Travel Tips From An #Avgeek Racking Up the International Frequent Flyer Miles

7:00 AM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

It's everyone's dream to be whisked away around the world to see exotic sights, consume local cuisines, and have a blast while doing it. But for most of us, the cost of international travel can mean one or two great vacations in a lifetime. There are a few lucky #avgeeks who get to enjoy this jet-set lifestyle, and Tracey Marks - aka @iopflygirl on Twitter - is one of them.

Tracey is an instrument rated commercial pilot with approximately 350 hours based out of Isle of Palms, just outside of Charleston, SC. She accompanies her husband, Ben Marks - technology & community evangelist for Magento, an open-source online commerce company - as he represents the company at conferences around the world. Anyone who follows Tracey on Twitter or Facebook knows of the couple's incredible travel escapades, and they are smiling in about every photo she posts.

Recently, Airplanista "sat down" virtually with Tracey to get a better look at how she and Ben plan and execute their international trips. The interview presented here will take you on the journey with them, to exciting places many people never get a chance to visit.

AIRPLANISTA: Since you've been logging tons of international airline miles lately with Ben, please describe his job and what he does on these trips around the globe.
Among other things, Ben's role involves attending and speaking at conferences around the world as a sort of technical brand ambassador. He tells event attendees all about the new and exciting things his company is doing and answers any questions people may have. The most important part of his job is being the present and approachable representative so the company can get real feedback, since there are too many events for an officer of the company to attend each one of them.

AIRPLANISTA: International trip planning can often be complex. Describe your process for making sure the trip comes off successfully.
Due to the complexity of frequency of his travel, Ben does his own travel planning. Usually Ben can find flights and hotels at a much lower price than the travel agency offers, simply because of the tricks he has picked up along the way. When we plan my travel, we can’t always make our flights line up, so I often fly separately on a budget airline with similar departure and arrival times. My goal is to fly on his earned airline miles as often as possible, and to fly the cheapest routes possible when traveling around Europe. I enjoy the challenge of stretching my travel budget as far as it will go, especially since I’m not working these days.

AIRPLANISTA: Can you guestimate how many airline miles you have flown in the last two years? And what countries have you visited?
As I’m typing this in Rome, I’ve flown just shy of 300,000 miles in the past two years and have loved ‘almost’ every second of it! I have visited Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Argentina, Australia, Italy, France, Russia (only in transit), Kiev, Romania, Poland, Greece, Czech Republic, Belgium, Spain, China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam (only in transit), Germany, Ireland, Austria, Turkey, Jordan (only in transit), England, Gibraltar, Singapore and Indonesia. Including the US and Mexico, that’s 31 by my count… I can’t wait to add more to the list!

AIRPLANISTA: Describe the best experience you have had on an international flight, and also the worst experience.
The best experience I have had on an international flight was the Delta flight from Detroit to Amsterdam last June. We flew with my son and my mother in business class (booked with points) on the upper deck of a 747. One of the pilots was watching me take photos with my phone and noticed the ForeFlight sticker on it. When he asked, I told him I was a pilot and he took me to the cockpit to sit in the Captain’s seat while we were still at the gate. The service on that flight by the flight attendants was absolutely amazing. One of them even sent us away with a bottle of wine from the galley because my mom liked it so much.

My worst experience on an international flight was a few months later on an Aeroflot flight from JFK to Moscow in coach. I was seated next to a very friendly, but very large, Russian woman who didn’t speak English and took up all of her seat, plus half of mine. The only free seats were just one row up, but they were “Premium Economy” seats, which I would have had to pay extra for before the flight. I was absolutely willing to pay for the upgrade, but by the time the plane was departing it was too late. So I had to sit in my seat, being squished, on a very hot plane while looking at an entire empty row just in front of me. Oh, and I forgot to mention that my sweet husband was enjoying the comfort of a business class seat on the same flight. I’m still waiting for my revenge on that one. (I’m kidding. All has been forgiven, and for the record he did offer to switch.)

AIRPLANISTA: Give us some of your travel tips in regards to how you pack, and how you keep your "stuff" together (devices, chargers, other personal items).
I pack as light as I can without sacrificing too many things I love. My clothes are mostly made from quick-dry fabrics and I wash them in the hotel sink every other day or so. By only packing quick air-dry clothing I can get away with just taking 3 or 4 outfits, depending on the climates we're visiting. To keep things organized I swear by packing cubes. As for my electronics, I have one small zip bag for all chargers and cables. I almost always travel with my MacBook Air, my iPad mini (to use for reading Kindle books) and my iPhone 6 Plus. I don’t travel with a camera anymore since the iPhone is much more convenient and takes photos that are good enough for me.

