Politics

From Family Road Trips to Round-the-World Itineraries

A conversation with travel reporter Victoria Walker.

Victoria Walker wants to meet people where they are.

Unlike many of her peers who cover travel, particularly through the lens of points and miles, Walker’s introduction to travel occurred via cross-country roadtrips with her family. No one in her family flies, so Walker saw much of America through the windows of a packed van as Kirk Franklin played in the background.

Such experiences are why Walker wants to broaden the scope of what’s considered traveling and make it more accessible. Trip taking doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive. “Not everybody has the dream to go to the Maldives or not everybody has the dream to go to Paris or Tokyo. Whatever your dream is, wherever your dream is— it could be to Hampton, Virginia,” she said.

In our conversation on July 13, Walker gave us a rundown on how to save money while traveling, what it’s like traveling alone as a Black woman and how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the space. Above you can watch our chat—produced by Britt Pullie and Faith Smith—and below is a transcript of the discussion.

Hey, y’all. I’m Julia Craven and this is Conversations With Julia. Today, I am chatting with Victoria Walker, the points, miles, and deals reporter at the Points Guy. I’m so happy that you could join me today for this installment. We are going to talk about her amazing journey towards becoming a Black travel reporter, why she considers racism abroad when planning trips, and how COVID-19 has impacted that space. Next week, I’ll be back to talk with someone else who is making strides in their respective field.

Hey, Vikkie. Thanks again.

Hello, Julia, thank you for having me.

Of course. Let’s just hop right in it because I know your fascinating background story, but everybody else does not. Tell us the origin of your interest in travel. How’d that get started?

I grew up traveling pretty extensively, but not in the ways that a lot of people in this space started traveling. We did a lot of road trips. We would go from… travel from Virginia to Disney World. We would drive everywhere; we didn’t fly. Nobody in my family flies. We did Texas a few times, we did Las Vegas twice, we did Los Angeles and San Francisco once, all driving, so 12 of us in a 16-passenger van, three days on the road, staying in Best Westerns along the way. Eating at Bob Evans. I know you know what I’m talking about.

Driving to California.

Driving to California. So that really sparked my interest in travel. I really started to travel in the way that I travel now in college. One of the things that I was very adamant about when I got to college was I wanted to have the opportunity to travel, and luckily, I really had great opportunities to travel. I went to Haiti twice for a community service project, I went to Ghana, I went to Germany, I went to Dubai, and that really sparked my interest in international travel because I didn’t have the opportunity to travel around the world when I was a kid. That’s a thing that a lot of people who occupy this travel space had the luxury of doing when they were growing up, traveling around the world at five, and I didn’t have that opportunity to do that. I wanted to make sure that when I got to college, I would have the opportunity to travel.

Luckily, when I was in college, I got Howard to pay. I went to Howard University. I got Howard to pay for my trips. I would go as the student photographer, so that was the catalyst that pushed me to get more into the space. Then, when I graduated from college, I took a job at a newspaper in Washington D.C. and this is the height of the presidential elections, so I didn’t have the opportunity to travel as much as I did when I was in college, but I would take advantage of flight deals, cheap flights to Malaysia, cheap flights to South Africa, anything that would get me to where I wanted to go. And on the side I started a travel blog because I wanted something that… I saw a whole lot of people with travel blogs, a whole lot of people with travel vlogs, and none of them would… there were very few Black people who occupied the space and there were very few people that occupied flight deal space, which is how I got into the work that I do now.

I started my travel blog, Vikkie Ventures, really as a way to highlight Black women and people of color in the travel space, write about flight deals, but also I think the most important thing to me at the time was making travel feel accessible to people, meeting people where they are and giving them the space, the opportunity to plan the dream trip, whatever that looks like for them. My dream trip would be to the Seychelles, but other people’s dream trips, it could just be to like… it could just be to like Myrtle Beach or Cancun, and I wanted to, whatever your dream trip was, I wanted to make it easy for you to be able to plan it.

