Rookie Alli had her phone stolen yesterday by some pickpockets near the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires.
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Rookie Alli had her phone stolen yesterday by some pickpockets near the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires.
San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina is a mountain town in the Lake District of Patagoina, located about 50km from the Chilean border. It sits right on the edge of the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, drawing visitors from all over to admire the spectacular lake and mountain views.
Scott and I recently decided to use Avios to fly LAN from Buenos Aires to Bariloche for five days. The southern hemisphere has just entered fall. In Patagonia, that means cold weather quickly. Because of this, we wanted to get there as soon as possible to enjoy what little good weather remained (before ski season’s “good” weather.) We knew that the town would be relatively empty as Bariloche’s two peak seasons are the summer and the winter.
For the wonders of Patagonia, keep reading.
Sometimes people ask me whether they need a visa to leave an airport during a layover, or what it costs to enter a country, or some other question related to their ability to enter a country with a certain passport.
I hesitate to answer those questions because I would sure hate to be wrong. Even if I have first-hand knowledge, something could have changed.
So I send them to the country-specific info at travel.state.gov, the US Department of State’s very helpful site.
On the left hand side, select the country you are visiting from the drop down menu.
At the top of the country’s page will be links to specific information about the country. Here is the top of Chile’s page.
To get up-to-date warnings from the local embassy, check the Recent Embassy Notices for American Citizens. Here are the ones from Chile:
As you can see, they might be a little useful, but they also illustrate that the US government is like your mom on your first trip: scared to death of every little danger.
Scrolling down the main page, you come to the Country Description. Here is Tanzania’s:
This is always a nice overview of the country, but no substitute for guidebooks or wikipedia on the subject.
Below that is the location of the US Embassy in the country and its other contact information. This is crucial information to have handy. Here is that information for North Korea.
The next section is where I pay the closest attention: the entry/exit requirements. Here you’ll find out whether you need to pay to enter the country, whether you need a visa in advance, and any other peculiarities. Here is the information for Argentina.
The rest of the page has interesting information about criminal laws, transportation safety, and other local issues. It’s all worth a read.
I make sure to read the travel.state.gov country-specific information for every country I am visiting to get the US government’s perspective in addition to relevant entry requirements.
Does anyone else have any other resources they recommend for this stage of trip planning?
Update: How did I forget to add that if you enter on an American, Canadian, or Australian passport, you must prepay a $160 entry fee and print off your receipt for proof in order to enter the country? The one time fee is good for ten years of entry.
Pay here, and pay with a no-foreign-transaction-fee card to save yourself 3%.
I’ve been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina for about five weeks, and I wanted to share some things I’ve learned in case you’ve got an upcoming trip to la ciudad porteña. This is not anything like a guide book, and it’s a bit scatter shot. Feel free to ask specific questions in the comments.
1. The Exchange Rate
The official exchange rate, and that paid by banks and ATMs is about 5.1 Argentine pesos (ARS) to 1 dollar. There is a “blue market” in dollars here, though, where the dollar is worth about 8.4 pesos according to ambito.com, a leading Argentine financial paper
If you get 8.4 pesos per dollar instead of 5.1, that’s like getting a 39.3% discount on everything. Unfortunately blue market dollar transactions with crisp $100 bills in cuevas are illegal. Also keep in mind that you can’t cross US or Argentine borders with more than $10,000 in cash without headaches.
Because of the exchange rate situation, I’ll quote prices in pesos for consistency.
2. Prices and Quality
Prices here are very low. I think I can get by with about half the money I need in the US.
Taxis cost 9.1 pesos for flag drop + 4.55 pesos per kilometer. Today I crossed the city for 56 pesos. A similar length trip in Los Angeles would have been about $23 plus tip. And you don’t tip taxi drivers here.
Restaurants are very cheap here because of the cheaper groceries, and the much cheaper labor. A mountain of meat and potatoes at the high quality parrilla (meat restaurant) on my block costs 149 pesos and serves three men. I’ve eaten a lot of incredible meals here in the 60 pesos range for a steak, and had my share of empanadas at 6 pesos a pop.
