Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Final Blog Post: Will You Join Me on Two to Travel and Tango?

Authors note: It's been a great 8 years, but it's time to redirect my efforts. I'll be keeping this blog open so students looking to get a glimpse into post-graduate volunteer life can still do so, but to stay up to date I hope you'll join my wife and I at our travel secrets and stories blog- www.twototravelandtango.com

What a crazy couple years it has been. For starters, it's hard to believe Laura and I got married less than a year ago. We had a lot of fun, bringing our love and passion of travel and exploration into our wedding, as we took our guests on a tour of "our" Los Angeles.

The UCLA and Notre Dame fans weren't too thrilled about joining us on the field where the USC Trojans play
We've also been on the road a lot, me in particular. I've been to 21 countries in the last two years. Of that list, some of them have received multiple visits like four trips to Argentina, two to Chile, and about 20 to Mexico. Suffice it to say, we've been on the road A LOT and along the way, we've picked up some tricks to the trade.

In the next 12 months, I look forward to exploring a few new places: South Africa, Tanzania, Qatar, and Hungry while returning to a few places I really loved: El Salvador, Japan, Hong Kong, and Mexico. Who knows what else might arise.

Two years ago when I managed to get Laura and I business class tickets that took us from LA to Honolulu to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Bali to Bangkok (train through Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore) and then back to LA, and all for about 125,000 miles and a couple hundred dollars, friends began to reach out. "Can you help me book an award ticket?" "Hey, what's the best strategy for earning miles with credit cards and flights?" But it all came back to what I noticed were two central desires:

1. How can I travel cheap?
2. I want to travel cheap because I can't afford to do it any other way, and I realize there are stories out there just beyond my reach I so desperately want to hear.

My passion for storytelling intersected with my talent for making travel accessible. It was a match too good to be true. And so as of late, Laura and I have been busy.

In March, we started Two to Travel and Tango- a travel website geared toward millennials that yearn to discover ways to travel more affordably to encounter the stories that travel provides us. With my own hectic travel schedule and the incredible secrets and lessons learned, it just felt like it was something worth trying. Neither of us are rich people, and yet we've been able to travel as though we are. If you can travel as much as we have on our budget, I'd venture to say most people who say they don't have the money to travel and flat out wrong. It's just a matter of learning how to do it. The benefits not only of travel, but of doing it in incredible comfort are secrets we hope to pass on.

And so this is most likely the last blog post on this site. Going through the website, it's been fun to reminisce.  What a journey it's been from that day I stepped out of LMU, 22, excited to work in South America and uncertain of what that all meant. In the last few years, in my work directing immersion and social justice experiences at LMU, students of mine have found this blog. We've shared some laughs: You were so CHEESY is something I am told a lot. I still am is my typical response. We've also shared some valuable conversations motivated by this blog. It turns out, that in some small way, the blog is having some of the impact I always hoped it would on people discerning post-graduate volunteer work abroad. I had a student tell me the other day that reading my two year journey, both the good and the bad, is what gave him the courage to do post-graduate service. That's more than I could have ever hoped would arrive from this blog.

And so the site will stay open for now, but I really hope you'll join Laura and I in our newest endeavor. Two to Travel and Tango is easy to navigate to and the first thing you can do in the right hand column is sign up to receive email updates. Below that, you'll see opportunities to join us on Facebook and Twitter and of course, if you use Feedly or other blog readers we've got the RSS feed available for your use.

It's been a fun journey, and I feel it's just beginning. I'm still not the writer I want to be, but my basic endeavors not only with Two to Travel and Tango, but as a freelance writer for The Huffington Post, Vagabondish Travel Magazine, and Gonzaga University have me more excited to merge my love of story and travel into what I hope is a useful site for many people, not just travel hungry millennials. So join us, I'll do my best to make sure you don't regret it. See you over at www.twototravelandtango.com

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thoughts on Turning 30: Now Live On the Huffington Post

As a student at Loyola Marymount University, a professor and mentor of mine, Fred Kiesner, would always encourage his students to SOAR (Sit on a Rock). A business professor, he embraced Jesuit pedagogy and those wise words from Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living.

