This post hails to you on my first full day in Auckland, New Zealand. You may recall that I was here just a few weeks ago, which – in part – explains why I’m back, and how I planned a year of travel in the last two weeks.
This post was originally published in 2010. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Let me tell you how I got here.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I’ll tell you why I’m telling you all this. In reviewing the recent Reader Survey results, you, my dear readers, told me you wanted a little more of the behind-the-scenes action with regards to planning and executing a trip, and the finances that go with it. And the last two weeks have been a full-on exercise in planning – and a perfect way to show you how I choose my destinations (there’s not as much of a science to it as you may think), and find my travel opportunities.
So there I was, in New Zealand…
I knew when I was last in New Zealand that this year would see some solo international travel for me. Kelly and I had many discussions leading up to the trip about how to make the most of this year for both of us, and it seemed that my itchy feet were begging for some new land to walk on.
Australian Immigration wasn’t going to make this easy though. For Kelly to stay in Australia until December (he’s receiving sponsorship from his employer) equates to about $2,000 between visa application fees and mandatory insurance premiums. Now, he’s got the full-time income to cover it, but on my location independent writing (read: not that great) income, I have to be more judicious.
Because I knew I’d be spending some time abroad, it made no sense for me to apply for a spousal visa to go along with Kelly’s, because I too, would have to pay the same $2,000 in fees and premiums.
So I figured (and crossed my fingers) that Aussie Immigration would see their way to granting me a new regular ol’ 3 month tourist visa if I leave the country and come back to visit later on in the year.
Obtaining said regular ol’ 3 month tourist visa is a little more challenging than that, as I discovered. (More on that later).
But where to go?
Having made the decision that I’d travel internationally this year just days before my one-off trip to New Zealand to shoot an episode of “Alive”, I spent most of my downtime in New Zealand wondering where the heck I was going to go, and how I could possibly plan it all and wrap up life as I knew it in Australia in less than two weeks. My Aussie visa was set to expire on March 26th, so the clock was ticking.
But as the week progressed in New Zealand, my initial path became clear: I had to go back. Between having seen only a sliver of the country, to having friends all over the place and a work-trade opportunity I was keen to check out, New Zealand seemed like a great place to “land” while I figured the rest of the year out.
Not so fast, Nora…
But sadly, it’s not as easy as getting a one-way ticket to New Zealand and figuring the rest out from there. Before I even board the plane from Australia to New Zealand, I must present onward travel tickets from New Zealand, and have visas sorted for the country to which I’m going.
This is where the first hurtle came into view. I just wanted to spend three months in New Zealand, then come back to Australia to visit Kelly and our friends, then do some Australian rail travel and see more of Oz (as I did on my trips to Sydney and Canberra).
But…I couldn’t apply for another Australian visa whilst still in the country, and to apply for a further visa requires me to be out of the country for a “designated amount of time”. How long that period of time is, is a little bit vague according to a recent email from immigration, so it appears that my application will just have to speak for itself and present a compelling enough reason to let me back in.
So, not being able to apply for an Aussie visa while in the country, but not being allowed into New Zealand without one, I realized that my next step from New Zealand had to be somewhere else again.
Now we’re looking at June…
What to do? Where to go? I could have booked a one-way flight to Tonga, Vanuatu, or another south pacific island destination just to present an onward ticket at the check-in counter. But I was thinking a few steps ahead at this point. I figured if I had to stay out of Oz for a certain amount of time, that the time period would probably be 6 months. (All of this wisdom is based on other countries’ policies and pure conjecture, of course).
So I figured instead of sitting on a south pacific island and wondering what I was going to do for three more months, that I’d make the most of my international travels. Hey – go big or go home, as they say. And since I’m kind of homeless, then going big is all I’ve got!
Frequent Flyer Miles
I also have a whole heap of frequent flyer miles burning a hole in my pocket. In December, I cautiously dipped a toe in the game that is aggressive collection of frequent flyer miles by participating in a US Airways deal that involved online shopping for some big bonuses. I wasn’t nearly as aggressive as some of my counterparts, who spent upwards of $4,000 (and not even planning to use the items they bought) to receive a million points.
No, I was too chicken for that. I spent $1,200, and not even as wisely as I could have from a miles accumulation point of view, but I managed to get some use out of my purchases. In March, the gamble paid off when 145,000 frequent flyer miles was deposited into my account. Whew – it worked!
So my first big travel hack was a success, and I had the miles to prove it.
