Planning And Preparing To Visit St. Helena

I’ll admit it: advance planning and preparation isn’t always my strong suit. A lot of the time when I travel, I like to book at the last minute and figure things out when I get there. St. Helena is not a destination where you can really get away with doing this so if you are planning to visit, planning and preparing in advance is essential.

Part of this is because St. Helena Island is one of the most remote places in the world. It’s slightly less remote than it used to be because there is now one flight a week, on a plane with 70 seats for sale (this is a tough flight to book, but I wrote instructions here). So, presuming you’re starting from South Africa, you can get there in a day.

Nevertheless, you can’t just show up and hope it’ll all work out. Really, you can’t. The population is only 4,255 people and while they do have some tourism infrastructure, it is limited and not fully developed. What is there is, of course, civilized (St. Helena is part of the UK after all), but you can’t just breeze into town and expect to be able to rent a car and find a hotel easily. In fact, the wrong assumptions can get you deported.

Have A Visa If You Need One

st helena passport stamp

You will be stamped in for exactly the length of your visit–no longer!

Numerous places on the Internet state that anyone can enter St. Helena for a period of up to 180 days without a visa. This is totally wrong. St. Helena has changed its visa policy with the initiation of flights. It mirrors the visa requirements for the United Kingdom except that South Africans, unlike when visiting the main part of the UK, do not need a visa.

In addition, St. Helena has Airlink (the airline) enforce this and given that the policies are different for St. Helena and Ascension island, sometimes the check-in agents will claim that only US and UK passports are allowed. Given that I had to remind the Airlink check-in agent that my passport was in fact a US passport, I decided not to argue the point any further.

Also, note that you won’t get 180 days automatically. You’ll be stamped in for only the exact number of days that you can prove that you have accommodations. My passport was stamped in for only a week, because my departure was then. I initially thought that this was pretty unfriendly because I’d be committing an immigration violation with no way to avoid it if the flight was delayed through no fault of my own. However, the tourist office explained that an extension would in fact be granted in such a circumstance. I still think that the policy limits flexibility (I wouldn’t have been able to extend my stay if I had wanted to do so), but these are the rules as they currently stand.

Round Trip Tickets Are Required

Obviously, because of the immigration policy above, you’re required to book (and show proof of) a round-trip ticket. It’s not possible to book a one way ticket, have an indeterminate visit, and then buy your return ticket on the island when you decide you want to leave. Again, this is just not a travel destination that allows for much spontaneity or flexibility. You need to make a specific plan and you’ll have to stick to it.

Travel Insurance Is Required

Travel insurance in the amount of GBP 1,000,000 is required to visit the island and the airline checks this before you’re allowed to board a flight. Fortunately the airline missed that the insurance was in USD rather than GBP, and fortunately St. Helena immigration officials also let that slide (technically, they could have deported me). Most visitors on my flight didn’t know that they had to provide proof of insurance and were scrambling to show it at the airport. This is checked when your boarding passes are issued, again before boarding the plane, and once more when clearing St. Helena immigration. They are really serious about this but they don’t sell insurance at the airport either.

You Need A Place To Stay

You aren’t allowed to enter St. Helena without accommodations already secured. They still do things very much the old fashioned way on the island. Accommodations aren’t listed on Web booking platforms like airbnb or booking.com, and for the most part, you can’t pay with a credit card either. Instead, you need to book through the St. Helena Tourism office.

This doesn’t happen instantly. The way it works is you email the tourist office (don’t call, because it costs a minimum of $1.50 per minute), then they call everyone on the island who rents rooms to see if any are available, and they’ll get back to you with a list of what’s available. This might be an extremely short list. When I reached out, there were only two options available, both relatively top end for the island. It took a few more days to sort things out and I only had the accommodations finalized the day before I arrived.

What I didn’t realize until I got there was just how high stakes having accommodations is. While the St. Helena tourism office does come to the airport to meet every flight, and presumably they can try to assist you last-minute, you’ll actually be turned around and sent home by immigration authorities if there isn’t anywhere for you to stay on the island. I normally travel pretty casually, making things up as I go and figuring things out when I get there. That’s just fine in most places (and often gets you great last-minute deals) but it 100% doesn’t work in St. Helena.

 

St. Helena bungalow

I stayed in this tidy bungalow for GBP 60 per night

The upshot? The place where I stayed was perfectly lovely! It was a “self catering cottage” which meant a house with a kitchen. The place was spotless but didn’t come with maid service. A couple of hotels are also available in Jamestown, but at much higher prices than the properties you can rent. These, however, come with amenities such as a restaurant and bar, and maid service is provided.

Book A Car In Advance

old rental car

Old, dented, manual transmission, but I was happy to have it!

If you’re wanting to explore the island, you’ll need a car… or be prepared to spend a lot on taxis. Since I hadn’t really booked in advance, the tourist office couldn’t arrange a car for me because none were available. The owner of my home was fortunately willing to drive me to the house (at an extra charge), and it turned out she knew someone who knew someone who had a car. It showed up a day later with a handshake and no paperwork (I didn’t even know I was paying GBP 12 daily until the end), so everything ultimately worked out and I was able to tour the island. However, it very well might not have worked out! I just got lucky, because a vehicle that was out of service when I originally tried to book was able to be returned to service, and my host just happened to know this.

There are no brand name rental car companies on the island. The companies are all family owned. None of them take credit cards, so your credit card insurance doesn’t apply either. Fortunately all of the companies include local insurance with your car rental, and the deductible is fairly low with a small out-of-pocket expense for damages (under GBP 100).