So a couple days ago I took a break from wedding plans, work, and everything else that seems to be piling up all around and I decided to SOAR. I was turning 30, and while I didn't see it as much of a big deal at first, others made sure I was aware of their thoughts on what the change of a decade meant. Thanks to some good friends and the wise words of an old professor bouncing around in my brain, I got to put together a brief reflection on the decade that was and the decade that awaits.

The Huffington Post apparently thought it was good as well, as they just published it today. So please enjoy my article "Thoughts on Turning 30: Be Curious, Tango, and Make it Count".


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Holes in the Fence: The Human Story Behind Immigration Reform

Over the weekend, I accompanied a group of Loyola Marymount students on De Colores, a program that brings students to Tijuana one weekend a month to learn about the various social justice issues along the border.

On Sunday, we were among several bystanders who watched history. A door in the border fence at a place called Friendship Park was opened for the first time ever, allowing a father living in the United States to hug and hold his five year old daughter for the first time ever.

I wrote a story about it for the Huffington Post that can be found here. The message is simple: behind all the rhetoric surrounding immigration reform, we must not lose sight of what it is we are fighting about: real people. Immigration reform has a very real human face as you will see in the touching video below, now if only more hearts may be moved to see them more clearly.




Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Travel Post- Or How To get an $8,500 business class ticket for $200


“I think I just got an $8,500 airline ticket for $200 and 125,000 miles” I told my fiancĂ© last night. We’ve probably spent more time anxiously researching honeymoon destinations than we have actually completing the x’s and o’s of the whole getting hitched process. We both have a thing for travel, and I’ve become a big nerd about the way we travel, essentially spending many a night pondering how two people on nonprofit salaries can fly in those seats that turn into beds after sampling nice wine andeating a beautifully prepared filet mignon. Poco a poco though, I've yet to work my way into a First Class Suite (you read that right) on Singapore Airlines or taken a shower in First Class on Emirates. For some people, trashy TV is their guilty pleasure. Mine is pretty simple: airlines and travel have always fascinated me, and I feel as giddy as a kid the night before Christmas when I prepare for a big trip!


(LEFT) Portion of a three page menu on our JAL flight from Honolulu to Tokyo
(RIGHT) The seat that turns into a bed on one of our Cathay Pacific Flights

Laura and I aren’t new to this. Over the summer, when we were both transitioning to new jobs we decided to travel for six weeks. Our journey took us from LA to Honolulu to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Bali to Bangkok (take a breath), where we then took a train to journey through South Thailand, Malaysia, and ending in Singapore on our way back to Los Angeles. The damage on this trip: about $150 each and 130,000 miles using a lesser known award called "The OneWorld Explorer."  This trip also was in business class, meaning seats that turn into beds, lounges at connecting airports to freshen up with private shower rooms that were bigger than my apartment. For more on the OneWorld Explorer, FlyerTalk is the definitive source in my opinion.






Lately, more and more friends have been asking me how we do this. And the answer, like most good things, can be a bit complex. But when you really look into it, it comes down to a few key ingredients: frequent flyer loyalty, a good credit card signup bonus or two, and finding ways to get bonus miles on everyday purchases. Let me explain:

Loyalty
I’m an American Airlines guy. Sure, from time to time (every long haul flight) I wish I was on Virgin America, with their sexy lights, or JetBlue, watching DirecTV live from my seat. But at the end of the day, what matters to me are two things: how and where can I use the miles/points I earn, and what benefits come with loyalty.

The benefits are pretty straightforward: I sit in emergency exit rows (when not being upgraded to First Class) and stretch my legs out nearly every flight. As a platinum member of American Airlines (someone who has flown 50,000 airline miles  a year with AA and their partners) I also earn double miles on every flight I fly. This adds up. A roundtrip from LAX to London earns most people 10,000, I get 20,000- that’s almost a free domestic round trip ticket right there! What’s more, I get to go through priority airport screening, rarely waiting in line, and often keeping shoes, belt, and jacket on when I use TSA Pre. Finally, when I need to call the airline, I’m connected to an agent in less than one minute usually. I could go on but the message is simple: loyalty pays dividends for me and my travel.

