Step 1: Strategy

So you want to travel the world?  While maintaining a professional career?  Well, you’ve come to the right place.  When I started traveling, I had to balance working a full time job near DC with my desire to see the world.  I learned a few tricks along the way and I hope I can pass them on to other folks who want to travel.  Here are a few general tips for maximizing your travel:

  1. Start early: I like to start the year with a list of locations I would like to visit along with a list of weekends that I’m available to travel.  Making a plan this far in advance allows me to watch airline prices and book when they are cheapest.  I booked a $549 weekend trip from DC to Rio de Janiero on American Airlines using this technique.
  2. Be flexible: see above.  Travel is more expensive when you are committed to travel to a particular location on a specific date.
  3. Pick an aspirational goal: if you had a free round-trip ticket to fly anywhere in the world, where would you visit?  Hawaii?  Machu Piccu?  Easter Island?  Maldives?  Or maybe you’d prefer to fly first class to Peru?  Research which airlines fly to those locations and how many miles are required for a round-trip award ticket.  For American Airlines: Hawaii (45,000); Machu Piccu (40,000); Maldives (80,000); first class to Peru (110,000).
  4. Make a plan: map out your travel plans and mile strategies for the year with your aspirational goal in mind.
  5. Pick a primary airline: points are most valuable to leisure travelers if they’re collected in the same place, namely for the same airline.  If you end up flying a lot in one year you may even qualify for elite status.
  6. Collect redeemable miles: there are many ways to accrue frequent flier miles including flying, shopping portals, dining programs, credit cards, and bonus promotions.  In a typical year, a single prudent person should be able to accrue enough miles to fly anywhere in the world.  In my first year of traveling, I accrued 70,000 AAdvantage miles, almost enough for two round-trip coach tickets to Europe.

In order to maximize your accrual of airline frequent flier miles (which can be redeemed for pretty cool trips), you’ll want to answer this question about your travel over the next calendar year.  Will I travel over 25,000 miles in one calendar year?

  • If yes (advanced traveler): aim for American Airlines elite status!!!  Not only will all of your frequent flier miles be concentrated in one location, but you’ll be eligible for free cabin upgrades on domestic flights, accrue miles faster, get free upgrades to preferred seating, and get free checked bags.  Delta and United have similar perks, but their elite programs have additional minimum spend requirements ($3,000) which are only feasible to meet if you’re rich or fly for business.
  • If no (basic traveler): you may be less concerned about achieving elite status (which requires 25,000 elite miles) and more concerned about flying the cheapest fare between two cities.  This shouldn’t stop you from collecting redeemable miles.  Shopping portals and dining programs should allow you to earn at least 5,000 miles per year.  I earned 12,000 American miles in less than one year by strategically timing my online purchases to maximize bonuses offered through the shopping portal.

Next: Pick an Airline.