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Welcome to the next installment of our Reader Success Series where Million Mile Secrets Readers share how they booked a trip with miles & points to get Big Travel with Small Money!
Claudia is our newest reader success story to show folks it’s possible to travel without spending a lot of money.
A big thank you to Claudia for sharing her story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
I’m Claudia Wakefield and I’ve been collecting airline miles and hotel points for four years. Four years ago, I was researching how to find discount flights, because we lived in a small town in Alaska with only one airline and no road out.
I stumbled upon Million Mile Secrets and Frugal Travel Guy and that’s how this hobby started. Since then, we have traveled with miles and points to Japan, Spain, Morocco, Mexico, Hawaii, France, and Italy. I consider myself a beginner. I don’t spend as much time as I’d like on this, so I only focus on specific trips our family wants to take.
What was the goal of your trip?
Our family of four wanted to take a yearlong trip around the world. It has been my dream since reading the book “One Year Off” by David Elliot Cohen, 16 years ago. Unlike the author of that book, our budget was quite modest for such an adventure, so I knew we needed to cover the main flights with miles to make it possible.
All four of us sat at the table with a giant world map and everybody started pointing out the places they wanted to see. Our 7-year-old daughter wanted to go to Africa and see lions. Our 10-year-old son wanted to swim in Greece and Australia. Jeremy, my husband, wanted to spend time in Vietnam and walk the Camino de Santiago in the South of France and North of Spain. I always wanted to see Cambodia, Nepal, and Montenegro.
We also wanted to visit friends and family in Washington, California, Arizona, Argentina, and Germany. Because Jeremy worked in the tourist industry for the last 15 summers and we lived in a rainforest in Alaska (225 average days of rain a year!), the theme of our trip was to follow the summer and sunshine around the globe. That’s how our itinerary started to take shape.
We would leave Alaska on a ferry, road trip through Canada and the west coast of the US, and then go on to South America, Africa, Australia, Asia, and Europe. Nobody showed the slightest interest in Antartica.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
About a year. Once we came up with a rough itinerary, we identified the longer flights from continent to continent and figured we could cover the short, inexpensive transportation between countries.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
- 20,000 Alaska Airlines miles per person one-way from the US to Santiago, Chile
- 25,000 United Airlines miles per person one-way from Brazil to South Africa
- 20,000 Bank of America bonus points to pay for part of the tickets from Namibia to Australia
- 20,000 American Airlines miles per person for our final flight from France back to the US
We moved within continents via bus, ferry, rental car, Uber, and train.
We also booked a few inexpensive flights from Australia to Southeast Asia and from Asia to Europe, since using a lot of miles for cheap flights didn’t make sense.
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
- AMEX Starwood card
- Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa
- Chase Hyatt card
- Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card
- Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard
How did you search for and find the award flights?
Alaska Airlines and American Airlines both have easy sites to find tickets using the award calendar. For the other flights, I searched the partner airlines and once I found the flights I wanted, I called the reservations desk. Finding award tickets in coach class was not challenging, but it was sometimes tricky to find four of them together during high season.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
The Starwood website is very user-friendly. And we called the Hyatt reservations desk to book our free nights. We only used hotels in big cities like Paris. Other than that and because our trip was so long, we opted for more inexpensive options.
In Africa, we rented a truck with roof tents and all the camping equipment needed for a self-driven Safari in Namibia and Botswana.
We also rented Airbnbs for longer stays, since having access to a kitchen is key to save money when traveling with a family for extended periods of time. We also brought our camping gear to take advantage of the national parks in Australia.
In Southeast Asia, we booked hotels for an average of $25 per night. In Nepal, we walked to tea houses ($1 or $2 per person) while trekking the Annapurna circuit. In France and Spain, we stayed in private and municipal hostels ($5 to $15 per person) while walking the Camino de Santiago for 65 days (~814 miles).
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Planing an entire year of travel in advance. Part of the reason to take a year off was to get away from schedules and stress. So we wanted to have the flexibility to change our plans at any given time.
I like to plan everything meticulously, while my husband enjoys the freedom of making spontaneous decisions without being tied down to prearranged plans. In the end, we compromised and only booked the flights between continents.