But where you can use miles are just as important. American, Delta, and United are all part of different airline alliances, meaning you can use your miles not just on flights with those airlines, but often with 20+ different partners (click the airline links to see each alliance and the airlines that are a part of it). When we went to Asia, we flew Cathay and JAL (two amazing airlines). Going to New Zealand, we’re taking Qantas. So your miles, on a major carrier, can really take you almost anywhere in the world you want to go!

So for me, I'm always on the look for when I can do American. If I'm booking personal travel and the cost is slightly more, I often will pick American, not only for the comfort benefits described above, but because at a certain point, earning double miles, I can rationalize it is in fact the more affordable option given the miles I will earn. It's a personal call for each person, but I've found more often than not, my loyalty pays for itself!

Credit Cards
This is what most people do to get the big miles. If you don't travel much, then you probably have to take a good hard look at it. There’s an entire community focused on maximizing opportunities for credit card bonuses. I’ll list a few of the bloggers I really like in this realm but I have to confess, I haven’t really utilized this that much. I did get an American Airlines credit card with a 75,000 mile bonus after I spent X amount in like 2-3 months (Best offer out there as of writing this is 50,000 miles). But that was it. If you really want to go this route to rack up miles, there are blogs like MileValue that can tell you the secrets much better than I ever could. A good bonus or two help A LOT, but it’s a world I haven’t felt inclined to really dive head first into... But again, most of the people who are swinging these huge miles and points trips do so because of credit cards.

Here a few of my favorite travel blogs who write about the credit card secrets along with other great tips and advice:

BoardingArea (Mommy Points is a great one from this network as is One Mile at a Time)

Maximizing Everyday Purchases
I don’t know about you, but I am amazed how much of my shopping I now do online. Wedding registry- I go online, find the gift, and send it off to the couple. Christmas, why step into a chaotic mall when I can just find a good deal online and ship it off or get it delivered to my doorstep? Heck, why buy a CD or even go out to rent a movie, when I can just get both on iTunes? If you’re like me, you make a fair amount of purchases online as well, through big brand stores. What most people never realize, is there is a way to get bonus miles on these purchases.

Most of the big airlines now have online shopping portals, and you need to think of it as exactly that. Instead of going straight to Target.com, you login to say the Aadvantage EShopping Portal, search for the store or product you are looking for and earn anywhere from 2-30 extra miles per dollar. Looking to buy Rosetta Stone- why not get 7 extra miles per dollar spent on that purchase? Need to go by your local Home Depot to pick up some stuff? Why don’t you order online and have it ready for store pick up at your local store (avoid shipping charges and wait), and earn a bonus 3 miles per dollar spent. 

My absolute favorite is back when Groupon was giving 8 miles per dollar (today it is 2 miles). A friend bought a tour package to Australia on there, and because it was a $5,000 purchase, earned 40,000 miles. But even if you made that purchase today, you’d get an additional 10,000 miles, just by going through the shopping portal, rather than going right to Groupon.com. The portals don’t change the price, they don’t do anything other than help you earn.

Even if miles aren't your thing, you should still be using a portal like UPromise to earn money to pay down your Sallie Mae loan, create a 528, or deposit money into a high interest rate savings account through Sallie Mae. By using this when booking a hotel through hotels.com or for other purchases, I've been able to reduce my student loans by $400- all for taking 20 seconds and logging into a simple portal before making a purchase I am planning to make anyway.

Amazon Payments
Amazon Payments allows you to transfer $1000 from one person to another before either party is charged a credit card fee. So let's say you write a check to your roommate for rent each month- why not set up an Amazon Payment account and send it to them via that, earning miles on whatever miles credit card you utilize? If you're married and have a few different bank accounts between you and your spouse, same idea can apply: instead of just transferring the money, do it via Amazon payments. Think about it: $1,000 = 1,000 miles x 12 months = 12,000 miles a year extra to your mileage account. That's a free one way domestic ticket!

Dining
Dining is another everyday purchase that helps me build points. Each airline has a dining rewards program some restaurants participate in. So for me, each time I get a pizza from my favorite pizza joint, I get an extra 5 miles per dollar spent thanks to the Aadvantage Dining Network. When I traveled a lot for work, I used todetermine which restaurant to try in the neighborhood based on where I’d earn some extra miles. If the place looked good, why not try it, support a local establishment, and get these extra miles to boot? With both the dining and e-shopping portals, you can check if your airline participates by Googling the name of your airline and eshopping or dining program. 

But how do you redeem these miles
If you thought earning was hard, actually using your miles can be something even more challenging. But as my two most recent bookings show, it isn’t impossible. Our Asia trip I booked 3 weeks before departure, and it was in the middle of peak travel season from the States. For New Zealand, we are going there in the peak of their tourist season. The opportunities exist; they just require some patience, persistence, and technology.

The persistence is the easiest part. Each night before I went to bed, and each morning when I woke up, I was logging onto aa.com and searching for reward flights. When the first leg opened up, but the return flight home wasn’t available, I took advantage of a rule with American Airlines that allows you to put a ticket on hold for five days. I searched for the one-way to Auckland, found it, and put it on hold and then searched each day until Monday, the last day, when the return trip became available. I put that on hold, and then Laura and I made sure everything was as we wanted it to be. There's a great post on this process here.

The patience can be the hardest part. Some say the best time to book awards are 330 days out. Often times that can be true I’m told (and it certainly worked for me and our New Zealand trip), but sometimes, airlines wait until they determine it’s safe to open up more rewardspace (Read: They don’t think they’ll sell it) and that can be 90 days or less. So the patience sometimes requires flexibility. Laura and I had determined we wanted to go somewhere far for our honeymoon, but we didn’t dig our heels in for New Zealand: we also were open to Australia, or Vietnam and Cambodia. On my Asia trip, it was like a jig saw puzzle, holding the ticket for five days, and each day calling back, trying to find alternative routes and days to get from one spot to the next when at times it appeared no space was available. It also helps to become as educated if not more about routing rules than the customer service agents. When we had every leg of the journey lined up EXCEPT our flight home, I wouldn't just call and say "I want to get back to LA." I would call with knowledge of the various routes that could happen and ask the agents to check each and every route. Doing so is what allowed us to find our journey home via Tokyo, when originally the agent didn't think there was availability. 

The technology is the most fascinating part to me. I signed up for Expertflyer.com, a service that for $10 a month gave me, among many cool features, an ability to view award space on flights for several airlines, and also create email notifications so expertflyer would email me if the space I was looking for opened up. ExpertFlyer is wonderful for Star Alliance (searches all member airlines) and not too bad for others, you just have to know who you are looking to fly on. Awardnexus is also another possibility to explore. Finally, there is something called KVS Tool- but I haven't yet ventured that way, but if you're programming savvy, you might geek out over it. 

Final Thoughts
At the end of the day, if you're obsessed with travel, it's worth taking the time to really dive in and discover this world. If you know you want to do a big trip, start saving. If you're due for a new credit card, see what deals exist and if they're right for you. If you ever dine out, why haven't you taken 5 minutes to register your credit cards with one of the dining programs? Note: you can only be registered with one dining program, you can't get miles from like 5 programs on one purchase- nice try though! Shopping online, shop through a portal. Making a big purchase in store- see if the store allows you to shop online and pick up in store- and earn those miles! There are all these opportunities, big and small, that are just there for the taking. Be intentional, be savvy, and be persistent! 

I hope this was helpful. I'm by no means an expert, but I've linked to enough experts where hopefully this can be a good launching point! If you’ve got questions, leave me a comment- I’ll do my best to get to them.

