9 Awesome Reasons to Book a Cruise Through the Panama Canal

The idea of creating a passage that allows ships to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific without braving the icy waters of Cape Horn has been alive and kicking since Charles V of Spain ordered a survey of the best options in 1534. From conception to the first completed passage of a single vessel, it took 380 years, 27,000 lives, and the excavation of 170,000,000 cu yards (129,974,326 m3) of earth to accomplish. It’s a modern world wonder, and for most people, seeing it for themselves is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are lots of options for visiting the Panama Canal, but booking a cruise is one of the best, and here is why:

9. Luxury Amenities and Incredible Food on Board

Who doesn’t love trying new cuisine when they travel? For many, food is a primary reason to travel. Unfortunately, the human digestive system isn’t set up to handle the introduction of new foods without a little indigestion. Add in foreign bacteria, unpurified water, and new eating schedules, and your gut might be in for an unpleasant shock. The plus side? Travelers who book cruises have access to plenty of familiar cuisine on-board, included in the price of passage. Keeping more familiar foods in your diet can help your stomach handle new foods more easily, and cruise ships help keep that in balance. I would never recommend ignoring local cuisine completely for the tried and true staples found on-board a cruise ship, but I don’t advise indigestion and food poisoning either. Enjoy the local fare, but when you need a break, cruise cuisine is there.

cruise ship dining hall

8. To Fully Understand How it Works

Wrapping your mind around just how the locks in the canal work can be tough if you haven’t experienced them for yourself. There are three sets of locks: 1 on the Atlantic side, 1 on the Pacific side, and 1 connecting Gatun and Mira Flores Lakes. The purpose of the locks is to raise and lower the water level in each chamber using water from the lakes, and thereby allow ships to pass through what used to be solid earth. The sheer amount of water it takes to get just one ship through the canal – 26,700,000 US gal (101,000 m3) times 12 lock chambers – is staggering. All of the water comes from natural runoff into the lake and empties out into the ocean through the process. In wet, winter months, there’s plenty of water to go around. In the dry season, however, Gatun Lake may experience a shortfall.

panama canal locks

7. See the Bridge of the Americas and Centennial Bridge

The Bridge of the Americas, or Puente de las Américas in Spanish, was built in 1962 at a cost of $20 million USD. It was the first permanent bridge to cross the canal, and it is located right at the Pacific locks. It’s a cantilever bridge, which allows it to extend across the canal without any structures holding it up in the middle. The Centennial Bridge is a gorgeous cable-stay design, much like the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Jiang-Shaoxing Sea Bridge in China. The Centennial Bridge was completed in 2004, and completes the Pan-American Highway today. Reading about these two monumental bridges here is nothing compared to the thrill of sailing underneath them. The gorgeous harp design of the Centennial Bridge is simply stunning from any angle, and the Bridge of the Americas is imposingly impressive as well.

Centennial Bridge  Panama

6. Learn About the History of Such a Feat First Hand

Reading about the canal’s history on the web or in a book really leads to missing out on understanding the accomplishment of such a feat. It’s hard to understand the difficulty of cutting and blasting through tons of rocky terrain that reached 360 feet above sea level to create a water-bearing canal. Or the disaster that malaria and yellow fever presented for the workforce charged with creating this monumental achievement. Nearly 28,000 people – nearly a third of the total workforce – died creating this engineering masterpiece. Much of the Panama landscape and culture was effected by the canal as well. The builders agreed to lend a hand to create lasting infrastructure in the country, like schools and hospitals, which visitors can see in person. Visitors can also meet some of the locals and talk to them about how the canal’s history has changed Panama.

Tiago Lopes Fernandez / Shutterstock.com
Tiago Lopes Fernandez / Shutterstock.com

5. Cruisers Get to See Other Great South American Destinations

What’s the best South or Central American Country to visit? Can you really know without visiting them all? One of the best thing about booking a cruise, any cruise, is that passengers get a little taste of several, if not many, destinations on their floating hotel. Popular ports of call for Panama Canal cruises are Cartagena, Colombia; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; and Montego Bay, Jamaica. A trip that includes all of these locations is rare indeed, especially when you consider the travel time and cost of booking flight after flight (or passage after passage) between these ports. For around $150 USD per night (the cost of many hotels), travelers literally cruise to their next destination in their sleep. While spending just a day in these ports of call isn’t enough to sate every travelers’ curiosity, it’s a great way to help them figure out which ports they’d like to return to later for more exploration.

