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.

Out with the Dragons and in with the Snakes.

Today happens to be Chinese New Year on the side of the world that I just left.

One thing I loved about living in Asia was that I always got to celebrate new years three times each year. Once for “normal” New Years on Jan 1, once with the Chinese a few weeks later, and a final time around April for the traditional South East Asian celebration.

I’ve always been a fan of New Years. Not only the champagne and midnight parties, but I love the idea of out with the old in with the new.

I’m a self-confessed goal setting nerd and I get excited about resolutions. Sometimes I wonder, however, who came up with the brilliant idea to set your annual goals on the same night you’ve set aside for partying all night long.

This is why I like multi-new years. I get not just two, but three chances to start the year anew. For me that means two additional chances to revisit the goals I made in on my first New Years (although I’m pretty sure resolutions aren’t actually a part of the Chinese tradition).

If you aren’t up to date on the Chinese calendar, today we’re leaving the year of the Dragon and entering the year of the Snake.

Last year I was all about conquering the dragons, but I have to admit it is hard to get very excited about snakes. Snakes scare me.

When regular new years rolled around in January, I set my big 2013 goal  to define what “home” looks like for me now and in the future. This sounds simple, but for someone who has lived on the road for 20 years, this goal is about as scary as walking through a garden of snakes.

I went searching for wisdom and tried to find something nice to say about snakes in light of the auspicious day, but research shows that quotable historical figures never had anything wise to say about these reptiles. The only book brave enough to offer snake wisdom is apparently the Bible:

“Be wise as a serpents and innocent as doves.”

Since it’s the Bible and all, I’ve decided to take this as a sign from the skies that the year of the snake is going to be a year of wisdom. Or at least I certainly hope so – for myself and for you.

Happy Year of the Snake. Be wise.

halfway to awesome ::

Big thanks to all of you who joined this week’s virtual birthday fun to raise our first $1260 to help girls and women in Cambodia by multiplying awesome.

We’ve made half way to our total goal. Since every single dollar you gave (or will give) will magically turn into two dollars through a matching grant, this means we’ve already have $2520 dollars going to educate villages in the prevention of human trafficking through the work of Sak Saum.


“If your birthday is over, how will we raise the second half?” you may be wondering. Do not despair, since I’m older and wiser, I’ve got a master plan. (But please keep reading because you’re part of it)


According to  my calculations it took only 25 of you to raise what we have so far in nearly one day! And whether the gift was 10$ or $100 it all added up quickly (and made for a very exciting birthday).


The best part about this is that there are still hundreds of you reading this who haven’t given yet, but have the will and the means to do so. (If this is you, you have permission to stop reading right now and donate immediately).


Sometimes we think, if there are hundreds of others doing this, maybe my single contribution isn’t all that important. But that’s exactly opposite of the truth. If everyone does something, big things happen. If everyone assumes someone else will do it, nothing happens and we’re all left to wonder why.


I’m going to keep doing my part and talk about our Multiply Amazing project for Sak Saum online and off for as long as it takes to reach the goal. Since I’m the kind of person who really likes to celebrate their birthday for as long as possible, I’ve set the online birthday fundraiser to go for another 38 days.I figure a 38 year old girl should be entitled to at least that many days to celebrate. And, in November, we’ll also be organizing the sale of some amazing Sak Saum bags in the USA to help our efforts. If you like handbags, you’ll love their fall 2011 collection.


Here’s what you can do:
  • If you haven’t given yet and want to join the exclusive club of people funding this project you can do that right now here.  (If you can’t give online for whatever reason, drop me an email and we’ll sort it out for you)
  • Share the love by sharing the link. You can help us multiply our reach by introducing the project to friends we don’t know yet.
  • Buy a bag or sell a bag. It’s almost Christmas after all, we can help you get your shopping done while you help change lives! (details coming soon).
Together we will make a difference. Thanks for being awesome.

#10 farking in vietnam

I took a run early this morning through the windy streets of Hanoi’s old quarter and made my way north to the city’s wide boulevards lined with government buildings.

As I neared the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum two men in olive green uniforms promptly spotted me and started moving my direction. While my Vietnamese isn’t so great, my international charade interpretation skills were telling me that their yelling and pointing meant that they didn’t want me to be walking on the sidewalk where I was.

Using my ignorant American skills, I snapped a picture anyway then moved along. As I picked up my pace and headed towards the more runner-friendly promenade on the West Lake waterfront, I was reminded of another time I’d been yelled at in this very same spot.

It was was 1998.  Bill Clinton was President and he and Monica Lewinsky were the hot news item of the year. Now, I’m not sure if this only happens to Americans, or if other nationalities experience this phenomenon, but I often find that when someone wants to talk to you, but can’t communicate in your language, they say any words to you that they might know. Often, this just happens to be the name of the President of the United States.

In 1998, the conversation went like this. “You are American. American. Bill Clinton. American.”

In 2011, “You are American, American. Barak Obama, American”

Back to 1998. I was traveling in Vietnam with my friend Michelle. Hanoi was the last stop on our trans-Vietnam bus journey which included midnight fistfights.

