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Welcome to Part II of a three part series about why and how Amy M. Gardner and Keith R. Sbiral planned a heavily subsidized 10 week round-the-world trip to 15 countries, thanks to the power of miles and points. We hope you take this story as inspiration to travel more! Check out Amy and Keith’s content and beautiful photography featured on their blog Red Dot Blue Dot, which you’ll learn was of central importance on this journey.

This post focuses on the planning and execution of flights. If you want to read more about Amy and Keith’s time in each mentioned destination, followed their links.

Confessions of Delinquent Miles & Points Collectors

by Amy M. Gardner and Keith R. Sbiral

As we explained last week, to the extent we ever were points and miles ninjas, by the time we were booking flights for our round-the-world trip, we were out of practice.  (Check out the site for more information on photography, photographers, and places we visited.)

We started with about 900,000 American miles, 400,000 Ultimate Rewards points, 70,000 Citi Prestige points, 140,000 British Airways Avios, $1,000 in Southwest vouchers, 100,000 Southwest points, a handful of United miles, and 150,000 miles split between Alaska and Hawaiian.  (We had Barclays credit but used it pay for some of our train tickets and tours throughout the summer.)  Unfortunately, we did not have any Membership Rewards points and didn’t have time to earn them. We also had flexibility on some scheduling and none on others because of commitments for our coaching and consulting business.

We started by booking Barcelona to Chicago at the end of our trip. We booked two seats in American Airlines business for 57,500 miles each, reduced to 53,250 and 51,750 thanks to the 10% redemption bonus offered by certain Citi / AAdvantage cards. (When we realized we should have booked the flight for a week later, American kindly let us switch dates without a charge.) The cash price was $6662 each. 

We then turned to the flights at the beginning of our trip: Chicago to Medellín, Colombia July 1. That was where we first ran into trouble.  After looking at every option we could, and given our parameters, we had to book ORD-MIA-MDE on American paying about $550 each for coach. 

From Medellín we were on to Cusco, Peru. We again were unable to secure any appealing miles tickets and paid about $450 each through United on Avianca and TACA.n By now we were frustrated and reached out to a paid mileage booking service to handle the Asia leg of our trip. This meant we could focus on other flights, what we were going to do when we arrived, where we were going to stay, and getting ready for a 10 week trip.   

From Cusco it was on to Lima. Finally, an easy one. 4,500 Avios and $4.25 each later, we were able to avoid paying $101 each out of pocket. Not the world’s greatest redemption, but since Amy had earned the Avios years earlier and hadn’t been able to use them, we counted it as a win.   

From Lima, we needed to return to Chicago for speaking engagements and to pick up Keith’s mom. Eventually we flew Lima to Panama City to Mexico City using 25,000 UR points each transferred to United for business on Copa. (It was basically a recliner, but a good redemption given the alternative and that we needed to arrive rested. The cash price was $2331 each.) Then we flew Southwest Mexico City to Houston to Chicago for $278 in Southwest vouchers and about $200 in taxes total. (When our Southwest flight was delayed, we ended up earning more vouchers.) It was a long day but the Priority Pass kept us well-fed and showered. Houston was actually the only time all summer when we bought a meal in an airport.

Next were the Asia flights. Having help paid off, because of the time saved and because we had overlooked the possibility of a free layover in Seoul.  62,500 Ultimate Reward points and $95 each later, we had three Prestige Suite tickets on a 777 on Korean Air from San Francisco to Seoul.  (Unfortunately, Ultimate Rewards no longer transfer to Korean Air.) $472 in Southwest vouchers and $91 cash for taxes got the three of us from Chicago to San Francisco. 

After several days in Seoul and a day trip to the DMZ, we flew to Tokyo on the same Korean Air tickets in Prestige Plus seats for the 2.5 hour flight.  (The cash price for both Korean Air flights in business was just under $3,000 each.) 

