How I Used Points to Help Pay for an 8 Month Trip Around the World

Feb 22, 2018

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Citi Prestige Card

Last year, my fiancée and I left the corporate hamster wheel, put our stuff in storage and went traveling around the world for eight months. The question we got asked the most was how we were able to fly in premium cabins and stay at luxury hotels so often. The truth is, points helped a lot, but our stories usually skipped over the underwhelming Best Western we stayed at in Yangon, or the sea sickness-inducing ferry between Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam!

That being said, there are some things we learned that we thought might be helpful for anyone who wants to do the same in the future.

Set Yourself Up For Credit Card Success

About a year before the trip, we began opening a diversified portfolio of credit cards to ensure our points could reach far and wide. Between the two of us, we opened the United Explorer Card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, both a Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express (See Rates & Fees) and a Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express (See Rates & Fees), an Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, the Citi Prestige and an AAdvantage Aviator Red, as lucrative welcome bonuses were offered on each card which more than covered their annual fees. I wish I had a Platinum Card® from American Express during the trip, but luckily I was able to snag the recent 100,000 point targeted offer via CardMatch (offer subject to change at anytime) after I got back. These cards helped us dip into the three major airline alliances and padded our pre-existing mileage stash. For cash, we always used our Charles Schwab bank account, which has no ATM or foreign transaction fees — an incredible perk.

Singapore Suites
Our Chase Sapphire Reserve bonus helped fund a flight in Singapore Suites.

During the trip, we made sure to research the best card for each type of purchase. For example, we preferred using the Citi Prestige for taxes and fees on award flights since it has awesome baggage delay and trip delay coverage, along with 3x points on air travel purchases. It came in handy when we had a tight connection in Singapore flying from Sydney (SYD) to Denpasar, Bali (DPS) on an award ticket and our bags didn’t make it. Since it was more than a 3-hour delay, we were able to go on a $1,000 spending spree — $500 for each of us — thanks to the Citi Prestige. Just make sure you don’t lose your baggage tags, keep your irregularity report, charge your covered expenses on the Citi card itself and keep all receipts.

Optimize Your Status

Luckily (or unluckily in some people’s eyes), in the year preceding our trip I was flying transcontinental routes every week for work. This enabled me to earn United 1K status which I matched to Delta Platinum status. In addition, American Airlines was offering a status challenge for the company I work for, and before I knew it, I had status with all three alliances — Star Alliance, SkyTeam and Oneworld.

We were able to use United GPUs to experience Polaris on a 747 from SFO to TPE
We were able to use United GPUs to experience Polaris on a 747 from SFO to TPE.

The key reason Delta Platinum and United 1K statuses were important to me was that they offer incredible flexibility to book, change and cancel award tickets without paying fees. We were able to lock in some speculative award flights like Bilbao, Spain (BIO) to Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE) on Air France in business class far ahead of time for 80,000 SkyMiles, without worrying about paying redeposit fees when we didn’t actually end up taking the flights. SPG Platinum status was convenient to have as well, but much of the time we opted for Airbnbs or smaller hotels.

Quality or Quantity For Your Points

For our trip, we wanted to use points for luxury experiences we wouldn’t usually pay for. This included premium cabins like Singapore Suites and Qatar business class, along with staying at the Park Hyatt Zanzibar.

The Park Hyatt Zanzibar was on property we really wanted to visit.
The Park Hyatt Zanzibar was on property we really wanted to visit.

Others may want to make their points stretch further, using them for more budget accommodations and as many economy flights as possible. There’s not a right or wrong answer, but it helps to make this decision ahead of time so you don’t overthink every booking you make.

Plan the Big Stuff

Eight months goes by a lot quicker than you think, and I probably could have spent the whole time in Bali eating açaí bowls and buzzing around on a scooter to hidden beaches. While that would have been awesome, there were some places around the world we set out to see on this trip.

