Just this year, Belarus enacted a waiver of their visa requirement for certain travelers. Now, travelers from 80 countries (including the USA, UK, EU, Canada & Australia) can stay up to five days in Belarus without having to get a visa. There are some catches, though: The visa waiver only applies to travelers arriving and departing from Minsk International Airport (MSQ) and the waiver does not apply to flights originating or ending in Russia or territories controlled by the Russian Federation.
We booked a rent car this week for a daytrip from Antwerp to see the tulip fields and gardens of Keukenhof in the Netherlands. We’ve rented cars several times now in Antwerp that we pick up at Antwerp’s gorgeous Centraal train station. There are several rental companies there: Avis, Hertz, Budget and Europcar. Avis and Budget share a small office as do Hertz and Europcar. I think we’ve used all four companies now, but Avis seems to offer the best deal for short rentals. It also presents a classic rent car anomaly that I thought was worth pointing out.
David and I did our first pet and housesitting gig two and half years ago, in September 2014. We loved it and have done quite a few more, often for the same people (and pets). We’re about to return to Antwerp, Belgium, for our fourth cat and housesit for a wonderful couple who have become friends over the past couple of years. We’ll be in Antwerp for six weeks in a great Dutch-style house with two terrific cats in a neighborhood we love in a city and country we love and love exploring. We know and like the neighbors, as well as our favorite local shops, restaurants and beer bars. Pet and housesitting is a great way to temporarily step into another life and lifestyle and really get to know a place, to be something more than a tourist. You take on responsibilities (that we take very seriously), but you also get a free place to stay and a truly special experience. We love interspersing our own travels with these stays whenever a tempting opportunity presents itself. We often use a housesit to kick off other travels in the region, too. After our upcoming Antwerp stay, we’ll spend a few weeks tooling around the Baltics before flying home. It’s a much easier and cheaper flight from Brussels to Lithuania than anything I could find from the U.S.!
The day David and I landed from our 2.5 months in Asia, we headed to our local Chase branch and each applied for the new Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. The Chase Sapphire has lots of perks, including a huge 100,000 point initial bonus, a $300/calendar year travel rebate, and 3x Ultimate Reward points for all travel expenses and dining. We’d really wanted to get the Sapphire Reserve card before we left on our Asia trip, but it had just launched and was so popular that there was a delay that made it impossible to get before we left. Getting these cards was high on our to-do list when we got back to the States. Happily, Chase had worked through the backlog while we were gone. We were both approved on Thursday and received our new cards the next Tuesday (November 22,2016). [Chase has recently announced a 5-card limit on applications within a 2 year period. When rumors of a new Chase premium card surfaced online, we were careful to hold a spot open for Reserve. I’m so glad. It would have been excruciating to miss this offer!]
If you’ve got some money to move around, Fidelity has a great American Airlines AAdvantage mile offer for both new and existing customers that’s good through December 31, 2016. To qualify, you need to deposit funds into a non-retirement account. A maximum bonus of 50,000 miles is offered for deposits of $100,000 or more. A bonus of 25,000 miles is offered for deposits of $50,000-$100,000, and a bonus of 15,000 miles is offered for deposits of $25,000 or more. You MUST REGISTER BEFORE making the deposit to qualify.
We love playing the credit card miles and points game and are always on the lookout for an exceptional bonus or a great redemption deal. We charge everything to credit cards–every little bit adds up, but we ALWAYS pay in full at the end of the month. I emphasize the “always” because I encourage everyone to take advantage of the great freebies to be had by using credit cards, but only so long as you never charge more than you can pay at the end of the month. If you can’t afford to pay in cash, don’t charge it to a card. Period. Interest rates eat people alive and can cost way more than any perk you might get from accumulated points. That warning aside, here’s how we paid for two first class flights (one 5 hours long and one 12 hours long) with credit card points.
David and I rewatched the 1957 movie classic “Bridge on the River Kwai” before coming to Kanchanaburi to help with the mood change from beautiful, tranquil Tup Kaek Beach to the infamous “Death Railway.” The movie, like the novel it’s based on, is fiction, but it’s based on a real bridge (or bridges) and a real railway constructed at great misery and cost of life by POW’s and conscripted civilians forced into labor by the Japanese during World War II. Over 100,000 people died building the 250 miles of railway, also known as the Thailand-Burma Railway which connected Bangkok to Rangoon. Most of the dead were Asian civilians (“romusha”) and roughly 16,000 were Allied prisoners of war, the majority of whom were Australian, British and Dutch.
We took our final AirAsia fight of this trip from Krabi to Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok. Don Muang is Bangkok’s old international airport, now replaced by Suvarnabhumi as the city’s main international airport. Don Muang–the oldest operating airport in Asia and one of the oldest in the world, for that matter–is now primarily a regional and low-cost carrier hub. Most flights from Krabi go to Don Muang and that suited our purposes perfectly, given the airport’s location on the north side of the city. Our next destination was Kanchanaburi of Bridge on the River Kwai fame, WNW of Bangkok. I researched various ways to get to Kanchanaburi and decided a rental car would be ideal…if David was willing to do the driving.
This will be a quick post, but I thought I’d throw it in. We left Chiang Mai via an AirAsia flight to Krabi, on the southwest coast of Thailand. This was our 3rd AirAsia flight and we felt pretty complacent since the previous two experiences were great.
AirAsia is a budget airline serving much of southeast Asia and has some strict money saving guidelines/rules about pre-printing boarding passes and luggage tags, luggage weight, etc. Since my suitcase was on the edge of the 20 kg checked bag weight limit, I’d taken to buying an extra 5 kg, which really is a lot of extra weight and, happily, can be pooled with tickets on the same booking, i.e., David and I had 45 kg between the two of us. We never came close to going over this, but for an online charge of about $4, it was well worth it not to worry about weight. Also, carry-on is ostensibly limited to 7 kg/bag–not much, but we’ve found they never weigh carry-on luggage, so it’s really a non-issue. The flights are cramped for leg-room, but on our longer (2 hour) flight to Krabi, I “splurged” for exit row and we had plenty of space. Even the pre-booked seats I got for our 2 previous flights (Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, and Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Luang Prabang, Laos) counted as upgraded seats and got us a “meal” (a “hot pocket” on the shorter flights and “assorted sandwiches” on the Krabi flight) and early boarding. Anyway, the airline had been cheap, clean, efficient and punctual.
Massages are a big deal in Thailand. We’d seen signs and brochures everywhere, often multiple storefronts per block. Prices varied wildly, with fancy places near expensive tourist hotels many multiples of the crazy-cheap prices quoted in small, local massage parlors. Some of these little places were “mass production” affairs where we could watch through windows or open walls as customers, side-by-side with each other in un-air-conditioned rooms, were manipulated and prodded… an experience which didn’t appeal in the least. Still, we wanted to try a real Thai massage and see just what that entailed. How was it different from a Swedish massage or an “massage with oil” which often cost twice the price of a “Thai massage”? We decided to dedicate some free time in Chiang Mai to finding out.