Canada: Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City; April 2017

This past week for my spring break, Chris and I visited Canada. We started off in Ottawa, visiting two friends, Stuart and Malle. They gave us a nice car tour of downtown Ottawa, as well as the falls along the river, and made sure we tried the delicious Ottawan dessert of a “beaver tail”: fried dough covered with toppings ranging from maple icing to sugar and honey.

Stuart grilled an awesome dinner at home that night, and the next day they took us out into the backcountry to a sugar shack, where we saw how maple trees are tapped for syrup and had some delicious pancakes and maple syrup.

So basically we ate our way through Ottawa. Then we took a train to Montreal, where we spent a day exploring the Vieux-Montreal area, near the waterfront, with its old port and museums and French architecture.

The really lovely Basilica of Notre Dame is there- worth going into even though they charge an entrance fee- really one of the loveliest cathedrals I’ve been in. It was the first Gothic Revival church built in the Americas (1824), and has featured the funeral of Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, the wedding of Celine Dion, and a visit from Pope Jean Paul II. Happily for us, a choir was inside practicing for Easter services, so it made the visit even nicer.

The next day we hiked up to the top of Mount Royal, to see the city from above. Along the way, we meandered through the Plateau district, which largely houses students from the city’s universities, as well as the main library for the province of Quebec. I really enjoyed looking at the literary-themed murals painted on buildings near the library. The area had a fun nightlife, and we enjoyed visiting a micro-brewery there that evening.

After another round of poutine and maple donuts, we boarded a train bound for Quebec City. Checking into a super cute hotel, the Port Royal, we headed up… and up… and up for old town Quebec City. Built on a cliff, the fortress and the old city look out over the St. Lawrence River.

The most famous building in Quebec is probably the Chateau Frontenac (said to be the most photographed hotel in the world, according to Guinness Book of World Records), so we made sure to take our requisite number of snaps there. We also toured the fortress (for Chris), and visited the Morrin Center, the oldest existing learning society in Canada, now a working library and museum (for me).

On our last full day, we took a public bus out to Montmorency Falls, where there was still quite a lot of snow and ice. The Falls are actually the tallest in Canada, but obviously not as wide as Niagara. Really beautiful to look at. That night, we took a ferry across the St Lawrence River, to get a look at Quebec City lit up at night (plus we had to get a final shot of Hotel Frontenac).

At the airport we had just $20 Canadian dollars left- enough for lunch and half a dozen Tim Horton donuts to bring back with us (maple iced, of course).

Next up for us: Chris will be hiking the Camino Santiago in May, and Deah joins him in Italy in June. Check back soon!

Free flight to Europe? Sign me up!

Ever wanted to fly to Europe for free? Here’s how.

With summer quickly approaching, C and I wanted to nail down our summer plans so we could start planning our next trip. The first thing we did was check our various accounts and see if some of our “points”, “miles”, and “rewards” were doing some serious accruing.

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So many rewards programs to choose from….

And it turned out, they were. We’ve been flying on United Airlines or their partners off and on for several years, and I had over 40,000 miles just waiting for me. After a quick search on their website, I found it would only cost me 30,000 miles and $38 to “purchase” a one-way flight to Bologna, Italy, which is close to where we were planning on starting our “Balkans” vacation. A few clicks and I had a (almost) free flight to Italy!

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Book early for summer break:they fill up fast!

It was a good thing I checked all my accounts, because next I realized that I had 41,000 miles on American Airlines that were going to expire in May if I didn’t make a purchase.It had been a few years since I’ve flown on American Airlines and I kind of forgot I had an account with them. If I wanted, I could have simply used 300 points to purchase a magazine for myself or a friend, or I could have bought a gift card or used their shopping portal to make a purchase, thus extending my mileage account for 18 more months. But I decided to check to see about flights might get me home from Europe, and although their deal wasn’t as good as United’s, I was able to book a one-way flight from Bulgaria to home- originally over $3,000 (who pays that??) but now 30,000 miles and a $250 fee.

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This one looks like it has no fee but they snuck one in later. Still, $250 to fly from Europe isn’t terrible!

Now we needed to get C some flights so he could go on vacation too. He has a more flexible work schedule than I do, and he’s taking off around mid-May to hike the Camino Santiago in Spain. Because his dates are really flexible, and he’s retired military, he’s going to register to fly Space Available. Luckily there are several terminals near us so he can register with a few and see which one has flights going to Spain or southern France around Mid-May.

