Reflections and advice based on personal experience.

Air Miles Gardening

House projects and gardening should mean one thing to a mileage hoarder--a great opportunity.  Weed killer, mulch, an ergonomic gardening trowel, bird seed, and a bird feeder are all things I've needed this spring.  I live less than 2 miles from a Home Depot so they are my go to store.  I simply go to the Delta Skymiles site, type in Home Depot and there I am.  I use the in store option and load up the cart.  You get an immediate confirmation followed by another timely email confirmation that your products are awaiting you at your chosen store.  Print the confirmation, go to the store's service desk and there will be your cart filled with your items.  Since you've already paid online, you simply hand the desk person your printed confirmation and you walk out of the store with the filled cart.  The reward?  The easiest shopping ever AND a ton of miles.  If you've spent say 100$, you receive 100 miles from your Delta credit card plus 400 miles by using the skymiles site.  500 miles and you didn't have to board a plane.

I also recently remodeled my kitchen.  Another great mileage opportunity.  I needed new shelf liner, the non-stick kind that provides cushioning.  Home Depot has it.  My new counter tops are quartz and I can't use my old bleach cleanser.  My kitchen contractor recommended 409.  Home Depot has it.  My old drawer organizers were pretty disgusting.  Home Depot has some nice new ones.  Also convenient about the process is that you know what is in stock without ever leaving home.

The possibilities are endless.  Go shopping the mileage way!

Safety for the Solo Female

I have to bite my tongue when people say to me with a look of horror on their face, “You’re going where?”  Ignorance keeps too many Americans from traveling anywhere internationally but resorts or Europe.  Actually, the only places I have ever experienced food poisoning have been in resorts and the only place I was ever robbed was in Europe.

First of all, leave the good jewelry and nice clothes at home.  You will never blend with the locals, but there is no need to stand out.  Money, a credit card and passport should be in a money belt underneath your clothes.  However, I do carry a throw down wallet with me.  It has expired credit cards and at least 20 dollars in the local currency.  I can afford to have that taken. 

Don’t look overburdened. I have a palm-sized camera.  Honestly, it takes very good pictures.  Sure I’d like to use a wide angled camera but why call attention to yourself?  Additionally, I carry a small cylinder of pepper spray if I’m out alone at night. It’s in a pink case and it looks like a lipstick.  I have it opened with my finger poised on the trigger.  Although it’s an illegal item (at least in my state), I carry it in my cosmetic bag where it looks just like a lipstick.  I bought it on the internet.  You can also buy them that look like pens.

About nighttime.  I never walk alone late at night but sometimes as twilight comes on, public places close down quickly so that’s when I get out the pepper spray.  If you want to go somewhere at night, you should have your hotel call a trusted cab company.  If you’re going to a restaurant, have them do the same thing going back.  Do not hail a cab on the street.

Trust your instincts.  I was walking taking pictures one afternoon in Granada, Nicaragua, when I noticed a small park, not heavily treed, with some interesting sculptural elements.  I started wandering about looking for good shots when I realized that I didn’t feel right.  Although I saw nothing alarming, I immediately left and crossed the street.  Later I found out from friends that the park was a hang out for glue sniffers and petty criminals. 

On public transportation pay careful attention to your belongings.  Before a trip to Ecuador, I had read that thieves sometimes crawl under seats, slash open back packs placed on the ground between the owner’s feet, and carefully extract valuables.  I was traveling on a two-hour bus ride from Quito to Otavalo with a carry on sized roller bag which I was reluctant to put in the cargo hold or put under my seat.  The solution:  I paid the 2$ fare for the seat next to me, and the suitcase rode next to me. Later in Otavalo I met a couple at dinner who were backpacking and had ridden the bus to where I was staying.  Her backpack had been neatly sliced on the bus and her very expensive camera was stolen.

Be sure to carry your name, where you are staying, and contact information in your money belt.  Also, if you plan on any side trips, tell the place where you're staying where you're going and  when you plan on coming back.  Also be sure to give them the name and phone number of someone you would want contacted in case of an emergency.  Your passport needs to go in a safe.  Sometimes I've been asked for picture ID or a passport to get into sites or to rent headphones.  Since I don't travel with my driver's license, I carry a credit card in my money belt that has my picture on it.  It was easy to upload onto my Capital One card which by the way, does not charge extra for international transactions. 

