31 Jul

Cycle Tour Europe: Finding Our Way

Of the three formidable tasks in cycle touring – determining where to go and how to get there, finding a place to stay, and deciding what and when to eat – the first and second combined to be the most work. (Primarily because, when you cycle that much, you will eat just about anything at just about any time!)

Cycle Tour EuropeEurope has plenty of well-marked velo routes, but our itinerary (such as it was) never seemed to sync with many of them. We certainly found ourselves on many bike paths but we never simply followed one marked route for very long. Instead, it was a combination of deciding the long term destination – for example, the Vimy Ridge Memorial in northern France – and then finding a route to there over a number of days.

Cycle Tour EuropeA quick series of questions usually determined this for us:

  • What is the terrain like?  This helps us decide how far we can go in a day. If it’s flat and smooth we can go a lot further than if it’s hilly.
  • What towns are there along the way? The ‘no camping’ rule means that we can’t just stop whenever we are done for the day – we need to make it to civilization at some point. In some areas, such as northern France, the distance between towns is farther and so greatly impacts our ‘how far can we go’ decision.
  • Which of those towns have reasonable places to stay? Once we’ve decided on a possible distance, and a town to stop in, then we look for a place to stay. It is certainly possible to not book ahead but we found that it caused us a great deal of stress to not know where we were staying for the night. The idea of rocking into town at the end of a long day of cycling and trying to find something that fit our budget and comfort levels just did not appeal – we needed a destination, a determined stopping point, where we knew we could shower and rest and it wouldn’t break the bank. I usually looked in the town we had agreed upon and, if I couldn’t find what I was looking for, then I would start looking at the smaller towns on either side until I found something.
Cycle Tour Europe

What Tools Did We Use?

Traditionally, cycle tourists use paper maps for navigation. The problem with paper maps for longer term trips (besides the fact they’re made of paper and it rains) is the weight and room they take up. You’ll need maps in the 1:50,000 scale in order to really see where you are, and where you’re going – they don’t cover much ground so you’ll need a lot of them!

Cycle Tour EuropeWe wanted to take advantage of technology as much as possible and thought we could use our trusty iPhone and Google Maps to lead the way. Then we realized that we would be crossing borders essentially in the middle of nowhere – where were we going to get a local SIM card? There would be no vending machine at the border in the middle of a farmers field!

Our cycling friend in London offered up a great solution. He was using a GPS unit to find his way and recommended the Garmin Edge Touring Navigator to us. After learning more about it from him we quickly made our way to the local bike shop to get one for ourselves.

Cycle Tour EuropeIt worked brilliantly. Jason plotted our route on the Garmin website and then uploaded the route to the device. While riding we simply followed along. If we went off route for any reason he could see the underlying map to self-navigate or to get back on track. It also recorded our actual route; KM’s covered, time actually spent moving, time spent not moving, total time, and elevation changes.

When we needed a larger overview, wanted to know exactly  where we were, or were looking for a beer or lunch spot, we would pull out the phone and use Google Maps to help out. The combination worked really, really well.

Cycle Tour EuropeTo support all this technology we carried an external battery. The HyperJuice Micro is the size of a mans wallet but carries enough power to recharge the phone three times over. We obviously charged everything up every night but there were some longer days where the power was getting low and it was a relief to know that we had a back up to rely on. We didn’t use it often but we were happy to have it when we did use it.

Cycle Tour Europe

Finding Places To Stay

Accommodation isn’t traditionally part of navigation but, when where you can stay determines where you go, it becomes an important part.

Believe me, you can spend hours in the rabbit hole of finding the perfect place to stay. Checking out tons of booking sites, reading all the reviews, and determining the minute differences between Hotel A and Hotel B.

Or, you can write out a list of criteria that defines your perfect place and then stop looking once you’ve found it. Just stop. If you think there is something better out there then you must be missing something on your criteria list. If it meets all your criteria then it must be perfect. Stop. Looking.

Cycle Tour Europe

Our criteria for this trip included:

  • Budget – it’s always #1
  • Proximity to our intended destination
  • Walking distance to food and drink – we did not want to get on our bikes again after showering
  • Breakfast included – so we could fuel up and get going in the morning
  • Wifi available
  • Decor/Style – will we feel comfortable there? Funny, this is becoming more important the more I travel (and the older I get). If we stay in a shit place I just get cranky and don’t want to spend any time there. A nice place = a happy Gillian. :)
  • Bike storage – although I stopped worrying about this pretty early on. We’re in Europe, lots of people bicycle everywhere. Every place we went, except one, found a safe and secure place for us to store our bikes. One place, right near the Frankfurt train station, wanted us to leave our bikes in the main, public, parking garage around the corner. Yeah, right. We had to convince him to let us schlepp them down stairs to their utility room for the night.

We stayed in some really interesting places; hundred year old inns, rustic farmhouses, apartments perched overlooking valleys, and cute and cozy little bed and breakfasts.

