How to Travel Around the World for $418.

“I have to tell you sir, this is easily the most ridiculous itinerary I’ve ever put together,” said the American Airlines operator the other night as I finalized plans for a worldwide adventure that would make Marco Polo blush.  “Welp, that makes two of us!”  I replied.

And just like that, I had committed myself to almost nine months of international travel.

Yes, that picture above is my actual itinerary.

Beginning this January, I’ll start an epic journey that will take me across four continents, through at least nine countries, and into more than fifteen cities.  I’ll fly on fifteen flights covering a total distance of 35,000 miles.  To put that in perspective, that’s almost 1.5 times the circumference of the globe.  While visiting these locations, I should be able to cross off over a dozen goals from my Epic Quest of Awesome.

Oh, and all of these flights are costing me a grand total of $418.36.

WTF?

Warning: I’m totally going to geek out on travel-hacking with this post, so if you have no interest in learning how to travel the world and visit awesome places for dirt cheap, check back in on Monday.

This post is also quite lengthy at over 2500 words: grab some coffee, get comfortable, and let me show you how deep the rabbit hole of travel hacking goes.

UPDATE: My trip has come to an end, though I’m still traveling here and there.  Here’s a recap of my 14 months of Adventure Travel.

My Itinerary

Although I plan to get to Sydney much sooner should a flight open up (and in turn extend some of my SE Asia stops), here is my rough itinerary for 2011:

  • The Rock Boat – Jan 6 – 10
  • Los Angeles - Jan 14 – Feb 13
  • Sydney, Australia – Feb 15-20
  • Auckland, New Zealand – Feb 20 – Mar 20
  • Brisbane, Australia – Mar 20 – Apr 9
  • Alice Springs, Australia – Apr 9 – 12
  • Perth, Australia – Apr 12 – 14
  • Singapore – Apr 14 – 16
  • Bangkok, Thailand – Apr 16 – May 9
  • Hong Kong – May 9 – 12
  • Shanghai, China - May 12 – 22
  • Tokyo, Japan – May 22 – May 27
  • San Francisco – May 26 – Jun 3 (yes I go back in time on the flight home)
  • Portland – Jun 3 – 7  (World Domination Summit!)
  • Boston/Atlanta – Jun 8 – Jul 30
  • Chicago – Jul 30 – Aug 4
  • Dublin, Ireland - Aug 5 – Sep 2
  • Madrid, Spain – Sep 2 – Oct 10
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina? – Oct 15 – Nov 30 (not booked yet, but I still have enough miles to make it happen).

Unreal, right? If I were to pay for this adventure with cash and book individual flights, it would cost almost $6,000 (using the cheapest option for each leg on Expedia.com).  The best part is, the dates of this adventure aren’t set in stone – as long as I don’t change WHERE I’m going, I can change the date and time of each stop without penalty.

Here’s how I got this incredibly flexible itinerary for only $418.

The Beauty of Travel Hacking

After buying travel guru Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Master e-book last fall (who also now offers a more robust Travel-Hacking subscription), I became addicted to travel hacking, acquiring an INSANE amount of frequent flyer miles for various airlines through an assortment of lucrative credit card deals.  I have excellent credit, generally get the first year fee waived, use the card for EVERYTHING, pay off each card in full, and receive a certain number of miles for spending enough money to receive the bonus.

In the past eleven months alone, I’ve earned without flying:

  • 130,000 American Airline miles
  • 105,000 British Airways Miles
  • 40,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points
  • 25,000 American Express points

I use these points to book insane trips around the world…like this one! To answer your first question, I didn’t buy ANYTHING outside of what I would normally purchase to get these bonuses – I’ve lived extremely frugally over the past year.  For example, to earn 100,000 British Airways points, I had to spend $2,000 in six months – after prepaying my car insurance for the year, and putting all of my other payments (gas, food, cable, gym, etc.) on the card for a few months I hit the bonus with ease.

For me to complete this particular trip, I had to use a combination of American Airline miles and Starwood Preferred Guest points. I had already used 32,000 AA points for my trip to Peru last month, so I simply transferred 40,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points into my AA account (complete with a 10,000 point transfer bonus), which gave me the 140,000 points needed to book my trip.

If you’re interested in learning more about frequent flyer credit card programs and last-minute deals, head over to Frugal Travel Guy and check out the different cards listed in the right hand column.  Rick runs THE best frequent flyer website out there, so start checking it daily if you’re looking to take some fun trips for dirt cheap – his site is one of the sites I make sure to visit every morning.