I am just having a visual of you and your aunties and your grandma all in this car going across the country to Los Angeles. That’s astounding to me. My family took a road trip from Moultrie, Georgia to New York and that was about 16 hours. That has nothing on three days.

Three days. The second time we went to Las Vegas, we stopped in Tennessee and then we stopped again in Flagstaff, Arizona. This is also kind of the reason I hate road trips now because I was in the middle because I’m the youngest, so I have no space. This is pre-nice cell phones, so I had a CD player—

And you were playing Snake, yeah.

I was playing Snake and we had… Kirk Franklin’s album came out. What’s the one with the blue title? We played that the entire three days on the road. To this day, I can’t listen to that album. The album with “Imagine Me” on it. I cannot listen to that album to this day. I remember we played “Looking for You” as we were driving through the Hoover Dam and to this day, I get a visceral reaction when I hear a lot of songs from that album.

Yeah, I got to see the world, got to see the world in a different lens, just not from being… a lot of people see the world overhead, but I got to actually see the country. We made stops. We went to Oklahoma City, the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, which I was too young for and my family gave context. Obviously, went to the Hoover Dam, went to L.A. It was the first time I’d been to L.A., first time I’d ever been on the West Coast, and then went to San Francisco for a day and then it rained. That’s really how I got into this type of work.

How did those experiences inform the work that you do now? Because you mentioned that a big part of this for you is making travel more accessible to people who may not understand this space, who may not understand flight deals or points and all of this stuff, so how does that inform what you do now?

I mean, it’s a big aspect to how I think about travel. I’m fairly new in the points and miles space in comparison to a lot of people who’ve been doing this for the last 10 years. I didn’t have a credit card 10 years ago; I don’t know a lot of people who have credit cards or multiple credit cards just because so many of us are taught that credit cards are predatory. For a lot of people who look like me, that is the case.

I want to break down, meet people where they are. As I was saying before, not everybody has the dream to go to the Maldives or not everybody has the dream to go to Paris or Tokyo. Whatever your dream is, wherever your dream is, it could be to Hampton, Virginia, which is where I’m from, I want to make it as clear as possible to meet you wherever financially you are or whatever your skill set or whether you’re in the planning stages, whether you’re planning on booking right now, I want to meet people where they are and that’s just not seeing that early on in my career, especially in the travel space, has really informed… it has really informed me to do that work now.

Walk us through planning a trip. What does that look like for you?

Yeah, it looks a little different now than it did when I was earlier on in my career. I get a lot of my inspiration from the travel Facebook groups that I’m in, which are predominantly Black people or people of color, or from Instagram. I got the big idea to go to the Seychelles last year because I saw all these travel bloggers and not just like travel influencers, but Black people who travel. I saw them, “Here’s how I got to the Seychelles. Staying in an overwater bungalow.” I was like, “I want to do that.”

I first think about obviously the climate in which I’m going. Is it going to be cold, is it going to be hot, and then sometimes when I travel, I’m fine with it being cold and then sometimes it’s like, okay, I just really want to be on a beach. After I decide, okay, I want to go to… I mean, my last trip was Mexico City. After I go to Mexico City, or after, yeah, I’ve decided I want to go to Mexico City, then I start looking for hotels. For me, personally, I don’t mind flying economy. Most of my flight trips are economy, but I do prefer to stay in pretty nice hotels partly because I do a lot of solo travel, so I never feel safe with hostels… or super safe with hostels, and I try to avoid Airbnbs when I travel solo.

I decide, okay, do I want to be close to the action or do I want to be close to where food is, do I want to be… Do I want to ball out? After I decide the hotel, then I make a rough sketch of an itinerary, but I don’t actually really do an itinerary. I basically, on the flight there, I’m like, okay, I want to see this, I want to eat this, I want to do this and then I just let the day take me where it takes me. I typically never stay any place longer than four days, so I have a day where anywhere I go, I’m the absolute tourist. I do like the big bus tour, just like, I’m like the mom with the fanny pack and I spend a whole day. I’m serious. I spend a whole day just being like a complete… the typical American tourist. Then I do a thing where I eat my way through a city or I eat my way through a country. Then, I have a day where I’ll do museums.