Cartagena, Colombia

4. The Mind-Blowing Size of Ships Allowed to Pass

Most people in the world only ever see the Panama Canal on a map or hear about it from other travelers during a slide show presentation of their vacation photos. As with most adventure tales, however, something always gets lost in translation. For the canal, that thing is the mind-blowing size of the ships that are allowed to pass through. The canal is a mere 110 feet wide and has a usable length of just 1,000 feet. Cruise ships traveling through the canal can be as large as 106 feet wide and 965 feet long. Believe it or not, this length actually has an industry-created name: Panamax. And you better believe both shipping and cruise companies use every inch! Standing on deck and gazing down at the measly 2 feet of space between the ship and the concrete edge of the canal is enough to awe any seaman, not to mention the average vacationer.

Fotos593 / Shutterstock.com
Fotos593 / Shutterstock.com

3. Booking Passage

The average fee for a passenger ship passing through the Panama Canal is a whopping $54,000 USD. These fees can quickly skyrocket even higher if you want to cut in line. The Panamax tanker Erikoussa once bypassed 90 other ships to avoid a 7-day delay, turning a fee of $13,430 into a jaw-dropping $220,300. To avoid priority passage fees, ships normally snag a spot in line a year or more in advance. These astronomical fees usually only apply to large vessels, like freighters and cruise ships. For travelers looking to book passage on a small vessel for themselves, fees start at $1,300 – about the cost of passage on a 10-day cruise that includes food, stops at several ports, and maybe a few excursions, too. Plus, cruise passengers don’t have to own or rent their own boat or worry about booking so far in advance. The cruise line takes care of it all.

briefcase full of money

2. Monkeys, Birding, Boating, and More

Along with incredible views of the canal, Gatun and Mira Flores Lakes, and an inside view of the locks, there’s plenty to explore in Panama off-ship. Walking tours and hikes are plentiful in the area for anyone who wants a close-up view of Colon, Panama City, or the surrounding jungles. Historical and educational tours of the locks are also available. There are even small passenger boat tours, where monkeys will literally climb into the seat next to you from branches that hang over the water for a slice of banana. The best part? All tours booked through the cruise company are booked with vetted, quality tour companies. Cruise passengers don’t have to worry about scheduling tours in a foreign language or getting ripped off. Rest assured, bad tours don’t generally make it onto the itinerary, and if they do, they don’t stick around for long.

sloth panama

1. The Perfect Trip

What’s the number one reason to book a cruise to the Panama Canal? Why, to enjoy the canal, of course. Let’s face it: travel can be expensive, complicated, and stressful, especially if you like to have a certain level of luxury on your trip. The point of travel is not to throw away money or stress yourself out so that you need a vacation after your vacation. Travel should be simple, and, above all, enjoyable. And for many adventurers, it is. If you’re not a seasoned traveler, or only have a limited time to experience both adventure and relaxation, book a cruise. You get all the staples, like food, lodging, and transportation for one, uncomplicated price. You get an on-board spa and pool-lounging time, plus the chance to explore numerous destinations, led by some of the best guides in the business. So the only real question is, why wouldn’t you book?

relaxing cruise couple

6 Outstanding South American Festivals

Of all the continents in the world, it’s apparent South America’s people have the most innate penchant for parties of all kinds, from food fairs to music festivals and religious fetes, each is celebrated with passion, enthusiasm, and a rainbow of costumes. If you’re lucky enough to hit a festival, be sure to book well in advance–the secret has long been out and people literally flock to these fantastic fiestas. Some are complete chaos and others orderly and easygoing; be sure to do some research and know what you’re in for because some South American festivals can be off-the-charts-wild.

6. Semana Santa, Peru

Kicking off two days before Palm Sunday and celebrated for ten dynamic days until Easter Sunday arrives, Semana Santa is one of Peru’s most outstanding festivals. This religious fete is a hotel-filler and one of the best times to stay with a local family (Peru’s tourist office provides homestay options). The Friday kick-off starts with a parade honoring Our Lady of Sorrows (La Virgen de los Delores)–at this point consider standing out of the way: it’s customary to levy “sorrows” upon spectators by slingshot fitted with pebbles. Otherwise the mood is fairly somber yet Semana Santa still paints the streets colorful with religious traditions, vibrant processions, art and music shows, traditional competitions, and abundant, delicious Peruvian fare. Be sure to attend on the Saturday preceding Easter Sunday for an all-out Peruvian bash that plays out until morning, definitely showing the wilder side of locals.

