Written by Chris
Moshi, Tanzania – In most vacations, the three major costs are airfare, lodging, and food. We went and lopped one of those off of our budget almost entirely by getting one year’s worth of flights for only $380. How was that possible? We bought an Around the World ticket using frequent flyer miles (that we got for free) and anyone can do it.
What is an Around the World ticket?
Many carriers (or networks of carriers) offer some type of around the world (RTW) fare. The rules can vary wildly, but they typically involve a package deal on a series of flights going around the world with several stops along the way. You can buy them in cash, but we chose to use miles and pay next to nothing out of pocket. We bought the tickets on United Airlines’ program and this allowed us to go anywhere that Star Alliance flies. The information here is specific to this program but there are many others with their own rules (for example, you can fly on One World Alliance flights if you happen to have your miles through American Airlines). The requirements are as follows.
- Cost: 180,000 miles + $380 per ticket
- Up to 6 stops of over 24 hours are allowed (that is, any layover of more than 24 hours is considered a stop)
- One land segment allowed (landing in one airport and taking off later from another)
- Trip must be completed within one year of booking
- Can fly anywhere Star Alliance flies, subject to availability of award seats
- Must end in the same country you started from (you have to go all the way around)
That’s it and it was perfect for what we wanted to do. It took a lot of planning to pick out the route, but it is reasonably flexible. We can change flight days for free if it is over 3 weeks in advance of the flight (again, subject to seat availability) or we can change routes entirely for $75 per person per destination change. It took us about an hour on the phone to book the entire thing, but it has been working out fantastically. That “subject to availability” clause was a real pain for the first few segments of our itinerary since many were full already. In fact, our first stop was supposed to be Ecuador, but they could only get us as close at Panama City (and we had to separately buy a flight between Panama and Ecuador and for more than the cost of our entire RTW fare). We also ended up with a pretty heinous journey as a result of this as well.
So how do you get 180,000 miles for free?
My previous job required a fair amount of international travel and I kept the miles from that, however, I only had about enough miles for one ticket. They way we earned enough for the second: we played the credit card bonus game.
It is still the case that credit card companies are so desperate for your long-term business, they are offering outsized rewards in the hope that you will stay with them. Many offer airline miles but they usually have certain hoops you have to jump through; you normally have to spend a certain amount on the card within the first few months. Hence the game you have to play.
I got most of the info from a travel writer I have been following for a while, Chris Guillebeau, who just finished visiting every country in the world. And he made it possible largely through “travel hacking” or traveling at drastically discounted prices. In fact, he has just started his annual Frequent Flyer Challenge which is I what used as my main source of card info. So here are the credit cards I ended up applying for:
- United Airlines Visa: 50,000 miles
- Chase Sapphire: 40,000 miles
- Chase Ink: 25,000 miles
- Chase Ink Bold: 25,000 miles
- British Airways: 100,000 miles (not transferable to United, but I can use them for side trips)
- Starwood Preferred Guest: 40,000 points (used for hotel stays)
Mindy got a Sapphire card as well and that was enough to put us over the top. The great thing is that you don’t have to keep the card to keep the rewards, so once they come through, you can just cancel the card. And if you can’t find enough cards to get the miles you’re shooting for, you can often reapply after one year of canceling and get the award again.
Meeting the minimum spend requirements
Most of the cards require you to spend something like $3,000 on the card in the first three months. Fortunately for us, we happened to be planning a wedding at the time and spending money was no problem. We just had to make sure we spaced things out so we were paying on the right cards at the right times. But for the rest of you not getting married, if your expenses are not that high, there are some other tricks you can use. Pay your rent/mortgage on your credit card (services like William Paid and Chargesmart allow you to for a fee), prepay your insurance (or other recurring bills) for 6 months or a year if they allow, or there are other tricks involving prepaid cards and the US mint that, while legal, are against the spirit of their programs so I won’t get into them here.
But what about my credit score?
This can be a legitimate concern. First, if your credit score is low to begin with, you may have trouble obtaining all the cards. Second, you must be careful not to hurt your credit score by randomly applying to lines of credit all over the place. One thing you should do is apply to new cards in batches so you don’t look like the type who is trying to get credit all the time. Also, of course, pay off the cards on time. While it is too soon for me to tell the impact on my credit score, most of the advice out there from people who do this regularly says that their score dips a bit at first, but then returns to its previous level (and sometimes higher). This is a risk you will be taking but it seems to be rather small (but don’t mess around if you plan on taking out a large loan anytime soon, though!).
So if you’re patient and organized, you can travel for next to nothing as well. It may take a few years to build up the miles but it can save you loads. And if you’re not up for the whole “travel around the world” thing, there are other flight package deals that are regionally focused, like South America or Asia tours, for much less. Happy travels!