February 2011

Map of South America flights

Flights I booked to South America.

Earlier this month I made my first award redemption using frequent flyer miles. And it was a bit of a doozy. I’m flying to South America with a friend and we’re flying out of Miami to Lima for a couple of days, then to Easter Island for a few more days and then on to Buenos Aires before returning back to Miami. It’s a total of three countries in 11 days, so it’s a bit of a whirlwind trip. It’s the first time either one of us has been to South America.

And the ironic part about the booking? Despite the miles being called “frequent flyer miles” I’d never set foot on the airline that I got the miles from. Plus, I got all the flights in business class. And my share of the taxes and fees only $150.

Here’s how I did it, and how it can stillĀ  be done through other methods.

I got the idea for the trip about a year ago. Near the end of 2009, Chase Bank offered a credit card that earned British Airways miles. Most of the time, banks will offer a 25,000 mile sign up bonus, which is enough miles to get a coach seat on a US domestic flight. Chase offered a whopping 100,000 mile sign up bonus. That’s enough to get 4 roundtrip domestic tickets or two roundtrip coach tickets from the US to Europe. It was an insane offer.

The folks over at a discussion forum for frequent flyers jumped all over this. They discussed creative ways those miles could be used. One of the suggestions was to use the miles on another oneworld carrier. Oneworld is one of three major airline alliances that most airlines belong to. Alliance members can usually book seats on each others’ flights, share lounges and use miles for award redemptions on other airlines. Because of the way British Airways redemption chart is set up, 80,000 miles could be used to book a business class seat from North America to South America. British doesn’t actually fly from the US to South America, but both American Airlines and LAN do.

Another bonus is that British allows for a stopover in each direction when booking a roundtrip. So I could fly from Miami on LAN to Easter Island and stopover in Lima, Buenos Aires or a number of other possible destinations in South America.

So, just by getting a credit card, I could get myself a very cheap trip to South America. Unbelievable! I jumped on the deal and applied for the card. The card itself had an annual fee of $75 and in order to get the full 100,000, I needed to spend $2,000 on the card in six months. Since I run most of my normal spending through a credit card and then pay it off in full each month, meeting the spend requirement was not a problem.

I got the card in January, and by the time summer rolled around I had the miles. By then, I had decided that I didn’t want to go to South America by myself. Which meant that I would need to find a way to get another 60,000 miles so I could get two tickets and take a friend along.

Enter the Starwood Preferred Guest card. SPG was running a promotion where you could get 30,000 points for signing up for their card. Now SPG is a hotel program for the Starwood chain of hotels (which include Westin, Le Meridian, etc.). How would that help me get airline miles? The program allows member to transfer points to over a dozen airlines and most have a 1:1 ratio of points to miles. And if a member transfers 25,000 points in one transaction, SPG throws in another 5,000 points because they’re just that awesome. So that put my mileage total to over 135,000 miles. Getting the last few miles involved a number of tactics, including running my normal spend through the card, getting a referral bonus for getting another person to sign up for the SPG card, and yes, a little flying too (thanks to an earlier deal offered by Expedia).

This month, I finally got all the miles I needed so it was time to give British Airways a call. Because of the complexity of the itinerary, booking online wasn’t an option. Before ringing them up, I used their website to make sure there were award seats available on all the flights I wanted. I also picked out some backup flights just in case I couldn’t get on my first choice. One phone call and 25 minutes chatting with a gentleman with the most charming accent later, I had all the flights. The flights were free, but I had to pay some taxes and fees on them which added up to just under $150 for each ticket. Had I bought the tickets outright, it would have cost more then $3,100 per ticket. Not bad at all for getting a couple of credit cards and doing some online research.

While both the Chase and the SPG promotion are both long gone, banks are constantly offering new promotions. They’re a quick way to get a bunch of miles if you don’t fly much, have good credit and can avoid carrying a balance.

If you wanted to do a similar trip, Citibank is offering some cards that will give 75,000 American Airlines miles for signing up. American offers business-class flights on LAN for 100,000 miles, but doesn’t include the extra stopovers. You can have multiple airlines though, so it makes it easier to get to a LAN hub. Of course, there’s plenty of other partners and options to choose from, including to many destinations in Asia, Australia and Europe.

If you’re looking for other ways to save on travel costs, check out my post on travel hacking.

Philadephia's Love Sign.

Philadelphia's famous "Love" sign.

With Valentine’s Day happening earlier this week, I started thinking about all the times I’ve had the nerve to ask for a table of one. Most of my travelling is done with other people, but once in a while I enjoy taking a trip by myself. I don’t have a significant other, so if I go it alone it’s usually because no one else is available or because a particular place catches my fancy.

One of the things I try to do on these solo trips is enjoy a nice sit-down meal once during the trip. But the reactions I get whenever I stroll into a restaurant and ask for a table of one tends to range from confusion to consternation. The mere idea that someone like myself would want to eat alone seems to boggle the minds of many a maitre’d.

