Uncovering Gems: Designing a Rogue Expeditions Run

Why exactly are we starting right here?   …just trust us, you’ll see.

Why exactly are we starting right here?
…just trust us, you’ll see.

by Sean Meehan

One of the most frequently asked questions on our trips is: How did you guys find these runs?!

We get it. There are some highly arbitrary start lines. We dump everyone out of a vehicle in some nondescript roadside location and starting proclaiming about how, over the next few miles, everyone will see waterfalls, or canyons, or ocean views, or lakes, or mountain passes, or whatever the case may be. Often there are a few highly dubious expressions looking back at us. But (trust us!) it all works out in the end and every run is unique in its own way.

Long walks with mules also come into the equation more often than you’d think!

Long walks with mules also come into the equation more often than you’d think!

Finding those runs though, can be a pretty interesting experience. After someone has thrown a dart at the world map on the wall at Rogue HQ and decided a new destination, there follows a process of trawling online maps, hiking trail websites, reading about tourist attractions, much panning around on google earth. Then once on the ground for scouting, there is a lot of driving, some running down dead ends, or the wrong trail, or on to someone’s private property, some more driving, some interrogation of local experts, more driving, find new trail maps, mess around on google earth again, drive a bit more, run around a bit more. And then, maybe 25% of the time, we have a run that is a keeper.

Even in countries we have visited many times there are always new runs to uncover. This fall will see a brand new Morocco itinerary with the inaugural Atlas Mountains trip. Morocco is where is all began for us 7 years ago, and now, many trips later, we are much the wiser when it comes to haggling for a carpet, or having a dirham coin handy for those crucial over-hydrated toilet visits, or knowing just how much sugar to add for that perfect glass of mint tea (hint: add more). Cultural learnings acquired there is still much to explore even after umpteen visits to a country. In fact, only once you are truly comfortable with a place, fully in sync with how things work, and having explored a country’s tourism highlights are you then equipped to go next level and explore all those mysterious corners of the map. Turn down the road you’ve driven past a dozen times, cross over the mountain pass you’ve gazed at from your riad window evening after evening, and uncover the next hidden gem of a run.

Sooo… coffee time?

Sooo… coffee time?

Many run ideas die almost as soon as we think of them. They are born full of hope and then, fueled by coffee and chocolate, we explore (usually with Hamid on his “days off’... sorry Hamid), only to discover that the run won’t work: too much traffic, too confusing to navigate, too many hills, not enough hills, no picnic spot, too hot, too cold, too much road, not enough road, etc etc. Many hours later, usually in need of more coffee and chocolate, he’ll still be smiling, entirely unworried by our total failure to find a run.

“Just drop me off here. No need to wait.”

“Just drop me off here. No need to wait.”


Of course, there are success stories too. A few years back Gabe wrangled a taxi driver from Taghazout into driving out into the mountains to a totally unknown destination. No place name. No nearby attraction. Just a road intersection Gabe had guessed off a map. After much cajoling and reassuring en route (“extra dirhams sir, yes, yes..”), Gabe finally and abruptly called a halt to their tour of the quiet mountains. He hopped out of the back seat with a running pack on and said goodbye, disappearing up a rocky track into the trees. Oh, to know the thoughts of that taxi driver as he, incredulous at what he had just witnessed, u-turned and headed back to civilisation (anyone who has ran the Paradise Valley run on our Mountains & Coast trip will know the lonely stretch of road we are talking about).

If you run out of candy bars, there is at least one source of scouting run fuel that can always be found in these mountains!

If you run out of candy bars, there is at least one source of scouting run fuel that can always be found in these mountains!

Last October I (Sean here, hello!) got Hamid to drop me off where the pavement ends at the top of the Ourika Valley. I had a couple of litres of water, many Snickers bars, some dirham, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a rain jacket, an an extra shirt. Hamid was highly skeptical as my destination was Tizi Tacheddirt, a pass at over 3000m (almost 10000 ft), many miles away on the way to the Imlil valley. That first day I cantered up into the mountains through ever smaller and more remote villages, before starting the climb to the pass in earnest. I was 3 Snickers bars in (about 5 hours) and it was late afternoon and starting to snow. Higher I went, harder it snowed, so eventually I backtracked to the last village. Much sign language and bad French later I had a bed for the night and a hot tagine for the princely sum of $6 total.

When in doubt, listen to the locals. And follow the mule.

When in doubt, listen to the locals. And follow the mule.

