something I wrote? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.


How to book a free flight to Hong Kong on the best airline in the world using your Virgin America Elevate points (or, all the cool things you can redeem Elevate points for besides Virgin America flights)

How to book a free flight to Hong Kong on the best airline in the world using your Virgin America Elevate points (or, all the cool things you can redeem Elevate points for besides Virgin America flights)

So far in my series of writing about booking award travel with the various domestic airlines, I’ve focused on “legacy carriers” that are part of broader airline alliances, and have set amounts of miles they charge for award flights based on the regions one is traveling between.
The next airline whose award bookings I’m going to explore however, is a bit different. They are not part of any alliance, and the amount of points directly correlates with the cost of the flight.
Chances are that if you live in San Francisco and take a few domestic flights a year, you’ve probably flown Virgin America at least once. Since being formed in 2008, they’ve done an amazing job at both prioritizing an amazing in-flight experience, while also being careful to not expand too quickly. Though I would give JetBlue a slight edge in amenities, I still overall prefer Virgin America given their amazing on-time record, not to mention the fact that their ample leg room, free TV, wifi, and ambient lighting go far beyond any other domestic carrier besides JetBlue.
So if you’ve taken a few Virgin America flights, you probably have a good-sized stash of Elevate points, their frequent flyer program. While it’s not exact, 10,000 Elevate points is worth roughly $200 in Virgin America flights.
And if you want to use these points for Virgin America flights, it’s pretty easy. Just select your flight like you would normally, through their slightly unusual booking system, first selecting the cities:


then the dates:


and then select Elevate points:


Just as the first flight costs almost twice as much as the second flight if one were booking in dollars, it costs almost twice as many Elevate points. After you select your flight, you can then continue to enter your information, and book an award flight. Easy enough, right?

Well, despite Virgin America making significant strides to expand their network, they still are primarily a domestic carrier (other than a few flights to Mexico), and there will probably be times when you want to fly internationally. Luckily, you can do this with your Virgin America Elevate points!
While they don’t publicize it very much, if you click “Redeem Points” from the Elevate homepage, like so:


and then scroll down, you’re then presented with a screen you may not have noticed before, showing you an opportunity to choose a route from two cities that a partner airline flies between:

virg 1
In short, Virgin America partners with five other airlines, all of which are excellent: Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, Emirates Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines. (While Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, and Virgin America are all affiliated with Richard Branson’s Virgin brand, Virgin America, for legal reasons, still has to essentially be operated independently of the other Virgin airlines).
Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always a good idea to use your Elevate points on these airlines. As you can see in the above screenshot, Virgin Atlantic adds on huge fees for economy award redemptions, essentially rendering them useless for award redemptions, unless you’re booking a first class ticket, where $1,150 is trivial for a ticket that would normally cost $8,000. Emirates also adds on similar fees.
Luckily, the fees are minimal on Hawaiian and Singapore, and only a little bit higher on Virgin Australia, and can offer some great values, such as 40,000 Elevate points and $40 for a roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong on award-winning Singapore Airlines:


As you may notice, one-way trips cost a little more than half of the roundtrip price. Unfortunately, this page only serves as an award chart letting you know how many miles it costs and what the fees will be, it is not an award search engine where you can see which days have award flights available, or book award flights.
In order to check award availability, you’ll either have to search online through an award search engine that indexes that particular airline, or if you’d rather someone else do the work, you can call the Virgin America award booking center (which you’ll have to do anyway to book the award), and ask them about availability on different dates.
While this process is certainly more onerous than booking an award flight with United miles per se, it certainly is a great way to make your hard-earned Virgin America Elevate points go a lot further.

Have a question about something? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments below.

