Sherry is a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. She travels to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences, adventures, and photography from around the globe. But it’s not just about travel, it’s also about life experiences of a solo female wanderer.
In an effort to bring you some new voices on Ottsworld, here is a guest post from an Ottsworld reader and Youtuber Tim Rutherford. Amy and Tim Rutherford retired in their 40s by trimming $6,500 from their monthly spending. They are passionate about teaching others the strategies that helped them say goodbye to their careers and hello to their freedom. Tim wrote part one to this article, Accumulating Points and Perks, and is now following up with more details on how you can travel for less. All opinions and experiences expressed here are theirs. –Sherry
Together, my wife and I have over 30 credit cards that we use for various purposes. Additionally, we both have credit scores that exceed 800. Our scores have benefited from the number of cards we maintain. But our main reason for having all of these cards is to do more travel for less money.
The majority of our airfare, hotel and rental car expenses are covered with point redemptions throughout the year. However, we do spend cash when it makes sense. In 2018, we flew to France round-trip for $350 each on American; comparable points redemption would have been 60,000 points for each ticket. We currently value our American miles at 1.4 cents per point. So, the points redemption would have wiped $840 of points value out of each of our AAdvantage accounts. Plus, there would have been additional taxes to pay on top of the points usage. The cash option offered a better value.
If this seems complicated, it’s all about a few basics and strategy.
Credit cards = points to travel for less
Form a Points Strategy to Travel for Less
We love transferable points offered by American Express (Membership Rewards points – MR) and Chase (Ultimate Rewards points – UR). Most of our day-to-day spending is focused on growing our MR and UR point balances.
Having a strategy with the points you acquire is an important consideration with award travel. If you have significant loyalty to a specific program (i.e., you have Platinum status with Program X) or if you’ve collected a large number of points in a program, it will likely make sense to continue the accrual of points within that plan. Ideally, you’ll have enough points in your favorite points program to cover your travel needs. Finding yourself a few points shy of your planned redemption can be aggravating.
You may have options when attempting to collect your favorite points:
• Sign up for credit cards that offer points directly in your favorite program. (Sign up for a United Airlines-branded credit card to earn more United points)
• Sign up for a card that offers transferable points into the program you favor. (Sign up for a card offering Ultimate Reward points by Chase that you can subsequently transfer to United or many other partners.)
If you plan to dive deeper into the points and miles hobby, it might make sense to diversify where you earn points. Diversifying points provides more redemption options when you are looking to travel to a specific location. The primary advantage of a diversification strategy is to provide options. Flexibility is key when making your award travel plans and having points in multiple programs will open up your choices for each trip.
For example, if Hilton offers valuable redemption options in Panama City while all of the Marriott properties provide poor redemptions, you may choose the rewards program that offers the most value. If you only have Marriott Points, you may be “forced to pay a premium” to use the only points at your disposal.
Pitfalls to Spreading Your Points Across Multiple Programs
At any time, a rewards program can change the number of points or miles required to stay at a specific property or to fly a particular route. These changes have the potential to negatively (or positively) impact the value of the points you’ve earned. Finding yourself stuck with a pile of points that you cannot use wisely may upset your plan.
Most points have an expiration date. Keeping points active requires attention to detail with a commitment to tracking.
With Frontier Airlines, you must earn or spend your miles within the last 6 months or risk losing all of your accumulated points.
With British Airways Avios points, your points expire after 3 years of inactivity.
With Delta Airlines SkyMiles your miles never expire.
Every points program has nuanced differences (how points are redeemed, how points are earned, property or route valuations, route options, etc.). Understanding these distinctions is the best way to get the most value for the points you’ve earned. Diversifying programs means you’ll need to be up to speed on how the various programs operate.
Organization is even more critical when earning points across multiple plans. If you juggle several credit cards, many points programs and trip planning, your effort may need to grow exponentially.
Airline Credit Cards and Miles
Southwest Airlines is our go-to carrier for domestic flights. We earned Southwest’s Companion Pass (CP) via a now-defunct transfer of points from Marriott. Currently, you can earn the CP by signing up for two Southwest credit cards offered by Chase. If you travel frequently with a companion, this is one of the most valuable tools in a low-cost travel arsenal. It allows a companion to travel for free on every Southwest flight you take from the time you earn the pass until the end of the following year. This is valid for tickets purchased with cash or points. Also, Southwest allows you to adjust your fare price after a purchase has been made. If you see a better fare offered after your initial purchase, they’ll allow you to rebook at the lower fare with no change fees. We love Southwest and our Companion Pass!
When I traveled frequently for business, I preferred to fly United and accrued many miles. Denver is a hub for United and it’s very convenient. United points are most valuable to us for international travel. We maintain a no-annual-fee United card (issued by Chase.) It offers some compelling perks that make this card worth keeping in our credit card portfolio.
Frontier Airlines is headquartered in Denver and positioned as a low-cost leader in air travel. We love the pricing offered by Frontier. My wife, daughter and I flew round-trip from Denver to Los Angeles for the day in 2016. The total for all three tickets was under $100 (yep, about $15 each way per ticket). We have accumulated enough Frontier points for a domestic ticket, but haven’t found a compelling redemption to date. We do not have a Frontier credit card as their points program is not very competitive. Our Frontier trips are all purchased with cash.
My business travel also included the occasional flight on American Airlines. We still carry American Airlines credit cards for various perks. But, we find it challenging to locate decent reward routing on American from Denver. We expect to use these points when our international travel accelerates in a few years.
Hotel Credit Cards and Points
Marriott was my preferred hotel chain for more than ten years of frequent business travel. I am nearing Lifetime Platinum status with Marriott and the fact that they are one of the largest hotel chains in the world (after their merger with SPG) makes their program our favorite. We have both Marriott and SPG cards and the merger is creating new opportunities for earning easy points in this program. It was announced late last year that both Chase and American Express will be offering new Marriott cards as the merger completes. These new credit card products should offer new earning opportunities when they are released.
We have a collection of Hilton points that I gathered through business travel as well as multiple credit card sign-up bonuses. We like Hilton properties and their points are relatively easy to earn, but good redemptions have been difficult for us to find.
Recently, we added the Chase IHG card to our collection. IHG’s purchase of Kimpton also provides new opportunities for aspirational stays. The IHG card offers an annual free night at any property in their chain pending availability. This is a nice perk that makes the annual fee make sense and will keep this card in my wallet. IHG also offers “PointBreak” opportunities on a quarterly basis that provide discounted point redemptions for specific properties. These are often a good value and make our IHG points go further when the stars align with our travel plans.
Barclaycard and Capital One cards are used for our miscellaneous travel expenses. Both of these cards offer the ability to “erase” travel-related purchases. The initial sign-up bonuses for these cards offer a substantial bucket of funds ($400 – $600) to be used for travel incidentals. The cards return roughly 2% on day-to-day purchases. It can be a challenge (unless you spend a lot) to have travel funds available on these cards after you’ve used the funds from your sign-up bonus. That being said, here are some of the travel items we consider erasing with the points we earn on these cards:
Accommodations that are not covered by one of four hotel reward programs that we use
Miscellaneous Points and Plans for New Cards
Tim and Amy travel for less all around the world!
