Most people have wishes to travel the world. A lack of money usually is the first drawback in doing so. Or oftentimes, a misconstrued idea that one does not have money to travel. Americans especially have the toughest time grasping this concept. For starters, it’s just not widely popular to Travel, especially outside of Mexican Resorts or some popular European destinations. With the exploitation of capitalism within the Travel Industry, tour packages cost oftentimes double or triple than what you could easily plan and book for yourself. You can virtually have flights and hotels covered for free if you responsibly apply for a few Credit Cards a year. In this page, I provide practical travel and booking tips I’ve used to help me travel affordably, carefully and inexpensively. To start, here is the breakdown of international travel document checklist:

  • Passport: with an expiration of more than 6 months after travel date
  • Finances: Saving money, accruing miles and points through credit cards and miles
  • Visas: Giving yourself enough time to apply, services that you can hire to apply for you
  • Booking your Flight: Internationally and Domestically through various search engines, using miles and setting up flight alerts
  • Vaccinations: How to save on Vaccinations by going directly to your doctor, using insurance to cover it and not mentioning travel
  • Travel Insurance: Should you buy it?
  • Travel Agent: Is it for you?

Valid Passport

  • Make sure your passport is not expiring within 6 months of your trip and have at least 2 pages left.
  • Passport Photos are cheapest at Costco. 2 photos for just 5$.
    • It’s always smart to have at least 2 extra Passport Photos (2×2 size with a white background, face forward) in case you need it for a visa.
  • Check any conflicts you may have in having a US passport. And whether or not you are allowed to visit certain conflicting countries on the same passport (if you have a stamp), due to political/governmental tensions. Such as trying to visit Iran or Lebanon when you have an Israeli passport stamp (or Vice Versa).
    • It is very normal to be grilled at the Israel security upon arriving and even leaving when you have any passport stamps showing you’ve been to Muslim Countries. I understand the conflict they have with the surrounding Arab countries. But I was grilled for a good 10 minutes on why I went to Indonesia and Malaysia. I answered the same, “I went for a friends wedding and for vacation”. In which I repeated 5 times as he asked the question in different ways to see if he can get a different response from me.
  • Always have a photo copy of your passport that you store in a separate compartment of your luggage. Just in case you lose your actual passport!

Practical Booking Tips for Your Flights Abroad

Booking Your Flight in General

  1. First step: There are many broker sites which will find you cheap flights. It should be your starting point to see where the cheapest flights are to that destination (applies for Domestic AND International flights). Skyscanner has my favorite interface but the other ones work great too:
  2. After finding a few deals that you like from the first step, go directly to the Airline’s Website to see if you can get the same deal. If so, I recommend booking directly there. This way, you have more control in having direct contact with the Airline, as well as ensuring you get the mileage points. But always browse the third party websites first to get an idea of costs before going directly to the airline site.
  3. Make sure you are signed up for the Frequent Fliers/Mileage Program either on the Airline you are flying or on an affiliate’s. It is best to have a few of major mileage accounts instead of having it scattered in every airline.
    1. Ie: I will fly Emirates to India & the Middle-East. But it’s more worth it for me to gather the mileage on Alaska Air or JetBlue to redeem on a domestic flight. I don’t fly Emirates enough to gather enough points for an international flight before it expires in a few years.

 

Booking Domestic Flights

After Step 1 above, look directly at some of our direct Domestic Airlines (in the US):