I booked the long-haul, intercontinental flights ahead of time, which put some bones around the trip but also kept plenty of time in-between to figure things out and explore areas. Between the three major alliances, it was never an issue finding last-minute award availability around major cities in Asia, Africa, Europe or South America.

Just to give you an idea of a few random routes we flew, here is an example of last-minute Delta award availability between Taipei (TPE) and Luang Prabang (LPQ):

And United award availability between Bangkok (BKK) and Cochin Airport (COK) :

While the routings might not always be great, we weren’t working, so time wasn’t a huge issue. Having a rough itinerary ensured we had sufficient time on the beach, but also saw the temples of Bagan, the palaces of Rajasthan and the beauty of the Serengeti.

Make Your Job Work For You

While every company doesn’t have a “leave of absence” or “sabbatical” program, it helped us to be honest and open with our employers. My fiancé’s employer doesn’t have an official sabbatical program, but after a conversation several months before we left, they made a verbal promise to take her back when we returned and it ended up working out.

Luckily, the company I work for does have an official “leave” program to take up to a year for personal endeavors or “non-competitive” work. One of my directors even said “Hey, if I don’t let you do this, you’re going to end up quitting and working for our direct competitor when you get back!” Every company might not be this flexible, but positioning it the right way and opening the dialogue helps.

You Still Need Cash

Points can get you pretty far, but they can’t pay for everything. Traveling is costly and budgeting is crucial to ensure you’re able to travel for as long and as far as you’re hoping to.

Based on your lifestyle and your expectations, budgets can vary significantly. Ours was around $100 per person per day which evened out over time, in addition to points. Some days in southeast Asia we spent less than $20, while days on our safari were significantly more expensive. We used a budgeting app called “Trabee” which we really liked because of its real-time currency data.

Credit cards don't get you too far at the night markets in Luang Prabang!
Credit cards don’t get you too far at the night markets in Luang Prabang!

Lastly, make sure you have slack in your budget. Wiggle room is critical to make sure you can pay for a decent hotel when you have food poisoning, donate money to a charity that resonates with you while you’re on the road or pay for expensive meds you didn’t think you needed. Things come up that you aren’t expecting, so having a budget that’s too strict will suck the joy out of what is meant to ultimately be a holiday.

Travel Responsibly

We’re no saints, but to the best of our ability, we tried to participate in tourism that helped the local economy and ecosystem. There are a few main tips we learned on how not to be that tourist.

  1. Start by looking around and see how everyone around you is behaving. For example, if the local people are dressed conservatively, try to do the same. If they are taking their shoes off before entering a temple, make sure you do also.
  2. Don’t take photos of people — especially kids — without permission. You wouldn’t stick a camera in a stranger’s face at home, and it’s not okay to do it in a foreign country.
  3. Don’t ride elephants anywhere. There are lots of fake sanctuaries, especially in Asia, but no legit sanctuary will let you actually ride the elephants. Vote with your dollar, opt for the eco-friendly options where possible, and support local people where you can.
  4. You’re in a foreign country, but it’s everyone’s planet. Don’t litter even if local people are doing it. Just because someone else might have put his cigarette out on an ancient Buddhist temple doesn’t mean you have to (which was a legitimate conversation we had with a backpacker). And try not to use straws. They rarely end up in recycling and kill an inordinate amount of sea life every year, so if you can skip the plastic straw (on vacation or at home) go for it. We traveled with bamboo straws and found it was a pretty good alternative when needed.
  5. Be mindful of exactly how much you’re haggling over when you bargain. In some places, that $1 you’re refusing to pay is the difference between food on the table for the family or not.
Try to save these giant Tortoises, natives to Zanzibar and the Sychelles, from plastic! turtle
Try to save these giant tortoises — natives to Zanzibar and the Seychelles — from plastic!

Have you taken a extended leave recently? We’d love to know any tips and tricks you learned along the way in the comments below.

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