From the early planning stages of our trip and now living in Madrid, we are constantly asked how we could afford to travel around the world for so long and to so many distant places. Some people are eager to know the secret in hopes of taking some big trip one day. Others simply tell us that “It Must Be Nice” in a lackluster, half-assed acknowledgment, assuming we must have some massive bank account or special permission that allowed us to break away from the typical way of life. The reality is that we just made a choice many years ago to change our lives and we had to make a lot of difficult decisions and comprises to get there. But one thing is for sure, the $300 around the world flights that took us across the globe certainly prolonged our ability to travel and took us to incredible destinations like Ethiopia, India and Japan.
Clipping Coupons: My Lowest Moment
I won’t go into the specifics about everything we cut out to save for traveling, but let’s just say the bane of my existence was when I decided to clip coupons for a year just to try and save money on groceries. Of course, it worked and we saved almost $1000 that year, but I will NEVER, EVER do that again. David also utterly refused to join me at the supermarket each time I went to redeem my inch-thick, stack of neatly clip coupons while the cashier became flustered with the mess and the line backed up behind me. I tried to subdue my embarrassment with grandeur thoughts of traveling the world one day, but it never seemed to work as the groans of angry customers behind me pulled me back into reality.
Can You Really Get a Ticket for Under $300?
The first step to traveling cheaply is to acknowledge that it takes time to plan…A LOT of time! Rather than booking an expensive around the world plane ticket for thousands of dollars, we chose the slow and difficult route which was to save airlines miles for years and book the trip ourselves without any travel agency or booking service. I was lucky that I traveled regularly for work and was able to save roughly 200,000 miles with US Airways – enough for one round-the-world ticket. We got the other ticket by taking advantage of airline promotions and credit card offers. For example, we got 40,000 miles from opening a US Airways credit card and earned miles every time we made a purchase. I also earned 100,000+ miles from promotions like the US Airways Grand Slam. There are a lot of great resources on the web if you want to learn more about getting free flights from credit card offers. There are also some travel credit cards that act like cash and reimburse you for travel like the Barclay's Arrival card.
We are not the first travelers to take advantage of credit offers to earn free flights. Some people call it travel hacking, some may think it’s unethical….but I disagree. Credit card companies take advantage of people all the time. Besides, they get a small commission each time you make a purchase with the card. But what I have learned is that actually using the miles to get a free ticket is almost never easy. To be blunt, it sucks. It’s a pain in the ass and I dread every time I book a ticket. But the moment we step off that plane into a new place, the memory of annoyance fades and the excitement of our new destination overtakes any past nightmares.
This is why it sucks. Most airline limit the award space available on flights and their websites don’t always show you all the options available. They don’t make it easy for customers to get free flights with their miles. To get the most accurate information and best deal, you must resort to calling the airline and even then, some agents are not knowledgeable and outright horrible at booking award tickets. There are complicated rules and each airline is different. I remember when we finally decided on an itinerary for our around the world trip back in January of 2012. I had spent at least 50-60 hours (no kidding!) planning the route and making constant phone calls to the airlines. There were times when I wanted to reach through the phone and slap agent on the other end for her shear arrogance, stupidity or complete lack of knowledge. But I reminded myself to be polite and simply hang up and call again in hopes of finding an agent who knew what the hell she was talking about. So after months of planning, I’d confirmed the route was possible and I made a final call to US Airways to actually book the ticket. The process took almost two hours over the phone and three days to be approved and finalized. Again…not a simple process.
Our Round-the-World Route
Our route took us around the globe from west to east, starting in Phoenix and ending in Los Angeles. Below was our final itinerary.
- Phoenix (US)
- Mexico City (Mexico)
- Catania (Italy)
- Lisbon (Portugal)
- Accra (Ghana)
- Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)
- New Delhi (India)
- Beijing (China)
- Tokyo (Japan)
- Los Angeles (US)
Our first flight to Mexico City seemed slightly underwhelming as the flight was less than 3 hours from Phoenix. It felt only mildly international since our round-the-world trip started in a location closer to Phoenix than Miami or New York City. But even though we started close to home, we ended up spending 3 weeks in Mexico studying Spanish and experiencing a culture completely different from the US. Unfortunately, we never made it to any of the beach towns that Mexico is known for like Cancun or Playa del Carmen that so many of our fellow travelers told us about. We would have loved to stay in a nice resort like the Riviera Maya hotel in the Mexican Caribbean, but we had already visited several beach towns back in 2010 on our honeymoon cruise, so we decided to move on to explore Central America. After Central America, we finally crossed the Atlantic to spend 3 months in Europe and later to Africa and Asia.
Free Flights Aren’t So Easy
We flew 30,387 miles on 9 separate flights and spent only $275 on the tickets, which paid for taxes and fees not covered by the mileage award. Tickets of this type normally cost $6,000 – $7,000 a person, so I’d say we got a pretty good deal. Saving this money on flights allowed us to travel much longer than we would have otherwise. For some time, I wondered why more people don’t take advantage of this way of traveling. But then I quickly realized it’s a problem of accessibility. Most people either don’t know it’s possible or, if they do know, they don’t know how or where to start. I’ll admit that booking a round-the-world plane ticket is complex and time consuming. In fact, even booking a round trip ticket to Europe with miles can be complicated if you want to get a good deal. So while a decent credit score is all you need to earn the miles, you need time, dedication and motivation to actually book the ticket and use the miles.
So Now What?
I worry that this post is not inspiring but maybe a realization. Traveling is a choice for us and we had to give up a lot to do it. Unless you’re rich…which we certainly are not…you really can’t live your normal life while traveling both luxuriously and exotically. The alternative is to give up something in your day-to-day life so that you can be financially able to travel. So the question remains…can you fly around the world for under $300? Well yes, we certainly did but do remember that you still need to pay for food accommodations, and activities. But remember there are ways to get this cheaply or for free as well…remember couchsurfing?? We also cooked many of our own meals while traveling and avoided eating at expensive restaurants. There are also many places like India, South East Asia, or South America where you can stay cheaply. So now the question is….will you choose to travel more? If you have dreams of traveling more or going abroad, you must ask yourself, “what is it worth?” “What am I willing to sacrifice to achieve this dream?” Long before our trip I thought “I don’t HAVE time to travel.” But I soon realized that I hadn’t MADE the time to travel due to some of my choices in life. Now it’s clear to me that if travel doesn’t become a priority in your life, then it will always be just a dream that never becomes a reality.
Tell us what you think! Are we crazy for giving everything up to travel around the world? Do you think it's worth all the time and effort just to get a free flight?