I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have some type of travel on their bucket list. I am no different. When I stumbled on the topic of “travel hacking” I saw a way to accomplish my world-wide travel goals. Travel hacking allows an individual to travel the world for cheap, if you know how to work the system a little bit. After getting around buying books in college, getting around paying full price for airline tickets seemed right up my alley. I immediately started reading everything I could on traveling smart. Through the research I stumbled upon what is called a RTW (round the world) ticket. The itinerary builders took hold of my imagination, letting me plan trip after trip that would take me to the different corners of the world. After weeks of playing with the itinerary builder I decided I’d start playing for keeps and added 6 months of world travel to my bucket list. This 6 month trip quickly doubled in length (both time and distance) and I realized it would take some devising if I wanted to accomplish my goal on a budget I could afford. On August 1, 2012 I finalized my 44,987 mile (the circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles), 15 flight itinerary. Diane, the American Airlines booking agent, paused after booking the last leg of my adventure to let my final fee load, “Your total will be, $1,091.71.” All my planning had come to fruition and I was in shock, I had just I booked what should have been a $9,556.45 trip of a lifetime for almost 90% off.
My goal for this post is to show you how I did this (if you have questions at the end, please ask them in the comments and I will answer them as soon as I can). My final flight path can be seen below and my itinerary is as follows:
Los Angeles à Sydney September 3
Sydney à Auckland October 2
Auckland à Melbourne October 16
Melbourne à Perth October 23
Perth à Singapore November 21
Singapore à Bangkok December 16
Bangkok à Hong Kong January 9
Hong Kong à Johannesburg January 15
Johannesburg à London February 13
London à Amman February 20
Amman à Madrid March 13
Madrid à Buenos Aires June 12
Buenos Aires à Santiago July 3
Santiago à Easter Island July 24
Easter Island à Lima July 31
Disclaimer: I am about to geek out super hard on this post as I show you just how deep the rabbit hole of frugal travel goes. You can use the resources I provide to take it as deep as you want but what follows will be a guide that focuses on how to plan and book a RTW ticket through the oneworld alliance using American Airlines frequent flyer miles accumulated without flying.
How to plan a RTW trip
The first step is to plan a RTW trip you’d like to take—this will give you your goal. One of the mistakes I made during this step is not fully understanding the rules that need to be followed on a oneworld RTW ticket itinerary. It’s fun to play with the itinerary builder but if you’re at all serious, I recommend reading over the rules at least once, since the oneworld RTW planner isn’t the best at alerting you when your itinerary is invalid. Next, I utilized Who Flies Where to get a general idea of where I could fly with the oneworld alliance and started putting together a flight path. Two things to keep in mind when planning cities you want to visit are visas and immunizations. Some places require applying for visas in advance, proof of specific immunizations or both. You should be aware of these in your planning.
I then used Airport Codes to find the 3 letter airport codes for every city on my itinerary to plug into Mileage Monkey to determine if I had created a valid itinerary that abided by all the rules. Once I had a valid itinerary, Mileage Monkey displayed the total trip miles of all the flights, and I used this number to determine how many American Airlines frequent flyer miles I would need to make this trip free (excluding taxes, fees and surcharges). Note of clarification: An alliance is a group of airlines. For example, British Airways and American Airlines are both part of the oneworld alliance, whereas, United Airlines and Air Canada are part of Star Aliance. It is through the alliance that you choose your RTW ticket flights, e.g. I chose oneworld so my RTW itinerary must be made up of airlines that are part of that alliance and the cities that I fly to are determined by what cities the oneworld alliance services. Another important distinction is airline points: you do not accumulate oneworld alliance points, but rather, airline points like American Airlines or British Airways points. For example, I focused on obtaining 160,000 American Airlines frequent flier miles, I then called an AA booking agent and booked my RTW ticket using oneworld alliance airlines with my AA miles. It would not be possible to accrue 100,000 AA and 60,000 BA and use them together to purchase a RTW ticket.