We have Iberia, British Airways and Club Carlson points we’ve accumulated from various promotions. These points have been challenging to use and we have to monitor them to keep them active. New sign-up opportunities are always on our radar and we’re focused on growing our transferable points. Additionally, keeping our Companion Pass active will be a priority for 2019.
Now you can start booking free or cheaper travel and dip your toe into travel hacking yourself!
If you have questions for Tim or Amy, leave them below or go check out their blog and Youtube channel to learn more about how they have learned to not only travel with less, but live with less ultimately allowing them to get out of the rat race and enjoy a new life model!
Meet the Authors
Tim and Amy Rutherford blog at GoWithLess. They retired in their 40s by trimming $6.500 from their monthly spending. Their new life is filled with fun, travel and adventure. They are passionate about teaching others the strategies that helped them say goodbye to their careers and hello to their freedom.
Travel hacking is the process of earning travel reward points at little, or no, cost to you and then using those points to travel for the least amount of money possible and/or experience the joys of first class travel by strategically redeeming points in exchange for upgrades and travel experiences.
I am not a travel hacker, but I know people who are! I asked my friends and travel hackers Tim and Amy Rutherford to do a guest post on Travel Hacking for Beginners. They eagerly said yes! They provided me so much information I have actually split it into two guest posts: Accumulating Points and Perks, and How to Travel For Less
In an effort to bring you some new voices on Ottsworld, here is a guest post from an Ottsworld reader and Youtuber Tim Rutherford. Amy and Tim Rutherford retired in their 40s by trimming $6.500 from their monthly spending. They are passionate about teaching others the strategies that helped them say goodbye to their careers and hello to their freedom. All opinions and experiences expressed here are theirs. –Sherry
When I was working (I’m now retired) I traveled extensively for business. My business travel lasted for roughly 20 years. Some parts of my career had me traveling as infrequently as once per quarter and at the height of my business travel I was on a plane almost every week (traveling Tuesday-Friday.) While business travel was exhausting, it piqued my wanderlust. I love traveling with my wife and family and the points I earned from my business travel (plus the points we continue to earn) allow us to inexpensively enjoy our family adventures.
Amy and Tim using their points to travel for less!
During my business travels, every time I flew a new airline or stayed at a new hotel I would sign-up for their frequent flyer/stayer program. All points programs I have ever experienced are free to join. With each new stay or flight I would earn points. However, as travel providers started to build relationships with credit card issuers, I soon realized earning points from my frequent travel was not nearly as efficient or rewarding as simply signing up for a new credit card. Today, my wife and I carry almost 30 cards in our combined wallets.
These have been accumulated over 5 years by signing up for 1 or 2 credit cards a quarter. For those who think that sounds crazy, the more credit cards you have, the more it will actually help you in the long run. The longer you have a card there it benefits your overall credit score. Credit history is important, so we don’t close out our cards. Instead, 25 of the cards are put away safely and they are never touched.
We have accumulated over 3 million points in various programs and continue to grow our balances to meet our planned travel needs. In 2017, we spent roughly $9,800 (combined with our points and miles) to make 10 trips. This spending included food, entrance fees, airfare, lodging, public transportation, rental cars, gasoline, trains, parking, etc – basically, every expense we encountered from the time we left our home until the time we returned. Our destinations included Paris, Monaco, Nice, Boston, New York, Orlando (Disney), Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego.
Why You Should Start Travel Hacking
Simply put, earning points and miles is a great way to travel the world very inexpensively. Credit card sign-up bonuses are the easiest way to quickly accumulate the points you need for “free” travel. If used responsibly, adding credit cards to your wallet over time will improve your credit score. With a little organization, careful planning and strategic spending, there is unlimited upside to accumulating miles and points to help fund your world travels.
The Best Travel Credit Cards Out There
“Best” is very subjective and the best card for you might not be the best card for someone else.
Some of the things that might factor into picking a card that is right for your specific needs:
• Do you travel for business?
• Are you allowed to put business expenses on your personal credit cards?
• Do you own a business and would you consider business credit cards?
• Are you planning a trip and have a specific airline or hotel already in mind?
• Are there limited-time promotions being offered by a specific card that might make the card more valuable?
• Do you already have a collection of points in a specific program?
• Are you planning to travel internationally?
• How far out are your travel plans?
• How easy is it to earn points in the program you would like to use?
• How easy is it to use the points you’ll be earning?
• Are you planning on luxury travel or budget travel?
• What airlines have hubs that are near your home?
• What airlines fly to your home airport?
• What airlines have lounges in your airport?
If I were just starting out with Award Travel, I would sign-up for a card that offers cash-back for travel expenses (e.g. Capital One’s Venture card or BarclayCard’s Arrival+) or a card that has a transferable points structure (e.g. Chase’s Ultimate Reward points or American Express’ Membership Rewards points). Transferable points keep you from being locked into a specific program and provides more travel options when it’s time to use the points.
There is the potential for a little complexity when evaluating the cards that are right for you, and getting started may seem like more of a hassle than it’s worth. If you start with one of the cards mentioned above, there is little risk that you’ll be unable to use the points. By adding new credit cards to your wallet multiple times a year (assuming you’re picking cards that are offering compelling sign-up bonuses) you could easily add many hundreds of dollars or more of “free” travel to your wallet annually.
How to Accumulate Award Travel Points and Perks
1) Have good credit and pay off all of your credit card bills in full every month.
If you maintain debt on any of your credit cards, I would not suggest signing up for new credit cards or using them in a way to maximize travel rewards. Pay off your balances before you start travel hacking and make sure to pay them off in full each month.
2) Pick a card that is right for your travel plans.
If you have a hard time selecting navigating the many hotel and airline programs, sign-up for a travel cash card or a card that offers transferable points.
3) Sign-up for the new credit card
Make sure that the bonus you will receive through the initial sign-up and the first year’s spending will equal at least $500 in value. Consider signing up for 1-4 new cards each year as a good start to begin collecting points
4) Meet the initial minimum spending requirements
Have a plan to meet the minimum spending before applying.
If you don’t meet the minimum spending requirements, you will not receive the sign-up bonus points.
5) Earn the bonus points
Track all of the points you earn and understand how to keep the points active in every program.
6) Spend the points
Treat your points like cash and use them wisely. (e.g. Don’t “spend” 25,000 points on airfare you can purchase for $100).
Programs regularly devalue their points. Consider that the points you earn are devaluing each year and you should use them as quickly as practical after earning them.
What Should You Consider When Choosing a Credit Card?
Do you have a good credit score and will your qualify for a new card?
Do you pay off your credit cards in full every month? If you accrue interest on your credit cards, you should avoid accruing Award Travel using credit cards for your points earning.
Do you have a plan for meeting the minimum spending requirements?
Do you have a plan for the points you intend to earn before you earn the points? Do not speculatively sign up for points you may never use just because of a promotion.
Does the card you want provide points in a program you can easily use? For example, if Singapore Airlines has a fantastic bonus offer, but Singapore doesn’t fly to your local airport, it’s probably not a good idea to sign-up for a Singapore Airlines credit card.
What is the value of the points you’ll be earning? There are many resources on the Internet that will help you determine the value of the points that you’ll be accumulating. However, what you’ll find are valuations that are based on a specific style of travel and this style might not match your personal plans. In practice, you should have a trip in mind and look at the cash price for your travel plans. This will help you to accurately understand how your points should be valued.