Photo by: Flickr/motoperu
Photo by: Flickr/motoperu

5. Tomorrowland -Sao Paulo, Brazil

Tomorrowland is an extension of an electronic dance music (EDM) festival stemming from Boom, Belgium, also one of the world’s biggest and one that’s been happening annually since 2005. Tomorrowland has stepped into South American terrain–where it’s evident crowds can’t get enough–bringing in some of the best Djs to Sao Paulo in the first week of May over three days solid. Dreamville is the onsite camping accommodations available to festival-goers at Tomorrowland where you can pitch your own tent but there are three other (much easier) camping options including a pre-made tent fit with sleeping bags, small but arty cabanas, and the Dream Lodge reminiscent of a night safari tent complete with access to scores of amenities–the prices aren’t cheap though! This festival is so popular tickets sell out in a matter of minutes and then the only way in is to buy a package deal.

Photo by: Fest 300
Photo by: Fest 300

4. Mendoza Wine Harvest Festival

Since 1936, the Mendoza Wine Harvest Festival (Fiesta National de la Vendimia) has been uniting wine growers, vineyard hands, locals, and thousands of visitors in a spectacular show of love for the Cuyo region and the incredible wines it produces. The festival is a culmination of celebrations happening between December and February throughout Mendoza’s 18 districts. Starting off the first weekend of March, the region’s bumper harvest is celebrated famously with wine, food, music, and innumerable special events.  Concerts, parades, fireworks, and general merrymaking create a definitive carnival-esque atmosphere under blue skies and starry nights. A mammoth finale performance at Mendoza’s Greek Theater features hundreds of dancers and actors, the National Grape Harvest Queen is crowned, and the entire celebration ends with a huge fireworks display. As one of the world’s most renowned harvest festivals, this Mendoza gala is definite must for any traveling oenophile.

T photography / Shutterstock.com
T photography / Shutterstock.com

3. Corpus Christi Festival, Ecuador

Ecuador has long been recognized for enduring indigenous traditions including numerous festivals throughout the year. Ecuadorians love just about any reason to celebrate and especially love their customary observances–they really do put on extravagant shows. In the small town of Pujili, the  Corpus Christi Festival happens in the second week of June, welcoming thousands of Ecuadorians for a fete blending the commemoration of both harvest to Incan Sun God Inti and Holy Communion. Food, art, folk and regional dance, and music are intrinsic parts of the festival and culminate following a days-long fiesta in the El Danzante parade where traditional clothing and costumes come together in a kaleidoscopic exhibition. If you do make it to Pujili, head just 15 minutes further to Latacunga National Park for Andean forests alongside striking rivers and lakes and forest habitats within the Amazon, a dramatic area mostly unexplored by tourists.

Fotos593 / Shutterstock.com
Fotos593 / Shutterstock.com

2. Tango Festival -Buenos Aires, Argentina

Precision, tempo, elaborate clothing, and most of all passion rise to crescendo during the Tango Festival in Buenos Aires, one of the most famous dance festivals in the world and one for both pros and the keenly interested but inexperienced. The dramatic tango was born in Argentina’s brothels and over the decades, has become one of the most sensual, provocative, and emotional dances of all time favored by all social classes. The Tango Festival starts with a series of recitals and shows called La Festival; there are film screenings and lessons city-wide. Then comes the main event: the Tango Championships. During the celebrations, there’s a must-see event at the massive, alfresco milonga (tango hall) where more than 10,000 dancers (tangueros) careen across Buenos Aires’ cobblestone streets–it’s a beguiling show that can make anyone want to learn the tango if they don’t already know.

Photo by: Fest300
Photo by: Fest300

1. Carnival -Brazil, Columbia & Uruguay

Carnival is celebrated throughout South America in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Columbia but the Brazilians undoubtedly celebrate with the most passion. Prior to the onset of Lent, numerous Argentinian towns celebrate Mardi Gras but no one seems to do it quite as well as it’s done in Rio de Janeiro where a phenomenal party takes place. In Salvador, flatbeds called blocos, fitted with pumping sound systems drive music bands around the city for a full-on, three-day party to end all parties. Second prize for the best Carnival celebration goes to the city of Barranquilla in Columbia where African-style dancing, parades of floats, and ultimately Miss Carnival receives her crown. Riding in at close third is Uruguay, where in the city of Montevideo, they carry Brazil’s zeal for Carnival and celebrate with unbridled enthusiasm–no neighborhood goes untouched by Carnival–with dance parties, countless parades, and extreme Latin revelry.

Celso Pupo / Shutterstock.com
Celso Pupo / Shutterstock.com

10 Things to See and Do in Colombia

Colombia is now safe, affordable and attracting tourists like never before. The beautiful beckoning beaches, the crystal clear waters, the ancient archaeological sites and the salsa dancing are just a few of the things this country is known for. This vibrant country is alive with music and color; has a wonderful climate and is welcoming visitors with open arms. Hike up an active volcano, explore a walled city or dive with schools of hammerhead sharks; it is all possible in the beautiful city of Colombia. Here are 10 things to see and do for every visitor heading here.

