Tips for Booking Flights Online

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Erik and I setting off from Kelowna.

Erik and I have flown to Europe five times now and each time, we have found better deals for our flights. In this post, I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve learned and a few tips and tricks for successfully booking flights online.

On our first trip in 2007, Erik and I worked with a travel agent and we don’t regret that because it was our first trip and we didn’t really know what to expect.  However on our next two trips, in 2009 and 2013, we decided to step out of our comfort zone and we booked flights ourselves on a Canadian charter service called AirTransat. The seats were a bit squishy, but the price was better than any regular airline flights we were able to find anywhere else.

In 2014, we flew to London and tried using third-party booking sites and found the best price using Expedia. Last year, we booked flights to New Zealand in March, and to Rome in August, and our upcoming trip using Flighthub.com.

There are a number of things to consider and be watchful of when booking flights with discount 3rd party services and I will go over some of the things we have learned so far. However, we are still learning so this list is by no-means an exhaustive one.

Travel Agents

If you have never travelled abroad, have no idea where you want to go, have no time or interest in researching information online, and money is not a concern, then by all means use a travel agent. They have tons of first-hand knowledge and connections, and can often make suggestions or find deals that novices will miss.

Booking Online directly with the Airline

If you know where and when you want to go, the next easiest thing to do is to go directly to your favourite airline site and book online. You can try a variety of airlines to compare prices and then choose the flights that suit you best.  Often you can use promo codes, airlines points or airmiles to reduce the costs.  The advantages of booking directly at an airline site is that you are not dealing with a third party so it’s easier to book seats, make flight changes, or deal with any problems that may arise because you are working directly with the airline.

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We’ve flown with Air Transat several times.

Booking Online using Third Party Sites

You can definitely save money using third party booking sites but you need to be very careful when using them, read all of the fine print, and make sure you have a clear understanding of the rules and regulations of that particular site.  You can find a long list of complaints about many (most? all?) of these sites but in most cases, they are because people did not read the fine print.

Avoid using a third party site if there is any chance that that you will have to change or cancel your flight. Discount fares are almost always subject to fees to change flights, and some cannot be changed at all.  There are also often extra fees for booking seats and for luggage although this varies widely depending on the airline and the particular seat sale.  Again, read the fine print.

Some third party sites are harder to deal with than others if you have any problems to resolve or changes to make, and airlines will often send you back to the third party site rather than deal with your problems if you haven’t booked with them directly. Keep in mind even airline sites will charge you to make changes to a booked flight, but if you use a third party site, you will have to pay change fees to both the booking site and the airline.

Tracking at Third Party Sites

As you probably know, many websites track you when you’ve been to their site. I believe that many have algorithms that watch to see if you keep checking prices for certain flights and then bump up the prices accordingly.  To avoid this, my husband and I often search for flights on different computers (home, work, on tablets etc) and often use “private” browser mode so the website is unable to track us. Most browsers have a private viewing window that can’t track you Safari or Firefox, open a window called “private”, with Chrome, use “incognito”. This can also be a useful tip for visiting any shopping site.

General Tips for Third Party Sites

We’ve found the cheapest flights when we’ve booked as far ahead as possible. I keep reading that flights are cheaper when booked on a Tuesday but so far, I haven’t seen that. Your miles may vary. When I start looking for flights, I usually check the prices every day for a week or so and then book once I’m fairly certain I’ve found a good deal, or at the very least, I price I can live with.  In general, mid-week flights tend to be cheaper but not always – it often depends on where and when you are travelling. It’s easiest if you are flexible and can consider other flights a few days before or after your preferred date.

Keep in mind that airlines can sometimes change their flights if you book them a long way ahead of time. Last summer, our flight to Toronto was pushed forward by two hours meaning that we would be unable to make our connecting flight to Rome. Flighthub contacted me and gave me several options to rebook the flight, but you can’t always rely on them checking for you. You need to be vigilant and check that your flights haven’t changed from time to time. Flighthub did not charge me a fee for changing the flight because it was the airline’s fault, although the flight choices were less desirable than before. Overall, I was satisfied with the changes the rebooking went smoothly.