  • Alaska Air
    • Alaska Airlines has a good reputation with Customer Service. My 2 favorite domestic airlines are Alaska Air & Southwest Air.
  • American Airlines
    • Part of the OneWorld Alliance, many travelers prefer keeping all their flights within this family. American Airlines generally has pretty good customer service, often better than Delta and United (at least in my experience in recent years).
  • Delta.com
  • JetBlue.com
  • Southwest.com
    • Southwest Airlines is most flexible when it comes to changing flights or crediting a flight you no longer need for a later date. It’s a no bullshit type of Airline, easy to book online with a free check-in bag. There are no seat assignments but your boarding pass will label a ranked Group to board. If you are a frequent flier or check in earlier, the higher the group you’ll be in, which means you’ll have better luck choosing the seat you want.
  • Spirit
    • Spirit may be the most notorious airline for domestic flights in the US. But I personally have not had any bad experiences. It’s a budget, a la carte airline. The concept of these airlines has been popular throughout Europe since the early 1990’s as it’s a practical approach for Business Travelers and those riding for a quick trip.
    • The flights are generally the cheapest compared to the rest. But you have to add on for checked in bag, carry on bag, seat assignment, drinks, food and even water.
      • The seats are basic and barely recline (think of more of a bus seat), but as mentioned, it’s a practical airline if you just need a quick flight.
    • Do your research to see if adding on the services you need will still be cheaper than other airlines. If it ends up being more expensive (or the same price) because you need to check in a bag or carry on a bag, then choose any other airline.
      • Spirit Airlines also has a program where you pay a flat $59.95 a year and get discounts on the add-on services. This may be worth it if you plan to fly frequently within their non-stop routes.
  • United
    • Leader of the Star Alliance group. United flies domestically and internationally. Flying with United (or American or Delta) is a smart way to build points for larger international flights.

Booking International Flights

Same goes for booking International Flights, start with the third party websites as mentioned above. In a matter of seconds, it will find you the cheapest flights everywhere!

Airline Frequent Flier / Rewards Cards

Whatever airline you fly, make sure you sign up for rewards points! Especially for the 3 major Alliance Teams – SkyTeam, StarAlliance, OneWorld. Between those 3, they contain mainly all of the airlines. It depends which airline you prefer to fly most, but it helps to compile them all into 1 family so you can rack the points up faster.

A good rule of thumb is on average 25,000 miles can get you a domestic flight, and 50-75,000 miles an International flight – give or take.


Travel Finances: Use Credit Cards & Miles for Free Flights Abroad!

ThePointsGuy.com has all the ins & outs on traveling for free through credit card points, etc. It can get overwhelming but you can use his recommended Credit Card list as a start. As a starting point, stay updated with your favorite airlines on what their latest deals are. I signed up for both United Airlines and American Airlines Credit Card last year and each gave me 50,000 miles upon signing up and spending $3000 within 2 months. That’s practically a free roundtrip!

I will sign up for a credit card on average once every 3 months and my credit remains around 815. Last year, I heard Brandon Neth of FinanceBuzz.com speak at a Travel Blogging conference called TravelCon at a “Points and Meetup Group”. I quote him:

“Between my wife and I, we have 80 open credit cards, with a 450,000 credit line and have traveled for free in the last 2 years. I have never made over $60,000 in my life and both our credit scores are above 800.”

Read more on my Travel Financial Tips:

My Favorite Credit Cards for Mileage Points:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve (or Preferred) which awards you 50,000 points after spending $3000 in 3 months
    • The difference between the 2 is that Reserve will cost you $450 annual fee which seems intimidating at first. BUT, you get $300 credited back automatically on any ‘TRAVEL’ coded expense. This can be Lyft rides, flight, hotel or even parking. $100 is credited if you apply for Global Entry + you get an annual Priority Pass (free access to airline lounges around the world worth $100).
      • The Chase Sapphire Reserve card will also give you more points per purchase VS the Preferred.
  • United Credit Card
  • Southwest

Should You Buy Travel Insurance?

Travel Insurance
I personally have never purchased it but some travelers feel safer with it. It costs on average $350 so it’s not a big deal if you do decide to get it just to be safe. The way I see it though, is I figure if I get sick in another country, I will just get medical care locally. Most countries (if not ALL) have way cheaper healthcare and medicine than the United States. But Travel Insurance can also cover other things besides medical, such as lost luggage, natural disasters and flight delays.

Health Insurance
Check with your Healthcare Provider to see if they cover you Internationally. In most countries, seeing a doctor is relatively inexpensive. You’ll have to keep an open mind and trust their local medical customs within reason. And if you can wait, you can always see your primary physician once you return from your trip.


