How We Got Home from Kathmandu for $104

If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

After spending a few days in Kathmandu, we caught a series of flights over 35 hours that got us all the way back home to Denver. Even under the special circumstances, we were able to do like we did for most of the flights on the rest of our trip and book it using airline miles.

Booking the Flight

As we alluded to in a previous post, we had already booked a ticket leaving Nepal using miles. We were scheduled to fly from Kathmandu to Seoul, South Korea on May 12, which we purchased using United frequent flyer miles. United considers Nepal and South Korea to be in two separate regions, so it cost us 37,500 miles per person, plus $21.90 per person in fees. We got these United miles by transferring points from our Chase Ultimate Rewards account which we got by signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. We also had some United miles gained from signing up for the United MileagePlus Explorer Card.

Once we decided to head home, we had the idea to see if we could switch our South Korea ticket to one heading back all the way to Denver. Amazingly, there was United award availability for the day we wanted to leave, Sunday May 3. We called United customer service and fed them the flight details, and they agreed to change our ticket. We did have to pay the difference in miles and fees, as the new flight to Denver cost 42,500 miles and $52.20 per person. The United rep kindly agreed to waive the change fee once we explained the circumstances, which we were definitely grateful for.

The Journey

Our trip back to Denver required three flights: Kathmandu to Bangkok on Thai Airways, Bangkok to Tokyo on Thai Airways, and Tokyo to Denver on United itself. Both layovers were fairly long, and two of the flights were as well, so it would require over 35 hours of travel time.

We got to the airport in Kathmandu four hours ahead of scheduled departure, since we had heard that it had been very crowded and chaotic since the earthquake. As we headed into the terminal, we saw missing people posters, including one for Or Assaf, who rode our bus to Syabrubesi.

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There was already a long line at the Thai Airways checkin desk, so we were happy we got there early. But that was the main delay; immigration and security lines were actually quite short. We spent a couple of hours in a small lounge where we got a bite to eat and bought some souvenirs with our last rupees. We also ran into the Japanese tour group which had sheltered with us at Bamboo. It turned out they were on our flights to Bangkok and Tokyo!

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As we headed out to our plane on the tarmac, we got our last look at Kathmandu. We could tell the airport was still quite busy with relief supplies being ferried around. We had mixed emotions: happy to be going home to see family and friends, but sad to be leaving Nepal on such a low note.

Once in Bangkok, we had four hours before our next flight. We were excited to be able to sample our favorite cuisine from the Asian portion of the trip again, so we sought out a restaurant that served Thai food. We found a small Thai Muslim place and enjoyed some of our favorites.

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One part of the flight to Tokyo that we were looking forward to was the plane itself – it was our first time to ride on the giant Airbus A380. Our seats were towards the front of the bottom level of the double-decker plane, so we didn’t really get a feel for how big it was until we saw the outside after the flight. The flight itself was overnight, arriving in Tokyo at 6:30 AM, so we probably should have tried to sleep, but we mostly ended up watching movies on the fancy in-seat entertainment devices.

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Arriving into Tokyo was a little depressing, because Japan was to have been the final stop on our round-the-world trip. As we looked out onto Tokyo from the plane, we pondered what could have been. Our layover was ten hours, so we considered leaving the airport to get a taste of Japan, but ultimately we decided that we were too tired to really enjoy it. We would leave Japan for a full visit sometime in the future.

Our view of Tokyo as we flew in

Our view of Tokyo as we flew in

Instead, we used two United Club passes (another perk of the United MileagePlus Explorer Card) to spend the day hanging out in the United Club. This was much more relaxing that just sitting in the outside area. We were even able to get a nice nap in. As the day went on, we took frequent advantage of the free snacks that were placed out, including sushi. We also had some free sake and draft beer poured by a pretty neat machine.

The flight from Tokyo to Denver was thankfully direct, but long. It also went back in time, so to speak: since we crossed the dateline, we arrived in Denver (at 12:45 PM) earlier than we left Tokyo (at 5:00 PM). This flight was on another plane we were interested to fly on for the first time, the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The interior was quite nice and new, and we had another good personal in-flight entertainment screen to help us pass the time.

