ALL POSTS IN [Travel Tips]

Labor Day weekend may already be upon us, but it’s not too late to rustle up some fun! So whether you want to head across the country or stay close to home, here are 5 last-minute ideas to make this Labor Day weekend one you’ll never forget.

1. Hit the road. Be spontaneous, get in your car, and go wherever the road leads you. Armed with an app like Hotel Tonight, you can figure out where you’re staying each night on the fly.

2. Stay-cation. Tour a neighborhood you’ve never been to before. Visit that restaurant you’ve heard so much about, try a new yoga practice, or spend an entire day exploring a park. You’ll discover hidden gems that make you feel like you’ve entered a whole new world (with the benefit of getting to sleep in your own bed).

3. Travel the world through your tastebuds. I challenge you: 3 days. 9 meals. 9 global cuisines. Go!

4. Spa retreat. Haven’t you always been curious about what those wacky spa treatments are like? Now’s your chance to find out what a fish-nibbling pedicure feels like.

5. Do one thing that scares you. Whether it’s sky diving over the Kennedy Space Center or biking across the city, push yourself to try something you’ve haven’t had the guts to do this summer, or in your entire life for that matter.

–  by Ruzwana Bashir

Ruzwana Bashir is co-founder and CEO of Peek.com, a site where you can find amazing things to do in your hometown or in a new destination, and easily book them online. Whether you’d like to explore underground street art, go swimming with sharks, or head to the top of the Eiffel Tower, Peek has handpicked the best activities from the highest quality operators. Bashir, formerly of Gilt Group, Art.sy, the Blackstone Group, and Goldman Sachs, is a self-proclaimed travel junkie, having navigated her way through 40 countries.

 

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Writer Patty Hodapp on a solo camping trip with her dog Pele along Lake Superior’s north shore in Minnesota.

Camping alone as a woman might sound crazy. Uncontrollable variables like weather, wackos and wild animals give credit to the old adage “safety in numbers”. But if you’re comfortable in the outdoors and want to camp solo, don’t let fear stop you. It takes common sense, good instinct and adaptability. Yes, it’s risky, but so is driving a car or stepping out your front door. The good news? There are a few things you can do to sleep outside alone, safer. Here are 7.

1. Know Your Gear

Test your camping gear before you pack — especially if it has been sitting unused in storage for a while. Bring extra batteries, matches, a lighter, tinder and paper in a plastic bag so they don’t get wet. Own a tent you can pitch by yourself (sounds obvious, but believe me, shelters with complicated pole structures are tough to set up solo).

2. Be Accountable to Someone

If you’re sleeping outside alone, tell someone where you are. Text a friend or relative your location, loose plans and end game, so someone knows when to worry and where to look for you. If you want to get specific, try SPOT — a sweet little GPS device that beams your location via text, email or emergency notification to those at home.

3. Stay at Family-Friendly Campgrounds

If you’re nervous about sleeping outside alone, splurge on a site at a family-oriented campground. Ask the park ranger or do your research online before you set up shop. Better to neighbor-up next to a couple with small kids than a rowdy group of partiers who might trash your gear or give you trouble.

4. Stick to the Trail

It’s simple: When you take day-trip hikes, stick to marked trails. That way, if you need help, you’ll be in a higher trafficked area so you’re more likely to get it. Bushwhacking is fun, but leave it for camping trips with friends. Also, invest in a backpacker’s first-aid kit or build your own, and keep it in your daypack always.

5. Skip the Booze

Sure it’s fun to have a brew around the campfire, but when you’re alone stick to water, sports drinks, coffee or anything that won’t impair your senses. You’re the only one out there to watch your back, so don’t get tipsy.

6. Bring a Dog

Some people argue that dogs provide a false sense of security. I say it depends on the dog. If your dog is used to the woods and alert, chances are it’ll hear, smell and respond to approaching animals and people faster than you. It was only because of 2 dogs that I survived a run-in with a mountain lion in New Mexico. Or so a professional lion hunter told me when I called him up the next day. I believe him.