What are the Top Benefits of a Travel Card?
The two most important questions to ask when considering adding a new card to your wallet are:
1. How many points are being offered with the initial sign-up and how valuable are these points?
The value of points is often subjective and based upon the redemption(s) you make when using the points.
If Sam earns 100,000 Marriott points and then pays 20,000 points per night for a five-night stay at an Indianapolis property where the same room could be purchased for $80 per night – Sam’s redemption is only worth $400 or .4 cents per point (CPP).
If Susan earns the same 100,000 Marriott points and then pays 50,000 points per night for two nights in Times Square that could be purchased for $300 per night. Susan’s redemption is worth $600 or .6 cents per point (CPP).
2. What is the annual fee and is it waived year one?
If there is an annual fee, does the value of the points far outweigh the fee?
If there isn’t an annual fee in year one, will you be keeping the card after the initial sign-up bonus?
***I would not sign up for a new card unless I am able to net $500 worth of points, miles or cash from the card in a single year. Typically, the cards that I obtain provide this much value in the initial sign-up bonus.***
Here’s a list of card features that are frequently found with award cards. These features may weigh into your personal decision to apply for the card and, more importantly, might weigh into your decision to keep a specific card that has an annual fee. However, your circumstances, travel habits and purchasing patterns would make these more or less valuable.
• Rental car insurance
• No Foreign Transaction fees
• Bonus spending categories and overall earning for everyday spending (3x points for Grocery, travel, and gas purchases and 5x points for Office Supply purchases)
*Typically, cards offer 1 point for every dollar spent (regardless of category.) However, there are some cards that offer only ½ of a point for every dollar spent. Be aware of the earning structure for each dollar you spend after the initial sign-up bonus is earned. You want to be utilizing the card with the highest return for each category of spending in order to maximize the points you earn
• Purchase protection
• Extended warranty protection
• Travel accident insurance
• Lost luggage reimbursement
• Free VantageScore or FICO scores
• Free credit monitoring
• Free checked bags
• Free annual hotel night
Premium cards (cards with a $300+ annual fee) offer:
• Airline Club/Lounge access
• Reimbursement for Pre-Check/Global Entry
• Bonuses for transferable points
• Cash back for travel expenses
• High returns (5%+) for specific categories of spending
Any card that is offering a significant amount of points for signing up will come with an initial spending requirement. This obligation to spend is usually within the first 90 days of having the card and you’ll be required to spend a certain amount of money within the defined window. (e.g. You need to spend $3,000 on card X within the first 90 days to earn 50,000 points) If you do not meet this requirement, you will not earn the bonus points. So, it’s very important to understand before you apply for a card how you intend to go about meeting the spending commitment.
Never let a minimum spend requirement force you to spend more than you would otherwise spend. Have a plan before you get your new card.
Here are a few ways you can go about meeting the minimum spending requirement:
1) Plan your sign-up around a known large cash outlay (A new roof, car, home improvement)
2) Divert all of your spending to the new card. Remove all other cards from your wallet and put them away in a safe place until you’ve met your minimum spend requirement
3) Put every expense you have on the card: home insurance, car insurance, car payment, utilities, cell phone, taxes, gym dues, groceries, dining out, doctors, tuition, HOA fees, travel, etc. Some institutions will charge you a surcharge for using a credit card. I would not pay this extra fee unless you absolutely need the extra spending AND the fee is substantially outweighed by the value of the points you’d be earning
4) Pre-pay monthly fees that you otherwise spread throughout the year.
a. If you are paying your gym fees on a monthly basis, they may appreciate you paying for three months in advance
b. You can pay for a whole year of HULU, Netflix, Spotify, etc
c. Your cell phone provider might also accept a prepayment for 6 months of service
5) Use a service like Plastiq to pay your mortgage or rent on the new credit card
a. This service has an associated fee and should only be used if the fee can be justified by the value of the points you’ll be earning
6) Buy gift cards to “pull spending forward” (Grocery store gift cards from your favorite grocer, Merchant gift cards for stores that you frequently visit, Gasoline gift cards,Visa, MasterCard and AMEX gift cards)
These cards often come with significant fees and these should be considered a last resort for meeting a minimum spend requirement. Additionally, some credit card issuers (American Express) explicitly exclude gift card purchases for meeting your minimum spending.
Amy and Tim
With these tips from Tim, you’ll be able to get start Travel Hacking and accumulating points right away! Stay tuned for the next installment, how to use a travel credit card to travel for less!
Meet the Authors
Tim and Amy Rutherford blog at GoWithLess. They retired in their 40s by trimming $6.500 from their monthly spending. Their new life is filled with fun, travel and adventure. They are passionate about teaching others the strategies that helped them say goodbye to their careers and hello to their freedom.
“I bet you have SOOO many airline miles,” is probably the most frequent thing I hear from random people who hear what I do for a living. I always feel a little bad bursting their bubble and admitting I really don’t have that many airline miles, and that I have never flown first/business class. I’m not a travel hacker, I’m just a traveler. I have never had time, nor was interested in trying to learn how to get free trips by collecting travel points or credit cards that gave me points. For some reason I just never really cared, so I steered clear of Travel Hacking and Points websites.
Travel Focused Credit Card Benefits
However, travel hacking isn’t the only reason why people get travel-focused credit cards; you get them because they also offer travel perks for frequent travelers. Things like airport lounge access for you and a companion, travel credits, Uber credits, car rental insurance, and global entry access.
That’s how I found myself wading through the confusing world of travel credit cards last fall. Sure, you get a ton of points for signing up, but I was more interested in the lounge, global entry, insurance, and travel credits that they also come with.
Calling in the Credit Card Experts
It didn’t take me long to be drowning in travel credit card overload. I was getting frustrated as they all seemed the same and I just wanted to figure out which one would be the best for my needs. I needed help.
That’s when I shined the travel hacking signal in the night sky, a light in the shape of an airplane glowed in the sky over Denver. Ok…maybe it wasn’t quite like that.
Amy and Tim Rutherford
I decided to call upon some experts, my friends Amy and Tim from GoWithLess. Tim and Amy Rutherford retired in their 40s by trimming $6.500 from their monthly spending; and now travel extensively thanks to travel hacking and penny pinching. They are passionate about teaching others the strategies that helped them say goodbye to their careers and hello to their freedom on their YouTube channel.
They helped me sort through fees, understand the rules, and determine what would be best for me. Tim even made me a little spreadsheet comparing two very popular travel focused credit cards – the Chase Sapphire Reserve card and the AMEX Platinum card.
Why I chose the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card for my Travel Focused Credit Card
First, I’m a big believer in simply using and having one main credit card. It just makes it much easier for me to keep track of things (see my other 98 travel tips here!). Other people like Amy and Tim get multiple cards to maximize points and free travel, but that wasn’t my goal. I was simply ready to replace my Chase United card with one of these new choices and have it be my card I used on everything.
I pretty quickly came to learn that the AMEX and Chase Sapphire Reserve cards are nearly identical. However the AMEX had a bit higher fee and a larger spending requirement in the first 3 months.
NOTE: Most of these cards require you to spend some amount within the first 3 months in order to be eligible for the bonus reward points.
