Fast Forward to our first real destination: Johannesburg, South Africa. We purchased our plane tickets recently and what a feeling! One way ticket to Johannesburg… CHECK!
One of our first steps in planning the trip is to buy plane tickets. You may think this would be a big expense, but with a little effort you can get a ticket for really cheap. Like the title says, our main tickets to Africa from the US are only going to cost us $7 total!
One of the early decisions we had to make was what type of ticket to buy. The big airline alliances do sell “round the world” tickets which allow you to group a bunch of different flights under a one fare. We looked into this, but in the end we decided it wasn’t the best fit for us. On one of the RTW tickets, you are only allowed a certain number of stops, and you have to plan out your dates far in advance. We want to figure out some of that as we go, so not exactly a match for us. Plus, we would have had to pay lots of money for that. But why pay money when you have miles?
Using Miles to Buy Plane Tickets
For the past few years, we have gone on many trips for very little money out of pocket.We do this by “paying” for the flights with frequent flyer miles.
We don’t actually rack up the miles by flying though. Instead, we get big chunks of miles by applying for credit cards with hefty sign up bonuses. It may sound risky, but if you are careful with how you use the credit cards (like we always are) then it can get you some great deals.
Getting credit cards is only a good solution if you are responsible with how you use them. Always make sure to pay off your balance in full every month!! You may worry about negative effects on you credit score, but in our experience our scores have stayed fairly constant.
For some of the cards, you only get the sign up bonus if you complete what they call a “minimum spend”. It’s usually a few thousand dollars within a few months. We don’t typically put that much on a credit card, so we’ve had to figure out some creative ways to do this. If you’re interested, let us know and we can share our strategies.
Getting to South Africa
Based on a variety of factors, we decided to start our trip in South Africa. We knew from research that the best miles to redeem to get to South Africa would be United miles. (We aren’t actually flying on United though. One other cool thing about miles is that you can redeem them on an airline’s alliance partners. United in in Star Alliance along with a few African airlines).
We also knew from the award chart that you need 40,000 United miles to get to South Africa from the US. Luckily, we also knew that the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offered a signup bonus of 40,000 United miles. We each got the card, completed the minimum spending requirement, and had our miles.
Then we had to search for the flight. Using the United website, we searched for award redemptions to Johannesburg from a variety of U.S. cities. Unfortunately, availability was a little limited so we didn’t have a lot of options. We were this close to flying via Nigeria until we read some horror stories about layovers there. On the other hand, we read some positive things about layovers in Cairo, so we ended up booking a ticket on Egypt Air. We should have time on our 12 hour layover to see the pyramids – pretty cool!
But, very little in life is free unfortunately. There are some fees associated with the journey: $3.50 per person. So, we can’t say we are flying to South Africa for free. It’s going to cost us a whole $7.
You may notice that we still need to figure out how to get to NYC for our flight. No definite plans on that yet, but we are hoping we can figure out a way to use miles :-).
If you’re interested in learning more about how to travel for cheap, here are some resources we enjoy:
Telling people that you’re planning on taking a year off to travel around the world is always an interesting experience. The range of reactions you get is quite large. Some people can barely contain their excitement for us while others can scarcely hold in their horror. There are definitely some commonalities though. The largest being the question: How in the world did you decide to do that?
We thought we would focus on that idea: How does one decide to take a year off from their established life and travel around the world?
The answer is varied of course. There are as many reasons as there are people who decide to do it! There are some answers that you would probably get from almost everyone, however.
1. The world is a gigantic place. How else would you find the time to see and experience all the amazing things out there? With close to 200 countries on our globe, you could never find enough time to visit all the sites that are worth seeing. Taking a year to do it seems like a necessary step.
2. Sometimes a break from the day to day grind is welcome and needed. It becomes very easy to get bogged down and potentially disenchanted with the jobs that we do every day. A year to explore, awaken our senses, and reevaluate the reasons that we choose our jobs in the first place may be necessary.
3. For some people, there is an innate desire to stretch the boundaries of our comfort zones. A trip like this can make us supremely uncomfortable at times, but at the same time teach us how to be stronger. If we can navigate our way through different cultures, with different languages, without the comforts of home, there is nothing we can’t do!
In addition to the general reasons, every person has something that tipped them over the edge, or ultimately brought them to this kind of decision. We thought it might be interesting to explain our stories separately, because we came to our choice to travel in very different ways.
1. This in many ways sounds silly, but it is definitely true: I wanted to do something like this because my parents did. I have heard about their trip since I was tiny. They describe their trip with such humor and excitement that I couldn’t help but want to do one of my own. Because of their stories (of which there are many that I have heard over and over again), it has been a lifelong dream of mine to see all the places that they saw – and more!
2. There is so much to see and know in the world. I want to see and know it all. I feel like the travels that I have done in the past have opened my eyes to such diversity and have helped me form my views on life. I am intrigued to learn more.
3. The adrenaline rush! Figuring out how to survive day to day in completely foreign situations is very exciting. Plus, I want to see if I can do it.
Della is making me.
Just kidding! But I certainly can’t claim that I have had the RTW travel bug for as long as Della has. I had done a decent amount of domestic travel before I met Della but she has opened my eyes to the world of international travel. So these are my main reasons:
1. The quest for knowledge. There is so much going on all around the globe that I only vaguely know about and want to learn more about. Or there are things that I have learned that I have forgotten. But I feel like traveling helps you connect with stories from the past and the present in much more detail, and to remember those stories better in the future.
2. It’s not as hard as I thought it would be. Originally, when Della told me about her parents’ trip and her grand vision, I thought it sounded impossible to pull off. But some quick Googling proved that many people have done it before, and they have published excellent planning resources.
3. I don’t want to be too old to cross things off of my “bucket list.” Well, first off, “bucket list” seems somewhat overplayed so I’m going to not use that terminology. But the idea is the same – many people put off doing things that interest them until they have completed the “normal” life checklist. But what if by the time you are fully retired your health has declined? Or you are in a situation where it’s impossible to go? There’s no time like the present to just do it, because while it may be a gamble to deviate from the “traditional” path of earning money, it’s also a gamble to assume that you’ll be able to do everything you want in 30 years.
4. I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to planning things, and travel provides an outlet for doing cool research and then seeing it come to fruition. It’s fun to spend a bunch of time researching the best options and then seeing it pay off.
5. Meeting people with a wide variety of stories. In our past international travels, we have met people from all over the world and had a great time hanging out. Being able to learn about other cultures and share our culture is fun! Plus, remember how at summer camp you felt like you had made best friends for life by the end of the week? Meeting someone out traveling often feels like that as well.
In the end, our Summer 2013 trip to Belize and Guatemala was a success. As we anticipated, Belize was a relatively easy country to travel in: they speak English, prices are low and there is a good tourist infrastructure. We also enjoyed the ability to experience the Mayan ruins and the ocean adventures within such a short distance.
The Belizean dollar is pegged to the US dollar at an exact rate of 2 to 1, so it was pretty easy to calculate how much we spent. Guatemala was a little bit tougher – for purposes of estimation we are using the rate of 7 quetzales to 1 US dollar. The numbers below are rounded up to reflect the uncertainty.
- Lodging: $240
- Transportation: $390
- Food and Drink: $585
- Activities: $395
- Border Fees: $45
Our total for the 15 days was $1655, so our per-day average was $110. A little higher than we would have liked, but we learned some lessons about how to cut costs that could help in the future.
Some other observations from the budget:
- The transportation costs include plane flights. You may not think that’s possible, but it is! We used American Airlines miles for our flights. We got these miles by signing up for the American Airlines credit card and getting the nice sign up bonus. We will talk more about these strategies in later posts.
- Buying a bottle of rum in the store was definitely cheaper than getting drinks out at a bar. We will try to do this more often in the future. We also could have saved money by eating out at restaurants less and cooking for ourselves more.
- The most expensive activity was definitely the ATM cave tour. This was definitely worth it though!
Our cheapest days were the days in Caye Caulker where we did nothing but hang out by the beach. Goes to show you that sometimes it’s good to just do nothing for a day to recharge your spirits and your wallet.
When we finally headed to the Cayes of Belize we chose Caye Caulker from the many options.
Where We Slept
Daisy’s Guest House.Our traveling companions from Caracol had been to Caye Caulker before us and had recommended Daisy’s. The rooms were spacious with two beds, a ceiling fan, and bathrooms down the hall. It reminded us of a dorm room at college as all the rooms were attached to one long hall. We were quite lucky because we ended up having the entire guest house to ourselves for one of the nights, which we enjoyed quite a bit. We spend time lounging in the hallway because it was a bit cooler and the WiFi worked better.
Favorite Place to Eat
Barrier Reef Sports Bar. We realize this is a strange choice in an island known for seafood (during LobsterFest for that matter!) But, we did enjoy their trivia night. Unfortunately, the food is only OK. However, what we really enjoyed was finding all sorts of Texas and Rice University (!!) paraphernalia adorning most of the walls. There was even a picture of the 2012 Rice Women’s Soccer team in the bathroom. We also enjoyed chatting with the owner who was an expat from Houston.
Things To Do
Swimming at the Split
Caye Caulker did not really have a lot of options for truly public beach. The best place to go to lay in the sun, drink cocktails, and swim in the ocean was at the northern end of town. We heard it was called the split because several years back a hurricane came through and tore through the island splitting it in two. The channel that runs through is clean, clear, and offers some mediocre snorkeling. It’s not really a beach, and tourists and local alike did more relaxing along the crumbling sea wall which was not very comfortable. However, the water was warm and welcoming. Our time in Caye Caulker was plagued by mosquitoes (they were out in mass EVERYWHERE! At one point, Della got 7 mosquito bites in about 4 minutes on an early morning walk down the hall to the bathroom of the guesthouse!) so we did not enjoy laying out too much. There was a neat bar right on the edge of the split that had tables IN the water. We did spend some time drinking beers and completely submerging ourselves in the shallow water of the bar.
We took a snorkeling trip out of Caye Caulker and were in agreement that it was the best snorkeling we had ever done!
Caye Caulker was an easy town to be in with lots of shops, restaurants, places to stay, and street food/vendors. We enjoyed seaside bars, karaoke bars, and lots walking around town.
Obviously, Lobster Fest doesn’t occur year round. But if you have a chance to experience it, you definitely should!
We chose Caye Caulker above some of the other Cayes because it was supposed to be quiet, relaxing, and a little less touristy. Because we arrived during Lobster Fest and came from the small quiet town of Hopkins, we didn’t find Caye Caulker as quiet as we expected. It was definitely a relaxing place to spend a couple of days, though as we already mentioned, the mosquitos were almost unbearable which severely restricted how much time we spent outside. In addition, it rained a fair amount of the time that we there, so we were sometimes happy just to spend time in our guesthouse and read or check email. Overall, we got a little bored in the three days that we spent there. We were lucky that we had met and traveled with our travel friends from Hopkins. Getting the chance to hangout with and get to know them better was definitely a plus during our time in Caye Caulker. The highlight of the time was definitely the snorkel trip, which we loved! (although, it would have been better if we had been more careful with sunscreen!)