Nomad Series - Travel tips for globetrotters - Part 2 - On the Road

As I mentioned in the first installment, I’ve been on the road continuously for the past 12 months, visiting about 36 countries, living in four and logging about 120,000 miles so far across pretty much every mode of transport imaginable. Rather than give you the USA Today version of “travel tips” this audience is much more savvy. So keeping that in mind, I’m putting together a series of tips learned on the road, “the hard way,” specifically for points and miles globetrotters. Some might be common knowledge, but others may come in handy.

PNRs differ by carrier, ticket numbers are universal

See the ETno? This shows that I used Singapore miles and that Singapore issued my ticket.

Understand that if you book a ticket on say United, you are going to be issued different passenger name records (PNRs - also known as Record Locators) by each airline. These will help you assign seats, login and check in on their website and allow for more functionality/interactivity with the carrier. But ALWAYS HAVE YOUR TICKET NUMBER. This is the one thing that will make or break you getting on the plane. If the carrier can’t find it, you don’t fly. This is why I book directly with carriers since that OTA may have booked a Swiss plated ticket, for an EVA-marketed flight that is actually being operated by Thai, who wet-leased it from Jet Airways. Good luck trying to get them all to play nice if your flight is canceled or you need to change it. Here’s a list of most carrier codes in case you find your ticket to be issued from an airline weren’t expecting.

Understand the difference between “Act Of God” and Carrier-Caused delays

Volcanic Ash isn’t going to get you compensation. Go back to your gin & tonic in the lounge and pout some more!

This is a fairly elementary tip, but until you understand the difference between acts of god and carrier-caused delays, you’ll probably be more prone to fits of anger at the airlines for what they do or don’t offer you. Here’s a brief run down (correct me if you see any errors, I haven’t been in every specific situation below):

Acts of God

The airline is not required to do anything except get you a seat to your final destination - ideally in the class of service you booked - make sure to push them on this or request a refund for the downgrade before you agree to a new itinerary.

  • Weather - including storms, volcanoes, flooding, ice, fog, snow, extreme temperature
  • Traffic - Air-traffic delays, no gate available, lines for fuel or de-icing
  • Political/Security issues - Unruly passengers or political unrest aren’t likely to get you compensation or reaccommodation (unless a travel waiver is issued) because they are beyond the control of the airline. Generally, most actions by third parties won’t get you compensation.

Carrier-Caused Delays

Less common - but you have far more leeway and legal coverage to ask for compensation

  • Missing Crew - Airlines are supposed to have crews on reserve at the airport. If your flight is delayed because you’re missing a pilot, that’s on the airline to fix, but generally because of reserve crews at larger hubs your flight is unlikely to cancel.
  • Mechanical/Cleaning issues - Airlines are expected to keep well-maintained, safe aircraft. If there is a mechanical issue, get on the phone and start looking at backups, particularly if you’re on the only route they fly for the day or are at a smaller hub. Chances of cancellation are high if they can’t quickly sub out an identical aircraft.
  • Strikes - Airlines are responsible for accommodation, but not compensation if their staff goes on strike
  • IT issues - If there is a computer outage, you’ll probably have a good case to seek compensation and accommodation on another carrier.

The DOT has a handy FAQ of how they classify delays to help you pick apart whether you should seek compensation or not. Here’s another guide for travel to/from/within the EU Lastly, for late incoming aircraft, it’s a bit of a gray area. Typically you can cite the delay cause posted to flightstats for the previous flight. A snowstorm on the East Coast won’t get you any tears, but a mechanical issue might open some options. Typically, if the inbound aircraft is in the air, you will likely takeoff unless the crew times out.

Don’t fill up on poor quality free food

Bread, Tang and Nescafe! Thanks United! I think I’ll wait til my 8 course meal in SQ F!

This one comes with time and age. In my wizened experience, if you are traveling in premium cabins or staying in luxury hotels, free food will be thrown at you left and right. Not all of this is created equally. A foie gras burger in the Singapore Airlines Private Room is worth planning around. Packaged sandwiches, bread, crackers and pretzels are worth avoiding. If you don’t want to feel miserable when you arrive (because you’ll be about ten pounds heavier) be judicious about when you take advantage of the free food and drink. A vast majority of lounge food is NOT worth eating. Smirnoff is still Smirnoff, even if it is self-pour. Crappy brownies/cookies/coffee are just that.

