A bit of housekeeping news: I’ve always featured traveler interviews on Nomad Wallet and I thought it would be nice to finally give the series a name.
I decided on “Rich Traveler” because although the travelers I interview may not be rich in the conventional sense, they manage to travel the world. Most people assume world travel is only for the wealthy, so I hope featuring these “rich” people would help break the myth.
Now that’s out of the way, so let’s get on with an actual interview. :D
Imagine flying business class and staying at high-end hotels all over the world. Pretty awesome, right? Now imagine getting paid to do it.
My interviewee today, Mar of Once in a Lifetime Journey, used to travel for work every week. She has visited 80 countries and has lived as an expat in London, Montreal, Dubai Johannesburg, Tegucigalpa and Singapore. This kind of lifestyle can get tiring, of course, but Mar’s wanderlust made it a great arrangement for her.
Besides getting to slip off to explore exotic destinations during her free time, she also had a lot of opportunities to rack up airline and hotel loyalty points to use for vacations. (She shares some of her best travel hacking tips at the end of the interview.)
Tell me about your job. How frequently do you travel for work and where have you been?
Currently I work for Google and I do not travel much for work now.
But I was a telecoms management consultant for 8 years, working for a company focused on emerging markets. I was based in Dubai, Johannesburg and Singapore, and traveled every week Monday to Thursday to countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
I would then make the most of my travel passion by staying at the destination or surroundings for the weekend. So if I was in Nairobi for work, the weekend could be spent in a safari or in Uganda or Tanzania.
You have some jealousy-inducing photos of high-end hotels and lavish meals on your blog. What expenses did your employer cover and what did you have to pay for yourself?
Work would have policies for expenditures on hotels and negotiate rates as we used to stay for long periods of time. For example, I practically lived at the Intercontinental Manila for over 2 years, so we used to have our work clothes stored there for the weekend and retrieve them when we would come back on Monday.
Hotel loyalty points were a main source of savings for me. We would become very savvy in choosing hotels to maximize the loyalty program perks. Those points were mine to spend on personal travel and I am very particular on how I spend them, using them for destinations like Maldives, Fiji or Bora Bora, where the values are highest. I also enjoyed the benefits of the highest loyalty program tiers like free Internet, upgrades and breakfast.
With flights, business class was covered for long-haul flights of 4 hours or longer. As I was usually in long-haul projects, I got to fly business almost every week. The miles would accumulate, so that I could travel business as well for my personal long-haul flights. (I tend to fly low-cost for short distances.)
I had an allowance to spend at the destination, then I added from my personal savings. I also teamed up with colleagues to travel together and split costs.
Many people like to spend money on clothes, shoes, bags… I choose to spend it on travel. I spend very little on anything outside of travel and food.
How did you balance working and exploring when you traveled for work?
During the week, work took over. I finished very late and at most, we were able to sample local restaurants. Occasionally we would take an afternoon off for some sightseeing, but that was extremely rare.
Once, we took a safari to the Nairobi park at 6 in the morning before work. it was extremely cool to see lions hunt before heading to work. The park was in front of the office so we could see zebras and giraffes from the desk.
Weekends would also require some work, but work was much better when you were staring at a beautiful beach or the great African savannah. I was allowed to spend one weekend a month at a destination and I did it as much as I could, exploring the country I was in or the nearby ones.
Besides the financial advantages, what did you like about traveling for work?
You get a completely different experience and point of view of a country.
You do not travel there, you temporarily live and work there, so you get to meet different people. Often, clients would invite us to their events and gatherings. I went to a wedding in Sudan and to various Iftar celebrations at clients’ homes in the Middle East (even if, as a woman, I got put together with the women of the house and children rather than with my male colleagues).
Staying in a country for a long time also provides opportunities to live the day to day. I got stuck in Kampala when the riots took over the streets; I was traveling to Kenya every week during the post-election violence; I had a project in Madagascar during the coup; I was in Sudan when embassies closed down because of terrorist attacks; I was in Lebanon when the situation deteriorated; and I worked in Iraq and Afghanistan post-invasion.
Considering how much you traveled for work, did you also travel during vacations or did you prefer to take a break from it?
I take every opportunity to travel somewhere. I sometimes feel jaded and feel like I want to go home, but I can’t sit still for too long. I have not traveled for work for a year now, yet I have been away for around 40% of the time this year. The longest I have gone without traveling in the last 10 years is a month.
My curse is having been spoiled by luxury travel. After having taken thousands of flights, I feel that my body can’t physically take the long-haul flights in economy anymore. But taking a break from it? Not in the near future.
I spend three to four hours a day reading about travel (and more in the weekend), so my bucket list is endless and populated with lots of fantastic places. Many of them are way beyond my budget, but dreaming is free and I keep hoping maybe one day I will get to take A&K’s private jet tour or that $100k trip to Antarctica.
My personal travels take me to two types of places: out of the ordinary and exclusive. That may mean that I sometimes stay at a basic place because there is no other option (for example in Timor or Myanmar), but I will always try to stay at the best place available within limits. I use my points for the ridiculously expensive resorts or put in place all of my travel experience to get a good rate.
My boyfriend also travels a lot for work, so we have two sources of points and perks. And when deals or points don’t do the trick, we travel on special occasions so we can at least justify the bill to ourselves!
What tricks do you use to maximize your travel points?
- Many of loyalty programs provide accelerator codes. For example, Intercontinental runs occasional promotions that gives you extra bonus points if you complete a certain amount of night/points/stays. If you Google it, you can find websites and forums where all these promos are shared.
- Membership-only travel discount sites. Basically, they are free sites where you get flash sales on high-end resorts, sometimes with up to 50% discounts. There are a few and I list them here.
- Sign up for premium programs like Ambassador, which costs $200 but you get a free night and lots of perks.
- Credit cards. I get most of my miles from this, not actual miles flown — despite weekly travel, as ridiculous as it sounds. Study which one is the best and pay everything by card. I rarely carry cash.
- Other loyalty programs like Hotels.com. When I book a hotel that is not part of a loyalty program I prefer to collect Hotels.com points. At 10% discount, their program is quite good.
- Try to travel on the shoulder season. This is a no-brainer but it’s quite risky, so be careful. I have experienced some really awful weather when trying to save some money.
- Provide feedback. Almost every airline and hotel will be happy to receive candid and detailed feedback. Simply ask the flight crew or hotel staff for the feedback forms or do it online. This has gotten me a few free perks like upgrades, chocolate boxes, miles and even a 5-night stay at the Six Senses.
- Pay attention to booking dates. For example, a flight departing August 31st will be more expensive than one departing on September 1st (end of summer in Northern Hemisphere) and there are a few black-out dates for flights to take into account.
- Research. I spend hours looking online at all alternatives before booking anything. I check multiple platforms and the hotel/airline website always and set price alerts. At least when I buy I know I get the best deal.