Want to know how to travel in style, just like the pros? We check in with frequent fliers to find out how often they fly, their favorite destinations and what they never leave home without.
Name: Nicholas Kontis
Occupation: Travel Journalist, Author, Entrepreneur, World Traveler
Hometown: San Francisco
Residence: San Francisco, Napa, Los Angles, Puerto Vallarta
College: Chico State University
College major: History/Marketing
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Short bio: At age 24 I took a backpack and traveled to Greece for what was to be a two-month trip of chasing scantily clad Scandinavian females around the Greek islands, primarily Ios. I met a couple from Sweden, who were heading off to India. I forfeited my return ticket, and ended up in Bangladesh, overland all throughout India and Nepal, then to Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, OZ, New Caledonia, Tahiti, and eventually back to San Francisco with no job in site, I took a chance on travel. I started the first travel agency in the US specializing in what I had just done, discount around-the-world airfares. The rest is history. I have never left the travel industry. I used to hire backpackers who had recently traveled and turned them into travel agents. Now, I write about travel, and have a book out.
How often do you fly? Around 10 times a year.
How many countries have you been to? I’ve been blessed to have visited 85 countries, and I still have seen so little.
How many continents have you been to? All except Antarctica.
Earliest travel memory: Being on my birth island of Santorini at three-years-old barely walking. At age 12 I learned to bake bread in Greece over summer vacation.
Favorite American city: Being from San Francisco, perhaps I’m a bit biased. But, I think many travelers will say that San Francisco is their favorite US city. That said, I love New York and LA. I’ve had fun times in Chicago. I love the time that I spend in Los Angeles.
I live two different lives, living in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Favorite international city: WOW! Let’s see: Venice, Athens, London, Paris, Rio, Florence, Sydney, Mexico City, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Prague, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, way too many to count…I live in Puerto Vallarta, and it’s quite lovely. It’s a beach and food town.
Least favorite country: I don’t have one.
I have no desire to go to: I want to see it all, and I’ll find something good wherever I may roam.
Friendliest people in the world: Oh course, I’m going to say the Greeks. I remember as a kid in Greece, I’d be in someone’s home and I’d say something like, “I love that picture or that’s a crystal vase whatever, and they would reply, “Please I want you to have it.” I have a saying that the Aussies, the Kiwis, the Irish, the Dutch, and the Scots are the coolest white people on the planet. Kenyans, the Masai, are so kind. The world is filled with open and loving people. Southeast Asia, most travelers love the locals of Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I live in Mexico. I love the Mexican people. They are wonderful giving people, ready to break bread with you or carne asada at any moment. That said, what do you call a Greek American living in Mexico? Why, a GREXICAN, of course. That’s me…
Country with the meanest immigration officers: In Moscow once they tried to make it a bit difficult for me to enter Russia. As much as I love the Aussies, the immigration officials there can be a pain in the ass. They once stopped me for 20 minutes, they asked me if I was carrying cocaine. I replied that I must have forgotten it. Ask this question to a non-US passport holder and I’ll bet that they would say the US. I once went overland from Bangladesh to India and the Indian immigration officer forced me to open a bottle of Finlandia vodka that I was saving. He forced me to do shots with him. Funny thing was that he was more interested in watching me drink. Crossing into Uganda from Kenya, the immigration officer asked me for some phony stamp from the ministry of agriculture to try to shake me down for some money. In the end I traded a fake Rolex for an entry stamp into Uganda.
Favorite World Heritage Site: Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu if I had to name two. Again so many, Petra in Jordan. All the historical sites in Greece and Italy. Did you know that Italy has more World Heritage Sites than any other country? At least that’s what Patricia Schultz told me, and she’s half-Italian. The Galapagos Islands.
Favorite airline: Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Qatar, Etihad.
Favorite aircraft type: Airbus A380.
Aisle or window: Depends. Window for taking pictures. But an aisle, if I think that I’ll want to get up. On long-haul flights a window. Just, no middle seat.
Favorite airport lounge: Silver Kris Lounge at Changi in Singapore and the Qatar Airways lounge in Doha, the Al Mourjan lounge is quite an experience. Any lounge serving caviar. That’s hard to find nowadays.