We hoped for a nice, sunny day to welcome us back to Denver, but unfortunately it was cloudy and rainy. Nevertheless, it felt good to be home.

Walking into the Denver Airport

Walking into the Denver Airport

Postscript: Cancelling Our Japan Flight

As we said, we had planned on making our last stop on our trip in Japan. We had gone ahead and booked our return flight home from Tokyo as well. The booking on this was fairly complicated: we used American Airlines miles to book a series of flights from Tokyo to Denver, one on Japan Airlines and another on American Eagle. This was especially complicated because we couldn’t book it on the AA site, since it doesn’t actually show Japan Airlines availability. You can see it on the British Airways site though, so we got the flight numbers from there and had to call American and feed them the flight info. This cost us 32,500 AA miles and $44.90 per person.

Once we came home though, we weren’t going to go back to Japan, so we wanted to cancel this flight and get back our miles. Cancelling was easy, but American charged a “reinstatement fee” of $175 to get the miles back. We tried to explain to the representative about our extenuating circumstances, but she couldn’t change the policy. So, we would like to again thank United Airlines for being considerate and waiving fees, since other airlines apparently can’t.

We are wrapping up the story of our earthquake experience in Nepal. We were extremely fortunate to survive and to be able to come home to the USA. Our stories are now over, but those in Nepal are not that fortunate. Huge numbers of people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. Please take some time to donate (any amount, large or small, can help) to help this beautiful country recover. We’ve collected list of organizations that you might consider here.

Using Points to Fly Cheaply Around Asia

In the past we’ve tried to use our frequent flyer points for as many flights as possible, but within Asia we have actually struggled to find ways to fly for free. The points we have just didn’t help for flying to the places that we would have liked to go. But recently we’ve been able to figure a few out!

Phong Nha to Hanoi for $6.58

This one was a last-minute decision. To get from the caves of Phong Nha to Hanoi in northern Vietnam was not as easy as we had originally anticipated. We thought that there would be multiple transport options, but as it turned out, the only bus from the village was a night bus, and the train (from the closest city of Dong Hoi) would take 11 hours and either involve an overnight stretch or take an entire day. All sounded like grueling options.

We were really struggling to choose the best of these limited options, and then we thought outside of the box. Using the wikipedia page for Hanoi’s airport (a top tip for figuring out what you can do), we saw that there was a direct flight on Vietnam Airlines from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. We ran an award flight search on Air France, and saw that we could use their Flying Blue miles to fly on this flight (since Air France and Vietnam Airlines are partners) – for $3.29 in fees plus 10,000 Flying Blue miles per person.

Even with a private transfer to Dong Hoi airport, this worked out as cheaper than the train (which we had been leaning towards) and got us there significantly earlier. To get the Air France Flying Blue miles, we were able to transfer our existing points from American Express Membership Rewards that we had gotten as a signup bonus for a couple of different American Express cards.

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On a propeller plane!

 

Hanoi to Hong Kong for $64

With Vietnam Airlines being a Sky Team alliance partner with Air France, our flights within and from Vietnam were prime targets to use the Flying Blue miles on. We were also able to snag a ticket to Hong Kong on a Vietnam Airlines flight using the Flying Blue miles as well. We got the necessary 10,000 Flying Blue miles each by transferring some more of our American Express Membership Rewards points. The fees were $31.90 per person.

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Hong Kong to Kathmandu for $79

Hong Kong’s airport is the hub for two major airlines that are a part of the oneworld alliance, so we figured that using points for one of those alliance partners would work well for our flights to or from there. We were able to use this to our advantage to get a flight from Hong Kong to Kathmandu in Nepal.

We found a reward flight on the Hong Kong-based airline Dragonair that we were able to book using our British Airways Avios points. We were able to get the required number of Avios by combining some Avios we had left over from signing up for the British Airways credit card with even more of our American Express Membership Rewards points that we could transfer in. The final cost was 10,000 Avios and $39.47 in fees per person.

Airline Alliances and Transfer Partners

These three examples just go to show how flexible you have to be when booking an award flight. Knowing which airlines partner with other airlines through alliances is huge – we greatly benefited from Vietnam Airlines being in an alliance with Air France and Dragonair with British Airways. Here’s a good infographic explaining the different alliances.