Erik and I booked our Spring flights (Kelowna to Paris in April and Rome to Kelowna in July) at the beginning of October and only paid $880 CAD each for our round trip flight, taxes included.  In the past, we have paid as much as $1500 each for a flight to Europe. We have a stopover in Vancouver on the way there, and in Toronto on the way back.)

You must keep in mind, we are flying out of Western Canada – flights from major cities in the US, or Eastern Canada are likely to be less expensive. In addition, we live in a smaller centre and there are no direct flights (although WestJet has just started service to the UK this month) so we normally have to fly first to Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, or Montreal before finding a direct flight to our destination. Some destinations are cheaper than others so you can definitely find better deals depending on where you are going.

In addition, there are a number of cheap discount airlines in Europe  (Ryanair and Easyjet are just two), that will get you to another city once you are in Europe.  You may want to fly directly to a larger European centre, and then take a discount airline to your final destination. You need to look at all of your options to determine if this is worthwhile for you.

Check the currency. Check the currency. Check the currency.  For me, the 3rd party site default tends to be in US dollars.  I can’t tell you how many times Erik and I have found a great deal only to realize we forgot to switch to CAD.  This happens most often when we are in “private” mode because the site doesn’t have cookies and so always goes to the default.

Trip Insurance 

Most third party sites will push for you to purchase their add-on trip cancellation or medical insurance.  In fact, some sites have it already included in the price and you actually have to find the button to deselect it.  Erik and I already have good trip cancellation and medical insurance so we do not purchase this through the site. Before you travel, find out if you are already covered though work or your credit card. If not, talk to your insurance person and find out what coverage is offered, then compare it to the policy from the website. You may find you have more confidence purchasing insurance purchased through your own insurance agent. It’s up to you.

Booking Your Flight

When it comes time to book your flight, check over every detail CAREFULLY before you click “book”.  I cannot stress this enough.  I usually read it aloud to my husband and together we check it over very carefully.  When you are comparing a variety of dates and flights, it’s easy to accidentally input the wrong information when you are ready to book.

Input your name and passport information carefully. Make sure every detail is correct. Make sure you have selected or deselected the insurance option. When you are ready – book it! My heart always pounds when I hit that button.

Once you’ve booked your flight, get your booking number and log into the airline website. Sometimes the third party site booking number is different from the airline number so look for both numbers on your confirmation. (Once I had to email the site to find out the correct booking confirmation number). Most airlines have apps as well which are really handy when checking into the airport.  Most airlines allow you to check in online and use a digital boarding pass but not all do. Read the information and make sure you know what to do when it’s time to fly home.

Erik and I also like to create an email folder specifically for each trip.  Each time we send or receive an email about our trip, we CC each other and put the email into the trip folder. It saves time searching for information later.

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Flying over Kelowna.

Booking Seats

Because Erik and I tend to book cheap flights, we do try to find the best seats we can afford and most often, this means paying a little extra to book our seats ahead of time. For example, I think we paid an extra $20 per seat to book decent seats on our upcoming flight. Erik likes an aisle seat and I like a window seat. Since most seats are in sets of 3, this means that I usually have to sit in the middle, which sucks. Therefore, we often try to find seats in sets of two, which are usually near the back, where the plane narrows. Our favourite spot is the first set of two seat behind a set of three because Erik has extra space for his legs. The downside is that we tend to have to wait longer for our meals but I figure my comfort is well worth this minor inconvenience.

An excellent site for comparing seats is SeatGuru. Here you can get detailed information about individual seats on specific aircraft. If you have a flight booked, you can input your airline, flight number, and travel date to find out specific info about the seats on your flight. You can also compare general information about different types of airplanes.

For each specific airplane, you can find out the seat width (distance  between armrests), seat pitch (distance between the rows of seats indicating legroom), how far back the seat reclines, and whether it has inflight TV, wifi, or power. You can also see where the seats are in relation to the bathrooms and the location of any bulkhead seats (with a wall in front, more legroom but usually a swing-out  TV in the armrest). You can even read reviews about the various airplanes and their seating.