Air Force's first African American female fighter pilot
Okay, you don’t get to fly in a fighter jet but you do get to visit a military base to depart and return.

To get C back home at the same time as me, we had to get a little creative. Neither of us had enough miles in our various airlines to get a free flight. But I was determined! Several months ago, we opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for this very reason. This credit card is really geared towards travelers. It offers free trip protection if you purchase a flight on the card. It also covers lodging and meals if you’re delayed more than 12 hours. There are no foreign transaction fees when you’re overseas, and you earn double points when you use the card to book travel, rent a car, take a taxi, pay a toll.  I even link it to our toll tags so we get our weekly tolls paid for with this card- and earn double points every time. But the BEST feature it offers is this: if you spend the minimum requirement of $4,000 in the first three months- we did this by not using our usual credit or debit cards for those three months and just putting EVERYTHING on the Chase card- you earn a 50,000 point reward. You can then transfer those points to one of their partner airlines or hotels- and happily for us, United is one of their partners.

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Just a few of the benefits with this card.

 

C had 24,000 miles in a United account but needed 6,000 more to get a free plane ticket to return home with me from summer vacation. We were able to transfer 6,000 points from the Chase bonus to his United account,and bought the plane ticket for him for just 30,000 miles and a $30 fee.  The great thing is that we still have almost 60,000 points in the Chase Rewards account, and if we continue putting some travel related expenses on it over the next few months, we will have enough in there to purchase a round trip ticket for winter break. The card does not have a fee for the first year, and if they won’t waive it for me for the second year, I’ll just cancel the card, use our rewards, and look back fondly on the free flights it helped us get.

This is just a few of the ways you can almost effortlessly add up miles and rewards to get free travel. There are whole websites dedicated to this kind of thing and with points magnifiers, shopping portals, and sign-up bonuses, you can be on your way to free flights within three months. The world is yours!

Leave a comment below and tell me your favorite way to get free flights.

 

 

Scuba Adventures

I’ve had friends and fellow travelers ask me about various diving experiences, and as I was recently transferring info into the new PADI app, I was trying to recall the places I have dived around the world. I don’t have super extensive diving experience, but I have been diving in about a dozen places around the globe. For some of these trips we took an underwater camera, but our underwater photography leaves something to be desired, so any suggestions on underwater pics is appreciated. Read on to see if any of these dive locales interest you:

Cote des Arcadin, Haiti: I did my first Open Water dive class here, in 2004. At that time, there was only one dive master in Haiti, he spoke French, and the only textbook available was in Spanish. It made for an interesting course. The hotel at Wahoo Bay was only open on the weekend so I wound up finishing the course while staying on the couch of my instructor- always an adventure to be had in Haiti! The water was clear and warm- no wetsuit needed- and even the parts of the course sometimes taught in a pool were taught in the ocean, in a warm shallow bay area called “the bathtub”. Over the next year or two I returned to the same area to dive a few more times and the water was always amazing.

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The Caribbean Sea off of Haiti 

Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras: In 2007 my friend Hunter and I went diving off of the island of Roatan. The Bay Islands are one of the cheapest places in the world to dive, and purchasing a dive package generally comes with a free, albeit somewhat crappy, single or double room. But it’s a party island so most people don’t care too much about the accommodations. We dove with Captain Morgan’s Dive Company, so that pretty much says it all.

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Under the sea at Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras

Sao Tome, west coast of Africa: In December of 2007, Chris and I flew from Angola to visit the island of Sao Tome so that we could take a dive class. Chris was certified from his childhood but had no paperwork, and I figured I could take the class again (maybe in English this time). But on our way to Sao Tome, the plane we were on had a small depressurization incident and I wound up with a terrible ear problem for the better half of the week. I couldn’t hear and had vertigo to boot. Chris wound up diving there and I just swam or snorkeled, and we got to visit the equator, so at least we still had lots of fun.