Stay with locals and other travelers when possible

There are only 5 hotels in Brunei. I booked via facebook, stayed in the water village and met a ton of people!

Many bloggers regale you with tales of luxurious overwater villas and endless breakfast buffets, but unless you are on a romantic getaway, with the family or having a chill out vacation with friends, hotels are incredibly boring and extremely anti-social. By design, they are there to maximize privacy. It’s VERY easy to get lonely. After your first week on the road, you’ll probably be craving some interaction with people that aren’t being paid to serve you, and perhaps even have a range of careers similar to yours.

This is where you can dramatically increase your array of accommodation options. AirBnb, hostels (there are nice ones! and most have private rooms!) and Couchsurfing are fantastic ways to meet locals and fellow travelers. Many will want to explore the city with you, debate points of international policy, cook for/with you and stay out til 4am exploring the nightlife. If you aren’t meeting people on the road, you are sadly only experiencing a very one-dimensional facsimile of travel. To that point, try to seek out professional local peers that you can relate to, either in your language or another common one (e.g. Spanish, Mandarin).

As much fun and cultural insight I got from wandering Brunei’s water village, I don’t speak a lick of Malay and gestures, smiling, thumbs up and body language only go so far to develop a connection. It’s important to be exceedingly open and friendly, as you are a representative of your culture, but unless you are willing to put in significant effort to adopting the local language and customs (and sometimes even if you do so very effectively over decades), you will still be a guest.

My absolute best experiences this year have been staying with families in Sri Lanka, Spain and Brunei, renting apartments in Buenos Aires, Budapest, Split and Seoul and meeting people in hostels in Lisbon, Berlin, Taipei and Rio. I’ve met hundreds of people this way, many of whom I still stay in contact with and am planning visits to in the future. In particular, it’s extremely helpful to develop professional connections since it’s fascinating to bounce ideas off of people and break out of your echo chamber.

I wouldn’t have been able to get in this club in Buenos Aires, nor teach some friends how to use chopsticks (in español) without living there for three months and meeting people!

Once you have friends in a number of cities, it also becomes much easier to travel, as locals know the good places to eat, stay and party. And you may get a free couch out of it here or there (assuming you ARE returning the favor right?). If you’re on the road long enough, you stop choosing destinations based on WHAT to see and more on WHO to see. Couchsurfing is also a fantastic social outlet if you’re ready to move beyond your typical hostel pub crawls. There are a myriad of events in every major city and they generally attract bright, social late 20/early 30-somethings that are interested in doing new things and showing off/exploring their city. Typically the mix is about half locals and half travelers, so the events are well worth it.

Drink water, and then drink more water.

You really shouldn’t ever stop drinking this!

Air travel is dehydrating. Alcohol and caffeine are dehydrating. Extreme heat (and cold) are dehydrating. You’ll likely be walking miles and you may or may not be able to drink the water (pro tip - are the locals drinking the water?). If you are traveling, you are 99% likely to be chronically dehydrated. Even when you drink the hotel-provided water, you will feel worlds better if you drink nearly a gallon a day.

Wherever I am, I often stop at a convenience store and pick up a 1-1.5L bottle, which I refill throughout the day/trip. It’s lightweight and if I lose it, I’m out maybe a dollar. But chugging that at every opportunity keeps me in much better health and spirit than almost anything else I do on the road. You can also take empty bottles through airport security and fill them up in the terminal. Don’t expect the flight attendant to make sure it’s full. Go to the galley and offer to fill it yourself.

There’s also the odd problem in many parts of Europe where beer and wine are cheaper than bottled water (the only option at the restaurant naturally). While I’m not someone to turn down a 2 euro beer, it’s nice to not make it an either-or decision.

More tips to come, share your own in the comments below!

12 Responses to “Nomad Series - Travel tips for globetrotters - Part 2 - On the Road”

  1. REALLY EXCELLENT ADVICE! One thing to note is that with few exceptions in southern Europe, all west and east EU cities have good tap water. I can’t really thin of a single midsize or lager city where tap water is not good to Excellent.

