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Many of of us, including myself, thought that by now we would have some degree of certainty when it comes to planning international travel. Vaccines were touted as the holy grail and the golden ticket out of this mess.
Sadly, the reality has turned out to be a bit more complicated. While vaccines are incredibly protective, it’s clear they don’t shield you from getting infected or spreading the desease.
Just a few months ago, I was hopeful that we would be able to enter Japan next summer, so I booked some award flights. I’m now growing more pessimistic, as the pandemic keeps throwing us new curveballs.
All the research I’ve done on Japan indicates that it’s a very conservative society as a whole, and one that’s reluctant to change the status quo. Fortunately, my flights were booked with miles, and are fully refundable. If Japan plan doesn’t materialize, I know exactly what I will be planning to do instead: meet my family somewhere, anywhere. But hopefully Montenegro.
The formidable travel challenge
I’ve mentioned this a few times on the blog, but if you are here for the first time, let me summarize. My parents, sister and nephews live in Belarus, a country in Eastern Europe. Due to unstable political situation over the last year, it became practically impossible for them to get visas to US or Europe. Covid pandemic surely didn’t help, but the issue goes way beyond that.
Just recently, most of US Embassy staff in Minsk were expelled from Belarus. America is enemy numero uno for the current administration, which is why I’m reluctant to go home. So, instead, I need to find a country where I can safely meet my family. For now, they can still leave Belarus via plane.
That country has to have a visa-free policy for Belarusians, not be Venezuela or Iraq, and one that accepts Sputnik V vaccine or at least offers entry via negative Covid test. Oh, and since my dad’s health isn’t great, it can’t be too far from Belarus. He isn’t really able to handle long flights.
My parents really miss the grandkids (and me, I hope), so I’m willing to deal with the extra hassle and testing upon the return to US. I also haven’t seen my sister and nephews in 4 years.
Anyway, I’ve found this super handy map that lets you check visa policy based on your nationality. After browsing it, I’ve discovered that we have more options than I thought we did. I had no idea that my family can go to Israel without a visa. Of course, there is very little chance they will let Americans or Belarusians in anytime soon. But that’s a place I would certainly love to visit one day.
As it stands, I’ve narrowed down my choices to Turkey and Montenegro. And if award flights and other logistics work out, the latter will be the winner.
Montenegro is not part of the EU, and its economy heavily depends on tourism. Obviously, it’s impossible to predict what things will be like next summer, but it will most likely be easier for Americans to enter it compared to other European countries.
The perfect European blend in a small package?
I’ve heard of Montenegro, but to be honest, it was never on my travel radar. Sure, I’ve wanted to visit Balkans, but always figured it would be Croatia, specifically Dubrovnik. After doing some research, I think Montenegro and I would get along for these reasons:
1) Beautiful city of Kotor, a UNESCO heritage site
Based on photos and YouTube videos, it looks like a blend of Venice and the Amalfi coast, and I happen to love both of these destinations. See my trip report. This isn’t surprising, since Venice republic ruled Kotor for over four hundred years, and the architecture reflects that.
2) Beaches, lots of beaches
This would actually be more important to my family, as I live in Florida. But my relatives are crazy about vacationing near water, the result of growing up in a landlocked country.
3) Magnificent mountains
I’m always up for a hike.
4) Several sites with Roman ruins
None of my relatives have been to Italy, so this is a neat 2 for 1 deal.
5) Compact size, which makes exploring easy.
I don’t plan on us renting a car/van, we will probably just do tours to keep it simple.
6) Lower lodging prices compared to Venice or the Amalfi coast
I would have to find a house that fits 9 people, and you can get one in or near Kotor for about half of what it would cost in Italy.
7) Slavic culture with a familiar language.
It may sound crazy, but this part was actually the biggest selling point for me. You see, when my parents visit US, I have to constantly translate things back and forth. If we went to Turkey, I would have to try to communicate in English, then translate everything in Russian and so forth. Montenegro language is similar to Russian and Belarusian, which means my mom could go shopping without me. Yes!!
Becky from Sightdoing website has recently written a series of articles on Montenegro, and I highly recommend you read them if this is a place you are interested in visiting. I’m sold, and if we don’t go next year, perhaps I can plan a trip to Montenegro in 2023.
Miles and points angle
Getting to Montenegro is possible via miles, but it will be harder compared to more well known European destinations. Your best bet will probably be redeeming on Star Alliance, especially if you don’t plan to break up your trip with an overnight stopover. Otherwise, a few discount airlines do fly to Montenegro, including EasyJet and Ryanair. But once again, you will have limited options.
Your two airport choices will be Tivat (TIV)and Podgorica (TGD). The latter will have more options if you are starting your trip in US. If you desire to go to Montenegro or any other European country next summer, I recommend you book only refundable reservations via miles.
United Mileage Plus program is a decent option. For example, if I were to book a one-way flight from Orlando to Podgorica, it would cost me 33k miles+tax per person in economy. I would have to make one connection, possibly two. If you book an award flight using United miles, you can cancel it 30 days in advance with no penalty and full refund of taxes paid.
Whether you decide to transfer highly valuable UR points with the idea of making a speculative reservation is up to you. I did just that for my trip to Japan, knowing that I will be able to utilize United miles for a trip to Europe, if necessary. So, for me, it was a low-risk proposition. YMMV.
Right now, I’m sitting on around 120k UR points, most of them acquired via giant 100k sign-up bonus on Chase Sapphire Preferred (my personal referral link). That’s almost enough for four one-way tickets to/from Montenegro. I don’t plan to speculatively transfer them to United, not until I have a clear idea on our prospects of entering Japan.
If you have a lot of Amex Membership Rewards Points, and don’t mind tying them up in airline program, now may be a good time to consider doing so. As you’ve probably heard, through September 30th, you can get a transfer bonus on a dozen programs.
One interesting option (for the purposes of this particular post) is Aeroplan. You will get 1,200 miles for every 1,000 MR points. Aeroplan no longer imposes fuel surcharges, a big plus. The mileage levels are usually a bit higher compared to United, but that’s where the transfer bonus comes in. For example, the Orlando-Podgorica route I’ve mentioned earlier will cost 40k Aeroplan points, compared to 33k United miles.
Incidentally, any Aeroplan award flight booked through September 3oth can be cancelled for free:
I’m absolutely not saying that you should take advantage of this offer, but it could be worth the risk for some. Make sure you have alternative plans for your Aeroplan miles, just in case.
I might be able to use Avianca miles for flight from Minsk to Montenegro. It looks like it costs 15k miles one-way in economy on Turkish Airlines, which is a decent deal compared to current cash prices. My family has very limited airline options due to EU sanctions for recent Ryanair hijacking by Belarusian government.
And judging by this recent dystopian video, things won’t be changing anytime soon. Strong North Korea vibes…
Right now, I’m still in the “dreaming” stage of this particular trip. I’m a control freak, and like to have plan B lined up at all times. The main goal is to reunite with my family, and the location is secondary. Though why not kill two birds with one stone?
It’s very possible that I won’t be able to enter Japan or Montenegro next year. Well, there is always Georgia (the country). Hey, they produce great wines down there. I know I could use a good drink after the last year and a half.
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.