If this all sounds scary, consider this.  Outside of Europe, I’ve never had anything stolen.  More importantly, no one has tried to hurt me.  In my experience, people in the developing world don’t carry guns.  They might grab your purse as they ride by on a bicycle, but you’re not likely to get shot as you might be in the U. S.  While gun statistics are widely manipulated, the murder rate by guns is higher for the U.S. than any of the 17 countries I’ve traveled in during the 7 years since I retired. 

Be vigilant whenever and wherever you travel but don’t worry.  Considering that I live just 15 miles from Flint, Michigan, I’m always safer when I’m traveling.

Mileage Whore

Miles are vital to my kind of travel.  In the last 7 years I have bought very few international tickets.  Detroit, my closest airport, is a Delta hub; therefore, I do everything to build my Delta miles.  Though hardly my favorite airline, they control the bulk of traffic in and out of Detroit so I am a member of their frequent flier program.

There are several ways to build miles.  First, every time I fly Delta I get miles for the flight, but this is not the bulk of my miles.  I have a Delta American Express credit card which is free the first year you have it.  After that it’s 95$ a year but I more than make up for that with my free tickets, and it allows me a free checked bag and priority boarding.  Every dollar you spend is worth an air mile. Remember, even 5$ at McDonalds is 5 air miles. I put absolutely everything on my card and I do pay my bill off every month.  My gym membership, car and home insurance, and cable bill are all automatically billed on the card.

  But there are more ways to earn miles with the card.  Delta, as do other airline cards, has a sky miles shopping site.  Almost every retailer you can think of is listed there. Let’s say you need some basic drugstore items—toothpaste, suntan lotion, razors, and dental floss.  At the skymiles  site, type in drugstore or even the items you want and an appropriate list will appear.  Currently is listed and it’s giving you 6 miles for every dollar you spend and if you spend 25$ the shipping is free.  Also note that you will not pay tax as you do in your state AND they often have things on sale.  You also don’t spend a dime on gas.  The result?  If, for example, your order totals up as 35$, you will get 35 miles from your credit card bill, an extra 210 miles from skymiles for a total of 245 miles.  You may have spent less than you normally would for these items too. 

Perhaps you have a fondness for a few more expensive cosmetics carried only at higher end department stores.  I confess to loving Estee Lauder’s stay in place make-up and a particular Shiseido lipstick.  Together these items cost 60$--I know, ridiculous—but again the current rate is 6 miles per dollar.  Nordstroms has free shipping so I net 60 plus 360 miles for a total of 410 air miles.  Again, no driving although I do pay state tax.  These are items I would have bought anyway for the exact same price.  There are very few things other than groceries that I can’t buy through skymiles.  If it’s clothing and you want to try it on like I do, go ahead and go to the store and try it on.  Just go home and make your purchase through skymiles.

There are other ways to build miles too.  Dining for miles is another Delta program.  You simply sign up for free and every time you eat at one of their linked restaurants, you get miles.  The more you eat out at their restaurants, the higher the mileage rate gets.  I am currently getting 3 miles per dollar spent so if I have a 25$ bill, I get 25 $ from my credit card plus an additional 75 miles through the program.  I do not eat at these restaurants just because they have miles, I go only if I like the place or it’s been recommended.  I have been pleasantly surprised when visiting cities in both the U.S. and Canada to find that I ate at a participating restaurant without knowing it until my dining for miles account acknowledged it.  Note:  if you’re eating with friends and splitting the bill, ask if anyone is paying with cash.  If they don’t mind and it works for you, pay their portion too for more miles and keep the cash for another situation.