What is the best piece of advice you can give someone who is flying internationally for the first time in regards to both the airline flight and ground transportation?
Oh, gosh. I would have so much advice about ground transportation, but it varies by the destination. First and foremost, research online or contact the hotel to find the best way to get there. Hotels often have estimated train, bus or taxi fares listed so you’ll know how much to expect to pay. Also, pull up the hotel address on your smartphone and snap a screenshot of it in the local language. Some taxi drivers don’t speak English and the only way they understand where to take you is to see the address in their language. When you land, get local currency cash from an ATM at the airport, preferably one in baggage claim if there is one (it’s less likely to have been tampered with). Remember that you’ll probably need to pay cash for transportation from the airport. If the airport has a train station that goes to the city center and could get them near their housing accommodation, take that because it’s usually cheap and fast. But if not, check with the airport transportation desk (if there is one) and see if there is a bus or shuttle option - sometimes that’s a great way to get dropped off at your hotel for much less than an taxi. If taxis are the only real way to get from the airport to the final destination, be sure to ask the driver to use the meter and be sure they agree before getting into the cab. If you have an international data plan on your phone then have the directions pulled up in Google Maps so you’ll know the driver is going to the correct destination and not taking you the long way to bump up the fare (or innocently confused about the address… it happens). If you don’t have an international data plan, some airports sell SIM cards in or just outside of baggage claim. It usually costs about $10-$20 for a SIM with enough data for 2-3 weeks and is well worth that small cost to have the peace of mind it offers.

With regards to tips for the airline flight, I advise anyone to dress comfortably, but not slouchy. Wear your most comfortable blue jeans or soft pants and a t-shirt with a sweater or cardigan for the changing temperatures on the plane. Most airlines give you a blanket to use so taking your own is a waste of space, unless it’s a multipurpose item like a sarong or pashmina, which can be used as a scarf, blanket or towel in a pinch.

AIRPLANISTA: How have you been treated as an American around the world? Any good experiences or bad ones?
It varies. Mostly the experiences are good. Though, I can tell that a lot of people see Americans as rude and loud and expect that from me so I just try to be as polite as possible and not talk loudly on trains and in restaurants. Basically, I try not to act in ways that get attention. In turn, I’ve found that most all people are helpful, kind and polite to me.

AIRPLANISTA: As a pilot, do you like all this airline travel? Do you ever get a chance to fly when overseas?
I have always loved airline travel and I still do, most of the time. I’ve never had an opportunity to fly while in Europe (other than hang gliding off the Swiss Alps) until recently. I was with a group skydiving in Poland. When the pilot found out I was also a pilot, he offered to let me sit right seat and actually fly the plane on one of the jump flights! This was really cool because it was a brand new 2016 Cresco 750XL turbo prop, imported from New Zealand just a few months ago. Flying that plane was even more exciting than skydiving for me!

AIRPLANISTA: If there was one thing you could change about the airline system for international flights, what would that be?
That would be to improve comfort in economy class. I understand the need for airlines to pack in as many seats as possible, but those seats should be able to recline just a little more so that people can actually sleep, while still allowing the person behind them to work on their laptop if they need to. I think they could accomplish this by allowing the seat part to slide forward a bit (this is how some carriers' true premium economy class works). Many airlines already have headrests that bend on each side to cradle the head, but they should all have these because they really help to keep heads from rolling too far to the side. Also, maybe a footrest option for economy seats could help passengers get comfortable.

AIRPLANISTA: Last, this is a freestyle question, add anything here you want...funny story, scary episode, another travel tip or piece of advice.
TRACEY MARKS: I flew into Bangkok alone for one night before flying home the next day. As I hopped into the cab I asked if he uses meter and he shook his head yes, but I heard him mumble something about a fixed price as he was driving away. He then proceeded to try to keep me chatting with small talk while I was trying to look up how much it should cost to get to my hotel. When I asked him again about the meter he says it’s a fixed price and showed me a sheet with a price almost four times what it should cost! I told him I was only paying the amount I saw on my hotel’s website, and he told me I'd have to pay the amount from his sheet. Because I knew this would not end well, I told him to just take the next exit and let me off at the first hotel (safe place) we saw. He asked if I wanted out “right now” and when I said yes he actually stopped in the middle of the six lane highway and told me to have a nice night. I got out of the cab, still not believing what had just happened. Now, this is a highway with no median, only a barrier wall with about a 6” ledge. I was standing on this tiny ledge with my luggage as cars zoomed by trying to process it all. Before I could panic, though, another cab stopped for me and had the meter already running when I got in. I tipped him really well... he didn’t even know what he did to become my hero. Always, always, always make sure the cab driver agrees to start the meter before getting in the cab and definitely before he starts driving away.

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