I’m not saying you can’t spend a lot more than 100 pesos per person on a meal, drinks, and tip. But you don’t have to do that to eat like a king.
Argentina’s mighty steak reputation is well deserved. They barely season the meat here and rarely eat it with sauce–maybe chimichurri or salsa criolla, but never A1. And yet the meat never disappoints–it blows me away every time.
Groceries are cheap. Chicken breasts are about 25 pesos per pound. Filet mignon is about 55 pesos per pound. Beer is 8 pesos per liter and up. Wine is 15 pesos a bottle and up. I see a ton of wine in the 25 to 30 peso range that must satisfy most people as an every-day-with-dinner bottle.
Unfortunately the selection at the biggest grocery stores is paltry compared to even small American grocery stores. Produce selection is limited to what can be grown in the country in that season, and is generally of far lower quality than even the worst American grocery stores.
Also, imported products are very expensive. A bottle of Tabasco is 75 pesos. A bottle of Ragu pasta sauce is 50 pesos. For the best selection of imported products, gluten-free products, vegan products, and anything else not typically in the Argentine diet, head to barrio chino.
Rent is cheap. I am renting a furnished two bedroom, one bathroom apartment in an incredible building on what I would consider to be literally the best located block in the city. We’re paying $1200 per month, which is obviously a fraction of what one would pay for something like that in a US city–even unfurnished.
Cleaning service is incredibly cheap at 30 pesos per hour. Usually this is included in the cost of short term rentals.
Language classes vary a lot in price. You’ll find better deals with independent teachers. My roommate is paying 500 pesos per week for three two-hour sessions one-on-one with a teacher and one two-hour group discussion.
Argentine Spanish is different than varieties with which you may be more familiar. The main difference is the voseo.
Tú is replaced by vos and the verb forms related to vos are different than the tú forms you know. The good news is that through subtitled and dubbed TV and movies, they will understand your Spanish, no matter where you learned it.
The level of English here is low, but higher among the younger and wealthier, as in most places in the world.
4. Late Starts
I see most restaurants open noon to four and eight to midnight for lunch and dinner. Peak times seem to be 2 PM and 10 PM.
Also, like many places in the world, people tend to show up late here.
Night clubs don’t get going until after 2 AM.
5. Change Issues
Like many poorer countries, there is an issue here where taxi drivers, kiosks, and vendors might not have the correct change. You’ll make your life easier if you make sure to break your 100 peso notes at grocery stores, fast food places, or anywhere else that has a lot of cash to make change easily. Then you’ll have correct change when you deal with people who don’t.
6. Internet and Phone
Everywhere you go in Buenos Aires there is wifi. The speed isn’t quite as fast the US, but it is fast enough to stream live video without too much buffering.
I highly recommend getting a local SIM card even for short trips. The three big players are Movistar, Claro, and Personal, and they are equally detested. A SIM card costs 10 pesos, then you can load credit onto your phone at any kiosk. 3G internet is 1 peso per day. Calls and texts are surprisingly expensive, but a smart phone here should cost you a quarter per month of what you were paying in the states.
If you want to call back to the US, there are a lot of options. I use google chat inside of gmail for 1 cent per minute. It’s good sound quality with no drops.
7. Palermo: Where You Want to Be
Buenos Aires has a lot of interesting neighborhoods, but I think Palermo is the clear choice for where to stay and go out.
Palermo is (hilariously) divided into Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho by Avenida Juan B Justo. Both halves are fine. The main strip of Palermo is Honduras Street, which is packed with restaurants, bars, and clubs. The area is touristy and ex-patty, but there’s a reason: it’s the best place to hang out and live. There is a subte (subway) stop where I’ve marked with an X on the map. The parks in the northeast of Palermo are a popular place to run, bike, and rollerblade. Just beyond them is the domestic and near-international airport–Aeroparque (AEP).
I don’t see any chain hotels in Palermo; they are mainly in the microcentro. To stay in Palermo, check airbnb.com or stay at a boutique hotel.