How I beat Spirit Airlines at their own game, and in the process realized I may not need to pack so much

How I beat Spirit Airlines at their own game, and in the process realized I may not need to pack so much

While I’m guessing most of you are very familiar with Spirit Airlines, perhaps from your own past experience, for those that aren’t, Spirit is considered a pioneer among Ultra Low-Cost Carriers, or ULCCs. This is a fancy term for airlines that offer very low fares, but charge you for literally everything imaginable. Though extremely controversial, Spirit for many years has been the most profitable domestic airline, and also is generally considered to be the main reason we’ve seen many of the bigger airlines start to charge more fees. There are many people that have very strong negative opinions about Spirit Airlines due to their controversial business model, but their defense has always been that they are very transparent upfront about all of the fees. I decided recently to see for myself if this was true.
I try to book my flights using frequent flyer miles as much as I can, but I also like to try to avoid wasting miles on domestic flights that could be used for more valuable international award flights. I signed up for the Spirit Airlines World Elite MasterCard last year, which gave me 15,000 Free Spirit Miles after my first purchase, added on an additional 8,000 miles by taking their “Hate Thousand Miles” survey, and then an additional 5,000 miles through buying toothpaste from Wal-Mart using their online shopping portal. (Funny enough, they tried to sell us on the card during the flight, claiming that they offered an “industry-leading frequent flyer program.”)
Not surprisingly, Spirit also makes it extremely hard to redeem their frequent flyer miles for flights, charging 12,500 miles for one-way cross-country flights on certain mid-week days, but 45,000 on most other days, including weekends. Given that right now I do have the luxury of being able to fly midweek, I figured I might as well take advantage of this, and booked a roundtrip flight for 25,000. While all airlines will tack on a $5.60 “security fee” each way for award resrevations, Spirit also adds on a $15 fee if you book your reservation less than six months in advance. I don’t really know anyone who plans short-distance budget air travel more than six months in advance, but I decided to suck it up and pay that fee, but no other fees to them.
There’s certainly no shortage of opportunities to pay additional fees during the booking process though, first, to add a hotel:


Then, a car:



A “bundle” including seat assignment, carry-on/checked bags, and airport check-in:




A confirmation that I didn’t want to pre-purchase any checked bags or carry-on:sure

A chance to choose my seat:


A chance to purchase flight change insurance:


And lastly, a chance to join their “$9 Fare Club” that actually costs more than $9:



I said no each time.
24 hours before my flight yesterday, I got an e-mail reminder from Spirit to check-in, reminding me that I could print out my boarding pass at home and avoid paying a $10 fee to print it out at the airport. Yes, I realize this is absurd, but it’s not that hard to print it out in advance. During the online check-in process, they tried again to upsell me on seats, checked baggage, carry-ons, and other packages, and I continued to say no.
This is definitely the best boarding pass I’ve ever had. Who includes a crossword puzzle as in-flight entertainment?!

Of course, the real challenge was going to be not bringing a carry-on, as I had declined to purchase one in advance for $35, even knowing that I would be charged $50 to add one at the check-in counter, or $100 at the gate! Spirit does however allow one personal item, no bigger than 16x14x12. While most people will use a small backpack, I didn’t have one that small, so I instead decided to use my laptop case. After emptying everything out, I first placed my laptop in it, then a few pants, shirts, and underwear, as well as toiletries and power cords/chargers.

I then rolled up some v-necks and socks, and put them into the front pockets of my hoodie. My pockets were indeed bulging, but I was certainly within their requirements (not to mention I knew I would have access to laundry). I started to wonder why I didn’t pack like this more often….
Of course, I wasn’t out of the woods yet. Spirit also makes money by charging for everything on board, including food and drink, as well as by cramming as many seats as possible into their airline, giving them the least leg room of any domestic airline (28″). While I was pretty confident I could avoid paying any fees, I was less sure if a 6’7″ person like me could tolerate a cross-country flight with so little legroom.
Luckily, thanks to my Citi Prestige card, I had free access to the Air France lounge at Logan Airport, where I not only loaded up on food in advance of the flight:

but also on “sleeping medications”:


I proceeded to the gate, where they very clearly let me know that I would be charged $100 if my carry-on did not fit the stated dimensions:


Given the stories I’d heard, I was kind of relishing an argument with the gate agents, but they didn’t even make me place my bag in the container to check, and just waved me on through. Success! I pinched myself a little:

As I boarded the plane, I noticed quite a lot of advertisements on the storage bins, yet another way Spirit keeps their fares low. I don’t know why more airlines don’t do this. I’ll also present this one without comment:


Since I didn’t want to pay extra to select my seat, they had assigned it for me, and I was in a window seat, next to a woman from Rhode Island who was flying to Las Vegas just to play slot machines. Right. While I always prefer aisle seat, at least it wasn’t the middle seat. Still, I was less than comfortable:

Thankfully, I flagged down a flight attendant and asked if there was something that could be done after takeoff, and much to my surprise, she was more than happy to move me to an exit row seat, which would have cost $50 if I selected it myself. After we were in the air, she motioned me forward, and I settled into my new exit row seat, allowing me more legroom than a regular economy seat on domestic airlines:


Not too long after, I happily drifted off to sleep, and spent most of the flight sleeping, before waking up to write this post for the remainder of the flight.