Then, anyplace I go to, I really try and find Black people anywhere I go. Anywhere I go I try and find either a Black American restaurant or an African restaurant or some sort of… because, I mean, Black people are everywhere, so I try and find that sort of influence any place I go to.

How do you factor in racism because there are some countries where it’s going to be worse than it will … like you might have a bigger problem in Croatia than you would have in Iceland.

Right. I think the interesting thing… people ask me about race and travel all the time. Especially people I meet abroad, they’re like… is it more racist in the U.S. than it is abroad? I mean, that’s kind of a subjective question. Some of the most racist experiences that I’ve had have been abroad. I’m thinking back to 2016. I was in Thailand with two of my homegirls, we’re on our way back and we ran into a bit of an immigration problem in that we were transiting via Vietnam on our way back to the United States.

I was on the phone with the State Department, this is when I was early on in my travel experiences, so I didn’t really know a lot of the visa rules or what have you. I remember we were on the phone with the State Department trying to get clarity on whether we would be able to board our flight and go back to the U.S. I realized I was… we were at the airport and I realized that a lot of people have really not seen Black people, especially outside of the context of television.

We got stares, which truthfully, I’m fine with that, but we’re on the phone with the State Department and at this point I’m freaking out because our flight is about to board in 90 minutes. There were these three guys standing, they were like eight feet away from us and they kept motioning at us in a way basically insinuating that we were prostitutes and that we wanted to sleep with them. I’m like… so, I go off because I’m already just stressed, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get on this flight, and it was just gross and it was dehumanizing. It kind of just put a damper on what had been a really great travel experience.

Any time I plan a trip, I’m always cognizant of how I will be perceived, not just as a Black person, but particular as a Black woman.

There are some countries that are, to be frank, on the bottom of my list and there are some countries that I visited where I know people who have said they’ve had negative experiences as Black women, and I’m thinking Italy in this context, and I was like, “Okay, I went to Italy and I had a fairly normal experience.” For the most part people ignored me, but that does not take away from how other people have been perceived, so that’s always at the back of my mind how I move through the world is a lot different than a lot of people who are travel writers who get to move through the world.

I’m also just mindful of my own privilege. I’ve been to far too many places where I have been treated at first glance, then gotten poor service or been treated horribly, so I open my mouth and I sound like an American. That’s a privilege that I really realized I had when I was traveling. For all of the horrible things that Black people experience in the U.S., and abroad for that matter, we still have the privilege of Americanness and a U.S. passport.

I’ve been places nobody wants to help me, nobody wants to do anything, so I sound very clearly like an American. Then, it’s like, “Oh.”

“Oh, you’re not one of them,” as in referring to like people from the continent. I’m just like, “Don’t treat me like that and don’t treat other people like that.” It’s really informed my perceptions of how I move through the world as a Black traveler because even in the lens of Blackness, there are still notable exceptions.

Everyone has, for the most part, everyone has some kind of privilege. I didn’t realize that being an American was such a huge privilege until I went to college and I majored in international politics. It’s just like, oh, wow. You get treated differently abroad if you, like you said, have a U.S. passport. It’s just a different experience for you.

So how would you advise… Well, let’s wind back a bit because one thing that we haven’t gotten into is the fact that you know how to get deals. You mentioned this, but you didn’t really explain how you be paying $3.00 for a trip to the Seychelles. You didn’t talk about that. I do want to get into that because it’s fascinating how you use points and miles and the whole thing, it’s just… yeah, do you.

My obsession with flight deals, just to go back in time, happened Christmas Day 2014 when Etihad had this amazing mistake fare, it was absolutely insane mistake fare to Abu Dhabi from Washington, New York—

GlitchGate 2014. 

GlitchGate 2014. That’s when I was like, “Okay, I’m definitely going to get into this travel space.” We flew Etihad Airways from Washington DC, Dulles Airport, to Abu Dhabi for $256, which is typically, at that time that flight would have been an either $800 or $900 trip. It really, really sparked my interest in traveling because one thing that I specifically remember about that experience is there were so many people who took advantage of this flight deal, who had never traveled before. There were people who were like, “I don’t even have a passport. I’m going to just figure it out.” People who were like, “I’m going to take my… my mother has been working for 40 years and she really wants to go on vacation. It’s like, I’m taking my mom on vacation.”