8. A Few Tourist Destinations
I’ve been to a few tourist destinations. Here are my thoughts, though you might be better off consulting a guide book.
Plaza de Mayo is worth a stop at 3:30 PM on Thursdays to see the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo protest. The whole thing took less half an hour today including a media-covered speech that praised the current Presidenta.
The original cause is worth reading up on, and it’s amazing to think about the dedication of the madres. If you can combine this with checking out the Casa Rosada, which is right on the Plaza, it’s a worthwhile afternoon.
Boca is worth fifteen minutes, which is luckily all it takes to walk the two or three safe and heavily touristy streets. You can sit at an overpriced restaurant for a snack or meal, watch a simple tango, pose with a tango dancer for a tip, buy some touristy kitsch, and take a picture in front of the colorful buildings. Or you can skip the whole thing and not have missed much.
Recoleta Cemetary is totally worth the free visit. Evita is buried here in a (comparatively) simple mausoleum that is not well marked. Hint: she’s in the Duarte mausoleum. Far more interesting than her grave are the graves of presidents, lined with plaques commemorating anniversaries of their births and deaths. It’s fun to walk through the rows at random admiring the workmanship and inventing elaborate stories for the people buried here.
Chinatown is a really fun place to go shopping, though there probably isn’t much there for tourists.
9. Cafe Culture
Every nice day in Buenos Aires is an excuse to sit on a corner and watch the world go by. Whether people are eating dinner, having coffee, or enjoying a cocktail, when the weather is nice, every corner is full.
It’s a slow, enjoyable pace of life that I see in a lot of Europe and rarely in the Americas. It’s actually not my preferred pace, but if you enjoy France, Italy, and countries like that, you will love Buenos Aires.
If you are introduced to someone or greeting an old friend, and at least one of you is a woman, there will be a kiss on the right cheek. Enjoy!
And then something you should never talk about in polite company: politics…
Argentines have very strong opinions on the president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and her economic policies. A lot of times my banal questions to the taxista about how business is are redirected to his thoughts on her. If you like to talk politics or soccer, Argentina could be your heaven. Just be aware that people here have very strong views on the subjects.
As many of you may know, I am a college student by day and the amusing, yet mystical, Bengali Miles Guru by night. After traveling almost 100,000 miles since January, I knew that my upcoming spring break trip would have to be amazing. It would also have to help me attain my 12 months, 12 countries goal.
After giving it some thought, the best idea was to include my friends into the crazy trip I’m about to embark on.
I didn’t know where to go but naturally, I thought that maybe it should be Europe since I just flew to Asia a month ago. I set my sights on a Eurotrip themed adventure! I knew that it would have to be awesome and that my friends would have to be amused as well. I finally settled on this proposed route plan:
1 night in Frankfurt (Hotwire a Hotel)
Drive to Amsterdam
2 nights in Amsterdam (Radisson Blu Amsterdam)
Drive to Paris
2 nights in Paris (Radisson Blu Champs Elysees & Radisson Blu Le Dokhan’s Hotel)
Drive back to Frankfurt and visit cities a long the way.
Frankfurt- Los Angeles
Last time I drove in Germany, we somehow got this car:
The hotels alone were an absolute wonder to book. In Frankfurt & Amsterdam, I resorted to Hotwire and was able to get great rates that were sub $100 per night! The best feeling was going to hotels.com and seeing that the Radisson Blu Amsterdam was $296 on the nights I wanted to go. I got the same hotel on Hotwire for $86 plus tax!
In Paris, I elected to use my Club Carlson points to book two nights at two different hotels since we have a lot of people going. I was able to use the free bonus night stay that comes with the Club Carlson card and for 100,000 points, I got 2 rooms in Paris for 2 nights each (4 nights total for the price of 2)
In Paris, the hotel prices were about 330-430 Euros/Night depending on the hotels so I think I got great value from those points! (2.1 Cents)
It proved to be a stellar trip but I yearned for more, and that’s exactly what I got.
After booking my friends on a LAX-ATL-FRA-ORD-LAX flight (in Business Class because, you know, college students need to travel in style) for 100,000 miles, I looked into my own flights. Sure, I was going to all these cool places with my friends but I also wanted to make a great Trip Report out of it. I also wanted to get the most value out of my mile.
