How I Flew to Mexico City for FREE with Southwest Airlines + 40K Bonus Points

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When our financial planner first sat down with Mike and I to discuss our long-term goals, travelling the world was up there on our list. It was the one common ground we had. A future home? Maybe. Kids? Not sure. Interests? Cars. Art. Travel? YES! ABSOLUTELY!

All of this was learned before we decided to change gears and pay back the student debt, full-force. Unfortunately, a $6,500 monthly student payment for ten years does put quite a damper on the travel. So, we found another way.

It’s no secret that we travel the world by travel hacking. Using credit card sign-up bonuses to rack up free flights was something we started doing last November. It has been a little over six months, and we have been able to buy the following flights for 2018:

Mexico City, San Francisco, Portland, Calgary, Sydney, and Christchurch. Also on the list, Costa Rica, for which we have the points, but are waiting for a few of our travel hacking friends to catch up so that we can all travel together!

Now I know that with travel hacking, one may not need to pay money for these flights, but they do still pay for them in points. What if I told you that I was able to fly to Mexico (and San Francisco, and Portland, and Costa Rica) for COMPLETELY FREE? As in, I did not spend any points at all to fly there, nor did I spend money. How, you ask? Southwest Airlines!

Southwest Airlines has an awesome program that grants a person a Companion Pass. The Companion Pass allows you to take someone with you on any flight, for free. Since Mikey has the Companion Pass, I (his companion) can fly with him wherever he goes for zilch. For those of you without a permanent significant other, no worries! You can change your companion up to three times in one calendar year. So take multiple friends on multiple vacations and voila! Problem solved!

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How to get Companion Pass:

There are multiple ways to get Companion Pass. Mike and I were lucky enough to strike a deal in November of last year, which we shared with all our friends, who also got in on it. The deal was an automatic Companion Pass until the end of December the FOLLOWING year (2018) as long as you open a Southwest Airlines card. This is the one we opened in particular, although there are other options to choose from. Additionally, you receive $40k bonus points if you hit a minimum spending of $1,000 in the first 3 months. This was very easy to do since Christmas time was around the corner from when we signed up. So we used our new Southwest Credit card to pay for upcoming gifts and events that came hand in hand with the holidays, and planned to hit the minimum spend by January of 2018! Free 40,000 points, to spend however we want!

If you missed the deal, there IS another way. Reach 110k points in their rewards program in one calendar and receive the Companion Pass until the end of December the following year from when the points were unlocked. It is crucial to note that all 110k points must be reached in the same calendar year. You may be saying, “This seems like a lot! How am I ever going to reach 110k?” The answer lies in opening multiple Southwest cards. Opening one personal SW card and one Business SW card will give you 40K bonus points and 60K bonus points respectively! Additionally, everytime you refer one friend to their credit card, you will receive 10k bonus points. So referring one friend on top of opening two cards will lead you to the grand total of 110k points in one calendar year!

Since the Companion Pass lasts until December of the FOLLOWING year, you can see how the best tactic would be to hit the 110K points in the beginning months, such as January and February. If you do this, then you can get close to 2 years of Companion Pass privileges. In order to do this, you may want to consider opening the credit cards before the holidays and spending as you regular would on the cards WITHOUT hitting the bonus in those last few months. Once January hits, spend the little additional amount necessary to hit the target minimum spending in order to get your two bonuses, and refer a friend. Simple! It is very important you DO NOT hit your bonus before January, otherwise it counts for the previous year. All the points for the 110k needs to be in the same year. It is crucial. The worst that can happen is you divide the bonus points between two years (December and January), thus disqualifying them from counting towards the same Companion Pass.

Why Choose Southwest? 

Undoubtedly, there are a lot of credit cards out there that one can choose to start with, but we decided to make Southwest one of our first ones because Companion Pass is just too good to pass up. We do not know of other cards that will give you a free flight for every flight you take. With the Chase 5/24 rule, we knew that 2 Southwest cards have to make up 2/5 of those 5 cards. (The Chase 5/24 rule states that you will only be approved for a Chase credit card if you have opened less than 5 credit cards in the last 24 months. Which means that if your tactic is to open two Southwest credit cards in order to get Companion Pass, the sooner you open them, the less likely that you would accidentally violate the 5/24 rule prior to achieving Companion Pass.)

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Another great perk is that Southwest flies all over the United States, as well as  to international destinations such as Bahamas, Mexico, and Costa Rica, to name a few. Love Hawaii? Rumor has it that Southwest will be opening up flights to Hawaii sometime this year too!

Any hidden costs?

It is important to note that while there are two Southwest personal credit card options, Southwest has recently disallowed the application to both personal credit cards for one person. You must apply to a personal card and a business card in order to gain points that can combine. Also, it is important to note that there are annual fees associated with some of the credit cards that we use. These fees could be considered as a “cost” toward the flights. However, the bonus points rewarded to you after hitting the minimum spending offsets these fees, since they can be used to redeem flights that add up to much more than the single annual fee. Because annual fees are charged at every anniversary, it is important to remember to close the credit card prior to the anniversary date, to prevent being charged a renewal fee for another year.

