Sunday, May 30, 2010

Get 1,000 American Airlines Miles

If you've not done so, you can currently get 1,000 bonus American Airline miles by signing up for the AAdvantage eSummary.  Pretty much, they're paying you miles to save themselves postage.

To sign up for eSummary, click on the "Profile" link in the upper-right area of the home page and log in. Then scroll down and select the box "AAdvantage summary via E-mail instead of via the postal service" to subscribe.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Earn Up to 25,000 United Mileage Plus Bonus Miles

TD AMERITRADE has a new special going with United Airlines that gives you miles for opening an account with them.  You have to be a new customer and open an account by June 30, 2010.  

The amount you deposit determines your reward:

1.  $2,500=5,000 miles
2.  $10,000=15,000 miles
3.  $50,000=25,000

Here is the fine print, with certain things bolded by me:

Offer valid for new Individual or Joint accounts opened and funded by U.S. residents with $2,500 or more by 6/30/2010. Not transferable and not valid for IRA or other tax-exempt accounts, internal transfers, current TD AMERITRADE clients, or with other offers. Limit one offer per client. Offers are not valid for TD AMERITRADE Investing accounts using the Amerivest service. Offers are not valid for accounts managed by independent investment advisors and maintained by TD AMERITRADE Institutional. Account must remain open with minimum funding required for participating in the offer for 9 months, or TD AMERITRADE may charge the account for the cost of the miles. Allow 6 weeks from account funding for the first half of miles to appear in the Mileage Plus account. To qualify for the second half, TD AMERITRADE account must remain open with minimum funding required for participating in the offer for 6 months from the first posting date. Miles will be deposited in the Mileage Plus account within 6 weeks. TD AMERITRADE reserves the right to restrict or revoke this offer. Miles accrued and awards issued are subject to the rules of the United Mileage Plus Program. United, its subsidiaries, affiliates and agents are not responsible for any products and services of other participating companies and partners. The Mileage Plus Program, including accruals, awards and bonus miles, is subject to changes without notice. Taxes and fees related to award travel are the responsibility of the passenger. Bonus miles and miles earned through non-flight activity do not count toward elite status. United and Mileage Plus are registered service marks. For complete details about the Mileage Plus Program, visit United Saver Awards are currently redeemable at 25,000 miles within the U. S. (excluding Hawaii) and Canada. For more information on Mileage Plus Award Reservations, call 1-800-421-4655. TD AMERITRADE and United Air Lines, Inc. are separate, unaffiliated companies and are not responsible for one another's services and policies.

TD AMERITRADE has teamed up with United to bring you a special offer…
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Friday, May 28, 2010

Travel Advice: Five Hidden Hotel Fees to Avoid

If you can toss down $55,000 for one night in a hotel room (which is what you'd have to pay for the Royal Penthouse Suite at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva--the world's most expensive hotel room), then you're probably not too worried about hidden hotel fees.

But for the rest of us, here are the ways that hotels might try to gouge you:

1.  Electricity Surcharge
Usually found in carribean hotels, they can be up to 10% of your bill.

2.  Charitable Donations
A number of hotels, particularly higher-end ones, will toss on a small charge to go to a charity of their choice.  You can opt out, but, of course, you have to ask to.

3. Credit Card Fees
Many hotels outside of America and Europe will charge you as much as 2% of your bill for paying with a credit card.  I've personally seen this in Egypt and Thailand and know that it's also common practice in Australia.  The problem is that you might approve your bill and then then the credit card charge goes on AS they run the credit card.

4.  Paying for Coffee, Tea or Bottled Water
Although those bottles of water or packets of instant coffee or tea in your room used to be free, some hotels are trying to make up for recession-based losses by charging for them as if they were part of the mini-bar.  This even includes higher-end hotels like Barclay's in New York, which charges $3 for its coffee.

5.  Conversion Fees
When travelling abroad, you should always pay in local currency (drawn out of an ATM for the best rate; read this post about getting your ATM fees reimbursed ).  Why?  Because if a hotel rings up your bills in dollars or euros, they can also charge you a "conversion fee" for doing a currency exchange.  This conversion fee can be as high as 4%.

Avoiding the Fees
How can you avoid these fees?  A little knowledge goes a long way.  Firstly, ask, ask, ask.  Unsure if you're going to be charged for that coffee?  Don't be lazy and use it anyway.  Ask!  When checking in, ask what fees might be charged on top of the rate you booked it at or were quoted.  If they want to charge you for housekeeping (some hotels do) or electricity, ask to have those fees waived.  If it's low season, they'll likely do it. 

