The Miles Game

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Today, instead of part 3 of my 3 part Peruvian adventure series I thought I would take a step back and explain briefly a little about how I started traveling and a rough overview on how to do it affordably.

I graduated graduate school in 2011 and decided to save up with my girlfriend for a condo in downtown Washington DC. A close friend of mine had been involved in the air miles game for a few years and presented a very lucrative credit card offer to me during the spring of 2011, it was for a Chase British Airways card that came with 100,000 BA points after spending a couple thousand dollars in a few months. I was hesitant at first and had plenty of doubts and questions. I had grown up in a household that taught the value of saving and the notion that credit cards could quickly get you into trouble making it extremely easy to charge beyond your means and with good reason, millions of Americans today have thousands of dollars of credit card debt, that was something I thoroughly wanted to avoid. The flip side was the chance to travel around the world for pennies on the dollar.

My girlfriend and I both took the plunge and applied for the card and were immediately approved, it was an exhilarating feeling, and I already started to think of the places I would go with my new found wealth of points.

Unfortunately I had made a major mistake, we had both applied for this card while we were also going through the loan process for our first mortgage on the condo we had picked out in DC. Thankfully our lender was a nice enough guy and did not require any changes to the terms of our loan (ie. increased interest rate, more points, etc) but it added to the mounds of paperwork we already had to fill out and submit detailing our entire financial history and acted as a valuable lesson.

Since that time we have both applied to over 25 cards combined and amassed over 1.5 million frequent flier miles and hotel points that have allowed us to travel to Hong Kong, Bali, Peru and soon, Grenada. I currently have over a million points with my sights set on a number of trips including a return to South America next winter traveling to Brazil, Argentina and Chile. A number of my friends also partake in this "game" and have also amassed giant sums of points worth tens of thousands of dollars worth of travel around the world. Heck I even got my parents involved.

When I first tell people about my travels they always ask me how I can afford it and once I tell them about the points I've accrued they then turn to suspicion over how such a scheme could even be possible (to be fair I felt the same way starting out). It really all boils down to a few simple principles on how anyone can do this:

1. You must have excellent credit, this typically means a credit score of over 700 with each reporting agency (there are three: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion and they all calculate your score a little differently but there should not be massive variations between all three). You can check an estimated version of two of your scores at (Experian) and (TransUnion). Beyond that you can get your actual scores from a number of websites that will offer it to you for a free trial of their services which you can cancel within the trial window (just make sure you actually call and cancel it!)

2. If your score is lower then this threshold I would strongly suggest getting a vanilla credit card, something simple with a low APR, likely from a credit union if possible. A revolving line of credit like a credit card will help you to build up your score over time as long as you pay your bills on time, preferably in full each month as to not incur interest charges on your purchases. Additionally be sure to pay all your other bills on time as well, ie cell phones, TV, internet as they can all negatively impact your credit score as well.

3. Once you are past at least the 700 point threshold with ALL of your scores you can begin to think about applying to some of the lucrative points cards available. There are of course, a TON of options available but they are not all created equal. I strongly suggest checking out or for a complete rundown of options and some more background infromation. Additionally, once you want to wade a little deeper into the game give a look, its a forum site dedicated to travel, especially travel on the cheap or utilizing points. When picking cards be sure to note the minimum spending requirements and the timeframe you have in which to spend that requirement in order to recieve the bonus points. I also strongly advise signing up for all of the major airline and hotel frequent traveler programs ahead of time ( ie AA, United, US Airways, Delta, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriot) so that you will already have a member number to put on your credit card application otherwise you will be assigned one randomly.

4. As you begin to apply and get approved for cards create a google document, or excel spreadsheet to track the cards you have gotten, what bank they are with, when you applied, what the offer was that you recieved and if there are any fees associated with the card. This will allow you to be able to know when you should call card providers to cancel or transfer a particular card(more on that later), it will also ensure that you track what you have spent and what you have left to spend to recieve a particular bonus offer. I also strongly advise utilizing to trackyour spending in general, and credit card spending in particular.