Lastly, if you purchase flights with points, there may be taxes associated with the purchases. For example, Mike used points to buy flights to CDMX, San Francisco, and Portland, but he was taxed with roughly $11 for SF and Portland and roughly $25 for CDMX. These prices are minimal compared to the price of the flight, but they do still exist, and as a firm believer in full disclosures, I think it is imperative that this is stated in this post.

If travel hacking is something you are new to and would like to try, I really recommend starting with the Southwest Airlines credit card. Especially if you have a travel partner with you at all times! If you feel like you need to learn more about travel hacking first before committing, I suggest starting here.

Happy travels!

 

Travel: Casa Jacaranda, A Must-Do Culinary Experience in Mexico City

Casa Jacaranda is a culinary experience led by the duo Beto Estua and Jorge Fitz. Not to be missed, it allows visitors and locals alike to experience the beauty of Mexican cooking. From shopping for local produce, to making delicious, traditional Mexican dishes in their beautiful home, cooks at every experience level can enjoy a wonderful afternoon with these two, whose genuine interest is to have others learn, as well as fall in love with, Mexican cuisine. The day ends with a meal on their rooftop garden, with the other foodie enthusiasts that you have met, eating the meal that you’ve all made together and bonded over. If there is one experience that I would recommend when visiting Mexico City, this is it!

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“At Casa Jacaranda, amazing things happen,” one guest prophetically proclaimed, raising a glass of the best Paloma I have ever tasted, and I thought to myself, “Isn’t that the truth!” When Mike and I were invited to join a group for a culinary experience, I was not expecting to be completely blown away by the love for food and culture that Beto and Jorge openly exhibit. It makes one fall in love, too.

Part 1: The Market

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To begin, we were to meet up with the rest of the group at 10 AM in the morning on the corner of Campecho and Medellin, where the Medellin market now stands. This mercado has been in existence for one hundred and thirty years. Located in Roma Sur, it has historically been known as the market that houses produce from all over Mexico, including items that were not as welcome in the markets in the city center, where Roma Norte now resides. Mexican cuisine is varied and wide-spread, and typically, mercados only wanted to house ingredients specific to that region. The Medellin market has always been of a different variety, welcoming foreign items so that immigrants from other parts of Mexico have a place to grab the things that remind them most of home. Its diversity makes this a great place to start learning about what Mexico has to offer.

Beto and Jorge arrived with a small cart in tow, all smiles. After friendly hellos, hugs, besos, and a few introductions, we went right to it. Everyone in the group was kindly asked if there are any allergies or foods that must be avoided for health reasons. Considering any accommodations that must be made, Beto and Jorge then think of what dishes we are going to cook using the produce that are currently in season. They considered an appetizer, starter, main course, and dessert for our particular group, although they do change it up frequently, so don’t be surprised if your particular meal is differently structured. The sorpresa is part of what makes it so fun. Once the group agreed upon the meal, off we went into the market. Beto took charge of picking up the ingredients we needed, while Jorge gave the group of eager students a tour.

 

I couldn’t help but feel completely jealous at the availability of the Medellin market to local cuidadanos. The ability to cook with the freshest of the season’s offerings, using ingredients that will never know packaging, is one of the biggest draws of this place for me. Living in a city where I struggle on the daily to avoid plastic packaging when shopping for groceries, this was absolutely an anti-plastic, fresh-loving, local-sourcing cook’s heaven. I could tell straight-away that the feeling was mutual for our two guides. Jorge nimbly maneuvered his way through the narrow aisles, saying hi to his favorite butcher and fishmonger, noting which stalls had his favorite produce, and which did not. With him leading the way, I knew we could not go wrong.

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Right when you walk in, the colors of the market reflect what you would see brightly painted on the buildings that make up this beautiful city. Vibrant fruits, vegetables and flowers. Dried peppers overflowing from the baskets, with skins as soft and supple as a beautiful leather, and quite unlike the dried up versions that take days (months?) to be exported to Californian markets. Containers stuffed to the brim with hibiscus flowers, otherwise known as flor de jamaica, from Mexico and Africa. The difference between the two being that the Mexican variety results in less color, but more flavor. We tasted different moles from a family that has been making mole and selling it at that particular market for years. Imagine a sauce so complex, yet you can single out a hint of almond. Or one that seeps of cacao and sesame seed flavor, nutty and bold.

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We visited a merchant that has been selling his Yucatan family’s hot sauces since 1968, and tasted his amazing hot sauce poured over salt flakes. I gobbled up my cracker as Jorge joked about the American way of pronouncing ha-ba-ne-ro as “ha-ban-nie-row”. The hot sauce was deliciously sour and spicy all at once, and left a biting sting at the tip of my tongue. We brought home two bottles, and I have been diligently dousing avocado toasts ever since!

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We were introduced to a friendly man who makes the best ice cream. Story has it that at some point, 80% of the market’s Yelp reviews were solely about the ice cream stand! Jorge had to take it upon himself to start this man his own Yelp business account. The ice cream was homemade, and there were a variety of seasonal flavors that one could try. We also stopped at a coffee shop and grabbed a shot of coffee, as well as Colombian bombolinos.