Given that I had gone into this flight dreading the experience, I have to say that Spirit exceeded my (admittedly very low) expectations. Of course, they’re certainly not in danger of dethroning JetBlue or Virgin America as my preferred domestic airline (I also did start to get a little hungry and thirsty at the five-hour mark), but I wouldn’t object to flying with them again if one of their many low-fare sales worked for me. (I highly recommend subscribing to their e-mail newsletter regardless of if you ever plan to fly them, solely for the risque marketing, yet another example of how they save money, as it costs them nothing for major newspapers to run stories on their controversial marketing).
Have a Spirit Airlines experience of your own that you’d like to share? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.

How to make (a little bit of) money paying your taxes

How to make (a little bit of) money paying your taxes

He wants YOU to save money!


While I realize this is at heart a travel blog, credit cards are an important part of not only how I accrue miles to travel, but also how I save money so that I have more to spend on travel.

With tax season approaching, I thought this might be an appropriate post.

Depending on your age, if you are lucky enough to owe the government money for your taxes, you likely either pay by writing a check, or doing an ACH debit from your checking account.

Generally, paying one’s taxes with a credit card is frowned upon, due to the fees charged.

But here’s the thing: As long as the percent cash back you earn on your card is higher than the percent that’s charged for paying your taxes with a credit card, you’ll come out ahead. You might even be able to use this strategy to meet minimum spending requirements on a card.

Right now, the cheapest rate for paying your federal taxes with a credit card is 1.87% (or $2.59, so you’ll want to make sure the payment is at least $138), charged by Therefore, you need a card that gets at least 2% back on all purchases to come out ahead.

For people just looking for something simple, the Citi Double Cash Card is a bit unique in that there is no signup bonus, but also no annual fee, and you earn 1% back when you make a purchase, and 1% back when you pay it off.

Other cards that offer 2% back when redeemed for travel purchases include the Capital One Venture and Barclays Arrival Plus World Elite.

Of course, getting 2% cash back on a payment that is charging 1.87% extra only yields a net cash back of .13%, or, $1.30 for every $1,000, which isn’t really much, though it can be useful if you’re trying to meet a minimum spending bonus, or if you’re waiting on money to transfer into your checking account.

UPDATED 3/11: The new kid on the block

If you haven’t at least heard about the Chase Sapphire Reserve by now, then I do wonder if you’ve been living under a rock, given that it was so popular that Chase ran out of metal cards and lost $300 million on it. But you shouldn’t use it to pay your taxes. It gets 1x back on all purchases that aren’t dining or travel, and those points are multiplied by 1.5 cents per point when redeeming for airfare. So if you redeem for airfare, you’ll still come out behind .37% (1.5-1.87).

But here’s where it gets interesting. Having the Reserve means that the value of your Ultimate Rewards points will get multiplied by 1.5 no matter how you earn them. This is where the Chase Freedom Unlimited comes into play. The Chase Freedom Unlimited is a good card for “everything else” purchases, as it earns a flat 1.5x back on everything.

See where I’m heading here? If you pay your taxes with a Chase Freedom Unlimited, you’ll get 1.5x back, which means you’ll be at a loss, but once those get multiplied by the 1.5 from the Reserve when redeeming for airfare, that means you’re getting 2.25% back (assuming that you redeem for airfare), or .38%. Now again, this isn’t a ton ($3.80 for every $1,000), but it’s something.

So can we do even better? Maybe a 3% card? Yes. Well, kinda.