10. Scuba Dive

There are many sites to dive and snorkel throughout Colombia, but if you are looking for one of the world’s best diving spots, you must head to Malpelo; three rocks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It can only be reached by joining a diving cruise, but once there visitors are treated to the Mount Everest of sharks. Schools of sharks including Hammerheads, Silky, White-Tips and Whale sharks are all present here. If you aren’t an experienced diver you will want to stay away from this dive spot and check out the calmer waters of Providencia and San Andres where warm water, great visibility, colorful coral, a variety of exotic fish and two sunken ships await you. The coast near Santa-Marta is another popular dive spot with extremely low prices, leading many people to get certified here, as well as offering corals, turtles and a variety of fish.

Benoit Daoust / Shutterstock.com
Benoit Daoust / Shutterstock.com

9. Go ATV’ing in the Mountains

Get out of the city and hit the mountains in an off-road vehicle for a thrilling adventure on your epic trip to the country of Colombia. Riders will be in for mountainous trails, farmlands, wild dirt roads along the countryside, mud pits and at times, scary turns. Off-roading is best done with a guide as the mountains of Colombia can be a scary place if you do not know where you are going. Just outside the city of Medellin is the best place to experience this heart-pumping adventure as the Northern Andes provide the perfect landscape. The ATV’s are known to be in good shape, the guides are friendly, knowledgeable and speak English and visitors are provided with all the safety gear they require. All you need to bring is a change of clothes and a sense of adventure!

TPm13thx / Shutterstock.com
TPm13thx / Shutterstock.com

8. Salsa Dance in Cali

It is the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world and whether you want to put your dancing shoes on or watch others as they move to the beat, Colombia is the perfect place to do so. It is hard to keep your hips from dancing when salsa music is present everywhere in this country, from street vendors to shops to dance clubs. Cali in particular is crammed full of salsa bars, clubs and live music venues. Whether you are visiting during one of the many salsa festivals that happen throughout the year, taking a salsa class for fun or simply watching the professionals with their intricate moves and choreography; salsa is sure to be a part of everyone’s trip to the country of Colombia.

Salsa Dance, Colombia
Andrey Gontarev / Shutterstock.com

7. Cycle Bogota

Bogota’s bike paths are one of the most extensive path systems in the world, connecting residents and visitors to major Bus Rapid Transit routes, parks and community facilities. Therefore it seems there is no better way to explore the city than cycling. Sundays are always the most fun day to cycle as the city shuts down 120 km of roads for the exclusive use of pedestrians and bicyclers, an event called ‘Cyclovia’ that attracts a mere two million people each week. Entrepreneurs hit the streets and set up temporary bike repair shops along the road sides and street entertainers perform for cyclers. There are many tours that offer guided bike tours if you do not feel comfortable tackling these busy streets on your own.

Fotos593 / Shutterstock.com
Fotos593 / Shutterstock.com

6. Visit the statues of San Agustín

Most visitors find hiring a jeep or horse the easiest way to explore the freestanding monumental statues around San Agustín if they want to explore the statues around the town first, before heading to the park. These freestanding monumental statues are carved of stone that was left behind by a mysterious pre-Colombian civilization that existed between the 6th and 14th century AD. The statues are markers of ceremonial and burial sites where they buried their dead in the fetal position with personal objects such as pottery and gold within tombs underground. The largest collection of these religious monuments and sculptures can be found at the San Agustín Archaeological Park. It features over 600 stone statues that include human figures, animals, deities and monsters, the largest of these is said to be 23 feet high. Dive into history and discover these amazing statues both around town and in the park.

San Agustín, Colombia

5. Tour a Coffee Farm

Whether you take a day tour or choose to spend time staying on a coffee farm, the experience will be unforgettable. Colombia is known worldwide for producing unbelievable coffee. They are one the largest producers, with 500,000-plus growers and the unique benefit of having two annual harvests. A visit to a coffee farm is a hands-on interactive experience that shows visitors the entire process of how coffee is produced. A coffee expert will be in charge of teaching you about the planting, picking, drying and roasting processes that produce your morning cup of Joe. Coffee farms are noted for their breathtaking lush settings, with the shiny leaved coffee shrubs, sloped hills and topped off with banana plants and bamboo like forests. Experience a day in the life of a coffee producer or spend a few days, swinging in the hammocks that overlook the beautiful farms.