The lower fee and lower spend requirement of the Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR) was the main reason I chose it. These requirements do frequently change, so it’s best to research the latest. My CSR annual fee was $450 and I had to spend $4000 within the first 90 days to get 50,000 award points. That seems like a lot for a penny pincher like me, but once I added in the benefits, it seemed like a good deal for me.
Travel Benefits That Were Important for Me
This will obviously be different for everyone, but here’s what I focused on.
1. Global Entry Fee Credit
Believe or not, even though I travel extensively I never had TSA pre-check or Global Entry. After standing in many long security lines last year in the Denver airport, I decided it was finally time to get this! It normally costs $100, but with the card it was free. I’m happy to say that I now officially have Global Entry and TSA Pre-check! I used it for the first time when I came home from Iceland last month – it was fast and easy!
2. Annual Travel Credit
Even though the card comes with a $450 annual fee, you offset that with a $300 annual travel credit. The card credits you back for the first $300 in travel charges. This includes hotels charges, rental cars, airfare, tours, etc. I used up this benefit really quickly due to my travel schedule.
3. Priority Lounge Access
Lounge access at Heathrow!
This was a nice perk for people who find themselves at the airport a lot like myself. I received an annual membership to Priority Pass Select and now can use lounges around the world for free. I’m loving this perk as it saves me food costs at airports and ensures I’m comfortable during layovers with guaranteed wifi. Plus – you can share this benefit with your travel partner!
4. Primary Car Rental Insurance
Since I don’t own a car in Denver, every time a rent a car I always have to go through the hassle of getting overpriced car insurance. However, the card gives me primary car insurance when I rent with my card, which was a BIG perk to me. It saves me quite a bit for car rental.
5. Travel/Medical Insurance
The card also comes with pretty extensive travel insurance covering things from emergency evacuation, medical, and dental benefits. Plus, trip cancelation, delay, and lost luggage benefits. It’s really all you need.
There are many other perks the card has, but these were my main reasons for getting the card. Even though it has a $450 fee, the annual $300 travel credit and $100 Global Entry reimbursement, and saved money in insurance fees practically make it free.
I Love My New Travel Perks!
I’ve been using the card now for about 5 months and really love it. Well – I don’t ‘love’ the card, I love the benefits it gives me. I’ve been using the lounge access and Global Entry/TSA Precheck all the time! I’ve also used the insurance coverage already too (yet I have never had to file a claim yet). I switched all of my monthly bills over to this card so that everything would be easy to track and I’d ensure that my $4000 spend occurred in 90 days. Just last month I learned that I did get the 50,000 bonus points which equates roughly to $500 in travel credits.
I feel pretty good about my decision – especially as I sit in the Heathrow Airport Lounge sipping wine and eating a poached salmon salad!
These travel focused credit cards aren’t just for Travel Hackers and manipulating points and bonuses – they actually do make your travel easier and more stress free. And for that alone it was worth it to me!
In case you were wondering, this was not sponsored content in any way – I really like the card and it enhances my travels. If you want to learn more about it – you can get more information here at the Chase Sapphire Reserve site.
However – for those who are into travel hacking and getting free travel – I asked Tim and Amy for their best advice for beginning travel hacking and they will be sharing it in a couple of guest posts on Ottsworld this coming week!
SPONSORED – “I wasn’t happy. I knew I had to change my environment so I left to travel in 1984. It was total freedom. It’s the best feeling ever when you don’t know what’s around the corner.” It was this quote by Linda Nijlunsing that hooked me into listening to The Journey Podcast. It hooked me because it is exactly how I ended up leaving my job and career in 2006, and it the ‘not knowing what’s around the corner’ that kept me living on the road for 11 years.
Travel can be transformative. It was for me.
Maybe that’s why I love to hear stories travel that changes you and how the simple change of your day-to-day environment can sometimes be the best therapy anyone can have. Travel frees you. It frees you from your routines, what you thought you knew, from possessions, and from the limitations you put on yourself.
But the podcast episode I was listening to wasn’t necessarily a story about travel, it was a story about where travel leads you. And it led Linda into the remote Alaska interior for love.
“Alaska will feed you, make you happy, but if you don’t live by its rules, you will die.” –Linda Nijlunsing
And that’s where you hit the point of no return in the podcast, you will have to listen all the way until the end.
My Alaska experience was a little different than Lindas, but I fell in love with it too…
A Podcast about Travel that Changes You
The Journey Podcast is a new original podcast from KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. They have done something that I’ve always wanted to do, create a podcast focused on travel stories. There are plenty of travel podcasts out there about travel news, trends, and how to travel or live nomadically. But there really aren’t any travel-focused podcasts telling narrative stories; as a travel lover, and an avid podcast listener, I always thought this was a big miss.
The Journey podcast is about ‘the trip that changed everything’. It highlights extraordinary people whose lives were transformed by travel. And I think what I loved about it most is it is not all puppies, rainbows, and unicorns. Some of these stories don’t necessarily have a happy ending – but each story does have an important learning that the person made.
“Bad experience is experience too” was my favorite quote from Linda Nijlunsing in the 1st episode.
I think it’s important to realize travel doesn’t always have a happy ending, but it will always teach you something about yourself.
My Transformative Journey
The day I left my ‘normal’ behind to travel. September 8, 2006
As I listened to multiple episodes of the podcast, I had a familiar feeling. It made me reminisce about my own transformative travel experience. My journey started in 2005, when I too knew I was unhappy and needed a change. I decided that change would be to put my adult life on hold and go completely off the rails of social normalcy, quit my job, and travel around the world for a year.
In my core I knew I was always different. I was never one to follow what I ‘should’ do; which is how I ended up 35, not married, not dating, and no desire whatsoever to have kids. I didn’t want to be normal, I always wanted to stand out for the unusual directions I took in life. So in 2005 I decided to take my ‘normal different’ and amp it up by plotting out a crazy plan. I would take a career break from my 14 years working in IT. I would quit my (very good and lucrative) job in 2006 and go travel for a year.
I know what you are thinking – that’s not that crazy – people do that all the time.
But back in 2005 is was a little crazy. Especially when it was a time in my life when I should be settling into ‘happily ever after’ and babies. And it was also a little crazy since I wasn’t really a traveler…I had just recently gotten my first passport.
Even though I was pretty terrified, in September of 2006 I left ‘normal’ behind and started traveling. My travels taught me so many things about myself that I hadn’t realized. Just simply by getting out and seeing how other people lived and what was important to them, experiencing new ways of doing things, and simplifying my life. That initial year of travel to 23 countries solo was life changing, and it was what sparked the idea of transforming my life into a travel blogger/writer.
Nearly 12 years later and my life has had a complete about-face. The only thing the same is that I still don’t follow what I ‘should’ do; I’m now 48, not married, and no desire whatsoever to have kids. After being nomadic for 11 years, I now live in a small 450 square foot studio apartment, don’t own a car, a tv, or a microwave.
Travel changes you.
Don’t Forget to Pack a Podcast
Summer travel season is upon us, and while you are packing up that bag to go somewhere spectacular (may I suggest Ireland with me?), don’t forget to download your favorite podcasts to entertain you on those long flights, days on the beach, bus rides, and more. I utilize podcasts all the time when I travel – and it was actually due to this Amateur Traveler podcast interview I did in 2007, that I decided to get serious about blogging and set me out in the direction I’m currently following.