Cycle Tour Europe
I started out this trip using a number of hotel/hostel/pension/B&B/guesthouse booking sites. In the end I used Booking.com almost exclusively. I like their website experience, the selection of properties, the on-site reviews, the payment process (pay on arrival, not before hand) and that, most often, I could cancel for free almost up until the day of arriving. It was rare that I couldn’t find anything on there and had to use another, usually more local, site to find a place. I also liked that, as a registered user, I was privy to specials and ‘Genius’ deals that often meant we could stay in a property that would normally be out of budget. Score! Note: I tell you this because it’s honestly what I found was best. I’m not paid to say this nor do I get a commission if you use them. I just like them. A lot.

For longer term stays I used AirBnB.com to find apartments. They seem to have the best selection, are well used so have lots of reviews, and their website is easy to use. What I HATE about them is the booking fee. For longer term stays the booking fee adds a few cents to each night but for shorter stays it sometimes pushed a place to the edge of our budget. Not cool. HomeAway.com is a good alternative with no booking fees, but their selection is not as good. Shameless Plug: I wrote all about finding the perfect apartment in my book How to Find the Perfect Vacation Rental. Check it out.

Cycle Tour EuropeAll-in-all it wasn’t that hard. Yes, it was a lot of work and took up a lot of time but it wasn’t that hard to figure it all out. It would be even easier if you decided to stick to one, or two, of the main velo routes. They are well marked, pass through some beautiful countryside, and have great cycling infrastructure alongside.

06 Jan

How To Travel For Free (As a Canadian!)

Fly Almost Free 3

UPDATE TO THIS POST: Canadian Free Flyers is now offering a 2 Weeks For 2 Bucks Introductory Offer! You can join up, find out what all the fuss is about and whether the deals are right for you, with NO RISK. Yay!


Part of what I love about being involved in the travelling community is learning all the tips and tricks they use. The travel industry is constantly evolving and, although we may have been at this travel thing for a while now we still have trouble keeping up! There isn’t a conversation that goes by, or a beer shared, that doesn’t result in an AHA! moment where we discover a new website to use, a new place we must visit, or how to travel for free anywhere in the world.

Yep, I said how to travel for free! There is a whole system of points, and rewards, and air miles out there that people use to travel, and stay, all around the world for free and a number of websites dedicated to helping you do just that.

Canadian Free Flyers is one of those sites. A travel hacking site that is just for Canadians!  This is exciting for us Canadians – there is plenty of information out there about travel hacking but most of it skews toward Americans and leaves us wanting more. Canadian Free Flyers is run by a Canadian and only offers opportunities that Canadians can take part in. A revelation!

I spoke to Matt Bailey this week. He’s the man behind the magic and does a great job of explaining what travel hacking is and how Canadian Free Flyers guarantees that you, too, can travel for free.

1. What is travel hacking and how did you get into it, Matt?

Travel hacking is basically the art of finding low-cost or even free travel. The core of travel hacking revolves around frequent flyer miles and finding ways to take advantage of them. Things like finding all sorts of promotions and deals online for earning miles, figuring out the best credit cards and how to take advantage of them, scoring 4-star hotels for half price and so forth. I take it a step further and include any methods that make travel cheaper. This could be finding free accommodation across the planet, getting deals on rental cars or even things like SIM cards for phones.

I read a travel hacking guide a few years ago, which is what brought me into that world. I dived in and took advantage of the information. My first travel hacking stint was a small one. I simply used a method for multiple daily bidding on Priceline, which allowed me to book three nights at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Vancouver, Canada. We had the 37th floor with a balcony overlooking the pacific ocean. The normal rates were almost $200/night and we got it for $80/night.

I was hooked. I then took it much further and began getting serious about frequent flyer miles. Of course, most of the deals in the guide were American-only so I had to do a lot of digging myself. Luckily, I found enough to keep me motivated and ended up sharing the advice with my parents. In just six months, we all ended up earning enough miles to fly to Mexico!

Now I was really hooked!

2. I’ve been involved in travel hacking groups before but was disappointed that so many of the opportunities weren’t relevant to Canadians. How is your site different/how are you able to offer Canadian focused content?

It’s true. Every site out there is geared towards Americans. Actually, the U.S. and Canada are the two best countries for becoming a travel hacker thanks to a healthy array of reward mile promotions and bonuses. At one point, I thought Canada didn’t have enough frequent flyer miles to make it exciting but as I looked further, I realized I was wrong.

I also joined many travel hacking sites that ended up being American-related. They would toss out the odd Canadian deal but you could tell it wasn’t there focus. 90% of their customer base is Americans so they really didn’t care about us up north.

I decided I wanted to make a site specifically for Canadians. After all, it’s the market I know best! By focusing on Canada only, I’m able to focus on all the deals, promotions and knowledge that is specific to Canadians and get rid of all the American distractions.