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Chris ready to dive in Sao Tome

Port Sudan, Sudan: Our first year in Sudan, we visited the east coast of the country, which sits on the Red Sea. Port Sudan is a big departure point for people who have traveled overland across Africa to take a boat to Saudi Arabia to go to Mecca. The waters off of Port Sudan are ones that were selected by Jacques Cousteau for his underwater living experiments. In addition, there are two wrecks nearby, one an Italian war supply vessel from 1940 and one a cargo ship carrying Toyota cars that sank in 1977. There is only one dive shop out of Port Sudan, at the Red Sea EcoSafari Diving Adventures.The small city next door, Suakin, is actually constructed out of blocks of coral that were cut from the bottom of the Red Sea to make the the harbor deeper for the larger ships.  Definitely off the beaten path.

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Resting up between dives at Port Sudan

Alexandria, Egypt: Chris and I visited the city of Alexandria in May 2010 and went diving in the bay of Alexandria, which was simply amazing. Our dive instructor gave us hand signs for “Greek”, “Roman”, and “Egyptian”, and we were able to identify statues, urns, and columns on the bay floor relating to the three cultures. We saw parts of the famed lighthouse of Alexandria, felled by an earthquake in the 13th century. We also stood on the marble floors of what was perhaps Cleopatra’s palace- certainly a piece of history, even if it was not her actual living space. Egypt has long been talking about opening the world’s first underwater museum here to see the underwater sights in the bay. Very cool.

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Alexandria, Egypt Bay: UNESCO photo

Unawatuna, Sri Lanka: In the spring of 2011, we won two plane tickets at a ball and decided to use them for a spring break trip to Sri Lanka. While we were there we went diving off the southern coast of Sri Lanka at Unawatuna beach. We went diving there and explored a large rock sunken into the ocean floor, and also a ship that wrecked in 1869. Also, I have to say,the beach town of Unawatuna is relaxed and fantastic. Highly recommended.

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Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador: It was more than two years before I went diving again, which might have been a little too long in between dives to feel comfortable. While in the Galapagos, we wanted to go diving to see the hammerhead sharks, which are typically fairly deep dives. Unfortunately I got a bit spooked, by maybe a combination of the dozens of sharks swirling around me and also the depth, and didn’t feel comfortable going down for the second dive that day. We did lots of snorkeling around the Galapagos, including in an area with tons of baby seals, which was really fun also.

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Hammerhead sharks, Galapagos Islands 

Great Barrier Reef, Australia: In October 2014 we started our year-long tour of SE Asia, and we started off in Australia. I decided to take the Advanced Open Water course in order to get more comfortable with diving, as I had not felt too comfortable the last time in the water. We did a four day live-aboard and completed the course and had a great time. The water was amazing, the flora and fauna were excellent, and the atmosphere on the live-aboard was great- fun but we were all there to take a very demanding class, so it wasn’t just one non-stop party. I know the Maori Wrasse in this photo looks terrified, but actually he came and visited our boat every day and loved swimming near of us, so don’t worry about him.

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Great Barrier Reef, Australia

El Nido, Palawan Island, Philippines: Six months later, still traveling around SE Asia, we were up in the Philippines and wanted to brush up on our diving skills again. We went diving in the beautiful water of the Philippines, which were warm (quarter-length suits were fine here) and full of fish.

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Chris in the Philippines

Thingvelier National Park, Iceland: Okay, this one is cheating a little bit, because technically we weren’t diving, but anytime I have to shove myself into a wet suit I am going to count it. We went snorkeling at Thingvelier National Park, where you can see the North American and the European continental plates at their closest points- and it is just a couple of degrees above freezing. You have to wear a wet suit and a dry suit and even still your face and hands are numb for the duration. But the water is so pure you can drink it and it really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Wouldn’t miss this one, for sure.

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Silfra fissure

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras: This past Christmas I returned to the scene of some of my earliest diving, when Chris and I visited the Bay Islands, ten years after my first visit. We were smarter this time- managed to get a slightly better free room with our dive package PLUS two free tank tops- and although the dive prices have gone up, at $35 a dive, the diving is still cheaper in Honduras than almost anywhere else. I saw my first green moray eels here, and some really huge gliding eagle rays. There are so many choices for diving in Utila and Roatan, so my suggestion is to go with a dive shop that actually pay their reef fees- some of them are quite unscrupulous. Really, it’s worth the extra $4 per dive to treat our oceans right.

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Beaches at Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

If you have questions about which dive shops we used or where we stayed, let me know, and I’ll try to check back through my dive logs and let you know. Happy diving!