While 2023 wasn’t the biggest year of travel for us, we had some epic experiences. At the start of the year, we went to the end of the world and back to walk with penguins in Argentina, for example.
We loved Argentina and would have spent more time there, but we had some important plans to attend to. That’s why we made quick trips to Chile and Panama followed by a shorter-than-usual visit to Mexico.
Spring and summer were full of live music, family, and friends – just how we like it! We hit our first Jazz Fest in New Orleans and the last edition of the Summer Camp festival.
By the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, we were on the move again – this time on a trip around the world! Read on to find out how and why we flew around the world in a month and a half.
3 Years in the Making
My brother and his fiance were supposed to get married in Seoul on 10/10/2020. I don’t need to explain why their intended wedding date didn’t work out…
We knew that we would eventually get an updated invitation and there was no way we would miss it. They finally rescheduled for October 2023, which made us think carefully about our travel plans for the year.
Our original plan was to fly to Seoul for the wedding festivities and then finally check out Taiwan. From there we hoped to return to Southeast Asia and old stomping grounds like Thailand and Vietnam.
Then I got a full-time job.
As I explained in the first 2023 recap post, my job is awesome. It’s also fully remote. However, everyone in the company is in the Americas.
Moving somewhere 12-15 hours ahead of my team members just a few months into the job didn’t seem like such a good idea. Back to the drawing board…
Another Travel Hacking Win
When we decided a long-term Southeast Asia trip wasn’t in the cards, we looked at other options. “Why not fly over the Atlantic instead of the Pacific?” I thought.
We looked at maps and time zones, Google Flights, and Airbnb. It didn’t take long to realize that Türkiye (yes, that’s how it’s spelled now) was a great option.
First of all, it’s almost exactly halfway between the eastern US and South Korea. That results in two flights of 9-10 hours each instead of one 15+ hour flight.
It also means you gradually adjust to the time change, and that my 9-5 schedule would be 4-midnight. Since we’re night owls by nature, that sounded great!
My mom wanted help booking the flight from Detroit to Seoul for her and my brother. She also doesn’t care about travel hacking and accruing points.
I referred Rachel to the Chase Sapphire card (it had been a few years since she had an account) which scored me 15,000 points. She then purchased the flight for my mom, who wrote us a check for the amount.
When you book with the Chase system, you also get 5 points per dollar for travel. Their flights cost around $5,000, so Rachel got the 65,000 sign-up bonus and an additional 25,000 points.
Boom. Just like that, she had 90,000 points to use for the trip. Thanks, Mom!
I played around with dates and routes, eventually settling on Chicago-Istanbul-Seoul. Rather than a short layover, we booked one of 3.5 weeks. We used her points and only had to pay $500 for the two of us.
Our flight was with Turkish Airlines the whole way, and it was a great experience. Check out this little highlight reel we made of it to see more.
Lost in Istanbul
Since I was working full-time and Rachel was quite busy, we decided to start the trip with 12 nights in Istanbul. As we left on Sunday and arrived on Labor Day, I didn’t even need to take a day off to travel!
We got an Airbnb near the Galleta Tower, which was nice and spacious with proper workspaces and fast internet.
There was just one problem… the chimney outside the bedroom window spun around in the wind and made the most obnoxious sound ever. We slept maybe 2-3 hours those first few nights. It was awful.
The whole thing ended up being pretty hilarious as we smashed the chimney with the help and consent of the co-host. See for yourself…
Demon chimneys aside, we quite enjoyed our time in the Turkish capital. One of Rachel’s students is from there, and she and her husband took us out for coffee one afternoon and then on a full walking tour another day.
We visited the mosques and the markets, did a Bosphorus Cruise, indulged in the cuisine, and caught some live jazz. I also went on a few solo excursions to explore different neighborhoods and fly my new drone.
It does feel like the crossroads of the world in Istanbul, as the city is split between Europe and Asia. We found it fascinating and would love to go back for a month or more.
A Week on the Coast
From Istanbul, we flew to the coastal city of Dalaman. It took over two hours from our Airbnb on the European side to get to the airport on the Asian side.
The flight was another two hours, then it took over three to get to the town of Kas. A local bus ride got us up the hill in 15 minutes to our Airbnb, ending a 10-hour travel day.
It was a lovely apartment above a local family’s home, highlighted by an incredible view of the sea and the Greek island of Kastellorizo.
Since we only had three days there and only one full day off, we went straight to town and booked a full-day boat trip that our friends Okennas Odyssey recommended for the next morning.
We had an amazing day out at sea on the Kekova & Sunken City Boat Tour, one of the many Boat Trips by Captain Ergun. We spent the day stand-up-paddle-boarding, swimming, and exploring a remote town. The Turkish coast is stunning, especially from above.
With our later work schedules, we took the opportunity to rent a scooter to cruise up and down the coast. Chilling at a beach club isn’t a bad way to spend a Monday afternoon, even if you have to work a full shift.
Next up was a 4-hour local bus ride to Antalya. This is a big city with an international airport, so it’s a much different vibe from Kas.
Our Airbnb there was way bigger than what we’re used to. It even had a proper office with two desks! We wish more hosts would do this…
It was so hot during the day and the public beaches were a bit far, so we didn’t do a whole lot. We got work done, ate some great food, and went out to this fun rooftop bar that had a different genre of electronic music every night.
One night we befriended a group of Russians and Brits, and next thing you know we’re all doing shots at 5 AM. This town knows how to party!
In a Hot Air Balloon
Chances are you’ve seen the famous hot air balloons of Cappadocia. This has to be the most Instagrammed thing in all of Türkiye. We had been wanting to go check it out for years.