Coffee Farm Colombia

4. Climb Nevado del Ruiz

We suggest taking a guided tour if you feel like tackling this active volcano, and we do suggest tackling it as it offers incredible views, majestic scenery on the way up and an amazing personal challenge. This volcano actually has three craters and summits, with one being closed off to hikers due to danger. December through March is the best time to climb here as the dry season sees better weather and offers better conditions all around. Guides will point out different vegetation, unique flora and fauna, a variety of birds and provide you with meals along the way. It is extremely important to be prepared for the altitude changes as they are extreme and many visitors, who rush up this mountain, simply cannot make it to the top. Planning ahead with a guide, checking the weather conditions and being prepared are ways you can truly enjoy this awesome experience.

Nevado del Ruiz

3. Visit the Tierradentro Tombs

These tombs are located underground in the Tierradentro Archaeological Park and although they were created around 700 A.D., they were not discovered until the 1930’s. The tombs are circular, some as deep as 9 meters and reachable by steep, smooth original steps through trapdoors and are decorated with elaborate drawings. There are four sites in which you can see these tombs, and visitors should start with Segovia as it houses 29 tombs with black, red and white patterns that have survived the years. The 14 km circuit that takes travelers around the sites is a breathtaking walk with stops at the two small museums to learn even more. Guides are quite helpful explaining the history of the tombs, especially if you can understand a little Spanish. The best part about this experience may just be the locals who put tables and chairs outside their houses and offer home-cooked meals and beer after your hike.

Tierradentro Tombs

2. Explore the town of Cartagena

This ancient city is set on the Caribbean Sea, with its enchanting Old Town, scenic beaches and relaxed vibe. The Old Town here is the place most tourists flock to with its amazing historical architecture, cobblestone streets, plazas and squares, historic churches and excellent museums. Boutique hotels, horse-drawn carriages clomping down the narrow roads and tiny sidewalk cafes all contribute to setting the mood here. Salsa music drifts endlessly from doorways, night clubs and through the parks. The sun beats down hot here during the day so people take to one of the many choices of water, from the sea to the lagoons. Dusk brings bicyclers out to travel the raised fortress walls, looking out onto the breathtaking scenery. At night, make sure to put your dancing shoes on as the music will tempt you into one of the alluring salsa clubs throughout the city.

Colombia

1. Take an Amazon Jungle Tour

One cannot simply visit Colombia without making their way into the Amazon rain forest and along the longest river in the world, home to 212 species of mammals and 195 reptiles. The Southern tip of Colombia is where travelers make their way to visit the rain forest and there are many tours that take you into the tight blanket of trees that surround the winding brown river. Unique jungle lodges can be booked ahead of time in the rain forest, as well as the boat, canoe and kayak tours. What awaits visitors are the largest lily pads in the world, many varieties of snakes, colorful birds, towering trees and communities of indigenous people. Many tour companies take you into Peru for an even deeper jungle experience and missing the Amazon Rain forest while in Colombia would be an absolute travesty.

Amazon Rainforest

The 10 Worst Airline Reward Programs

Not all airline reward programs are created equal and beyond the frustrations of not being able to book a seat with your miles or points are outrageous taxes and fee, unfriendly websites and the inability to ever earn enough miles/points to redeem them for a flight. Looking at some of the major airlines around the world it is clear that some of the recent changes in reward programs have not actually been for the better and that some longtime reward programs are in desperate need of a refresh. Here are 10 of the worst airline reward programs around the world.

10. Emirates (Skywards)

Emirates is one of the major airlines that does not belong to an alliance, thus reducing the opportunity to earn and spend miles with partner airlines. They deal with two different kind of miles; Skyward miles that you can actually use and tier miles that are only responsible for upping your status in the reward program. It is hard to figure out how these reward miles actually work as currently Emirates does not publish an award chart, only a mileage calculator. To make things even more complicated they have two types of award fares, saver and flex. It is best to do some research before going for the saver fare (the fare that uses less miles) as it will cost you a lot to make changes, use a ridiculous amount of miles for a business class ticket and have high fuel surcharges. Overall this is just one confusing miles program.

Sorbis / Shutterstock.com
Sorbis / Shutterstock.com

9. American (AAdvantage)

With American and US Airways merging this past year it was interesting to see what was going to happen with the rewards program. Certainly not the worst of programs out there, the reason it ends up on this list is a combination of a few factors. To start off, booking a seat with rewards miles is still increasingly hard to do, though it does show signs of improvement. Although flights can be booked on blackout dates with certain miles, it costs the member a ton of miles and there are usually no seats. They also love to charge passengers for any changes on mile tickets. Knowing how many miles you are earning as you fly becomes confusing when you look at the many award charts available and there are limits in place for how many miles are allowed to be earned on each flight.