As a special note – Air New Zealand offers you the opportunity to pay to have an empty seat beside you. The downside is that you can’t do this online, only when you check in at the airport. If there is an empty seat on the airplane, they will ensure it is next to you and charge you about $75 CAD for the privilege.

When I flew alone to NZ last March, I had a middle seat in a row of 3 and I paid $75 for the empty window seat. Then I sprawled myself across the two seats for the entire 14 hour flight. It was lovely. I had to explain to the lady in the aisle that I had paid extra for the empty seat so that it was mine to use. She didn’t love it but overall we got along.

Some Third-Party Sites to get you started

Some sites do part of the search for you – you plug in your date and destination and then a half dozen windows pop open with various flights at various sites. Googleflights, Kayak,  Skyscanner , Hipmunk, and TripAdvisor are examples of meta-search sites that I have used. However, I find the multitude of window popups annoying so I generally search each site on my own.

Below is a list of third party sites that I have used. There are many more sites and although they sometimes have similar sounding names, they each have different policies so read the fine print carefully. In addition, just to further confuse you, some sites have more than one name.

The sites I have tried so far are: FlightHubExpediaOrbitzPricelineTravelocity

So – got any flight booking tips you want to share?  Let me know in the comments below!

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Where you’ll usually find me at the airport. #PluggedIn

Preparing for the Camino: Physical Training

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Kelownagurl in the Cotswolds July 2014

2016 will be a HUGE year of change for me.  I plan to retire on March 31, and then on April 9, my husband Erik and I will embark on a three month trip to Europe that will include approximately 40 days walking 800 km on the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Taking on the challenge of walking 20-30km per day for over a month requires some planning and preparation. I have run 5 half marathons, one full marathon, and completed three half ironman races, and Erik and I backpacked for 4 days on the Cotswold Way in July 2014, so I know I have the endurance capability to do the Camino, but maintaining a daily 20-25km for 40 days is a different kind of challenge and I will require good general fitness and core strength if I hope to enjoy the walk.

I was a bit lazy exercising in 2015, but I don’t think I will have any trouble getting myself fit and healthy again if I train consistently for the next 3 months. What I really need to do is build up my general cardio fitness so I’m not huffing and puffing along the way, work on my strength and core training so I do not fatigue so easily when carrying a load, and get used to walking longer distances with a 12-15 lb backpack.

I’ve read many books and blogs about people’s varied experiences on the Camino and the preparations they made before setting off. I’ve considered  their advice about what worked and what didn’t, paying particular attention to the stories from people who are similar to me in age and fitness level. I think I know my body well enough to have a pretty good understanding of what I need to do now to prepare.

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A cute cat along the Cotswold Way in July 2014.

So here is my training plan for January 1 – April 9, 2016.

  • Walk home from school (3-5 km) at least 4 days a week.
  • Do core work 3 times a week (15-30 min).
  • Do 30 min strength training at the gym twice a week.
  • Walk 5-10 km on weekends, slowly building up to 15-20 km as the weather warms up. Include some back-to-back days.
  • Do other forms of cardio once or twice a week such as snow shoeing, running, cycling, rowing, or elliptical.
  • Eat healthfully and lose at least 5 lbs.
  • Do yoga or Qi Gong as often as I can.
  • Sleep well.

Over the next three months, I will post regular updates on how my training is going, as well as posts about our other preparations for the trip.

Erik’s training plan is to continue what he has been doing for the last two months – hit the gym every second day and do 30 minutes of cardio (usually running) plus a complete strength training circuit. He also plans to do increasingly longer walks, usually with me on the weekends.

When we arrive in Paris on April 10,  we will spend 2 weeks in Southern France, and will do as much walking as possible in order to maintain our fitness. Our plan is to begin the Camino on Monday, April 25, 2016 and arrive in Santiago no later than June 3rd.

If you want to follow along with my training more closely, you can find me on Daily Mile or Facebook.

If you have questions or you’ve done the Camino and have info to share, please leave a comment below!

PS Here’s a link to my podcast where Erik and I walk about our preparations for the Camino.

KG’s Adventures: Fitness and Travel into Retirement. Episode 6

or you can subscribe to the podcast by clicking the link below.

