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Welcome to the Philippines

Wow. I thought we may never make it here. We’re off to a rough start to the trip but WE’RE HERE!

Long story short, we got stuck overnight in Phoenix as our departing flight from Atlanta was delayed. Originally they didn’t have any availability on any AM flights that would get us to LAX in time to make our flight to Tokyo. With the American Airlines One World Explorer awards tickets that we have, we’re allowed to make changes to our itinerary but only if award seats are available on a given flight. There were plenty of seats on daily flights between LAX and Tokyo but NO seats for the next week from Tokyo to Manila which would have thrown off our whole trip by at least a week.

Luckily with a few tears, some patience, and persistent begging, the gate agent finally found us the last two seats on the 6:00am flight. I have a feeling this may become a recipe for success during our trip.

After passing through Tokyo for an extended 24 hour layover and eating sushi, visiting a fish market, and mastering the famous Japanese toilet {fun stuff} we’ve arrived in Manila.

Fish Market in Narita, Japan

Fish Market in Narita, Japan

We’re boarding another flight shortly to head to our real destination, the island of Palawan. White sand beaches, crystal clear water and {fingers crossed} blue skies, here we come!

Here we go…

It’s official. We’re unemployed, packed, and ready to hit the road. ATL>PHX>LAX>TYO>MNL>PPS here we come.

Thank God this is the longest leg of our trip.

 

Packed and ready to go!

Packed and ready to go!

Our official itinerary through American Airlines is basically as follows though we plan to make adjustments and deviations along the way.

  1. Los Angeles, CA
  2. Tokyo, Japan
  3. Manila, Philippines: gateway to El Nido, Philippines
  4. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: gateway to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar
  5.  Mumbai, India
  6. Doha, Qata: glorified layover
  7. Nairobi, Kenya: gateway to the Serengeti  in Northern Tanzania
  8. Dubai, UAE: glorified layover
  9. Amman, Jordan: gateway to Israel
  10. New York, New York: homeward bound!

Bon voyage!

American Airlines Discontinues OneWorld Explorer Awards

My initial instinct was that the American Airlines distance based OneWorld Explorer Awards were too good to be true and it turns out that this will be the case for many. As of April 7, 2014 American Airlines has discontinued OneWorld Explorer Awards with zero advanced notification to customers. When attempting to access the former awards chart, customers are greeted with this friendly message from AA:

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The former awards chart below was one of the best values available for rewards travel. I posted just one day prior to the discontinuation about How to Travel the World for $250 using this fare. The distance based fare allowed you to fly any One World Alliance airline up to 16 segments around the world in a single direction.

American Airlines Former OneWorld Explorer Award Chart

American Airlines Former OneWorld Explorer Award Chart

With the US Airways merger, I expect that this is simply the first of many changes that will be coming down from American Airlines.

Luckily we booked our trip prior to April 7, 2014 and our itinerary will still be honored but I’m sure there are many others out there who have been saving miles for quite some time for the OneWorld Explorer Award. I encourage anyone in this situation to reach out to AA as quickly as possible via phone and social media to encourage them to continue offering this valuable award.

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OneWorld Explorer Awards: Traveling the World for Under $250 USD

Our OneWorld Explorer RTW Itinerary

Our OneWorld Explorer RTW Itinerary for under $250

When I first started researching options for round-the-world travel and came across the OneWorld alliance Explorer Award chart, I thought it was too good to be true. Up until the minute that I saw our status turn to ‘ticketed’ online, I still didn’t have 100% faith that everything would work out. In the end, it did! We traded in 120,000 miles and just under $250 each for approximatly 25,000 miles through OneWorld partner airlines. We are now just a few short weeks away from hoping on a plane for a three month round-the-world journey.

OneWorld Partner Airlines

OneWorld Partner Airlines

There are many great resources online (some of our favorites are listed below) giving the details of these complicated fares. Despite our endless research, there were still 5 things that we didn’t have advance knowledge of that in hindsight would have been very helpful.

1. You may start and end your trip in different cities, BUT this is considered an open jaw. An open jaw is any leg of your flight where you are arriving and departing from different cities (i.e. you wish to fly into Kathmandu but travel by land to Dehli and depart from Dehli). This fare only allows only one open jaw which initially didn’t seem problematic but we didn’t realize that starting and ending in a different city would count.