That’s when I realized that traveling was not something that only the wealthy had access to because we were three broke college students. I booked that ticket on a debit card. Three broke college students who skipped our midterms. I had maybe $300 to my name and we still went to Abu Dhabi. It was for my 22nd or 23rd birthday and it was just an amazing experience because I got to see… There were other people on the flight who were like, “Yo, we got the same deal.” The flight attendants were like, “Oh, my God. You guys, did you guys book the deal?” It was just a really amazing experience, but I now, what, five years from now, I’m still apt to jump on a flight deal.

I do a lot of searching through Google Flights. I have a base estimate of how much a flight would usually cost and I’m kind of speaking into like pre-pandemic terms, but usually if you’re based in New York, you can get a flight to London for under $500. Occasionally, you might see it for $205. You might see San Juan, Puerto Rico typically at $215. Occasionally, you can see that for $78 and on a main carrier, too, so like an American, like a United, like a Jet Blue, like a Delta.

I start my morning, 6:00 AM, looking for flight deals, planning routes on Google Flights through SkyScanner, on Twitter looking. I have a list on Twitter that just searches for airfares and cheap flight deals. That’s really how I’ve been successful. As I’ve gotten older, though, I am more apt, especially as again, you know, gotten into the points and miles space to book a lot of trips on points. Looking for those routes.

Just before the pandemic, I had a week off and I was like, “Oh, I’m not sure if I want to stay in New York.” Then, I was like, “I’m thinking about going to Bogota or Mexico City.” I had a bunch of points from a couple of my American Express cards, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go to Mexico City. Why not?” I booked my flight on Delta going down and in Air Mexico business going back up for 54,000 miles. Then I stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Mexico City that I booked using Chase points, 36,000 Chase points. Those, I, just from looking and just from having an idea of where I wanted to go, I was able to piece together an entire trip. For the most part, I mean, other than taxes, my stay was… yeah, it was free. $54.00 for the flight for taxes after I booked with miles and then, obviously, it was kind of the security deposit you pay at a hotel, but I was upgraded immediately on arrival because I have Hyatt status. Yeah, that’s really how I got… that’s really how I’ve been able to find either flight deals or booking things with points and miles.

Before the pandemic, I had this big plan to do a round-the-world trip on points and miles, pulling together all of my loyalty programs, all of my transferable currency programs, so American Express and Chase, and then just flying around the world. I was planning on flying from New York to Tokyo on ANAs. They have one of the best business classes in the world. I was going to fly Etihad from Seoul to Abu Dhabi on one of the best first-class products in the world. Then, I was going to hop around the Middle East for a few days and then fly from Doha to New York using American Airlines miles booked via Qatar Airways, which is we at TPG consider the best business-class product in the world. The pandemic has changed all of that, but it’s really amazing to see what you can do with points and miles.

How is the pandemic affecting travel, outside of the obvious?

Outside of the obvious… I mean, it’s… A lot of experts say that they don’t expect the travel industry to go back to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2023, I believe. I mean, we’re seeing airline employees get furloughed, hotel employees get furloughed, but we’re also starting to see some signs of life from the travel industry in that people are still very excited about travel, even if they can’t do it right now, the people are still very excited about travel, and for the people traveling now, we’re seeing a lot of countries in the Caribbean reopen to U.S. travel, we saw Antigua reopen, we saw Jamaica reopen, Barbados, which I believe never closed.

I mean, it’s going to be years before we see pre-pandemic levels, but I think the important thing to note is this is a really interesting time to be, not just an American traveler, but American. Americans are so unused to being told “No,” and not having access… they’re unused to not having access to spaces that have historically been always open to them. The US is typically the country that denies access to people and in recent years we’ve seen that the US has denied access to citizens in countries that, based on its perceived security threats, and now we’re seeing other countries saying, “We don’t want American citizens.” I think it’s been very interesting to watch the U.S. passport to be seen as one of the most lucrative passports to have, it’s very interesting to see that not being the case right now.