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But the absolute best stop of all, hands down, was a butcher shop that serves tacos only on Saturdays, and lo and behold, I happened to pick the experience on a Saturday! Fresh carnitas being cut up in front of you using the butcher’s meats, topped with acidic sauces and pickled red onions. That will forever stand in my memory as one of those WOW moments, and if I ever return, I will make sure to come back on a Saturday and to free up my entire afternoon because that is where you will find me. As we exited the market, I felt a piece of my heart being left at that carnita stand.

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Part 2: Becoming a Chef

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After the market tour, it was a short walk from Roma Sur to Roma Norte, where Casa Jacaranda stands on a wide street, behind a (you guessed it!) jacaranda tree, in full bloom. The purple flowers swayed in the wind, inviting us into their beautiful home, whose walls exhibited multiple art pieces, and which housed a large professional kitchen that makes the perfect setting for a cooking class. Beto had gone ahead of the group  after purchasing the ingredients from the market, so that by the time we arrived, all the ingredients have been washed and laid out in perfect proportions for our class.

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We all were asked to wash our hands, and then don our aprons. What happened next is a blur of activity. I can’t remember everything that we did, but rather, exactly how it felt. To cut alongside people from other countries who are eager to learn as much as you, to listen to Beto and Jorge’s advice, wisdom, and direction as they share their grandmother’s recipes, to laugh as we joke about technique, or lack thereof, this is what the afternoon was made of. Luckily, Beto and Jorge email the recipes to their guests afterwards, so there is really no pressure to remember much at all, allowing us to sincerely immerse ourselves into the projects at hand. No yoga session has ever had me living in the present moment as thoroughly as this cooking class. It was bliss, enveloped in being attentive, but in a very care-free environment.

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Beto and Jorge had us each working on a different task, with watchful eyes and guiding hands, and as a team, we created the dishes that we had decided on. At some point there were three people cutting up tomatoes, and one man on the grill. Two people were responsible of removing chili seeds, and two were responsible for blending the sauces. We had quite the production line with the tortilla making! Two people rolling up balls of dough, three people on tortilla press duty, and one gal at the stove, cooking them as they were being handed down to her. We helped each other prepare ingredients, handed each other things that had to be added to the pot, and taste-tested along the way. We each had a say as to how hot we thought salsas should be, how acidic or spicy or strong. We were creating masterpieces with our own hands, unbeknownst to us at the time. I remember eating the food later in the day and thinking in disbelief, “We made that?!”

 

Part 3: Sharing a Meal with Friends

As we finished our final additions to the sauces and salsas, Beto started serving us some of the sopes that we had made. Off course, we had the freedom to structure it whatever way we wanted. That left me wanting to pile all the ingredients on one unfortunate sope. I mixed red sauce with green sauce, because who was to say otherwise? It was glorious. I had three sopes (maybe four?) before I told myself to slow down, since this wasn’t even the main event yet!

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Luckily, it was then that Jorge brought out a tray of grapefruit Palomas, which I happily allowed to interrupt my ravenous sope-ingesting. As we sipped on grapefruit and tequila laden cups, we laughed and talked about our own stories and lifestyles, about what we like to do, and where we plan to go next. Nothing like a good cocktail to widen the smile and loosen the limbs. We were eagerly refilling our cups for more of that refreshing drink, whose recipe was also shared.

When we’ve all had our fill, we were invited to the rooftop garden, to enjoy our meal in the sun underneath the swaying jacaranda branches. The table was already beautifully set up when we got there.

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We were served a bottle of wine to pair with our starter, which was a brightly-colored tortilla soup. I have never had tortilla soup so bold in color, and so rich in flavor. The thick and creamy dish was topped with tortilla chips, chicharrones, cream, fried peppers, avocado, and cheese. If I had a do-over, I would surely double up on the chicharrones!

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As we opened another bottle of wine, we were served our adobo meat, served with rice and veggies. In my case, I opted for the pitcher of agua de jamaica instead of the additional glass of wine. I had no reservations about refilling my “water” cup throughout the rest of the meal. Can one substitute eight glasses of water with that lovely floral drink? Please say YES!

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I vaguely remember the dried peppers that we seeded so thoroughly to make the adobo sauce. It was absolutely delicious. I shared with the group the fact that we have an adobo in the Philippines too, however the Mexican adobo more closely mirrored what we called Caldereta. We discussed similarities and differences between cultures, and were reminded that we are of one human race, with intertwined and connected histories. Food kind of helps that discovery along.

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Lastly, for dessert, I tasted for the very first time a mamey fruit, served with mamey ice cream. I immediately regretted having to return to the States, where I will surely have an incredibly difficult time finding this beautiful fruit. It had the texture of a papaya and was sweet in the subtlest of ways, the way that almonds are sweet, almost fleetingly so. I was one of the two who had unabashedly taken second helpings of the ice cream, seeing as how it will be a while before I may get the chance to eat this again!

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And just when I thought I couldn’t do any more, a tray holding two bottles of mezcal and two bottles of tequila were brought up, with the artsiest shot-glasses to hold them in. One of the guests that had joined us from Rothenburg ob der Tauber just recently finished travelling in Columbia. He carried up a chocolate bar made from 100% Cacao from Colombia, to pair with the mezcal. Beto then proceeded to show us a video of him making chocolate by hand from 100% cacao, a process that entails constant grinding of the cacao for seven to eight hours without any breaks! My bread baking obsession looked pretty weak next to that. We also tasted Colombian rum, courtesy of our new friend, with hints of orange and chocolate. We were later joined by Beto’s two dogs, as we basked in the sun during our sobremesa and talked our way into the early hours of the evening.