Vacclav / Shutterstock.com
Vacclav / Shutterstock.com

8. LAN (LANPASS)

This rewards program deals in kilometers and has about four million members that are based primarily in South America. Don’t let the high membership number fool you though; this airline program isn’t easy to use. Understanding how many km’s you earn via the website is ultra confusing, as the number of km’s varies by country, city and continent. Certain flights with LAN don’t earn you any km’s and if you book the basic fare prices it can take decades to earn enough points to fly for free. An expiration date of 36 months on km’s, fees to book by phone and cancellation fees charged in km’s versus money make this program one of the worst. Spending the miles isn’t easy either as LAN is known to have a low availability of seats for reward users. Unless you plan on flying A LOT; this reward program isn’t for you.

Paulo Afonso / Shutterstock.com
Paulo Afonso / Shutterstock.com

7. United (Mileage Plus)

United has always had loyal passengers and they love to use its reward system that is categorized into basic membership or premier, and then premier is separated into four different levels. But just because they have loyal membership doesn’t mean that this rewards program benefits most passengers. United recently switched to a revenue-based frequent flyer program, which means the more money you spend the more miles you earn. This is great for premier members who fly first class and business class but not so great for the economy passengers or those who like to book when flights go on sale. This rewards program came under scrutiny back in early 2014 when it was through a huge devaluation that angered many loyal customers. There are also a lot of rules to sort through with Mileageplus including rules about fees, transfers and expiration which makes it confusing for a lot of members.

Chris Parypa Photography / Shutterstock.com
Chris Parypa Photography / Shutterstock.com

6. Air China (Phoenix Miles)

It boasts that it has the largest membership of any rewards program in China but we would be surprised if these members were happy about how this program works. To start off, it is ridiculously hard to understand their awards charts which operate in kilometers and have not been updated in the past year; therefore it is unsure if these numbers are valid. Although this reward program gets bonus points for having a family program which allows family members to share points, once you read the fine print it becomes clear that sharing points isn’t as easy as one thinks. Besides the fact that you can only transfer once a year, and only up to a certain number of points, if someone happens to lose their card; it’s going to cost you up to 800 km. Add in the unavailability of reward seats and this program needs some serious upgrading.

Tupungato / Shutterstock.com
Tupungato / Shutterstock.com

5. Asia Miles

With more than seven million members and a slew of airline partners and travel and lifestyle partners, one might be surprised to see this program on the list. It does in fact come down to a few simple things. One of the most sought after items that people use reward programs for are free flights and this is where Asia Miles fails. Cathay Pacific dropped a whopping 15 points in a study done by the Wall Street Journal in terms of seat availability for reward users bringing them to just 66%. What this means is that they are reducing the number of seats that are available for purchase for rewards and thus making it harder for members to redeem miles. Another point to consider is that members who fly in economy don’t often earn any miles for their flights and cheaper fares are worth nothing.

Eric Hui / Shutterstock.com
Eric Hui / Shutterstock.com

4. Aer Lingus (Gold Circle Club)

What used to be a low cost carrier to get passengers across the pond has now morphed into a global entity that focuses on great service and value. The rewards program needs a serious upgrade though, especially if it wants to connect with a market that only flies once or twice a year. Currently one has to earn their way into this rewards program, by earning a total of 2,400 points within one calendar year. This points system doesn’t work on price or distance flown; instead it offers a fixed number of points based on the destination and cabin. For example an economy flight to the USA will earn you 300 points, thus making it very hard to accrue the points even needed to get into this elite club. There is no cash plus points option when you redeem, the fuel surcharges are high and truthfully this rewards program needs a refresh immediately.

Lukas Rebec / Shutterstock.com
Lukas Rebec / Shutterstock.com

3. Turkish Airlines (Miles&Smiles)

This is another airline that plummeted in terms of seat availability for reward members according to the Wall Street Journal. Falling 22.1 points and coming in with a 63.6% seat availability, it seems that although this program revamped itself in 2014, there is now less opportunity to redeem miles for flights. With the revamp the passengers that fly economy took a hard hit as instead of earning 100% of the miles they now earn 25%. Another complaint this reward program faces is the three year expiration on miles. While passengers who fly a lot in business class may benefit from this rewards program, everyone else will not and it is well worth exploring other options.