As all good tourists to Hanoi, we paid a visit to see the waxy body of Uncle Ho. Unlike today’s Hanoi that is chock-full of motorcycles, in 1998, the main way for a tourist (and anyone else) to get from point A to point B was on a bicycle, or in a bicycle rickshaw.

We had hired a rickshaw to transport us to the mausoleum, and when we arrived our driver was trying to tell us something.  The only problem, was that we had no idea what he was saying. So, he started yelling at us.

The yelling sounded something like this, “F#$@ing. F#$@ing. Bill Clinton. F$#&ing Bill Clinton.”

We sat in the rickshaw confused. “Um, rickshaw driver, sir, that isn’t very nice,” was our naive traveler response back, but of course he didn’t understand and just kept yelling.

In this case, it would have been great to know a little Vietnamese, or even the name of the Vietnamese leader, President guy, but alas, all we had was our best charades.

Finally, after a few rounds we finally decoded the mystery.  F#&%ing = Farking = PARKING.  He was trying to tell us where he was going to park, so we could find him after our visit to Ho Chi Minh was complete. The Bill Clinton bit was just an added bonus to the conversation in an attempt to make a connection.

I still laugh when I think of this story. And wonder how many other times someone was yelling at me in attempt to communicate something that was probably meant to be helpful to me.

Maybe the mausoleum guard pointing at the ground yelling at me today, wasn’t telling me to get off the sidewalk, maybe he was just trying to tell me my shoe was untied.

I finished my run around the lake and headed back towards my hotel, passing a beautiful Catholic church where I stopped to take a picture. As I stood there shooting with my iPhone, I was greeted by a man waiting at the gate. “Where are you from?” he began “Ah, American.  George Bush once visited this church.”

The lesson is this: In the art of travel, we will be misunderstood and we will misunderstand. Never forget to pack your sense of humor. And when in doubt, it is always helpful to know the names of world leaders.

How do you pack your sense of humor?

#6 good morning vietnam ::

Friends don’t let friends take drugs in a mini-van. Real drugs have never been one of my travel vices; at least not after having been discharged out of Legacy Healing Fort Lauderdale addiction centre. But many of my travel mis-adventures have been fueled by a little blue pill:  the should-be-harmless Tylenol PM.

In 1998, I had just finished two years in Bangkok and decided to take a trip around Vietnam prior to my exit from Asia.  Together with my friend Michelle, we flew into Ho Chi Minh City with tickets to depart from Hanoi.  Ambitious, young travelers that we were, we were determined to see every inch of Vietnam while we were there, or at least die trying.

There are a number of stories that I could highlight from the 712 miles we covered between Vietnam’s two anchor cities, like: the best yogurt and avocados I’ve ever eaten, my first experience designing a whole new wardrobe in a market of tailors, sampling fresh spring rolls everyday, swimming in Halong Bay, and riding motorbikes along the white sand of China beach.

Vietnam amazed me and I can’t wait to go back.  But when I do, one thing is certain, I will not ride the backpacker bus.

You see, in 1997 there were limited options to cross Vietnam: public trains or one backpacker bus company that had a monopoly on all of the travelers. For some ungodly reason, we chose the bus. Probably because they gave us a free t-shirt when we bought our ticket, and, like all backpackers we didn’t have any clean clothes.

The bus was the hop on – hop off type, letting you to fly through the rice fields at whatever speed suited your style.  However, what you didn’t know when you started, was that the further you traveled from Saigon, the worse the buses got, and eventually they morphed into mini-vans.

One particular night we had an incredibly bad run on an overnight mini-van stuffed full of backpackers.  This wasn’t your mom’s stow and go mini-van with a dvd player and bucket seats. Friends, this was a nightmare van with four to five large unshowered people crammed into each of the four uncomfortable bench seat.

As the sun set on the start of our journey, people packed away their Lonely Planets, and settled into their sardine-like sleeping conditions.  With no doubt there was a long night ahead, I popped a Tylenol PM and wished for the best.

The best however, never came, and that night I learned that one of the side effects of mixing sleeping aids with uncomfortable mini-van rest can be violence.  Apparently while drugged into my upright slumber, I punched Michelle for trying to get something out of my bag. I don’t exactly remember it, but we got into a fight that at least gave our mini-van companions some midnight road trip entertainment.

The next morning, the van dumped us out at our destination, and as I nursed my Tylenol PM hangover with amazingly delicious Vietnamese yogurt, Michelle and I looked at each other awkwardly, and then broke into out loud laughter.

The lessons are these:  The backpacker bus is almost never a good deal.  But having a travel companion who you can slap at night and laugh with about it in the morning is priceless.

I’m sure there is also a lesson about Tylenol PM usage, but as later stories in this series will prove, I hadn’t learned that one yet.

What’s your travel vice?


#3 bad day in bangladesh ::

When you travel a lot you’re often asked the same two questions: What’s your favorite country? and, What’s the worst place you’ve ever been?

I always refuse to answer the first question because I don’t like favorites, but up until recently, I’ve never hesitated to answer the second with the word “Bangladesh.”