Right, absolutely. I did see news reports of a plane full of Americans, I think it was in Italy, just kind of being stopped and being like, “Whoa.”

Get turned around. Yeah.

What happened with that?

I know I read the headline. I didn’t read the actual story, but that’s something we will probably see more of. There are always going to be people who want to flout the rules and rules don’t apply to them and there will always be countries who say, “No, we’re going to send you right back to where you were.”

I believe it’s just important to note that if you do plan to travel, and I’m speaking for myself here, I don’t have any trips planned for the foreseeable future. That hurts. Travel’s been so central to my life in the last five years and really my entire life. I will be fine without traveling, but if you do have travel planned, especially international travel planned, it’s going to be really important that you understand that it’s not going to be the same normal vacation that you are used to taking in that it’s going to be on you to, not just protect yourself, but protect people in other countries, especially countries that do not have the healthcare systems that we do. If you are dead set on traveling, just know that it’s going to be on you to make sure that you’re staying on your P’s and Q’s, you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you’re social distancing, you’re wearing a mask, you’re not having big hotel parties, you’re just going about your day-to-day business and just being smarter about it.

That’s the thing. I did a story a couple of weeks ago where tourism boards were like we want, Americans, we want travelers to come. We want travelers to come, it’s central to our economies, we want them to come. We want them to be smart about it.

Is that the case in the Caribbean where a lot of these countries are still developing and they might not have the infrastructure if it were a big outbreak?

In a lot of… I think Jamaica’s prime minister or somebody high up in the Jamaican government said that they didn’t have a really choice… there wasn’t really a choice in reopening. Again, tourism is so central to the Caribbean, so knowing that, if you are planning your trip, then it’s important to really be on your best behavior because in a lot of these countries, like Antigua, for instance, in the U.S. we don’t have anything that… we don’t have a federal law or mandate that says everyone must wear a mask, but in Antigua, they do. If you’re going to go to those countries, then it’s going to be prudent for you to follow the local laws.

Which scares me because it… and I’m just posturing here, but it seems like the people who are most open to traveling are the same people who are not taking it as seriously stateside and thus, might not be as inclined to wear a mask. Again, I’m just connecting dots that I’ve seen. But my last question for you, and you know where this is going, well, one, what do pet owners do when you have a pet who can’t travel with you for a myriad of reasons and can the world meet Migo? Migo is Vikkie’s dog.

I actually, I’ve been thinking about life after the pandemic in which I do decide to travel. My pre-pandemic plan usually was to leave Migo with a roommate or leave Migo with a dog sitter. I don’t really know how that’s going to work right now, especially as we’re kind of right in the throes of the pandemic. I do have friends who are always willing to watch Migo and, in that case, if I did decide to go someplace, I would just wipe down everything that I own, including Migo.

Migo, come here. Come here. Come here. He was sleeping on my leg. Oh, God. This is the boy.

That’s Migo, y’all.

Say, “Hi, world.” Say, “Hi, world.”

Hi, Migo.

That’s Auntie Julia.

Oh, he’s so cute.

He’s so annoying.

He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care. For some reason he’s caught up in you. I don’t think I have any more questions for you, but we did get a few questions from our viewers and Maya asks, “What is your personal risk assessment for traveling in a post-COVID world?” A good question.

We’re not in a post-COVID world now, but we are starting to see … OK, you’ve got to go. We are—

He’s a little loud.

He’s a lot of loud. We are starting … we’re not in a post-COVID world yet, but we are starting to see what a post-COVID world will look like, so we can expect to see hotels, for instance, really stepping up on cleaning. I spoke to Antigua’s director of tourism who told me that hotels in Antigua, they are pretty much really implementing social distancing in that you’re now checking in online, you’re not having the bellhop deliver the luggage to your room, they’re spraying down luggage. After they clean each room, your room is sealed with a sticker, so you know nobody tampered with it. That’s something that we’re going to see kind of rolling… that’s something I can expect we can see rolling out universal.

