One of the things I was looking forward to most about early retirement was having the freedom to travel whenever and wherever we wanted.
After walking away from my full-time job last August, we utilized my newfound freedom and spent 3 months traveling all the way around the world.
We visited 14 countries on 4 different continents and here’s what our itinerary looked like:
The amazing thing is, the total cost for all those flights was only $947.91 per person!
Not only that, the purple lines on the map were flights in business/first class on some of the world’s fanciest airlines!
How is This Possible?
So how did we have the trip of a lifetime, traveling around the entire globe, for the same price many people spend on a roundtrip flight to Europe?
Let’s dive in…
Frequent Flyer Miles
The main reason we were able to travel so cheaply and luxuriously is because we utilized frequent flyer miles.
We easily saved over $5,000 on this trip alone and enjoyed many unique experiences we never would have had otherwise, all thanks to miles and points, but here’s the best part…
We accumulated all the frequent flyer miles that we used on our trip for free!
Here are all of our flights and their costs per ticket:
|Manchester, England||Los Angeles, USA||$327||0||–|
|Tijuana, Mexico||Guadalajara, Mexico||$69||0||–|
|Mexico City, Mexico||Bogota, Colombia||–||–||–|
|Bogota, Colombia||Cusco, Peru||–||–||–|
|Cusco, Peru||Bogota, Colombia||$157||20,000||United|
|Bogota, Colombia||Quito, Ecuador||–||–||–|
|Quito, Ecuador||Panama City, Panama||–||–||–|
|Panama City, Panama||Tampa, USA||–||–||–|
|Orlando, USA||San Francisco, USA||$79||52,500||United|
|San Francisco, USA||Osaka, Japan||–||–||–|
|Tokyo, Japan||Taipei, Taiwan||–||–||–|
|Taipei, Taiwan||Hong Kong, China||–||–||–|
|Hong Kong, China||Bangkok, Thailand||–||–||–|
|Bangkok, Thailand||Doha, Qatar||$77||30,000||American|
|Doha, Qatar||Muscat, Oman||–||–||–|
|Muscat, Oman||Abu Dhabi, UAE||–||–||–|
|Abu Dhabi, UAE||Amman, Jordan||–||–||–|
|Amman, Jordan||Glasgow, Scotland||$239||4,000||British Airways|
We obtained the vast majority of our miles for free thanks to lucrative credit-card signup bonuses.
Credit cards are so important to our travel plans that I created a custom web application back in 2011 to help me find the best signup offers.
Since some credit cards earn flexible points that can be transferred to many different airline and hotel programs at different ratios, it can be confusing which card is best to get for a particular airline or hotel.
Also, the other search tools that existed focused on things like APRs, balance transfers, etc. and didn’t display the things that matter most to travel hackers (i.e. annual fees, foreign transaction fees, etc.) so I decided to use my software developer skills to build a credit-card search tool specifically for travel hackers.
I just released version 2.1 of this application so let me know what you think after you try it out and if you want to watch a short video describing all the reasons it’s the best credit-card search tool for travel hackers, check this out:
Warning: You should only apply for credit cards if you can pay them off in full every month. It doesn’t make sense to earn free miles if it means you’ll have to pay a lot of money in interest every month.
To maximize the value of the miles we earned, we utilized two “sweet spots” in two different airline award charts.
United Sweet Spot
The first sweet spot we used was the Central/South America redemption with United.
Here are all the flights we were able to get for only 20,000 United miles each:
- Mexico City, Mexico to Bogota, Colombia (24-hour layover)
- Bogota, Colombia to Cusco, Peru (destination)
- Cusco, Peru to Bogota, Colombia (24-hour layover)
- Bogota, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador (8-day stopover)
- Quito, Ecuador to Panama City, Panama (open jaw)
Those flights, particularly to and from Cusco, are expensive so we saved a lot of money with this award.
AA Sweet Spot
The other sweet spot we utilized was the Asia to Middle East redemption with American Airlines miles.