I would recommend signing up for the two cards below on the same day:

The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card.  10,000 points on first purchase, 15,000 points when you spend $5000 in six months.  These points are great for hotels, or you can convert them to many different airlines with a 20% bonus (convert 20,000 points to AA, get 25,0000 AA points, for example.)  This is one of the few cards I gladly pay the yearly fee for each year.

The Chase Sapphire Card – 40,000 points when you spend $3,000 in three months.  These points also convert to various airline and hotel programs, or you can pay for flights and hotels directly with your points.  This is also one of the few cards I gladly pay to keep open each year.

You just have to keep an eye out for special deals (which is where One Mile At A Time and  Frugal Travel Guy comes in handy). Worried about your credit score? If you carry no credit card debt, pay off your cards in full, and then negotiate for fee-free cards after your first year your score will not be affected negatively.  If you decide to cancel the cards after a year, depending on your credit history it can take a hit of a few points before rebounding.  Do the research; it’s not as terrifying as you’d imagine!

How to Use a OneWorld Award

As of three weeks ago, my plan was to book a one-way flight to Sydney and figure the rest out after that. However, after reading posts from Sean Ogle and Cody McKibben about Thailand, I knew I had to swing through Southeast Asia to check it out.  I calculated that using points to go from Los Angeles to Sydney to New Zealand to Thailand back to Los Angeles would cost me around 110,000 points.

After looking at these beaches in Thailand, I knew I had to go:

So it was settled – I was going to Thailand.

I then discovered OneWorld Awards and my plans for 2011 exploded.

OneWorld Awards are flights that are based on how many TOTAL miles you fly instead of dealing with individual flights. They also allow you to fly on most of American Airlines’ worldwide partners, and you can make a total of SIXTEEN STOPS.

According to their award chart, for only 120,000 points (10,000 more points than I would have used the other way) I could fly up to a total of 25,000 miles and make 16 stops anywhere along the way.   However, for only an additional 20,000 points, I could fly up to 35,000 total miles instead…

Which got the gears turning in my head.

Because I had 140,000 AA points at my disposal, I decided to tack on a visit to both Dublin and Spain for next fall!  Obviously it was a big decision to add a Europe portion to my trip, but it only cost me an additional 20,000 points, round-trip.  Considering a round-trip flight to anywhere in the states is 25,000 points…I’d say it’s a pretty good deal!

Now, there were some funky rules that I had to work around for my itinerary:

  • I can’t stopover in the same city twice, which is why I’m flying out of LA, then back in through San Francisco.  It’s also why I’m flying out of Chicago and back in through Boston when going to Europe.
  • I can only have one open gap on the trip, which counts as one of my 16 ‘stops’ but doesn’t factor into the mileage calculation – my open segment is a gap between San Francisco and Chicago.  I’m responsible for getting myself from San Fran to Chicago next summer.
  • I can’t change what airlines I fly and where I stop, but I can change the dates and times of ANY of the flights free of charge (as long as there is availability).
  • I have to complete the whole trip within 12 months.

I have to give a HUGE shout out to the incredible community over at Flyer Talk.com for helping me put together this trip and answering my questions. That is the place to be if you have any sort of interest in frequent flyer programs, travel hacking, and such.  It can be quite intimidating due to the sheer amount of information on there, but once you get your feet wet it’s easy to navigate and you can pretty much find an answer to ANYTHING.

How to Build Your Award Travel Flight

If you’re interested in seeing how many miles your dream flight would be, check out Great Circle Mapper. Simply plug in your airport codes (which you can find here) and it will tell you how long your flight is!  Here is my crazy itinerary.  I’m not kidding when I say that I spent probably more than 24 total hours in the past three weeks having a blast on this thing creating itineraries, checking mileage, and figuring out where the heck I could go without going over the limit.

Here’s another invaluable tool – OneWorld “Who Flies Where?”. This is where you can find out which OneWorld alliance airlines fly where, so you can put together a legitimate itinerary.