The Discover It Miles card is another unique card, in that there is no signup bonus or annual fee, and it offers you 1.5% cash back on all your purchases, but doubles your rewards your first year, in other words, giving you 3%. Therefore, if you were to time the opening of your card and payment of your federal taxes, you could use this card to get 3% back on your federal taxes twice (e.g. open the card March 1, pay your federal taxes for the current year on March 15, and then pay your taxes for the next year on February 15). This will now boost you up to a net of 1.13% cash back, or $11.30 for every $1,000. It’s not a ton of money, but it’s a little bit more (and personally, with all the independent consulting work I did last year, I know I’ll be paying more than that in taxes).

The Discover It Miles card is also just a great all-around card to have, namely in that it not only has no annual fee, but also no foreign transaction fees, and up to $30 in in-flight WiFi credit every year, on any airline. (Of course, there is tremendous irony in Discover trying to market a card to be used abroad, given how much trouble they have with acceptance in the US*).

And while I don’t have time to go through the credit card fees for state tax rates, I know that California’s is 2.3%, so if you want to make any money from paying your California state taxes, the Discover It Miles card is your only choice.


Happy filing!


Did I miss something? Have questions? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.


*I really wanted to instead link to the Futurama clip about Discover, but could not find a video of this anywhere on the internet without paying. If you have a link to this scene, please let me know and I’ll replace the Family Guy link.



How I saw the Northern Lights for under $400

How I saw the Northern Lights for under $400

Like most people I know, seeing the Aurora Borealis (more commonly known as the Northern Lights) has always been a bucket list item for me.

But given that seeing them often requires traveling pretty far north to remote areas of countries where things tend to be a bit more expensive, the cost was often prohibitively high.

Given that airfare tends to usually be the most expensive part of international travel if that cost can be reduced or even eliminated, the overall cost can be reduced significantly. That’s why when I saw a $400 roundtrip flight from Oakland to Stockholm on Norwegian (which I love), I knew this deal was too good to pass up. Of course, the name of this blog is Wicked Cheap Travel, not Cheap Travel. Why pay $400 when I could get it for free?

Note: Prices are even lower for this route this year, as the same trip is now $300!


Perhaps Norwegian is feeling the pressure from WOW Air and their $99 flights to Iceland

Knowing that there are several cards out there offering signup bonuses of $400 or more on travel, I used the CardMatch tool to see if I was pre-approved for any, and saw that I was indeed pre-approved for the Capital One Venture card, which offered a signup bonus of 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in three months, good for $400 when redeemed for travel purchases. Importantly though, I was able to make the purchase first, and then redeem my points to erase it later after I had spent $3,000.

Of course, that only covered my flight to Stockholm and back. As it is a major city (read: light pollution) at a lower latitude, that alone would not be enough to see the northern lights. Instead, I would have to go to the far northern part of Sweden to Abisko National Park, generally considered one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.

Disclaimer: For this trip, I spent half my time in Stockholm, and half up north seeing the Northern Lights. This blog post will be written from the perspective of only going to Sweden to see the Northern Lights and nothing else so I can keep the title)

Given the Northern Lights’ unpredictability due to a number of factors, it is generally a good idea to allow yourself a few nights to see them. The higher you go, the greater chance you have of seeing them at least once. After reading some other reviews, I settled on three nights.

There are three ways of getting from Stockholm to Abisko: drive, take a train, or fly. Given that it’s a 15-hour drive or so, this didn’t seem too appealing. I figured I would mix it up and take the train up, and fly back.

To get from the Arlanda (Stockholm) airport to the actual city of Stockholm (where one can catch the train to Abisko), there is a very fast express train that will take you there for roughly $30 USD, or a taxi for $60 USD. As there were four of us, we opted for the taxi.

As is often the case with remote areas, we knew that food options would be super limited. Consequently, we stocked up in Stockholm on groceries, mostly getting a mix of bread, pickled/smoked fish, meatballs, amazingly cheap caviar, and fresh fruit, which ran about $20 per person.

I used the Swedish national railway site and saw that I could pay roughly $69 for a coach seat, or $87 for a sleeper. Given that this was an overnight train, I figured I would “splurge” on the sleeper, something which is much harder to do in the US with Amtrak often charging five times the price.