5. Another valuable tool is which allows you to track your various hotel, airline, and various other awards accounts in one handy place. Its free to use and I have found it to be invaluable.

Common concerns:

Q: Wont this really hurt my credit score?
A: No, in some instances it may actually HELP your credit score! This is because your credit score is calculated utilizing information detailed in the chart below:

As you can see the most important factors have to do with if you pay your bills on time and how much you owe overall and on each loan (or credit card) you have issued in your name, this is known as your utilization percentage. The next biggest portion of your score is how long you have had various credit lines open, the longer you have a credit card, typically the more it will help you since it shows banks trustworthiness. Another 10% is based on the types of credit you have available, usually pay day loans wont be viewed as favorably as say a federal student loan, or a home mortgage. The last 10% is based on inquiries to your account for new lines of credit. These inqueries stay on your credit report for up to 24 months but only effect your actual score for around 12 months. If you are opening up new lines of credit your utilization will likely go down which can really help your score and offset what ever small hit(typically 2-5 points an inquiry) might occur from applying to begin with.

Q: Wont I have to pay an annual fee on most of these cards, doesnt that defeat the purpose?
A: On some cards you may have to pay an upfront annual fee and at that point you must decide if the points are worth that cost(they usually are) but by and large most companies waive the annual fee for the first year to entice new customers. If you are simply applying to the card for the signup bonus and not because you want to actually keep the card I suggest meeting the minimum spending requirements to recieve the bonus and then call to transfer or cancel the card a couple months prior to your one year anniversary. When I say transfer what I mean is that you can call many banks and have them downgrade your card to a no-fee card. This can be extremely useful to do since it allows you to hang out to the credit line that you have been issued, thus positively influencing your credit score and length of history. It can also act as a bargining chip for future instances where you may apply to a different card with that bank again and are not instantly approved. In this case you can call the bank and discuss moving credit from your now no-fee card to a new card with a new signup bonus! Not all banks will allow you to transfer a card to a no-fee card and in that case I suggest canceling or attempting to extract concessions from the bank in order for you to maintain the card(ie more points, waiving the fee for another year etc).

A few suggestions:

1. Typically limit applications for cards to one day every 3-4 months once you decide to really get into it. This will help to limit the number of hard inqueries that will go onto your credit report which will in turn affect your credit score (temporarily).

2. Typically only apply to one personal and one business card per issuing bank at a time. Usually banks will be hesitant to issue more then one personal card at a time(not always the case but a good rule of thumb).

3. Figure out a few destinations you want to travel to BEFORE applying to cards. Its good to have a goal in mind to work towards instead of blindly applying. 

My Peruvian Adventure Part 2

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Paracas Candelabra

The Paracas Nature Reserve is a must for anyone visiting Peru, many have called it the Peruvian Galapagos and for good reason. The area around the Ballesta islands is home to a multitude of animal species including penguins and seals. We arrived a little late and had to rush out to the tour boat with everyone already waiting on us. The boat itself had room for roughly 14 and was perfect to take pictures from as we traveled out to the islands past the Paracas Candelabra which is a glyph from around 200 BCE. Historians and archaeologists are unsure as to what it symbolized but it was absolutely massive, being roughly 600 feet tall on the hillside.

A fishing vessel we passed on the way to the Ballestas
Ballesta Islands
The islands themselves were like a scene out of The Birds, the vast numbers and types were astounding. Additionally the islands are inhabited by seals which were raising their young on our visit, we were extremely lucky to see some of the baby seals both in the water and along the shoreline.

These guys were quite the characters
The birds...they are everywhere!
Quite a meme-able expression
The king of the island
We spent a solid two hours out around the islands before heading back to the shore. I probably should have put a little more sunscreen on as I was pretty red by the time I made it back on land. We spent the next hour touring the the town at Paracas, eating some seafood and snapping a few touristy photos like this one:

It just wanted the fish

It took some convincing to get her to stand next to the pelican but I think it was well worth it! After we left the town we went to the newly constructed nature center located in the protected area of the Reserve. The nature center provided lots of interesting information on the ecosystem of the area as well as being located near a beautiful beach unlike anything I had witnessed before. The colors were gorgeous!