I first visited Bangladesh in 1998, sort of by accident. I was doing some random work in India, and my visa was expiring. Simply put, I needed to cross a border, and well, Bangladesh was the closest border to cross. My 23 year old self thought, “why not”.

Together with my traveling partner, the amazing Andrea (who will certainly feature in many more of my 100 stories), I went to the travel agent in Calcutta and shelled out a heap of Rupees for return tickets to Dhaka.

On Dhaka departure day, I woke up to find my friend nearly dying of dysentery. Trouble was she had a visa and I didn’t. My only option was to abandon her in the rat-infested guest house in Calcutta and pray we’d meet up in Bangladesh- somehow. May I remind you that travel in 1998 was without internet, cell phones, and travel bloggers.

Before I left, I traded our Nepal Lonely Planet on the Calcutta street for a Bangladesh guidebook and, as we did back then, picked a meeting place in Dhaka from it’s pages. We chose the lobby of the Dhaka Sheraton with a wager it was the most likely place in the Lonely Planet to still exist.

Bangladesh started out rough- I arrived to find out it was the final days of Ramadan. This mostly meant two things: there was no food in the city, and almost no guest houses open. (I couldn’t actually afford to stay at the Sheraton where we were to meet) . The third thing I learned was that in Bangladesh, there are also mostly no women. Well, there are women, but they keep them hidden out of sight.

Before I even made it from the airport to the city, my boots were stolen from my backpack. The motor rickshaw ride in the dark was long and intimidating, and lodging nearly impossible. After many unsuccessful attempts, I found one local hotel that would take me in. There was a restaurant downstairs where I had to eat behind a curtain, and because of the holiday I was the hotel’s only guest. Creepy men continually knocked on my door through the evening, and I moved the furniture in front of the door to barricade myself in.

My sole mission the next day was to get a visa to return to India. I dressed head to toe to hide all my skin and curves. A rickshaw navigated me across the congested town through billions of bicycles, rickshaws, and men leading around goats and cows to be slaughtered for the Eid celebration. I was literally trapped in a gridlock of goats with men staring through me. I wished I could be invisible. Or at least, just get my passport and get the hell out.

I invented things to do all day, biding time til the magic stamp appeared in my passport entering me rights to re-enter India. Mostly I rode a rickshaw through the streets crowded with soon-to-be-sacrificed farm animals, and pretended to enjoy the “must see” sites of Dhaka while being stared at by hundreds of men- like I was more of a must see than the famous pink palace.

And then, things started to unravel.

I showed up right on time at the Indian Embassy to retrieve my visa, and it was closed- for the next four days. I had completely forgotten that India and Bangladesh liked to show that they were different by refusing to be in the same time zone. Bangladesh time was 15 minutes different, and I was late.

How I left the embassy with the visa is another story. What you need to know for this story, is that to this day, that visa never got stamped, and the day got worse.

I found the Sheraton and sat in its lobby for a good six hours, but Andrea never showed up. I waited and waited and asked the front desk nearly every half hour if anyone called looking for me. When the clock passed midnight I realized she must be dead in Calcutta and I became determined to be on the next plane to find her.

In my panic, I sought counsel of the Sheraton concierge to get a plane ticket that would take me in the morning. He led me to the back of the hotel where a man sat shuffling stacks of paper behind a very high counter ignoring me. Impatiently, I stood on tiptoes to lean over his counter to see his important business, and something unusual and beautiful caught my eye. A small square note with two words on it “Andrea” “Stephanie” and a telephone number.

My friend was alive and in Dhaka. She’d been calling, and the hotel told her no one was waiting. She’d met an American from her hometown on her flight who was doing medical work in Bangladesh and his team was caring for her at a local mission guest house. They agreed to pick me up from the Sheraton in the morning.

Had I not been penniless, clueless and 23, I’d have used my credit card to check myself into the Sheraton until morning, but alas, I was all of these things. I went back to the creepy guest house in the middle of the night, moved my furniture against the door, and slept.

What I didn’t know when I packed my bags the next morning was that this was the day that they were going to slaughter all of the animals who’d been causing the previous day’s traffic jam. It was a long walk to the Sheraton through streets running with rivers of fresh animal blood.

The Bangladeshi’s were celebrating Eid, and I was celebrating reunification and rescue.

With Andrea too sick to go back to India, we spent the next week in Dhaka with our new friends who we were convinced were angels, sent to rescue us from ourselves in Bangladesh.

Eventually we flew directly back to Thailand and I wanted to kiss the streets of Bangkok because after Bangladesh they looked so clean.

Though I’ve vowed in 1998 that I was done with Dhaka after all that, I did travel again to Bangladesh in 2010. Fifteen years has changed some things there, and a lot of things in me too. As I looked around Dhaka, I tried to imagine my 23 year old backpacker self there, and had to laugh. Sure, it’s still crowded, and dirty. Women are still missing from the street scene, and men still line up to watch you. But beneath all the insanity is a deep beauty and rich hospitable people. And, um, some amazing shopping.

My lesson is this. We must never confuse bad experiences with bad places. And we should always believe in angels- because sometimes we’ll need them.