Just knowing what the costs could be will let you skip a lot of fees ahead of time.  When it's all said and done though, carefully check your bill.  You can get a lot removed right at the front desk if you are persistant enough (persistant does not mean being rude or yelling). 

Good luck.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Travel Advice: Three Tips for Scoring a Hotel Upgrade

Advice for Scoring an Upgrade:

1.  Ask
Seriously, just ask.  I've found it works about half the time, but the half the time that I get a half-priced suite is, well, pretty sweet.

2.  Visit Popular Destinations in High Season
This one is counter-intuitive, so let me explain: Even with the recession on, popular destinations such as New York, Orlando and Las Vegas find themselves flooded with requests for standard rooms.  What they don't get flooded with--particularly since we're on the tail end of a recession--are demands for high-end rooms.  So when hotels have more requests for standard rooms than they can honor, it makes economic sense to start bumping people up to high-end rooms in order to keep booking the standard rooms.

3.  Check in Late
The later in the day you check in, the better able the hotel is able to judge demands on rooms for the day.  If they see that a lot of their upgrade rooms are oversold, it costs them little and gains them a lot (of customer favor) by upgrading the room.

[Personal example of the above three: I arrived on a early evening flight into Vegas during the summer and was checking into my Circus Circus hotel room at around 8:00 PM.  There was a long line ahead of me and a long line behind me, meaning that the hotel was probably booked to the gills.  When I got to the desk, I asked if there were any available upgrades.  Without batting an eye, the attendant immediately gave me a strip-facing suite.  Sweet.]

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Top of Poland (By Way of Slovakia)

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We clear the treeline and have no words. The valley looks as if God's boat had sailed through, the keel carving the rock and leaving fecundity in its wake. Below are the trees we spent an hour hiking through, above are green grasses dotted with purple and yellow flowers, their petals high enough to brush my biceps. This mountainside meadow spreads up until it merges with the grey rock and white snow that mark the peaks of the Tatras mountains.
Up there, facing each other across a saddle are the highest points in Slovakia and Poland, for this range marks the border between the two countries. The Slovakian peak, barely 150 feet higher than its Polish partner, is inaccesible without a guide. But Rysy, the Polish peak, has a trail right to the top and is frequently climbed from both sides of the border. At 8,199 feet, this should be a cakewalk.

Carrie and I are hiking extremely light on this trip: tennis shoes and day packs. We're walking past those who took this trail a little more seriously, who are heavy with their hiking boots and refrigerator backpacks.  I suppose we could have weighed ourselves down more: at the bottom of the trail were bags of coal and a sign that promised a free drink at a hut on top of the mountain if you brought one up. Beside the coal were two wooden frames with shoulder straps, each ladden with 70 pounds of firewood.  For shlepping that to the top, you would get a free night's stay.  Someone had taken that offer, and as we were climbing down, we saw someone, bent nearly double with the wood frame on their back, their own backpack strapped to the frame. When we got closer, we saw that it was a woman.

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Bags of coal, to be taken to the top

The way up was beautiful, walking through those angled mountain meadows fed by cold mountain streams that we crossed via woode bridges. These gave way to glacial lakes as the weather briefly broke. As it lightly rained we walked past a stream running over and waterfalling down the mountain side.

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Glacial lakes

The terrain seemed to change every 20 minutes: after the rain stopped, we had to use ropes and chains to get up the slick, steep rock, and then we hit the snowpack. I slipped and fell a couple times, my cheap, Ukrainian sneakers finding no purchase on the icy snow.

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Using the ropes and chains to climb up.                       Carrie on the snowpack, me slipping below her.

We passed the mountain hut and kept going, trudging up the snow until it gave way once again to rock and the saddle between the peaks. We were nearly blown off our feet by the gusts of wind that hit as as soon as we cleared the valley walls.

The red and white blazes marking the trail disappeared and we followed two people ahead of us. We found ourselves climbing, using hands and feet as the trail completely dissapeared. Looking up, my hood acting as a sail in the wind and tugging at me, I saw the top of the mountain. Rather than a peak, it ended in a straight, thin line, one you would have to straddle just to say you were on top, because there was no room to stand. With the gusting wind, I was genuinely worried that we would get blown off the top.

Then we looked back and saw other hikers, saw the path leading up the other peak. We were on the wrong mountain and were twenty minutes from scaling the highest peak in Slovakia, even though we weren't legally allowed to do so.

Despite my fear, I entertained the notion of finishing it, but Carrie firmly refused. We climbed back down and followed the path up to the other peak. The two people that had been ahead of us kept going, still climbing. Whether they were mistaken, one was a guide, or they were just doing it, we never found out.