I sat down and thought about other routes till I could think no more. I came up with this masterpiece:
Los Angeles-Frankfurt in Lufthansa Business Class (A330) Part of US Airways 90K US-Europe-Asia
Paris-Kuala Lumpur in Malaysian First Class (A380) 105,000 Amex-British Air Points
Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok in Lufthansa First Class (Yes, it’s not wrong) United 70K First Class Award. Picture could change based on flight availability.
Bangkok-Hong Kong in Thai First Class (A380) United 70K First Class Award
Hong Kong-Frankfurt (Lufthansa 747-8i 70K United Award)
Frankfurt-Los Angeles (Lufthansa First Class 70K Award)
To make things more complicated, I used a 90k US Airways redemption to go US-Europe-Asia. I scheduled Europe-Asia as a later trip in September so technically, I end in Europe for now. I then transferred some Membership Rewards to get myself on the Malaysian Airlines A380 from Paris-KUL. I was never supposed to come back to Europe from Malaysia but I realized my flight wouldn’t make it in time to take a free ticket I had from Singapore-Los Angeles. That’s when I dipped into my United Miles to book a return from Asia-Los Angeles.
The Total Costs:
90,000 US Airways miles & $200 in Taxes
105,000 American Express Membership Rewards & $1,000 in Taxes
70,000 United miles & 100 in Taxes
The best part of this trip is that I get to test out a bunch of new products and hopefully report them back to you guys!
Some interesting tidbits about this trip include:
Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok is actually operated by Lufthansa. It is part of their Bangkok – Frankfurt flight so it goes KUL-BKK-FRA.
Overall, this trip should be fun for me and terrifying for my mom who will probably be worrying a little too much.
By flying this route, I’ll be at 4 different A380 First Class cabins in less than 3 months of each other! I’ve already flown Lufthansa & Singapore! Adding Malaysian & Thai to the mix will only leave me with Emirates, Korean Air, Air France, China Southern, & Qantas. I am most interested in flying Emirates and China Southern’ A380s in the future!
If you don’t see me on one of these flights in the upcoming days, you’ll surely see me at FTU DC in a few weeks! Hope to meet you all! You can also follow this trip on Instagram with the hashtag #flywithbmg.
Also, if you like what you see, use our Award Booking Service to build a trip like this! We’ve helped tons of people book trips of a lifetime!
In my giveaway last week of Express Passes into Australia, I mentioned that you can also enter Australia quickly if you have Global Entry. I want to give a little more information about the process because it’s another reason to get Global Entry in you haven’t already. See Why and How I Got Global Entry.
The process is very simple. To be able to use Australia’s SmartGate entry program, you need to be 16 years or older, have Global Entry, and have a USA ePassport. All USA passports issued after 8/2007 are ePassports.
To use SmartGate, simply find the SmartGate kiosk upon arrival, which sounds identical to a Global Entry kiosk. After answering the declaration questions at the kiosk, you get a SmartGate ticket.
Next you use the ticket to access the SmartGate. A camera compares your photo to the digital photo in your ePassport. Go through the gate, collect your bags, and head to customs.
The SmartGate and Global Entry combo does not change the fact that you have to apply online for a visa before traveling to Australia and pay a $20 fee.
This is another great reason to get Global Entry, which gets me from airplane door to curb at LAX in seven minutes. Global Entry costs $100. The process includes a cumbersome application form and a twenty minuted interview at an international airport.
The $100 fee is rebated if you pay with your American Express Platinum. The best AMEX Platinum offer right now is the Mercedes-Benz version of the card. (Don’t worry; you don’t have to drive a German car to get the card.)
Does anyone have any experience with SmartGate?
Tahsir’s Itinerary Around the World in First Class is too long for one post. Here’s the first installment.
As a child, I was (and still am) fascinated with the idea of going around the world. I used to look at the TV and tell myself that one day, I too would be able to do what those contestants were doing on The Amazing Race. Today, I’m fulfilling one of my dreams and crossing something off my bucket list. I’m going around the world in First Class!