Ivica Drusany / Shutterstock.com
Ivica Drusany / Shutterstock.com

2. Spirit (Free Spirit)

Spirit airlines offers a reward program that is meant to benefit people who fly often domestically in the United States and/or to the Caribbean or Latin America. Although members earn miles every time they take a Spirit flight, it is hard to keep on earning them unless you are flying every three months. That is because these miles expire after just three months of inactivity. Spirit justifies this by offering members a credit card, with a $59 annual fee. Make sure you are using that MasterCard at least once a month though or your miles will expire. Calling to make a reservation through the call centre will cost you an additional $25 when you want to use your miles and you must book far in advance to avoid an additional service charge.  This reward program also slaps members with a $110 fee if they need to modify or cancel their flight they booked with miles.

Carlos Yudica / Shutterstock.com
Carlos Yudica / Shutterstock.com

1. Delta (SkyMiles)

Delta SkyMiles is another rewards program that recently switched to the revenue-based frequent flyer program and just like United, took a lot of backlash for this system. This airline is already known for making very few cheaper seats available for reward members and instead pushes them to higher level seating that cost many more miles. Loyal business members may be benefitting more from spending more money but the new changes also made things harder for them. SkyClub fees went up, international first class awards are blocked on partner airlines and there is a cap on how many miles you can earn on each flight. SkyMiles has been fighting for years to better its reputation that has been largely based on seat availability for reward members and it seems they are moving in a backwards direction.

Erasmus Wolff / Shutterstock.com
Erasmus Wolff / Shutterstock.com

Tips on Tips: Tipping Customs Around the World

It’s easily one of the most contentious issues you’ll face when traveling: when should you tip and how much should you tip? Even within single countries and cultures, there is a huge amount of debate about who, when, where and how much you ought to tip—and why. When you begin to travel outside your own country, you begin to realize that the debate isn’t one that’s only going on at home; it’s one that’s being replicated in almost every culture and country on the planet. Customs and rules vary widely between cultures and even from state to state, and the practice of tipping service workers is no exception to that rule. As you begin globetrotting, one of the most valuable pieces of information anyone can offer you is insight into the unspoken “rules” of tipping etiquette in your destination country. Knowing when to tip, who to tip and how to tip is almost essential for any traveler: it will show your knowledge and respect of the culture, sometimes obtain you better service and, in some cases, even get you ahead.
That said, it can be a bit difficult to wrap your head around all the nuances and variables involved in what seems like, at first glance, a rather straight-forward custom. Like most social situations, however, there are complex rules and exceptions to every rule.

North America

We start our trip in North America and the countries most readers will be familiar with. In the U.S., tipping is widely debated, but the most common practice is to tip restaurant wait-staff, hairdressers and a handful of other service workers, such as taxi drivers, spa employees and hotel staff. Some people, such as government employees, are never to be tipped, as this can be seen as a form of bribery and is actually illegal! The decision about whether to leave a tip or not is entirely at the customer’s discretion, although a tip of between 15 and 20 percent is considered the norm. Some people argue that customers are not obligated to leave tips, especially if the service is bad, while others contend that certain workers should always be tipped, as service workers are generally poorly paid. In Canada, similar arguments are made, especially since service workers such as wait staff have lower legislated minimum wages than other workers as a result of the culture of tipping. In Canada, a minimum tip is usually 15 percent, although some businesses include a service charge. South of the U.S., in Mexico, you can expect to add 10 to 15 percent to your bill—and most Mexicans would prefer you to tip them in pesos, not American currency; national pride rails against the common view that Mexico is, in some ways, a colony or even a part of the U.S. Tipping in U.S. dollars is often seen as insulting, as though the person leaving the tip views Mexico as American territory.

tipping usa

Caribbean

The nearby Caribbean, another popular holiday destination for North Americans, is a veritable medley of practices, often reflecting the country’s European heritage, which may be French, Spanish, Dutch, English or another background. In Dominica, a service charge is typically added to the bill, but the customer is expected to tip 10 percent as well. A few islands over, in St. Barthes, there are no service charges, but customers will be well-advised to tip 15 percent.

