New York Times 52 Places to Go in 2014: Where I Want to Go and How I’d Get There

The New York Times just released it’s annual list of places to go in 2014 – this year’s list features 52 exciting and amazing destinations. If traveling was my full time job I would love to go to all 52, but one can only dream. So each year we typically narrow down the list to a couple destinations that we would really like to visit, and start to figure out strategies for getting there. From the 2013 list, we were able to hit #31 Sri Lanka, #33 Bangkok, #42 Myanmar (technically went in December 2012), and #44 Washington DC.

As I was perusing this year’s list I got the idea for this post – since I’ve been getting questions from a lot of people (friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers) asking how the heck we get to fly for free, often times in first class. So as we are doing some preliminary planning for 2014 travel, I figured that I’d share my strategy and thought-process for booking flights to a couple of the destinations among our top 5 from the list. Who knows if we’ll even get to go to any of these, but it’s fun to think about since we have the points/miles to fly there anytime this year, even this weekend, and all for free  ๐Ÿ™‚  Here’s our top 5 travel wish list for 2014:

#7 Ecuador
#23 Dubai
#27 Seychelles
#38 Arctic Circle
#39. Dar Es Salaam

#7. Ecuador

This is definitely #1 on our bucket list, and specifically we’ve been dying to go to the Galapagos to spend a week diving with turtles and hanging out with the amazing wildlife down there. Hotels are actually a tough one here since there aren’t many chains to start with, but the best way to see the Galapagos is actually via cruise.

So assuming that we would book a cruise, the main questions is “how am I going to fly there?” This is where it’s important to have a basic understanding of the airlines and their route networks within each of the major alliances:

Star Alliance (*A)
One World (OW)
SkyTeam (ST)

The links to each of them show the member airlines within each alliance, and a bit of research beyond that will show where each individual airline’s hubs are located and more importantly where their route network can take you.

So which airlines look good for getting to Quito, Ecuador (UIO)? From here I hopped over to kayak.com which will show almost all of the flight options available, and I found the following options (many more were displayed but I filtered down to options with only 1 connection):

1. United Airlines (*A): SFO-IAH-UIO
2. American Airlines (OW): SFO-MIA-UIO
3. Aeromexico (ST): SFO-MEX-UIO
4. Delta (ST): SFO-ATL-UIO

I’m actually surprised by the number of options here, and most importantly that they span across all three alliances. Often times, specific destinations are only serviced by a single alliance, and if you have all your eggs in another alliance’s basket, they’re essentially useless.

In this specific case, I have enough United miles already for a round-trip (40,000 economy / 70,000 business class) or American Airlines miles (35,000 economy / 60,000 business class) to book the ticket, and could utilize either based on my preferred dates and routing being available.

But let’s say that I didn’t have any miles, as is the situation that many are in as they are just getting into this game. How would I get enough miles for 2 economy tickets on United (80,000 total) or American (70,000 economy) to get there? There’s a few ways, but they all require some time (several months) which is why it’s important that all of this goes into the planning process well in advance, and not the month before you want to go.

The easiest way to get miles is through flying – if you travel regularly always make sure your frequent flier # is entered, and don’t use multiple numbers within the same alliance. For example, if you’re taking a flight on Lufthansa or Singapore Airlines (both members of the *A), in general it’s best to credit to United if that’s your primary account. After each flight you’ll receive the miles a few days later, and if you’re a heavy flyer (100,000+ miles per year) you’ll likely earn more than 200,000+ miles with all of the bonuses that come with elite status.

If you don’t fly regularly, like me, the next best way to get miles quickly is through credit card sign-up bonuses. Based on the card you get, it’s really easy to get 50,000 to even 100,000 miles/points for each card you sign-up for.  Most credit cards are specific to the airlines (e.g. United, American, Delta, etc.) but a few programs that allow transfers into multiple frequent flier programs are:

Chase Ultimate Rewards (recommend the Chase Sapphire card),
American Express Membership Rewards (recommend the Premier Rewards Gold card),
Starwood Hotels loyalty program

So there you have it, with the right credit card strategy and 2-3 good sign-up bonuses, you’d have enough points to get to Ecuador, with even some leftover. And one of the biggest misconceptions about credit cards are that they kill your credit score, which is just not true. While each credit card application does hit your score by 3-5 points in the short-term (3-6 months), in the long-term it’s actually more important to show your credit worthiness by having multiple lines of credit which will also help your utilization %, of course assuming that you manage everything responsibly and pay your bills on-time.