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Unfortunately, good times, too, must come to an end. As the evening drew to a close, I thought to myself that I could not think of a better way to end our Mexico trip than to spend an entire day at Casa Jacaranda. There is no doubt in my mind that we had saved the best for last!

I would highly recommend reserving an entire day for this activity for anyone visiting Mexico City for the first time. Not only will you meet new friends, get a tour of the market, learn to cook, and have an amazing meal, but this is one sure way to take a part of Mexico home with you forever. I know that we will be replicating these recipes for years to come, and will be sharing them with family and friends on our occasional hosted dinners at home. A sincere thanks are in order to Jorge and Beto, for the wonderful experience!

 

This post is sponsored by Casa Jacaranda. All opinions are my own.

Hidden Perks of an AirBNB

There is something to be said of waking up in the morning in a city other than your own. I find the experience to be a bit transcendental, if only for the duration of our stay; The same person waking up in someone else’s shoes. The location which we choose to live greatly affects the experience.

When we were planning our trip to Mexico City, we teeter-tottered between a standard hotel in the heart of Roma, where we would have a view of the Angel de Independencia and be surrounded by other extranjeros eager to walk to streets, equally unfamiliar with the rules, and an AirBNB apartment located in the Guerrero, slightly away from the main road. I am extremely happy we went with the latter.

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The perks of AirBNB are known to many, and the world over too. It was significantly cheaper to rent this apartment for $40 per night, than it was to rent a single hotel room for upwards of $150 a night. This apartment is huge, big enough for Mike and I to permanently move into and be happy living in, and just as tempting an idea. It’s got a bit of history, being the home of a passed away father whose son wanted to dedicate the space to the man he loved. It is a mix between a modern renovation with recessed lighting and white walls, and a vintage memory, housing original kitchen tiles and a retro oven. An original brick wall acts as a beautiful backdrop in the small dining room, its corner intersecting with a contrasting black granite countertop and new wooden shelving. The shower is tall and modern, exhibiting good temperature and strong pressure as water falls onto a cobblestone floor on the opposite side of a thick pane of glass. The furnishings of the place is functional, and minimal, just our cup of tea.

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But what I love most about choosing AirBNB is the way in which it helps us feel a bit more dissociated with our identity as foreigners. Admission into the apartment required meeting up with Chacha, a friendly man with afro hair and a big smile, who happens to own the tienda downstairs and slightly next door. After guiding us into the gated alleyway, painted yellow, a perfect signature of the surrounding buildings, he dropped us off in front of a bright blue door atop red marbled stairs. After a quick explanation of how to access the keys, and with an invitation to pop by his shop for any of our daily needs, off he went to leave us feeling completely displaced, but interestingly, happy to be so.

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Light floods into the heavily windowed apartment, but even more so do the sounds, floating in through a broken window sill in the living room. Sounds of automobiles honking in the traffic of surronding busy streets, as expected in a city as populous as this. Sounds of a neighboring gal saying Buenas Tardes to Chacha as she bicycles her way into the gated alley across the street. The sound of mothers urging their ninos to walk just a bit faster as they hurry off to school. The sound of kids playing in the streets as the sun sets, and as the smells of neighboring kitchens slowly waft into our own.

Our location is close enough to the main street, La Reforma, that we can walk to it and be a straight shot away from the rest of the more affluent, tall, buildings and restuarant-laden streets (albeit a few miles down the way), where we and all the other visitors of Mexico may spend on the things we take for granted. But the location is remote enough from downtown that one turn in the opposite direction, and we see the people who live through their day to day on the streets, selling whatever they can, wearing clothes with holes and worn down shoes, sitting under plastic tents made of sticks to shield from both rain and sun.

From my window, I stare at graffiti walls on a chipping blue paint,  and trash on the streets. Discarded crates left on their sides to rot. Cars dented, chipped, fading. It smells of city streets when it gets warm in the afternoons. It’s enough to keep one grounded. A beautiful reminder that although there is a small part of this city dedicated to entertaining people with some of the Top 50 restaurants in the world and historic sites and museums that contain so much beauty, there is a larger part that is just trying to get by one day at at time.

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This is part of the feeling of being displaced. Taking part in the glamor and the glitz of what geoarbitrage can afford any American visiting Mexico, and also taking part in the reality of the people who live in it. Just as I feel in limbo with which language to speak, responding in whichever language they choose to speak with me, and not realizing when I make the switch, regardless of which person I am talking to. And for this I am grateful. I don’t think I would have ever experienced Mexico City in this way if, like many visitors, we decided to stay in the heart of it all, where every site was walkable, the streets are kept clean, and people speak English. And to hear Mike say, “I love this city”, after we just walked through an alleyway of streets filled with rubble and reeking of piss and filled with mostly men outdoors breaking down their home-made tiendas in the middle of the narrow street, it really makes me think that we could live here a few months to learn more about the culture and the people. I could get used to saying Buenos Dias to Chacha every morning, just as I could get used to the broken window sill, and the sounds of traffic, eating great food, and being surrounded by a friendly population of cuidadanos.