The other peak was much easier to summit, requiring only a bit of scrambling at the end before we passed a sign saying we were now on Polish territory, and then we were at the flattened top of the point. The views were amazing, and we stopped to eat lunch there, chatting with an Australian who had come up from the Polish side, a Swiss would had come up from the Slovakian.

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At the top!

Carrie and I had made it up in 3.5 hours. It was supposed to take us 6. Our lunch finished, we blew back down the mountain, passing the laden people who we had passed on the way up. When we hit the snow pack, we both simply sat down and slid, an exciting, slighlty out of control plummit down towards the rock. An elderly couple who were hiking came up in front of us. Carrie stopped short, and I ran into her. Rather than stopping, I sort of bounced around her, angling past the couple before the snow leveled out and I was able to stand up. A Slovakian family, who was just beginning to go up the snow pack and had watched me come down, congratulated me.

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The snowpack we slid down.

In any case we made it to the bottom, and for less than four dollars, I celebrated our topographical victory with a fantastic steak dinner with a cold Pepsi.

Life was sweet.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Best and Worst Airlines For Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles

IdeaWorks, a company that specializes in researching and improving loyalty programs, recently published a study on how likely a person could find a requested seat using frequent flyer miles.  It made 280 flight reward queries per airline and then posted the percentage of how often they were able to find a reward seat and the lowest-tier reward pricing.  

You can see the full rankings below, and they confirm what most of us have long suspected: it's hard to get a domestic flight for miles.  Airlines only open up a small percentage of seats on a given flight that can be bought with miles ("reward seats") and the reality is that although an airline like Delta might tell you that you can get a free round trip flight as soon as you accumulate 25,000 miles, as this study shows that it can be damn near impossible to get it.

Southwest Airlines seems to be the exception.  They top the chart at 99.3%, and then from there the next six are all international carriers.  Delta Airlines and US Airways are at the bottom, at 12.9% and 10.7% respectively.  

I love loyalty programs, but only in as much as I can abuse them.  I have almost every single airline-branded credit card, each of which gave me (supposedly) a free flight's worth of miles after my first purchase, but, yes, it takes a flexible schedule and a lot of patience to actually book a reward seat.  In fact, I still have enough miles with both Continental and United for free flights, but have yet to redeem them because my BleedTravel study shows that you can redeem them 0% of the time that you want.  

Because of this, I try not rely on frequent flyer miles to get free flights and instead use credit card bonuses that either credit you all or part of the cost of a flight (like the Chase Sapphire card, which I talk about in this post) or whose loyalty programs buy regular seats for you when you cash in your points, thereby bypassing the reward seat limitation altogether.  My favorite of those types of programs is the ThankYou Network, and I talk about how to bonus stack several of their credit cards together to get a free flight in this post.

Here are the rankings:   

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Travel As Business: Dissecting IRC 183, Pt I

[NOTE: Quotes below refer to "Schedule C losses".  For those who do not know what those are: if an individual has their own business, they file the income and expenses of that business with the IRS using a Schedule C form; losses on that form can then be deducted from their overall income, reducing the amount of taxes they have to pay.]

Internal Revenue Code Section 183 (IRC 183) is sometimes referred to as the “Hobby Loss” part of the code because it deals with the very complex and murky subject of whether a taxpayer is engaging in a profit-driven business that also looks like a hobby or whether they are engaged in a hobby that they are trying to make look like a business in order to deduct costs.

It is so murky because the code is pretty much based on intent (whether a person is trying to make a profit) and--sharp objects aside--an auditor cannot get into the head of a taxpayer.  The way tax courts have ruled on this matter has further complicated this matter for both taxpayers and auditors.

By being familiar with IRC 183, though, a person can take steps to make their businesses legitimate in the eyes of the IRS, even if they are taking substantial losses from something that some could argue is just a hobby.

First, a Discussion of the Code

It is worth noting that the code is a work in progress. The first version was created in 1943, in almost direct response to the actions of a man named Marhall Field. At the time, Field was operating two newspapers in Chicago as a sole proprietorship and taking a loss on them on his personal income taxes. Essentially, the Federal government was helping to subsidize his newspapers.

A large amount of litigation followed as the IRS tried to use the code to stop others from reducing their overall tax burden through loss-making side projects.  The Tax Reform Act of 1969 was supposed to clarify how much a person could loose before they hand to stop: no more than $25,000 in 3 out of 5 years. A disagreement between the House and the Senate, though, killed putting a dollar amount on losses, resulting in a tax system that  “defined profit as not only immediate economic profit but also any reasonably anticipated long term increase…"  In other words, the IRS did not have the right to tell someone they were loosing too much money, provided that a profit might be seen at some point in the future.