Finally, if you need a little extra kick to get the travel bug, read this great blog post and then tell me you’re not itching to travel. We travel for fulfillment. Why not chase it as intentionally as we chase so much else in life?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where the missteps lead


I packed the wrong bag. Really, I wish I had a better opener to explain one of the most powerful and profound moments of my year, but I realize in many ways, it comes down to something as simple as that.

But I guess it really all started in 2003 when I realized I’m a horrible cement mixer. This was when I was down in Tijuana, Mexico with Loyola Marymount University on one of their weekend service and immersion trips called De Colores. If you were as bad as I was at mixing cement you had two options: You could perfect your cement mixing abilities, or you could inconspicuously sneak away and play with the kids from the community who came with their parents to the house build projects.

And so it was that I came to know Eric, and countless other kids in the local community called Tecolote that we worked in. Eric and his siblings grew close to many of us, so much so that one of Eric’s youngest siblings is actually named after a friend of mine who went on these trips. On my last trip as a student, another friend Diego gifted Eric a beanie with the logo of the service organization called Magis we were a part of. 
Eric, with Diego after being given his Magis beanie.

After I graduated, the beauty of Facebook updates from friends still at LMU allowed me to learn bits and pieces of how Eric and his family were, and time and again, the beanie was in the photos. But the photos and updates gradually disappeared as the work De Colores was doing moved away from Tecolote and into another community- El Florido. And before I knew it, I was left wondering about Eric, where he was, and what he was doing.

This past September, I became the interim Director of the De Colores service program, meaning I am now the one responsible for bringing LMU students down to Mexico. On Friday, I was frantically packing to get ready for the trip and for reasons I’ll never fully understand I walked right past my usual Mexico duffle bag and instead grabbed a bag off my closet shelf I haven’t used for a couple years now.

Fast forward to Sunday, and Build a Miracle, the nonprofit we work with in Tijuana hosted a holiday party for all the people who have received a home through their organization. A young man who looked to be about 20 caught my attention. He looked different, older obviously, and yet something inside told me it was Eric.

I got to spend a good amount of time with Eric and his family that Sunday. We exchanged stories and updates; them asking me about other students that had been part of my time period, me asking about members of the community that treated me like one of their own. Eric asked about Diego, and some of the other guys in the service organization, and told me he was an unofficial member of Magis even though his beanie had been stolen long ago. And it was then I knew, I hadn’t packed the wrong bag after all.

You see, the night before, I had been looking for my toothpaste and some other items I forgot to bring because I always keep them packed in my trusty blue duffle bag. I was frustrated and cursing my error when I felt something at the bottom of the bag: My Magis beanie. Seeing it Saturday night instantly brought back powerful memories of Eric, his siblings, and other members of the community I came to care about that kept me awake for much of the night. And here’s the thing- if I had the right bag, I never would have had the beanie and I probably wouldn't have thought about Eric and his family that night. I really don't think I would have recognized Eric that next day, he would have just been a face among the hundreds there that day.
Eric, with his new Magis beanie


God has a great sense of humor. Just when I think I have every detail choreographed, a wrench is thrown into the plan. Isn’t that life, in ways big and small? The challenge then isn’t avoiding the missteps, but rather in remaining constantly open to where and whom they might lead you to. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Generational differences on remembering 9/11



I realized last night speaking with a couple college students I work with at Loyola Marymount University that young men and women in college today were young elementary school students when 9/11 happened 11 years ago. In speaking to these students, I was momentarily taken aback by how it was one of the few times this particular conversation was driven less by raw emotion and reflection on a personal level of what that day meant and more almost like a history lesson. It was the first time I felt compelled to tell my own 9/11 story not for my own comfort, but to hopefully educate someone else. 

I was a senior in high school, and like many kids with parents were going through a divorce, my relationship with my parents wasn't great. I was difficult to communicate with, and so had spoken little with my dad but knew he was scheduled to be on a plane that day. Before those planes hit the towers, my biggest concern was a test I failed to properly study for and the status of Ed McCaffrey, a Broncos wide receiver who broke his leg on Monday Night Football the night before. That morning, the hours dragged on, leaving me wondering if my dad was alright. The petty reasons we shut off communication with people weighed heavily on my mind, as for the first time I contemplated a world where not talking to him was not a choice, but a brutal reality forced upon me. That feeling of relief when he called is vivid in my memory to this day. 