I’m pretty sure if you listen to the first episode of the Journey and hear Linda’s transformative story, you’ll be hooked!
Share Your Transformative Journey
If listening to other people’s transformative travel stories bring up memories of your own, then why not share yours? The Journey Podcast is now accepting entries for their next podcast about people’s lives who were transformed by travel. All you have to do is send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your story about a trip that changed everything. I’m certainly considering submitting my own about my traveler to travel writer story, or even my story about how traveling with my nieces on the Niece Project has transformed me.
Or if you don’t feel like applying, then simply share a little summary of how travel has transformed you in the comments below!
Normally I ask people to ‘travel with me’ figuratively; follow my travels on social media and read my stories in my blog. However, this time when I say ‘travel with me’ I mean I want you to pack your bags and come with me…really!
I pretty much fell in love with Ireland the moment I saw her. She seduced me with rolling, emerald, sheep-dotted hills and plains of gray-green stone. She stirred my wild side with reckless winds tearing across rocky cliffs. Underneath her incredible expanse of sky, she stole my heart. She is a land of myth and music – full of lovely, welcoming people with adventurous hearts and a great gift for weaving stories. Demure, yet saucy. A gracious hostess with an untamed spirit. She can bring an idyllic moment of pure pastoral contentment or nail biting panic on a twisting one lane cliff-side road. This lady keeps you guessing. And that is part of her charm.
To really experience Ireland – you need to feel it – feel its land, its rain, its temperate climate and most of all – its soul. This is a country that cannot be rushed and exploring it on foot is one of the best ways to experience it. This allows you the opportunity to meet the “locals”, come face to face with thousands of years of history and see what it is that makes Irish people so unique.
I have partnered with my friends at Ireland Walk Hike Bike to put together an Ottsworld tour that would bring landscapes, hiking, local culture, and unique touches together in a 7 day customized tour. I hiked with Ireland Walk Hike Bike on my first trip to Ireland and they were a integral piece of why I fell in love with Ireland. Their guides are local and welcoming and I love their approach to active travel. When I decided to go back and do a tour in Ireland, I knew immediately I wanted to work with them and utilize their Ireland hiking expertise to put together something incredibly ‘Ottsworld’!
The Trip Summary
The Wild Atlantic shores of County Mayo. Photo from Failte Ireland
County May in dark green
First off – this is not your run of the mill tour. This is an exclusive customized Ottsworld tour in the company of me (who will be giving photography classes along the way) accompanied by elite professional Irish guides, visiting some of Ireland’s best kept secrets and it is ONLY open to 7 lucky readers!
The trip will whisk you from Dublin to County Mayo, a spectacular peninsula and stretch of coastline along the Wild Atlantic Way. What’s that – you haven’t heard of County Mayo? That’s exactly why I chose it! It’s a hidden gem away from the heavily traveled sites.
“Mayo has wild beauty and haunting landscapes, but you’ll find few tourists here, which means there are plenty of untapped opportunities for exploration by car, foot, bicycle or horseback.” –LONELY PLANET
• Do a hiking pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick
• Hike the rugged coast of County Mayo.
• Climb Knocknarea and add a stone to the imposing grave or cairn of Maeve, the great warrior queen.
• Bath in a historic seaweed bathhouse
• Dine in a castle
• Celebrate Halloween where it originated. Learn the ancient traditions that were celebrated by the Druids in Ancient times. A perfectly spooky Halloween, Irish style.
• Learn all about whiskey appreciation with tastings at distilleries and in castles
• Stay in a yurt at a local farm and experience a real farm to table dinner where you can get hands on.
• A literary pub crawl through the historic streets of Dublin
• BBQ to celebrate the beginning of Samhaine (the Celtic dark year)
• Meet a fish monger and learn how to smoke fish
• Tour two different castles
• Photography instruction on composition and basic shooting skills so you can come home with incredible pictures and memories of your trip.
October 27 – November 3rd (7 nights, 8 days)
You will start and finish in Dublin.
Space is Limited
This is a small group tour – only 7 people + me! So sign up quickly as (hopefully) the space will fill up fast so sign up quickly!
Prices are per person sharing – it’s more fun to share and make new friends! However, if you want to lodge on your own, the single room Supplement – $348USD/285Euro*.
*All prices will be charged in the Euro listed so some USD price fluctuations could occur.
• 7 nights bed and breakfast
• Full Irish breakfast each morning.
• Picnic lunch for each days hike
• 5 evening meals
• Expert Irish guide who accompanies the group for the duration of the holiday.
• All experiences as outlined in the itinerary
• All Transport as outlined in the itinerary
• Access to a full gallery of photos (shot by me!) of the entire trip, you can use for personal purposes. You’ll come away with the best Instagram shots possible!
What’s not Included
• Flights to/from Dublin
• Travel Insurance
• Some dinners
• Personal drinks
• Medical costs
I’m going to tell you a secret, most people who write about travel don’t even travel to the places they are writing about! I’ve seen many articles on ‘Best Hikes In The World’ which is just your standard round up of popular hikes that someone researched online. Most of the writers have not actually set foot on all (or any) of those trails. Until now.
I decided to compile a list of the best hikes in the world based only on hikes that I’ve actually completed myself over the last 12 years of traveling around the world. This way you know that you are getting more than just the standard description that you can find all over the web. Instead, I give you a list of hikes (from day hikes to multi day treks, to long distance hiking), in which I’ve walked every mile of. You can get more details on each of these hikes I list by clicking on the link that has my original article I wrote about the experience. In some cases I even have written guide books or FAQ articles about the more involved hikes.
My Love of Hiking
Oh how I love the ‘high’ that hiking gives me. It’s not only a chance to challenge myself and keep me in shape, but it is also meditation. Hiking provides me the chance to get back to the basics of a simple hiking day, and it gives me a chance to listen to my thoughts, focus on the steps ahead and be fully present in the moment. The fresh air clears my mind and the beautiful views stimulate the senses. These best hikes in the world are a perfect time to ponder my current life questions, challenges and both figurative and literal next steps.
Hiking is good for the body, mind and spirit. It provides moments of reflection, dreams of triumph and the ability to work through any struggles. Some of these hikes were long, some were steep, some were short – and some were failed attempts to reach my goals. But they all taught me lessons in ways I never could have expected.
Organized by length, just click on the ‘learn more’ link to get more information on each of them. If you get a chance – check them out when you are visiting that country, or plan a whole vacation around them – they’re worth the effort!
See my Essential Hiking Gear List
Now that you’ve chosen a hike, you need to know what gear to take with you! Don’t leave on your hike without these hiking gear essentials.!
My Best Hikes in the World
1-2 Day Hikes
Atlas Mountain Hike Morocco
Exploring Berbers and mud houses, desert rockscapes, endless colors and contrasts and finding an oasis in desolate landscapes of pure beauty, this hike enthralled, enlightened and was enjoyed by all who traversed its trails. Learn more about Cultural Treking in Morocco here.
Hiking the Atlas Mountain in Morocco
Hiking Oahu Hawaii’s Best Day Hikes
The mountains and rolling hills invigorate me far more than oceans and waves. I found myself attracted to more than the waterscapes of this beautiful state. From mountains to lighthouses to trails by the water – there’s more to see and do in Hawaii than the beach alone. Learn more about Hiking Oahu Hawaii here.