At a French restaurant near my beloved hometown, I had made a reservation and was waiting for my name to be called. I could see the maitre’d just inside, calling out “Johnson, table of four”. “Cooper, table of two”. “Smith, table of eight”. And then he got to me. “Williamson, table of-” And then he hesitated. He squinted at the list. He couldn’t believe what he was about to read. “Williamson, table of- one?” Fortunately, the maitre’d seated me rather then direct me to the nearest takeout place. The waitress seemed a bit puzzled too, but the service was flawless.
Another time I stopped into a busy New York City Italian restaurant for dinner. The maitre’d was unfazed at my request this time and seated me quickly. The waitress came over, brought some bread and took my drink order. So far, so good. The table next to me also got seated quickly and was being served by the same waitress. I flipped through the menu and then started reading the book I brought along while waiting. The waitress soon took the order of the table next to me. I figured she would come to me next after relaying their order to the kitchen. So I read another chapter. She didn’t return.

By the end of the third chapter, the table next to me got their food. At this point, I realized something had gone wrong. I caught the eye of the waitress and she came over.

“Would you like to order something while you’re waiting?”
“Waiting? I’m not waiting for anyone.”

At this point, a look of horror came over her face. The poor thing thought someone else was coming to join me.
I thought the maitre’d had told her I was a party of one. In all fairness, the table was set for two (but all the seats at all the tables had place settings) and I didn’t tell her I was the only one. She took my order and the food came quickly. She even sent along an after-dinner drink as an apoligy for the slow service. I didn’t mind. It was just another adventure in the solo dining world.

And the book I happened to be reading? The Art of Non-Conformity. Neither one of us conformed to each others expectations that night.

Not all my solo dining excursions end up awkwardly. One of my best experiences happened in Philadephia. The hostel I was staying at was right around the corner from all these fantastic sidewalk cafes.Being a complete sucker for a sidewalk cafe and needing a break from Philly cheesesteaks, I stopped by one for dinner. The staff were wonderfully accommodating and not at all fazed by my diminutive party size. I got a table to myself right on the sidewalk where I could people-watch or read my book. When a random solicitor walked up and started talking to me, the waiter swooped in and chased him off. Even with sitting outside, it was good to know that the waiter was keeping an eye on me then (and needless to say, he got a good tip that


Overall, I see dining solo as not something to be afraid of, but just part of the adventure. If I wasn’t willing to go alone, I would have missed out on some wonderful dining establishments. It also makes appreciate all the more the people I do have dinner with and the joys of a good conversation over fine food.

CNN recently posted an article called “Why more Americans don’t travel abroad”. The article states that only 30% of Americans have a passport. In some ways, that’s good news as the percentage has gone up from the low 20s when I last looked at this issue. But most of the increase can be attributed to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that took effect two years ago, which required Americans to have passports to travel to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

So why aren’t more Americans getting out there and seeing the world? The article looks at a few points like cost, vacation time and fear of going overseas. Here’s my take on some of those points.

Cost- A passport for an adult is now $135. The passport is good for 10 years, so it’s less then $15 a year. But it’s still a chunk of change, especially when looking at all the other trip costs like flights, hotels, etc. And if it’s a family of four planning a trip, it’ll cost over $400 just to get passports for everyone. But having cheaper passports isn’t going to make the average American hit the road. Unlike other places like Europe where it’s easy to drive through several countries in a day, it’s only possible to get to Canada or Mexico by car easily. To get anywhere else requires getting on a plane or a ship which can quickly get pricey for many folks. If you have time and a little gusto, there’s some ways to get around some of those expenses by using various airline/hotel programs.

Vacation time- For me, this is definitely a limiting factor and it can be for a lot of other folks as well. I don’t know many who have more then 3-4 weeks of vacation unless they’re already in some kind of flexible arrangement or location-independent job. And I know of a few folks who don’t use up what little vacation they do get. The article does point out that many Americans prefer money over leisure time.

This is where I find myself taking a different road then many of my countrymen. I carry no debt and don’t feel a need to keep up with the Joneses or the latest gadgetry out there. If anything, I’m trying to downsize some parts of my lifestyle so I have the means to pursue travel and the other goals on my list. I’m not criticizing anyone who make a different choice then I do. It’s just a matter of different priorities.

Fear- Okay, yes, going into a country where you might not speak the language and or know the culture well can be unnerving. But thanks to travel guides and the Internet, it’s easy to do research and get a feel for the place before going. Besides, half the fun of travel for me is getting to experience new cultures and new perspectives on things. Yes, there are dangers out there in the world, but I also deal with many potential dangers at home. There are few places I would go to because they are “too dangerous”. After my experience in Kenya where I couldn’t drink the water and was in a malarial zone, I came back just fine. With the proper precautions, going almost anywhere in the world doesn’t have to be a dangerous or fearful proposition.