Favorite U.S. airport: Again my own—SFO. It’s so easy to get in and out of.
Favorite international airport: Schiphol in Amsterdam, Changi in Singapore.
Favorite hotel: Sina Centurion Palace in Venice, Athenaeum in London, Grande Bretagne in Athens, The Betsy in South Beach Miami, Castel Monastero in Chianti. Crilon in Paris. The Bowery in New York, the Stanford Court in San Francisco. I better stop there. Oh, The Strand in Rangoon, where time stands still. The Samode Palace outside of Jaipur in Rajasthan is magical. The Caves Branch Eco Resort in Belize. The Portofino Resort on Ambergris Caye in Belize.
Favorite cruise line: To be honest, I’m not a big cruise guy, so I don’t have one. I always like to say that I’ll cruise when I’m 90…that said, I want to do a Quark Expedition or travel with Hurtigruten to the far ends of our planet to see the Arctic and Antarctic.
Favorite travel credit card: My Platinum Amex, even if it’s not accepted everywhere.
Favorite Island: That’s easy, my birth island of Santorini, otherwise any Greek island. Sicily is quite fascinating, and in some ways an extension of Greece in Italy. More islands: Elba, New Zealand, Galapagos, Cook Islands, Palau, Phuket, the Azores, and Catalina Island even.
I love England and Japan, but that’s probably not what you’re looking for, Fernando de Noronha is off the coast of Brazil, hard to get to. Iceland is stunning. The further away the island, the better.
Favorite beach: I live part of the year on a beach in Mexico 25 minutes to the north of Puerto Vallarta. I always try not to tell anyone about my beach, as most visitors to PV miss this wonderful stretch of beach. But, for you Johnny, I’ll reveal my beach. My beach is called Desdiladeras Beach. Los Roques are a small archipelago in Venezuela’s Caribbean, and few Americans visit Venezuela. Aitutaki in the Cook Islands is stunning. Myrtos Beach on Kefalonia Island, Zante, Shipwreck beach on Zakynthos Island. Too many amazing beaches on the planet, and yes, I’m a beach guy at heart. La Digue in the Seychelles.
Favorite fancy restaurant: La Tour d’Argent in Paris is probably the best restaurant in France, and the most money that I have ever spent on a meal. Le Zinc, also in Paris is a favorite brasserie of mine. As much as French Laundry is considered Napa Valley’s greatest epicurean delight, I like REDD also in Yountville. The GB Restaurant at the Grande Bretagne in Athens is wonderful. In my native foodie city of San Francisco, Waterbar has become my new favorite SF eateries.
Favorite hole-in-the-wall: Any taco stand in town on the side of the road in Mexico, and most street food anywhere. The thing about a hole-in-the-wall, if it’s good, it does not remain a hole-in-the-wall for very long.
Favorite bar: As a world traveler, I love the chance encounters, serendipitous moments that drinking establishments offer. Where better to interact with people than in a watering hole. I have to admit that I love a bar on a rooftop. Any pub in the UK or Ireland. There’s a bar in Acton in London called The George and Dragon. I actually stayed above the pub. Good place for drinker to stay, inside of an actual bar. Now, how cool was that. I also love a good dive bar. A journalist friend of mine in New York takes me to his bar on the Lower East Side called the 169 Bar, which is always packed. I want to drink where my hosts or locals frequent. A case in studying humans. The salt of the Earth, we are all equals when in a drinking establishment. In Holland you can witness the multi-millionaire and the truck driver talking football (European) over a beer. I love it.
Favorite fruit: Mango is one. In Mexico, in the countryside during the summer, you can buy mangos off the road fruit stands for something like 10 mangos for 20 pesos or so, a dollar. Everything grows in Mexico.
Favorite food: Lobster, uni, foie gras, caviar, ribeyes, southern BBQ, escargot, pizza, especially in Italy, Greek, Mexican, Italian, Japanese, Thai, Duck. Greeks live a long time due to the healthy Greek Mediterranean diet. Yes, it’s safe to say that I’m a foodie.
