Things are going pretty well here in the Atlantic bubble. It no longer feels like the end times are upon us. Of course it helps if you refrain from watching or reading news from south of the border. Who knows when life will resemble something close to normal again, but hopefully 2021 will be a much better year. Therefore, I thought it might be useful to compile some thoughts on travel planning for when it becomes safer to venture beyond the Maritimes.
1. Choosing The Destination
The first part of planning a trip is deciding on a place to visit. For some people, the pandemic may have shaken up their notions of where they’d like to go or what kind of trip they’d like to take. At the moment, outdoorsy style vacations and road trips are popular because that sort of travel makes sense in the current circumstances. But what about after an effective vaccine hopefully becomes available?
Sometimes when an opportunity is taken away, you realize how much you truly valued it. I think this period of no travelling makes me think a little harder about where I want to go. Those travel memories are precious and chances to make them are finite.
This is an obvious starting point. Did you have to cancel any travel due to COVID-19? Are you left with any credits or vouchers that will dictate or influence where you will go?
My brother and I had to cancel our California trip that would’ve been in May. We now have Disneyland tickets set to expire in December of next year. However, the value can be transferred to future tickets if we’re not able to use them by the expiry date. And with the park still closed, it’s possible the validity period will be extended further to accommodate all those holding unusable tickets. Although I’d certainly love to make this trip happen, it’s on the back burner right now.
Do You Have a Bucket List?
I’m not sure I like the term “bucket list” but most people know what it means. Are there any places you’d like to visit before you depart this earthly realm? If you do have a list, then you’re fortunate because the decision-making process becomes much easier, especially if your list is relatively short.
My list is fairly long – so long as to be of minimal utility. Still, if I absolutely had to choose, I think I’d go back to see more of Scotland. It’s my ancestral homeland and I have so many wonderful memories from previous trips. While I’d love visit many new places in Europe, there is something especially appealing about booking a trip you’re confident about and know you’ll enjoy.
Has the coronavirus pandemic put your travel aspirations into sharper focus? If not, there are some things you can ponder to narrow it down. Ask yourself, if you won a free trip to anywhere in the world, where would you go? Or if you could take only one more trip, where would it be? Maybe you have a friend or family member who has a dream destination and you’d like to help them make it happen. Would you like to see tulips in the Netherlands or the lavender in Provence? What about Vimy Ridge and Flanders or the beaches of Normandy? Are there are any works of fiction or non-fiction that you’d like to base a trip around?
There is a bottomless pit of trip reports and videos online that might spark your interest and help solidify your choice.
Follow Your Heart or Follow The Deal?
Before I started delving seriously into points and miles, planning a trip a trip around a loyalty currency was a foreign concept. I remember reading the Fodors Europe travel forum when someone would occasionally say “I have X number of Hilton/Marriott/IHG points, where can I go for a nice vacation?” The poster would get criticized by the regulars who thought it quite absurd to choose a destination based on a free hotel stay. Meanwhile, on forums like Flyertalk, it’s considered a perfectly reasonable question.
I now totally relate to that anonymous individual. I’m always on the lookout for lower category hotels in interesting places so I can put together the cheapest trip possible. It’s the same with checking Google Flights or Skyscanner or itasoftware to find a great low airfare. Sometimes the deal determines the destination and I’m cool with that as long as the trip sounds fun.
2. Funding The Trip
Once you’ve chosen where you’d like to go, you have to figure out how to pay for it. Even though your trip might be far off in the future, there are many things you can do now to help with the cost.
Review Your Point Balances
Before you can focus on what type of loyalty currency to actively accumulate, look at what you already have on hand. If you’re not a points and miles collector this exercise will obviously be very brief. But, if you have quite a few different accounts, it’s a good idea to take stock of your holdings to give you a starting point. For me this also means deciding into which program I should dump my e-Rewards survey points.
Pick Some Loyalty Programs
Now figure out what kind of points will be most useful for your trip. A few examples: if you’re planning on Ireland and prefer to fly direct, WestJet Dollars are better than Aeroplan miles since WestJet flies non-stop Halifax to Dublin; if you’re headed to Scandinavia, Choice Privileges points will help you save on hotel costs; if it’s a Universal Orlando trip, Air Miles will be handy for the park tickets.