  2. This is all great advice. Regarding the delay issue: I have had United flat-out lie to me at SFO regarding the reason for the delay. I had flown from the East Coast to SFO and was due to take a puddle-jumper to a small nearby regional airport (Monterey) from there. Said puddle-jumper was massively delayed due to “weather,” according to the staff.

    Well, I was going to Monterey to visit a meteorologist at the Fleet Numerical Meteorology Center. I called him and he told me that it couldn’t have been more perfect flying weather. I tried to call the staff on their lie but they said that my meteorologist associate didn’t understand what weather was required for flying. (Might I repeat: meteorologist at a Navy station. The Navy has a couple of planes.) Therefore, since it was allegedly weather, they wouldn’t pay for me to take the $80 shuttle bus from SFO to Monterey. “We only do that on a mechanical,” they said.

    I finally got on the flight and a member of the crew said, “Sorry about the delay - we had some mechanical issues and the mechanics were on break.”

    And that was the day I stopped flying United. Although I bet there’s plenty of other airlines that lie just as much.

    • Is there a better method to combat/confirm/call them out on that? (except having cool friends)

      • Often the airline cargo sites should be able to tell you the cause reported to the FAA as well as how many times the record has been updated or if there’s an equipment or gate change. If you need to, just pull that up and show to the gate agent if you’re asking to rebook or for compensation.

        As an aside, as a frequent SF flyer, are you sure it was weather/lack of weather in MRY and not an inbound fog delay at SFO? They’re VERY routine and cut about half of the capacity from the airport. Regional flights like MRY are the first to be affected because they prioritize larger mainline aircraft coming in from ORD, EWR etc.

  3. Great Part 2, Eric.

    Perhaps in Part 3, you can share a bit more about the key drivers/ decision making criteria for your travel logistic choices. For example, how long you stay in a city, hostel vs hotel, etc. Do you have a long term plan or are you planning only a week in advanced?

    • Great point and I’ve queued up the article tomorrow to talk about exactly that. I totally understand everyone’s travel style and comfort is different, so I’m sure people will have different opinions. For me, the biggest value of points and miles is that they hedge against extremely inelastic pricing (aimed at inflexible business travelers). That suite is going for $1500 TOMORROW or that First Class Flight departing in four hours is $15 grand, but I’m going to grab it NOW! Since I’m not as bound by vacation days, I’ve been trying to plan about 4-7 days in advance, but I may have just booked a guesthouse for tonight about an hour ago :) Any advice on how to hit ICN, DPS, HAN, RGN and TPE on a DL award ticket is also much appreciated :)

      • You are sure blessed to have such flexibility. I am more or less bound by ‘vacation days’.

        No idea about DL, but if you want advice on ground transpo between Chichen Itza and Corozal (Belize), I can share in a few weeks.

        • I’ve been in your boat, and sometimes you can flip flexibility on its head. If your dates are fixed, why not wait til week of to determine your destination? I’ve done many intra-North America trips that way and even stole off to Europe because the availability gods aligned.

  4. Excellent post in regards to ticket numbers!!! I flew PLUNA back in 2011 and actually used their website to book/pay for the flight. However, when I went to the airport, they told me they never ticketed it! I know I paid for it since I saw it on my credit card statement. When I showed them the printed email confirmation, ,it only had the PNR and not the actual ticket number, which is what they needed. Long story short, I had to pay for the flight in USD cash, and then once in Montevideo, go to the PLUNA office and show them my credit card statements proving I had paid for the flight. I was reimbursed 100% but the hassle was just too much. Next time I’ll always have the ticket number handy! Whenever I backpack in South America, Africa, or Asia, I always bring at least $1K in cash with me (hidden all over the place.) That’s another tip I’d give.

  5. @hackmytrip
    hotels are lonely yes. but so are airbnb apartments. some people never meet their neighbors. agree about hostels & couchsurfing. though in hostels you dont experience locals very much, but better than nothing.

    whats your best tip for “seeking out professional local peers”?

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