The next morning, after a cold night of snow, my host, with much gesticulation and equally bad French, was dead set against my intentions of Tizi Tacheddirt. “Neige comme ça” he indicated his hand around the middle of his chest (translation - snow like this). Mmm I thought. Neige comme ça is it. I had no crampons or proper cold weather gear. “Oukaimeden?” I asked him, pointing vaguely in a different direction up the valley. “Oui, oui!” My host was visibly relieved. “Neige comme ça” he indicated his hand to his ankles with visible glee. I bade him farewell and 2 Snickers bars later I arrived in another small village and somehow acquired a mule driver despite my protests against it. He was on his way to Oukaimeden he said. Noticeably, in this village my basic French and Arabic was getting only bemused faces. I was firmly in Berber-only territory, probably Tamazight, the mountain dialect. The small children in the village crowded around the strange sweaty Irishman with the funny little backpack. They one by one took my hand and pressed it against their lips. I later learned this is a sign of respect to elders, a very old Berber tradition. And so, with this most formal of farewells, we set off over a mountain pass about which I had no idea.

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Another Snickers bar later and with version two of ‘neige comme ça,’ (ankle deep) we crested over the mountains at about 10,000 feet had the most incredible views of the High Atlas. We descended into a remote valley, through some herder huts, and then, almost perversely, rounded a corner and we were smack bang in the middle of Oukaimeden, Morocco’s only ski resort. I stumbled into town, quite unwashed, alongside my mule driver, and headed in search of coffee. Rich Moroccans, clad in fancy ski gear, clomped around in ski boots as vendors roamed in their midst trying to sell fossils and geodes. I had, totally unintentionally, linked two great valleys of the High Atlas. These two valleys (minus the sketchy snow covered route I took) now form the basis of our new trip! They sidestep the mass tourism attractions in the area to uncover the wonderful traditional life that exists, untouched, just around the corner from these sights.

And an hour later…

And an hour later…

Post coffee it was a helter-skelter taxi ride (I believe no less than 7 people were inside the 1960s era Mercedes) down from the ski resort and then I was back in the Ourika Valley again. Less than an hour later I was walking across Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main plaza in Marrakech, and got back to our riad to rejoin Katie and Gabe just before the running group arrived. This time I had uncovered a true gem: astonishing sections of the mountains, with traditional life intact and frozen in time, were right there, within a couple of hours of Marrakech - and with that, The Atlas Mountains trip was born!

Don’t worry, the runs that made the final cut are far more, um, runnable.

*Disclaimer - if you attempt to run one of the sketchily mentioned “routes” in this article without a Rogue Expeditions guide you are entirely responsible for your own fate :)







Landing Flight Deals: What's the secret?

by Allison Macsas

After 13 years of frequent travel and six years of arranging running trips for myself and others all over the world, I’ve finally figured out the secret to landing amazing flight deals!

The secret is… there isn’t one. Seriously. Anyone who spends any significant amount of time booking flights can agree that there is seemingly no rhyme or reason to those ever-fluctuating ticket prices. Some say to clear your browser history before searching (hasn’t done anything for me). Others say to book on Tuesday (I get the same prices that I get on Saturday). And those exuberant “Flight Deal Alert!” posts on Facebook never seem to apply to your destination, much less your originating airport.

But, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some strategies out there to help you save money. As someone who has been a researcher and deal-hunter since birth (thanks, Mom and Dad) I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve when it comes to booking flights. Recently I’ve come to realize that what I think of as standard practice is actually quite foreign to a lot of newer travelers, so I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned over the years.  

Note: This is based on the experiences of a US-based traveler (me!), and most of what I’m about to suggest requires putting in a lot of research time. It recently took me nearly a month of daily searches to finally coordinate flights for myself and my mom for an upcoming Morocco trip, but in the end I paid less than half of what I would have had I just booked the first “cheapest” result that popped up in a search engine. The effort may or may not be worth it to you…
 

1.     Search all of the websites. I used to assume that you’d find the same options anywhere you looked, but that’s not true; you’d be amazed at how wildly varied the generated results are between search engines. They all combine different airlines and various schedules in different ways. I typically make the rounds on Kayak, Orbitz, Skyscanner, Expedia, Travelocity & Vayama, and I’ll continue to do so (or set up price alerts) for several weeks if they seem too expensive on the front end. If it’s not a place you’ve flown before, watch for awhile to get a feel for the ticket price ranges.

Sometimes I check the actual airline sites too, but I’ve yet to ever find the best deal going that route, at least not with major airlines.

 

2.     Consider multi-city trips to get an agreeable itinerary. For example, let’s say I want to go to Dublin but every search result is giving me some convoluted route with multiple stops. I know that there is a direct Austin-London flight and that it’s easy to go from London to Dublin, so instead I search a multi-city: Austin-London-Dublin-London-Austin, rather than just an Austin-Dublin round-trip. Now I’ve got just one layover and a quick hop over to my final destination, often at pretty much the same price as that messy round-trip! However, sometimes it drives the cost up too much, which leads me to the next tip…

 

3.     Consider two roundtrip flights rather than a multicity or a single roundtrip. My recent Morocco booking is a good example: an Austin-Marrakech roundtrip flight on my chosen dates was going to cost $1400. However, an Austin-Madrid roundtrip was $750, and a Madrid-Marrakech roundtrip was just $200. By booking two separate RT tickets, I saved nearly $500!