3. What programs are included? Aeroplan? Visa specific points? Airline specific points?

I include everything. Any deals and promotions I find that are related to airlines or hotels will be sent to members of Canadian Free Flyers. This includes massive credit card bonuses, online promotions, hotel rewards and so forth. Aeroplan is a big one but I also go into Air Miles, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, RBC Avion and many others including Etihad Airways and more.

4. What sorts of deals do you find for Canadian Free Flyers?

Deals range from 500 point Facebook Likes to 30,000 point credit card bonuses. While credit cards are certainly a fast way to build up points, the small deals also add up to a flight or two each year. Any deal that’s worth mentioning will be sent to members.

Some deals are simple. You register for a certain promotion and you get 1000 miles. Other deals are more complicated where you buy things as part of the promotion. For example, Aeroplan had a deal once with Sobey’s where you had to make 30 transactions to get 15,000 points. However, upon reading the fine print, I found there was no minimum price for each purchase. This is something I told members. With this in mind, one could go to Sobey’s and buy 30 chocolate bars as separate purchases. You’d then get enough points for a short-haul flight. This is travel hacking at it’s finest. :)

Aside from frequent flyer mile deals, I also look for hotel rewards and send those to members to. After all, we need accommodation when we go on our free trips!

5. How are deals delivered and what do I need to do to redeem them?

All deals are delivered via email, which according to my stats are opened mostly on smart phones. Basically, as soon as I find a deal, I send it out to everyone in the Canadian Free Flyers. You would then open it, decide if the deal is right for you, follow the instructions/link and get the points.

They also get posted in the “deal” section of Canadian Free Flyers. This way, if you delete the email or rather look in the member area of the site, you would login, click on “deals” and would then be able to see all the current and past deals available in Canada.

6. Tell me about your guarantee. What happens if this doesn’t work for me.

Basically, Canadian Free Flyers has two guarantees. First, there is a 30-day no-questions-asked guarantee. I included this so that people feel comfortable making the initial purchase without feeling any risk. This gives everyone more than enough time to check it out and see if they like it. After that, I give a one-flight guarantee. This means that I will send enough deals every year for you to earn at least one free flight. If for some reason, I don’t send enough deals for one free flight, you can have all your money back. This puts the pressure on me but still ensures that you have to actually participate in some of the deals. If I send the deals and you simply ignore all of them, I can’t take responsibility for that.

I know for a fact that I’ll send enough deals for multiple flights every year.

7. What tutorials do you already have in the library? What can I expect to learn?

This is another feature of Canadian Free Flyers. While the deals are certainly the major feature, there are also dozens of tutorials related to travel hacking for members to look over and learn about. Tutorials teach things like the different methods for earning points, how to redeem points for the best rewards, the best way to use Priceline for maximum advantage, how to find free accommodation around the world, how to house-sit around the world and much more.

I also pull my credit report every year or so and report back any changes. Since becoming a travel hacker, my credit rating has gone up to an A+!

Whenever I learn new things or gain new travel hacking skills, I create another tutorial and share it with members. The tutorials are growing all the time.

8. What are some of the best rewards you have seen redeemed? Business class flights? 5 star hotels? Resort vacations?

On my last trip to Mexico, I wanted to get really creative. My fiancé is from Mexico City and so that was our main destination. But rather than just fly to Mexico City for 40,000 points, I took advantage of the stopover and layover system. We had a friend in Austin, Texas that we wanted to visit but we also wanted to visit Chicago and checkout the Christmas parade that was happening at the time.

I did my homework and then called in to Aeroplan. The first few agents didn’t seem helpful so I thanked them for their time and called back. Eventually, I got a great lady on the phone who helped me book the ultimate trip. For the same 40,000 points, we got to enjoy a 23-hour layover in Chicago on a saturday, which was enough time to checkout the downtown core, witness the Christmas parade, ride the ferris wheel at Navy Pier and have a romantic dinner by the lake.

We then flew to Houston, Texas for a 3-day stopover where we rented a car and drove to Austin, Texas as well as San Antonio to experience the famous river walk. After that, we finally went to Mexico City for a month.

Three trips for the price…err points of one. I think the taxes were approximately $130.

My parents did the same but didn’t go quite so far. They came and visited us in Mexico City but took a 3-day stopover in Las Vegas. I told them they should have went to San Francisco but who am I to judge.

This year, I’m booking a return-trip to South America with a 3-month stopover in Mexico!

People are often amazed by the types of reward trips I book or recommend. Because of this, I now help platinum members with their reward booking. Members can tell me where they plan to go and I’ll help them create a very lucrative reward so they get the best bang for their points.


Did you read that last line? Matt will help you use your rewards to book travel! I think that’s the hardest part; trying to figure out how to jump through all the hoops to redeem those pesky miles. I seriously can’t think of a reason why any travelling Canadian would not sign up for Canadian Free Flyers.

Thanks so much to Matt for reaching out and telling me about his great program. You can read more about his travel adventures at Live Limitless.