Many of you will agree that it takes a lot of work to get enough points to travel comfortably. As the son of an airline employee, I would travel in economy and wonder when I could get to the front of the plane. Although I was never ashamed or even sad to travel in economy, I always wanted to experience what it was like to travel in “style.”
A few days ago, I wrote about how to book an aspirational trip. In that post, I wrote about how I was going on 3 different First Class products; United, All Nippon Airways, and Thai. A few things changed 2-3 days out and my itinerary was switched to reflect something else: Lufthansa First & Thai First. There was some space that opened up on the routes I wanted to take and I decided to bring my sister along with me.
Today, I was going to fly the somewhat new Lufthansa 747-400 in First Class. This plane is special because the First Class product has a separate seat and bed. I’ve been talking to my friends about this for days, but it’s really something you have to experience for yourself. Lufthansa has done an excellent job with their entire premium cabin, and I was eager to try it.
I flew into Denver the night before this flight because the 747-400 currently flies from Denver, Chicago, New York, and Boston. Note: Denver runs the new 747-400 on a 50% capacity so you have to check the seat map on that particular day to see if it’s the new First Class.
In the days prior to this flight, I noticed that Boston and Denver opened the most award space. It can be tricky to get to Denver with United because they don’t have that many flights into Denver before the 2PM departure of this Lufthansa flight. In addition, the flights I wanted into Denver didn’t release any premium cabin seats. This was an issue for me because my family had a ridiculous amount of suitcases to take to our final destination (Dhaka) and we needed three bags per person.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need excess baggage with Star Alliance, you should try to book your originating flight with United. The reason behind this is that United allows you to check in 3 bags that can weigh up to 70 pounds for free if you fly in Business or First. In theory, that means you can get three free bags all the way to your destination even if you fly in business, which usually allows two bags on all other airlines. I found out the hard way that this isn’t the case.
There are two regulations with check-in baggage that airlines must follow, but they both contradict each other. One states that the original marketing carrier’s baggage rules should apply to the entire itinerary. This means that your FIRST flight’s baggage should apply to your entire reservation. The other rule states that the baggage rules of the flight that flies you over the ocean should be the one to follow. In Los Angeles, United checked three bags each for our family of four. However, they couldn’t check it all the way to our final destination because United and Lufthansa have an interline agreement that only applies for 13 hours. The next day, we got to the Denver airport and picked up our baggage from the lost and found area of United.
TIP: A United agent told us not to touch our bags and let them stay in the carousel so that United can take them and put them in lost and found. This is super helpful if you have a 23 hour layover and want to check out the city for the day. In essence, you don’t have to take out your checked bags until after you try to check in for your next flight. Many of you might wonder why this matters if you can check a bag through to your final destination. As I stated, our bags were past the 13 hour interline agreement and so they had to be separately checked in the next day. It might not be a big deal to people who check in one or two bags but we had 12 checked bags plus carry-ons.
Once we retrieved our bags, we went up to the Lufthansa counter. It’s important to note that Lufthansa shares its counters daily with AeroMexico and Icelandair. We approached the counter and were greeted by what seemed to be an AeroMexico/Lufthansa agent. Before even looking at our itinerary, she stated we wouldn’t be able to check in three bags. After calling the supervisor, this agent kept coming up to our counter and saying things to the supervisor like “I was right, right?” She even started helping a Business Class passenger and left them to come to our counter and listen in. It was really unprofessional and at one point, I saw her point us out to someone else with a disgusted look. After reading more on the Denver check-in, I’ve actually seen that this agent has come up multiple times in complaints. I’m not naming names but if someone without a Lufthansa emblem calls you to check in, respectfully decline and wait for someone else.
The supervisor and another agent were really helpful, and they actually helped us get everything sorted out. In the end, all our bag fees were waived and we finally checked them into our final destination! We even got some First Class Jackets for my parents who were traveling in Business. Don’t worry about my parents “stuck” in Business while I’m in First and vise versa, we’re taking turns. In March, I was in Cathay’s Business while they were in Cathay’s First Class.