We paid only 30,000 miles each (and about $77 in taxes) to travel from Japan to Amman, Jordan on some of the nicest business class planes in the world!
I don’t usually like to spend extra miles to travel in business class but economy class on this route was 23,000 miles so traveling in business class for an extra 7,000 miles is a no-brainer.
Note: The price of this redemption has increased to 40,000 for business class but it’s still a fantastic deal!
The best part of this redemption is that you’re able to have unlimited stopovers on the journey (as long as they are less than 24 hours and aren’t too far out of the way) so we were able to stretch our luxourious flight to over a week of free food, free drinks, and even a free hotel!
Here are all the flights we got for those 30,000 AA miles and $77 in taxes:
- Tokyo, Japan to Taipei, Taiwan on Japan Airlines business class
- Taipei, Taiwan to Hong Kong, China on DragonAir business class
- Hong Kong, China to Bangkok, Thailand on Cathay Pacific business class
- Bangkok, Thailand to Doha, Qatar on Qatar business class
- Doha, Qatar to Muscat, Oman on Qatar first class
- Muscat, Oman to Abu Dhabi on Etihad business class
- Abu Dhabi to Amman, Jordan on Etihad business class
If you ever book a similar itinerary for yourself, try to book as many of your flights on Qatar Airways as you can.
Even though many of those other airlines are renowned for being the best in the world, Qatar still blows them out of the water.
And if you do book yourself on Qatar, make sure you book an intra-Middle-East flight out of Doha because then you’ll get to access their amazing first-class lounge (Qatar don’t have business class seats on regional flights so they will just put you into first class instead)!
Not only does the lounge provide unlimited amounts of free high-class food and booze, they also have free “quite rooms” (a.k.a. hotel rooms) to use!
We already visted Doha before so rather than go out and explore like we did during the other layovers on this itinerary, we decided to stay in the airport and maximize our lounge visit instead.
Our Bangkok flight landed at around 10pm so we went straight to the first-class lounge, got a delicious snack (prepared by an always-staffed kitchen full of chefs), had a glass of fancy $200 champagne, and then retired to our private “quiet room” for the night.
When we woke up the next morning, we went for an Arabic breakfast, got some work done on the internet for a while, and then headed back to the restaurant for lunch.
Lunch in normal aiport lounges usually consists of some finger sandwiches and maybe some soup with a gross film at the top.
This was NOT one of those lunches.
First, we began by tasting every single red wine they had behind the bar (7 in total, including wines costing hundreds of dollars per bottle).
Our sommelier then asked what we’d like to order (we both got steak) and then he paired the food with even more delicious wine.
After a fantastic meal, he then asked if he could order us a cheese platter so that he could let us try some desert wine and 20-year-old port (if you insist)!
We enjoyed it all, ate some Arabic deserts, and then ran to catch our afternoon flight.
Best layover ever!
The entire Asia to Middle East leg of our trip was incredible though so if you wonder what you can do during 24-hour layovers, here are some of our highlights:
All of those fantastic experiences for just $77 per person!
How to Plan Your Own Free Trips
The trips I’ve described probably seem a bit complicated and that’s because they are. They take hours and hours of planning and require knowledge of the airline’s award rules.
If you’re just starting out though, you don’t have to go crazy like me. It’s possible to drastically reduce your travel costs with very little work.
Here’s a ridiculously simple 2-step process:
Step 1 – Figure Out What Miles You Need
When you know where you want to go, plug those details into Award Hacker to determine which type of miles you’ll need for the journey.
Let’s assume you will be joining us in England for this summer’s UK Chautauqua and afterwards, you want to head to Jordan so you can pretend to be Indiana Jones at Petra like we did.
Here’s what Award Hacker shows you when you plug in London to Amman:
As you can see, the best option is to use BA miles for only 12,500 BA miles each way.
Step 2 – Determine the Best Card to Get to Obtain Those Miles for Free
Now that you know you need BA miles, you can head over to the credit-card search tool I created to find the card you should apply for to get those miles for free!
In this case, you would just click the British Airways button and then the application will automatically display the best card offers that earn BA miles.