7. Leave Room for Error

Think ahead and anticipate problems. Have a backup water supply; learn how to change a tire and use bear spray (don’t hose it upwind); master map reading. No trip ever goes as planned, but if you expect error it won’t catch you off guard.

Sleeping alone under the stars? Here are the best campgrounds for solo travelers who want a last-minute summer getaway.

 

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by Patty Hodapp

Patty Hodapp is a freelance writer and solo traveler reporting from the intersection of fitness and adventure. Her slew of expat addresses runs deep — most recently, a tropical Spanish island in the Mediterranean. She covers endurance sports, outdoor gear and adventure travel. Besides Travel Channel, she has written for Outside, Men’s Fitness, Shape and several other publications.

Still on the prowl for the best hotel deals for Labor Day weekend? Our hotel expert, Anthony Melchiorri, has the best hotel travel tips for Washington DC, Colorado, California and Florida, and he’s willing to share them all with you!

Catch Anthony on the Today Show, this morning at 9:30|8:30c, where he’ll be giving you the lowdown on the best deals at some of the country’s nicest hotels.

Washington DC Travel Tip: As people flock to the beaches for Labor Day, cities empty out, so you can score some really amazing deals. Washington, D.C., is great because not only is it the nation’s capital, but it’s also family-friendly. Centrally located along the East Coast, most of the museums and attractions are completely free, making it a perfect budget option for those looking to save some cash.

Colorado Travel Tip: Colorado is not just for winter sports! Resorts are open year-round and offer a beautiful mountain getaway with plenty of nature and comfortable dry temperatures in the warmer months.

California Travel Tip: For those looking for a beach getaway, La Jolla is a beautiful resort town on the Pacific Ocean and a great escape from Los Angeles. There are gorgeous beaches, great restaurants and plenty of shopping.

Florida Travel Tip: Orlando offers something for everyone! This hotel is a retreat for golfers and non-golfers alike, and it’s nearby many of Orlando’s theme parks and attractions. It’s also less than an hour from the Kennedy Space Center.

Plus, don’t miss all-new episodes of Hotel Impossible, premiering Mondays @ 10|9c.

Lola Akinmade Akerstrom

Lola Akinmade Åkerström is a Nigerian-American, Stockholm-based writer and photographer who has contributed to digital and print publications such as National Geographic Traveler (both UK & US versions), BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Travel + Leisure, Lonely Planet, AFAR, San Francisco Chronicle, Fodors.com, several in-flight magazines, and many more. She is featured in a South Africa vignette Through The Lens that airs on National Geographic Channel and her photography is represented by National Geographic. Check out her blog, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Traveling Type: How did you get started travel blogging?
Lola Akinmade Akerstrom: I’ve always had a travel website of some sort since 2002 when I volunteered as a field journalist with an expedition race in Fiji. I shared dispatches, snippets and photos so my family and friends could follow along, but it wasn’t until late 2006 — when I discovered Matador Network — that I fully began “travel blogging.” At that time, I was still working a full-time job as a GIS system architect developing cool interactive online maps, but by 2009, I officially left that life behind in pursuit of travel writing and travel photography.

What’s your blog about?
I developed my own travel blog to feature highlights from travels along with dispatches because I work primarily as a freelance writer and photographer. So my blog acts more as a showcase for my work — writing and photography — with the occasional service-y “how to” post and product reviews.

How many countries, cities, and continents have you traveled to?
I stopped counting countries after my 40th because travel to me isn’t about some arbitrary list of places that need to be checked off and conquered. That said, I’d probably be well over 50 countries by the end of this year. But who’s keeping count? :)

What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to?
I don’t have a favorite place but I do have favorite experiences, ranging from volunteering in Cambodia and photographing the Northern Lights in Swedish Lapland to learning about Zulu culture in South Africa and soaking up the vibrant markets in Lagos, Nigeria.

What’s your favorite place to get away from it all?
We actually live on one of Stockholm’s islands so we have a favorite cliff by the water where we steal away to just relax and watch sailboats and ships cruise by.