Chris Guillebeau’s e-book Frequent Flyer Master (no longer available) was the impetus for my mile-accumulating prowess, and his next piece of advice in the book is that you get the most bang for your frequent flyer miles if you travel in business or first class.
Um…okay…twist my arm…
145,000 miles is more than enough for me to fly in business class to wherever I want in the world. Too many times have I sidled past these glorious looking pods in business class on my way to my lowly economy seat. Those pods surely promise a good night’s sleep, meal service with real cutlery, individual entertainment stations, and a variety of other benefits that only the lucky few who are on the right side of the first class curtain ever get to see.
So what’s the most expensive business class ticket I could book with my miles?
That’s right….Europe, baby! Airfare from the South Pacific to Europe and North America are similar in price (depending on the deals you find), but Europe holds more appeal this time around, being a place I’ve not widely explored. I have friends – and even family – who will either be living in or visiting Europe this summer, so on something of a whim, I decided that I’d book a ticket to Europe, with free (albeit short) layovers in Bangkok and Osaka (taking advantage of free layovers is another Chris Guillebeau suggestion).
Even more arbitrary were my choices of destinations (flying into Madrid and out of Amsterdam). Well, somewhat arbitrary. Now would probably be a good time to let you in on another aspect of how I travel and choose my travel destinations.
Finding Work-Trade Opportunities
Working in trade for accommodation is a big reason why I can financially afford to travel full-time. It’s also a great cultural exchange and immersion, provides lots of learning, and keeps my nose out of my laptop for at least a few hours a day! These work-trade arrangements can be as simple as house or pet-sitting, or more involved work (like gardening) in trade for a place to sleep (and sometimes meals too).
While I was in Thailand, I met a guy from Canada who was fairly well-traveled. Knowing that we were enroute to Australia, he said “Good. Get Australia out of your system, then go to New Zealand. I guarantee you’ll like it even more!”
He also tipped us off to a place in New Zealand where he worked in trade for accommodation called Mana Retreat, and he couldn’t say enough wonderful things about it. I filed this information away, knowing that it would later come in handy. With a testimonial like his, I just had to check the place out.
When I decided to return to New Zealand, contacting Mana Retreat was tops on my list. Luckily they even remembered my Canadian friend (who obviously left a great impression), and with my application I was invited to stay with them for (at least) the month of April.
Right. New Zealand: Sorted.
Next to find some work-trade opportunities in Europe. Many months ago by chance, I found a link to a place called Vaughan Town, where native English speakers are paired off with Spanish business executives, and in exchange for conversational English, I would receive a place to stay in a 4-star hotel, all meals, and planned activities. Again, I filed this link away, knowing that one day it would come in handy.
That day had come.
I contacted Vaughan Town, and although at the writing of this post the application is still pending, I have no reason to believe I’ll be denied. Each “term” is 6 days long, and there are a few different locations in Spain to choose from. If there’s a good fit, I’ll stay longer than the initial 2 weeks I applied for.
“Couchsurfing” is not only the name of an organized hospitality exchange site, but is now becoming an accepted term for staying with other people as you travel. So although I’m not a member of “couchsurfing” per se, I plan to couchsurf much of my way through the rest of Europe. I have friends in France, Germany, (maybe) Portugal, (maybe) Italy, Switzerland, the UK, and the Netherlands. And where I don’t have friends, I have my Hospitality Club membership.
So despite being in Europe over summer and during the height of tourist season, I hope to keep my costs low by working in trade for accommodation, finding house-sitting gigs (through House Carers, using Hospitality Club for cultural exchanges, and visiting with friends and family.
Twitter: Oh NOW I get it!
I’ve been Twittering along for a while now, and made some great contacts. I connected with some awesome Canadian female travel writers while I was back in Toronto last year through Twitter, and now I’m asking for travel advice with it.
There’s an art to asking questions on Twitter that actually get responses. I’m not quite sure what that art is, but I’m slowly getting there.
Wouldn’t you know it: a Spanish Twitterer clued me into some of the festivals I might want to attend while in Spain, including Hogueras de San Juan – a summer solstice party that is most enthusiastically celebrated in Alicante, where people from all walks of life come to the beach to celebrate, and the brave perform fire rituals.
So already having at least a month of fun planned for Spain, I have no doubt that the remaining 3 months of wandering around other European countries will come together.
The biggest thing I’ll have to watch is my wallet…and make sure that business class flight doesn’t go to my head and make me think I’m richer than I am!