Bora Bora or Bust: Why aren’t you getting on the plane?

BOB - 3For several years I’ve been helping people learn how to travel for nearly free using points and miles. There’s something amazing about encouraging people to dream about a place they’ve never visited—one that would most likely never be accessible to them if they had to save the money to get there—and then show a few practical tools to make this a reality.

As I challenge people to learn to travel hack by working towards a goal of a dream destination, I’ve always shared my own dream of sleeping in an over-the-water bungalow in Bora Bora–falling asleep to the sound of the surf, waking up to the fish under my feet, and morning coffee with my toes in the brilliant blue water.

The funny thing was, however, after years of teaching people how to hack their way to Bora Bora, I’d still never actually been there myself.

I had the points, I’d done all the research. If there ever was anyone qualified to hack their way to Bora Bora, I was she. What was I waiting for?

In October I flew to New Zealand. As my plane crossed the Pacific on it’s 17 hour journey I watched as we flew directly over Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia on the inflight entertainment system flight tracker. Then it struck me. Was this the closest I was ever going to get to Bora Bora? A mile above it in the sky?

The wheels in my brain started turning. What was keeping me from going there if it wasn’t time or money? Why wasn’t I getting on the plane bound for Bora Bora? Was I subconsciously waiting for a significant moment. For my perfect traveling companion. For all the stars in the southern cross to align?

As I watched the sun rise at 37,000 feet, it literally dawned on me that I was waiting for no real reason. I was just putting it off because later felt easier than now. And then I thought some more. What other things was I putting off in my life like Bora Bora with no reason whatsoever?

Why is it that we put off our dreams and desires while waiting for the perfect time or circumstance to magically present itself? Aren’t we old enough to know that the magical present is the actual PRESENT? I made a pledge to myself to make it happen. And since I had to fly over Bora Bora again to get home from New Zealand —I decided that I would just do it now.

And as I typed the draft of this post from the deck of my over-the-water bungalow of my dreams, I can ensure you that NOW was the exact right time.

Whether you’re putting off a dream trip, calling your long lost family, waiting to pick up your pen to write your best-seller (points finger at self),  the lesson is this: The perfect time is now. If you’re waiting for a sign, this is it. 

I guess next time I teach this lesson I’ll be using my own photos and telling my own Bora Bora stories—and perhaps I’ll have to find another travel dream to share!

What are you waiting for?

Wonder how I actually hacked my way to Bora Bora? I knew you’d ask. Keep reading the bonus section below if you want to know how to plan this kind of trip.

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How’d I get there?

Here’s how my travel to Bora Bora worked, how I booked it, and what it cost. The route I took was a little bit different than the one I’ve laid out in my lesson plans, since I traveled via New Zealand rather than direct to Tahiti from my home base of Portland, OR. (Don’t worry, you can easily do this as a return trip originating in the US with flights on Hawaiian, AirFrance or AirTahiti Nui.)

PDX-LAX-SYD-AKL: 72,500 AA miles (or $11,000)

My first ticket was from Portland (PDX) to Auckland, New Zealand (AKL) on American Airlines with a stop in Los Angeles (LAX) and an intentional one day layover in Sydney, Australia (SYD). This ticket was First Class and cost a total of 72,500 American Airlines points with a dollar value of $11,000! As this ticket was on American and Qantas flights, I was able to search for and book the ticket online at aa.com. I booked this flight 10 months in advance as a one way award. (This ticket was purchased prior to American’s devaluation in early 2016- the current ticket cost for this same route one way is 90,000 AA Miles on a First Class saver award). Most of my miles on AA are earned from AA domestic flights and from my Citi AAdvantage credit card.

While the first half of my trip was booked very far in advance, all of the remaining flights were booked at the very last minute since I didn’t decide to fly home via Bora Bora until I was already in New Zealand.