It’s worth noting that rental cars are equipped with manual transmissions and they have right-hand drive (which doesn’t matter much, because most roads on St. Helena are one lane, but your points of reference will all be different if you’re used to driving left-hand drive vehicles).

Print Out Everything

Mobile phones are still a relatively new and very expensive luxury on St. Helena, so immigration officials aren’t very used to navigating smartphones yet. Also, there isn’t any roaming data signal and there is no free WiFi in the airport, so your phone will be completely useless anyway (unless you have downloaded all of your documents). I saw a lot of folks fumbling with phones that weren’t working well and it was obviously uncomfortable for everyone involved. Print out all of your documentation proving your bona fides: your itinerary, housing arrangements, and travel insurance. Immigration authorities in St. Helena are friendly, but very thorough, and you can expect they will check this.

Bring Cash (In GBP)

St. Helena is almost entirely a cash economy, but there are no ATMs on the island. Let me repeat: There are no ATMs on the island. Yes, I know it’s 2018, but there is only one bank and it’s best avoided because it is both extremely archaic and extremely expensive to deal with. If you need money, they can only give you a cash advance from your credit card with a massive fee, plus the massive fee your bank charges on top of it. They will also change US dollars, euros or South African rand at poor rates.

uk pounds cash

The solution is to bring UK pounds with you, in cash. Where do you get those? I bought mine at HSBC on a layover in Hong Kong on the way to St. Helena where good rates are available. You can get them in South Africa at rates that aren’t as good as in Hong Kong or the UK, but better than on St. Helena.

You will need enough cash for everything you plan to do on the island. The number of places that take credit cards can be counted on one hand, and they all levy a stiff surcharge for accepting them.

While you can pay for things with UK pounds on the island, you’ll generally get your change in St. Helena pounds. These are worthless (except as souvenirs) as soon as you leave the island so you have to change them into UK pounds before you leave. The Bank of St. Helena will do this, but charges a 2% fee for changing your pounds into… well, pounds. However, St. Helena people are very friendly, so if you tell them you’re leaving the island and ask for change in UK pounds, they’ll try to accommodate your request if they can.

Don’t Miss Your Flight

“Don’t miss the boat” has turned into “don’t miss your flight.” There is only one flight a week, so when you’re visiting St. Helena, it’s really important that you don’t miss your flight. Two of the passengers for our flight showed up late, in fact, and nearly missed the flight. It’s easier to miss the flight than you might think. It leaves from a bus gate all the way at the far end of Johannesburg airport, about a 10 minute walk from any of the airport lounges. Because the gate is a bus gate, they just load everyone on the bus exactly when boarding starts. So if you aren’t there at the boarding time listed on your ticket, you actually missed the flight.

The two late passengers didn’t know it was a bus gate and figured that the start of boarding time wouldn’t be the end of boarding time, because it never is. Only because it would have taken the gate agent longer to offload their bags than to send the bus back to pick up the wayward passengers were they accommodated. If they’d showed up 3 minutes later, the result would have been the opposite.

Bring Supplies–But Mind The Quarantine

There are a handful of stores on the island and they do carry a basic selection of groceries and consumer goods. However, nearly every food item for sale on St. Helena (with the exception of some local fish, produce, eggs, bread, meat and coffee) is imported and therefore extremely expensive due to the very high cost of freight. I also don’t want to overstate how many local goods are actually available; I didn’t see a single egg for sale the whole time I was there, and bread is only available a couple of times each week. Many of the goods sold originate from the UK which means they are shipped first from there to South Africa, and then onward to St. Helena. Given my experience visiting similarly remote parts of Alaska, I knew that it was probably a good idea to maximize my baggage allowance and bring as many groceries with me as possible.

This turned out to be a very good decision, keeping in mind the baggage limitations. This is important: The baggage allowance on flights to South Africa is 23kg, but it’s 20kg within South Africa and from South Africa to St. Helena. I brought a large check-in bag and loaded it to exactly 20kg, then put all the heaviest things into my carry-on bag which was not weighed. If your bag is overweight, this will backfire because airline fees are very high for overweight baggage.

What did I bring? Stuff that I thought would be difficult or expensive to find there, could survive an 11,000 mile trip, and could clear St. Helena’s strict quarantine (canned and packaged food is OK, nearly everything else is out). The quarantine is really very important to follow because it protects the unique biodiversity on the island–the most important forbidden item is honey, but you should declare everything you have and let the authorities take whatever they want (I invited them to inspect my stuff and they were fine with all of it). Among the things I brought were tortillas, refried beans, Parmesan cheese, rice milk, breakfast supplies like pancake mix and oatmeal and granola bars, snacks, Tabasco sauce, taco sauce, real Vermont maple syrup… you’d be surprised how much you can fit in 20 kilos if you buy stuff that is not in heavy packaging. This saved me a bundle, easily more than $100. Was it a little more hassle dealing with a checked bag? Yes, but for $100, I really didn’t mind the hassle. I was mostly right on the items that would be hard to find there, but the variety of goods available was a little better than I was expecting. It was also totally worth it when I got to enjoy a stack of delicious pancakes on the patio.

View from the patio

A taste of home is a lot sweeter when it comes with this view!

Obviously, I didn’t use up everything I brought with me, so I just left the extra for the next visitors. I mean, how much of a treat is it to show up on St. Helena and find Snoqualmie Falls Lodge pancake mix in the cupboard and pure maple syrup in the refrigerator? A pretty big one for me, and the homeowner (Mrs. George) seemed to think it would be a nice surprise for them too.

