At the end of December, I sent out a request for reader contributions. I want to thank everyone who reached out to me in January with their ideas and stories. Your enthusiasm is inspiring! I am happy to say that I got enough of a response that I plan on publishing plenty of reader experiences in the future. If you want to share your story collecting or redeeming travel rewards, or your experience on the flight or in the vacation destination that your miles got you to, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
Today’s reader story is a joint collaboration written by couple Amy M. Gardner and Keith R. Sbiral, pictured in the feature image above at Machu Picchu. It is Part I of a three part series about why and how Amy and Keith set out to plan a 10 week round-the-world trip funded by travel rewards. The endearingly self-deprecating title, chosen by the authors, isn’t how I would categorize Amy and Keith myself. Their dedication to learning the trade and how they eventually (life gets in the way sometimes) implemented what they learned is actually quite impressive, as is the photography and content on their blog, Red Dot Blue Dot. All photos in this post are theirs and were taken during the 10 week trip.
Amy and Keith, thank you so much for sharing your story with me and MileValue readers. It’s great inspiration to be reminded that everyone can travel well for pennies on the dollar with a little foresight.
Confessions of Delinquent Miles & Points Collectors
by Amy M Gardner and Keith R. Sbiral
- Confessions of Delinquent Miles & Points Collectors: Part I, Background (this post)
- Confessions of Delinquent Miles & Points Collectors: Part II, The Flights (future post)
- Confessions of Delinquent Miles & Points Collectors : Part III, The Hotels (future post)
Part I: Background
Our goal beginning 2018 was to leave our day jobs and start working full-time with our executive coaching and consulting business, Apochromatik. Part of why we wanted to be our own bosses was to be able to travel more (much of our work can be done from anywhere), but it wasn’t until April when the idea for the trip featured in these posts came up.
Ultimately, we departed Chicago on July 1, 2018 and returned September 4, 2018. Over the course of nearly 10 weeks, we circumnavigated the globe and visited 15 countries, 13 for the first time. We used miles and points to keep the cost much lower than it would have been because (to answer the most frequent questions) we do not have a trust fund, or lottery winnings.
Let’s back up, though. Back in the early 2000s, we were committed to the points and miles game. Amy spent hours on Flyer Talk, and reading the blogs and even Inside Flyer magazine. Keith, on the other hand, initially feared it was all a scam, until we were able to take the (no longer offered) Hilton safari package. After an entirely free safari in Kenya, and combined with a great SPG redemption at the Arabella Sheraton in Cape Town, we returned from our mostly free 17 day trip to Africa in 2005 both fired up about miles and points.
For years we did everything from Mint shipments to Vanilla Reloads, with all those trips to the bank and drugstores earning points and miles for a year-long, round-the-world trip scheduled for “someday” — when we turned 35, or when we turned 40. We attended Frequent Traveler University and the Chicago Seminars several times, and even did some mileage runs for miles and status, but those ended as status seemed to be devalued and we shifted most of our domestic flights to Southwest around 2013 thanks to the Companion Pass.
That year-long trip didn’t happen, and we eventually checked out on miles and points. We checked the blogs from time to time, skimmed MileValue emails, and continued to be somewhat strategic with credit cards (we did MileValue’s Free Credit Card Consultation a couple of times and followed the advice), but mostly redeemed miles for flights (often 4 or 5 tickets so we could take our parents), and using hotel points to cover some costs along the way. (Neither of us had substantial business spending, and our limited business travel didn’t yield many miles or points after 2010.) We got lucky with some good redemptions, but by 2014 or so, most of our travel was routine, visiting the same places every year and using points or Priceline/Hotwire for hotels. That all changed in April, 2018.
In mid-April we were at a restaurant when Keith noted that if Amy quit her day job at the end of June, rather than September as planned, we could travel for 10 weeks over the summer. After telling Keith he was crazy and to pass the chips, Amy went home, refreshed our balances on Award Wallet for the first time in a long time, and wondered if Keith might be on to something.
The initial project was so intimidating, though, that we didn’t make much progress for several weeks, when we finally set some parameters. We would:
- visit countries we had not visited before (the exceptions were overnight layovers),
- focus on experiences,
- challenge ourselves and get out of our comfort zones,
- leave enough time to work on our business as we traveled,
- leave time for Keith to photograph and meet other photographers,
- invite friends and family to join us as they wanted,
- try to redeem miles for business class on flights over 6 hours,
- try to keep lodging to an average of $100/night, and
- not completely wipe out our points and miles balances (we didn’t want to be unable to travel ever again!).
Besides going to new countries and not going bankrupt, one of the things most important to us was to focus (pardon the pun) on places Keith wanted to photograph. An avid photographer, he wanted to be able to both shoot in interesting places and have time to return over the course of several days.
After hours spinning our wheels, we sketched out a rough plan. The first two weeks of July would be in Latin America before returning to Chicago for two speaking engagements. The second half of July would be in Japan (South Korea was added later thanks to Korean Air). By July 30 we’d be in the UAE. From there, we would make our way to Spain in time to fly home after Labor Day.
When we departed July 1, July was mostly planned, but we had no plans from landing in Abu Dhabi until our flight home after Labor Day. In other words, more was planned than Keith thought was ideal, and less was planned than Amy preferred (Sarah Page: this sounds familiar…), which gave us flexibility when we suddenly needed to come back to the US for 36 hours on one week’s notice in the middle of August.
Ultimately, our trip took us to interesting places, earned our induction into the Circumnavigators Club, and led Keith to launch the reddotbluedot.com community with a mission of providing space for great photography, great photographers, and travelers to learn, share, and engage in an online environment not bogged down in which gear is better or locked into a specific photographic point of view. (We even had readers select one of our destinations.) The blog led to a collaboration with Tog Tees in a limited edition Red Dot Blue Dot t-shirt, travel blogging, the chance to feature photographers from around the world, and probably most important to this audience: a renewed appreciation for traveling to new places, which forced us to be strategic about using those miles and points.
Up next: how we used miles on plane tickets to circumnavigate the globe, with a bonus detour from Odessa, Ukraine to Washington, DC and back to Spain, featuring business class on airlines including British Airways, Copa, Etihad, and Korean Air, with coach flights on Air Azerbaijan, Buta Airways, Copa, LAN, LOT, Lufthansa, Southwest, and others. In Part III, we’ll cover how we kept our lodging under our $100/night average, even in cities like Tokyo and Barcelona.