One of the many nice things about Europe is that unlike the US, there is a strong affinity for train travel. As a result, lodging is often set up along train routes so people don’t have to figure out how to get from the train stop to where they’re staying in areas that are often very remote with limited taxi service.

In what was unquestionably the biggest expense of the trip, my three friends and I booked three nights at the Abisko Turiststation STF, getting a cottage that sleeps four people for $688, which came out to $172 per person. Of course, this was located a five minute walk from the train station, and inside the national park itself, so we didn’t have to go very far once we got there. It was very cold and windy:


Once it got dark, we wandered out into the park in the freezing cold weather, and an hour later, we were rewarded with a sight that could only be the Northern Lights, and it was everything I hoped for (though they’re not as green in person, this is more how a camera captures them).

The only downside about being so far north is that there is not a whole lot to do during the day, so we explored the adjacent Kungsleden trail, one of the most beautiful hikes in the summer, but mostly just a pleasant walk through snowy woods in the winter.

We went out again the next night to see the northern lights, and they were even more impressive that night, moving in all sorts of different directions, and putting on quite a show for several hours (note that you will need a very good camera to capture them, if you don’t have one or don’t trust your skills, you can sign up for a tour where you rent a camera and they show you how to use it):

johann north

david north

The next day, two people went to the famous nearby Ice Hotel, while I and my friend did a day trip to Narvik, which included some beautiful fjords:


Along the way, we also saw quite a lot of reindeer:


And on the way back, we got a great shot of the Lapponian gate, the halfpipe-looking structure:


Photo credit: Johann Dong

Unfortunately, when we went out later that night, we were not able to see it a third night, and gave up after several hours being out in the cold and seeing nothing. Nevertheless, we were certainly not about to complain having seen them two of three nights, given how often people will not see them any nights.

The closest airport to Abisko is Kiruna (KRN), thought it is still a bit of a ways south. I had booked a $60 flight on Norwegian from Kiruna to Stockholm to connect with my flight going back to Oakland from Stockholm, but this too I eventually got for free, as the $3,000 I would spend to meet the credit card signup bonus requirements was redeemable for an additional $60 in travel.

Unfortunately, none of the trains or buses run early enough to the airport, so the options are either booking a shuttle with Lights over Lapland for $50, or a taxi for $200. As there were four of us and the price was essentially the same, we pre-booked a taxi with Taxi Kiruna. They came to pick us up promptly, and after the long journey to Kiruna, we caught our flight to Stockholm, then back to Oakland, where the weather was slightly warmer, but no more northern lights to be found.

Seeing the northern lights was an experience I’ll never forget, and one that I’m now trying to continuously seek out from different countries. But this doesn’t have to be an expensive trip. To review the essential costs (not including the Stockholm portion of my trip or the day trip to Norway):


Flights from OAK to ARN, KRN to ARN, and ARN to OAK: $460 originally, free with points from credit card signup bonus

Taxi from Arlanda to Stockholm: $15 (per person)

Sleeper train from Stockholm to Abisko: $103 (cheaper now with the kroner falling against the dollar)

Lodging in Abisko for three nights: $187 (per person)

Groceries: $20

Taxi from Abisko to Kiruna: $50 (per person)

Total cost: $375


Have you been to Abisko and have something to add? Questions about something I wrote? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments.



Northern Lights photos credit:  David Tse

How to book award (free) flights using your Delta SkyMiles

How to book award (free) flights using your Delta SkyMiles

For a while, Delta’s online award search was laughably bad, often not displaying many awards, and incorrectly pricing the ones it did display, as well as not allowing one-way award flights.

Thankfully, in 2015, they overhauled it, and it is now pretty reliable, to the point where most users would recommend it. However, they did make one key change that has frustrated flyers immensely: They stopped publishing a chart of how many miles an award will cost you (i.e. unlike every other major airline in the world, you don’t know how many miles it will cost you to get from Point A to Point B).

That being said, let’s look at the process.

You can book directly from the home page, but make sure to select “MILES” instead of “MONEY”, as well as “FLEXIBLE DAYS” (if your days are indeed flexible).


The next step can be where some problems occur. This will show you the miles required for each day of the week:

delt2Because they don’t publish a mileage chart, someone new to booking Delta awards may think that the best deal is on Wednesday, Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday of that week. This is why it’s important to look at the entire month to see if it’s really the best deal, which you can do on by clicking “5 weeks.”