AKL-PPT: 30,000 Miles (or $1,400)

Starting in New Zealand, I booked a flight from Auckland (AKL) to Papaetee, Tahiti (PPT) on Air Tahiti Nui using American Airlines Miles. The cost was 30,000 miles for a one way business class ticket at a cash value of $1,400 (or 15,000 for economy class). Booking this ticket required making a call to AA reservations as the tickets are not searchable online. It’s the only airline I’ve ever flown that gives you flowers for your hair and serves pre-flight mai-tai’s. (Also, I think I was also the only person on the flight traveling alone)

PPT-BOB-PPT: $220 each way in Travel Credits

Air Tahiti (not to be confused with Air Tahiti Nui) has a monopoly of the French Polynesian skies and is the only way to get to Bora Bora once you’ve made it as far as Tahiti. I flew PPT to BOB and came back to Tahiti via Moorea—another island that connected to Papaetee by ferry. The only way to hack this leg is with lots of points on a credit card with a “travel eraser” or cash back travel credits like my Chase Sapphire Reserve. The cost of the flight is about $220 each way and doesn’t fluctuate much. I booked the flight directly through airtahiti.com to receive travel credits on my credit card. The most important thing to know about this flight is that you want a seat on the left side on the way out and right side on the way back. Catching a view of Bora Bora from the sky is worth the cost of the flight alone.

* Note: if you make it this far, and are hoping to use points to stay at hotels in Tahiti and Bora Bora, you’ll want to stock up on Starwood, Hilton or IHG points. These are the chains that operate properties around French Polynesia. I used points from my IHG and SPG Amex Credit cards to cover my hotel nights.

 PPT-HNL-KON: 27,500 Hawaiian Miles (or $950)

To get from Tahiti back across the Pacific to the US, there are very limited choices of Airlines: Air Tahiti Nui, Air France, and Hawaiian Airlines–and not all of these airlines fly to the island every day. Since I had a stash of Hawaiian airlines miles that I’d never used after signing up for a Hawaiian airlines credit card, I decided to take the once a week Hawaiian flight to Honolulu (HNL) and then connect onward to Kona (KON) for no additional cost. An economy class ticket for the 5 hour overnight flight was 27,500 (at a cash value of $950) and bookable online at Hawaiian Airlines. The same flight was also bookable online via AA.com using American Advantage points, but cost more at 37,500 points.

KOA-PHX-PDX :$220 (or 20,000 miles)

Since I had to fly through Hawaii anyway, I took the opportunity to explore the big island for a few days before heading the rest of the way home via American Airlines. There were dozens of flights to choose at all times of day from on an assortment of airlines for about $220 or 20,000 miles on American. I went with a paid AA flight so the redemption value was low. Buying the ticket allowed me to earn qualifying miles and a paid flight allowed me to request a complimentary upgrade with my status..

All together, I saved more than $14,010 on flights by using points and miles!  But more importantly than getting something of high value for a fraction of the cost. I finally got to see Bora Bora for myself!

5 Lessons from a Half a Life of Travel

TRAVEL LESSONS - 1 (1)It’s official. I’ve now been traveling over half of my life. And I don’t regret it for one minute.

Now that I’m twice as wise as I was when I got my first passport stamp on 01/26/93, I thought I’d share a few of the hundreds of lessons I’ve learned from 23 years on the road. Be warned, these aren’t the normal things people tell you on travel blogs.

1. Travel Will Not Help You Find Yourself

You can read Eat, Pray, Love as many times you want, and wish upon a star that getting on airplane to a distant land is going to unravel all your emotional baggage, solve your life problem, and reveal who you truly are inside, but this is fiction. YOU are not lost, and you will not find yourself by traveling.

In 23 years of travel, I didn’t find myself at all. I became myself. Travel, like any other life journey, will press you and shape you, make you uncomfortable, and open your eyes to new things that will change the way you think about the world and perhaps even your place in it.

Of course, you will definitely get actually lost at some point, but even then you won’t find yourself. Hopefully you’ll find where you were meant to be, or enjoy the discovery you didn’t mean to have.
2. There is No Such Thing as “Location Independent”

In the past few years the concept of being “location independent” is the trendy new terminology in the travel scene. This is a fancy way to say quit your office job and apartment, and “live and work on the road.” As a way of life, there is merit in modern day long-term wandering, but as a self proclaimed title, this is nonsense.

