Breakfast When Birding

Many hotels and eco-lodges include breakfast in the room rates.  In fact, the more remote lodges that don’t have access to a village or someplace where people can go for meals will have all-inclusive packages built around the optimal birding times.  Breakfast will either be served REAL early, like 5am before you go birding, taken with you as a boxed breakfast of sandwiches, fruit and a juice box or you will go birding first, brought back to the lodge for a main breakfast, then go back out birding.

Any lodge that caters to birders should be no problem, they are used to our needs.  But what happens when you stay in a normal hotel and plan your own birding excursions?  Yesterday, two fellow travel bloggers pointed out scenarios when breakfasts are not served at convenient times.

Melinda of “Magic of Miles” posted that the breakfast sometimes ends too early for people who want to spend a leisurely morning in bed, then have a late breakfast.  This would also be the case for those who want to spend the morning birding, then come back for your buffet breakfast.

Brian Cohen of “The Gate” brought up the opposite problem – you have an early flight (or in our case want to leave early for birding) and the breakfast isn’t open yet.

In my situation where I am traveling on a tight budget I hate passing up a free meal or one that has been built into the price I paid for the room.  I try to use hotel points in larger cities such as Guayaquil and Panama City and in these cases the breakfast usually isn’t included.  Since I do a lot of research in advance, I will either ask the guide where we can get breakfast or buy something at a local supermarket to bring along.  If I am doing a self-drive birding trip, I will find out where we can eat near the location in advance and make sure I have enough cash or pre-purchased food from a supermarket.

If the breakfast is included and I don’t want to waste it, I will ask the hotel to give us a packed breakfast we can bring with us.  Most hotels will do this willingly, it actually saves them money over having us spend an hour at the buffet leisurely eating as we wish!  Depending on how far the hotel is from the birding site and if we are using a rental car, we may go out birding early, come back for the buffet, then go back out again.  If we do this, we usually don’t have to bother with lunch as we will be quite full so it saves a bit more money.

It’s also a good idea to find out the public conveniences (or lack thereof) in your birding location.  You don’t want to drink all that coffee and find yourself being constantly “inconvenienced”!  I tend to stick with water which I sip sparingly to keep hydrated but minimize inconveniences, then step up the hydration when we come back for lunch and siesta.

As always, doing your homework and being prepared goes a long way towards making your birding trip a success!

 

How To Use Promo Codes On Hotels & Eco-lodges – Hotels.com

Every month or so Hotels.com comes out with promo codes that are sometimes targeted or sometimes open to anyone but can give you at least 10% off a booking.  Many eco-lodges now list their properties with Hotels.com and other online booking sites as it gets them a wider audience.  While they do pay a commission to the booking site, they get customers they would otherwise not get if it was too hard to find them and book them.  If you use a promo code issued by Hotels.com, it doesn’t come from their income, it comes from Hotels.com and you pay for it indirectly by not accruing Welcome Rewards.

There is currently a “Get $40 off when you spend $300 or more and use Paypal” coupon.  Use promo code “paypalus40” in the box shown below.  The full T&Cs are here.

Not every property can be used with these coupons but here’s how you can find the ones that work.  In most cases you can exclude chain hotels right off the bat. You can use these instructions for any promo code, not just the Paypal one.

1. USE THE SIDEBAR FILTER AND TICK “REDEEM FREE NIGHTS”

This will get a list of hotels that you can use coupons and vouchers on.  They will be properties that you can pay in advance for.  It doesn’t work if you pay once you check in.  If the word ‘redeem’ is crossed out, try again.

hotels1 hotels2

2. SELECT “CHOOSE ROOM”, THEN THE “PAY NOW” BUTTON hotels3 hotels4

 

3. IF THERE IS A MINIMUM SPEND, THE SUBTOTAL MUST BE OVER THE MINIMUM BEFORE TAXES.

In the example, we need to spend at least $300 to get a $40 discount.hotels5

4. YOU WILL SEE THE DISCOUNT APPLIED BEFORE YOU GO TO THE FINAL PAYMENT SCREEN hotels6

Top 8 Things To Avoid When Planning A Trip Using Miles

No sooner have I returned from the big South American birding trip, I now have to think of NEXT year’s trip.  The 330 day window is approaching for the outbound and I like to book as soon as I see the flights loaded.  Of course we are using miles from various accounts and there has been some tweaking done because of the American and Virgin Velocity devaluations.  This is why I have delayed the trip reports but hopefully I will soon have the important flights booked and can relax a bit.  It has brought to mind a few things I have to avoid while planning “The Godmother of all African Adventures“.