#23 Dubai / #27 Seychelles

The next destination I’ll cover is actually the combination of Dubai and Seychelles and I’ll explain why I can kill two birds with one stone later.  Every since our honeymoon when we got to spend an extended layover in Dubai, I’ve been wanting to go back to enjoy more of the opulence and extravagance of the city. And now that we checked the Maldives off of our bucket list (although I’m dying to go back), we’ve heard that the Seychelles in Africa is equally amazing, and was even good enough for Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge’s honeymoon.

Starting with the same method as the prior section, jumping over to kayak.com doesn’t yield many options. And man, the Seychelles is a long, long way from SFO with almost all routes logging in at well over 24 hours. This woudln’t even include the seaplane or speedboat transfer that we’d have to take after arriving at the main airport.  Here are some of the limited options that I found:

1. Emirates: SFO-DXB-SEZ
2. Etihad (OW): SFO-DUB-AUH-SEZ

While Etihad bookings are available through OW points, for me there would be no need to look past #1 on the list.  We recently flew Emirates on the way home from our honeymoon and it was as blinged-out as advertised, even featuring a freaking shower on-board the plane.  Unfortunately, Emirates isn’t part of any alliance, so there are a couple ways to book this. The first would be directly through Emirates’ frequent flyer program, which is a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards and is definitely an option for booking flights. Most of my friends’ companies use Amex for their Corporate Cards, so if you’re flush with Amex points from all your expenses, this would be a great option.

But my new airline of choice, Alaska Airlines, also has a partnership with Emirates which allows bookings using their program’s miles.  Emirates has a few other individual partnerships with airlines such as Korean Air (ST), so it’s important to spread your knowledge beyond just the three major alliances as well.

And, the reason I’d use Alaska miles for this trip is that they permit a stopover on the booking, meaning that if SFO and SEZ are my origin and destination, I can stop at an intermediary destination along the way for the same price.  Without the ability to utilize a stopover, I would either have to fly to SEZ and skip Dubai, or book two separate tickets which would cost more.

So how many miles would it take to get there? If I’m flying that far I’d like to go in business class at least (155,000 miles per person), and would probably even splurge for first class (200,000 miles per person).  Unless I’m ditching Lisa at home, that means we are talking about 310,000 miles round-trip for business class or 400,000 miles for first class for the two of us. OUCH. That’s a lot of miles, and my current balance is zero.  So how would I get the miles needed? A few ways:

– Start crediting all flights to Alaska (Alaska, Delta, and American) – I don’t travel much for work but we’d accrue each about 50,000 per year from leisure travel = 100,000 miles
– Sign-up myself and Lisa for Alaska Airlines credit cards through Bank of America – current sign-up bonus of 50,000 x 2 = 100,000
– Sign-up myself and Lisa for Starwood Amex cards with the intent to transfer to Alaska – 30,000 x 2 = 60,000 Starwood points = 75,000 Alaska miles when transferred

The credit card game takes at least a few months to actually get the points, but right here we’d already have 275,000 Alaska miles between the two of us. Given that we were starting from zero, this would be a longer term redemption and would probably take another year of flying before getting the needed balance.

If we really wanted to go this year, another option would be book a one-way trip at 1/2 the round-trip cost (200,000 in first class for example) with the Alaska miles we earned here, and then use American miles to book Etihad back. Flying completely different alliances outbound/return is a strategy that I often utilize.

So there we have it – a brief summary of the strategy I’ll be using to get us to a couple of the places on the 2014 NYT list, and a very, very high overview of using points/miles to get there for free. Seriously, don’t be afraid to sign-up for credit cards as they are the quickest and best way to earn points/miles in chunks. And for those skeptics that usually follow that statement with “yeah, but it will kill your credit score”, mine is doing just fine at a few points below 800.  Using this strategy I was able to earn and burn over 1.5 million points/miles in 2013 alone which basically allowed us to travel the world on our honeymoon for free.  Happy earning, and for those that do pursue this hobby, I’m sorry in advance for getting you addicted ๐Ÿ™‚

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