Having points in a program that can be transferred to multiple partners is also a great benefit. We didn’t have to earn Air France miles or British Airways Avios directly; instead, we could just use our American Express points for both. For more information on transferable points, check out this resource.

We have a few more award flights lined up that we are excited to share with you soon!

How We Got to Bangkok for $264

After taking our break in the US around the holidays, we needed to book a new ticket to get back out on the road. We decided to fly to Bangkok as our next stop. This ticket turned out to be the most complicated one that we’ve booked so far, and the flight experience the most grueling.

Booking the Ticket

We have miles in a variety of places, so we started off by just seeing what the easiest way to get to Bangkok from Denver would be. It became pretty clear early on that flying on Star Alliance would be easier because Thai Airways is a member.

United Airlines is a member of Star Alliance, so our first idea was to book the flight using United miles. However, Eric then realized that he was only 1,000 miles short of what he needed to book his ticket. He could have gotten the miles from someone else, but the fee associated irked him.

We then had a flash of insight and looked into using American Express Membership Rewards points. These are points that we earned from each having one of the American Express Gold cards. The key idea to understand with these points is that they can be transferred to a number of different airlines where they become miles in that airline’s frequent flier program.

However, we had an issue… Eric couldn’t transfer his points. He had downgraded his Gold card to a Blue card before we left for the trip last summer. This allowed him to keep the points, but he didn’t realize that it also meant that they were no longer transferrable. Apparently American Express has a Membership Rewards Express program that uses the same points but just with less benefits – and the Blue cards fall into this category. He was perplexed at what to do.

Della on the other hand had downgraded to the American Express Everyday card, and she was still able to transfer points. So, Eric decided to also apply for the Everyday card and see what happened. Amazingly, after he got the card he was immediately again able to transfer points!

So, with transferrable points in hand, we had to figure out what to do with them. United Airlines is not a Membership Rewards transfer option, so we had to get more creative. We remembered that Air Canada is a Star Alliance member and a transfer partner, so we looked into their Aeroplan program.

The search tool on the Aeroplan site is easy to use, and we were able to find a series of flights on United and Thai Airlines that could be booked with Aeroplan miles (since they are in Star Alliance with Air Canada). So, we transferred the required amount of points to Aeroplan and booked the ticket!

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The main downsides of the ticket were that it left Denver so early, and the tight connection in Beijing. But we figured that would be fine….

Flying to Bangkok

We got up at 3 AM in Denver on January 6, and Della’s parents graciously drove us to the Stapleton Park and Ride to catch the bus to the airport. The first flight to Chicago was uneventful and on time.

Given that we were worried about our Beijing connection, we crossed our fingers that the flight from Chicago to Beijing would run smoothly. It was listed as an on time departure and we boarded on time, but as we kept sitting at the gate we worried that something was wrong. Finally the pilot got on and explained that the loading of cargo had been delayed, but was about to wrap up. But then we still sat at the gate… Then the pilot came back on and said that we were waiting for a new ground crew to push us back. It was so cold in Chicago that they had special rules in place to limit the time people spent outside, and the first crew had exceeded that limit.

We ended up leaving almost an hour and a half later than the scheduled time. It seemed like we might make up a little time, but we spent the whole 13 hour flight worrying about what would happen when we land.

We arrived in Beijing at 4:30, meaning we had just half an hour to catch our flight. People on the plane were not very understanding about helping those of us with tight connections, so we had to fight our way through them to get off the plane. Even though our bodies were pretty stiff from sitting for so long, we ran through the terminal to get to the gate.

We were slowed down a bit by having to do an immigration check for international transfers (not sure why they needed to give our passport a China stamp…) and an additional security check, although luckily in both places fellow travelers let us through when they heard our situation. We made it to the gate with only a few minutes to spare, but plenty of people were still in line to board so we were finally able to relax! We heard that five other people missed the flight, so we were pretty proud of ourselves for making it.

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We made it!

 

Our 4.5 hour flight to Bangkok was thankfully stress-free. After the bare bones service on United, the service on Thai Airways was very impressive (free hard liquor on the drink cart and personal in-seat entertainment consoles).