If you don’t buy groceries to bring with you, at least bring your own booze. Max out the Customs allowance. It’s very expensive on St. Helena so if you want to enjoy a cocktail, you will be glad you brought it with you!

Wrap-Up

St. Helena is a wonderful holiday destination, but getting there requires considerably more planning and preparation than most destinations. The economy there is frozen in an era before ATMs and credit cards, and it is also expensive once you arrive. While St. Helena is not a budget travel destination, you can still save a lot of money on unnecessary expenses through advance planning.

How To Book A Ticket To St. Helena

For pretty much the entire history of St. Helena Island, the only way to get there has been to take a boat. In recent times, this has taken 5 days each direction from Cape Town aboard the RMS St. Helena. However, you can now fly there, and while there will undoubtedly still be opportunities to arrive by ship (most likely by cruise ship), the vast majority of travelers will be flying.

Forget Using Miles

However, believe it or not, it’s surprisingly difficult to book a flight there. It’s not the most complicated ticket in the world to book, but it’s close. Let me first get one thing out of the way: Unless you somehow have an absolutely crazy number of South African Airways Voyager points (because the only award flights available are extremely expensive under this program), this flight can’t be booked with miles. Airlink is an affiliate of South African Airways (SA) and operates their flights with SA flight numbers, but they don’t participate directly in StarAlliance. This means their flights aren’t bookable with StarAlliance miles like SA flights are. They’re only booked with South African Airways Voyager points. Unless you’re in South Africa, there is no easy or practical way to obtain these.

Forget Using Bank Points

This means you have to book with cash. However, even this is very complicated because the airport is so new that it doesn’t show up on a lot of online travel agencies yet, and because the airline (Airlink) publishes fares between only an extremely limited number of cities.

hle airport error

Want to book a flight to St. Helena? Most travel sites (such as Priceline) can’t handle it.

So, the next thing I thought was using bank points. Unfortunately none of the bank portals work, so forget using bank points to buy the ticket (unless you have a card that lets you use the points to reimburse a charge made on another travel Web site).

Forget Using Most Online Travel Agencies

On Expedia, the airport doesn’t exist. It does on Priceline, but you can’t actually book any flights to St. Helena; the booking engine doesn’t seem to work for this airport on the back end. Just before Christmas when I was buying my ticket, no travel agent site I tried could sell me the ticket.

Forget Buying From Airlink

Of course, you can always try to buy directly from the Airlink Web site. It theoretically works but is difficult to navigate, links you off to South African Airways, charges you in South African Rand, isn’t really set up to deal with US cards, and … well, let’s just say that banks in the US typically take a dim view of making charges on African Web sites. If the charge goes through at all (which it didn’t for me), expect it to be immediately flagged for fraud.

Forget Buying From American Airlines

American Airlines has a really powerful booking engine because the Sabre reservations system was originally developed by them. They used to be able to sell you tickets for almost any flight on any airline on their Web site (you had to use “Advanced Search” but it worked). Unfortunately they don’t do this anymore. So I tried calling them. The agent found the flight, quoted me a price, started to sell me a ticket, and then stopped and refused to proceed. It turns out that now, they’ll only sell you a ticket if an American flight is included on the itinerary. Since I wasn’t also buying a ticket on American, they wouldn’t take my money. I was surprised, but not surprised–it is American, after all.

Finally, A Breakthrough

This gave me an idea though. Airlink is an affiliate of South African Airways, which is a StarAlliance member. Well, United is also a StarAlliance member. Might it be possible to buy a ticket on the United Web site? I’d looked for award tickets, but hadn’t looked for paid ones. As it turns out, you can, and it’s reasonably easy. Not only is it possible to search for flights an entire month at a time (so you can easily find what day the flight operates), but you can book it on a US Web site and pay in US dollars. And you can book the real price, not the Orbitz price with fake taxes included:

Buying on United site costs less

Buying tickets to St. Helena from United instead of Orbitz will save you almost $30.

I was buying a ticket from Johannesburg and returning to Cape Town, so I didn’t even notice the routing problems you can encounter. More on that later.

Orbitz Works–With A Catch

Last week, Orbitz became the first major travel booking site to start selling tickets to St. Helena. Sort of. The site does technically work, but it’s very hard to search for flights (because there is only one flight a week and it doesn’t always go on the same day). Also, the site sneakily (and I think borderline deceptively) charges close to $30 in fees hidden in with the taxes:

orbitz ripoff

Orbitz sneaks fees disguised as taxes into your ticket price!

Forget Buying A Through Ticket

Of course, there is another problem: Even if you’re using the United Web site, you can’t search for flights and buy tickets the way that you normally do because of how the fare is published. What does this mean? Well, normally, when I want to fly from Seattle to somewhere, I look for a ticket directly from Seattle to that destination (in this case, Jamestown, St. Helena or HLE airport). Here is what happens when you do that:

no scheduled flights error

I assure you there actually are flights. You just searched wrong.

The problem is that Airlink, the operating carrier, only appears to publish two routes to and from St. Helena, one each from Cape Town and Johannesburg. So, if you’re trying to buy a ticket to or from anywhere else involving St. Helena, you can’t actually do it. You have to buy a ticket to South Africa from wherever you are, and then another ticket onward to St. Helena from there.

It’s Worth The Effort

St. Helena is one of the world’s most unique and special destinations. Visiting is an incredible experience. As much effort as it has historically been to visit, the island hasn’t been overtaken by tourism yet. Now that visiting doesn’t require a 10-day roundtrip on a boat, the island is much more accessible than before. Go now!