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With that, I would highly recommend AirBNB in an attempt to integrate with the foreigners less and the locals more. I know it may throw some out of their comfort zone, but for what reasons do we really travel and can we really understand the lifestyles of fellow humans in other countries if we purposefully blind ourselves to it? Mike and I mostly travel to understand, to get some grasp of the larger world view, and to slowly put the pieces of a grand and complicated puzzle together. We will likely spend our lives doing it and never get close, except for little decisions such as these that help us get just a little bit closer.

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Minimalism: How to Pack Light When Travelling

As a human that barely skims over five-foot-one who fails at being an avid gym member and who can barely wield a plateful of food, with a fifty-fifty chance of straining a wrist along the way, I am a strong proponent of packing light. Stemming from a sincere interest in not inconveniencing my significant other every time we board a flight, I have made it a goal to pack in a very minimalist way. While my gusto has sometimes gotten the better of me (as I reminisce on spilling coffee on the only pair of pants I brought with me to New Zealand, without a washer and dryer in sight), I take pride in the fact that I lived, and survived, and it’s all fine and good.

While having a pared down wardrobe is extremely helpful in also paring down my luggage, there are some additional tips that I have in mind, for what it’s worth.

With our upcoming trip to CDMX approaching in the next five days, I figure this would be an opportune moment to showcase what exactly goes into my bag. Enjoy!

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It starts with a small bag.

Start with a small-sized luggage. Initially, it may feel like you’ve gone a bit bonkers, thinking a whole week’s vacation can fit in such a small space, but trust me, it is the first criteria to securing success. The small space will really require you to assess, and possibly reassess, what you can take and what you need to leave behind. I’ve been known to go on weekend trips with just a purse or a backpack. Understandably, there are situations where this advise simply isn’t feasible. For example, if you are going to another country specifically to shoot wildlife, then it is quite obvious to me that your professional camera gear may not be suitable jammed in with your clothes. In which case, we make do.

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A pair of stretchy, elevated pants worthy of a yoga session. A poncho that doubles as a scarf, at times. A vest that looks equally as great over a tee and underneath a jacket. A beanie, for the ears.

Pack enough clothes to get you through a week, and then maybe a little less. I like to pack for only a week’s worth of stuff, regardless of the length of the trip. Mostly because, as aforementioned, I simply cannot carry much more than that. But also, because I like to let go of the what-ifs and just flow with the tide. What if it rains and I didn’t pack an umbrella? Then I get wet. What if I spill coffee on my only pair of pants? Then I wear it for the rest of the day, then hand wash it in the sink and let it dry overnight. I lived.

Additionally, I am extremely resourceful with my packing. A poncho that acts as an over-sized blanket and turns into a scarf or a hijab, depending. A pair of jeans that I already wear every-day and matches every top. Tee shirts only, with the exception of silk camisoles, my secret weapon for nicer events. A sweater that looks equally great over a tee or a dress, as well as under a jumper or a jacket. You get what I mean. In the case of a true state of emergency, and not a fashion emergency, you can likely get whatever you need where you are at.

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A pair of sandals for the AirBNB stay.
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Shoes packaged in muslin bags for easy storage and minimal space.

Be comfortable. I’m looking at you, shoes. There was once a time when I thought dresses looked good only with five inch clogs, as if the additional height would justify the additional weight. Gone are those days, replaced by a more vested interest in exploring the city untethered by fashion ideologies. Also, gone are the dresses, mostly.

Embrace the monochrome, or do away with the care. Monochromatic schemes just make it easier on me. I still have a particular likening to looking put-together, and am impartial to mismatching colors, so this is where I am at. For some, loud outfits give them the giddies, allowing them to pack all sorts of colors, and interchanging countless combinations. Or rather, just do away with the care.

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Tees galore, in black and stripey whites.

Wear the bulkiest of items on the flight. My internal temperatures reach “cold” before anyone else in a room, so I absolutely welcome any extra layers on the plane ride to our destination. I always wear the bulkiest items on the flight, in order to reduce the things I have to carry. Easy for me to say, due to my small stature, and significantly larger leg room and overall space.

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My plane outfit consists of the bulkiest of items, which works well for me since I also tend to freeze upon take-off.

Lesser toiletries. A bar of shampoo & a bar of soap. A jar of deoderant, and a re-fillable bottle of lotion. Not enough to fill a dopp kit, thus the lack of need for a dopp kit.

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A bar of soap and shampoo, for sharing between Mike and I, atop my pajamas.

Limit the make-up. Thanks to a minimalist make-up routine, this advice doesn’t stray entirely from my day-to-day. The requirements? A tube of lip balm, one eye-liner pencil, one eye-brow pencil, mascara, and hardly any room at all. Besides, who am I to meet perusing the streets in a foreign city with the only man I plan to impress?

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Additionally, a camera, which I was using to photograph. 