How to reach your frequent flyer mile goal
Once you have decided on an airline to save points with, your goal is to obtain enough of their miles to take the trip that you planned. The quickest way for obtaining frequent flier miles is through credit card sign up offers. My trip required 160,000 AA miles and I was able to get 110,000 of those AA miles through 2 credit card offers. The reward chart shows that just through these 2 credit card sign up offers I could already book a very decent 20,000 mile RTW trip.
So how do you know what credit card has the best sign up bonuses? This is where I will point you to The Frugal Travel Guy. Anything you need to know about credit cards and maintaining good credit can be answered with this website. Rick has perfected the art of credit card “churning” to make sure he never has to pay for travel again, while keeping his credit score high. Churning and credit tracking are outside the scope of this post but Rick is the master at it and the go to guy to figure out what credit cards have the best sign up bonuses at any given time. Note: credit card companies WANT you to sign up for their cards, they make lots of money when you use their cards to purchase things, they make lots of money when people don’t pay of their balance in full every month. In order to get new customers they will offer you ridiculous things. Do not feel guilty about taking advantage of these offers. They wouldn’t continue to put out these offers if the offers didn’t make them money so use them wisely and to your advantage
Once you have found a credit card with a bonus that you want, you will probably (hopefully) notice that you don’t get the full bonus just for signing up, but will need to reach a spend limit to get the rest of the reward. For example, one of my credit cards was the Citi bank AAdvantage American Express that offered 75,000 AA miles with signup (and 1 AA mile for every $1 spent on the card). However, I received 50,000 miles with my first purchase and the remaining 25,000 miles if I could spend $4,000 in 6 months. The last thing I wanted to do was spend $4000 on stuff I wouldn’t normally buy just to get 25,000 extra bonus miles.
Here is a non-inclusive list of ideas to meet spending limits:
- Figure out if you can pay your rent/mortgage with a credit card.
- Plan to make large purchases like computers/furniture/home improvements during this time
- Prepay insurance payments
- Prepay other purchases that you know you always make like groceries or gas. You can do this by using your credit card to buy yourself $1000 worth of Trader Joe’s gift cards to use at your leisure.
- Buy EVERYTHING with your credit card and pay it off in full EVERY month. If you read enough Frugal Travel Guy you will see that your credit is your greatest asset, do not ruin it.
- Think outside the box. The best example of this is the discovery that you could buy dollar coins from the US mint with a credit card in 2008, unfortunately, the practice was ended on July 22, 2011.
There are plenty of opportunities to gather miles so pay attention to the forums/blogs that I list below or come up with your own creative idea. After credit card sign up bonuses there are still many other ways to build up frequent flyer miles. Most airlines have both a dining network and a shopping network. For example, American Airlines’ reward networks are their Dining network and shopping network. These networks give you extra miles for spending money at specific restaurants or stores, so sign your card up for them! I have a dog, and spend around $50 every month buying him food. I went to the rewards network and found an online pet store that gave me a bonus 5 AA miles per dollar (plus the 1 mile I already get for using a AAdvantage Amex). They had the same dog food I bought at the pet store (which would only give me 50 AA miles) for the same price (including shipping). So I turned 50 AA miles into 300 AA miles by purchasing through the rewards network. For my RTW trip, I wanted to have more than a point and shoot camera, so I timed my purchase during the months where I needed to meet my SPG Amex spending limit. The camera was $700 and made by Sony. Before making the purchase, I decided to check the rewards network and found that Sony was an approved vendor that offered 3 miles per dollar. I made the purchase through the awards network website and instead of just getting 700 SPG points, I got 700 SPG points, 2100 AA miles, and made $700 worth of progress towards my SPG spending limit. Keep your wits about you and you will be able to rack up miles quicker using these two resources.
Another way is to transfer points between different companies. For example, the second credit card I signed up for was the SPG American Express credit card that offered me 20,000 SPG points on my first purchase and another 10,000 when I met the spending limit. The beautiful thing about SPG points is their versatility for transfer. If you transfer 20,000 SPG points to AA, they give you a 5,000 point bonus. So, I met the spend limit and then used the card until I had 40,000 total SPG points, which I then transferred to 50,000 AA frequent flier miles.