Ringing In The New Year In St. Helena

The island of Saint Helena is one of the most remote places in the world. Until two months ago, the only way you could visit the remote British territory was by private vessel or by taking the Royal Mail ship RMS St. Helena. It’s a very long journey across the stormy South Atlantic, taking 5 days each direction. The nearest mainland is Namibia, over 1,200 miles away.

map of st. helena

A tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

Two months ago, an airport finally opened in St. Helena, the world’s newest commercial airport (airport code HLE). It took 12 years to build from the time it was originally approved, because of the challenging terrain. The airport was spectacularly expensive costing over $400 million (around $100,000 per resident of St. Helena). Making matters worse, after the airport opened, authorities figured out that the aircraft type for which it was built couldn’t safely land due to wind shear. The largest aircraft that can land is a regional jet, and these can’t be fully loaded.

St. Helena airport runway

This isn’t the plane I’ll be flying to St. Helena, because qualification tests for this aircraft type failed.

This throws a monkey wrench into the already dubious plans for the airport to create a tourism industry on St. Helena. Because of the high operating costs, flights there are crazy expensive. I’m flying roughly the distance of a roundtrip from Seattle to New York (a trip I can easily buy for $400) and my ticket cost a cool $1,175 in points. Additionally, there is only one flight a week, meaning once the plane leaves, you’re stuck on the island for a week. But that’s OK, once you’re there, you can make satellite phone calls for $1.60 per minute.

JNB-HLE-WDH-CPT map

The most expensive flight I’ve ever bought

Naturally, this is the best place I could think of to ring in the New Year so I’d like to invite my readers to join me. I’m leaving from Johannesburg to St. Helena on December 30, 2017 and returning January 6, 2017. It’s normally very hard to get to Johannesburg on points, but not if you book last minute–I was able to use my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points to score a first class ticket on Cathay Pacific (an unusual thing for me to do but also a no-brainer; it’s 50k points in economy class and 70k in first class). The easiest way to buy tickets onward to St. Helena is on the United Web site (even though the flight is operated by Airlink, a South African Airways regional affiliate). Right now, the cheapest tickets are $1,264. Because the airport code HLE is new and isn’t loaded in most travel agency computer systems, it’s surprisingly hard to book tickets to this destination.

Note that there is only one flight per week, on Saturdays, so the shortest period of time you can spend on the island is one week. I don’t expect anyone to actually show up, but if you do, I’ll buy you a drink! 🙂

Are you joining me for New Year’s Eve in St. Helena?

How To Use Miles To Escape From Irma

If you live in Florida, you’re probably looking at Irma and wanting to get out. However, a lot of other people already had the same idea and now flights are looking like this:

sold out

Southwest is sold out

Or this:

holy smokes that's expensive

It’s available… if you can afford it

So what can you do if you want to escape the hurricane? Look at some other options.

For all flights, American Airlines is honoring its “last seat” pledge and making seats available to AAdvantage members at the “standard” price. These awards are very expensive, at 20,000 points. Normally I’d never recommend booking one of these, but this is actually solid value for an “hurricane flight” at over 2.7 cents per mile in value. As of this writing, there is still one seat available to each of Dallas and Chicago on 9/6/17.

Alternate airports

While most flights out of the primary South Florida regional hub of Miami are booked, there are still a few seats available on flights from Fort Lauderdale.

Non-US Locations

Another option to evacuate south Florida with points is with jetBlue TrueBlue points, but you’ll also have to leave the country. TrueBlue points can be redeemed at a fixed value toward flights. While most jetBlue flights are sold out, there are a few seats left on their Fort Lauderdale to Mexico flight. Don’t have any jetBlue points? They transfer instantly from American Express Membership Rewards.

Fort Lauderdale to Mexico award pricing

When you need to leave the country immediately, jetBlue has you covered

Cash Deals

Last-minute walk-up fares are pretty expensive for international flights, but jetBlue is duking it out for supremacy with Aeromexico. Both forgot to raise their fares on this route during the hurricane crisis, so you can book the closely timed Aeromexico flight out of Miami for a little over $300 right now. This is one of the cheapest ways out of the region.

Another good way to fly is to look for codeshares on international carriers. Air Canada has a codeshare on a United flight from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles via Denver. If you can find it (I use Momondo for my searches) you might be able to get out for about $200, instead of $2,000.

Bank travel portals (for spending your bank points) aren’t a good way to get out right now. They are showing prices even higher than the airlines. It’s best to just pay cash if you want to get out and can’t use points another way.

General Advice

Look for routes off the beaten path. You might need to get creative with routings and look at places like Panama City, San Salvador or even Madrid as possible evacuation points. It’s already tough to get a ticket at all, so don’t waste time booking.

Airports are going to be a complete zoo so show up many hours before your flight. Don’t expect the airlines to be able to re-accommodate you if you’re late. They won’t have any flights. By this weekend, everything will be shut down.

How I Booked To Minsk Without Paying A Mint

As I wrote in my previous article, it’s now possible for the citizens of 80 countries to visit Belarus without a visa. However, there are some significant strings attached, the most important of which is that you must arrive and depart by flight at Minsk airport.

Unfortunately, Minsk isn’t the cheapest place to visit, because there are limited flights. Only 12 airlines service Minsk, and two of those airlines only fly to Russia (so you can’t use them unless you have a Russian visa, because of the Customs control zone Belarus shares with Russia). That leaves you with only 5 routes on which it’s practical to use points–all StarAlliance, and one of which is on Air China from Beijing. The rest are non-alliance airlines like airBaltic, Belavia, Ukraine International Airlines and even an airline called Motor Sich which flies to–and I can’t even begin to pronounce this–Zaporizhia. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you go find it on a map.