This is a great strategy that I use a lot, but you should be aware of the risks: if your first flight gets delayed and you miss the second, neither airline will be responsible for getting you to your final destination – you simply missed it. If the first airline loses your checked bag, it’s not going to follow you to your final destination – you just lost your luggage for this trip. You can mitigate the risk by ensuring a really generous layover time and sticking to a carry-on, but sometimes it may be better to pay more and avoid any chance of those scenarios.

 

4.     Speaking of those looooong layovers… they don’t have to be bad. I think that 2-3 hours is the ideal layover with a normal itinerary – it gives you plenty of buffer for delays, and I’d rather be bored than panicked. But if I use that trick above, or if I can get a great ticket price in exchange for a 7+ hour layover, I’ll take that 7+ hours! More and more airports now offer hourly sleeping options (no, not that kind). Sleeping pods are starting to show up in some US airports, and I’ve used this place in Madrid. London Gatwick has something similar and I’m sure there are plenty others that I’m not aware of yet. Getting off a cramped overnight flight and having 3 or 6 hours to shower, stretch out and pass out in a silent cave of a room without even leaving the airport is indescribably satisfying.

Alternatively, if you’re superhuman, you can also leave the airport and explore whatever city you happen to be in for a few hours.

5.     Be wary of the cheapest fares. There is almost always a catch, usually in the form of exorbitant baggage fees. Once you add that in (because has anyone in the history of the world traveled without even a cabin bag?), the price won’t be nearly so great. Occasionally it’s still best option, but make sure you know what you’re getting into.
 

Similarly, there are some crazy cheap fares to be had within Europe on Ryanair, Easyjet and other similar budget airlines. These can absolutely be a great way to bring your cost of travel waaaay down, as long as you play by the rules. Read all of the fine print and do what they say – pay for luggage in advance, don’t exceed the allowed bag size by even an inch, print your own boarding pass, etc – to avoid expensive surprises. Yes, I’ve learned this the hard way. These types of flights won’t have any frills whatsoever and customer service is far from generous, but for an hour or two on a plane? Rarely a big deal.


6.     If your schedule is flexible, consider leaving a day early or staying a day late. Sometimes the fare difference is worth far more than the cost of an extra night of accommodation.


7.     Points! Miles! Credit cards! If you’ve read this far, then you’re probably not a frequent traveler who will ever earn enough miles with any one airline to score yourself a free flight. However, you never know, and it’s worth signing up for a rewards program when you book with a given airline. RewardStock is a website that I recently became familiar with – it will compile all of your various points and miles from all sources and show you ways that they can be used. I haven’t used it yet, but I love the concept.

That said, what I love the most are credit cards that earn travel rewards without being affiliated with a specific airline. I have personal experience with Capital One and Chase; you’ll need to check out current deals, but generally you’re able to earn points on everything you buy, double on travel purchases, and then you can just use those points to directly reimburse yourself for any portion of any travel expense (think flights, hotels, car rentals, Uber fares, etc). I’m not here to give you financial advice, but if you are someone who can responsibly use and pay off a credit card every month then make sure you’re earning travel points for it! You’d be amazed at how quickly it adds up.


8. Make notes. I often end up with several pages of scribbled, barely-legible notes outlining every airline/date/time/city combo and their corresponding prices found on all of the above-mentioned websites so that I can compare it all. You may discover a MUCH more efficient method, but I’ve got a thing for paper :)

9.  Finally, learn how to pack light. So light that all you need is a carry-on. I once wrote a blog on that too. It’s a surefire way to save some cash with air travel!

  

So there you go. There are no secrets that I’m aware of and you may never beat the system entirely, but these tricks should help you achieve small flight-booking victories now and again. If you’ve got a great trick that I missed, feel free to add it in the comments! Happy searching!

ROGUEXPERTS: Michael's Top Picks

ROGUEXPERTS: Michael's Top Picks

At the final dinner of each trip we like to ask everyone about their favorite and least favorite runs, meals and places, and we’re always struck by how diverse the answers are. One person’s “best day ever!” can be another person’s most challenging run of the trip, and someone who couldn’t get enough of the roast lamb in Patagonia will be countered by someone who will never forget the beautifully prepared salads from another meal. So, we thought it would be fun to play the same game on a wider scale by interviewing some of our “experts” - those who have traveled with us multiple times - and hearing about the experiences that stand out most to them from various corners of the world.