Least favorite food: Before the Brits became foodies, their reputation preceded them: “You just do not get a good meal while visiting the UK.” Now, that’s completely changed. I once told Andy Zimmern that the eyes of a fish gross me out. I can eat tongue, ear, intestines, but not eyes. Most nations eat funny pieces of the cow or pig that Americans find less desirable. The Japanese eat some funky fish that’s clearly an acquired taste. I remember when English cuisine sucked. Now, walk into any pub in London for amazing gastropub meals. Zimmern says that other cultures think that we are strange for eating at McDonald’s.
Drink of choice (in the air and on the ground): Most single malts, but less the Islay peaty malts. The Macallan 18 if possible, but the 12-year works just fine and is more readily available and affordable. My Scottish friends scoff at me saying that I am “following the pack” when I drink the Macallan, but what can I say, it goes down easy for me. Veuve Cliqot is my choice of champagne. Chimay, is a wonderful crafted ale. A strong Belgian ale made by Trappist Monks. Yes, Trappist beer. I like a “big” red wine. When I say “big” I mean full-bodied reds, cabbies like Chateau Montelena, Cain, Groth. Give me a ribeye and a kickass cab and I’m a happy man. The wines I mention are all local to me in the Napa Valley. I do enjoy a frothy pint of Guinness when in London or Dublin. Any microbrew for that matter. Although I don’t drink it all that often, and it might be an acquired taste, Chartreuse is a French liqueur made by the Carthusian Monks and dates back to 1750 or so. How are monks creating such wonderful spirits? Don Julio Tequila while in Mexico.
Favorite travel movie(s): Easy Rider is perhaps a top 10 movie of all time, with an amazing cast of Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and a young Jack Nicholson. Traveling America by motorcycle. We Americans have a fascination with the mystique of traveling by motorcycle. A true slice of Americana. Lost in Translation, The Beach, Blood Diamond were recent movies with a travel theme that I enjoyed. The Motorcycle Diaries is in Spanish, and also worth a watch, as is Y Tu Mama Tambien, look it up. I know that I’m forgetting some.
Favorite travel show(s): Every November my friends and colleagues know where I’ll be. You can find me in London, mainly to attend WTM London. One can learn a ton at the World Travel Market. I make important connections at WTM. After the show I usually spend a month in the UK or Europe. November is a wonderful time to visit Europe. I’m intoxicated by London in general. I want to attend the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai.
Favorite travel book(s): I most enjoy real travel adventures and encounters, with twists and turns. “Motoring with Mohamed” by Eric Hansen is about a twisted, crazy trip. Hanson is shipwrecked on a desert island in the Red Sea. Goat smugglers offer him passage to Yemen. Hansen buries seven years of travel journals and returns to retrieve them. I’m fascinated by Yemen. Tony Wheeler was kidnapped in Yemen and jokes that if you are not kidnapped while visiting Yemen, you have not experienced Yemen. Paul Theroux has had amazing experiences. His “Dark Star Safari” overland from Cairo to Cape Town. I’m fascinated with overland travel. Like Theroux, I’ve done some overland travel in Africa. I went from Nairobi to Cape Town without a single problem. You can’t meet local people by flying over them. My good friend, Richard Bangs, has rafted and explored the great rivers of our planet, and has writing about his journeys. I respect all great explorers who traveled before me.
Right now I am reading: Don George’s “The Way of Wanderlust.” Don is not only an amazing storyteller, but also just about the kindest man I have ever met in this industry. Don speaks of serendipitous moments, and I believe to actually call yourself a traveler, chance encounters should be your mantra. Don has more travel tales than most of us can imagine.
Top 3 favorite travel newsletters/magazines/blogs: Anything that Peter Greenberg writes will catch my attention. I really enjoy Afar magazine. Afar’s mission is to guide travelers to seek out people, experiences, culture, as does my book. Michael Luongo is another amazing author, writer, traveler that I follow. I do thumb through in flight magazines on flights. I love TED talks as well. Somehow, they keep sending me Conde Naste. I like Luxe Beat Magazine as well.