Motor Sich Airlines

I fly a lot and have never even seen an airplane like this.

The cheapest roundtrip flights to Minsk cost about $200, and leave from Kiev. But you have to get to Kiev first, and that’s not exactly a cheap place to visit either. In this case, my journey to Minsk is starting from Barcelona (by the way, my trip from Seattle to Barcelona cost just 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles). I was pretty flexible about where I ended up after visiting Minsk, but preferred that it be Kiev. I got my wish! By stacking two travel hacks, I used just 13,533 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the trip. This will allow me to visit both Minsk and Kiev for fewer points than required to visit just one city using a StarAlliance award, and also required no cash out of pocket.

The first step was to find a good fare hack. Belavia, the state airline of Belarus, publishes a fare between Barcelona and Kiev that allows a stopover in Minsk. However, you can’t actually book these fares on their Web site, which only allows simple one-way and round-trip itineraries. Additionally, Belavia doesn’t publish their fares on most online travel agencies. As far as Orbitz (my usual go-to site for booking complex itineraries) is concerned, Belavia doesn’t even exist. Also, once I finally found a place to buy it (a Spanish travel agency), the fare was still higher than I wanted to pay.

belavia review

The title of the top Skytrax review is “Worst flying experiences ever”

I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. This card is dramatically over-hyped by other travel blogs (mostly because they get a commission for you signing up). However, the sign-up bonus was very good (100,000 points). Also, if I cancel the card before the annual fee comes due, I’ll actually make $150 on the deal (you get a $300 travel credit per calendar year, and I have already gotten two years worth of annual credit out of one $450 annual fee). While you can transfer the points directly to a number of airline programs at a 1:1 ratio, you can also spend them in the Chase travel portal at the rate of 1.5 cents per point. “No way they’ll have this flight,” I thought as I searched the Chase portal just for the sake of completeness.

And then it popped up. The exact itinerary I’d found on the Spanish travel agency–and nowhere else. The price even came in a few bucks cheaper. I couldn’t believe it! Most of the time when I search the Chase portal, the results aren’t very good (except for rental cars, where I have gotten some truly spectacular deals). Hotels generally cost a lot more than other places, and flights tend to cost the same or more. The selection is not only more limited than most travel sites, but the portal is also slow and clunky to use. But there in front of me was a perfect itinerary for 13,533 points with no cash out of pocket! Well, anyone who reads this blog knows I like to fly for free. I went ahead and booked it.

What do I expect? To be honest, I have no idea. The Skytrax reviews of Belavia are very much a mixed bag–your experience really seems to depend upon the crew you get and the aircraft in use. However, the schedule was better than any other airline, and I could go for free. Hard to beat that!

While the deals usually aren’t spectacular with the Chase travel portal, there are occasionally good surprises. Before you transfer your points, be sure to compare what the cash fare would be. You might be pleasantly surprised.

 

Visiting Belarus Without A Visa

Prior to January 9, 2017, Belarus was one of the most difficult and expensive places in the world for Americans to visit. Visas cost a minimum of $140, and required a complicated visa application form to be completed. Not surprisingly, most Americans wanting to visit the region skipped Belarus in favor of its neighbors Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (which don’t require a visa) or Russia. Although Americans do require a visa to visit Russia, its visa previously cost the same as a Belarus visa. Also, Russia has a similar language and culture to Belarus and is geographically the world’s largest country, so there was a lot more that you could see for the same visa fee.

Well, all of that just changed. As in the United States, immigration policy is largely under the control of the president. Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, has issued a decree allowing citizens of 80 countries, including the United States, visa-free entry for 5 days. However, since the decree was issued suddenly, the travel industry isn’t very well briefed on this new policy yet. I wasn’t able to get good answers from hotels, airlines, or anyone. Fortunately, I’ll be visiting in May, and did the leg work for you. I also received confirmation on some key points and a cool “life hack” from the Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Read on to learn how to visit Belarus via Minsk for 5 days without a visa.

To visit Belarus without a visa, you must arrive and depart via flight at Minsk Airport. Unfortunately, you can’t take a much cheaper flight to Vilnius and enter via a short, inexpensive train ride. Unless you already have a Russian visa, you can’t transit Russia either, because you have to be on the Russian side of the Customs control zone to take a Belarus flight. This leaves you with limited flight options, and drives up the cost versus simply taking the train from an EU airport. The day that your passport is stamped counts as the first day. So, for example, if you arrive on the 1st, you need to depart on the 5th. Days start at midnight, and many flights arrive in Minsk shortly before midnight, so you can maximize your stay by waiting until after midnight before going through passport control. This “life hack” was recommended by no less than the Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs!

https://twitter.com/BelarusMFA/status/835219075034988545

Belarus has historically had an unusual arrangement with its powerful neighbor, Russia. Until three weeks ago, there weren’t actually any border checkpoints between the countries; you could drive freely between them and flights between Minsk and Russia were treated as domestic flights. That all changed on February 1 when Russia set up a formal border with Belarus. According to press reports, except for rail passengers, Russia is only allowing citizens of Russia and Belarus to pass–even if you have a Russian visa. Accordingly, if you plan to enter Russia, assume you must transit a third country such as Poland or Ukraine. Leaving Russia via Minsk, on the other hand, should be no problem. President Lukashenko stated after Russia’s action that Belarus will not reciprocate with its own border controls.