In order to limit litigation over the now quite subjective rules about profit making, IRC 183 was put into place in 1988. The essential component was that any business which was profitable for 3 years out of a consecutive 5 year period would be considered a business, no matter how much it looked like a hobby.  If the IRS wanted to pursue a case, the onus of proving that a business was really a hobby would fall on the IRS.

Today, IRC 183 is considered flawed by the Treasure Department. A recent review stated that “the IRS faces considerable challenges in administrating the tax law for taxpayers who take Schedule C losses year after year for potentially not-for-profit activities.”  It said that current regulations “do not establish specific criteria for the IRS to use to determine whether a Schedule C loss is a legitimate business expense without conducting a full examination of an individual's books and records.” A full examination, of course, is a huge drain on IRS resources.  According to the report, the IRS experimented with several cheaper methods of recovering money, including sending warning letters (which were often ignored) or doing audits by mail (which turned out to be nearly as time consuming and expensive, and which did not deter most taxpayers from taking losses in subsequent years).

The investigation made it clear that IRC 183 is not a “good tax” because it is so hard to enforce: “we conclude that it is difficult for the IRS to efficiently and effectively administer this provision.”

In its summation, the Treasure Department recommended that the legislation be changed to establish a clearly defined standard or “bright line rule” for determining whether a deduction is legitimate or not.

What the Code Means for Someone Who Turn a Travel Hobby Into a Business

1.  According to the guidance the IRS publishes for auditors, “an activity could be considered a for-profit business if a taxpayer shows any profit during a 5 year period, even though larger losses are claimed in the other taxable years.” The safe harbor provided by IRC 183 helps protect the taxpayer. If a business takes three years of profit (which could technically be only a dollar in profit) and two years of heavy losses, the burden of proof still lies on the IRS to prove that it is not a for-profit business. An example of this might be taking a European vacation one summer, taking the cost of the trip as a business loss, and then selling a story ever year for the next three years, generating small profits in those years. The trip was an investment that paid off in the next few years with sold stories (which further your cause of turning your writing into a profitably business). You can do this provided that you “devote time to the business in the honest belief that the business will sometime in the future become profitable."

2. The IRS states: “It is not necessary for the taxpayer to show what their projected profit is expected to be.” Also, the IRS does not have the right to determine whether a business could be profitable, and a “reasonable expectation of profit” is NOT necessary. It is only important that the taxpayer is honestly trying to make a profit.

3. Although the code states that being profitable in 3 years out of 5 should alleviate most suspicion, it still allows a taxpayer to take losses year after year provided they can demonstrate that they are trying to make a profit. In one court case, a taxpayer took $700,000 in losses over seven years and the courts still ruled that he was conducting a for-profit business.

4. IRC 183 provides 9 considerations that an auditor should look at when determining whether a business is for-profit or a hobby loss. Those considerations will be looked in part II of this post.

In Summation

For now, the subjectivity and murkiness of the code is on the side of the taxpayer, particularly if the taxpayer shows three years of profit in a five year period. Provided that the taxpayer is conducting the business in the hopes of making a profit, even if the potential for profit is almost nonexistent, the current law sides with them and allows the loss, even if the loss is quite large and taken year after year after year.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Travel As Business: Assessing the Risks of Taking a Business Loss for Your Travel Business

Turning your travel into a has several benefits, the greatest of which, obviously, is having your job (even it's only your side job) be something that you love.  Beyond that, though, it has the benefit of either generating profits for you if the business does well, or generating tax savings for you if the business does poorly .

But taking a business loss on your taxes does have a risk: the IRS determining that you are conducting a hobby and not a profit-driven business and penalizing you for that.  And since no one wants to end up in jail while trying to save money on their taxes, here is a blunt discussion of the risks involved in taking a business loss.

If you are audited, an IRS representative will try to determine if your loss is tax evasion or tax avoidance.

Tax Evasion

If you are evading taxes, you are risking a lot of grief. You could be jailed and you could be fined (the amount you owe plus a 75% penalty). If you are found guilty of evading taxes, there is no statute of limitations and and the IRS can look at your entire tax history when trying to assess how much you owe.  Obviously, no one wants to be guilty of tax evasion.

Tax Avoidance

Avoiding taxes is another matter. Provided it is legal, you are allowed to avoid as much tax as you can. One way to think about it is if you were to take a longer route home to avoid a toll road. Your effort has allowed you to legally avoid a tax and it was your right to do so.

An IRS agent might disagree with your interpretation of the law, but it is not illegal to take a tax avoidance position that later turns out to be wrong. In this case, the penalty is likely to be the amount you owe, plus 20%.