2. Any layover longer than 6 hours is considered a stopover. You are allowed 2 ‘pass throughs’ and one ‘stop over’ in each city. We ran into an issue trying to book BOM(Mumbai)-DOH(Doha)-NBO(Nairobi) with a return flight of NBO(Nairobi)-DOH(Doha)-AMM(Amman). We had no intention of staying in Doha and were simply trying to pass through to get to the next destination. Unfortunately flights between these cities were limited and each had a 6+ hour layover. We finally were able to get around this by adding a stop in Dubai which enabled us to get out of DOH with less that a 6 hour layover and minimal extra miles. Our second leg ended up being NBO(Nairobi)-DOH(Doha)-DXB(Dubai)-AMM(Amman). Problem solved!

3. Finding awards availability online is next to impossible but for the most part, American Airlines phone agents were shockingly helpful, knowledgable, and actually excited to help check availability on various flights. We read online about many people who were not able to get much assistance with their fares via phone but this was absolutely not the case for us. Reserving the flight and checking availability was a very long process (we probably had 5 1.5+ hour calls before booking) but most of the agents were very helpful and great about looking into every possible option for you. Don’t stress about trying to find awards seats online, just pick up the phone and call. We did however notice that we received much better help during normal business hours. After hours agents were not nearly as knowledgable or friendly.

4. If you’re flexible with dates and actual cities, finding awards seats isn’t as hard as you might expect. We only booked our flight about 4 weeks out and I was panicked about whether or not there would be ANY seats. We only had to make three small compromises in order to make it work: flying into Kuala Lumpur vs. Bangkok, Mumbai vs. New Delhi, and adding a stop in Dubai to get out of Doha in under 6 hours.

5. If you’re planning on sharing AAdvantage miles in order to secure your flight, know that American Airlines charges a hefty fee in order to transfer miles from one account to another. Maybe this is a no brainer for those more familiar with using airline miles, but we were in for a last minute shock when we realized we couldn’t transfer miles for free. We ended up spending more money on transferring miles at the last minute than we did for a single RTW ticket.

Despite not knowing these things going in, we were still able to secure our round-the-world ticket for under $250 per person. SCORE! If you’re planning on booking one of these fares, keep these items in mind and also check out the other great resources online:

Here are some other helpful resources to read before booking:

Boarding Area:American’s Distance Based OneWorld Explorer Awards

Hack My Trip:All About the American AAdvantage Explorer Award

Extra Pack of Peanuts:Taking (AA)dvantage of American Airlines Third Award Chart, the OneWorld Explorer Awards

The Points Guy:Oneworld Round The World Tickets Using American Airlines – The Basics

Bali, Indonesia Temple god

Bali, Indonesia: 5 Things NOT to do

While we absolutely loved our time in Bali, Indonesia, here are the things that looking back we wish we had done differently.

1. Don’t go to Bali solely for the beaches

The view from the Beji Ubud. Go for this.

The view from the Beji Ubud. Go for this.

Not this.

Not this. (Kuta Beach)

There are so many beautiful things to see in Bali that it would be a waste to spend all of your time on the beach. And honestly, the beaches are not the most impressive in the world. We didn’t make it to the southern portion of the island which I hear has much nicer beaches, but even still I think that if you’re looking for a beach vacation then Bali is not the right designation for you.

2. Don’t go to the Monkey Forest

Don't let this picture fool you

Don’t let this picture fool you

These guys are not your friends!

These guys are not your friends!

A lot of people may disagree with this one (including Jake), but this place was NOT for me. The monkeys in Bali are Macaques which are not known to be the friendliest species of monkey. They are extremely aggressive and will not hesitate to jump on you, attempt to steal your camera, sunglasses, water bottle, etc., or even worse bite you. One did lunge at Jake after attempting to steal our camera. After this, I spent most of my time in the forest hiding behind Wayan, our driver. Amy and Andrew from Our Big Fat Travel Adventure had a similar experience.

If you do decide to brave the Monkey Forest in Ubud, I would highly recommend getting a rabies shot prior. Also, if you don’t want monkeys climbing on you like a tree, take a tip from the locals and grab a large stick and carry it in with you as it will scare most of them away.