What’s your must-have item that you never travel without?
Camera. I have a hard time traveling without one.

What’s your favorite travel app?
Skyscanner. I’m always searching for cheap tickets.

Tell us your funniest travel story/experience. 
Strong winds plus me in a skirt and you already know what happened. But what made it even more embarrassing was that I was boarding a full double-decker bus in London and was climbing the stairs to the upper deck when a gust of wind rushed in, lifting and wrapping my skirt around my waist in the process. So those seated in the lower deck definitely got a good view of my underwear.

What’s the best thing you’ve eaten while traveling, and where was it?
A tough call, but I can say the best pizza I have ever eaten was in the remote village of Gratteri in Sicily — the type of tiny village where the baker rides a small Vespa through narrow streets delivering bread directly to homes. We had to wait all day until 7 p.m. for the pizza maker to arrive into the village … and it was well worth the wait.

What’s the best hotel/resort/hostel you’ve stayed at?
Right now, it’s Les Jardins de la Medina in Marrakech. I really enjoyed its ambiance and would return in a heartbeat.

Where’s “home”?
Home is anywhere my husband and daughter are. Right now, they’re in Stockholm so Stockholm it is. But I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and it will always be my “true roots” home.

What would you recommend to travelers visiting your hometown?
When visiting Lagos, try to experience one of its open-air markets for a sensory overload and a true glimpse into what makes it such a vibrant city. When visiting Stockholm, take a boat cruise around the harbor. Better yet, take a brunch or lunch cruise so you can dig into local Swedish specialties like pickled herring and cured salmon while soaking up Stockholm’s stunning views.

What’s #1 on your bucket list? 
Mongolia. Oh, and the North Pole.

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Portland Head Light

Portland, Maine: This quaint, coastal town will win your heart over with its charm and history. The endless restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques will have you coming back for more.
Photo credit: Jessica Menk

 

STAY

West End Inn

West End Inn
146 Pine Street
Portland, ME 04102

This modern, chic B&B is located in the West End neighborhood of Portland. The historic, tree-lined streets compliment the beauty of this area. It’s about a 15 minute walk to the waterfront. The breakfast is plentiful, fresh and well thought out. You’ll want to get the Maine blueberry pancakes … at least once.

 

EAT

Jays Lobster House

J’s Oyster
5 Portland Pier
Portland, ME 04101

Skip the touristy lobster spots and hang with the locals. Get the lobster roll sandwich (a Maine staple). Trust me, you won’t regret it. Your best bet is to grab a seat outside with a view of the wharf. (pictured to the right)

Gorgeous Gelato
Gorgeous Gelato
434 Fore Street
Portland, ME 04101

It’s a little taste of Italy in the heart of Old Port. I’ve never had gelato this fabulous before. You can taste the fresh ingredients. My top 3 flavors: mango, tiramisu and hazelnut. (pictured to the right)


Flatbread Company

72 Commercial Street, Ste 5
Portland, ME 04101

Flatbread Company is a great place to enjoy the weather while sipping on a local craft beer. Their artistry in organic ingredients create tasty pizzas. The atmosphere is quaint, and reflects the culture. They also have a love for animals, so dogs are welcome in their outside area

 

SHOP

K Collette

K Colette
100 Commercial Street
Portland, ME 04101

This boutique is filled with artfully selected housewares from lush Egyptian cotton bedding to rustic and nautical vintage finds. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to wander around and get inspired. (pictured to the right)


Merchant Co. Handmade Vintage Goods

656 Congress Street
Portland, ME 04101

On the walk from the West End side of town, stop at The Merchant Company for unique handmade items. This adorable store showcases local items such as invitations, housewares, jewelry and more! Located in the Arts District.


RELAX

Novare Res Bier Café
4 Canal Plaza
Portland, ME 04101

This bar is a must-find for craft beer seekers in downtown Portland. They have extensive offerings of fairly priced drafts and bottles. Their bartenders are knowledgeable and will happily steer you toward something you’ll enjoy. It’s a little tricky to find, but ask around and don’t give up your quest! With their wine menu and food offerings they aim to please everyone, including those who aren’t hopheads and beer geeks.