KG’s Adventures on iTunes

Accommodations along the Camino de Santiago

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Please leave your shoes at the door.

There are as many ways to walk the Camino as there are Peregrinos.  Each person has a different purpose for doing the walk, a different time frame, a different financial situation.  Some people walk alone, some walk with a partner, some walk in groups.  Some arrive in St Jean Pied de Port with a backpack and only a rough idea of what is ahead of them, and others hire tour companies to carry their bags and arrange 4-5 star hotels all along the way. The possibilities are limitless.

There is no ‘right way’ – as the guidebooks say – you must “walk your own Camino”. And just as there is no one right kind of Peregrino, there is no one right kind of accommodation.

Albergues

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Some albergues may offer private rooms, but most have single beds or bunk beds in a a large, dorm-style room.

The most traditional, and least expensive bed to sleep in each night can be found in the albergues or refugios (called an Auberge or Refuge in France).  They are basically hostels with dorm style sleeping arrangements, usually bunk beds in close quarters in a large room with shared bathroom facilities.  Most have sinks for doing laundry and some have kitchens or additional amenities such as wifi or computers. The prices range from a suggested donation to 15 euros per person.

With the exception of the private albergues, most are filled on a first-come-first-served basis and have strict opening and closing hours.  Generally only Peregrinos are allowed to stay here, and even then, for only one night.  In most cases, it’s lights out (doors locked) at 10pm and you are expected to vacate by 8am.

Types of Albergues

Municipal albergues are usually the least expensive, and from what I’ve read, can be quite inconsistent.  Some are wonderful and others, not so much.  It’s probably a good idea to read reviews of municipal albergues before staying in them.

Religious albergues are operated by churches, monasteries, or convents.  They often charge by donation or a small fee.  They may not offer many amenities but the volunteers who run them tend to be quite caring. You do not have to belong to the church to stay here.

Some albergues are run by camino associations and the volunteers who run them have often done the camino themselves. They often charge by donation as well.

In addition, there are privately run albergues.  They tend to have more amenities (kitchens, laundry facilities, some private rooms, wifi etc).  There is generally a higher charge for these facilities.

Other Accommodation

Pensiones (called casa de huespedes and marked with CH)

These offer rooms in privately run B&Bs, some with private, but most with shared bath. Most offer breakfast and there can be a range of amenities and prices. They are usually a step up from an albergue. They can often be booked ahead.

Hotels (signs usually marked with H)

There are a wide variety of 2-5 star hotels along the Camino, particularly in the larger towns and cities.  Most can be booked ahead and like most hotels, they have a wide range of amenities, prices, and quality.

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Entrance to the Parador in Santiago de Compostella.

Paradors

These are state-owned 5 star luxury hotels, often in preserved historical buildings. There are several Paradors along the way, including this one, which is found at the end of your journey, in Santiago de Compostela. They are definitely  more expensive but I’ve heard that some offer a “pilgrim rate” so I guess it’s always worth asking. I would love to stay in a Parador at least once…

Casa Rurales

These are private B&Bs that are found in rural areas, frequently a working family farm supplementing their income.  Like pensiones, they range in quality, amenities, and price.

Our Camino?
We have done quite a bit of travelling, including self-supported cycle tours in France and hiking part of the Cotswold Way in the UK last summer, so we have a reasonable idea of what to expect when carrying a backpack for 20-30 km per day.

Because developing the camaraderie of our fellow pilgrims is so important to us, we intend on staying in the albergues at least a third of the time, maybe even more. There will be times when a hostel is the only option, and there are a few hostels that come highly recommended so we hope to track those ones down for sure.  Other times, we intend to sample some of the other kinds of accommodation listed above. Here are some of the reasons why we don’t think we will stay in albergues every night.

* We don’t want to have the pressure of getting to the next town as quickly as possible to ensure we find a bed at the albergue.  We want to take our time and enjoy the trip, without worrying too much about where we still sleep that night.

* We both find we need a really good (quiet) sleep and appreciate our privacy (at least some of the time).

* We are not on a super-tight budget and can afford hotels once in awhile.