After seeing Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara, it was back to Tokyo.  We transferred 60,000 Citi Thank You points to Virgin Atlantic and booked Keith’s mom on Delta One to Seattle. (There was no transfer bonus available, but the ticket would have been 100,000 Delta miles or $6776.) From Seattle, she went to Chicago on a paid Delta ticket.

When we were booking our own ticket in late May, we weren’t certain where we would go after Tokyo, and decided on Abu Dhabi to give us options and move us toward our target of Spain by mid-August. We could book Etihad business class in a 787 for the 12 hour flight with 86,772 Citi Thank You points, or 40,000 American miles. (The cash price was about $5,000 each.) 

Etihad 787 business class flat screen

We used American miles to book the Etihad Business seats since our Thank You points were mostly wiped out by the Delta One ticket. Even without pajamas or amenity kits, it was well worth it for the 12 hour flight and probably the best redemption of the summer.

Amy M. Gardner enjoying her champagne on Etihad business with her Full Focus Planner

From Abu Dhabi, the flight options were primarily out of Dubai, and after a few days in each city and a day trip to snorkel in Oman , we booked Azerbaijan Airlines to Baku, Azerbaijan. It was a memorable flight, as the majority of the passengers were children, the amount of plastic the extensive meal was wrapped in meant the floor looked like a stadium after the Super Bowl, and many passengers did not lock the doors while using the toilet.

Dubai to Baku flight on Azerbaijan Airlines

After several days in Baku exploring the city, the mud volcanos, and the countryside, we boarded Buta Airways (owned by Azerbaijan Airlines) to Tbilisi, Georgia. We paid about $106 each for the coach tickets as there were no good miles options. 

Buta Airways Azerbaijan Airlines’ low cost carrier) flight from Baku to Tbilisi, Georgia

From Tbilisi we did a day trip into Armenia by car, and then flew from Tbilisi to Kiev, Ukraine on Georgian Airways.  We paid $168 each for the 1.5 hour flight. This stop was primarily because Keith had long wanted to visit and photograph Chernobyl, but, as you’ll see in our post on lodging, we also had a great IHG redemption there.

From Kiev, we asked readers to select our next destination, and they selected Odessa, Ukraine.  We took the train because it was about half the cost of flying and we thought it would be memorable.  We were right.  (For more, you can check out Keith’s blog post.)

We planned to fly from Odessa to Spain and spend the next three weeks there.  But we learned while we were in Tbilisi that we might need to get to Washington, DC in August. Just in case, we found and held tickets on American from Frankfurt to DC. Sure enough, we needed to fly to Washington, DC from Odessa on one week’s notice. That set off a flurry of planning and made us glad we hadn’t completely wiped out our miles.  Ultimately, we flew Odessa to Warsaw on LOT, stayed overnight, and then onto Frankfurt on Lufthansa. The flights totaled $408 each (there were no better mileage options). After a night in Frankfurt, and a cancelled flight, we rebooked on British Airways from Frankfurt to Heathrow, spent several hours in the lounge, and then flew BA to Washington. (Lifetime gold status waived the close-in booking fees, so the tickets were $100 and 57,500 American miles each for business class seats.) We had made plans to meet friends from London in Seville, Spain, so as soon as our commitment ended (and after getting laundry done), back we went on paid tickets on Delta to JFK, where, after several hours checking out various lounges, we picked up our American flight to Madrid for 54,250 and 57,500 miles, (thanks to that 10% rebate) in business. (Coach tickets were approaching $3,000 by this point and business were over $6,000.)

American Airlines 787 from JFK to Madrid

After nearly a week of constant travel and a lot of long naps and working on planes, we were back in Spain, where we traveled by train and by car around the country and to neighboring Andorra until we flew home after Labor Day on those very first tickets we had reserved.

Stay tuned next week for Part III which will cover the hotels Amy and Keith booked with points throughout their 10 week trip. If you’re interested in sharing your miles and points story, whether that be collection, redemption, or in-flight, in-hotel, or in-destination experience, please email me at for consideration. I will be featuring at least one new reader story a month moving forward. 

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