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Photo: Castle Park

We love amusement parks as much as the next person. But sometimes a good day of fun can go horribly wrong, as we learned with last Friday’s tragic event at Six Flags Over Texas. This isn’t the time to turn alarmist — but it is time to brush up on amusement park safety tips, say industry experts.

First, keep things in perspective. A whole lot of people, well into the millions, take amusement park rides every year nationwide. And the number of serious injuries is minimal.

Chances of Injury Are Small

“Regardless of where we are on the spectrum, there’s always more we can do [in terms of amusement park safety],” says Dr. Gary Smith, who directs the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH.

It’s true, says Smith, there’s a global issue ahead to face — mainly, the current patchwork of oversight on amusement park safety, with differing standards by state and localities, and no umbrella government agency to oversee it all. Still, adds Smith, “The chances of a serious injury are small and that’s something parents can take comfort in.”

Know Before You Go

Already, states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania — home to a large number of amusement parks — have issued reminders to adventure seekers on how to enjoy rides responsibly. (Late June was Amusement Park Ride Safety Week in Pennsylvania, in fact.)

Check out tips from Pennsylvania authorities on amusement park ride safety here, and from the Ohio Department of Agriculture here. The main takeaway: Stay informed. Know before you go, it’s the best way for you and your family to have fun.
 
Top Ride Safety Tips

Ken Martin, an independent inspector and amusement park safety consultant with KRM Consulting in Richmond, VA, offers a great roundup of ride safety tips for parents. Also keep in mind the following:

    • Pay attention to the sizing device located by many rides and attractions — it’s put there for your safety. “Yes, trying to sit in one of these seats to see if you fit the ride may be a little embarrassing,” says Martin, “however, a little embarrassment may be better than the alternative.”
    • Do you take any medication? Consult your physician before you think of trying a ride, says Martin. “Pay attention to ride rules and patron warnings,” he says. “Should you take medication for medical conditions, it’s best to consult your physician before riding any amusement ride or attraction – as a precaution you want to make sure you have [medical information] on your person or have someone in your party who knows your medical history.”
    • Take note of your surroundings. “If you see behavior or something you don’t like, bring it to someone’s attention with the amusement park,” says Martin. “All employees should be wearing a uniform and a name tag. They are there to help and serve you.”
    • Avoid heavy foods or sugary beverages as much as possible. “Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water,” says Martin. “Also, lines to some attractions can be very long. Take a restroom break before you get in line.”
    • Trust your gut. As a parent, don’t just go by minimum height and age requirements — ask yourself if your child is developmentally ready for a ride, says Smith of Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Finally, be sure the ride fits you and your child. “Restraint systems should fit as close to your body as possible, but not tight enough to hurt,” says Martin. “Then sit back and enjoy the thrill — remember we are taking you to the edge and bringing you back safety, if all the rules are followed.”

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Chincoteague Pony Swim

Photo: Getty Images

Come early and bring your patience. That’s the word on the 88th annual Chincoteague Pony Swim. Every July, on the last Wednesday of the month, the small island of Chincoteague sees its population of 3,500 people swell to more than 40,000, as visitors from all over the country — and as far away as Canada and Europe — flock to the island off Virginia’s coast, to witness an event of epic pony proportions: more than 120 wild ponies swimming across the Assateague Channel, between Chincoteague and Assateague islands.

The actual swim takes all of 5 to 10 minutes. And it’s worth every minute of waiting to see the oldest continuous wild pony roundup east of the Colorado River.

“This is an event of historical proportions,” says Denise Bowden, spokesperson for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns the ponies, often called the Chincoteague herd, on the Virginia side of Assateague Island.

Historical … or historic … one thing’s clear: This is the biggest event on Chincoteague Island’s annual calendar.