Hiking the Old Pali Highway – so many great day hikes around Hawaii!
Hike the Cliffs of Moher – Ireland
If you want to avoid the crowds at the Visitor’s Center, ditch the traditional tourist path and head over to Ireland’s Burren Way that runs along the Cliffs of Moher right past the visitor center. This hike will yield great shots and easy away access to vibrant greens, livestock and endless views. Learn more about the best way to walk the Cliffs of Moher here.
Hike the Great Wall of China – between Jinshaling and Simatai
Hiking with my Dad on this particular section of the Great Wall of China showcased spectacular scenery, 8 miles of knee smashing trail, and lots of learning along the way. In places the Wall was in rubble, but that’s what made the whole experience so special. Learn more about the Great Wall hike here.
Oman Mountain Hiking
Multiple days of trekking in the agricultural hub for the country, as the weather shifted along the way I found myself along the historically geographic divide that kept the country free from invasion. The Al Hajar range mixes history, geography, persistence and learning of all kinds. Learn more about Oman mountain trekking routes here.
Hiking in Feynan, Jordan
Embracing the environs of the Bedouins, Jordanian bred (shrak), and candle making in an exquisite lodge without electricity was an experience I won’t soon forget. In a cultural world that revolves around tea, schools, kids and working on English classes, on this journey I found cultural experiences and profound travel mates along the way. Learn more about hiking in Feynan Jordan here.
Hiking in Feynan Jordan from the Ecolodge
Fitzroy Hike near El Chalten, Argentina
Every journey is it’s own. On this hike, I found myself spending a lot of time learning from others whose adventure stories were greater than mine and surprising myself that at this very moment I learned to love the company of strangers. Learn more about hiking in El Chalten here.
Hiking to Fitz Roy in the distance
Hiking up Mt. Sinai in Egypt
Reminding me of my favorite movie in which Moses came to life on the big screen, Mt. Sinai filled my day with the Red Sea, Color Canyon, and impeccable views of Saudi Arabia. Learn more about hiking Mt. Sinai here.
Hiking to Mt. Sinai for Sunset
Viedma Glacier Trek in Argentina
Alive with crevasses and vistas, Los Glaciares National Park touched all of my senses and reminded me of the power of the glaciers. Complete with boat landings and ice picks, crampons, gloves and geology details, the beauty and strength of a land of ice was every present. Learn more about Viedma Glacier hiking here.
Hiking Viedma Glacier was fun and adventurous!
Hike Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo
Taking 2 days to summit this 8.5 km climb, the highest peak in SE Asia managed to awaken the spirit amidst the difficulty of the adventure. Difficult, powerful and worthwhile rolled into one, Borneo and her hikes don’t disappoint. Learn more about hiking Mt. Kinabalu here.
Mt. Kinabalu Borneo 2 day hike
Tiger Leaping Gorge Hike in China
One of the deepest river canyons in the world is China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge. Set deep into the Yangtze River, with the help of a horse, we met this challenge head on. Learn more about hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge here.
Tiger Leaping Gorge-ous!
3-7 Day Hikes
Milford Trek in New Zealand
The beauty of New Zealand’s spectacular scenery was evident on the trek through Milford Sound. On this solo hiking journey I found, fjords, kayaks and trails, kiwis, a film crew documentary, oh so many switchbacks, impeccable views and more. A different experience than my usual ‘roughing it’, this trek merged luxury and beauty with a little bit of what I learned in Girl Scouts. Learn more about the Milford Trek here.
While Alaska is a popular dream destination in the summer, it gets little respect in the winter. The frigid temperatures, lack of light, and heavy snow scare off most people. However, that’s the exact reason why I thought Fairbanks Alaska would be the perfect place to go for a winter adventure – I wanted to see how the hearty Alaskans lived and played in the off-season. Plus you get a couple of bonuses to the Fairbanks Alaska winter, like northern lights and cheaper prices. My airfare from Denver to Fairbanks was only a mere fraction of summer prices, and quite a bit less than other hearty further flung Scandinavian winter destinations.
And while a Fairbanks northern lights trip may have brought you to this lesser known part of Alaska, there are plenty of other things to do which makes Fairbanks the perfect spot for a winter adventure vacation!
Fairbanks Alaska Your Home for Winter Fun
Fairbanks has been a critical hub ever since it’s inception. It started as a gold rush outpost for the region, and then evolved into a critical pipeline outpost during it’s construction. And now it is the sort of an outpost to Alaska’s Interior.
Welcome to ‘Interior Alaska’ – the land between the mountains. This is where all the winter fun seems to happen. Unlike summer where so many tour offerings are about cruises, the winter in Alaska is about the interior and survival. Traveling overland in summer is a tough process; Alaska landscape is made up of a lot of spongy tundra (permafrost covers half of Alaska) and there are few roads. But winter suddenly makes everything accessible. Rivers freeze and become highways to move around on. The ground hardens and suddenly sled dogs can take you anywhere.
I looked around the Two Rivers post office wondering what it was like to live in such a small community in Alaska. In this tiny little ‘rest stop’ along the Chena Hot Spring Road, the post office and the general store were attached to each other and seemed to be the hot spot of the town. I watched as locals chatted away with each other as they came and went from the building. It was clear to me dog sledding was the pastime here. The post office walls were lined with pictures of past Yukon Quest winners and the bibs they had worn; it was like a shrine to dog sledding. I quickly learned that the Quest route actually comes right through Two Rivers, and it’s probably the highlight of the year for this little community just 30 minutes outside of Fairbanks.
As I surveyed each winner’s picture I stopped on a familiar looking one; the 2016 Yukon Quest winner, Matt Hall. Wait a minute, that’s the Matt I just met at the Last Frontier Mushing Co-op. Clearly our decision to do a dog sledding tour with the Last Frontier was a good one! After talking to a couple of the owners for a while and deciding upon an aurora dog sledding tour and a half day mushing school, I already knew this coop was pretty special – even before I found out the previous Yukon Quest winner was a part of it!
Last Frontier Dog Mushing Coop
Amanda and Ryne of Last Frontier Dog Mushing Coop
The coop started with a land sale. Musher Ryne and her husband Derek bought 150 acres of land in Two Rivers. They decided to sell off two 40 acre parcels. Ryne described the thought process of how they decided to sell, “In Alaska you rely on your neighbors. And it’s so nice to surround yourself with people that you enjoy who can also come over and help you out if a big snowstorm comes in and the road is plowed in. Or you want to go on vacation and you have 50 sled dogs…it also helps to have some neighbors who also have 50 sled dogs and will come take care of them and know what they are doing.”
Amanda and Matt of Smoking Ace Kennels, Chase of Tukaway Kennels, and Ryne and Derek of Ryno Kennels decided to join forces as neighbors and as business partners. The land had been on the market for a couple of years. But no one wanted it because there was no power to it, and there was no road.
Living Off Grid in Alaska
This young group of Alaskans didn’t see that as an issue. “We were like – yeah – we don’t need electricity – that’s fine,” Amanda speaking as a true Alaskan. They put the road in (which is a gorgeous 3 mile drive by the way). They used a great network of people that made the land livable. And each ironically chose different structures to live in. Matt and Amanda have yurts off grid. Ryne and Derek are building an off grid cabin (they harvested the lumber from the area and brought them in and peeled and milled it themselves – Yes…typical Alaska). And Chase is a stick frame off grid home.