The lounge situation in Denver is quite grim. The only lounge you can access as a Lufthansa First & Business passenger is the United Club. To make matters worse, Lufthansa departs from Concourse A and the Club is located in Concourse B. The United Club is nothing to rave about as it is a regular domestic lounge. The food offerings are cookies and crackers with the occasional bag of carrots. Other than that, there’s nothing to report. Let’s move on.
The flight was scheduled to leave at around 2:55PM but from past history on flightaware, the on-time departure was a measly 1.5/5. We got to the gate about 10 minutes before boarding. Boarding was called at about 2:30. We actually left the gate around 3PM so kudos to Lufthansa for boarding a 747 in 30 minutes!
Stick around for my next installment!
How lucky are they?
For the wedding, I’m staying with some friends at the Westin Pittsburgh. There is something in the room that we hung on the door knob that declined housekeeping during the stay in exchange for a $5 coupon per day or 500 SPG points per day.
Since 500 SPG points are worth more than $10, I told my friend to take that option. This was slipped under our door this morning:
I’m really pushing these old articles, so I can enjoy my day in Pittsburgh instead of writing. (Best Of tab coming soon.)
Free Oneways on United Awards is my most viewed post of all time. As far as I know, it’s the first post to explain how to add a free oneway to any international award (or award to Hawaii) that uses United miles.
The United-award free oneway is especially awesome because it can be enjoyed even by people who are based at tiny regional airports, and it can go more places than an American Airlines free oneway.
The Four Rules… is a must read if you want to take advantage of the well-known but poorly-understood free oneway available on American Airlines awards. In it, you’ll see a link to my first post about free oneways on AA awards that you might also want to click.
Free First Class Next Month
I first published a 30-part beginner series in March. This series was for ultra beginners and had short posts on everything a beginner should know. I’ve been reposting the series in a better order with updates, added screen shots, and improvements. That is ongoing. (See the post right below this one.)
If you want to see the whole first series, click here.
The Mile Value Calculator is an incredible tool I designed to figure out how much value you’re getting from your miles on a particular award. Hint: it’s not cash price of ticket divided by miles used.
I’ve put 12 posts in the Anatomy of an Award category. They show step-by-step the process of conceiving and booking actual awards I’ve booked for myself or through my Award Booking Service.
This is very salient to me right now because I’m writing this post on a Southwest flight from Burbank to Tampa. I saved several thousand points on the award by using the trick detailed in the post linked above. The details of the award booking are in this Anatomy of an Award post.
I have videos of my computer screen as I book free oneways with several types of miles. Hopefully I’ll add more soon. Check it out.
This is the cheapest way to get hotels, and it’s a simple, repeatable trick that is well within the rules of the Priority Club program.
I was born in Hawaii, and I go back about once a year, so I compiled the cheapest ways to get to Hawaii.
Lists of Possible Avios Awards and International Gateway Cities
I’ve also made a list of all possible international gateways on American Airlines awards. This is crucial since stopovers can only be at the North American International Gateway City on AA awards.
I travel very differently than many of my readers. I’m up front in a premium class, but then when I land, I take my one carry on and zero checked bags to the house of a complete stranger where I stay for free. I couchsurf.
Couchsurfing refers to two things: the act of sleeping on a strangers couch or guest bed for free and the website couchsurfing.org–the main facilitator of couchsurfing in 2012.
Couchsurfing enriches and “en-cheapens” my travels so significantly that I wanted to evangelize about it for a post. Hopefully I’ll dispel any fears and confusion you might have about couchsurfing, and maybe even talk you into couchsuring.
Couchsurfing.org is the starting point. Interested parties put up a profile that’s a cross between a facebook profile and information about your living situation.
Here’s part of the profile of a guy whose couch I surfed in Warsaw, Poland last month:
As you can see, the left is about his “couch,” which in his case is actually a spare bedroom that I slept in. I probably sleep on couches less than half the time. On the right side is information about the person. It helps you determine whether your personalities, temperaments, and interests would be a match.