Obtaining a Visa Abroad

Check online at least 2 months prior to your trip if the country you’re going to needs a Visa. It varies depending on what passport that you have and the relations between your home country and theirs. Visa prices range from $20-150 depending on the country, length of stay, type of visa (tourism VS working visa). Off the top of my head, countries that you don’t need a visa for as a US Citizen:  Most European countries, Costa Rica, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Canada, Mexico. (These Visa restrictions change depending on the current political situation and government administration.)

  • Travisa: For all your Passport/Visa needs. They provide a list of all the countries and whether or not you need a visa to enter.

Some visas you are able to obtain upon arrival at the Border or Embassy, that’s as easy as just paying a fee with cash or credit and you’re in. Sometimes, it is cheaper to purchase on arrival than ahead of time. Regardless, you should always do your research ahead of time.

Some countries are obviously still incredibly corrupt. Do your research as even with countries where you can apply on arrival, may still be a nightmare experience. Here’s a story:

Visa Nightmare: While having a beautiful success in getting a visa in Vietnam, while we crossed to the bordering country of Cambodia by bus, we had major problems that would scare the living shit out of anyone. We had been warned about the problems of crossing the Thailand-Cambodia border.

First off, the bus would only take you to about 2 miles from the border, then you have to grab a taxi or rickshaw to the actual border crossing. And these drivers have been INFAMOUS bringing travelers to a fake embassy located ½ mile from the border, next to a shanty small building labeled “Visa Office”. They force you to get off and buy their Visa, telling you that this is the only place to buy. While some may be legit Visas, this is not the official place to purchase them. These criminals will rip you off any way they can and the local officials don’t seem to care.

If you’ve done your research ahead of time, you will know this is a scam. Some drivers are more aggressive than others. As a practical travel tip, the more confident & adamant you are, the better off you are. Finally getting to the actual border, we approached the visa box office, with a printed sign above that says “Cambodia Traveler Visa for 25$” The corrupt worker in slimy smile and crisp suit asks for 1000 Baht = 35$. We argued for 10 minutes while he made no sense but held a devious disgusting smile insinuating in his look ‘I know you know I’m full of shit and pocketing your money, but what are you gonna do about it? I can put you in jail for no reason since you’re in my corrupt government, so pay up!’ So we settled at 30$.

Lesson learned: Find a local embassy near your home for an official Visa. And do your research before traveling to the corrupt countries. (Because even with a Visa, they will sometimes try to con you into buying another one)


Vaccinations

It is crucial that you check at least 2 months prior to your trip if vaccinations are necessary. You can find the list at Passport Health. What I learned from my mistake, is to not get your shots at a “Travel clinic” if you can manage. Instead, go directly to your own physician or any doctors within your insurance network to see if they’ll offer these shots and have insurance cover it. Most of these vaccinations are recommended anyways every few years for practical protection.

If you go to a Travel Clinic or the doctor bills it to insurance companies for “travel purposes”, your insurance will not cover the expenses since it’s not a necessity but really a luxury. Maybe some insurance companies will let it apply to your deductibles though.

  • For example, the Hepatitis series A-B-C, Tetanus and Rabies shot is something practical people get. But I was charged close to $100 for each of them from the ‘Specialized’ Travel Clinic. One could easily spend $500 on these shots which can be avoided!

After researching the recommended list of vaccinations from these Travel Health Websites/Clinics or US Government site, I would (as usual) recommend doing your own research through online forums and travel blogs. For example, there is an extensive list of vaccinations and prevention medications for traveling to India. Malaria pills are the most common medication which has a lot of side effects such as advising you not to go in the sun, nausea or even paranoia. The reality is that you would only need to take these pills if you were in certain areas and/or seasons where the risk of contracting Malaria is possible through mosquitos. I don’t take this medication at all and I’ve been to India 5 times now. But it is up to your risk tolerance.


Should You Use a Travel Agent?

Using a Travel Agent can save you time if you want don’t want to do the leg work. I personally enjoy searching good deals on flights and accommodations. Travel Agents do have special deals with certain hotels, flights, cruises and tour packages, though I rarely stay at nicer hotels. As mentioned though, it can be good for those with not a lot of time or those with families wanting to book a package. I suggest doing your research online before asking a travel agent so you have a ballpark of pricing.

Here is a recommendation of a dear friend of mine if you need a trusted, experienced International Travel Agent: