What Happens in Vegas can Change Your World

They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but that’s not always true. Sometimes what happens in Vegas changes your whole world.

I don’t come to Las Vegas often. Today I’m here because an 18 hour stopover saved me 400$ on a plane ticket. Two years ago I came on a travel hacking adventure to see how many different hotels I could stay at in a long weekend, and 18 years ago I made a trip to Vegas that changed my life. 

Walking down the street today, I was thinking about that first trip I took to Vegas, and what I could share if I wrote a story about it. The first lesson that popped into my head was the familiar quote–“Leap and the net will appear.” 

“That’s so cliché, and you’re supposed to be writing your 7 Lessons from 7 Continents story this week, not a nearly two-decade-old story about Vegas,” the critic and control freak inside my head said. 

And just as I had this thought, a person dressed in a Spiderman costume leaped out in front of me from behind a building. Although Spiderman is more about webs than nets, I took that as a confirmation from the universe that this week you are supposed to be hearing the lesson of how Las Vegas taught me to leap into the unknown world of my dreams.

My first trip to Vegas was in 1997. I was a budding account executive at a high tech PR agency and visiting Sin City to manage media interviews at my very first big tradeshow. Even though I secretly hated many parts of my first real job and had been actively exploring other opportunities, I’d prepared for the show for months and was excited to go. And then unexpectedly, five days before I left for Vegas, I got offered my first international job in Thailand. And they needed me to be there to start in exactly four weeks.

I was in a conundrum. I knew if I quit my job, I’d miss out on the career opportunity of managing the project in Vegas. If I said no to the opportunity to go to Asia, I knew I’d always regret it.  So, I decided to contrive a plan to do both.

Here’s what happened and the lessons of leaping that I learned from the process: 

1. Accept the Offer

Staying at the agency was easy to envision and it was a safe career path. Going to Thailand was a whole sea of mystery, but I was enticed by the adventure and the possibility. I had no idea what to do, so I said YES.

I’m not advocating for leaping blindly into everything that comes you way, but sometimes you have to start with the yes even when you don’t understand every detail that comes with an offer. Some people like to wait until they have all of their ducks in a row before taking action, but if you’re waiting on the ducks to sort themselves out, it is never going to happen. I’m certainly not an ornithologist, but I’ve never once seen a flock of ducks waddling around in a line. Listen to your gut and say, “hell, yes!” when the offer you’ve been day-dreaming about in your cubicle knocks on your door. Only dead ducks hang out in rows. 

2. Put Things in Motion

Remember our lesson on the laws of physics and the laws of possibility? You need an action to get the process going.

I accepted the job in Thailand, and I got on the plane to Vegas. I was in motion. I needed to finish my project well, and find a way to be in Asia in four weeks.

I spent the next four days in the Las Vegas Convention Center managing media interviews and sneaking away to use the payphone in the hallway every time I had a break. I studied airline listings in the yellow pages, dialed the toll-free numbers for international reservations agents, and put tickets on hold until I had figured out the best and cheapest ways to get to Bangkok. 

In the unassuming lobby of the convention center, surrounded by swarms of corporate conference attendees labeled with large-font name badges, I successfully arranged my escape plan. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. My colleagues thought I really loved Vegas.

3. Pull the Trigger

Once you’re in motion, it’s much easier to gain the speed you need to do the more difficult tasks.

I returned from Las Vegas with a successful media trip under my belt and a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia in my pocket with a departure date just 16 days away. Since I had to give two weeks notice at my job, I had no choice but to walk straight into my boss’ office and let him know that I was leaving.

My immediate supervisor was amazing and told me to follow my dreams. The boss who ran the agency, however, told me in a few words that he wasn’t surprised at all, and I didn’t have what it takes to be successful in the field of PR and communications. I was too young and polite to tell him to F*&@ off, but I knew at this moment that I was making the right play, and that saying yes to this opportunity would be one of the most important decisions I’d ever make for my long-term career success. 

4. Dance

After you pull the trigger, you’ve got to jump all in. It’s like dancing, once you’ve taken a step away from the security of watching from the sidelines, you’ve got to give it all you’ve got—even if you’re worried about looking a fool. You have more to gain than you have to loose.

The 16 days between quitting my job and packing up my life to move to Thailand were a blur, but one moment remains crystal clear. As I waved goodbye to my friends in the airport and turned to walk down the jetway, I remember in slow motion taking the step over the threshold between the airport and onto the plane. 

“What if this is the biggest mistake of my life,” the scared part of me hesitated in that split second.

“The worst case scenario is that you absolutely hate it, and then you buy a ticket and fly home,” the brave and more rational part of me responded.

That step onto the plane was an important one, and the next years included a lot more steps forward, sideways and backwards—all part of the dance.

I’ve done more than my share of tripping and stepping on peoples’ toes in the last 18 years, but not a single part of me regrets jumping into the unknown and the path that my leap landed me upon. Life is less risky if you stand still, but you’ll never live your dreams if you aren’t willing to fumble around on the dance floor.

Your story probably won’t contain a payphone, convention center hallway, or even a big fat book of yellow pages, but I’m sure it will contain conundrums, controversy and courage. I wish you well as you take your leap, and promise from the other side that you most certainly won’t regret it.

Viva Las Vegas.

 

 

7 Lessons from 7 Continents: Europe + Possibility

I didn’t grow up traveling. In fact, I didn’t even grow up believing that international travel was an option for me. 

The family of my childhood defined travel as road-tripping from Pennsylvania to Florida twice a year. Our “vacation” ritual including driving down the I-95 corridor, sitting on the beach, and stopping by Disney World to have breakfast with Mickey Mouse.

Each year when we made the pilgrimage to the sunshine state, my highlight was getting to ride “It’s a Small World”, my favorite Magic Kingdom ride, over and over again. It was as if somewhere deep in my DNA I already knew that my soul was destined for something bigger than the Eastern Seaboard.

As I grew older, I knew the world was out there, but it never felt accessible. As a student of French in high school, I used to think, “If I could only get to Paris once before I die, my life will be complete.”

Travel was in my heart, but it wasn’t in my practice. 

As a sophomore in college, I got my chance and set out on what I believed at the time was going to be my once in a lifetime adventure of studying and traveling in Europe. I was young and impressionable, but I had no idea how much this trip was going to change my whole perspective on the world.

Possibility was biggest lesson I learned during the five months I spent in Europe on my first trip abroad. Getting across the ocean to a place I’d never been was a high hurdle, but once I reached a new continent, being there was easy and the opportunities felt endless.

While I’m not very scientific, one of the laws of physics presented by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687 and memorized by most of us in eighth grade science, teaches this:

A body at rest will remain at rest until an outer force is applied to it to cause motion.

For the first time in my life, this opportunity allowed me to experience what it was like to see travel from the “in motion” perspective, rather than from the sidelines of something I hoped to do someday.

Once I was in the UK, Paris felt possible. Once I was in Paris, Spain and Italy and Austria were all right there too. And if you’re in Austria, why not pop over into Prague?

Law #2: An object in motion remains in motion. 

There’s no way I would have ever even thought to travel from my Alabama college town to Czechoslovakia during the fall of communism as an 18 year old, but once I was already so close, and the possibility was dangled in front of me, it didn’t feel difficult or crazy at all (although I didn’t tell my parents until after I did it).

I had discovered both motion and possibility, and the powerful combination of these forces changed my entire trajectory.

It was a big lesson for me, but the lesson for all of us is this: Whether you travel or not, living in that sweet spot where motion and possibility meet is the key to whatever you want to accomplish.

You want to experience the possibility of the world? It’s not going to happen by sitting on your couch and watching the travel channel. Buy a plane ticket. (Or learn how to go places for free)

You want to experience the freedom and possibility of working for yourself? Change careers? Move to a new place? (Or fill in your own dream here) Whatever desire you have–it isn’t going to happen until you put action into your intention.

Making your dreams come true is a possibility. And once you’ve committed your feet to motion, I’m sure you’ll be surprised how much more in the world is out there beyond what you’ve ever imagined.

It’s a small world after all.

Travel is our Teacher

Travel is a very wise teacher. She has taught me more lessons than all of the combined professors and instructors I’ve sat before in a lifetime of classrooms. 

It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you travel, I can promise that if and when you choose to step out into her school to see the world, you will learn lessons.

When I took my first international trip in 1993, I remember being confronted with a quote which I carefully transcribed into the crisp blank pages of my very first blue and green plaid covered travel journal. It read:

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

It has been 22+ years since I first heard those words, and looking back, it’s crazy to me that travel has officially consumed more than half of my life. While it’s easy to count the countries and continents to which I’ve traveled and to tally the activities that have been struckthrough on my bucket-list, time has taught me that these quantitative metrics will never measure up to the sum of my travel experiences.

I’ve slowed down the pace of my coming-and-goings a little over the past two years while I’ve worked to establish a new homebase for my life. This mostly-staying-still time has been full of gifts—of which two of the biggest have been the mental space to reflect on who I’ve become after two decades on the road, and enough margin in my calendar to dedicate a full 3 weeks to conquer a long-outstanding dream to visit Antarctica, my seventh, and final continent. 

To celebrate this milestone, and to honor my teacher, travel, I’ve compiled a list of the 7 biggest lessons that I’ve learned from traversing each of the 7 continents. Over the next 7 weeks I’ll be sharing these with you, so make sure you stop back.

And just in case you’re a little impatient like me, here’s a sneak preview:             

7 Lessons from 7 Continents 

  1. Europe: Anything is possible
  2. Asia: One world, many worldviews
  3. Africa: Resilience—finding the power to keep going
  4. North America: Love your neighbor—even if you don’t understand them.
  5. South America: Dance like your life depends on it.
  6. Australia:  Rest and retreat
  7. Antarctica: Shut up and listen

Keep your ears and eyes open friends, there is always something to learn.

See you next week!

PS. Do you follow me on instagram? Starting April 1, I’ll be posting a 90 day series of some of my favorite travel photos from around the world. Come over and check it out!

Upgrade Your Bucket List: How to Wander Well

I’ve been traveling the globe for more than 20 years, and one thing hasn’t changed–the constant questions from friends, family and complete strangers about how I do it.

So, here’s some news. I’ve been secretly saving up these questions for 20 years and I finally put them all into a book. It’s called Upgrade Unlocked: The Unconventional Guide to Luxury Travel on a Budget. And it’s all about how to use points and miles to turn once-in-a-lifetime travel dreams into everyday realities.

Check it out here -> www.upgradeunlocked.com

It’s been an exciting adventure to write this over the past 6 months, and my hope is that it will help many more people just like you to have the adventures you dream of!

And to all of you who’ve ever told me that you live vicariously through my travels: It’s your turn.

People, Portraits and Prizes

PRIZES?  Yes! Keep reading.

Back when I lived in Sudan (and couldn’t run), I was working as a story writer and photographer.

The land in Sudan was as barren as barren could be. There wasn’t much to work with in the way of landscape photography. The roads were dirt, the homes constructed of sticks and mud, and the milky white sky blended straight into the desert most days without a hint of horizon.

The people on the other hand were the most colorful sight I’d ever seen, an apparition against the backdrop of the dusty land they called home. And it wasn’t just their rainbow colored robes. I’ve never met so many individuals who exuded such a deep gratitude and joy for the little that they did have. I was humbled.

I returned to the U.S. at the end of my contract, but I never forgot the faces. These weren’t the same images of war and destruction that were showing on the news. These were the faces of beauty and resilience. Yes, there was a war going on there, and there is still conflict in the region today. But a nation’s politics are not the same as its people. The smiles are as real as the statistics.

I showed these faces in a traveling exhibit called “Portraits of Darfur” for the years in Washington DC following my return. Prints were sold to benefit the villages where the images were taken.

I packed up the prints in 2009 when I moved on to a new season in Cambodia, but these faces I have never forgotten. They’ve hung on my wall for years now reminding me of how brightly joy shines in darkness.

Yesterday I dug through the boxes in my basement and pulled out these portraits. You see, I have a crazy idea. I love these photos so much that I’m going to give them away! Yes, PRIZES! Original prints, matted, and signed.

First, have a look at the photos and you’ll see what I mean. The smiles are just as amazing and inspiring as they were back when first saw these scenes through my camera’s eye.  Now skip to the bottom and find out how you can get one for your wall.

So, how do I get a PRIZE?

The prize game here works like a Kickstarter incentive. I still need lots of people to support me for my Hood to Coast run! If you make a donation to my crazy running efforts for Sudan, I’ll send you a prize.

  • $10 or more -> All my love and gratitude. And a Sudan photo card thank you (if you send me your address)
  • $50 or more -> Matted and signed 5×7 portrait of your choice with its story (finished size 8×10)
  • $100 or more -> Matted and signed 8×10 portrait of your choice with its story (finished size 11×14)
  • $300 or more -> Matted and signed 11×14 portrait of your choice with its story (finished size 16×20)
  • $500 or more -> Whatever you want. I’ll even send it to you framed.

(If you’ve already made a donation, don’t worry, you’re still prize eligible if you’d like one. And if you want to up your donation to reach a new prize tier, that works too, just let me know).

Give here at my fundraising page, and I’ll email you with instructions to claim your reward.

Who said that giving can’t be fun?

How Travel Hacking Can Change the World

 

The habit of collecting points and miles started when I was a teenager. I never realized that this hobby would eventually change the way that I viewed my place in the world.

I’ve been doing a lot more work in the realm of travel hacking lately. If your shaking your head and wondering what that is, Travel Hacking is the practice of getting a whole lot of points and miles and using them to see the world. You can call it loyalty, you can call it frequent flying. I call it trying to figure out how to get airline miles and hotel points for everything I do. 

Since I’ve shifted from full time humanitarian work to consulting, I’ve also been paying more attention to what I’m saying Yes to in my life. I want everything I’m pouring my energy and effort into to align with my personal mission to be a world changer. But I kept saying Yes to opportunities to teach people how to earn mileage bonuses and book first class tickets for free. I worried I was losing focus.

And then it occurred to me. Travel had been the key to changing the trajectory of my life for good 20 years ago. There were many things I never cared about or couldn’t understand until I walked the streets of foreign places and took in the sights and smells and sounds with my own senses.

Travel Hacking opens a door of opportunity to the world. Points makes it possible for all of us who don’t have deep pockets to be able to fly to the Middle East or Asia or Africa. It enables those who otherwise can’t afford globetrotting to be able to see and touch and smell for themselves.

The last year that I lived in Cambodia, my youngest sister and my 17 year old niece flew on miles to come visit me for an Asian adventure. I drug them through smelly markets, walked them through temples, fed them street food and had them visit a drop in center for abused boys where I’d done some work.* (I even tried to get them to eat bugs but they refused.) For a brief window in their lives, they had an opportunity that they’d never had before: to understand that the world is much bigger and different than they’d ever imagined. 

Having them around that week was a bit magical for me. It allowed me to wipe the dust of 100 countries worth of travel out of my own eyes and relive the wonder of seeing things though the lens of a new traveler. Though Cambodia had become every day and ordinary to me after living there for 3 years, for a brief moment it was all rich and extraordinary (and smelly) again.

The week reminded me of how life changing travel is–especially when you’re new at it. Especially when it’s your first opportunity to see the world.

And so, I go on sharing my secret strategies for points and miles. Knowing that it isn’t just about the free ticket, it’s about giving to others the priceless opportunity to open the Pandora’s box of the world to the uninitiated. And once you’ve seen and smelled and tasted, I truly believe they’ll join me in my mission to make every corner of the world they touch just a little bit better!

Happy Travel Hacking.

PS. If you want to learn more about travel hacking, check out the Frequent Flyer Master (I was a contributing author to this), join the Travel Hacking Cartel (I moonlight at the content editor here), or sign up for the CreativeLive course I did last fall with my friend Chris. And stay tuned, there is something new and exciting I’ve been writing to share with you soon.

* Visiting orphanages and volunteering with children when you travel isn’t always the best idea. It may change your life, but it isn’t always the best for the children your visiting. The program we visited in Cambodia was a place where I had long term relationships with the staff.  Check out these two amazing resources for information before you volunteer overseas: Child Safe Tourism and Child Safe’s Children are Not Tourist Attractions Campaign.