Yet other options exist.  I belong, for free, to a program called E Miles Earning Opportunity.  They offer a variety of things that help you get miles.  Once you have 500 miles you simply deposit them through their site into your air mile account.  Typically, you get 5 miles for simply looking at a quick pitch for something and answering 3 or 4 multiple choice questions.  For instance, you could get 5 miles for listening to a 30 second pitch from Doctors Without Borders.  You could get another 100 miles if you give 20$.  For me, this is an organization I would give to anyway so I end up with miles and a tax deduction.  Another pitch might be for something like Groupon.  Sign up, no monetary obligation, and your receive 25 miles.  Find you don’t like it?  Unsubscribe, but you still keep those 25 miles.

Yet another free program I belong to is called E Rewards.  This program asks you to fill out surveys.  They could be about anything—buying a car, shopping for house wares, experiences with financial companies.  Really, anything.  They tell you how long a survey will take but I never find they take that long.  They ask you questions to see if you qualify.  Typically, if you answer yes to someone in your family working in a particular industry they mention, you will not get to do the survey.  They also seem to be looking for the household decision maker.  If you don’t qualify, they usually give you .25$ for answering a few questions and anywhere from 6 to 8$ or more for completing the survey.  At 50$ you qualify for 500 air miles which they will deposit into your airline account.

With some effort, you can joint the fly for free game. 

Choosing a Destination

If money is an issue, stay out of countries on the euro. They are far more expensive than most anywhere else, and most of the world is not on the euro. The next part is purely personal. Is there a pressing reason to visit a place?  My first trip alone was to Korea because my son was teaching there. I also traveled in Japan for a week because the plane stopped there. Often you can stay in a city where the plane stops as long as you eventually continue on to your final destination. Surprisingly, both countries are easy to travel in. Public transportation is excellent, all signage is in English, and both countries are very safe.

Other places I’ve chosen have fulfilled other needs. As a child I loved archaeology and read books about famous discoveries such as King Tut’s tomb so I visited Egypt. Sometimes another traveler describes a place that piques my interest—hence my trip to Guatemala based on a conversation with a couple I met on an overnight train to Budapest. Another trip to Cambodia came from the startling emails sent by my son who traveled there. It doesn’t have to be a solid reason. Where have you ever thought about visiting?  If you can’t come up with an idea, go to the UNESCO World Heritage site. The places listed have “ outstanding, universal value.”  Currently there are 725 cultural sites, 183 natural sites and 28 mixed sites. I have never been disappointed with any of these sites. You simply can’t go wrong.

Planning an Itinerary

 Research. Some people believe in just pointing a finger and going. I think you can waste a lot of time if you haven’t done your research. That said, an itinerary needs to be flexible. What works best for me is to make a broad outline with room for change.

Before you go any farther, you need to discover what type of traveler you are. Some people like to be on the go and see as much as possible. What works best for me is a 4 to 7 day stay in each place. I’ve also done trips where I’ve rented a house and stayed in one place for a month with day trips to other places. Decide first how much time you have and how much you want to move around.

How to begin? 

  A friend of my sister’s who I met while traveling in Guatemala told me that she loved Nicaragua and mentioned Granada. I almost didn’t look any further because I thought it sounded dangerous—what was that whole Iran/Contra/Sandinista thing all about?  Ignoring the thought, I typed in Granada, Nicaragua, into Utube. There are multiple videos of this most charming, colorful city. The more I watched, the more I wanted to go. One video even showed a boat going out onto Lake Nicaragua on which Granada is situated. A fin of a fresh water shark swam along the boat. Was the video doctored?  It could have been, but I was intrigued by the possibility. Other settings are easy to authenticate: all the videos show the

Planning Resources: Suggested Reading

I don’t read guidebooks cover to cover. It’s too much information when you haven’t been to a country. I find it confuses me. I have favorite sources: for books,  Lonely Planet, and Moon Guide. On line resources, Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet’s Thorne Tree Travel Forum, and as secondary sources, Frommers and Fodors. I also google the cities I want to visit to see what I can find.  I type in as many approaches as I can—Yucatan Penninsula, Yucatan travel, traveling in Mexico, trips Yucatan, touring Yucatan, etc. Keep trying.  In researching the Yucatan, I discovered a wonderful resource, Yucatan Today, a monthly tourist magazine that you can read online (or free from hotels stands once you’re there). Many of the articles are written by expats living there and each issue contains restaurant reviews, both in depth and short descriptions listed by city, house and apartment rentals, monthly special events, archaeological sites and much more. Google is your friend. Try different searches such as travel in Yucatan, Yucatan travel, eastern Mexico, etc. Keep trying.