The statute of limitation on tax avoidance is three years. The IRS cannot recover money from a return filed four years before the audit, even if they determine that on those returns you were incorrectly avoiding taxes.

The Difference

As a CPA once told me: “Mess with the deductions, but never mess with the income.” Lying about income is considered tax evasion.  Taking a deduction that the IRS later considers incorrect, though, is usually a case of tax avoidance.

 Of course, if you are taking a deduction that you are clearly not entitled to (like taking an education deduction when you obviously weren’t going to school or taking a dependent deduction for kids that you don’t have), then that would almost certainly be considered evasion.

 But, as my CPA friend told me, taking a business deduction for an activity that you are making some money on is simply “taking a position. The IRS may later disagree with you, but it was not illegal.”

Chances of Being Audited

Even with Obama’s increase of funding to the IRS, the chances of you being audited if you report less than $100,000 a year is slim. The reason is that when the IRS chooses which cases to persue, they want the potential recovery to make up for the cost of the audit and then some. Most of the cases that are cited when
dealing with hobby-loss are for huge deductions. One was a doctor who tried to deduct his polo playing hobby because he met clients while conducting it. Another was for the owner of a car dealership who was deducting more than $30,000 a year for his stock car racing hobby because he said it helped advertise his dealership. In both cases, the courts disagreed.

 If you’re saving yourself $1,000 a year in travel deductions for your travel writing business, it’s hardly worth it for the IRS to spend almost that amount in payroll hours just to get it back.

That said, I firmly believe that you should take deductions as if you were to be audited.  Taking Schedule C losses is a red flag for the IRS, even if your deductions are too small to be worth the effort. Individuals also do get randomly selected, and you might get audited for that reason.

While it’s your right to avoid tax by taking business losses for a pleasurable business that you are trying to make a profit from, you should conduct that business as if the IRS will be investigating it.  That shouldn't deter you from doing it; it just means that you should be mindful when doing so.

Worth It?

That’s a question only you can answer, but here is a way to think about it: Let’s say you take business loss deductions that net you $1,000 in savings. That’s likely a significant amount of money for you. The chances of you getting audited are slim, but if it does happen and the decision goes against you, you will likely be penalized the amount you owe plus 20%. Since you would have paid the $1,000 if you hadn’t taken the deduction, your loss comes to $200.

That, too, might be significant, but it can help to think of that $200 as an investment. The chances of getting audited if you report $25,000-$50,000 on your tax return are 0.58%. So, would you be willing to invest $200 in a stock if you had a 99.42% chance of turning it into $1200?  Even in a casino, it would be a good bet: a 600% instant increase in your pocket with only the smallest chance of you having to give it back later.

Many others have agreed that it's a good bet, which is why Schedule C deductions loose the treasury $1.9 billion a year.  Because of this, the Treasury Department recommends fixing the tax code to make it harder to take a business loss for what may appear to be a hobby, but until that happens, taxpayers are allowed to turn their hobbies into businesses as long as they are trying to make a profit from them.

Disclaimer: I am not a tax professional, and can not be held liable for losses incurred while following the advice of this website.

Deals: 10% off Coupon for Wickers Sportswear

Wickers, which I mention in this post about cold weather gear, makes clothes that wick sweat off your body, keeping you dry in hot and cold weather.  It's not as good as outsourcing your wicking to a Cambodian boy who towels you down with his loin cloth whenever he sees sweat appear, but from experience I can say it's a close second.

I currently use their soft silk long sleeve crew neck as a base layer when I travel, and wish I had found this coupon six months ago: 10% off your purchase with code WEAR10.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Deals: Free Shipping and 25% Off "Tell Me More" Language Learning Software

Tell Me More is currently having a 25% off sale and are tossing in free shipping to boot.

Although it doesn't have the advertising mojo and mall kiosks of Rosetta Stone, Tell Me More is Language Learning software that has something else going for it: it's used by a number of universities as well as the U.S. State Department and the FBI.

Might be something to it.  Unfortunately it's useless to me as I already know every language ever created, including one that I'm making up right now: foifi gerun blat!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Travel As Business: 47 Travel Websites That Will Publish (and Pay for) Your Travel Writing

You know I love you, right?  Which is why I give you this very, very long list of travel websites that accept travel writing submissions.  Most pay, even if only a little, and that can let you deduct your travel as a business expense.

HINT: Read their submission guidelines before submitting!  Editors routinely toss out stories if they aren't submitted correctly.  If you can't get the details straight on sending in a story, how they expect you to have gotten the details straight about travel in a far off country?