The yellow limestone was etched out in some areas
The contrast was stunning
We left Paracas and headed back to Lima for the night before flying out to Puerto Maldonado bright and early the next morning. When we stepped off the plane we could instantly tell the difference in climate; the air was thick and humid, the forests were lush and creeped into civilization anywhere possible. The airport terminal was open air and had no jet-ways or other common modern airport conveniences beyond a single luggage conveyor belt. From the airport we were loaded onto a large jacked-up van where our luggage was lifted and tied down on the roof. Once we sat down we were told to look under our seats and were greeted with a snack of local fare including plantain chips, macadamia nuts and other treats. The van took us to the main "offices" of the company that operates the Refugio Amazonas Eco Lodge located in the Peruvian Amazon. There we had to show our immunization records (Yellow Fever can be a serious issue in the forest). The lodge was located 4 hours up river and required us to board a small boat that would take us there.

Our sweet ride for 4 hours
HDR anyone?
 The boat ride was peaceful and engaging. We passed locals who rely on the river to conduct commerce and as their main avenue of transportation. 

The largest Papayas I've ever seen
Stopped along the way for a bathroom break... intimidating to pee in the Amazon.

Along the way we saw a wide array of animals that became more prevelant the deeper into the forest we went including Macaws, turtles, Camen, and any number of parrots and other birds.

Just a couple Macaws kissing...
Apparently the butterflies drink the turtle's tears
The venerable Capybara-largest rodent in the world
A freshwater Camen
Along the way we also stopped at the check in station to the nature reserve where we were required to sign into the park, show our immunization records again and received an awesome stamp in our passports for the park. When we finally arrived at our destination we walked up a staircase built into the river bank and up through a candlelit path in the forest. It opened up to the lodge, a stunning two story complex open to the jungle that even had a bar and spa.

Refugio Lodge walkway to the suites
Refugio Bar, proprietor of jungle libations
Refugio walkway
Our room only had three walls, the forth was completely open to the jungle. We were even provided with a safe to keep any food items we had in just in case a monkey decided to wander in. Meals were served at set times for the whole lodge and the food was outstanding. It was all locally sourced and included many types of fruits and vegetables I had never experienced before. The lodge also had plenty of room to lounge around, read, and decompress as you listen to the noises of the forest around you. It also acts as the rally point for all sorts of excursions. While there we took a guided forest tour detailing some of the fauna and flora as well as taking a canoe tour around one of the lakes in the area.

Small bats resting on a log
Dragon fly I captured while walking to the lake
A bird through the reeds
A pretty butterfly
The Army Ants were everywhere

Two other tours we went on during our stay took us up a canopy viewing deck ( I only made it halfway before my fear of heights overwhelmed me) and to a local sustainable farm across the river from the lodge.
The friendly pet monkey we met

We left Puerto Maldonado with heavy hearts, it was a marvelous experience and one I am surely not soon to forget. At the same time we were extremely excited for the last leg of our trip...Cusco and Machu Picchu!

My Peruvian Adventure Part 1

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View of an incoming storm from the ruins at Machu Picchu
Last spring my girlfriend, myself and a couple friends decided to explore Peru for a week and half. It was a country I knew little about beyond containing both Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines. I left with a deeper understanding of a vibrant nation full of varying cultural identities, fauna, flora, and countryside. 

You'd almost think this was in the Sahara

Perfect for sand boarding 
Prior to our arrival we had hired a driver to take us south to the towns of Pisco, Ica and eventually on to the oasis at Haucachina where we would stay for a couple days. We were picked up promptly from the airport and whisked away through the streets of Lima at the break of dawn, thankfully before rush hour bogged us down in a sea of three wheeled taxis called tut tuts, motorcycles, and delivery trucks. The drive took us along the coast before the scenery shifted to an arid, desert landscape, unlike anything I would have expected; we were venturing into the extreme northern reaches of the Aticama desert, one of the driest in the world. Some parts of the Aticama have never seen rainfall and it has been labeled as having some of the most Martian like terrain on Earth. Because of this the area has served as both a test bed for NASA as well as a great film site for Hollywood.