Why am I visiting Belarus? Yes, Belarus is referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship” and many Western writers paint a dark picture of crushing authoritarianism. Having lived for three years in China, I know from personal experience that there is a lot more to a country than its government. I really enjoyed my visits to Armenia and Georgia, and like them, Belarus is a former Soviet republic with a unique local history and culture. It is separate and distinct from Russia.

In Armenia and Georgia, I found delicious food, friendly people and incredible history (along with challenging road conditions and a sometimes considerable language barrier). It looks like there is a lot to discover in Belarus, although with only 4 1/2 days (based on the schedule of my flights), I’ll have to work hard to make the most of it! Most importantly, I’m visiting now before Belarus gets discovered, overrun by visitors, and the historical sites turn into tourist traps. If you’d like to join me in Minsk, I’ll be there from May 20th through 24th, 2017!

Using Resort Fees To Identify Opaque Hotels

One of the biggest scams that hotels are pulling lately is the addition of the “resort fee.” This odious practice started about 5 years ago in Las Vegas. It has now gotten so bad that even trucker motels charge resort fees. These days, it’s very difficult to find a room at all without paying them.

Think a truck stop motel doesn't charge resort fees? Think again.

Think a truck stop motel doesn’t charge resort fees? Think again. The Wild Wild West charges $11.19.

Unfortunately, resort fees are a double-whammy: room prices in Las Vegas have gone up–a lot! It now routinely costs over $300 per night at the better Strip properties over summer weekends. And this is the rate before resort fees, which at some properties add an additional $35.84 per night. When you consider that just a few years ago, you could get an entire room downtown for about the same as a resort fee on the Strip today, you can truly wrap your head around the extent of the madness.

Every summer, I attend DEF CON, which is the world’s largest hacker convention. I’m speaking at an event just beforehand, bSides Las Vegas, where I’m getting a $70 per night convention rate (where the usual $27 nightly resort fee is waived). However, Friday and Saturday nights are $110 per night, and I pretty much won’t ever spend over $100 per night for a hotel room. So this left me looking for a better deal. And at my usual favorite properties, there aren’t any.

The thing is, I needed to be in a particular part of town. You just don’t want to be that far away from DEF CON – the conference is really exhausting and a long commute after each day is more than most folks want to deal with. However, being away from The Strip is nice. My compromise over the last several years has been to stay in the UNLV area. It’s relatively close to The Strip, and I know my way around and (more or less) where everything is. Unfortunately the price of hotels in this area has steadily crept up as other people have discovered my secret, and prices are beginning to approach some areas of The Strip.

However, I have an ace up my sleeve. Although the list prices are up, bookings really aren’t in the part of town where I like to book. Most of the time, it’s not as busy as The Strip. So, while hotels in the area have high list prices, they offer a lot of discounts. Priceline and Hotwire both offer blind booking services where you don’t know the name of the hotel before you book. This can really suck if you pick the wrong property: I have had serious cases of “Hotwire regret” (and the same, although less often, with Priceline). In particular, Hotwire takes artistic license with star levels to the same extent as Expedia–which makes sense, because they’re actually owned by Expedia. And while star levels and resort fees may be a usual source of consumer pain, both of these things make it easier to find out the name of the hotel where you’ll be staying. It’s not 100% reliable but it certainly isn’t bad.

To identify a Priceline or Hotwire hotel, I usually start with BetterBidding. These folks attempt to unmask hotels by the amenities listed. While this method can work, it’s not 100% reliable. Properties in Las Vegas change their amenities around frequently, and the properties participating with Priceline and Hotwire also change frequently. You may find enough information to unmask a property here, but you should combine this data with additional information: the star level (if you’re booking on Hotwire) and the resort fee.

A current listing of hotel resort fees is here, and resort fees are disclosed (albeit in small print) on the booking page of Priceline and Hotwire. They don’t tell you the exact price down to the cent, but you can get a pretty good idea. A resort fee of “about $27” in the “East Of Strip – UNLV” area probably means that you’re looking at the Tuscany. Similarly, if no resort fee is listed, you have an even better idea given the shrinking number of properties not charging a resort fee.

Looking for my dates, I found a $74 per night rate listed on Hotwire in the UNLV area for a 2 1/2 star property including breakfast, parking, WiFi, and a free 24 hour shuttle to The Strip. Best of all, there was no resort fee. However, the amenities and star levels didn’t actually match up with anything listed on BetterBidding. However, in checking the area and the properties with no resort fee whatsoever and offering free breakfast that could reasonably be considered a 2 1/2 star, I thought there was a pretty good chance that I would land at either the Baymont Inn and Suites or the La Quinta.

Another fun trick with Hotwire is that there are often coupons you can find online that apply to hotels. I found one on RetailMeNot for $25 off a booking of $150 or more. I was able to offset most of the taxes and fees with the coupon (which worked, although only if you followed the instructions and booked using the Hotwire mobile app). Adding to the problem of fake low headline room rates in Las Vegas, booking sites add on taxes and booking fees at the end and these can jack up the actual price you pay by $25 or more. In this case, I ended up paying about $154 for 2 nights. And I got the LaQuinta, which is very close to Paris and Bally’s, so I’m happy with the result.

Did I really save the 54% Hotwire claimed? Yes, versus the highest rack rate the hotel lists. However, the actual price if you booked directly with the hotel is $99 per night, plus 12% tax. Nevertheless, I saved about $35 per night. That’s not a bad result, and I ended up in a property I’m happy with at a price that–while more than I like to spend–is just about the best weekend deal you can get for a decent room these days in Las Vegas.

