In recent weeks I’ve written about how this is my first year with 1K status on United and that to maintain that status I will need to do a few mileage runs just like last year. But an overall strategy is an important part of earning top-tier status unless you happen to travel frequently for work. After all, neither you nor I have an unlimited budget, and even if you did have that money, 100K miles is a lot to pack in using solely weekends and vacation time. So how do I do it?
Answer: I pack it in wherever I can and accept that I won’t always get to spend as long as I would like at my destination. Megan and I took a three-night trip to Paris last April. We were exhausted the first day after just getting off a red-eye from DC, but we dropped off our bags at the Crowne Plaza Republique (a great Hotwire deal at ~$100/night) and started walking toward the Seine. In the next few days we saw several museums and ate our way through about 10,000 calories of the best Paris had to offer. It was worth it. Later that year, we were traveling every weekend in August and September to vist her family in San Antonio, then my family in Sonoma, then a wedding in New Orleans, and so on. We missed out on some of the best weather following a relatively chilly start to Seattle’s summer, but we still had a lot of fun.
In order to make sure you reach your target, you need to have a game plan. Figure out where you want to go, what itineraries you’ll take (not necessarily direct routes), and how likely it is you can get a cheap fare that earns you the miles you need to obtain your desired status. For international trips, be careful because every program has its own rules about how codeshare flights are credited. United, for example, determines it according to the fare class on the operating carrier. This means if you have a deep discount fare for a United flight number operated by Swiss, you could end up with no miles. Other carriers and alliances have their own rules. (I believe American determines miles according to the marketing airline, so an AA flight number on a British Airways flight would be fine.) Unfortunately it can sometimes be tricky to figure out exactly how one fare class translates to the other carrier.
I usually keep my list pretty flexible. I have a list of cities, some general idea of the months of travel, and a typical fare along with a “best-case scenario” fare. This year’s list looks something like this, and notice I’m trying to keep it quiet near the end of the year since I hope (pretty please?) I’ll get to graduate by December:
- January: San Francisco (~500 EQM one way)
- February: Maui (~6,000 EQM)
- March: Bahrain (~18,000 EQM) and San Francisco (~1,500 EQM)
- April: Tokyo (~14,000 EQM) and Austin, TX (~4,000 EQM)
- May: Rome (~12,500 EQM)
- June: Mexico City (~5,500 EQM)
- July: Anchorage (~1,500 EQM one way) and New York (~6,500 EQM)
- August: Copenhagen (~12,500 EQM)
- September: Boston (~6,500 EQM)
- October: Munich and Thailand (award trip, so no EQM) and Chicago (~3,500 EQM)
- November: Amarillo, TX (~4,500 EQM)
- December: San Francisco (~1,500 EQM)
The above numbers are guesses, but after plugging my preferred routes into the Great Circle Mapper I got 100,030 miles.
Here’s another map after including the award trip to Munich and Thailand. Notice that because we’re now stretching all the way around the world, a polar perspective is necessary to include everything in one view.
Now, when I mentioned this plan to Megan she was about ready to flip out. I admit it’s ambitious. A few things will help lessen the physical pain. The award trip will be in business class, and hopefully in first class at least on the way back since I’m going to try to arrange to see Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal in Frankfurt. My 1K status provides me with six United system wide upgrades (now called “Global Premier Upgrades”) that I hope to use for the trip to Tokyo. I’m not sure what I’ll do with the remaining two just yet. I also have two regional upgrades (now called “Regional Preferred Upgrades”) that I may use on our trip to New York if I try to route us through San Francisco or Los Angeles to try out United’s p.s. service, a higher quality product limited to domestic routes between those cities and JFK.
Timing is a separate issue, particularly since Megan will have 16 vacation days for the rest of the year after we use four of them for Maui (I’m including days saved up from last year). We’re already planning on taking at least a week off for Munich and Thailand, maybe a bit longer. Tokyo would probably require another week off, while the trips to Europe and Mexico would only be four-day weekends. New York is another two days since Megan and I have July 4 off (a Wednesday), and we’d fly out then and return on Saturday or Sunday.
It’s also worth noting that Megan doesn’t have to come with me on all of these trips. One of those flights to San Francisco is solely to visit my dentist and optometrist, and the trip to Chicago is for the Chicago Seminars on October 12-14, which is not her idea of fun (more about this later; she may still come out and sightsee in the city).
As for cost, so far I’ve been able to bring the combined price on all four international trips down to $2,730 each and may be able to do better if I improve a couple of the fuel dumps, which, of course, I did not include in the maps above. Or did I? 😉 Right now there’s only about $700 in fuel savings per person. I also have $400 in vouchers from getting bumped off a flight last year and $700 in credit from my Citi ThankYou Premier credit card that I can use to purchase revenue tickets that still earn miles. Megan can get approved for the same card and add another $700 to that. Unfortunately my goal is to get the total budget under $3,000 each, and even after $900 in credits per person, some of those domestic trips are pretty expensive (Amarillo and San Francisco, going by price per mile). I’m hoping that a few mistake fares will help us reach my target, but I think the fuel dumps are really going to be the clincher here.
Wait! Don’t give up yet! You probably still want to know why I think $3,000-4,000 is affordable. Yes, I knocked it down, and many people pay far more to reach 100K miles, but it’s a lot for a graduate student. I enjoy travel, and I compromise on other things in order to afford it. A big help is that I have no debt, so none of my money is going toward interest payments. Don’t spend your money on travel if you already can’t afford your current lifestyle. On that point, another big help is that my cost of living is dirt cheap. Even after taxes, I can house and feed myself (and I like good food) for less than I did during college in Southern California. It gets tight if I want to max out my IRA at the same time I try to pay for all this travel, but no one expects graduate students to save for retirement anyway. I still try my best. And remember, the 200,000 RDM I earn in addition to the EQM will be worth approximately $3,000-4,000.
Finally, you have to have a plan for all the other related travel expenses besides just getting there. Megan and I have lots of Hyatt and SPG points that we can use for hotel stays, as well as two free nights at any Hyatt in the world. Perhaps an appropriate choice would be the Park Hyatt Tokyo, whose New York Bar featured in Lost in Translation? We could also each apply for Hilton or InterContintinental credit cards to earn additional points for free nights if necessary. It continues to look unlikely that I will try for elite status with a hotel this year unless a truly excellent promotion comes along, so I won’t mind using points to pay for all these stays. SPG will still allow me to earn status credit for points stays anyway, so I just might reach Gold, and I already have free Platinum status with my Hyatt Visa. I’ll guess I’ll have to settle with mid-tier status when it comes to hotels…