ANOTHER HINT: Since I plan on adding more magazines to this post as I find them, I would suggest bookmarking this page and coming back to it periodically.

If you find other online magazines that will publish travel writing, or if there are any problems with any of the links, please leave a comment and I'll add/fix them.

Lastly, if you are published on one of these sites, leave a comment and I will link to your story!

Now go get published!


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to Save Weight: You Need to Use Less Shaving Cream and Hair Care Than You Think

This was straight stolen from a Men's Health Article, but hopefully paraphrased beyond litigation.  Bring it, lawyers!

So, considering how much weight and space toiletries can take up in a travel pack, it was enlightening to read that, in general, we WAY OVERUSE our toiletry products.  Cutting back is not only healthier for your skin and hair, but means you can take less on your trip in the first place.

Here's the coin system of product measurement:

For shaving cream, you only need a quarter-sized portion of foamy face lube.  Of course, I recommend not using shaving cream at all.

For shampoo, you only need a nickle-sized portion of follicle soap,

For hair conditioner, you only need a penny-sized hunk of silky hair love

    For gel and other hair products, you only need a dime-sized dollop of tress bondage.

Travel light, travel far!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bootsnall Just Published One of My Stories

BootsnAll just published my travel story on climbing an erupting volcano in Guatemala.

Do me a favor: Go to the site and vote it up!

How to Save Weight: Two Things You Might Not Have Thought to Leave at Home

My travel pack's contents are a contradiction.  For example, I've cut out two feet of a power cable and spliced the ends together to save an ounce of weight and a bit of space, but I happily bring along a 1.5 pound netbook.  I suppose my philosophy is that there are some things that I want to have along, like the netbook and a digital camera, and to make up for it I get rid of almost everything else.
So here are two things I have realized that I don't need.  They may sound odd at first, but hear me out:

Yes, underwear.  You don't need it.  Really, you don't.  In fact, ladies, this article from Queen's University actually recommends going without underwear when possible for "Vulvar Health".

Cotton absorbs moisture and drys slowly.  This keeps your nether regions warm and damp, which provides a great breeding ground for bacteria and fungus.  This is how you get jock itch and why it gets to smelling funky down there.  The more air you get down there, the drier and healthier it's going to be.  This is why soldiers in Vietnam stopped wearing underwear in that country's damp climate, and hence the term "going commando". 

Plus, while women's undearwear tends to be so flimsly that they can seemingly pack a week's worth into a film canister, men's underwear, particularly boxer shorts, tend to be thick and bulky, taking up space in your pack and adding to the weight.

So, ditch the underwear.  Trying going without for a week or two before traveling to get used to it, and maybe take along a pair just to remain modest in hostels (although in European hostels people seem to have no qualms with walking around in the buff.  Thank God for co-ed hostel rooms).

Shaving Cream

For the longest, shaving cream was my travel bane.  I couldn't leave home without it, but even the travel cansiters were bulky and heavy.  I tried different kinds of shaving strategies in order to not take the cream, including using glycerine bars and leaves of shaving foam, but they were expensive and almost as bulky.

Then, one sexy day, I watched a lover shave her legs.  And realized she was ONLY USING SOAP.  If a tiny, uber-feminie girl can shave twenty-times the area of my face with only soap, why am I--manly man that I aspire to be-- lathering up with specialized cream out of a big, expensive metal can?  Exactly.

I just use soap now.  That's it.  I take a hot shower beforehand to prepare my face and make sure to use a shark razor.  Otherwise, the soap provides all the lubrication I need.  And not having to take along a can of shaving cream saves a nice chunk of weight and space.  If my beard gets really out of control while traveling and I worry that soap won't cut it, I just pay a couple bucks to have it done professionally.

Here is a pic of me getting a shave in Thailand.  No, I'm not wearing underwear:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

How to: Pack the Right Clothes for Cold Temperatures

In their guidebooks, Lonely Planet loves to say “take half the clothes and twice the money.”

Okay. Good advice. But from all the massive backpacks I've seen on the road, not a lot of people have figured out how to take half the clothes.  A bit of knowledge can lead to a clothing system (yes, system) that really does let you get rid of half the clothes while not sacrificing function.

This post is about the bulkiest part of any travel wardrobe: the cold temperature clothing. Even when going to a warm destination, I've found that having my cold temp system comes in handy. It's kept me warm atop a windy (and erupting) volcano in Guatemala, an ice cave while traveling in Slovakia and has even saved my ass in, of all places, Egypt in July, when a jet powered air conditioner on an overnight bus dropped the temperature to just above freezing.