Make room for the indisposables. I consider some items on my packing list indisposable, literally and figuratively. I have to make room for a reusable water bottle, in order to cut down as much plastic bottle use as possible. In the case of Germany, it was a highly successful endeavor, since we could safely fill our bottles with tap water from bathroom faucets. On our upcoming trip to Mexico, likely not so much. I will update you on our solution once there, but I have it with me in an attempt to reduce as often as I can. Likewise, since we partly travel for coffee, the KeepCups come with. Due to an interest in sharing our adventures with family, the camera is also a must. And lastly, reading material (or two). I prefer to carry around a Kindle when I travel, since it is light and minimal, but it’s hardly the way I prefer to enjoy the task, otherwise.

Lastly, all of this, and a little more, fit in that bag. Mission accomplished.

 

 

Frugality: Travel Hacking, An Introduction

From the get-go, when Mike and I were asked to lay down our priorities in terms of lifestyle and life goals, traveling was near the top of our list. It goes without saying that traveling comes with a price that can interfere with our equally important goal of gaining financial independence. It’s hard to commit to a trip across the world when I know I will come back to an ever-growing student loan. So I am so excited to share with you guys a way that allows us to travel the world, without breaking the bank.

We do something called travel hacking.

I first discovered Travel Hacking on Choose FI’s Podcast, Episode 9: Travel Rewards; How to Travel the World for Free (here). In less than an hour, they had me hooked! I remember coming home and re-listening to the entire episode with Mike. We forwarded the podcast episode to our core group of ten friends, in the hopes that they also would like to join us in this adventure, so that we may travel the world together. We continued to study Travel Hacking by taking the free Travel Miles 101 course. We reached out to our financial adviser to ask if it was too good to be true, and were happy to learn that he, too, dabbles in this life hack, and that it would be a very beneficial thing for us to do. I highly recommend anyone interested in traveling the world for (nearly) free to first listen to the podcast episode (in order to get a taste of what this entails), and then to take the free Travel Miles 101 course. I think it would be best to leave all the nuances to the pros and to simply refer you to these two sources, giving all credit where credit is due.

What is travel hacking?

Travel Hacking entails using the benefits of Credit Card Reward Programs in order to gain points that can be used to buy flights, hotel stays, and even car rentals. The idea is to open credit cards and hit the minimum spend criteria in order to attain the massive 40k, 50k, 80k points. These points are incentives for the new cardholder to hit a certain spending within a certain amount of time (usually 3 months) since opening the card. So that is exactly what we do. There are multiple strategies in order to do this, which the sources detail really well, and which I won’t touch on in this post. If you’d like to learn some of these strategies, I refer you to the Travel Miles 101 course.

Keep in mind that while this is extremely useful and beneficial for traveling, it can be destructive if attempted by people who have not achieved disciplined, financial responsibility. The credit card companies win if you open credit cards, purchase products with them, and do not pay off the total amount in full. This leads to high interest rate charges that will lead to more financial harm than good. It also isn’t good if it results in you spending more than you would normally. The card holder needs to be well-restrained. Mike and I treat the credit cards as if they were debit cards. We don’t increase our spending for the sake of gaining more points. In due time, the points will come.

Alternatively, the credit card companies will also win if you fail to hit the minimum spending. You would have opened a credit card for no reason! This requires a very organized person who will keep track of minimum spends, and dates the credit cards were opened, and dates when minimum spending should be reached. So how do you responsibly meet minimum spend when your day-to-day activities do not meet it? There are many ways to ensure you hit your target spending before the time is up. You can use the remaining amount needed to buy grocery or gas gift cards, which could be used in the future. This is a way to guarantee getting the massive point-payout without reckless spending. Another way to meet minimum spend is to prepay bills, such as electrical bills for upcoming months. Having the bills off your mind is a big plus.

Why is this so great?

Imagine this scenario. You open a credit card that requires a $3000 minimum spend in three months. When you spend $3000, you will get a points equivalent to $1000 in flights, which is a 33% rate of return. You can’t get that anywhere! If you were to get that in a taxable investment account, you’d have to pay taxes on your gains. This is 100% tax-free. And may I say that 33% rate of return is not the best rate out there. This should be even more appealing for people who are in higher tax brackets. For people who make six figures, you are sitting in a 25% tax bracket, and if you add to that health insurance, FICA, etc., you may even be approaching closer to 40% marginal tax. For you to take a $5k vacation in a year, you will need to earn $7, 8, 9k to pay for that vacation. With travel hacking, you can do that for free. You can then keep that $7k available to other aspects of your life (aka student loans).

What’s the catch?

Our biggest concern, obviously, was credit rating. Even though we have absolutely no interest in signing up for even more loans right now, mortgages and car loans included, we still don’t want to completely obliterate our really good credit scores. Turns out, there is a very minimal impact on your credit score. Credit scores will go up and down, naturally, within 10 to 30 points within a normal month anyway. That’s just how credit scores work, and it is not a precisely fixed number. Now, if the people attempting travel hacking are financially responsible people, so their credit score would likely be around the 800 range. The maximum that it has dropped for some travel hackers is 25 points, which is irrelevant, because a score of 750 is sufficient to guarantee you most loans. And the funny thing is, these scores jump right back up, because you are constantly paying (in full) multiple credit cards. By spending responsibly, travel hackers can increase their credit score to more than what they started with in the course of a few years. Yes, initially, the hard pull when you apply for the credit card leads to a 2-5 point drop, but it is temporary and it is completely gone within 18 months. Now if you are, for some reason, extremely worried about your credit score or you have a low credit score, or you have plans to take out a mortgage or a loan in the next year, then this strategy is not for you. Do not do travel hacking if for any reason, whether psychologically or financially, you need your credit score to be a certain number.