3. Don’t limit yourself to the Kuta-Seminyak-Sanur area

Ku De Ta Beach Club in Seminyak, Bali

Ku De Ta Beach Club in Seminyak, Bali

I was guilty of this during my solo days in Bali and spent the first two days hunkered down at Ku De Ta and Potato Head beach clubs. While I did enjoy my time at each, you’d really be selling Bali short by spending too much time munching on margarita pizza and jamming to techno music alongside all of the European tourist.

That said, if you wish to ignore #3 and simply want my vote on which swanky Bali beach club to visit, it goes to Potato Head due to the beautiful pool and extensive drink list.

4. Don’t go see a ‘traditional Balinese dance show’

Traditional Bali show

Traditional Bali show

Both the traditional Balinese dance show and the fire show in Ubud were a little too touristy for our taste. At each, we were along side at least a hundred other tourist all trying to get a glimpse at ‘real Balinese culture.’ If that’s your goal, I would suggest doing a little research and talking to your guide about where you might be able to catch a local Hindu festival. There are over 20,000 temples in Bali and each typically has at least 2 festivals per year, so your chances of finding one should be pretty good.

5. Don’t rush

Taking a break at the  Jatiluwih rice terraces

Taking a break at the Jatiluwih rice terraces

Perhaps our biggest mistake in Bali was rushing our trip. As Bali was an add on to another trip for us, we unfortunately only had 5 full days here. 5 days was better than nothing but left us wishing for more. Looking at a map of Bali and trying to determine what all can be accomplished in a days time when driving can be very deceiving. While Bali is a small island measuring in at just under 100 miles across, driving from temple to temple is not a quick process as the roads are winding and not always in the greatest shape. Communicate with your guide in advance to make sure that your wish list can reasonably be accomplished in your time frame.

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Bali, Indonesia: 5 Things You Must Do

Bali is one of the most incredible, unique and diverse destinations in the world. Though extensive tourism has caused some areas to lose their magic, there are still plenty of off the beaten path destinations worthy of exploration on this Island of the Gods.

1. Soak in the Balinese Hindu Culture

Bali Countryside

Bali Countryside

While Indonesia is primarily an Islamic country (~88% of the country is Muslim), 93% of the population on the island of Bali is Hindu. The Balinese Hindu culture is peaceful and beautiful and the people you’ll meet here are some of the nicest and most trustworthy to be found. One thing in particular that shocked us was their trustworthy nature. Our driver for example didn’t even attempt to collect any payment for our full day tours and airport transfers until dropping us off at the airport on the last day. He simply trusted that we would return each day and pay in full in the end.

I was also shocked at how safe I felt as I arrived and spent the first two days as a solo female. Many people warned me in advance that Bali was not a safe place to be alone, but I would strongly disagree. Granted, I wouldn’t suggest walking around alone at night but don’t be afraid to venture out solo during daylight hours.

2. Take some time to visit the less touristy temples

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. Beautiful but packed with other tourist!

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. Beautiful but packed with other tourist!

Pura Tirta Empul- more Balinese less tourists

Pura Tirta Empul- more Balinese less tourists

The temples in Bali are beautiful and definitely worth the visit but the crowds at the ‘postcard temples’ (Pura Tanah Lot and Pura Ulun Danu Bratan) really take away from the experience. We enjoyed the higher Balinese to tourist ratios of Pura Taman Saraswati and Pura Tirta Empul. We visited Pura Taman Saraswati first thing in the morning and were the only tourist there and were able to watch several local women participating in their morning ceremonial offerings.

Just as a note, women who are menstruating are not allowed in any temples in Bali and they will ask you which is somewhat awkward but good to know in advance.

3. Hire a Balinese driver and arrange airport transfers in advance

Wayan- Bali's best driver

Wayan- Bali’s best driver

Arriving alone from Australia at Bali’s Denpesar International Airport at 10pm and walking out into the sea of literally hundreds of anxious drivers flagging me down immediatly made me thankful for Wayan, our Bali guide.  I found Wayan’s company Bali Transport on Trip Advisor and can not sing his praises enough! Wayan arranged multiple airport and hotel pickups for us and was always on time, reliable and most importantly an amazing Bali host! Another HUGE advantage of using Bali Transport is that Wayan is an incredible photographer and will happily photograph your tour for you and give you all of the photos at the end for free. Many of the photos here are compliments of Wayan.

Most day tours in Bali are private, fully customizable and very affordable! A cheaper end all day tour can be found for roughly $40-$45 USD and can easily be arranged upon arrival in Bali. Nearly every taxi driver will offer you his day tour services. Our tour with Wayan was on the higher end coming in at around $70 USD per day but the photos and services Wayan provided were without a doubt worth the higher price tag.

Wayan also has a beautiful guesthouse at his home in Chenggu. We didn’t stay here though looking back I wish that we had.

4. Visit as many spas as possible

A fish pedicure in Ubud

A fish pedicure in Ubud

This is something I wish we had done more of. There are spas all over Bali and the prices are incredible. I did splurge at The Samaya in Seminyak while I was solo and while the experience and view were incredible, looking back it was unnecessary considering the number of budget friendly options. I also tried BodyWorks which is in Seminyak and was much more reasonable albeit modest than The Samaya.

The fish pedicure in Ubud was also a fun yet interesting experience though once is probably enough for me.

5. Eat the local food (street food included!)

Roadside eats Bali style- just do it!

Roadside eats Bali style- just do it!

Prior to arriving in Bali, I had already researched all of the ‘safe’ and highly reviewed restaurants in order to steer clear of the infamous “Bali Belly.’ I had no intentions to deviate from my plan but after a long day touring, our empty stomachs were calling and the smells of grilled chicken satay luered us in. I was pretty skeptical about this one,  but I decided to put my skepticism aside and thank God I did. This lady cooked one of the best meals I had in Bali! StreetFood has a great guide to Bali’s street food scene and I wish I had read this prior to our trip.

The one pre-reseached restaurant that we would highly recommend is the Yellow Flower Cafe in Ubud. This is a true hidden gem that you’ll only only reach after wandering down a winding and beautiful path through rice patties and local homes. It’s family owned and run and everything on the menu is organic, freshly prepared and absolutely wonderful. I could have gone here every single day!

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Morocco: 5 Things NOT to do

During our Morocco trip, there were definitely some things that we learned and looking back we wish we had done differently.

1. Don’t book a medina tour in Fes or accept the help or guidance of anyone you’re not willing to pay

Exploring the Fes medina - solo!

Exploring the Fes medina – solo!

The touts in Fes are absolutely relentless. Anyone who is offering to help show you where <insert Fes attraction here> is located is expecting you to pay. Yes, even if they state clearly otherwise. Yes, even the 7 year old boy. Yes, they will lie to you and tell you you’re going the wrong way even when you aren’t. Don’t fall for it.

Plus, getting lost and exploring is all part of the fun. Remember, you’ll always be able to find your way if you follow tip number two.

2. Don’t book hotels in advance

Outside of our riad in Meknes

Outside of our riad in Meknes

There are so many hotels, riads, B&B’s and hostels in Morocco that it feels impossible to select just a few for your trip. We reserved 2 of our 4 stays in advance and secured the others after arrival. By calling the hotel directly the day of and in country, we were able to secure much better rates than those we found online. I would suggest using TripAdvisor to pinpoint 5 or so places in each city and then calling to negotiate a better rate upon arrival in Morocco. We did this at Riad El Ma in Meknes which was our favorite riad during our trip.

3. Don’t set out in your rental car without first confirming your route with a local. Similarly, don’t attempt to drive at night.

Yes, we almost ran over you

Yes, we almost ran over you

I’ve never cried more in my life than on the death defying drive between Fes and Chefchaouen. After dodging donkeys, street carts and fearless pedestrians while learning to drive a manual transmission in downtown Fes, we thought we were in the clear. That was until Google maps led us astray and took us over 100 miles on a gravel boulder & pothole filled ‘road’ through the Riff Mountains at night. Needless to say, this leg of our trip was a disaster that could have easily been avoided.

However, don’t let this scare you away from renting a car in Morocco. We learned our lesson and confirmed our next route with our riad in Chefchaouen and loved the day drive between Chefchaouen and Tangier. Fes to Merzouga would also make a wonderful and safe DIY Moroccan road trip.