Chincoteague Island’s fire department has held the event nearly every year since 1924, culminating in the Salt Water Cowboys — about 145 cowboys from Virginia and neighboring states including Maryland and North Carolina — rounding up the feral fellas and females for a parade down Main Street, to the carnival grounds, where an auction of the ponies takes place Thursday morning. (Some ponies are bought under “buy back” terms; the bidder donates the money to the fire department and allows the pony to be released back onto Assateague Island.)

Now the patience part: Chincoteague Island will be packed. And while the pony swim will be held sometime between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m., crowds will start gathering well in advance. “Come early,” says Bowden. It’s not uncommon, she adds, for visitors to gather at the heart of the action — the Pony Swim Lane and Memorial Park — as early as 5 or 6 a.m.

The long wait time — plus the actual event’s start time, dependent on inclement weather conditions — spells greater exposure to the elements — lots of sun, maybe rain. “Make yourself as comfortable as possible,” says Bowden. Bring your sunscreen, hat and umbrella. Plus, a pair of old tennis shoes (no flip-flops or high-heels) — you’ll need them while standing in the marshy, muddy field. But the pay-off will be something to behold: Just beyond a fence, a herd of wild ponies — only 20 to 30 feet away.

For parking, Bowden advises heading to Chincoteague High School’s parking lot: A shuttle on the grounds takes visitors to the Pony Swim Lane. Find shuttle information here.

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Meet Johnny Jet – he’s Our Type of Traveler. Johnny Jet travels around 175,000 miles and visits more than 20 countries each year. He and his website JohnnyJet.com have been featured over 3,000 times in major publications, including USA Today, Time, Fortune and The New York Times. JohnnyJet.com has been named “one of the best money-saving web sites for travel” by Budget Travel Magazine, while the LA Times calls it “one of the top 10 essential travel resources on the internet.” Sign up today for Johnny Jet’s free weekly travel newsletter at JohnnyJet.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

Traveling Type: How did you get started travel blogging?
JohnnyJet: I kind of fell into it. I started before the word ‘blogging’ was even created. Back in 1995, I began emailing stories of my travels to my friends, along with useful travel tips. My friends started sharing it with their friends and when my email list grew to over 500 people, I created a website. A few months later, Laura Bly from USA Today featured JohnnyJet.com and it became my full-time job about 4 months later.

What’s your blog about?
My website chronicles my travels and includes useful travel tips and advice to help people travel better and smarter. You’ll also find travel news and great travel deals.

How many countries, cities, and continents have you traveled to?
I’ve been to 6 continents and roughly 100 countries according to the Century Club’s list.

What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to?
That’s a tough call. It really depends on the time of year. I love Southeast Asia, Australia and the South Pacific in the winter and I love Europe and Nantucket in the summer.

What’s your favorite place to get away from it all?
A European cruise on Seabourn.

What’s your must-have item that you never travel without?
My passport! And my Acer Aspire S7 laptop, which has the new Windows operating system.

What’s your favorite travel app?
FlightAware

Tell us your funniest travel story/experience. 
I was at Club Med Opio in Provence, France, and had signed up for a massage. When I arrived for my appointment, the receptionists were giggling as they handed me a robe and showed me to the men’s locker room. When my masseuse showed up, she escorted me to the room and said something in French, which I didn’t understand. Then she said, “Voila.” Usually, after being led into the therapy room, the masseuse steps out so you can get your naked body on the table and under a towel so no one has to witness what’s beneath the robe. But when she said, “Voila!” again and motioned for me to get on the table, I gathered she was telling me to drop the towel and hoist my naked self up onto the table. I didn’t want to look like a prude American so I did as I was told and just … well, dropped the towel.

WHOA NELLY! You should have seen this scene. I don’t know who was more surprised — the masseuse or my reaction to her reaction! After I let it all hang out she let out a little scream and quickly turned around. I instantly grabbed the paper covering from the table and covered you-know-who. With her back to me and one hand over her eyes, she handed me some paper underwear. It turned out that the women at the front desk had ‘forgotten’ to give me this important cover-up.

