In my younger years, I ran track for a legendary coach named Mr. Quinney. My high school’s girls’ track & field team went more than a decade undefeated in our league and nearly two decades as league champions; the boys team went something like 5 years without a league loss around the time I was in school. Every spring, there was a team meeting on the first day of track season. Annually faced with the previous year’s graduation of a state champion or three, Mr. Quinney would stand in front a hundred awkward teenagers in the gym and bark with the kind of defiance that inspires pride by setting expectations: “I’m not going to call this a rebuilding year, because when you call it a rebuilding year you’re making excuses for your losses before they occur.” I relay that personal tidbit to tell you this: if you saw the headline and the byline and thought this post was going to consist of me crying about being stuck with ThankYou points and how I can’t possibly win the #40Kfaraway challenge, I’m sorry to disappoint. This post is about a great option or two I’ve already eliminated — ways I could maybe win the challenge — if not for having come up with a better idea already. Ya know, a little something to
terrify inspire Greg the Frequent Miler and Stephen Pepper. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see yesterday’s post: Challenge! 40K to far away.
My first plan
When the idea for the challenge got floated, I didn’t hesitate to volunteer to take Citi ThankYou points. I did that on purpose: First of all, I know that ThankYou is the only currency of the three with no hotel partners. At least, not directly (more on that later). I figured this would make ThankYou points the likely underdog from the get-go. Joe from asthejoeflies was kind enough to offer the Vegas odds on Twitter.
That was actually kinder than I expected and was perhaps bolstered by my smack-talking in the comments section of the announcement. Maybe I should have kept a lower profile to maintain my role as the underdog. Julian from The Points Guy reports a less favorable outlook for me.
At any rate, I figured if I could beat Greg and Stephen while they are working with far superior currencies, the victory becomes even sweeter, no? And if it’s a close call at the finish, I have to get a little street cred for taking the hard road, right?
Of course, that was only part of my game plan. The truth is, I had an idea straight out of the gate that I thought would be a potential winner. Heck, maybe it still could be. Stephen Pepper, are ya listening?
Upon setting the ground rules (40K points and $400 to cover lodging, meals, taxes, fuel surcharges, etc), it seemed that the parameters dictated economy class travel. In other words, we’re all going to be crammed like sardines in the cheapest, ugliest, meal-less basic economy middle seats from here to wherever chowing down on peanut butter sandwiches we brought from home for days on end.
But what if I could not only get far, far away, but also travel at least a chunk of the way in comfort and style?
My first thought was of a sweet spot that Stephen and I share: Czech Airways from Prague to Seoul. That route is operated with an old Korean Airlines plane featuring fully-flat business class for the 10+ hour flight. Etihad Airways, conveniently a Thank You transfer partner (and also an Amex transfer partner), charges just 25,610 miles for the one-way journey. In other words, I could spend 10+ hours in a bed in the sky, with real catered meals and free-flowing wine and I’d still have 14K miles to go!
Of course, I’d have to get to Prague and we’re starting the challenge in the US. I wasn’t too worried about that. Knowing about the LifeMiles secret code to Europe (even if it hasn’t been cracked), I realized that with a transfer bonus (*cough*likethecurrentonethatsvaliduntilJuly5th*cough*), I could get to some European destinations for 14K ThankYou points or less. Alternatively, Air France KLM Flying Blue often feature a couple of US routes to Europe for 12.5K miles one way during the monthly promo awards. Between the two programs, I figured I could get somewhere in Europe, even if not to Prague, with the miles I had left to use. Once in Europe, a train or cheap flight could likely get me to Prague with ease. In fact, as I’ve shown in the LifeMiles secret code post linked above, a flight to Zurich could be had for 16,500 LifeMiles miles (14K ThankYou points thanks to the transfer bonus) and then an overnight sleeper train from Zurich to Prague would cost me 45 Euros (giving me both transportation to Prague and a cheap and flat place to sleep for a night).
To recap that more visually, I was thinking:
- 14K ThankYou points transferred to become 17,500 Avianca LifeMiles (enough to book NYC to Zurich for 16,500 miles one-way)
- 45 Euros for a sleeper train from Zurich to Prague
- 26K ThankYou points transferred to Etihad Guest to book Czech Airways business class from Prague to Seoul
That all sounded pretty good….until I realized that Etihad collects fuel surcharges on the Czech Airways flight. While it certainly wouldn’t be a deal-breaker under regular circumstances, at a total of just over $207 in taxes & fees, we’re looking at over half the cash budget on this flight.
Adding the ~$51 I’d spend on the train from Zurich to Prague and the ~$31 I’d spend in taxes & fees to fly to Zurich, I’d arrive in Seoul mile-less and with about $111 left in my pocket — assuming I didn’t eat, didn’t pay to position from our starting airport to that 16.5K flight to Zurich, didn’t pay for transportation from Zurich airport to the train or from Prague’s train station to the airport, etc. And I’d have not yet spent a night in a hotel. In other words, Seoul would most surely be my stopping point and I’m not even totally sure I’d have enough money left in my pocket to get into the city from the airport and sleep, no less do anything fun (at least they have free tours!).
Furthermore, Seoul is pretty far from the US for sure. But it’s not that far.
Getting far, far away: is that enough to win?