Favorite travel website(s)—besides JohnnyJet.com, of course! Peter Greenberg and Richard Bangs. SeatGuru and Airfarewatchdog. Pauline Frommer shares excellent travel tips. Rick Steves is probably one of the most traveled people on the planet in the past 20-plus years. Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern and I believe that nothing connects travelers to local society more than food and sharing a meal.
5 things you bring on a plane: Snacks, towel wipes, books & magazines, toiletry bag with toothbrush, aspirin and a pillow.
What do you always seem to forget? My airplane pillow.
What do you like least about travel? Getting to the airport in general coming home from Europe. Leaving a smaller European destination at 6-8 am to make a connecting flight in a European hub to get back to California. Early morning flights suck.
What do you want your loved one to buy you from an airport Duty Free store? Probably a bottle of a fine single-malt whisky, or a bottle of any high end spirit, not gin. Caviar and foie gras is available at most European Airports. If you bring me caviar or foie gras, you just might just be my new best friend.
Favorite travel app(s): As someone who takes a ton of photos, I find the Pro HDR Camera App which adds a quick burst to my iPhone photos. In my book “Going Local” I mention some apps for jump starting a journey by interacting with locals. Skout allows travelers to chat with people around the world. Kind of like virtual travel, meeting locals before you arrive at your destination. I also love the Rome2Rio app. I’m always curious about the miles or time it would take to get from point A to point B. I live in constant wanderlust. I’ll add in something like Lima to Rio, and I can find out not only the distance, but various ways to take the trip and how long it would take.
Most embarrassing travel moment: I used to fly on Garuda to Bali. Arriving at LAX for a flight to Bali, only to discover that my passport had under six months remaining and I had to miss my flight. Travel tip: Make sure that your passport has more than six months remaining as most countries will not let you in if your passport has under six months left.
I’m embarrassed but I haven’t been to: It’s amazing I’ve traveled to 85 countries. I’ve been to Bangladesh and the Seychelles, but I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon. I really need to drive across America one of these days. Really, I have seen too little of my own country. It’s nuts!
Worst travel moment: Getting in a car crash in the Pyrenees in Spain. Somehow, I came out unscathed, others didn’t. Now, I have spent a couple of hours in jail on travel, if you would call these worst travel moments, they’re really more like character-building moments than worst travel moments. Once in Disneyland for smoking pot in the parking lot. Another time in Lagos, Portugal for syphoning gasoline out of other people’s cars. Yep, I have done hard time.
What’s your dream destination? Where I haven’t been? Too many to count. The great Silk Road, Easter Island, Papua New Guinea. Yemen, Iran, and Bolivia, I seem to have missed. I once had a chance to take a private trip to Papua New Guinea, and I didn’t go. I still kick myself for not visiting Papua, but I will get there. A love Rio, Sydney, Cape Town to name a few cities where you can have a beach and a big city night. Furthermore, Los Angeles, Athens and Barcelona you can have the a day at the beach and wander inland to a real city.
Favorite travel charity: I strongly believe, and I state in my book “Going Local,” that we should all volunteer at least once in our lifetimes. I worked for two weeks with the Red Cross in Bangladesh. Giving back through travel is something that at least should be in everyone’s DNA. There are so many ways now to see the world, and immerse into local society by helping others. There are a ton of reputable organizations to either assist people or help to protect the environment, or marine life, animals, whatever your passion is. I’m very passionate about protecting turtles and marine life. Parismina in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park protects Leatherback turtles from poachers and educates the locals about preservation. Hoop Volunteers get to do cool things like teaching English in Peru. I’ve been so blessed. I would like to give back more.
Best travel tip: “America—get off the couch and hit the road running.” Don’t look back. When you travel, stay away from all-inclusive resorts. If you can stay with a local, or at least eat with, ride with, tour with, and learn from local society, you will surely return home a better person. Take a chance on travel. Jobs will always be there when you return home. I’m fond of saying that there is no greater education than taking a long-haul trip around the world. If the Aussies can do it, why can’t more Americans? Well, some do. I did, and to say the least, it changed my life. I always like to say, “Local people that you encounter on your travels want to learn as much about you, and where you come from, as you do about your local hosts.”