Where to start reading: 

  Start with recommended itineraries. You can’t go everywhere. What does the book suggest?  Do you want an active vacation with hiking, biking, and rafting?  Are you more interested in culture such as museums, theaters, and historical sites?  You can find itineraries set up this way. You can also find them organized by location such as coastal, northern, inland. I like a little of everything so I look at several itineraries, and then  at a map. I try to figure out my basic itinerary. Don’t forget to consider transportation. Where are you flying to?  Do you want to fly out of the same place?  Many airlines will give you flexibility. For instance, on a trip to Ecuador, I started my trip in Quito, the capital. After traveling to Quito and several other locations in Ecuador I flew to the Galapagos islands. My final leg out of Quayaquil was my return flight to the U. S. The USA—Quito—Quayaquil—USA cost me no more than if I’d flown into and out of Quito. (For information on flights, see my section on the mileage whore).

Public Transportation

 I never rent a car and have never felt limited. Transportation outside of the U.S. is much better, virtually everywhere. While trains in Europe are ubiquitous, developing countries usually have excellent bus transportation. For instance, I took a bus between Guatemala and Honduras. It was a brand new Mercedes bus with attendants who provided a free hot meal, breakfast from Burger King, and coffee. The seats were leather and I would compare it to business class seating on a plane. They had headphones sitting on the seats and showed movies on a flat screen TV, though you need to like American action flicks.

 Also a good bet and cheaper than a taxi are shuttles. It’s nice to leave the baggage claim and see someone holding a card with your name on it. You may have to share the ride with other travelers but consider that an opportunity to meet people, possibly people you want to hang around with. Shared taxis to villages are another option, although I’d avoid them in mountainous areas where they tend to disregard yellow no passing lines. The faster they get to their destination, the more money they make. In this case I’d opt for a bus—slower, but more likely to “win” in dangerous passing situations. For shorter distances, consider tuk tuks. They resemble a golf cart with a better engine. They are very inexpensive for local travel, usually less than a dollar. Being open air, they are fun and a great way to see places.

A Note on Taxis

 In many countries outside the U.S. taxi drivers do not expect tips although you may want to round up to the next dollar. Do read before you go what the local official taxis look like. Avoid unmarked taxis. In some places they do not use meters so be sure to settle the price before you get in. Repeat the amount out loud for confirmation. If an area is sketchy or if it is nighttime, have the restaurant or hotel call you a cab. If you are not in either place, locate the nearest hotel, go there, and tip the person who calls your taxi.  Also, always travel with a business card for the place you are staying. Cabbies will say they know where you’re going  to get a fare but make sure they understand the directions before you leave. You also can have your hotel write specific directions but keep in mind that in some countries, the drivers might not be able to read the official language.

Air Travel Outside the States

Some countries have their own small carriers that fly new planes at bargain prices. You can even book one-way tickets at half the price. For instance, I flew LAN air in Ecuador, about a 45 minute flight, between Quito and Cuenca for about 50$. It’s a 12 hour drive because the road goes over the Andes. Although extremely cheap, it’s an even longer trip by bus. Sometimes you can get deals for airlines in a country with cooperating airlines. Three airlines in Thailand sell flights by segment for a good price but you must buy the segments beforehand; they can’t be purchased in Thailand. By the way, this applies to high-speed trains in Japan. You buy a one-price ticket that can be used multiple times but again, can’t be purchased once you’re there.

Book Ahead or Wing It?

You have choices. Do you book everything beforehand or try your luck when you get there?  I do both. In general, if you are at all anxious about traveling alone, go ahead and pre-book. My go-to sources are and , all sources online.