As you can now see, the fewest number of miles required for this route is not 37,500, but rather 22,500, assuming you have flexibility on which day you leave.


Unlike American Airlines, which leaves out many key members of its alliance, Delta’s online award search engine covers most SkyTeam members. The only exceptions are Xiamen Airlines, Air Europa, Kenya Airways, Air Tahiti Nui, Tarom Airlines, and Czech Airlines. Give that only two of these six even offer flights to the US, it’s unlikely that you will be needing to use your Delta miles to book an award on them, though this was useful for me last summer when I booked an award flight on Kenya Airways from Mumbai to Kilimanjaro.

For awards involving these airlines, you’ll want to use the Flying Blue award search engine, the award program of KLM and Air France, and then call Delta to book the award. This is generally considered to be the best SkyTeam award search engine, though it’s not perfect. That being said, the Delta search engine is also far from perfect, and even if your flight doesn’t involve one of the six airlines above, it doesn’t hurt to also trying a search with Flying Blue to make sure Delta didn’t miss something. Of course, I can speak from personal experience and say that if an award is appearing on Flying Blue but not Delta, there’s no guarantee the Delta phone agents will be able to book something.


Did I miss something? Still have questions? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments below.

How I not only survived, but even enjoyed my $79 nonstop flight from Boston to the French Caribbean

How I not only survived, but even enjoyed my $79 nonstop flight from Boston to the French Caribbean

Several months ago, low-cost carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle announce nonstop service during the winter from Boston, Baltimore, and New York to the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

I was already familiar with Norwegian from the $400 nonstop roundtrip flight I booked with them from Oakland to Stockholm, but didn’t really understand why a Scandinavian airline was starting service between the East Coast and the French Caribbean. I also wasn’t about to complain.

I had been constantly checking their calendar for a good fare on dates that worked for me, and when I saw this weekend, I jumped on it and booked it, for $209 round trip, though I got most of that reimbursed thanks to the benefits on my Citi Prestige card (which I’ll get into later).

Unlike my previous experience on Norwegian, the check-in area was practically empty (unfortunately, they do not allow online boarding passes):

After getting past security, I went straight to the gate, only to discover we were delayed 20 minutes. Luckily, thanks to my Priority Pass card (from my Citi Prestige card), I and my friend had access to the Air France lounge immediately downstairs, where we had an unspectacular yet filling (and more importantly, free) lunch:


The plane looked like any other 737, other than the bright red draped over each seat. Leg room was sufficient, but due to the plane being fairly empty, I got to have my own version of “first class”, an entire row to myself:


As Norwegian is a budget carrier, they partially follow the Spirit Airlines model of charging for everything imaginable: food, drinks, checked bags, seat assignment, etc. Of course, on a 4-hour flight, no food or drink is manageable, but you might want to make alternate arrangements for a longer flight on Norwegian. They did come around offering food and drinks several times, with soda starting at $2.50. I didn’t ask about the cost of food.

Importantly, the one service that I did not have to pay for was the Wi-Fi, which, although not super fast, was free and more than enough for a short flight.

The “barf bags” did have a rather amusing message:


As we began our descent with the sun setting, they dimmed the cabin for some more ambient lighting.


Four hours after takeoff, we were in Guadeloupe, and for less than the cost of a night out on the town.

Given how many people I’ve talked to who haven’t heard about these flights, as well as the lack of advertising, it doesn’t seem like they are doing a very good job marketing these flights, as the flight was only a little more than half full.

I hope that enough people can start taking these flights, as I’d hate for see for them to drop this service. And there are still plenty of low fares available, if you can leave in late March, you can fly for $49:



I’ll be writing more detailed posts later on Norwegian Air Shuttle as well as my trip to Guadeloupe, but if you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to email me or ask a question in the comments below.





The 9 things I do before traveling internationally

As I’m getting ready to escape the blizzard that’s about to hit Boston in favor of warmer weather (on a wicked cheap flight which I’ll write about tomorrow), I figured it might be good to do a post about my pre-travel routine when I’m flying internationally.