Not pictured are some biographical info like age, information about what languages you speak to avoid language barriers, pictures, and most importantly references and verifications.
Crucially couchsurfing.org offers an optional two-part verification process. One part verifies your identity because you have to give a donation by credit card, which lets them know who you really are. The second part is a postcard with a code sent to your address. If you type in the code, you must live where you say you do.
Many people are verified, but not a majority. When using couchsurfing, you can easily decide to interact only with those who have been verified.
The second, and probably better, security tool is the references section. The references let other people write on your profile what their experience with you was. I have over 30 references from former strangers who hosted me or surfed my couch. That’s a good indication that I am a safe person to host or stay with.
Another security feature is that couchsurfing.org archives all messages, so if anything happened, it would be pretty clear who the perpetrator was.
How Couhcurfing Works
Most people start as couchsurfing.org members when they hear about it and decide that it sounds fun and cheap to surf on an upcoming trip. Once they set up an account, they can use the CouchSearch feature to find hosts in a geographical area.
After perusing the profiles to find compatible hosts in the area of town they want with whom they would feel safe, they send a CouchRequest. The request is sent out any time from several months in advance to the night before. Usually the request indicates the traveller’s plans and why he wants to stay with that particular host.
In popular cities in America and Europe, hosts are inundated with multiple requests per day, so usually a prospective surfer will send out a dozen or more CouchRequests.
The potential host accepts or declines the request. If he accepts, he includes his address and maybe a telephone number. The surfer and host meet up at the agreed upon time and place. The surfer stays the agreed upon days and heads out, never paying the host a dime. (It is customary to give a thank you gift, cook a meal for the host, or buy him a few drinks as a token of appreciation.)
During the stay, anything can happen. Sometimes the host spends all day with you and gives you tours; sometimes he gives you a key to his place, works all day, and you barely see him.
After the stay, you each write a reference, and you probably never see each other again. But if either of you is in the other’s city again, you’ve got a friend for life.
Why I CouchSurf
The experiences are incredible and cannot be replicated if you are a tourist in a distant city, and you don’t know any locals.
My favorite CouchSurfing experience was last year in Copenhagen. I stayed with a dreadlocked guy named Ingolf who owned a Christania bike.
He gave me a tour of the city as we alternated who peddled and who hung out in the big, pillowed basket–all the while sipping Carlsberg. I could not have done anything like that in Copenhagen without couchsurfing.
Or on my last trip to Ukraine, my host in Kharkiv took me to a park in his neighborhood where a freezing spring emerges. Joining the polar bear club jumping into it was a locals-only experience that not many visitors to Kharkiv get.
Or when I host people in LA, I take them to the best indie improv shows, pick up dodgeball games, and twice-a-year events like cicLAvia that no guide book or hostel would possibly mention. Plus we eat at the best taco trucks and go out to the places that young locals go out to.
The cool thing about couchsurfing is that it’s self-selecting. The reason I’ve never had a bad experience (in 30+ experiences) is that people who think couchsurfing sounds fun instead of horrible have a lot in common. We’re adventurous travelers with a similar outlook.
Couchsurfing is mainly a young persons’ activity. I tend to host people and stay with people between the ages of 20 and 30. But there are definitely older people involved. Don’t let your age stop you. If you’re older and don’t want to hang out with young people or vice versa, one of the search filters you can use when CouchSearching is age.
Couchsurfing is done solo, by couples, and by groups of friends. I usually roll solo, but a ton of couples request to stay with me. I also get a lot of requests from groups of three or four European girls who have been in the US for a year as au pairs and are traveling at the end.
Couchsurfing attracts different types like freegan hippies, party animals, and every type in between. I wouldn’t say there is really a type, but some common traits are open-mindedness and a love of travel.
I don’t think safety is a major drawback. I would consider surfing at someone’s house to be as safe as staying at a hotel. Beyond the safety measures addressed above, a person who wanted to harm a couchsurfer would only be able to do it once since the correspondence would clearly show who committed any crimes and where they happened. Couchsurfing is a bad way to exploit people, so I think crimes are exceedingly rare.