* We are interested in staying with Spanish families in small B&Bs and Casa Rurales.

Of course, we really don’t know how things will turn out.  We recognize that the Camino can be a life-changing experience and we are ready and willing to adjust our plans along the way.

If you’ve done the Camino, feel free to comment about your own experiences below!

Edited to add (Feb 13, 2016): I was recently chatting online with a lady who walked the Camino last spring, and is walking it again this April.  She let me know that there are really quite a few albergues that offer private rooms and many have private bathrooms, so with any luck, Erik and I will be able to stay in most albergues than we had originally planned.  Here’s a link to her blog post.  The Camino Provides: Walking the Camino as a Couple

What is the Camino?

12389897575_43b6a69bd1_zIt was about three years ago when Erik and I first heard about the Camino de Santiago and we were both intrigued with the idea. Later, when we watched Martin Sheen’s movie The Way for the first time, we told ourselves that someday we would do the walk.  Well that time is finally in sight – May 2016.

A Little Background
The Camino has long been touted as a Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain.  Christians have been travelling the route since the 8th or 9th century when the remains of the apostle, St. James, were first “discovered” in Santiago de Compostela.  Legend has it that his body, or at least parts of it, was brought to Santiago from Jerusalem, where he had been beheaded in 44AD, and since that time, Christians have been making the trek to visit his remains where they rest in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The route was very popular throughout the middle ages, but gradually declined in the 16th century. By the 1980’s, only a few pilgrims were completing the walk each year, but interest was soon renewed when the Council of Europe named it a European Cultural Route in 1987, and it was eventually declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. Since then, the number of pilgrims completing the walk has increased dramatically each year, with almost 240,000 people walking it in 2014.  In holy years, when St. James Day (July 25) lands on a Sunday, the numbers are even greater.

Despite being best known as a Catholic pilgrimage, the route actually has older Pagan roots.  It is said that over 1000 years before Christ, the Celts were walking the route across Northern Spain to Finisterre (literally “Land’s End” or “End of the World”) which is just a few days’ walk past Santiago on the Atlantic coast. There they would perform rituals such as burning their clothes by the water’s edge as an offering to the gods.  Many modern day Pilgrims continue their walk to Finisterre after reaching the cathedral in Santiago.

Map of the Camino de SantiagoBecause pilgrimages generally start from home, there are many routes to Santiago, some of which can be seen on this map. In addition, there are routes from other points in Spain, as well as from Portugal. The most popular route is the Camino Frances which, for most pilgrims, begins in St Jean Pied de Port, just over the border in France.

From that starting point, pilgrims obtain their Credencial or camino “passport” which they will have stamped at each stopping point along the way. This passport allows the Pilgrims, or Peregrinos as they are called in Spanish, to access inexpensive hostel-type accommodation in the many albergues along the route, as well as special Pilgrim meals in the hostels or local restaurants. When Pilgrims arrive in Santiago with the Credencial, they receive their Compostela, a certificate showing that they have completed the walk.  Technically, Pilgrims only need to walk the last 100km to receive a Compostela, but many people walk the entire 800 km, and some walk even further.

220px-JakobsmuschelsymbolThe route is well marked with signposts, yellow arrows, and scallop shells – the symbol of the Camino, and the route includes trails, dirt or gravel roads, and pavement.

Many memoirs and informational books have been written about the Camino, as well as a number of movies and documentaries.  I recommend watching The Way if you want a general Hollywood version of the walk, and there is an excellent documentary that came out in 2014 called Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. My favourite short video that gives an overall picture of the Camino was posted on Vimeo by George Torrey.

Erik and I have begun planning and preparing for our trip and with only nine months to go, our excitement is palpable.  Over the next few months, I will write about our personal reasons for doing the Camino, our physical and mental preparations, and the equipment we plan to take with us. Join us as we prepare for the trip of a lifetime!

Click here to listen to Episode #2 of my podcast “Kelownagurl’s Adventures: Travel and Fitness into Retirement” to hear Erik and I talk about the Camino.

Additional Sources

http://www.caminodesantiago.com.au/history/

http://www.santiago-compostela.net

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camino_de_Santiago