Wide array of Pisco options

Old school method of fermentation
On our drive down we stopped in small villages along the way that specialized in the production of a grape based liquor called Pisco. The liquor has a long history in the region since the time of the conquistadors originally carrying over grapes from Europe with them. To this date there is still a long running feud between Peru and Chile on which nation actually originally distilled the liquor. At the various stops we learned about the process of hand picking the grapes and the ceremonial foot stomping that occurs every year accompanied by music, food, and drink. Much of the actual modern day product takes a much more mechanical approach, for better or worse I suppose. Of course, at the end of all these historical tid bits and touring the vineyard we were taken to the gift shop and provided with some samples, including a complimentary Pisco Sour (the national drink of choice consisting of Pisco, simple syrup, lime juice and an egg white fluff on top). Being the sucker I am for international booze I purchased a couple bottles of the stuff even though frankly its not very good straight. From there we continued south to Haucachina.

Haucachina Oasis
The road into Haucachina  drops you into a patch of greenery nestled between two massive dunes which seems quite surreal. The town itself was really nothing to speak of, it is almost entirely a tourist based economy which tends to take away from the uniqueness of it. Additionally, a few decades ago water levels in the oasis began to drop substantially due to the towns usage so now water is actively pumped into it, which was a bit of a downer to learn. What the town lacked the surrounding desert surely made up for, and thankfully one of the main tourist attractions was the buggy tours conducted by what seemed to be every Peruvian in the town.

You would think sand would be an issue here...

Backseat was the most exhilarating

The buggies were basically supped up versions of the dune buggies sometimes found at Costco except with a V8 engine and room for 10. Our driver was not afraid to floor it going up and down the dunes. Along the way the driver stopped on top of a massive dune and gave us the opportunity to sand board down. Its much like snow boarding and the sand even sounds very similar to snow passing underneath you. I'd strongly recommend partaking!

The Pan American Highway

Nazca Hummingbird 

The Astronaut

Nazca Lines from the air
 A lot of mystery still surrounds the creation of the lines, shapes, and creatures dug into the desert. What can be said for them is that they are an impressive sight. We were able to hire a pilot and a 6 seater Cessna to fly us over the Nazca Lines for roughly 45 minutes. The ride isnt for the weak stomached as my girlfriend found out after throwing up for much of the flight but if you can stomach it the experience is once in a lifetime. Some of the lines, like in the ones pictured above, extended to the horizon. Other shapes were perfect rectangles and triangles. The animal shapes, along with the astronaut, were breathtaking. The craftsmanship and skill that went into these figures was simply outstanding and left me in deep thought for much of the rest of the afternoon about how these could have been constructed and what purpose they would have served to the civilizations that built them.

Maria Reiche's VW

Jess pondering cute animals or something I'm sure
Before leaving Nazca we stopped at a local museum housed in the former residence of Maria Reiche, the German woman who came to Peru and began studying the Nazca lines in the 1940's. She was an advocate for the protection of the region from further development to the day of her death and was even buried in the area. The museum was filled with artifacts from the region including a mummy of a girl found buried beneath the desert.

Our final stop before heading back north was at a small workshop specializing in traditional Nazca pottery crafted utilizing the same tools, techniques and materials used by the Nazca culture centuries ago. The shop was owned and operated by an extremely friendly gentleman named Toby who was eager to show us around his workshop, detail the techniques he utilized, and of course show us some of his final products readily available for sale. The care and precision he put into the pot we saw him make (a traditional Nazca water pot) was outstanding; he explained what rocks and soil was gathered for the various dyes and pigments used to paint colorful figures and stories on the exterior of each pot. Toby was indicative of many of the people we would meet across the country, extremely friendly, industrious and proud of their culture and heritage.

Toby illustrating traditional pot making techniques

Toby polishing and painting 

In part 2 we travel north to the Paracas Nature Reserve and then on to Puerto Maldonado, the gateway to the Peruvian Rainforest...