We’re seeing airlines blocking middle seats on flights, but I would guess my personal risk assessment is… I mean, it depends. For me, it’s kind of a vaccine, but other than that, what are the… if I do decide to fly, what are the social distancing things that are being implemented or what are… how serious, if I’m going to a country, for instance, how serious are they taking social distancing. It’s going to be interesting because for some countries, we just might not be allowed for a while. That’s just going to be that, that’s just going to be that. Yeah.

Yeah. You can’t fault a government for actually governing. The next question we have is what is your advice to all the people sitting on credit from trips that were canceled because of the coronavirus, when should they book, when should they try to travel?

Especially with credit in particular, if let’s say you had a trip to Rio de Janeiro in August, if your airline cancels that ticket, you are eligible for a full refund. They’re also required to give a full refund. In a lot of cases you’ll see airlines trying to offer you credits or they’ll try to offer you miles or they’ll try and offer you certificates, but if the airline cancels, you are entitled to a full refund. In some cases, the airlines will make it easy for you. Just tweet them, DM them your confirmation number, and they’ll institute a credit.

Some airlines, you may have to dispute with the credit card, you may have to file claims with the Department of Transportation. In that case, I did that with Kenya Airways when my flight to the Seychelles got canceled. I went through the normal channels of obviously trying to get my money back. The airline canceled the ticket. I emailed the airline, I tweeted the airline, I sent a Facebook message to the airline, I disputed it with my credit card and finally, I filed a complaint with DOT, but if you did take the credit, in a lot of cases you have a year to use it. It’s just important to be mindful that if you do want your money back, then you’re going to… the airline is going to have to cancel and you’re going… In a lot of cases, they’re not going to automatically give you your money back, so that’s important to keep in mind, but you are entitled to a full refund no matter what the airline says. If the airline canceled your ticket for any reason, they owe you money. They owe you bread and get your bread.

Get the bank on them. I do love sending Capital One to handle whatever it is I need handled. One last question for you, what are some of your favorite credit cards and points, loyalty programs?

Yeah, so in terms of credit cards, my favorite card, like my go-to card is the AmEx Gold, before the pandemic, but definitely during the pandemic because you get four points per dollar spent on supermarkets, which obviously in the pandemic I’m spending a lot of money at, and dining. I would say pre-pandemic world, when I was traveling extensively, the AmEx Platinum because you would get five points per dollar spent on flights and you would also have access to priority pass lounges, which I utilized a lot just to get work done or just have a quiet spot to chill out before my flight. The Centurion lounges, which are the American Express lounges, TSA and Global Precheck, Global Entry, TSA Precheck and Global Entry credits.

In terms of my favorite loyalty programs, a big… in terms of hotels, big World of Hyatt fan. Big World of Hyatt fan, I get a lot of… A lot of the hotels are fairly nice for the number of points you need to redeem, even though Hyatt points are incredibly difficult to earn, that’s my go-to. In terms of airlines, I’m a big fan of British Airways Avios for short-haul domestic flights and some short-haul international flights, but American Airlines, for American I’m kind of speaking to a pre-pandemic world in that Etihad first class and Qatar Qsuites in Qantas, you had access to book those flights through American, but yeah, that’s for me, like Hyatt, definitely Hyatt and definitely American.

One tip I learned from you is whatever program you decide on, stick with it. Don’t airline hop.

Yeah, stick with it. Stick with it and definitely use the airlines shopping portal to just get, like rack up a ton of miles.

Delta SkyMiles has a portal, y’all. 

Yeah. If you fly American exclusively, the American shopping portal, if you fly Southwest, there’s a Southwest shopping portal. United, they all have shopping portals.

All right, well, thank you so much, Vikkie. I really appreciate you giving us some of your time today. It’s always good to see you. It’s always good to see Migo. 

Always good to see you.

To everyone watching at home, I appreciate y’all, too. I hope you have a good day, go take a walk, wear a mask. All right, bye y’all.