Kamira / Shutterstock.com
Kamira / Shutterstock.com

South America

Further south in Latin America, the general rule of thumb is simply to add a percentage to the bill rather than to tip. Percentages vary between countries in South America. If tips are given, the percentage is usually low, around 5 percent as in Bolivia, where a tip might be given in addition to the service charge included in the bill. In Argentina, however, a more common practice is for customers to round up the bill and add 10 percent.

sunsinger / Shutterstock.com
sunsinger / Shutterstock.com

Africa

Hopping over the Atlantic to Africa, you’ll find that although tipping is commonplace, the actual practice of it varies widely between the multitude of countries and cultures that make up the continent. In Egypt, for example, most restaurants include a tip but customers are still expected to add between 5 to 10 percent on top. The situation is similar in South Africa, although you may be charged a service fee and if the service is bad, you’re not expected to tip. In some African countries, such as Tanzania, you won’t necessarily be expected to tip per se, but you might offer to exchange watches, brand-name clothing or other items for artisanal crafts. These kinds of items can also be offered as gifts for exceptional service. Cash is sometimes welcome as well, although in some cases, an offer of a meal or offering to help pay for something such as school fees is more readily acceptable. This is especially if one is dealing with children, who may be pulled out of school to beg otherwise.

Nick Fox / Shutterstock.com
Nick Fox / Shutterstock.com

Europe and Mediterranean

Continental Europe and the Mediterranean is another story yet again. In this region, tipping is not required, although it is considered customary and acceptable to leave a percentage of the bill. However, the most common way to tip someone is to “round up” the bill, often to the nearest euro. In Germany, for example, it’s not uncommon to get a bill for, say, 13 euros and hand the server 15—and get no change. Another way of doing this is for the customer to simply declare what they want to “round up” to, usually to avoid getting small coins. Spain and Italy have a similar culture to Germany when it comes to tipping. France is the anomaly in this case, where “service compris” on the bill means there’s no need to tip, as you’ve already been charged for it.

tipping euros

Northern Europe

Northern Europe presents another set of customs around tipping. In the U.K., North Americans will find the rule of 10-to-15 percent tips quite familiar. Service charges might be automatically added to the bill by some establishments. In Norway and Denmark, a gratuity is included in the bill, and in Sweden and Finland, a gratuity is often included. If the bill doesn’t have a gratuity already factored in, Swedes will tip, generally by rounding up or leaving small change, similar to their counterparts in Germany.

Tupungato / Shutterstock.com
Tupungato / Shutterstock.com

Eastern Europe

Traveling to Eastern Europe, attitudes toward tipping are quite different from their Western European counterparts. In most of the Balkans and other Eastern European countries, such as Hungary, tipping is not only customary, it’s expected. In Albania, customers are expected to leave at least 10 percent of the bill or, in some cases, provide duty-free alcohol to service workers, although one needs to be careful with this practice, as it can be insulting to some, especially Muslims. In Croatia, tips are usually between 3 and 5 percent of the bill.

Bellhop

Middle East

We travel next through the Middle East, which, in some ways, has a lot in common with North American cultures when it comes to tipping. Virtually every country in the Middle East has a tipping culture, and it is expected that you will tip. However, figuring out how and when to tip in this region can be a complex process. Called baksheesh, tips generally make up a good portion of a worker’s salary. Baksheesh can be expected for just about anything, such as holding a door open or pointing out something in a museum (even if you can see it for yourself!). Don’t be surprised if someone reaches out to be tipped; the culture is very forward about asking for a tip. You don’t necessarily have to give a tip, however, just because someone asked for one. If you didn’t like the service, there’s no need to tip. This attitude is also seen in India, but not in Dubai, where a 10 percent service charge is automatically added to bills.

UAE currency

Asia

In Southeast Asia, the culture is radically different from North America when it comes to tipping. In countries such as Korea and Japan, leaving a gratuity for someone is not only virtually unheard of, doing so can cause confusion. Some people even see it as rude. Some places, especially those that routinely serve foreigners, will include a gratuity on the bill, such as in Singapore where 10 percent is routinely added to hotel and restaurant bills. Other places allow customers to tip certain service providers, such as taxi drivers in China.

Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com
Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

Australia

In the land down under, tipping isn’t a common practice at all. Neither Australia nor New Zealand add service charges to bills, and as a general rule of thumb, tips aren’t left for servers unless dining at a higher end restaurant or if you feel you received excellent service.

NigelSpiers / Shutterstock.com
NigelSpiers / Shutterstock.com

While tipping, in one form or another, is an almost universal practice, it quickly becomes apparent that “tipping” isn’t practiced in the same way in every country and different cultures have different expectations and approaches to the practice. What might be considered rude in one country may be generous in another or even expected in another still. For that reason, whether you agree with the practice of tipping or not, it’s best to study up on the various practices and expectations you’ll encounter in the places you’re likely to travel to. Whether you believe tips should only be left for good or exceptional service or whether you believe tips must always be left, or even if you’re in the camp that argues tipping is a detrimental practice that drives down real wages for workers, the reality is that, while you’re traveling, knowing the tipping culture and playing by those rules is going to work in your favor almost every time.