Some types of points are of course easier to collect than others. Air Miles is an accessible travel rewards program with a good selection of partners here in the Maritimes. Although PC Optimum points are not travel rewards, you can always turn around and use those grocery savings toward your trip. If you don’t trust yourself to earmark the cash for travel, perhaps buy gift cards such as Hotels.com, Disney etc.
Compare Credit Card Options
If you’re a responsible credit card user, you should definitely capitalize on this method of building up rewards for your trip. The key is to choose the best card(s) to help you reach your own personal travel goal. The credit cards your neighbour swears by may not be the ideal choices for you and your travel aspirations.
A discussion of the full array of credit card options is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I strongly suggest you take the time to acquaint yourself with various cards and their respective benefits and features. Consider both the current sign-up offer and the earning rates for everyday spending including within specified categories.
For example, if you’re going to London for a week, one potential strategy would be to sign up for the Scotiabank Gold Amex and an RBC WestJet MasterCard. In such a scenario, note the distinction between those two types of cards. The former is Scotiabank’s own points program so if you decide later on to cancel the card, you’ll first need to use up the Scotia Rewards points. With the latter, the WestJet Dollars earned go into your WestJet account, separate from RBC.
In the course of researching credit cards, take the time to familiarize yourself with all the redemption possibilities. For instance, if you have RBC Avion points you can convert those to WestJet Dollars, among a number of other options.
Watch For Point Promotions
Aside from credit cards, utilize other methods to accumulate loyalty points or savings you can put toward travel. The primary way to do this is to pounce on good promotions. To stay on top of new ones, make sure you’re signed up for emails from all the loyalty programs of which you are a member, and maybe read a blog or two like you’re doing at this moment.
PC Optimum and Air Miles regularly have good offers, from flyer coupons and targeted offers to major nationwide promotions. Coming up soon is Air Miles Mega Miles where you can earn up to 1000 bonus miles.
If you need any hotel stays in the near term, check out all the current promotions for each hotel loyalty program. Confirm whether there are any stackable promos and keep an eye out for targeted email offers. If you have flexibility with your schedule, look for calendar sweet spots for low rates. If you qualify, take advantage of promos such as the Marriott new member free night after 2 stays or the Rocketmiles new user bonus.
When considering online purchases, monitor the multiplier bonuses available through shopping portals like the Aeroplan e-store or airmilesshops.ca. For pricey items, try to hold off so you can take advantage of one of these if you can.
Sometimes it can make sense to purchase points or miles during a sale if you have a specific use in mind that will end up saving you money.
Research Money-Saving Opportunities
If you have a firm trip idea, it’s extremely worthwhile to learn how save on things like transport, sightseeing and food at your chosen destination. I’m referring to stuff like advance purchase discount train tickets, transit passes, theatre discounts, restaurant vouchers, hole-in-the-wall or out-of-the-way eating places, free museum hours, interesting festivals and events etc.
I suppose a few might find this tedious but if you enjoy the thrill of the bargain hunt, it won’t seem like a chore at all. You can find a lot of these budget tips online in travel forums if you make ample use of the search function. From my perspective, discovering all the little nuggets of travel wisdom is just as fun as looking at where to redeem points and miles. Both can enhance your trip and save you lots of money.
Unload Idle Belongings
I’m mainly talking to myself with this one but I assume there are others out there in a similar boat. I have a lot of equestrian equipment that needs to be sold. My riding days are over. My horse is 30 years old. If you have anything of value that you don’t foresee using again, consider divesting yourself of the items and putting the proceeds toward your travel adventure.
In the early days of the pandemic, future travel was not on my mind. And realistically, I don’t know when my next trip outside Atlantic Canada will be. However, I’m now hopeful and optimistic that travel will resume in the relative near future, even for the more hesitant among us. To that end, now’s the time to start thinking about the where and the how, so that by the time we’re comfortable going away, we’ll be all set to make it happen under budget. Research and analysis are the keys to a low-cost, high-value vacation and you can do that part here at home in your pyjamas.