Using Points to Make a Backpacking Trip to 32 Countries Across 6 Continents More Affordable!
Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full advertising policy: How we make money.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! Nate 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 Nate for sharing his story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.I’m Nate. I got into miles and points about five years ago after reading about it on the then-young Million Mile Secrets website. 😉
I’m now traveling the world for a year and writing about emerging backpacker destinations at my blog, TravelLemming.com.
What was the goal of your trip?
I wanted to see as much of the world as possible without burning all my money! After years of working in corporate and campaign jobs, I decided I wanted to take a year to see the world while I was still young(ish).
So last September I sold my car and almost all of my belongs except for a single backpack. I bought a one-way ticket from my home in Denver to Mexico City and decided to wing it from there.
In the eight months since, I’ve been to 32 countries across six continents. I’ve visited amazing sites like Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and the Pyramids at Giza. I’ve been on incredible adventures like driving a 4X4 through the Bolivian salt flats, attending a wedding in Morocco (for a couple I had never met!), and staring down a cheetah on the open savanna while on safari in Kenya.
My favorite places are usually those a bit off the normal tourist map or just emerging as destinations. I loved hiking in Kyrgyzstan, for example, or watching hot air balloons rise over the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar. I’m currently writing this while on a train criss-crossing Georgia (the country, not the state!).
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
Though I didn’t specifically plan for this trip, I’d banked quite a few miles over the past few years. Most of that came from credit card sign-up bonuses and points from everyday spend.
In total, I’ve collected about 400,000 points for this trip. I’ve taken almost 30 flights on this trip, but I’ve kept costs low by only paying in cash for cheap flights and using points for any route more expensive than $200.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
I still have a lot of American Airlines miles in the bank from when I used to be an elite traveler on US Airways. But I focus most of my credit card spend on transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points.
These are much better for international travel because you can easily transfer them to so many different airlines. I’ve redeemed points on a half dozen airlines, depending on who has the most favorable rates for travel on the route I need.
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
And in addition to the many partner redemption options, you can redeem for 1.5 cents per point through the Chase travel portal. This can be useful when trying to book on random airlines that aren’t part of an alliance. And this also means that, at a minimum, I earn 4.5% back on virtually all my expenses!
Moreover, this and other cards come with Priority Pass, which allows you into an excellent network of lounges abroad (much better than stateside). I would say that in 70% of the airports I visit I can get into a decent lounge. It’s so nice to be able to take a shower on a layover during an international flight!
I also carry the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. It doesn’t earn as many points for travel, but the fee is less and it still came with a hefty sign-up bonus. And I also use the Marriott Rewards Premier card occasionally, as it’s nice to have a few hotel points for places where accommodation is prohibitively expensive.
How did you search for and find the award flights?
The great thing about transferable points is that you can find a way to use them to book a flight for just about any alliance member airline. And, unlike US domestic airlines which too often limit award seats, it’s been my experience that international carriers typically have good seat opens for awards (especially in premium classes).
So I usually start by hopping onto Google Flights to see which alliance flies the route I want. Then I check their availability through partner sites. This can get tricky because not every airline shows all their partners’ award seats. But generally I use Air Canada Aeroplan for Star Alliance, British Airways for Oneworld, and Delta for SkyTeam.
But, importantly, I DON’T book on those airlines. Once you find a seat, you then need to look at the award charts of each of the transfer partners to figure out who has the best value for the destination you want. Each airline has different sweet spots in their partner award charts, and their regional definitions vary as well (for example, Georgia, where I currently am, is considered Europe by some airlines, Asia by others, and the Middle East by still others).
In short, finding award seats can be the most labor intensive part of the process, but I’ve found some great awards. For example, I once used 45,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points to United Airlines to book South African Airlines in Business Class from Sao Palo, Brazil, to Nairobi, Kenya. That flight would’ve cost thousands of dollars if I had paid in cash!
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
I find better value for my points in airline redemptions versus hotels, so I book and pay for my accommodation on HostelWorld.com, Airbnb, or Booking.com. I’m probably unlike most of your readers in that I normally stay in hostels, not hotels.
Hostels are much cheaper than hotels and, nowadays, of much higher quality than you might expect. Many of them offer private rooms that are virtually indistinguishable from budget hotels. It’s funny because I often fly Business Class using my points, so I sometimes look a bit out of place upfront with my Osprey backpack.
Sometimes I will stay in Marriott hotels using points, if a city is expensive or I am tired of sharing a bathroom with strangers. I especially loved the Courtyard Bali Seminyak Resort.What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
For me, the hardest part was learning NOT to plan. When I started traveling, I booked my accommodation and flights several weeks in advance. But I quickly learned that winging it can lead to much more interesting experiences, especially when you are traveling solo.
I never know when I’ll meet another person I connect with, or if I’ll hear about some off-the-beaten path destination nearby that I hadn’t thought of visiting. Having a store of miles and points helps me confidently maintain flexibility because I know that even if I find myself somewhere where last-minute flights out are expensive, I can probably find a flight for free using points.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
I’d break my fingers if I tried to type out everything from this trip (that’s why I started writing my blog). So I’ll focus on one destination here: Almaty, Kazakhstan. No, that’s not a typo – Kazakhstan.
If you think “Borat” when you hear Kazakhstan, you’ve been misled by Hollywood (most Kazaks cringe when you mention the movie). In fact, Almaty is a remarkably cosmopolitan city filled with charming hipster cafes, vibrant nightlife, and large green parks. It’s situated at the base of the stunning Tian Shan mountain range, so you can spend your day hiking jagged mountain peaks and still be back in time for dinner at a high-end restaurant (you can even eat horse meat if you like).
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
When I set out last September, I was afraid of traveling the world alone. I wasn’t even sure that I’d make it a month before scampering back home out of loneliness.
But thankfully it turns out the world is a much friendlier place than I expected, so I’ve made a ton of great friends along the way. And I’ve learned that I not only am perfectly fine traveling solo, but I actually prefer the flexibility that solo travel offers.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
I know I am really privileged to have the means to travel the world long-term. And while I know it’s not financially realistic for everyone, miles and points can help open up more travel opportunities even if you only have modest resources.
You need to bank as many miles and points as you can, but just as important is making sure that you are getting good redemption value. If you do that, it can pay off majorly. By my estimate, miles and points will have saved me over $15,000 in expenses by the end of the year!
That’s the vast majority of my airfare costs and some hotel savings at expensive locations. There are of course many other expenses involved in a trip of this size, but I’ve actually spent much less than I expected to thanks to miles and points.
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!
Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)