A few other tips:

  • Try to book your trip either WAY in advance (flights open up generally 330 days in advance), or last minute like I did. If you NEED to go on specific days, book it as far in advance as possible, as each plane only has so many “award seats” available.  When booking last minute, you might need to be flexible with your dates as often the most popular legs have already been filled.
  • If you sign up for a Qantas FF number (you don’t need miles or to fly them), you can search their database to see which flights have available award seats. You can also do the same for British Airways for flights that don’t show up on Qantas (and vice versa).  Between those two I was able to line up all of my flights before calling American Airlines to book them.
  • When booking, it’s a crap shoot how helpful your phone operator will be. I had to call back three times to get an agent that could help me re-calculate a segment of the trip that AA’s computer had screwed up.  It’s not the agents’ fault, some just happen to be more knowledgeable with this type of flight than others.  If the one you have doesn’t help, simply hang up and call back!
  • Flights change. New award seats open up last minute, and these types of itineraries are free to change as long as you don’t change the airline or destination.  I plan on getting to Australia much sooner than February 13th when a flight opens up while I’m in Los Angeles.

Now, if you have your points in other airlines like Delta or United, they are part of their one worldwide alliances who ALSO offer flights like these…visit their websites, look up their alliances, and start planning.

How I Am Able to Afford 6 Months of Adventure Travel

Next week, I will be moving out of my apartment in Atlanta, and I have no plans to actually RENT a place in the United States until at least 2012. I will also be selling my car, and I don’t expect to own a car until 2012 either.  Once I’m not paying rent, car insurance, car payments, or fuel…my financial ties will be minimal (just some student loans and health insurance).  When I don’t have my money promised elsewhere, I can use the rest of my money to live VERY CHEAPLY overseas (hostels, couch surfing, etc.).

I am certainly not rich, but I’m incredibly fortunate to be 100% in control of my time and location because I am my own boss. I can operate Nerd Fitness from anywhere with an Internet connection, so I’ll be working the entire time while traveling, connecting with readers, writing about my adventures, creating more awesome workout videos, and inspiring others to also do stuff that scares the crap out of them.

The Rebel Fitness Guide is still selling well, t-shirts are flying off the digital shelves, and I’m hard at work on my second e-book as well.

Because I’m traveling so cheaply, I’ll be able to use the majority of my money to cross off some of the more expensive things on my Epic Quest listThese are the things I hope to accomplish in 2011:

  • Skydive in New Zealand
  • Scuba-dive the Great Barrier Reef
  • Something Lord of the Rings-related in New Zealand
  • Visit Ayers Rock in Australia
  • Exercise on the Skybridge of Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia
  • Visit the Great Wall of China
  • Find the Ninja Warrior Course in Japan
  • Visit the Blarney Stone in Ireland
  • Party on the island of Ibiza in Spain
  • Wear a Tuxedo and gamble in Monte Carlo
  • Climb the Eiffel Tower in Paris

Now, a lot of these things are incredibly expensive, so I’ll be using any sort of connections or resources at my disposal to try and accomplish the goals as frugally as possible. If you happen to have ANY connection whatsoever with any of these goals and can help out, I would greatly appreciate it: specifically the NZ skydiving and Great Barrier Reef Scuba diving…those things will probably bankrupt me :)

Why This Trip Scares Me

Eight months ago, I was sitting at a desk job dreaming about going to Australia “some day.” Last night, I booked a trip that will not only take me halfway around the world, but it will keep me on the road for pretty much nine months.   This scares the crap out of me.

Here’s why:

  • I speak English and Spanish,  but I certainly don’t speak any of the languages used in Southeast Asia, China, or Japan. I envision lots of things getting lost in translation.  Looks like it’s time to start reading everything Benny The Irish Polyglot’s ever written.
  • I’ll be traveling alone. So much for strength in numbers!
  • I’m a picky eater.  Who KNOWS what kinds of situations I’m putting myself into!
  • I have a feeling I will get mighty homesick, as I’ve never been out of the country for more than three weeks…which was my trip to Peru a month ago.
  • I’m worried that something bad will happen that I can’t get out of. Not that I plan on doing anything illegal (I don’t use drugs and didn’t even start drinking until 3 months after my 21st birthday), but I REALLY don’t want to end up in a Cambodian jail strung up by my toes.

Now, fortunately the same reasons that I scare me also excite me. I don’t speak the languages in Asia, so I’ll have to start learning them.  I also have to become resourceful, rely on my instincts, learn to navigate foreign environments, operate outside my comfort zone, expand my horizons when it comes to food, learn to deal with homesickness, and talk my way out of various situations.  I have this vision in my head of me becoming a real life Jason Bourne (hopefully without the assassination stuff), and this is a fantastic way to find out what I’m made of.