[At Right: Staying warm on a windy volcano in Guatemala]
Now, if you have a lot of money, you can buy specialized gear that folds into a matchbox and makes you spontaneously combust while wearing it, but this blog is not only about having travel gear that's not only light, but cheap.  Which is why knowing how gear works can let you make smart choices instead of spending money for magical gear.

How Cold Weather Gear Works

The reason a sweater or fleece keeps you warm is because their fibers trap air, creating air pockets that your body heats up. It is these warm air pockets that keep you toasty. Their primary enemy is water (particularly sweat), which collapses them.

Actually, sweat period is a heat-killer. Not only does it collapse air pockets, but it conducts heat away from your body.  That's its purpose. But if you're active in a cold environment (say, climbing Mount Arat at night to watch the sunrise), then the sweat you're producing is actually going to kill your ability to keep warm once you stop moving.

So the goal is also to get your sweat away from your skin so it won't conduct your heat away.  Some fibers (like polyester) are fantastic about wicking sweat to the surface of the strand, letting it evaporate so that air pockets can reform. Other fabrics (like cotton) hold the water in their core, meaning they take forever to dry and the pockets stay collapsed. 

Additionally, one other enemy is attacking you at the same time: air. Wind hitting your sweater also collapses the air pockets and draws heat off your body, and even the air created by the bellows effect of walking destroys those pockets.

So in addition to trapping air and wicking sweat, you also need a fabric that will block wind and rain from getting to the air pockets. Ironically, the materials that do this best also keep water (your sweat) from getting out. So what you need is a fabric that is “breatheable”. What this means is that the fabric has microscopic holes that are big enough for water vapor to pass through but too small for water droplets to enter. This miracle fabric was once the patetented property of Gore-Tex, but that patent has expired and you can now get them cheaply from other companies.

So here we are. You need to wick sweat. You need to trap air. You need to block wind and rain. No fabric is good at doing all three, which is why you need a three piece system.

  1. Layer one: a short or long sleeve shirt that wicks sweat.

  2. Layer two: a fleece or sweater that traps air.

  3. Layer three: A waterproof/breatheable jacket.
Although many jackets are an air-trapping layer and a protection layer combined, I think it's better to buy a jacket that is just a thin shell.  That way it can serve as a light rain coat that you won't sweat to death in.  Buying three layers also lets you "layer up", putting on an additional layer the colder it gets.

Currently, my system is:
  1.        Wicker's Softsilk Long Sleeve Crewneck
  2.        Columbia Men's Fast Trek Full Zip Fleece    
  3.        Redhead Thunderlite Jacket
Although I do like Wickers, I'm not really partial to any brand.  I suggest looking for sales and finding the cheapest that will do the job.

Some tips:
  1. Since the wicking layer is often be worn as its own shirt, don't be afraid to get one that's stylish 
  2. Get the tightest-fitting fleece you can find.  It does it's job better when there is no air between the layers, and the smaller size means less bulk in your pack.  I actually asked my grandmother to size my fleece to me by taking material out along the hems.
  3. Make sure your jacket has a hood
  4. I prefer my jacket to be only a thin shell so it can serve as either a rain jacket or the protection layer.
  5. I also prefer my jacket to be able to zip into its own pocket so that it's easy to store in my pack.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

How to: Minimize your Medicine Kit

The Problems of Travel Meds

Ah, I miss Peace Corps. Especially the medical kits they give you. It was the size of a large lunch box and packed with every over the counter medicine you could think of (in single-dose packaging), along with various bandages, antibiotics, antivirals (there was avian flu in the area) and exactly four condoms.

Since finishing Peace Corps, I slowly bled (figuratively and literally) through that box.  I thought I'd just pick up what I'd need on the road, but what I quickly discovered is that the foreign brands are completely unfamiliar and half the time I can't read the packaging.  I've had salespeople recommend what to take, but I also know that in a number of countries they prefer herbal remedies and distrust pharmaceuticals. A number of times I took something without knowing what was really in it. 

For a time I kept tossing in packs of DayQuil and NyQuil in the hopes that they would nuke any sickness I got while traveling, but I soon realized two things:
     1.They're expensive
      2.They're bulky

It says how anal I am when I look at thick gelatain capsules and think: “These take up too much space!” and it definitely speaks to how stingy I am when I think: “Eight dollars for medication? That's a night at a hostel!”

So I looked at what it was that I was actually taking—as in the ingredients—and started looking around for the specific meds within them.

What's in a SymptomPak

What I found was a brand called SymptomPak (the link goes to the product page on  The idea is that instead of buying multi-symptom medications, you buy only the base ingredients and take what you actually need.