As such, we flew from Antalya to one of the airports in the Cappadocia region. It took a few hours by bus to get us to the town of Göreme where the balloons launch most mornings.
Our Airbnb was on the edge of town, right near the “fairy chimney” rock formations the area is famous for. We got up early to watch the hot air balloons take off, and it was quite the sight.
Unfortunately for us, our trip aligned with a major Chinese holiday. It’s been so long since we lived in Asia that we just forgot to monitor that sort of thing.
Turns out that a ton of Chinese tourists also saw the hot air balloons on social media. Trips were either sold out or super expensive. Sad face.
Our tagline isn’t “Improvise your life” for no reason, though! We found another hot air balloon trip in Soganli Valley for a reasonable price and booked it. It was amazing and we don’t even care that we didn’t do the one in town. Next time.
The area also has a bunch of hiking trails, so we hit a few of those during the days before working. While the WiFi wasn’t great here, we still took care of business by being creative, i.e. I worked from a restaurant/bar one night.
A Korean Wedding
From Göreme, we went to a much closer airport to catch our flight back to Istanbul. Rather than go back into the city, we found an Airbnb near the Black Sea that was only 20 minutes from the airport.
It was just a quick 2-night stay in preparation for our trip to South Korea. The place was nice and so was the host family, but it rained the whole time and knocked the internet out.
Just another day in digital nomad paradise!
Anyway, we made our flight to Seoul and got in before most of my family and brother’s friends. The first few nights were full of Korean food, way too much soju and makgeolli (AKA “milky”), and plenty of karaoke.
Once the whole squad assembled, we moved into a much bigger Airbnb. Since we had been to Seoul twice already, we skipped out on some of the touristy things as we had to work.
I somehow managed to work a full week despite being 13 hours ahead of most of my team. I’m lucky to have a flexible job as they let me do my own thing and skip meetings that would have been in the middle of the night.
I still managed to make it out with the young bucks when Rachel had class. We had some really fun nights and less fun mornings as a result…
The wedding festivities lasted several days. There was a rooftop party with Detroit pizza one night. Then there was a big dinner in a traditional Korean restaurant and a bachelor party the next.
Finally, it was time for the big day. We all dressed up in Korean hanbok and damn did we look good!
The wedding venue was in a national park and it was beautiful. It was worth the wait, for sure!
There were all kinds of performances and rituals throughout the wedding, making for an unforgettable day. We’re so happy to have been a part of it.
We had a full day to recover, do some laundry, and pack, and then we had to say farewell to my family and head to the airport at the crack of dawn.
Where to Next?
When we decided we weren’t going to stay in Asia for a long time, we still had to find a way back to the US. Flights from Seoul were rather pricey, so I set my gaze on Tokyo. We always wanted to go back to Japan, after all.
Believe it or not, I found a flight from Tokyo to the tiny Asheville regional airport (via Dallas) for the exact amount of American Airlines points Rachel had, plus $50.
I didn’t hesitate and booked her on that flight. “But what are you gonna do?” she asked. “I’ll figure it out,” I responded.
A quick search revealed a $500 direct flight from Tokyo to Detroit, so I decided to go visit my dad and grandma who didn’t make the trip to Seoul.
In the end, we flew around the globe (visiting three countries in the process) for less than $1,500 total for the two of us. Yahoo for travel hacking!
The Land of the Rising Sun
We flew from Seoul to Osaka so we could check out some new places on my 3rd and her 2nd trip to Japan. As luck would have it, we visited just in time to get the Japan Rail Pass before it jumped by 70% in price.
Sometimes everything just falls into place…
We just had six nights in Japan, so I finally took some time off work and Rachel didn’t book any classes. We wanted to take full advantage of the rail pass, and that we did!
First up was three nights in Kyoto. With our trusty rail pass, we bounced around the area and visited Nara to see the deer and Uji to sample the matcha.
We also checked out some of the temples in town as well as the bamboo forest and a tranquil zen garden. Best of all, we made our glorious return to a Japanese onsen.
They work hard in Japan, but they sure know how to relax at these spas with natural hot spring water. What an amazing country!
From there, we backtracked to Osaka and spent two nights there. We hit the castle and the famous Dotonburi district one day, then took a day trip to Hiroshima the next.
What a powerful experience that was. I’m not sure words can do it justice. As Americans, we found it important to go and visit to better understand what happened as a result of the dropping of the atomic bomb.
With the freedom of the rail pass, we decided to store our bags at the hotel in Osaka and hop over to Kobe. After a short hike to a waterfall, we sat down to a mouth-watering lunch of Kobe beef. When in Rome, right?
Last but not least was a quick night in Tokyo. We checked into our room and went out to feast on ramen and gyoza one last time.
While it’s still one of our favorite cities, we don’t regret giving it only one night this time so we could see more of the country. Japan is incredible and it’s a place we hope to continue visiting for the rest of our lives.
Back to the US of A
It was a long trip home that we had to make separately, and the jet lag that followed was brutal. We both needed a solid week to recover and adjust, but it was all worth it!
Arriving back in the middle of October, we were just in time to catch the fall colors in Asheville. We also dove right back into the live music world (surprise, surprise).
There were plenty of shows and visits with friends and family over the fall months. Highlights included Pretty Lights at the Caverns and the North Beach Festival in Miami.
Just like that, it was time for the holidays. We missed so many holidays with family living in Asia, so we try to be around for them now.
2023 came to an end with three nights of music in Atlanta surrounded by friends old and new – the best way to usher in a New Year.
If you made it all the way here, thanks for reading. We’ve got some exciting plans for 2024, starting with a country we’re returning to for the first time since we got locked down there during COVID… stay tuned!