The other challenging part was to homeschool on the road. It’s hard to keep the kids focused and motivated when you are constantly on the move. We still managed to complete the homeschool curriculum, but we changed the order of some of the units according to the countries we visited.
The kids got to learned about Greek mythology while visiting Crete, insects while we were in national reserves and parks in Africa and Australia, and discussed immigration while visiting a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
In South America, we got to visit our favorite beaches in the South of Brazil, Bombas, where we got married many years ago. Not many Americans visit Brazil, and they miss out on some of the best beaches in the world.
In Africa, we absolutely loved the self-driven Safari in Namibia and Botswana. We visited numerous parks and enjoyed seeing the animals in their natural habitat. I was a bit nervous about camping in the wild with children, but it ended up being an amazing experience. And at the end I was the only one getting zapped by the electric fence protecting the bathrooms. My kids will never let me forget that day, after I lectured them on safety around camp.
In Australia, there are so many amazing national parks that we could have visited a different one every day of the month we spent there for a $45 family pass. We loved hearing the kangaroos hopping outside our tent in the morning, but we won’t miss the shark that made us run out of the water in south Perth.
Our most memorable experience in Asia was trekking the west side of the Annapurna circuit with our children. The people and the scenery were unforgettable and it gave our kids a great sense of accomplishment when we reached the top of Poon Hill at sunrise. Also, they were extra motivated to keep trekking in high altitude when we told them we would take them to Yak Donald’s once we reached the village of Kagbeni. They loved the place, but they won’t be missing the yak burgers anytime soon.
In Europe, without a doubt, our most unforgettable time was spent walking the pilgrimage “Camino de Santiago” from Le Puy, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. At the end, we walked 800+ miles in temperatures between 30 and 90 degrees, rain and snow, and each one of us got to experience a spiritual and physical transformation. Also, if you are in the L’Aubrac area in the South of France, you have to try “aligot potatoes.” You can thank me later. 😉
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
We could all live with less, buy less, consume less, and waste less. Each one of us had a carry-on for the entire trip, and, even though all of our friends and family thought we were nuts, it was enough. We each had 7 summer outfits, a sweatshirt, and a rain coat. My husband carried the camera and I carried the first aid kit.
We only had to buy some warm clothes in Nepal but, other than that, we had everything we needed for our trip. It has been a humbling experience and we hope to continue living with simplicity once we return home.
We all learned a lot about each other. You think you know someone until you spend 24/7 for months at a time together, then you really get to know each other. One of the most important things I learned about my children is how brave and determined they are. Before leaving for our trip we didn’t dare to dream about trekking in the Himalayas or crossing the Pyrenees by foot. We were not exactly the outdoorsy, adventurous type.
I realize not every family will wake up tomorrow and trek the Annapurna circuit or walk the Camino de Santiago, but many of them could and should. We encountered many young people in Nepal who thought they had to do the trek before having children, and we met a lot of people on the Camino de Santiago who did the pilgrimage after their kids had left the nest.
The young ones were surprised to see children in Annapurna and realized the adventure doesn’t have to end when kids enter the picture. The older generation regretted not having done something like that when their kids were younger. They simply didn’t even consider it because they didn’t believe a child could walk 800 miles. Well, they can. Just give them the opportunity and they’ll surprise you. Children are simply extraordinary.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Going around the world is not just for wealthy families or single backpackers any more. There are ways for families to do it on a budget and, while you’ll need some healthy savings, it might be much less than you think. Plan your ideal itinerary and then budget the transportation, accommodations, food, entertainment, etc. Add an emergency cushion and then start figuring out what you can get for free or at reduced price. The amount of money we saved in flights is what made this trip possible.
Make your kids keep a journal. You’ll be surprised at the way they see the world and they will be memories they’ll keep forever.
Finally, I’d say go for it! It’s more possible than you might think. We didn’t want to wait too long to do this trip with our kids. We wanted to see the world through their eyes. We knew we had a window of opportunity and we took it. It was the best decision of our lives.
Want to Share Your Story?
If you’d like to be considered for our reader success story series, please send me a note! Emily and I would love to hear about how you travel with miles and points!