Airline promotions and contests are another great way to rack up free miles. Great resources to keep track of these are forums and blogs like flyer talk, milepoint, the points guy, view from the wing, and one mile at a time. If you don’t want to take the time to monitor these resources you can use the travel hacking cartel. They do all the work for you and you just read the emails and do what they say to get points. There is a monthly fee but they offer a 14 day $1 trial, which is fun to use and it will start you off with some good offers to pad your frequent flyer accounts. When your trial is up you can cancel or keep it if you think it will be useful for you.
How to book your trip
When you’ve reached your miles goal and you’re ready to book your flight there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is that a RTW ticket is only good for 12 months from the date that you book the flights. This is really only an issue if you’re planning a longer trip. I booked my ticket August 1, 2012, which means I have to be at my final destination by August 1, 2013, even though my first flight isn’t until September 3, 2012.
I also discovered that airlines only publish flights 330 days in advance, so if you plan to do any traveling in that last month (like I do), you’re going to have to game the system a little bit. One of the rules of RTW tickets is that after you book the flights you’re not allowed to change who you’re flying with or where you’re going but you can change dates and times without penalty. So, my last three flights fell in that 330-365 day dead zone. To get around this, I booked these flights within a week of each other around the 315 day mark where I was still able to find flights. Then as the dates when I want to fly become available I will call and change the dates and times to fit the 12 month itinerary that I want.
The third item to remember is that you must book flights that have award availability. The way airlines work is that they reserve a certain number of seats that can be booked by people using frequent flier miles. Once those seats are filled, you can no longer use frequent flier miles to get on that flight, even if there are still open seats available on the plane. So, you need to search for flights that still have award seat availability. The easiest way to do this is through the airline websites. Oneworld alliance consists of around 14 airlines plus their subsidiaries, however, I was able to use the Qantas website (once I signed up for their frequent flier program) to search for flights with award availability to the destinations I wanted to go.
Next, make sure you write it all down. Once you find a flight that works for you, write down the date, flight number and the departure and arrival time. It’s smart to have a few back-up flights written down in case something happens when you’re on the phone and your original flight is no longer available.
Once you have it all planned and written down you can proceed to the final step: calling the booking agent. I saved up my frequent flier miles through American Airlines so that is who I booked through. They have an office that deals with RTW bookings using awards miles so make sure you’ve been transferred to the right place before you start spilling flight numbers to someone who is just going to transfer you. It’s important to be patient, some employees are more experienced with booking these types of trips than others and if you encounter an employee that is on the inexperienced side you can either be patient and ask them to check with someone if they encounter a problem or politely excuse yourself from the conversation and call back in hopes of getting someone on the line that has more experience. Once they have put all your flights in the computer they will check that your itinerary conforms to all the rules. Pending success, they will calculate how many miles your trip is to determine how many frequent flier miles you will need to spend, determine the total taxes and fees that you will have to pay (this is why I actually had to pay money instead of getting all the flights for free) and ask you if you would like to book the itinerary or put it on hold for a maximum of 5 days. If you put it on hold, make sure you get the record locator so that when you call back, whoever is helping you can go right to your saved itinerary.
BOOM! Enjoy your adventure of a lifetime! Hit me with questions if you gots ‘em!
As part humble brag and part seriouslyyoucandothisforcheap: I didn’t want to put any of my stuff into storage for a year so I sold as much as I could, donated the rest and ended up making $1614. I also had been saving my change for the past 6 years, which amounted to $636.68. These two things paid for my plane tickets and a good chunk of my gear.
If you or anyone you know is living in or near the places I will be going, let me know. I’m always down to meet up with someone who knows more about a place than I do.
I know many people are interested in what I’m traveling with for a year. I managed to get everything I needed into a 26L backpack. Stay tuned for a gear post as well as other posts detailing tips for getting other aspects in order before embarking on a journey like this.