None of us are ever independent—especially as travelers. We are always interdependent on whatever place we find ourselves in and on whichever people we find ourselves among. You are always somewhere even if you don’t have a fixed address or a permanent cell phone number. (I mean, you do need an address after all to register for your points and miles earning credit cards to fund all this travel).

Call yourself whatever you want right now and #hashtag the hell out of it until it stops trending, but remember you can’t go everywhere without being anywhere. And after a half life of traveling, you may very well wish you had nourished some roots along the way.

3. The More You Learn, the Less You Know

Travel teaches you a lot, but it isn’t like school. The lessons you learn on the road are not cumulative. They are actually kind of reverse cumulative (if that’s a thing).

For example, you plan a trip to Italy and read all the books in preparation to learn as much as you can about the history, language, people, and culture. Even if you learn a lot in advance, when you get there  you realize that you know very little. Then you stay for a few months or even a few years, and you realize that even though your knowledge has increased exponentially, you truly understand that you aren’t an expert on Italy at all.

The more you you’ve been exposed to, the greater your understanding becomes that you know very little. After nearly a quarter century and the memory erasing effects of chronic jetlag, I’m pretty sure I now know nothing. Thank God for Google.

4. The World, Like You, is in a Constant State of Change

It’s a fact, I look absolutely nothing today like I did in my first passport picture in 1992. I have changed not only in how I look, but also in how I act and think, and how I see the world.

Guess what, the world has also changed a lot in in the past couple decades.

Since I first started traveling, I’ve been to Thailand more than 100 times. (In addition to being obsessed with Thai food, I also have lived and worked there for extended periods of time). You know what? The Thailand of 2016 looks very little like the Thailand of 1997. The country is never the same twice. There is always something new to be discovered. And I’ll keep going back every chance I get.

I’ve traveled to a number of countries with my friend Chris who has been to every UN recognized country in the world (that’s 193 of them if you’re wondering), and even he has barely scratched the surface of the globe (he also knows very little-see point 3).

My friend Lisa has a pet peeve about people who talk about “doing” countries. I like to say, “Oh, we did Colombia for Christmas,” because the thought of “doing” a country, and checking an entire nation and people group off your bucket list makes her crazy.

No matter how you personally feel about this terminology, countries aren’t something that you “Do”. They are art, life, and culture in motion. You can only experience a place in its present moment. Some countries you may go back to experience again, the others will keep right on changing after you’ve graced them with your presence and departed. They aren’t waiting for you to return to continue their progress.

Keep count of your countries, continent, and passport stamps however you like (and enjoy counting—it’s fun). But remember that you’ll never be done. The world is on constant refill. There will always be more to experience.

5. You CAN Start Any Time You Want

The pictures in my series of expired passports prove it. I’m not the young backpacker I was in 1993. I know less, I care more, and I like to shower when I travel (even on an airplane sometimes). Sometimes I have the fleeting thought—“Maybe you’re too old for this, maybe you should finally settle down.” And then I snap back into reality and remember this truth: There are NO age limits to travel. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m still just getting started.

 When I climbed Kilimanjaro, I distinctly remember my guide telling the story of a 80+ year old woman he led to the summit a year before. Maybe he was telling that story to encourage us up the mountain on our 6th day of trekking in hail, but nevertheless, I hope in another 23 years, I’ll be that grandma training for Everest.

Traveling doesn’t care if you’re young or old. Families are traveling long term, empty nesters are spending their retirement on the road, heck, even elderly ladies have traded in knitting for mountain climbing.

The world is more accessible now than ever before. You don’t need any special skills to get on an airplane. The cost of international travel is no longer prohibitive. In fact, the airlines and credit card companies have made it easier than ever in history to fly for nearly free.

If you want to travel—be it a single getaway to a destination you’ve been dreaming about or selling all you have and trading in your 9-5 for a life of living and working on the road—it is possible.

What are you waiting for? Get out there: Find yourself, be location independent, master the world, and do as many countries as possible.

Or maybe just enjoy the journey, love the people you meet, and try to learn as much as you can along the way. You and the world will be much better because of it.

Onward.

 

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