Choosing Joy and Lessons from the Universe

The universe has been trying to teach me a life lesson lately: Being happy is my choice when things aren’t going my way.

This isn’t a new lesson, I’ve been learning it for at least 30 odd years, but lately it just seems to be smacking me in the face.

Sitting by a fireplace with a friend, a story and a steaming Americano this morning I was feeling good as I shared how the universe and I were finally making peace with this lesson.

You see, last month when I was wandering my way around Asia I was carrying a lot of baggage. Usually most of my baggage is in my head, but this trip I was carrying it in the form of suitcases- overstuffed and overweight.

If you watched the Become a Travel Hacker course on CreativeLIVE you know that checking baggage is against my publicly preached principles of “travel hacking packing” (even if it means fighting a gate-check battle and carrying my stuff  in a trash bag). But here’s a big confession: sometimes I just don’t feel like schlepping stuff and against my best judgment I leave my bag to the fate of the airlines.

On a recent quick trip from Singapore to Bangkok I was flying on a business class award ticket and was transiting between two of the most efficient airports on the globe (the odds were in my favor). My bag had slowly been growing full of winter clothes I’d been acquiring in Asian markets along my journey in preparation for wintering in my new American home (details coming soon) and was weighing in at nearly 18kg. (Yes, a little too heavy to lift with ease into an overhead bin). Against all of my best judgment and frequent flyer know-better I checked my bag.

This all felt good, until the moment about one hour after my flight when I was standing empty handed at Baggage Claim Number 4 in BKK airport staring at an empty baggage carousel spinning under a sign flashing LAST BAG.

My bag was lost. I wasn’t as angry with the airlines as I was with myself. I know better. I waited a few minutes with some expectation that it would materialize, but finally reconciled myself to the fact that I would be baggage-less in Bangkok. I went to the lost baggage area, filed a claim and tried to ‘mai pen rai’ smile in the very Thai way while my ugly-entitled-American self simmered centimeters below the surface. I wanted my stuff. Not now, but 30 minutes ago.

I left the luggage office feeling defeated. I had planned for 48 hours of fun in my favorite Asian city of angels and I was destined to spend it on the phone with Thai Airways organizing baggage location and delivery (not fun).

Walking back through baggage claim, I noticed an art installation on the wall and paused beneath a beautiful blue Buddha painting. It caught my attention like the painting was saying, “Stephanie, stop and take a breath. “

I stopped. I took a picture of it. I Instagrammed the picture (because BKK airport is the most Instagrammed location in the world and I want to feel like I’ve contributed to that). And in that moment I had this very thought:

You can let not having a bag ruin the two days you have to reconnect and eat sticky rice and mango, or you can choose to walk out of this airport and be glad you’re here and alive.

I chose joy.

Instantly my step was lighter. As I passed by baggage claim number four on my way to the exit the craziest thing happened. The universe delivered my suitcase to the empty carousel with perfect synchronicity. It was as if the world was secretly cheering for me “Yeah Stephanie! You passed the test. You chose happiness. You get your bag back.”

As I recounted this exact story by the fireside this morning, I got trapped in my ego again for a moment, “Way to go, Stephanie, good thing you mastered that lesson. You’re pretty awesome. The world can’t get you down. You’ve got this!”

And then my friend left and I opened my opened my email to this message: Your American Airlines Flight tomorrow has been canceled due to bad weather. You will not be going home for the holidays tomorrow (or probably ever because air travel in America is cursed).

The Universe whispered, “Test time again. You can spend the next 43 minutes sending hate tweets about airline incompetence or you can practice your joy while you wait on hold.”

I managed to eek out some happiness while humming to the reservation line hold music and I think I passed with at least a B+. Tomorrow I’ll be transiting tropical Chicago in lieu of icy Dallas. If my next test comes in the form of a mid-western blizzard that traps me in the windy city, you’re invited to join me in practicing happiness from the O’Hare United Club. There will be snack mix.

And for you- whether you’re delayed or dismayed – or just tackling the every day -I hope you’re passing your own test today with joy and flying colors.

<- PS. Proof of my miracle moment