TOP 8 THINGS TO AVOID

  1.  Major public holidays – not only in my home country of Australia but I want to avoid holidays in the destination countries as well.  It is much harder to get award flights at these times.  I check this using Time and Date. 
  2.  School holidays – the last thing we need is for national parks to be crowded and booked solid.  Doesn’t make for peaceful birding!  In this case, I want to avoid South African school holidays while we are in Namibia and Zambia.
  3. Ramadan – We’ll be using Etihad and possibly Qatar Airlines for this itinerary so I want to avoid traveling during Ramadan.  We like to go into the cities during layovers and have a couple days in Dubai for shopping so don’t want to deal with not being able to eat and drink at our normal times.  This makes the trip a challenge as we want to avoid traveling over Easter on the Aussie end and be home well before Ramadan starts and still get reasonably good weather.  Which brings us to…
  4. Rainy Seasons – we couldn’t avoid all of the rainy seasons because this itinerary is in vastly different parts of Africa but I kept it to a minimum as much as possible.
  5. Major sporting events like the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, etc.  Also makes award tickets hard to get and airports will be crowded.
  6. Major elections – I like to avoid them as sometimes they are treated as holidays and services are not available or curtailed because everyone is watching the results come in.
  7. Airline miles devaluations – I try my best to book before a devaluation takes affect.  I couldn’t help the AA one which happened on 22 March as our trip next year can’t begin until after Easter 2017 but I had to reverse the order of the trip to avoid the Velocity devaluation of Etihad partner awards.
  8. Personal and family events planned for 2017 – I had to tweak the dates to avoid being away at certain times when we need to be home.

My goal here is easily booked award tickets to go birding at an optimal time when the weather is decent, everything is open and doing business as usual and the parks won’t be crowded.

Carry-on Bag Shaming

I absolutely hate checking a bag, even if it’s free.  I’m no fashionista, where I go people are looking at birds not humans so it’s easy to keep clothes down to 2 or 3 outfits but the camera gear can be pretty heavy!  But I have NEVER gone as far as some of these people!

 

Traveling With Technology

Considering how we birders like to “get away from it all’ and head out into the bush looking for birds, we sure do use a lot of technology!

PREPARATION

Do your homework and find out what kind of powerpoints are at your destination and make sure you have the right ones.  Nothing worse than wasting time chasing around electronic stores looking for adaptors!

HAVE ENOUGH OUTLETS TO GO AROUND

Odds are that you will have several items that need charging – laptop/tablet, cameras, phones so it’s best to have one multi-outlet charger to accommodate them all.  Then you only need one adaptor for the destination.  Newer models also have USB outlets.

KEEP EVERYTHING TOPPED UP

Many eco-lodges don’t have electricity, they may have a generator that only runs at certain times.  If you have transit points in city hotels, make sure you top up all your batteries before heading out into the bush.

SMARTPHONE APPS

Download and update any travel apps you have as internet may be spotty in certain locations.  Here’s a few that I use:

Tripadvisor – For check up on hotel reviews and posting questions in the forums.  I only pay attention to reviews by people who have several reviews at least in different destinations.

Google Translate – Many birding guides don’t speak English or if they do, they charge double that a local guide would charge.  I’m usually happy with a local guide as long as he knows the birds.  I use Google Translate quite a bit while booking guides and lodges and sometimes on the road.  The latest version translates and speaks the translations!

Skype – Make sure you have Skype installed on your laptop/tablet and smartphone and have the toll free numbers of all the airlines you use loaded.  If anything goes wrong, all you need is wifi and you can contact your airline free of charge from anywhere in the world.

Airline & Hotel Apps – Sign up for notifications so you know when a flight is delayed or they change the gate.  Hotel apps can show you maps and other local facilities near the hotel and you sometimes get a bonus if you use an app to book a hotel.

Weather Apps – I always check the weather daily for my current destination and the next one so I can be forewarned of any nasty weather that impacts on birding.

Sunrise & Sunset Calendars Help You Plan Birding Excursions

Most birders will want to be up before dawn to head out to the birding location so how do you find out when sunrise is?

TIME & DATE WEBSITE

Type in the nearest town.  In this case I will search Santa Marta, Colombia to get an idea of sunrise & sunset in El Dorado Reserve.  Here are the results for March 2016.  You can check any month and year with the drop-down boxes.  Looks like if you want to see Santa Marta Parakeets, you will need to leave the lodge by 5am to be in position by 6am.  If you want to try for the parakeets coming in to roost for the night, be in position by around 3pm to maximize birding time as this location is up a very bumpy road so you need to take your time.

Sunrise

Budget Birding Travel Planning Timeline

If you want to go birding overseas but you don’t have a lot of money, you need to put a lot of time and effort into the planning of the trip.  After all, more financially advantaged people could simply call a birding tour operator, pay the fee and have everything organized for them!  So here’s how I plan my trips.

ONE TO THREE YEARS IN ADVANCE

At this point I am in the miles-collecting stage.  I have a bucket list of trips I want to do and which airline’s programs will get us there.  It can take awhile to accumulate the miles as Australia is pretty far from everywhere!  I’ll be applying for credit cards and directing spend to credit cards that will get us to the planned destinations.  I’ll also be maximizing category spends (for example grocery stores with 3 x points per $) and trying for retention bonuses.

I will also be researching key bird species and where to find them, then working out the best place to see them and choosing spots that offer the best bang for my buck – meaning more species in addition to the key species.  I’ll be reading reviews of eco-lodges and working out how to book them.