What’s the best hotel/resort/hostel you’re stayed at?
That’s another tough call. But as of right now, I would have to say Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island or Richard Branson’s Mahali Mzuri Kenya Safari Camp.

Where’s “home”?
Manhattan Beach, California

What would you recommend to travelers visiting your hometown?
Rent a bike and ride along the Strand to soak up the views and the sun.

What’s #1 on your bucket list?
Vietnam.

*Or, 5 Casual Observances for Summer Tourists From a Whirlwind NYC Weekend

Cronuts at Dominique Ansel Bakery

Courtesy of Dominique Ansel Bakery

1. The Cronut Craze — When I visited the Dominique Ansel Bakeryin SoHo back in May, you could still deign to enjoy your “DKA,” or “Cronut” seated on the small back patio (although we took ours to nearby Washington Square Park). Now the half-croissant, half-donut hybrid attracts lines around the city block –- and fans from as far as Singapore. I can’t blame them, though, the combination of flaky, delicious dough and caramelized crust is unparalleled. While we waited in line we were also treated to tasty mini-meringues — hope you are, too.

2. Pub Crawl With Pups — A friend’s birthday celebration took the form of a Brooklyn bar crawl with a “no presents, just pets” theme. Rather unsurprisingly, Williamsburg has a slew of establishments that not only allow, but also cater to canines and their owners. We started the afternoon at The Levee, think: a sea of sneakerwedges, $1 PBRs, never-ending buckets of cheeseballs and bar games ranging from Jenga to Big Buck Hunter. Later that evening we strolled to Luckydog, where more than one pug was spotted in skull paraphernalia.

The Standard Biergarten

Photo by Shawn Hoke, flickr

3. The Standard — Situated under the canopy of the High Line, in the heart of the Meatpacking District, the Standard’s open-air Biergarten serves up sausages, pretzels, beer (for 8 bucks a pop) and ping pong all summer long. There’s even homemade gelato at the Ice Cream Cart parked in front. It’s more casual than the storied rooftop, which boasts dramatic city views, live jazz music and almost-famous clientele. Both tend to get packed, so come early or expect to wait in line.

4. The Rain RoomMoMa’s must-see exhibit takes some coordination, but
the ticket line moves surprisingly quickly and the hours-long wait can be
spent perusing the magnificent modern art gallery and equally inspiring museum shops. I’d highly recommend planning one of your days around the 300-square-foot immersive environment, as admission is not guaranteed. And don’t worry, you’ll stay dry despite the falling water droplets, thanks to a system of 3D-tracking cameras that pauses the rainfall whenever a human body is detected.

5. No Reservations? No Problem. — Being a good corporate citizen, I can point you to a wealth of NYC recommendations. In a pinch, however, the power of recent Yelp reviews shouldn’t be underestimated. The app helped point us in the direction of some charming, more casual restaurants — like South Williamsburg’s Uruguayan resto Tabaré, SoHo’s cozy French spot Cocotte, and brunch at Café Cluny in the West Village — that we would have otherwise missed.

Cocotte

Courtesy of Cocotte

Also, dine off-hours when you can. After arriving rather late Friday night, it was nearly 11 p.m. once we checked into the hotel and headed out to dinner. However, we were able to walk right into Cocotte, its handful of tables having been occupied right up until that time. Dinner at Tabaré was at an early-bird 6pm — hey, we’d been at a bar crawl ALL day. Take advantage that you’re on “vacation time” — you’ll miss the trendy crowds, but eat well that way.

Over the last 2 months I’ve managed a couple of fun vacation runs — a variation of a mileage run that involves actually leaving the airport and exploring a city — to Moscow, Paris and Johannesburg. My trip to Moscow was a weeklong vacation, while my runs to Paris and Johannesburg were just extended weekends. A little crazy, I know, but the experiences and sights were well worth the expense and travel time. And besides, or perhaps most importantly, I earned a LOT of miles, ate caviar and saw elephants.