 

Blazing Through Belgrade – Part 1

If you book award tickets between North America and Europe, you probably know how big of a challenge it can be to find transatlantic award availability. Getting over the water is the hardest part and you need to have a really high degree of flexibility on which gateway cities you use. Additionally, depending on availability, there might be no actual way to get to your final destination on a single award ticket.

Fortunately, when you’re flying intra-Europe, it’s generally not too expensive to just buy a ticket. Numerous low-cost carriers operate in the region and there’s usually a cheap way to get between European cities. After all, Europe is so small that it’s hard to find a flight longer than 3 hours in any given direction. So, this is how I ended up booking a ticket from Los Angeles to Istanbul via Frankfurt. Not many people want to fly to Istanbul from the US right now, so it’s turning out to be one of the best award gateways to Europe for this summer–if you can accept the SSSS risk. So, for my trip to Zagreb, I found an award flight to Istanbul on Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), and found a return flight from Milan on airBerlin. There wasn’t any actual award availability to anywhere in Croatia, though, so I had to fill the gap.

Croatia, unfortunately, isn’t one of those places where you can fly cheaply. The only low-cost carrier to serve Zagreb, easyJet, pulled out earlier this year. So, forget about catching a $50 hop on a low cost carrier from a European gateway city like you can to most places. Almost every flight I was looking at cost over $400, except for a flight on airSerbia with a 23-hour layover in Belgrade.

serbiabombedYeah, that. Belgrade. The city that was bombed by NATO. Most Americans have long forgotten this, but the scars of the Yugoslav civil war and the NATO bombing campaign are still visible all over the city. Although Serbia doesn’t require a visa for Americans to enter, it’s not a member of the European Union. It doesn’t recognize the borders of Kosovo, either. So, I honestly had to wonder just how warm a reception I could expect as an American in Belgrade. The NATO bombing campaign wasn’t that long ago–I was still in college then. There was also the matter of flying Air Serbia. It’s the former Yugoslav Airlines, marred by bankruptcy after being mired in over a decade of mismanagement.

I held my breath and booked the ticket. I just found it mentally impossible to justify paying $200 more, and the fare rules sealed the deal. Air Serbia has exceptionally flexible fare rules, so I was able to book an open jaw itinerary as a roundtrip rather than two point-to-point one-way itineraries. Air Serbia is also very flexible with changes, which was important because I was flying a hidden cities itinerary and these are super risky. If it turned out I couldn’t depart from Frankfurt as booked and planned, I could change my ticket and depart from Istanbul instead. The price was $218.30 and my itinerary would allow me nearly 23 hours in Belgrade on the outbound, plus a long afternoon in Belgrade on my return.

It was an uneventful flight on Lufthansa to Frankfurt. The service was efficient and entirely unremarkable–typically German. After arriving in Frankfurt, I found the Air Serbia check-in counter. It opens 3 hours before departure and I had a 6 hour layover, so I ended up dropping my bags at the luggage storage facility next door. It’s conveniently located, albeit expensive (the cost was about 15 euro to drop my bags for the day). I then hopped on the U-Bahn (fortunately I had a European chip and PIN card that worked on the ticket vending machine) and headed to central Frankfurt.

Frankfurter in Frankfurt

What’s a layover in Frankfurt without a frankfurter? It hit the spot!

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

Trees budding in the springtime sun

Trees budding in the springtime sun

It is a long flight from LA to Frankfurt and I was pretty tired from being on the road. I stretched out and napped on a park bench, soaking up the sun and enjoying the afternoon. Since a lot of not-obviously-homeless people were doing the same thing, I figured it was socially acceptable. It was bliss; sometimes the best things in life are free. Eventually, the time came to make my way back to the airport. I stopped at Starbucks for coffee, at a Chinese shop next door for some snacks, and hopped on the subway.

An uneventful trip back to the airport, and I retrieved my bag. I’d gotten back sooner than planned, and was about 2 hours early for my departure. By now, the Air Serbia counter was staffed. After meticulously weighing all of my bags and requiring me to shift items from one bag into another one (this was done for no good reason, it only served the purpose of hassling me), I was issued a boarding pass and my carry-on items were tagged. Almost no line at immigration, and I was thoroughly and efficiently stamped out of Germany (the immigration agent briefly quizzing me on why I was arriving and leaving on the same day, since I had booked two separate tickets on the itinerary). Once through, I proceeded to the gate area.

The gate used by Air Serbia in Frankfurt is all the way at the end of the international departures area, and you don’t actually clear security until the gate is open. Who opens the gate? The same people who run the check-in desk. And there is nowhere to sit until the gate area is opened. A lot of sour-faced people from the Balkans were standing around looking less than entirely amused, and there were a lot of screaming kids. So, since I had about an hour before boarding, I headed upstairs to a completely deserted transit lounge. Ever wonder what airport employees do in between flights when the terminal isn’t busy? A lot of napping and a lot of texting with their friends on the phone. Most of the employees seemed surprised that a passenger was there, but I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me.

Eventually, I made my way down to the gate. The outside area was even more crowded now, with people even more sour-faced and children crying. Eventually a security guard showed up, then another few trickled in, and they began preparing the gate. German security is Very Serious, with the supervisor first clearing all of the security guards through security. Still no Air Serbia employees yet, though. Those came about 5 minutes later, arriving on bicycles, the same people who had been operating the check-in counter! They actually had to be cleared through security as well, along with the flight crew who showed up exactly when the gate was opening, clearly being more aware than passengers of the actual boarding time.