That’s really all you need to do to drastically reduce your travel costs!
No Trip Planned?
If you don’t have a specific trip planned yet but want to have a big stash of miles waiting for you when you hit early retirement, just start accumulating flexible points instead.
Flexible points protect you from program devaluations (i.e. when airlines/hotels make it more expensive to use their miles) and they give you more options when you actually do need to book a trip so they are the most valuable type of points available.
Check out the Flexible Points section at the top of my credit-card search tool to find some of the best cards that earn flexible points.
Sometimes it makes more sense to pay cash for a flight instead of using miles.
When I’m buying flights, I tend to use Google Flights to search because it’s really fast and it allows you to search multiple airports at once.
Another service that has been very helpful for finding really cheap flights is All the Flight Deals. You simply enter your home airport and then they email about any great deals or mistake fares that originate from your home airport.
You can get some ridiculously good bargains if you keep an eye out for them and are flexible.
Each time Jill and I do one of these big trips, we feel like we add new tools and tricks to our arsenal that help make future travels easier and more enjoyable.
One thing we figured out before this trip but was reinforced when traveling around the world was the benefits of traveling with carry-on luggage only.
We loved being able to comfortably walk around town with everything on our backs, it was reassuring to have our belongings in our possession at all times (on planes, trains, etc.), and having less crap to worry about in general was liberating.
And as I’ve mentioned in the past, packing cubes seem like a ridiculous accessory but they improve the carry-on experience exponentially so are totally worth it.
I Hate Taxis
I’ve always hated taxis but I hate them even more after this trip.
Before we arrived in Amman, Jordan, I read that the taxis there are notorious for ripping off tourists so I was ready for a bit of hassle but it was even worse than I expected.
Jill and I literally jumped out of a moving taxi at one point because the driver turned the meter off after we already started going and another time I got in a 5-minute screaming match with a taxi driver when he tried to charge us more than we had previously agreed. If you’ve never been aggressively cursed out in Arabic, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it.
Anyway, all of this nonsense is avoided when you use a ride-sharing app on your phone so if you haven’t signed up to Uber and Lyft yet, do it now so that you have it when you need it.
We used Uber exclusively during our month in Mexico and it made everything much less stressful because we didn’t have to worry about dealing with the language barrier and we felt much safer knowing our entire journey was already mapped out.
This was the first trip we ever used Lyft and it’s just as good and convenient as Uber (although it’s sadly not in as many countries yet).
This is also the first trip we booked accommodation with Airbnb and it too was fantastic. Not only were the places cheaper than equivalent hotels, they felt more homely, which was welcomed on such a long trip.
We liked Airbnb so much, we actually just finished renting an Airbnb for a month here in Edinburgh while we looked for a more permanent place to stay.
All utilities are included when you rent an Airbnb so it was great not having to pay for heat during the coldest month of the winter! I don’t think we’ve ever been that warm in January before :)
If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet, sign up here to get money off your first booking.
Good to Be Home
At the end of it all though, I realized how much travel helps you appreciate home.
Our trip was incredible and it was one of the things I was looking forward to most when I thought about leaving my full-time job but after over 3 months of being on the road, I was ready to get home again.
It’s funny how you appreciate small things about ordinary life when you get back. We’ve been home for nearly two months and I still get a lot of joy out of getting a nice cold glass of water to drink directly out of the tap!
Another reason I’m happy to be back is because it’s hard to be productive when you’re constantly sightseeing, figuring out where to eat next, looking for flights, etc. so I didn’t get much done when I was travelling.
I’ve realized that I get a lot of happiness by making progress on projects that are interesting and important to me and I’m able to get more done when I’m in a routine so I’ve come to accept that perpetual travel is not on the cards for us.
Trips like the one we just completed are fantastic though so although we’re not going to be full-time nomads, I look forward to planning our next big trip soon.
Hopefully some of the tips and tricks described in this article will help you book your own low-cost adventure and you too can enjoy a nice victory lap around the world after you quit your job!