1. Make sure my passport is packed

I know, it seems fairly obvious, but given the horror stories I hear from time to time, I figure it’s worth mentioning. I also like to make a few photocopies of my passport so that I can keep my actual passport in the safe where I’m staying, and carry the copies around.

If you have a yellow fever certificate (which likely means that you’ve been to a country where yellow fever is a concern), it’s good to carry this with your passport in case an immigration agent notices a stamp from that country in your passport and gets concerned.

While I know it may also seem like a little thing, I also like to carry a pen with my passport to fill out any necessary immigration paperwork so that I don’t have to bug the person next to me on my flight or the flight attendant for one.

2. Download an offline map of where I’m going, and add any places I want to go to

While Google Maps has been an invaluable resource for getting directions from place to place in the US, many people don’t know that you can download offline information for where you’re going from Google Maps in advance, so that you can still get directions from place to place if you don’t have a wi-fi signal or data. It’s a fairly easy process:

  1. First, from the home screen, click on the three horizontal bars in the upper left to bring up settings.
  2. Select “Offline areas”
  3. From the “Offline areas” screen, select the plus sign in the bottom right
  4. Hover the blue square over the area you wish to download, and select “DOWNLOAD”


For some areas, Google Maps may not allow you to save the region (as was the case with Dubai), so you’ll need to manually zoom in/out on any regions you want it to save.

Then, if there are any particular places I want to go to, I can make sure they show up on my map offline by doing the following (also known as “dropping a pin”):

  1. Locate the place I want to go to, and tap on the red pin
  2. Click “Save”
  3. The place now will appear as a yellow star whenever I access that map, regardless of if I have internet

3. Notify my debit/credit card issuer(s) where I’ll be traveling, to avoid them from denying transactions in the name of fraud

In the old days, this had to be done over phone. Luckily, for people like me who dread talking on the phone with anyone, this can almost always be done online. Note that some issuers (particularly American Express) do not allow you to do that, and have their own algorithm to determine fraud.
4. Download the offline language package (if available) of the main language(s) spoken in the country that I’m going to

While it’s not perfect, I’ve generally been impressed with Google Translate, and they allow you to download offline translation packages of the most commonly spoken languages so that even if you’re without wi-fi or data, you can still translate foreign words into English and vice versa. I’ve found that this is fun to have regardless of the English proficiency of the place you’re going, as it’s always fun to use to translate signs, or to hold conversations with strangers who may not have as good a command of English (this was a really fun way to pass time on a long bus ride I took in Indonesia last year). After you’ve downloaded the app, just go to the dropdown menu on the right side, and select the language(s) you need:


Make sure to delete this when you get back so it doesn’t consume unnecessary space on your phone.
5. Download the app for the airline(s) I’m flying so I can get my boarding pass in advance

This is a great way to avoid needing to wait in line at the check-in counter to get your ticket, as well as to avoid trying to find a printer while you’re traveling. All major US airlines have a good app, and most major airlines in the world have some sort of app, though some of them look like they were designed by someone designing their first app and may not be too reliable. Either way, there’s no harm in trying.
6. Download the TripAdvisor offline package for the city (or cities) which I’m going to

While it comes as no surprise that Yelp has surpassed TripAdvisor in popularity in the US due to their excellent spam filtering and other reasons, TripAdvisor is still the most used review site throughout the world, though it’s often good to subtract half a star to a full star from the rating to get a more accurate read, as well as read through the reviews for obvious fake posts. This of course shouldn’t substitute for any research you’ve done in advance, or recommendations you’ve received from friends, but it’s a good backup to have if the place you want to go to is closed (either for that time or permanently) or you can’t find a place. To download it, first go to “Downloaded Cities” from the TripAdvisor app home page, then select “Download a City”, then select the city you wish to download:

Unfortunately, there are a fair amount of cities/areas not available offline, but if you have the option to do an offline download, you might as well.