Some other reasons I’ve heard for people not travelling include having to raise children first or just not being interested at all. The children issue is a challenge, but there’s plenty of folks out there like Soul Travelers 3 or Man Vs. Debt who have taken small children aboard for long periods of time.

So, do you have a passport? Or if not, why not? I’m curious what other people’s view on the issue are.

Travel HackingI’ve been getting some questions lately from friends about how I manage to travel as much as I do without going broke and eating rice and beans all the time over the past year and a half. I can say that I’m not some kind of trust-fund baby and I’m not suddenly awash in cash from some dead relative. And my co-workers know I’m not in a job making six figures a year. So just how am I doing it? I’ve been doing it through a variety of tactics, but the one that’s been paying off the most dividends is travel hacking.

Most airlines and hotel chains have frequent flyer/stay programs where you earn miles or points for using the company’s services. Travel hacking involves using a variety of tactics to get those points as cheaply as possible, often without actually taking flights or staying in any hotels.

Credit card promos- Many banks offer large number of miles in return for getting a card and spending a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time. For example, about a year ago Chase Bank offered a British Airways credit card where folks who spent $2,000 in 3 months would get 100,000 British Airways miles- enough to go to Europe twice or to many other destinations around the world.

Many travel hackers take credit cards one step further by finding creative ways to spend money on their cards without actually spending a lot of dough by doing things like buying gift cards and reselling them or even buying money-yes, cold, hard cash- from the US Mint and then using the cash to pay off the card before the due date.

If you have no problems with paying off your cards in full each month, have a solid credit score (above 700) and are not planning to get a house/car loan soon, taking advantage of credit card bonuses is a fast way to get a lot of miles in a hurry.

Airline/hotel-branded credit cards often come with other perks as well, like status, free checked bags, $50 off coupons and more. So even if you don’t need a pile of miles, a card associated with your favorite program can still be useful.

Airline/Hotel promotions- Many frequent travel programs will run special promos where you can earn a lot of points by doing certain activities like shopping through their online mall. Sometimes the program will offer special redemption rates so you can get a flight or hotel for fewer points then normal. Other times, it could be earning double or triple the normal points for an activity. Some promos occur quarterly or annually, so there’s opportunities to take advantage of it multiple times.

Mileage/Mattress running- This involves getting status in a particular airline or hotel program either by doing a lot of flying or staying in hotels. This is done by finding cheap flights that will yield a large number of elite qualifying miles. This often means flying from say, New York to San Francisco while connecting in Chicago, Houston and Denver along the way to maximize the miles earned. Other times, it could mean flying a short segment multiple times in one day. To get hotel status might mean switching hotels every night or staying in hotels in the same city where you live in order to get enough nights or stay credits or status.

The reason is that the perks that come with having status can include free upgrades, lounge access, priority-access lanes, free checked bags or in-room freebies. It’s a lot of little things that make travel more pleasant and fun. Many mileage runners end up doing their mileage run near the end of the year when status expires in most programs.

The online world is full of travel hackers who have blogged about their successes.
Chris Guillebeau of the Art of Non-Conformity used a US Airways shopping promo to buy lots of useless stickers to get 280,000 US Airways miles, which he then turned into flights around the world.
Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness has a post about how he booked a trip across four continents for $416 and a bunch of miles.
Tyler Tervooren of Advance Riskology shows how buying $15,000 in cash racked him up thousands of miles that he’s putting towards a round-the-world trip.

I admit I’m fairly new to travel hacking myself. I started jumping on various offers last year and I now have enough miles to get myself and a friend to South America in business class. I’m also currently working on getting enough miles to fly first class to Asia- probably to Hong Kong. Once I get those South America tickets booked (which should be sometime in the next week), I’ll share how I did it and how you can do something similar.

If you’re looking for more information on travel hacking but don’t want to wade through pages of travel blogs and forums, Chris Guillebeau just started up the Travel Hacking Cartel. The cartel provides information on the latest deals and information on how to earn and burn miles and points in the most effective way. The cartel promises that there’s enough info there that you can take four free flights a year. I joined the cartel last week and it’s great for folks with more money then time (and with the cheapest plan at $15 a month, it’s not even that much money). Most of the information provided can be found elsewhere, but you need to know where to find that info and it’ll take longer then reading the cartel’s list of deals.

The cartel offers all the deals in one list with clear instructions on how to take advantage of them. It also has over a dozen videos about how to earn and burn airline miles. The info provided is certainly enough for a few domestic trips if you can take advantage of them. The cartel is still very new, so I’m curious to see if it can get me info on deals I haven’t found elsewhere. The cartel has been adding a new deal about every 2-3 days right now. If you want to check it out, they have a $1 2-week trial available. (This is an affiliate link.)

I also have a post that I wrote last year about where to find good travel deals. With some patience and a little creative thinking, a dream trip doesn’t have to be a dream much longer.