If you plan to wait until you get to your location, you might want to ask on a travel forum like  whether there is a lot of availability in city X when you plan to visit. As a woman traveling alone, I prefer B & B’s. They are small and the owner not only lives there, but invariably takes a personal interest in your welfare. I’ve had owners do all sorts of things such as have a grandparent pick me up for free at the airport, store leftover food from a cooking class in their refrigerator and then reheat it and serve it to me, take me to a bus station, buy the ticket for me and then wait until I got on the bus, lend me their personal alarm clock set to the time I needed to get up. I could give more examples but you get the idea. I also mention to the owner that I found their place on Trip Advisor. I don’t know for sure if this helps, but owners are very dependent on these reviews. I also mention that I write reviews when I get home, and I always do.

Renting an Apartment in a Foreign County

I have had good luck with Air B & B and VRBO. Although some places want you to rent for at least a week, others will allow a single night. I rented an apartment in Rome that was really more of a guest house for 76$ a night on Air B & B.  I chose it for several reasons. First of all, I emailed the owner about transportation. In addition to the answer, I also wanted to see how quickly she responded. She did promptly and gave me lots of additional information. Also important, I would not choose any place on this site that doesn’t have several reviews. The other reason I chose the apartment and something you should think about if you’re using public transportation is how close to it you’ll be. Although this apartment was the last stop on the subway, it made it cheaper and it was located very close to the stop. I was the first to get on in the morning so I had a seat no matter how crowded the train got.

Assessing reviews: 

 I often don’t pick the number one listing on Trip Advisor because it is too expensive. Don’t be afraid to pick a place further down the list. Sometimes they are there because they’re new and have few reviewers. Sometimes one or two people write horrible reviews. If the rest of the reviews are great, you can over look the bad one. People can be ridiculous and expect a homey B & B to be a 5 star hotel or sometimes people are just jerks. Look at what they are complaining about. I have stayed at probably 15 B & B’s and never once been disappointed. Also, don’t expect typical American style reservations. Sometimes in developing countries they ask you for a deposit via paypal, or they may ask you to send a check to an American bank or any number of atypical requests. I have learned to follow their requests and have not been burned. Remember, if you find the place on Trip Advisor, the owner can’t afford any scandal. If you have any hesitation about reserving, email the place and start a dialogue with the owner.

Renting Houses Abroad

 If you’re staying for a week or want to invite friends, consider a house. Again, pick a house that has reviews and email the owner. Make up a question if you have to; you want to see how responsive and helpful the owner is. Location is critical so make sure you see where the house is in relation to what you’re interested in seeing and doing. Check it out on google maps and google earth to see what the neighborhood looks like. I once read a review of a house I was going to rent on Trip Advisor. I sent a pm (private message) to the reviewer who had stayed there within the last year asking specific questions about the house like were the utensils in good shape, was there an adequate grocery store nearby etc. I received a lengthy, helpful email. Ironically, two years later I posted some questions about a city in a different country that the reviewer and her husband were about to visit so she emailed me for information about the area where I was renting. Our trips coincided by a day and we tried to meet in person but their flights were delayed so it didn’t work out. The point is people are extremely helpful when you use sites like TA.

Book early. If you are interested in renting in a warm location during winter months and you want an inexpensive place, book at least 9 months in advance. Be prepared to send a significant deposit at this time too. You may also have some sort of deposit for utilities. I have never had an owner not refund this if I didn’t use the entire amount.

The only issue I’ve had with apartment and house rentals is the beginning walk through. Three times I’ve had owners who were away themselves on vacation who’ve had neighbors fill in with less than perfect results. In a Florence apartment the owner had her brother show my friend and me the place. He didn’t speak a single word of English so pantomime was fine for most aspects but what he failed to tell us was what to do with the garbage. I don’t want to tell you how many bottles of wine we had piled up in a corner at the end of the week. I’m guessing they’re still talking about us. Even when an English speaking manager shows up, you may be too jet lagged to pay attention or ask the right questions. So, come with your property description and ask to see everything listed. I’ll confess right here that I didn’t know about a second bathroom one time because I thought it was the cleaning supply closet and didn’t open the door. While you don’t get daily maid service, you will get weekly cleaning and in some countries like Nicaragua, you may get a maid 3 days a week.