7. Print out my return flight info

This is another thing that more often than not won’t be necessary, but you might as well do it because of the minimal effort required. I like to do this for the occasional immigration officer who wants to make sure you’re not planning on coming to their country with the intent of never leaving (and yes, I know you probably have it all on your phone, but some officials prefer paper, not to mention you can lose your phone). I usually will also write down my hotel and any other transportation info on this paper in the instance that I (again) lose my phone.
8. Add the currency of the country I’m going to on my currency converter app (I use XE) and check the latest rate

This is helpful in the situation that I don’t have data or wi-fi and need to do a quick currency conversion (though this will only give you the rate for the last time I had internet, and may not reflect sudden plunges that are often common in countries with less stable currencies, like the time when I was in South Africa and the reformist finance minister was fired, causing the currency to drop 15% in a day).
9. Check the weather

Again, this may seem obvious (especially as weather was likely a consideration when planning the trip), but it never hurts to be prepared so I can pack an extra item or two for clothing for some last-minute unplanned weather developments.

10. Pack a universal power adapter

Even if you’re sure the country you’re going to has the same outlets as your home country, given how lightweight these are, it can’t hurt to put one in, in the rare event that you decide to go to a neighboring country, and/or have an unexpected layover in a different airport with a different. Of course, there’s no such thing has truly universal (for example, most will not work in Switzerland), so it’s always good to check beforehand.


Did I miss something? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.

How to book award (free) flights using your American Airlines miles

How to book award (free) flights using your American Airlines miles

Unfortunately, while American Airlines miles themselves are incredibly valuable for getting free flights,  American Airlines makes it very hard to redeem them online through their search engine, unless you only care about using them for domestic flights (not a very good use, in my opinion).

If you are just using them for domestic flights however, it’s pretty easy. Go to, and select “Redeem Miles”:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 3.29.57 PM

Click on “Show Full Calendar”, and you’ll then get something that looks like this. Just as United has Saver and Standard awards, American Airlines has MileSAAver and AAnytime awards. You want MileSAAver, as AAnytime is generally not a good use of your miles. If this is selected, you can then see which dates have saver availability, and how much it costs to book them. Fairly straightforward.Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 3.30.45 PM

The problem with American Airlines’ award search engine

The reason the American Airlines online award search engine is limited is because it only shows award availability for five other airlines in the Oneworld alliance: British Airways, Royal Jordanian, Qantas, Finnair, and Airberlin, despite there being 15 airlines in the Oneworld Alliance. (It also shows results for Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines, whom it partners with).

For example, if I try to do a search for San Francisco to Hong Kong, it shows there are no awards available at the saver level, and the cheapeast award would use 65,000 miles all on American Airlines, and route me through Chicago and Dallas to get to Hong Kong from San Francisco. It doesn’t take a geography expert to know that this is a bit of an absurd routing. This is because it’s not searching most of the Oneworld airlines, including Cathay Pacific, the flag carrier of Hong Kong, and one of seven five-star airlines in the world.

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 3.22.43 PM

Instead, if you try searching for this award on the British Airways online award search engine, you’ll find that there is indeed a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Once you have that information, you can then call up American Airlines to book that award (for 32,500 miles, not 65,000 miles). You will need to create a frequent flyer account with British Airways to search for award availability.

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 3.22.33 PM

In short, if you’re looking to book an international award flight on American Airlines, unless you’re planning on flying American the whole way, you should search on British Airways.

Another thing to remember

While it is not part of the Oneworld alliance, American also partners with Etihad Airways, the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, which is headquartered in Abu Dhabi. This is a very nice airline which can be useful if you want to use your American Airlines miles to fly to the Middle East or Indian subcontinent (American’s award rules state that you may not transit a third region on an award flight, so if you fly to Abu Dhabi on Etihad from the US using an American award, you can’t continue on to another region).

For example, if I wanted to use my American Airlines miles to fly from New York to Tehran, searching on yields no results:Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 4.00.33 PM

Given that none of the airlines that searches have flights to Tehran, this is completely unsurprising. However, if I do the same search on the Etihad award search engine, it yields several results in “Guest Economy” (there must be results in Guest Economy to be bookable with American Airlines miles). From there, you can call up American Airlines and book that flight. Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 4.01.45 PM

Unfortunately, if you want to fly from a city that Etihad doesn’t serve (right now the only US cities are New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas), you’ll need to first search on for award flights from your city to that city.

The bottom line: Don’t give up on your American Airlines miles because you can’t find awards on If you use them right, they can be very valuable.


Still confused? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.