Watching the towers fall, surrounded by classmates who first screamed and then sobbed as we watched events unfold, those are the types of sounds you can almost hear again so clearly when you just recall the memory. To this day, when I go to Mass, I kneel, even when most in my local church no longer do. On 9/11, my school came together to do the only thing that made sense: pray. Being in a gym, we never knelt during Mass but this day was different. One student dropped to his knees, and then another, and in under a minute, the entire gym was on their knees. That moment was the strongest I felt that entire week. 

Each time I am in a Church I kneel and it brings me back to 9/11/01. I am reminded to pray for anyone who saw life close it's final chapter too soon, and those who silently shoulder the burden of that loss. But it's also a hallelujah song of sorts, a Thanksgiving  for the incredible comfort I felt in that moment, knowing there was a community around me ready to face what uncertainty lay ahead. 

I found this reflection from Vice-President Joe Biden and was profoundly moved by it. Vice-President Biden  lost his wife and daughter in a horrible car accident when he was only 30 years old. When he speaks to victims there is this clear and undeniable connection that I can only imagine comes from knowing real tragedy too early in life. 

I didn't lose anyone that day but like millions of people old enough to recall those strong emotions, the national loss is still a very real part of my personal identity. I think older generations have an important role in telling the stories that lurk behind the events of history. The things I remember most about some of the biggest historical events aren't what I learned from my history book, they are what was shared with me by members of generations who remember those moments as anything but a page in a history book.

Monday, August 27, 2012

I haven't worn pants in two months- and other stories from working at a startup


I haven’t worn pants in exactly two months. I suppose there are more appropriate ways to announce I am now working at a startup but a bit of embellishment about my pure joy of not having worn a pair of dress slacks for months was more likely to grab your attention.

When I was contemplating the jump to a startup a good friend urged me to take some time to think about it. “Why don’t you wait a few years, build up your savings a bit more, and then think if something like this makes sense?” He had a fair point. I worked with great people and was working a job that I liked. But I could feel the passion that I used to use as a beacon for life choices slowly fading away. If I waited until I was in my thirties, got accustomed to a nice salary and the perks that accompany it, who’s to say I’d still have the courage to make that jump? I believe we’re equally accountable to both heart and mind, and the heart was demanding I fight for it’s very survival.

Transitioning to a startup can be intimidating. We all have those days where we feel unfulfilled, but very rarely do we ask what we would be willing to give up in search of meaning? It’s one thing to declare you’ll follow your dreams, it is quite another thing to do just that when you realize that dreams, the really good ones at least, often come with great risk, cost, and sacrifice. This can be manifested in simple ways like letting go of your comfortable salary or company sponsored health insurance for example. Or it can be as vexing as a creeping feeling you’re not the passionate person you once were or the capable person your new company thinks they hired. When push comes to shove, it sure seems lot easier to never take the risk to discover if our greatest fears about who we are or who we are becoming are true or not.

My first weeks at InVenture have been exciting. And it’s not just about reporting to work most days in jeans and flip flops. There is something bigger going on. I’m surrounded by other people in their 20’s and 30’s who believe their work matters enough to have meaning. There are people all around me who are as curious as they are passionate, and that informs my work in incredible ways.

I don’t know what the future holds. But I do know that for so long I felt that emptiness in my soul that one feels when they aren’t pursuing the work they are called to do. We can ignore the longing by trying to fill the emptiness with meaningless distractions. Or, on trembling knees, we can face our greatest hopes and fears, often woven into one package.

Work here is anything but easy, but that hollow spot in my soul is being filled by a passion almost lost, compassion refueled, and curiosity pushing me to the limits of my own understanding. This is not to say I have attained the meaning I so desperately crave, but damned if I am not pursuing it... in my jeans and flip flops!