For Mike and I, we started this journey with decently high credit scores. We decided that, even if our scores dropped as much as 30-50 points, would we be okay. The answer to travel hacking for us was a whole-hearted yes. If the trade-off is $6-7k worth of travel (for free), that would save us $10k (pre-tax) a year, which we can then attribute to other assets or to paying down debt. Since we have no plans to buy a house in the next year, we are not very worried with the short term negative effect it could have on our scores. And our credit scores would still be considered good, if not great! We are more excited about the long-term benefits.

So where has that led us?

We discovered Travel Hacking in October 2017, which is very, very late compared to a whole community of travel hackers who have been doing this for multiple years! It has been almost 5 months.

For 2018, we are able to book the following flights, for free.

Mexico City, Mexico

San Francisco, CA

Portland, Oregon

Calgary, Canada

Sydney, Australia

Melbourne, Australia (from Sydney)

Christchurch, New Zealand (from Melbourne)

Christchurch, to LAX

Pending trips: Costa Rica

The best part?

Slowly, our friends opened up to the idea of travel hacking too! Our trip to SF reunites our group of ten college friends, and the pending Costa Rica trip is being planned among a group of us, as well. It has increased our ability to grow with people we care about, and to spend time with them, and to just see the world.

Travel Hacking is fantastic, but not for everyone. So learn about it, to see if it’s right for you!

Travel: Costa Rica

So as some of you may know, my brother recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica. We were sitting at the round dinner table yesterday, the same one that we grew up on, eating our meals together as kids but also now, as adults. We were on our lunch break from work (we both work at the same dental clinic) and he was sharing with me his recent photos from the trip. I was floored by the beauty and the color that he was able to capture. I really appreciate his outlook and eye for photography and so I decided to share with you guys my favorite roll of film that was developed portraying Costa Rica through his lens. My brother uses a vintage camera and shoots everything in film. None of this was re-touched, and any artistic color you see was dependent on his decision to overexpose and produce burnout on the film, or not. Provecho!

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Photo Credit: Rian Oliver

Travel: With Eco-Friendly Attempts

Growing up, my family never did get around to much traveling. After all, traveling the world is a very costly thing to experience. However, it seems as if we’ve grown accustomed to a traveling lifestyle in our more recent years. In the last six months, my sister went to Alaska in June, Mike and I went to Mexico in July, followed by a family trip to Hawaii in that same month. My parents went to Palm Springs in August, Mike and I left for Germany in October, my sister left for Japan in November, my parents left for Florida in December, and next week, my brother leaves for Costa Rica. Hello January! It seems as if we are hardly in the same state for any given month. In retrospect, my siblings and I DID move around plenty in our early childhood years. By the time I got to my freshman year in high school, I had moved a total of ten times. I guess the nomad life chose us, and eventually, it permanently took hold.

Sadly, traveling comes with something more than a monetary cost, specifically when we are talking about air travel. It’s safe to say that air travel results in a significant environmental impact, and though a majority of the negative effects of travel comes from this one thing alone, I deny that nothing we do is negligible. I continue to believe that there are other ways in which we could attempt to minimize the harm we do to the environment, when traveling.

With my brother’s upcoming trip in mind, and with the recent posting of our Mexico travels [here], I feel the urge to share some of my more eco-friendly travel practices, while featuring some favorite products along the way.

+ Carry around a reusable bottle. We all need water to hydrate us during our explorations, whether it’s a city scape or the country side. It’s easy (read: convenient) to buy water bottles as needed. But most water comes packaged in plastic! So to reduce that, why not carry around a reusable bottle? In countries that are more developed, such as Germany and New Zealand, tap water is considered drinkable water. I was constantly filling my water bottle with water from bathroom sinks in Germany, not to be advised when you travel to other countries such as Mexico. So what of these other countries? I refill my water every chance I get, be it at a restaurant, or at the airport, or in the hotel room. There are many places to get safe water, and if you are not sure, then ask a local! We got the tap water tip from a German hostess at one of our earlier hotel stays. Additionally, this saves the airplane hostess from filling up a million of those disposable plastic cups for water alone. I make a note to fill up my water bottle from the airport’s water fountain right before boarding a flight. If I run out, as I do on extremely long flights, I simply ask the hostess to fill me right up. I got my Miir water bottle here, made entirely out of stainless steel. You can get a similar product here. Additional impact: MiiR partners with non-profits and other organizations to provide clean water in Honduras, Southeast Asia, and throughout Africa with a portion of their profits. Tracking your impact allows you to know where exactly the impact is happening, and an individual tracking code is sent with each bottle. MiiR is also a B-corporation ensuring good environmental, social, and transparent practices in the making of MiiR products.