They haul firewood to heat their homes, skid logs to build their cabins, and carry drinking water from the river with their sled dogs. Currently running off generators, they have long-term goals of staging solar panels & battery banks. This young group of mushing fanatics were living the Alaska outdoor lifestyle with the help of sled dogs.
As you can tell, I was sort of mesmerized by all of them. They embody Alaska Dog Sledding culture.
The Perfect Dog Sledding Alaska Partnership
My mushing team! Photo by Michaela Potter
The coop was formed after the land came together in 2017. They sat down and determined they were all doing different tourism offerings (Expeditions, aurora & day tours, long distance guiding) that could work well together. “We are all going to be living next to each other, we don’t want to compete against each other. We concluded, why don’t we work together,” Amanda said.
In addition, racing is a really expensive sport (you wouldn’t believe how much they spend in food for the dogs alone!) – so you need to find a way to make money to support the racing aspect. Tourism is a really good way to do that. They started doing day tours in 2017.
Collectively they are known as the Last Frontier Coop, but they still have separate racing kennels. Their goal is to offer a high quality experience from professional mushers. They don’t want people to simply dip their toe in and go for a 30 minute ride, they want them to connect with the dogs and the culture. Because of that their shortest tour is 2 hours.
“We want people to get interactive with the dogs and take it all in. We want people to see how much the dogs love their job and experience the real Alaska.” –Amanda
And this is exactly why I chose the Last Frontier’s Mushing School. The mushing school is a half-day experience where you go through each step of how to mush. From how to dress, to how to harness the dogs, and control the sleds. You take a series of baby steps and before you know it you are operating your own sled through the boreal forest leaning into turns and ducking under branches.
“People think mushing is easy like driving a car. We have to let people know that it is really physical.” –Ryne
How to be a Dog Sledding Musher in Alaska - YouTube
A Community of Mushers Where the Dogs Are Their Life
I was pretty excited to learn how to mush from Ryne and Amanda – they were badass. They both race competitively; Ryne is the 2017 Copper Basin Champion, and a Yukon Quest finisher. And as I was finishing up ‘school’ I saw Matt come in with his racing dogs from a training run. In a week he was off to race the Iditarod. It was incredible just to see the dogs breath and devour their after training snacks. I even met Keeper, the lead dog from his Yukon Quest win. In the dog sledding world, meeting a dog like Keeper is like meeting Tom Brady.
I’ve been on a few different dog sledding experiences before, but what the Last Frontier Coop offers is truly exciting and immersive. My two dog sledding tours I did with them were both quite unique and I’ve never been able to be so hands on with the dogs before. And don’t even get me started on the puppies!
You will walk away from this experience with knowledge of the racing culture, and an appreciation for life in Alaska off the grid.
As I got to know Amanda and Ryne through my mushing school experience and the northern lights tour we took the night before, I realized these women never stopped. The racing and training, in addition to the tourism business kept them constantly busy.
“If you love what you do – then you don’t know what else to do when you aren’t doing it. “ —Ryne
Visit The Last Frontier Mushing Coop
They offers a number of different experiences from 2 hour rides, to mushing school, to multi day expeditions. We did their aurora night dog sledding experience and the mushing school. Both equally wonderful!
See all the dog sledding Alaska tours they offer here.
In an effort to bring you some new voices on Ottsworld, here is a guest post from an Ottsworld reader and blogger Laura Longwell. She embarked on an adventure under the sea I’ve never tried before! All opinions and experiences expressed here are hers. –Sherry
I never thought I’d be a scuba diver. The idea of being far below the surface of the water with my only access to air being through a hose did not seem like a lot of fun. Plus, I get motion sickness, so being in a small boat while riding out to the dive sites was not my idea of a good time. Also, sharks. It’s safe to say that scuba diving was never really on my radar. That is until my then-boyfriend (now husband) decided diving was his new passion.
Lance was a diver and talked constantly about the wonders beneath the waves. Seeing that unexplored world was appealing, despite my reservations. So, less than 48 hours after our wedding, my husband had me doing my first ocean dive. And I never looked back.
Becoming a scuba diver isn’t hard but it requires a bit of work in the classroom, in the pool, and in what is called “open water” (I got certified in a lake). The divemasters want to make sure that you’re prepared for every scenario you could face. Even with that training, there are things about diving that you can’t know until you experience them. There are many scuba diving surprises I learned about after my first few dives.
5 Scuba Diving Surprises
Diving is easier than snorkeling
Before committing to scuba diving, I’d been snorkeling several times and loved it. I had purchased my own snorkel gear and took it with me on vacations so I could just walk off the beach and explore the underwater world. I always found that it was a really a tremendous workout, though, because I had to fight the waves on the surface. I found myself getting constantly jostled around. I also love underwater photography and just when I would try to take a picture, a wave would come and disrupt my shot. It was so frustrating.
After learning to dive, I realized that scuba diving is actually much easier than snorkeling. When you’re scuba diving, nothing happening at the surface affects you—not wind, waves, boats, or even other people. Despite having a giant oxygen tank strapped to your back, there is a greater degree of flexibility and a broader range of movement under the water, and there aren’t any waves to fight.
Colors disappear underwater
As I was, many people are drawn to scuba diving by the colorful pictures of sea creatures great and small. From giant sea turtles swimming right by you to color-changing octopi, the underwater world is spectacular. When you dive, you’ll see things you could have only imagined and many things you wouldn’t have dreamed of. However, most new divers, are shocked to discover that the underwater world lacks color. It’s not black and white but it does lack the vibrancy of colors you might expect.
Water absorbs energy and distorts what we see, so red and orange colors seem to disappear as you dive deeper, leaving everything blue and green. Taking underwater photos took some getting used to. I use red filters to re-introduce red colors back into the pictures and have to be diligent with photo editing software to get the images to look like the true colors in nature.
Diving makes you fight a primal instinct
From the moment you learn to swim as a child, you know that holding your breath underwater is essential. Changing that innate behavior is the first thing you have to master when scuba diving. Of course, you need to breathe underwater because you’re below the surface for a long time. Breathing properly also allows you to control your position in the water (too much air makes you float) and helps you clear your ears as you descend, like how you would on an airplane. Beyond those benefits, holding your breath underwater can actually be dangerous—as you come back to the surface, air expands and can harm your lungs if you don’t exhale.
You’ll feel like you’re flying
Most of scuba diving boils down to floating and sinking at the right times. When you get into the water, your oxygen tank and wet suit are full of air and make you float. To sink, you have to add weights to yourself and exhale the air in your lungs. At some point—like when you want to stop at a great coral reef—you have to find the balance between floating and sinking.
To put it in the simplest terms possible: scuba diving is like flying under water. When you stop your position in the middle of the ocean, you experience near-perfect weightlessness, kind of like flying. The weightlessness you experience while diving is the most incredible feeling you can imagine.