(I think hosting is more dangerous. Anyone can sign up for an unverified account, and then be invited into your house. I protect myself by hosting people with good references and verification.)
The real drawbacks are minor nuisances. My least favorite hosts are overly solicitous. I don’t want to inconvenience them, so I don’t like when they try to cook me every meal, change plans to accommodate me, or worry about my tastes too much. I prefer them to live their own lives normally and let me tag along to the fun stuff they’re doing.
Another drawback is that there are clearly people on couchsurfing who see it as a dating site. A new feature allows you to see people who are seeking a host in your city and how many hosts have offered to host them. Cute girls always seem to be in the 3+ category while guys are often offerless. Solo girls should be aware that they will be popular, but I don’t think they’re in danger.
Another potential drawback that I actually see as a positive is the location of hosts. Couchsurfing usually leaves you in a “real” part of town where people live and not the tourist trap centers. This means you may have to take public transport to sightsee, but I think it’s cool to be out in a district with no other tourists.
Couchsurfing is awesome. You’ll have more fun traveling, and you’ll cut out hotel costs. (I barely mentioned cost because I don’t see couchsurfing as primarily a way to save money. And that’s a sore spot among hosts if you imply you are surfing to save cash instead of to meet new people and see new cultures.)
Couchsurfing.org is the major hub to connect hosts and surfers. There are some drawbacks that potential couchsurfers should be aware of, but in my experience the fun of couchsurfing far exceeds any drawbacks.
The following is a guest post from Alex Moya, on an area of his expertise. If you have a guest post you’d like published related to miles or travel, email me.
The increasing use of wireless mobile technology makes it easier to keep in touch with loved ones and keep on top of your finances when traveling. Unfortunately, it also gives thieves the opportunities to steal your personal and financial information. A security company in England found hackers were able to steal over 350 usernames and passwords from unsuspecting customers in a local cafe. And that was just in one hour.
Bank accounts, retirement funds and credit card information immediately become vulnerable anytime you use mobile technology while traveling. So if you’re traveling, taking a few additional proactive steps can protect you from identity theft.
Installing strong, up to date, protection software on your computer before traveling is a must.
-One of the ways identity hackers get valuable information from your computer by sending small viruses into your computer.
-Worse still, a computer virus won’t necessarily affect your computer for days or weeks, by which point your information is long gone.
Not all wireless networks are equally secure. Many airports, hotels and transportation stations offer free WiFi, also known as hot-spots, that let you let you connect instantly, often without paying a fee. The trouble is that these networks are also available to criminals looking to steal valuable information.
-When staying in a hotel, only log-on to closed wireless networks that require a password.
-Instead of using public access networks, get hotspot access through your phone. This turns your phone into a mobile hotspot and gives you secure wireless access during transit.
-Always confirm the name of the secure wireless network at the hotel, instead of picking the first one that looks right. Identity thieves often set up unsecure networks with similar names as those of the hotel. The small padlock icon next to the network name confirms the security.
If you look at the address bar your bank’s homepage, you’ll notice the first part of the address is, “https,” instead of the traditional “http.” In this case the, “s” stands for secure and it makes all the difference.
-Most credit card companies and banks use secure, encrypted websites. This means any personal information on the website will be scrambled and inaccessible to hackers.
-Make sure every page after the homepage is securely encrypted. Always check the address bar for the “https” before entering any sensitive information while traveling.
The public computers provided in most hotel business centers are gold mines for identity thieves because they receive tons of traffic and are loosely monitored. Some internet cafes have added their own key-stroke software.
-Additionally, hackers can install software on the computer that monitors your key strokes, delivering a crystal clear printout of every transaction, user name, and security code you type.
Although some measures are more effective than others, you can take preventative steps to reduce your risk of identify theft, even before you log-on to a wireless network.
-Disable file or printer sharing features on your computer. Most company-issued computers make these settings default so you and your coworkers have easy access to internal information.
-Disabling the shared settings won’t guarantee identity theft protection, but it makes it harder for a hacker to access sensitive information during your two-hour layover.
-Never make purchases or pay bills on a public computer or through an unsecured wireless network.