TEN TO TWELVE MONTHS IN ADVANCE

Flights open up for booking around 11 months in advance so since I want to get the best flight with my miles I book as soon as I see them open for sale.  I’ll book seat assigments and if the only option involves a bank of 3, I will try to get a free middle seat.  I will also have made contact with some eco-lodges and probably made a soft booking with confirmation to come once I have the flights booked.  I give preference to lodges that make it easy for me and accept credit card or Paypal for the deposit.  I HATE wire transfers as they have every disadvantage you can think of.  They cost money in transfer fees, you have to have the cash on hand and you don’t earn miles for them.  If bird species can be seen in more than one country, all else being equal, I would choose the country that makes it easier for me to visit – no visa or visa on arrival.

FOUR TO TEN MONTHS IN ADVANCE

I’ll be booking accommodation using portals to maximize points and paying with miles earning credit cards.  I try to stagger them every couple weeks to spread out paying for them.  I’d be contacting guides for rough estimates on guiding fees and making any arrangements for permits or national park bookings.  If I have a self-drive birding excursion, I’d be booking car rentals around this time.

TWO TO FOUR MONTHS IN ADVANCE

I’ll be double-checking entry requirements to make sure they didn’t change visa requirements for Australians and applying for any required visas as they are usually only valid for 90-180 days.  I usually have all accommodation booked by now although some may be only under deposit.  I’ll also be checking eBird for recent bird sightings and making any adjustments necessary.

ONE TO TWO MONTHS IN ADVANCE

Final payments are usually due around this time for lodges that I have under deposit.  I will start lining up any guides that have to be booked in advance or letting the lodge know that we need one so they can arrange it.  I’m still checking eBird and keeping on top of weather issues such as rainy seasons or roads closed by flooding.  I’ll start organizing any foreign currency I need to arrive with for taxis and first day expenses.  I’ll also be monitoring my flight bookings for changes and checking seat charts to see that they haven’t been changed or no one has taken the middle seat.  Since I have pet birds, I will organize my birdsitter around this time.

LAST MONTH BEFORE TRAVEL

I’m basically just tying up loose ends by now as everything should be well organized.  More monitoring of flights, Trip Advisor, eBird, currency rates.  I make sure all my bills are pre-paid until at least the month we get back.  I notify banks/credit cards where we are going so we don’t get fraud notices.

TWO DAYS BEFORE TRAVEL

If my airline offers online check in, I will do this.  We will be packed by this time with all batteries charged and ready to go.  I double check the birdsitter and bank accounts to be sure there is enough to cover the cash withdrawals I will be making on the trip.  I’ll double check on how we are getting to the airport which is usually by bus unless it’s an early flight in which case we’d get Uber or taxi.  I’ll email the first few lodges to reconfirm and remind them we are coming.

All documents will be packed and triple checked as I am paranoid about forgetting something important.  We get the house in order and make sure everything is locked up.  I like to update any programs on my laptop and iPhone apps before we go and then turn off automatic updates as I don’t want a lengthy download happening someplace with slow internet.

 

 

 

The Zika Virus – Should You Be Worried?

The Zika Virus has been getting a lot of press coverage lately and if you are headed to a country where it is found, you may be wondering if you should cancel your trip.  The CDC website has a comprehensive page about Zika, how to avoid it and who should be the most worried.  There is a special caution for pregnant women.  The map below shows where Zika has been reported.

Zika map

Transmission through mosquito bites

Zika virus is transmitted to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These are the same mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses.

  • These mosquitoes typically lay eggs in and near standing water in things like buckets, bowls, animal dishes, flower pots and vases.  They are aggressive daytime biters, prefer to bite people, and live indoors and outdoors near people.
  • Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to other people through bites.

So in a nutshell, you want to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, especially in Zika affected areas but it’s a good practice no matter where you travel to as there are other diseases like malaria & dengue fever.

  • Wear long pants and long sleeved shirts, preferably treated with permethrin.
  • Apply mosquito repellent, preferably with a high DEET content.
  • Keep windows closed and sleep under a mosquito net if possible.  Using a fan will keep them at bay as they can’t fly through the breeze created.

We will be in 2 countries that have reported Zika – Ecuador & Colombia so you can be sure that we will step up the mosquito bite prevention!

Brazil Offers Visa-free Entry June 1 – Sept 15th 2016

Brazil normally requires a visa from citizens of most countries for which you apply online and have to send your passport to the consulate to have the visa attached.  But for one window of opportunity this summer, citizens of countries which have a strong Olympic history will be able to enter Brazil without a visa for maximum 90 days.  These countries include the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan.

Although this opportunity is basically intended to support the Olympics in Rio, you do not have to present Olympic tickets to take advantage.  So if you want to visit Brazil for eco-tourism & birding and HATE having to apply for visas, now’s your chance!  Honestly, I wish I had known about this in time or I would have planned Brazil for this year’s trip as well!

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