+ Have a re-usable coffee mug handy, at all times. Okay, so this is a bit too similar to the above, I know. However, since a major travel activity of me and Mike’s is to drink different specialty coffees from all around the world, you can bet that we carry our reusable Keep Cup’s with us. Especially useful when one needs an energizing drink to sip on whilst roaming around the city streets, or to grab a quick dose of the liquid stuff before catching a shuttle to the mountainside. Whatever your travel agenda, if you drink coffee, this is worth packing. The specific mug we own can be found here. Additional impact: here.

+ Tote around your own utensils. I actually traipse around every day with the following utensils in my purse at all times: a fork, a spoon, a knife, a metal straw, and a pair of wooden chopsticks. For who knows when one is going to need utensils? If a friend asks you to eat take-out (see next note on take-out), then you could easily whip out your handy dandy utensils to avoid icky plastic versions. I carry them around in one of these from Ambatalia, for the sake of cleanliness, but any pouch works well. Additional impact: These utensil rolls are made out of mostly scraps- the denim is always reclaimed and intended to inspire using your own, or thrifted utensils. They don’t use any plastic in the shipping of our products and they use at least 80% post-consumer paper in any promotional and shipping materials. Thoughtfully designed and ethically manufactured in California. And don’t worry, I don’t carry around my own plates and bowls too! But, speaking of such things…

+ Choose to dine-in at restaurants. Dining in, while a bit costlier than their take-out counterparts, reduces the need for carrying around your own plate and bowl. Mike and I try our best to dine-in both while traveling, and while at home.  Part of the draw for me includes the absorption of the local’s cultures and behaviors. People-watching at a restaurant is considered an activity in itself, at least for introverts likes me. Especially over ice cream.

+ Exercise, exercise, exercise. Opt outside. Exploring all the natural wonders New Zealand had to offer was one of my favorite parts of the trip. For me, vacations include escaping city sounds and city lights and just enveloping myself in sights that I don’t get to see every day. Like a bird building its nest, or how a mountain meets a lake. Take note of everything Mother Nature has to offer. If you are anything like Mike, then what you crave is the city life in another country. Even so, get outside and walk, walk, walk. And when you can no longer walk…

+ Ride public transportation. There are some times when public transportation is just not feasible for visiting vast expanses of land in such a short amount of time. But whenever possible, let’s try to get to know the Metro, or the Subway, or the train! In New York, we solely used public transportation, despite the rain. Same with other large cities such as Munich, Auckland, and Queenstown. You see so much more of the city in that way. You notice the advertisements and billboards, and learn what’s popular at the time. You notice recycle bins, and maybe learn a thing or two about their recycling rules. As always, people-watching optional.

+ Support local stores. I already try to support local stores locally, but I like to carry this habit to other countries as well. Some of my favorite stores in New Zealand are local hole-in-the-wall, self-owned shops that carry ethically made products that are also ecofriendly. My favorite purchases from there include my every day grocery bag, and fruit and veggie mesh bags. Since then, I have never packaged produce in plastic.  Additionally, it helps to always carry a backpack, just in case you want to purchase something while you’re out and about. My favorite backpack is this. Additional impact: here.

+ Leave behind travel size toiletries. Equally as important, say no to free hotel toiletries packaged in plastic. Resolution: Pack soap, shampoo, and conditioner, in bar form. If you just can’t learn to dig bar forms for everything, choose a reusable bottle option, and buy the stuff in bulk, to reduce plastic waste.

+ Pack a snack bag, pre-filled with your fave munchies. Lastly, because food is pretty important while traveling, I prefer to pack a snack. For flights especially. To avoid receiving those individually packaged peanuts and cookies. Even the meals, which I love, are packaged in plastic! On the way to Germany, Mike and I sat I the last row and denied water and food from the poor flight attendant, every time. The flight attendant felt she wasn’t doing her job well enough and kept asking, “Are you sure?” On the way out, we passed her and thanked her for her hospitality, and she joked, “Gosh you two were the most demanding passengers!” Well, maybe she wasn’t joking, I couldn’t be sure. But either way, we left an impression and made it a point to deny one-time use plastic. Which gets people thinking, and I’d rather leave that behind than a trail of travel evidence.

Travel: Valle De Guadalupe Eats

Valle de Guadalupe is Baja’s best kept secret. Well known among creatives in the San Diego community, this little pocket is tucked away between the ocean and the mountain about one hour away from the Californian border. It is a flourishing wine region just north of Ensenada, and Mike and I consider it better than the wine regions in Napa and Santa Barbara, judged not only by the wine itself  (not that we are wine connoisseurs anyway), but also by the food, the location, and the overall ambiance. We like it so much that we have visited twice in less than a year and a half, and there was a moment where we looked into planning on buying a retirement home here. We also considered getting married here, but then realized that half of our loved ones wouldn’t make it to the wedding. In retrospect, we should have done it anyway. Valle has that relaxed winery vibe, set in an unassuming Mexican desert, with a lively flair.

Since the main highlight for us revolves mostly around the delicious food we consume here, I decided to post a few of the wineries and restaurants that we have dined at. A majority of the restaurants there practice farm to table practices, and the food just can’t get any fresher. These are definite, must-stop places if you visit La Valle! Enjoy!

Deckman’s En El Mogor

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Finca Altozano

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Corazon de Tierra

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Cuatro Cuatros

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