It’s a perfect activity for travelers
Except for the occasional helicopter tour or hot air balloon ride, most people experience new places with their feet planted firmly on the ground. Scuba diving allows you to see a whole different side of a destination and can take you to some amazing places around the world. Diving has taken me from the Red Sea in Egypt to the underwater sculptures of Grenada in the Caribbean. I’ve encountered sharks in Cozumel and even dove inside the massive aquarium at Epcot in Disney World. But there are so many other incredible destinations and experiences to be had: the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Blue Hole in Belize, diving with great white sharks in South Africa, and plunging below the vibrant waters of the Galapagos Islands.
Grenada Sculpture Park
Scuba diving has turned out to be the perfect sport for me and has enhanced many of my travels over the years. Why not give diving a chance?
Meet the Author
Laura Longwell is a writer and photographer sharing her experiences on her popular travel blog, Travel Addicts. She focuses on helping working professionals maximize their limited vacation time with advice about what to eat, drink, see, and do around the U.S. and the world.
I see the big yellow engine against the scenic winter backdrop pulling into the flagstop. The whistle blows and immediately I can feel my excitement build. The steel wheels are frosted over and look bitter cold as they creak and roll past me on the track. It sort of felt like a winter scene out of Dr. Zhivago. There’s something magical about watching a train approach and knowing the rest of the journey you simply have to ride and enjoy the scenery that rolls by. It’s a low stress way to travel, and that’s what I love about it. In the winter, the station in Denali National Park isn’t open, so we just stand out near the track as the train approaches. The conductor and supervisor hang out the sidecar as the train approaches and slowly grinds to a halt. They jump off and ask for our tickets. A small group of us hand the supervisor our tickets and board the train. A few minutes later I feel the train tug and creak to life again. We are on our way on one of the great Alaska train trips – the Aurora Winter Train.
How you can Travel By Train in the Winter
I had made a number of trips to Alaska in the summer and I always have an Alaska train trip on my itinerary; I think it’s the best way to travel through Alaska. But this was my first trip to Alaska in the winter and I was surprised to learn that the AKRR ran winter trains.
In the summer the AKRR offers a number of tourist routes that showcase the best of Alaska, however in the winter the train runs more for the locals than it does for the tourists. The AKRR offers a number of different Alaska Train Trips in the winter that are special packages for tourists traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Since we were using Fairbanks as our home base for Northern Lights Tours, we didn’t want to go all the way to Anchorage on the train and then come back the next day. Luckily the Northern Alaska Tour Company and the AKRR has teamed up and offered a Denali in a Day trip departing and arriving back at Fairbanks the same day! Northern Alaska Tour Company drives you down on a scenic tour from Fairbanks to Denali National Park with a few fun photography and cultural stops on the way. After spending a few hours in the National Park playing in the snow, then you can board the train in the park and ride it back to Fairbanks. It’s a perfect day trip to experience the Alaska railroad and winter scenery!
Ride the Alaska Railroad Aurora Winter Train - YouTube
Alaska Winter Train Schedule
The Aurora Winter Train travels weekends between Anchorage and Fairbanks, making the northbound 12-hour journey on Saturday and the return trip on Sunday, as well as select mid-week departures in December, February and March. Along the way, the train stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and provides flagstop service along the 50-mile stretch of roadless backcountry south of Hurricane Gulch. Further north, the train stops as needed at Healy and Nenana before arriving to Fairbanks.
The trains have fewer cars than in the summer, but they still offer the great AKRR service I have come to expect. There is a dining car, a lounge car, and even though they don’t offer GoldStar service in the winter, you can still get great pictures out of the open vestibules between cars in the winter – but be sure to bundle up!
Why You Should Take Alaska Train Trips in the Winter
Taking the train in Alaska should always be on your itinerary, but here are a few of the reasons why you should add the Aurora winter train to your Alaska winter itinerary!
You Don’t Have to Drive
Alaska in the winter does pose a few challenges – namely driving. I was surprised to learn Fairbanks (and presumably all of Alaska) doesn’t use salt on their roads in the winter. A few locals told me the temperatures are normally cold enough to break the ice up on the roads naturally – it just shatters. However, during our trip, it didn’t get crazy cold, and it did dump a lot of snow while we were there. That meant I had a lot of white knuckle driving – despite my recent ‘graduation’ from the Steamboat Winter Driving School! I was pretty happy to leave the car parked in Fairbanks for the day and do the Denali in a Day tour where I finally got to sit back and be the passenger!
Get Easy Access into Denali National Park
As part of the Denali in a Day tour, we went to Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali National Park is the most popular national park in Alaska. In the summer months they see over 500,000 visitors. However in the winter months (Sep to May), they only get about 15,000 visitors! Yes, that means that the park is the perfect place for peace and quiet in the winter!
The park road is open to Mile 3, Park Headquarters in the winter. In late winter (late February / early March), they begin plowing the Denali Park Road. Ideally, this opens the road for travelers to go as far as Mile 13, Mountain Vista Rest Area. There is still a $10 entrance fee for the park, but that was included in the Denali in a Day overall tour cost for me.
Surprisingly there are some great winter activities in the park anyone can participate in. First off, they loan out snowshoes and poles to anyone who stops by the Murie Science and Learning Center which is open year around. We stopped and picked up our snowshoes, and then drove futher into the park to the Mountain Vista Rest Area where we followed some snow shoeing paths! There are plenty of park paths to explore in the winter via snowshoe, hiking, or skis; the visitor center will have all of the latest trail conditions.
You can also visit the sled dog kennels in the park for free in the winter. The Denali Kennels are home to the only working sled dogs in a national park and is open year around! The dogs love seeing people!
You Can Bake a Pie!
The AKRR offers a number of cool ‘add ons’ to just regular train travel. They have a yummy, option in Talkeetna in the winter – train to a pie baking class at the Talkeetna Road House! The Talkeetna Pie Making Trip is only offered in the winter. You can take the Aurora Winter Train in Anchorage to Talkeetna, arriving mid-morning. Stay at the famed Talkeetna Roadhouse (one of my favorite places in Alaska!). In addition to cozy charm, and rich local history, the Roadhouse is renowned for its baked goods – like their incredible cinnamon rolls! This overnight excursion includes the chance to step into the kitchen and take a hands-on pie-making class from the best in the business. You can then take the train back to Anchorage, or keep heading north for the aurora in Fairbanks!
Experience a ‘Night Out’ on the Train
One of my favorite things about riding a train is you get all of the other ammenities such as food and drink at your fingertips! You can of course bring your own food and snacks, or make it a complete train experience by eating a delicious dinner in the dining car and having drinks in the lounge car!
The lounge car is a great place to watch the wintry park views go by. The windows are large and the ceiling are high. They have a stocked bar, and you can even try some of the popular Alaskan craft brews! It’s also a great place to meet other people on the train, or sit at a table and play games while the black spruce and boreal forest pass by the windows!
The food on the train is always a surprise to me. The Aurora Winter Train offers a full dining experience. The level of service and quality of dishes is why I love eating in the dining car. I had a reindeer sausage Bolognese pasta with an incredible molten chocolate cake for desert.
Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy the Scenery
But the best reason to take an Alaska train trip in the winter is because it’s a unique way to get around while relaxing and enjoying the scenery. The winter trains aren’t crowded and you’ll meet some incredible people on the train with you, many being locals. You’ll also have time to chat with the conductor or the train supervisor and get some insight into what it’s like to work on the railroad and live in Alaska.
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