Total Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM): 29,043
Total Redeemable Miles (RDM): 58,086
Flying Time to/from Moscow: 23h 13m
Flying Time to/from Paris and Johannesburg: 37h 40m

Saint Basil's Cathedral

Photography by Arthur Hsu

This year, I’m hoping to earn 150,000 SkyMiles in order to book a round-trip business-class award ticket to Australia — a ticket that would normally cost approximately $16,000 (yes, you read right). I was inspired to book both of my recent “vacation runs” after I saw posts about cheap tickets on FlyerTalk. Another great site to follow is The Flight Deal, which gathers airfare deals that make the most of your miles and money.

When booking mileage runs, be sure to check your fare class.  Some fare classes don’t earn miles or only earn a reduced number of miles. For my trips, I flew Delta T class and KLM/Air France R class, both of which earn full Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQM). Both trips also had a low cost per mile (CPM), which is important for a great mileage run. Typically, you want the CPM to be under 5 cents per mile.

Moscow Cost per Mile: $0.0347
Johannesburg Cost per Mile: $0.0420

A mileage run is a trip solely for earning EQM, so oftentimes you never even leave the airport. But in this case, I turned them into vacations.

My trip to Moscow was the first time I used Global Entry, a Customs and Border Patrol program that expedites the immigration process when returning to America, which I was approved for the week before leaving for Russia. Thanks to this program, it literally takes less than 1 minute to clear customs. If you don’t have it, I recommend you apply since it also includes TSA Pre-Check, which gets you through security quicker and with fewer hassles.

Overall, Moscow is a beautiful city with many activities, but in my experience, it is also very expensive. I stayed at the Hotel National, where Lenin stayed while the Kremlin was under construction. It’s also a Starwood property, with which I have Gold elite status, and so I earned 8,852 SPG points thanks to my stay.

Hotel National, Moscow

Photography by Arthur Hsu

While in Moscow, I enjoyed the various sites such as Saint Basil’s Cathedral and a day trip outside the city to Troitse-Sergiev Monastery. If you find yourself in Moscow, be sure to explore the metro system — the various stations are truly beautiful, each with a different design. I also enjoyed proper meals, including a 10-course omakase meal at Nobu Moscow. Don’t worry, I also sampled iconic Russian cuisine such as caviar and borscht.

Komsomolskaya Metro Station, Moscow

Photography by Arthur Hsu

My trip to Johannesburg was a much shorter and farther excursion, with a 12-hour layover in Paris and about 37 hours in Johannesburg. With such a short amount of time in Paris, I made my way into the city and used a hop-on/hop-off tour bus to see the major sites before I returned to CDG and grabbed some food and Scotch whisky in the Air France Salon to await my flight to Johannesburg.

Once in Johannesburg, I took the Gautrain, Africa’s first rapid rail system, to the Radisson Blu Gautrain hotel, and shortly after, my guide arrived to take me on a tour of Joburg. I liked the sound of Cashan Private Day Tours, which offered custom city tours, and I was able to book a half-day tour with Penny Cashan. Our first stop — and most surprising and enjoyable element of the tour –  was the Market on Main, which occurs every Sunday at the Arts on Main in the Maboneng Precinct, with great food and various art galleries. I had no idea that Joburg has such a thriving art community.

The next and last day in Joburg, I booked a 1-day safari with Felleng Tours to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. This turned out to be a great experience, since we were able to take the time to find 2 of the Big Five– the white rhino and the African elephant — along with many other amazing animals and sights. Fortunately, the daytime temperatures were low, so the animals weren’t hiding in the shade.

Elephant in Pilanesberg Game Reserve

Photography by Arthur Hsu

Back at O.R. Tambo Airport, I headed to the Air France Salon before deciding to check out other lounges in the airport thanks to my Priority Pass membership, which gives me access to lounges around the world where I do not have elite status. Properly hydrated and nourished, I headed to the gate to catch 2 flights home — just short of 22 hours with a connection in Amsterdam. Now I need to start thinking about my next mileage run.

Watch Mommy Points‘ tips to earn airline elite status.

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