Once a year, go somewhere you’ve never been before – Dalai Lama
Where were we and where did we go
We traveled a bit before moving to London in 2009. We saw a few places in Europe and went to Hawaii as well as a few great ski trips to Colorado, Utah and Whistler B.C. But after arriving in London we realized just how easy it was to ‘leave’ London. They have 5 international airports and one is in central London. They also have the Eurostar train, which you can take from central London to central Paris in just over 2 hours! AND, the trains in Europe, including the UK are amazing, they go everywhere! So yes, it was easy to get out and explore many different countries and cities.
I think I counted 14 countries visited in the 3 and half years we were there. I can say that it really hooked us on travel and after coming back to Los Angeles we had to figure out how to get back into the international travel we had gotten used to doing and how to do it cheaply. Airfare in Europe is really inexpensive due to discount airlines that fly everywhere. Which is something we barely have here in the US.
After spending a year back in LA the travel itch was in full bloom. We hadn’t really done much travel as we were basically getting back into the LA life which included many visits with old friends and keeping up with family events. I was at that point when I thought we needed to get away and far! Along came the notion to go south, as in South America!
I was working as a project coordinator and had a bunch of free time to do some digging. I remembered we had once collected a bunch of airline miles in the past and was curious where that bunch was so I looked into it. Turns out that I had a few thousand and my husband had a few as well as some that had recently expired. Then I looked at how many miles we’d need to get somewhere, anywhere in South America. At first I looked at Argentina and Chile. We both didn’t have nearly enough to get there much less a round trip ticket.
We had flown over on American Airlines to Europe in the past and had built up enough miles to purchase a coach ticket then use our miles to upgrade to business class and those miles do expire but if you add to them now and then, it extends the expiration date. Sadly we let some go, not thinking about them while away for the time in London. But after some further research we were able to restore some of them for a small fee.
It seemed as though our dream to visit both Argentina and Chile weren’t going to happen, we’d have to split them up due to several reasons. The main reason was that we don’t get that much time off per year to be able to cover everything we wanted to do for that trip to both countries. Another reason was I was working as a contractor and wouldn’t be getting any paid holidays/vacation days. We had to change our minds and approach to how we were going to go anywhere.
Miles and Points Games
Having a bunch of free time during that job I discovered a few things. There is a huge worldwide community, one of which is FlyerTalk where people use the forum section to talk about trips, airlines, hotels, miles and points strategies and for people who love to fly in business or first class for less than a coach ticket. There are tons of other websites and blogs and Youtube videos on reviews on flights all over the world for methods on how to get those upgrades. After finding a few I found more and more that offered some great information on how to fly in front of the curtain!
Once we decided to leave the US we closed out almost everything related to our finances. We kept 1 bank account opened here and closed out all our credit cards. Sold both cars, I sold the motorcycle and almost all of our furniture. Imagine being to unload all that? No credit card debt! Well, the problem with that is when you do return you basically have to start all over again. But isn’t not difficult and if you do it right it can lead to a solid credit history again.
Back to the airline miles…I figured out how many miles we’d need to get to our new destination, Lima, Peru. Now I needed to figure out how to get those miles and enough to fly business class on the 11 hour flights. I mean, who wants to fly in coach for more than 5 hours? After realizing how many miles was needed I looked at the quickest way to make all those miles and no, it wasn’t donating a kidney.
For many years credit card companies, mostly banks, have been partnering up with major airlines here in the US and some in other parts of the world. Those partnerships offered a customer applying for a travel card a sign-up bonus after meeting a minimum spend on that card. The sign-up bonus is typically airline miles with that airline branded card. Those miles can be used to fly you where you need or want to go. These days the typical sign-up bonus will get you one-way to places in Europe or Asia or South America. If you have built up enough miles you can fly in the premium classes and lay flat in a small bed(your seat) to relax during the flight instead of sitting in a little recliner.
I signed up for my first credit card with a hefty sign up bonus and started to play the ‘game’. The term is actually “manufactured spending” where you basically are meeting the minimum spending requirements while limiting how much is actually out of your pocket. Most cards have a $3000 minimum spending requirement, you could do it organically by just living off that card for 3 months but if you want to speed things up and apply for several credit cards in a short time you’ll have to find ways to spend $10,000 in 3 months. I don’t have those kind of expenses.
Faking the spending, aka Manufactured Spending
I won’t go into too much on the methods that I used then, mostly because those methods have since been killed off or dried up. I’ll just explain that it’s a risk you take, as you never know if a method you are using today will still be available tomorrow or next week. What I did was spend or buy gift cards using the credit card then with the gift cards I would buy money orders that would then be deposited into an account I could use to pay off the credit card I initially used to buy the gift cards. Again, it’s not impossible and if I could follow it, most anyone could. There are some people who do this and break even with the expense of buying the gift cards, I wasn’t too concerned with those activation fees or fees to create/buy the money orders. I saw it as the price to pay for getting a better seat on the plane.
You have to understand the risk about this game. You can’t over extend yourself, you have to plan to pay off the credit card(s) used monthly so you’re not paying interest. You need to be conscience of where the money orders are and when to avoid being shut down by your bank. There are many variables with this and being vigilant over your finances is a priority.
Getting to Peru and back
After a few months and setting a travel date I was able to build up enough airline miles to get us to Peru and back for next to nothing on the airlines we flew. I hadn’t started to understand all the particulars of the sign-up bonus especially those of hotels so we paid for our hotel rooms during the trip. We flew business class on American Airlines and slept in a lay flat seat on the flight down and the return home. We had enough food and drink to put us out for 4 plus hours both ways. We didn’t feel like we had been folded up in a seat and stiff to where we couldn’t move when we arrived in Lima or Los Angeles. It’s a dream fulfilled! Here’s a link to some of the pictures.
Since that trip we’ve flown to SE Asia, China, and Europe, all in business class or first.
If you’re interested in understanding more about how this is done, drop me a line! I’ll be happy to share what I know and where I spend a few hours each day researching things. I’ll share other resources I’ve found to help navigate through the details.