The boarding process was a little chaotic, definitely not organized like the US or Singapore but more organized than Russia or China. I could see that it wasn’t a full flight, so even though I had a large carry-on bag, I didn’t worry too much about the mad boarding scramble. I slipped into the line in front of an inexperienced traveler, with about the closest that you’ll ever get to a nod and wink from the German gate staff, and boarded the plane. Next stop, Belgrade!

Off The Beaten Path In The Netherlands

I spent nearly a year living and studying in The Netherlands, and am often asked for advice on what to see and do there. The Netherlands (often incorrectly called Holland) has a lot to see for such a small country, and it’s easy to navigate. It’s also a terrific gateway to Europe, because there are a large number of flights (including on low-cost carriers) into Schiphol airport. Although Dutch people speak their own language, they’re very linguistically versatile. Nearly everyone speaks excellent English (younger people especially so), and they usually also speak German. So, The Netherlands is a great first country to visit in Europe–or a great first country to visit in general.

Dutch boat and canal

If you visit The Netherlands, you’ll probably end up on a boat at some point.

Unfortunately, none of this is really a secret. The Netherlands is one of the most-visited countries in Europe, and for good reason: it’s home to some of its most famous museums and attractions. During the tourist season, The Netherlands is besieged by visitors, not only from North America and Europe but also from Asia. For a small country with only 14 million residents, the top attractions can become very crowded indeed. And for some reason, even though there is no shortage of places to visit in The Netherlands, everyone seems to flock to the same ones.

As I sit in Weesp, having enjoyed an idyllic and beautiful fall Sunday in a picture postcard Dutch town with nary another visitor to be seen, I am amazed that more people don’t make it off the beaten path in The Netherlands. Haarlem, a very similar city, is besieged by throngs of tourists, the restaurants and shops charging inflated tourist prices. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a Belgian beer in a sunny sidewalk cafe for a mere €4.50 this afternoon, while watching the locals enjoy the day in their boats.

Weesp sidewalk cafe

Sidewalk cafes in Weesp are every bit as nice, but just half the price of Haarlem

It’s not just idyllic country towns that are great to visit when you go off the beaten path. Every weekend, planeloads of visitors descend on Schiphol and head straight for the Red Light district in Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a party, this is one place to go, but not the best place. Despite the marijuana and prostitution, it’s a pretty relaxed, organized and tame place. It’s really crowded though, with the high prices you would expect in a really popular area. Personally, I skip the Red Light District. As a guy with a fairly serious DJ hobby, I’m into electronic music, and the best music and parties are in the young, vibrant city of Utrecht. For half the price of an evening out in Amsterdam, you can see much better DJs and have a lot better time at an Utrecht dance party. It’s also a beautiful city, known as the “city of lights” in The Netherlands and famous for the elaborate light displays along its canals.

Utrecht City Of Lights

The party is at the end of this tunnel.

How about art? Everyone knows about the famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. However, did you know that there’s an astonishingly large Van Gogh collection at a museum you have probably never heard of? I think the seldom-visited Kröller-Müller Museum in Gelderland is a lot better than the Van Gogh Museum, even though it’s less well-known. It also has an incredible sculpture garden. It’s best if you rent a car to get there, but if you do, you might just have the place to yourself.

One reason that many people don’t venture far from the beaten path is the perceived complexity of public transportation. However, in reality, Dutch public transportation is one of the easiest systems to use in the world. It’s really only complicated if you’re trying to pay cash or use a non-European bank card. The Netherlands has a unified transportation payment system called the OV-Chipkaart. It works in literally every bus, train, subway and tram in the country. All of them, everywhere. You can buy one at the NS train ticket sales counter at Schiphol, and it will make your life incredibly easier. Public transportation is relatively expensive in The Netherlands, so 50 euro goes fast! Reloading is easy with cash or a credit card at any train station with a ticket counter. You can also reload your OV-Chipkaart at ticket machines, but this only works reliably with a European credit card with chip and PIN.

OV-Chipkaart reader

Scan your OV-Chipkaart on the reader

Using the OV-Chipkaart is remarkably simple. Just scan it before (or as) you get into the bus, train, train or subway. When you leave, scan it again. You’re charged by distance, and the fares add up quickly. Transportation in The Netherlands is expensive! That’s why you see everyone riding a bicycle; you will pay to be lazy. Your account will need a minimum balance of 20 euro to board a NS Railways train (which is why it’s best to start with 50 euro on your card), but you usually don’t need any minimum balance to board a subway, tram or bus.

It actually gets even better than this. You only need one way to plan travel in The Netherlands: either the Web site or smartphone app 9292. You can easily plan a trip between any two locations in the country and all methods of public transportation are covered. You can even find out the cost in advance. Content is all available in both English and Dutch. Yes, it really is this easy. The best way to search is by postal code, if you have it. Note that every single address in The Netherlands has its own unique postal code.

Dutch weather

The weather can change suddenly, even if it’s nice where you just were. Bring an umbrella!

Are there more hidden gems in The Netherlands? Of course! Some of my other favorite cities are Groningen, Maastricht and Den Haag (The Hague). Each has a very different personality. Groningen is famous for squatter dwellings, warehouse parties and graffiti art. Maastricht has winding cobblestone streets where you can find an absolutely perfect cup of fine Dutch Espresso, sipping slowly and watching the world go by. And Den Haag is a rabbit’s warren of serendipitous discoveries, with some of the most interesting and unique shops in the country.

But I have really only scratched the surface. For such a small country, there is a lot to enjoy in The Netherlands. Take the train to a place you’ve never heard of, rent a bicycle (possible for a few euro at most train stations) and go explore! You might be amazed at what you find.