I bought their 5-pack for $25, and in it was the following:

1.Acetaminophen, for aches and pains

2.Phenylephrine, for nasal and sinus congestion

3.Dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant

4.Guaifenesin, for loosening chest congestion

5.Chlorpheniramine, a antihistamine for allergies (runny nose, itchy eyes, etc.)

When I was taking DayQuil, for example, I was really taking acetaminophen, phenylephrine and dextromethorphan mixed together.  From a economic standpoint, this is pretty sweet: there is 30 doses worth of Dayquil in there, not counting the other meds, and if the cold you'd take the Dayquil for didn't have, say, coughing, then you could just not take Dextromethorphan.

What's Worth Taking and Leaving
When I bought the multipak, I got it to have all the meds at home, while knowing that only some would accompany me on the road.  I'm picky about goes into my pack, so I decided on the following:.

1.Acetaminophen: Definitely. I've turned to this for everything from a strained foot ligament (Prague), aching muscles from diving (Egypt), to hangovers (Thailand).

2.Phenylephrine: Definitely. Although I tend to eat healthier when I travel, constant overnight travel, increased stress and less overall sleep means that I have gotten head colds while on the road. And since time is such a factor in travel, I'd rather dope up and enjoy another day than do a day of bed rest.  My motto: I'll sleep when I get home.

3.Dextromethorphan: Nope. I rarely have upper respiratory problems and rarely have problems with coughing. Rather, if I'm coughing, it's because I have mucus in my lungs and throat, and for that I'd rather turn to amoxcicillin.

[Read the blog post about getting antibiotics while on the road and how to use them]

4.Guaifenesin: Nope. Same as Dextromethorphan.

5.Chlorpheniramine: Yep. Ironically I don't like taking antihistamines for allergies, but I have discovered that they are important for two things: Insect bites and overnight travel. When I was in Honduras, I could barely sleep because of the sand flea bites ringing my ankles, and antihistamines made the itching temporarily go away. Also, I used to pack sleeping pills for overnight bus, train and plane trips because I find it almost impossible to sleep while sitting up, but then I had a nurse tell me that popping 3-4 antihistamines will have the same effect.  She was right.

What Else You Get:
The kit came with a color-coded chart listing symptoms and what to take, and you can take all five together if
need be. The pills were actually the same color as on the chart (acetaminophen is green, for example) and each was marked with the first letter of the medicine.

I don't think the chart is needed because the dosing is uniform: adults are meant to take two pills every four hours, no matter which kind you are taking.  From there it's just a matter of memorizing what symptom goes with what pill.  I didn't memorize the whole names, just thing like: "Phenyl=Runny Nose", "Dextro=Cough", etc.

What I hadn't realized would come with the kit, but which is pretty cool, is a small (about the size of two thick matchboxes) pill case with six compartments. As someone who has watched his pills get crushed in their packaging while in his backpack, I'm surprised I never thought to get one before.

All in their compartments, I realized the pills looked a little like candy and not unlike ecstasy pills, so they might cause a slight issue at border crossings. Still, I now easily have a year's worth of medicine in the space formally taken up by three doses of DayQuil liquicaps.


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Deals: Coupon for 20% off the FuelTank

Almost everyone and their mother (including my mother) has either a smart phone or an MP3 player these days, and it's hard to find a hostel that doesn't have half a dozen flashpackers bobbing their heads with their earbuds in.

Although I stopped taking my iPod on trips once I got my netbook, one of the biggest problems I remember was that I could only play one two hour movie before the battery was dead.  For an 8 hour bus trip where all the windows are drawn, chicken feathers are floating in the air and the karaoke is blaring, that's six hours too short.  I'd have brought along extra batteries except, well, Apple doesn't let you replace the battery.

So I'm assuming that's why Callpod came up with the FuelTank Uno Essentially it's an extra battery that plugs into an iPod or any one of "3,000+ devices" according to its website, but it happens to be a battery with four times the capacity of a normal battery, even though it only weights four ounces.  Technically, it'd even get me through a 10 hour bus ride.

If that sounds like it's for you, then now might be the time to get it, because Callpod is currently selling them for 20% off.  Use coupon LS2010.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bow Chika-Wow-Wow: 20% Off and Two Free Weeks at

Where once finding love was a matter of being the best plower in the village (um...), now we have to do new-fangled things like go online and add women to our shopping carts before checking out and waiting for UPS to deliver.  I'm all for online break-ups, so I suppose I have to be for online dating, too.

What does this have to do with travel?  Not a damn thing!  But I did meet my girlfriend through and is part of the same company, so when I saw these deals, I thought it'd be worth posting for your lonely travel-bleeding ass!


1.  20% off 

2.  Two free weeks at

Go forth and conquer, clicker!