The Internet tells me that the geographic center of the 48 contiguous US states is just outside of Lebanon, KS. It looks like the closest airport is Omaha. Let’s assume for a moment that we started the challenge there and that I could position to NY for the LifeMiles sweet spot and take care of my other needs (food, other transport, lodging in Seoul) within the $111 in excess budget money discussed thus far. Here’s what my route would look like as described above:
As you can see, that’s a (very respectable) 10,534 miles. And 10 hours of that would be in business class.
But then I asked Google: what’s the farthest point on Earth from Omaha, NE? That point would actually be in the middle of the ocean, but FurthestCity.com was happy to provide the farthest cities with a population of 100,000+ people (and also a list of cities with populations over a million). Here were the 5 farthest cities from Omaha based on their measurements converted from kilometers to miles.
City Distance (mi) Perth, Australia 10,571 Vacoas – Phoenix, Mauritius 10,316 Beau Bassin – Rose Hill, Mauritius 10,311 Port Louis, Mauritius 10,310 Saint-Denis (La R�union), France 10,258
As you can see, the straight distance from Omaha to Perth without factoring in a single connecting flight is further than my intended route. The straight distance from Omaha to Seoul? Only about 6,388 miles without any connections. Getting to Perth would therefore seem like a win over getting to Seoul.
That’s a problem because Greg has a plethora of options with Chase Ultimate Rewards to get him from Omaha to Perth for just 40K points and a pittance of the cash allowance.
At that point, he’d still have most of the cash left over to book a swanky hotel and/or rent a car to drive it across the Aussie outback just to add insult to injury.
That’s not to mention that Stephen Pepper could probably use his cash allowance to buy the few thousand miles he’d be short to book a trip to Perth and be in a similar situation.
Of course, despite what JuicyMiles has to say about it in the screen shot above, I could also get to Perth with my points. I’ve been to Perth and I like it. I love the fact that there’s a hot dog joint called Run Amuk near Perth where the sign said Americans get a free hot dog on the 4th of July.
But if all three of us can get to Perth without much brain-power, it would be hard to be crowned a winner by simply planting a flag in Perth. It seems too easy.
So no, I won’t be setting off for Seoul, nor will I proceed directly to Perth. As I researched the options above, it became apparent that winning this competition is both going to require more creativity than that and at the same time be more subjective than simply getting to the farthest point without thought as to making it an interesting trip or a comfortable trip or something worth talking about in some way, shape, or form. At least, I hope so.
Citi does have a hotel transfer partner…sort of…but….
I mentioned farther up in this post that having Citi points, I might seem to be at a disadvantage in the sense that Citi has no direct hotel partners.
However, one needs to look no farther than the bottom of our Citi transfer partners page to see that I could indirectly transfer to IHG. That’s because Virgin Atlantic is a 1:1 Citi ThankYou transfer partner and Virgin Atlantic also has its own partnership with IHG whereby you can transfer Virgin Atlantic miles to IHG at a rate of 1:1.
We’ve obviously been talking amongst ourselves about this challenge for some time now. Until just last week, Citi was offering a 30% bonus on transfers to Virgin Atlantic. That meant that 8K ThankYou points could have converted to more than 10K Virgin Atlantic miles.
For at least a few moments, I thought that perhaps I would transfer 8K ThankYou points to 10K Virgin Atlantic miles and then transfer those 10K miles to IHG. My aim would then be to find a far / remote 5K PointBreaks property and build a trip around getting there to show that my ThankYou points could be useful for both airfare and hotel after all.
Thank goodness that transfer bonus expired before we announced the challenge. If it hadn’t, I’d still hope that I would have come to my senses sooner or later about what a poor idea that would have been. Since one can routinely buy IHG points for less than six-tenths of a cent and there are frequent opportunities to buy them for half a cent (and sometimes less), I could regularly buy 10K IHG points for $50-$60 or maybe get lucky and spend a little less. With my Citi Prestige card, I could cash out 5K-6K points at a value of $0.01 each and buy 10K points, saving myself a few thousand ThankYou points for a more valuable use. Better yet, I could use $50-$60 of the cash allowance if I insisted on buying / using IHG.
But then I realized that this trip doesn’t need to be as glamorous as Holiday Inn Express. Before miles and points, my wife and I visited dozens of countries on a shoestring budget. We spent our share of nights in cheap hostels like this:
So that we could kayak in the crater of a volcano like this:
Short story: I’ve roughed it before and I can rough it again. I don’t need the luxury of a hotel partner because I don’t need the luxury of a hotel.
Besides, with what I’m working on putting together, I don’t think I’ll have much use for hotel points anyway. And I even floated an idea in our week in review around the web about how to really cut down on accommodation cost.
In the past week, I must have told my wife at least a half dozen times, “Now I’ve got it. Here’s my plan,” only to change that plan again and again. Honestly, I’ve changed it enough times already that I kind of wish I could run this challenge two or three times — it’s been a good reminder already of just how far you can get with strategic use of miles and points. But for me, the challenge cuts deeper than the thrill of the hunt for a great trip: I’m a competitive guy and I’m playing to win. So don’t feel bad for me — I took ThankYou points on purpose. I know that people underestimate those points, and Mr. Quinney long ago taught me that when others underestimate you, but you don’t underestimate yourself, big things can happen. So by land, by sea, by air or by bike, I look forward to finding a way to “get away” that topples the big guns. I’m confident that they won’t make it easy, but I’m up to the challenge.