4. Don’t take the 2nd class train on a long journey

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1st class train in Morocco

After flying into Malaga, Spain, busing to Algeciras and disembarking the ferry in Tangier, we immediately took a taxi to the train station to catch the train to Fes. For starters, this was MUCH too long of a journey for one day. Our 5 hour train journey ended up taking more like 7 hours due to delays at various stations all along the way. By about an hour in, the 2nd class car we were traveling in (1st was sold out) was standing room only. By the third hour, I had 2 children sitting in my lap and their mother leaning against my seat. Not exactly my vision of a comfortable ride.

Looking back, I wish we had stayed in Tangier for a night rather than rushing onto our riad in Fes. Then we could have secured a 1st class ticket and a much more leisurely ride.

On short journeys however, I wouldn’t hesitate to book 2nd class..

5. Don’t buy leather goods at the tanneries  – unless you want to grossly overpay! 

Great for the experience, horrible for bargins.

Great for the experience, horrible for bargains.

The tanneries (best visited first thing in the morning in order to avoid the horrible stench) are great for a quick history lesson and photo op but don’t  make the mistake of even looking at the items in their shop. Moroccans are the most incredible salesmen and you’ll be hard pressed to walk out empty handed.

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Morocco: 5 Things You Must Do

Looking back on our trip to Morocco, there are so many things that I wish I had known prior to our trip. Here are our must do’s.

1. Make the trip to Merzouga

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Sunrise in the Sahara

Yes, I know it’s an excruciatingly long drive and yes, I know it’s out of the way of virtually everything in Morocco. When you fall asleep under the starts and wake up and see the sunrise over the dunes of the Sahara, you’ll thank yourself.

We booked our camel trip the same day through Mohaventura and could not have been happier. I highly recommend booking through Moha. They also have an auberge called Le Petit Prince that can be booked either before or after your trip. While we did not stay here, the others who did seem to really enjoy the experience and hospitality offered by Moha and his family.

2. Invest in a SIM card upon arrival

Google map of Fes medina

Google map of Fes medina

Make this your first purchase in Morocco. We were hesitant on this initially thinking we would be fine without it, but it saved us several times. For starters, you’ll have service everywhere. We had full coverage in the middle of the Sahara, the backroads of the Riff Mountains, and everywhere in between. The GPS was essential for navigating backroads and finding our way through the maze of the Fes marina and back to our riad after dinner each night as all of the walkways are clearly mapped out.

We purchased an INWI SIM card so I can only speak to their service. If you’re in Fes, they have a small store just inside of Bab Boujelud (Blue Gate) to the right.

3. Buy a Moroccan rug and be ready to drive a hard bargain (and walk away)

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Hand woven Moroccan rugs

We always love to purchase one special souvenir on each of our trips so a rug was an obvious choice. We purchased ours in Meknes and found the prices to be much lower and the experience to be much more enjoyable than the high pressure of Fes.

4. Visit the less touristy cities of Chefchaouen and Meknes

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A typical view in the Chefchaouen medina

While we loved the hustle and bustle of Fes, but it’s not for everyone. The laid back pace of these two cities was just what we needed. Not to mention that Chefchaouen is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve visited.

Extra Tip: Stay at Riad El Ma in Meknes, but don’t book in advance online. We called them on our train ride over from Fes and were able to get a much better price than what was advertised.

5. Rent a car

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Driving through the Riff Mountains

Now this goes against what most people probably suggest for Morocco. Let me preface by saying that this is only a good idea if you are very comfortable driving a manual as that’s all you’ll find in Morocco. Neither of us had ever driven a manual so to say this was an adventure would be quite the understatement.

While I would not recommend our route (Fes-Chefchouen-Tangier), I think that renting a car is hands down the best way to get to the desert in Merzouga. The road between Fes and Merzouga is in very good condition and the drive is very straight forward. Renting a car will give you the flexibility to make the trip on your own time and give you the ability to stop and enjoy some of the beautiful sights you’ll pass along the way. You’ll also get to avoid the grossly overpriced pre-packaged ‘Merzouga desert tours.’ As an added bonus, the rental companies in Morocco will deliver the vehicle to your location and meet you wherever you like when you’re ready to return. We rented through Sixt and had a great experience.