I understand that not everybody can just pack up and leave for nine months, so I know this is the opportunity of a lifetime.  I figure I might as well do this now when I’m 26, no wife, kids, or mortgage, because who knows what will happen a year from now.  I plan on packing Nerd Fitness full of awesome stories, both good and bad, about the whole adventure.  I’m looking forward to working on the road, exercising in unique locations, meeting amazing people, and going on some pretty epic adventures.

If you happen to live in one of these cities, or know a good friend that lives in one of these countries, shoot me an email and maybe we can meet up!

What’s Your Dream Adventure?

I realize that was quite the long post and didn’t have a lot of “fitness” in there. However, hopefully it showed you what’s possible when you get creative with your travel plans, set your mind on some insane goal, and harness the power of the internet.

If you have a trip of a lifetime that you never thought you can afford, you’d be surprised how cheaply it can be done. You don’t need six months, you don’t need a location independent business (although it CERTAINLY helps), all you need is a few hours of free time, a desired location, and a little bit of hard work.

As you can tell, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with travel hacking – it’s like my new favorite hobby. Eventually I hope to create an ebook of my own dedicated to adventure travel hacking, but in the meantime I’d love to answer any questions you might have on planning your adventure.  If I can’t help you, I can certainly point you in the right direction.

So, what’s on your bucket list?  How can I help you level up your life by crossing things off of it?

-Steve

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If you’re looking for more in-depth travel-hacking services, check travel guru Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Master e-book or his  Travel-Hacking subscription. Yes those are both affiliate links, so I make a commission if you click through and buy either of them.  I have no problem promoting both of them however, as both the ebook and the subscription service have helped me rack up all of these miles and book awesome trips.

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  • fiddler11

    You’ll spend that much in Singapore for a room for 2 nights. LOL.
    Seriously though: I airhitched to London in ’91 and travelled all the way to Australia via land for about $300 including the trans-Siberian railway for $18 (7 time zones for $18 might be a record?)
    Have fun. Bangkok is the best on your list IMO.
    Japan, Australia, Singapore too expensive anymore. I packed a weeks worth of p-nut butter and j for the 2 weeks I hitchhiked around there. Spent $200 in that country anyway.

  • jah

    check out http://www.grouponnz.co.nz/
    the best n cheapest is Lake Taupo to skydive in New Zealand

  • Jonathan Suchin

    I don’t know if you’re still checking this or if there’s been even more advances made, but I hope you know that you’ve inspired me to pursue a dream like yours.
    Good luck wherever your travel hacking has taken you and I aspire to join you in the coming months.

    -Jonathan

  • Lisa Stevens

    This is an amazing and insightful post! I can’t believe the trouble you went to, i totally inspire to put a trip like this together the second i get some UNI qualifications! It all seems very complicated with all the websites and terms and conditions navigations when actually booking the trip

  • Lisa Stevens

    Lucky getting to travel like that! Must be great to have travelled so early before everything became so expensive!

  • Jess

    You are awesome. Kind of my hero

  • Cat

    Cool, but many people don’t have 10 months to be on vacation.

  • http://www.w-limo.com/ Vince Zogovich

    Awesome.Thanku for nice post

  • Pingback: It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This. | Nerd Fitness

  • http://www.joaoleitao.com/ João Leitão

    haha this itinerary is awesome!!! bon voyage! greetings from Rio de Janeiro!

  • disapointedfreeflyer

    oneworld Explorer Awards are no longer available for award booking. We will continue to honor any award tickets issued on / before April 7, 2014.

    http://www.aa.com/i18n/AAdvantage/redeemMiles/makingAwardReservations.jsp

  • http://bethannesbest.com/ Beth Anne

    This is so awesome! My current task right now is getting my credit up so I can qualify for all these travel credit cards so I can travel for cheaper :)

  • Pingback: Travel for Free with Credit Cards | Travel Savings | Credit Karma

  • Dreamer

    This is frickin awesome!
    too bad im in New Zealand so offers to get heaps of frequent flyer points are limited and im scared of getting a credit card.

  • marieflair

    really helpful. I wish to travel these places someday.

  • Sean Simpson

    this is cool but not quite around the world, it misses out entire continents

  • abi

    This is awesome! here I am a civil engineering student sitting at my internship working on roads but dreaming of cheap transportation for everyone while you’re actually doing it!
    Question, do you think anyone would pay for zeppelin travel anymore? I just know when I graduate I want to dedicate my life to the $20k a year world and one of the things I hope people can have in my lifetime is the opportunity to see it. (clean water, safe structures and all that, but travel is my passion)