We were happy to have made it to Bangkok as originally scheduled, but not surprised to hear that our bags did not make the tight connection. The Thai Airways luggage staff made arrangements for our bags to make the first flight from Beijing the next day and then be delivered to us. We headed to our guesthouse, where we crashed after over 24 hours of travel!

How We Returned Home From Istanbul For $352.60

Once we decided to shake up our itinerary and head home for the holidays, we had to figure out how to actually get there. Luckily we hadn’t yet booked any onward flights from Europe, so we switched our focus from finding tickets from Turkey to Asia to finding tickets from Turkey to the U.S.

We had more miles in the American Airlines AAdvantage program, so we were focusing on awards using the Oneworld Alliance. There was nothing direct back to the US, so we started searching what our layover options in Europe would be. The easiest options routed us through London, but these seemed to have higher fees.

We then saw that one place were you could get a direct flight to the US with not too bad fees was from Dublin, Ireland. We were intrigued about the possibility of seeing a little bit of Ireland, so we arranged our flights to have a three-day layover in Dublin.

This meant that we actually booked two different award flights. The first flight used British Airways Avios to get us from Istanbul to Dublin (with a layover in London). These flights cost us a total of $110 in fees.

Enjoying a flavorful beer in the London airport... exciting after a few months of uninspiring brews!

Enjoying a flavorful beer in the London airport… exciting after a few months of uninspiring brews!

Flying British Airways into Dublin

Flying British Airways into Dublin

The second flight was then to get from Dublin to Dallas, with a layover in Philadelphia. We used AAdvantage miles to book this, but it was actually a combination of a US Airways flight from Ireland and then and American Airlines flight from Philadephia. These flights cost us a total of $242.60 in fees.

Enjoying a Yuengling beer and a cheesesteak in the Philly airport. Brought back good memories of the years we lived in Delaware!

Enjoying a Yuengling beer and a cheesesteak in the Philly airport. Brought back good memories of the years we lived in Delaware!

In the end, the fees to fly directly from Istanbul back to Dallas would have been less, but we thought it was worth it to have a chance to spend a few days in a new country!

How We’re Getting to Europe for $200

We’ve bought our second set of plane tickets for our trip! It wasn’t quite as cheap as our first flight, but we were still able to use miles!

The Africa leg of our trip will be concluding in Cape Town, and the next stop on our journey is Prague in the Czech Republic in Central Europe. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to search for award flights between these two airports.

As with our flight to Africa, the Star Alliance seemed to be the best bet for finding an award flight because they have the most members that fly in the region. It costs 30,000 United miles to fly from South Africa to Europe. Luckily, Della just got 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (transferable to United) from the Ink card, and Eric had just enough left over from his Sapphire bonus.

Award availability was good for the week we wanted to fly as well. For a while we just watched the flights and pondered which day of the week we wanted to leave. It seemed like the best bet was going to be on Turkish Airlines flights with a layover in Istanbul. However, by the time we got around to booking, that flight on that day had disappeared.

But… we noticed one of the other flights that was available had a 8 hour layover in Munich, Germany. Sounds like a good chance to add another country to the itinerary! Eric was especially excited when he found this well-organized guide to Munich layovers. It is always nice to have the options so well laid out, plus a chance to see the oldest brewery in the world is hard to pass up!

In the end, the fees were a little higher than the Turkish Airlines option: $100 a person. But, the departure date was right and the opportunity to (briefly) see Germany seemed cool too, so we went ahead and booked:

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How We’re Getting to Africa for $7

One of our first steps in planning the trip is to buy plane tickets. You may think this would be a big expense, but with a little effort you can get a ticket for really cheap. Like the title says, our main tickets to Africa from the US are only going to cost us $7 total!

Ticket Types

One of the early decisions we had to make was what type of ticket to buy. The big airline alliances do sell “round the world” tickets which allow you to group a bunch of different flights under a one fare. We looked into this, but in the end we decided it wasn’t the best fit for us. On one of the RTW tickets, you are only allowed a certain number of stops, and you have to plan out your dates far in advance. We want to figure out some of that as we go, so not exactly a match for us. Plus, we would have had to pay lots of money for that. But why pay money when you have miles?

Using Miles to Buy Plane Tickets

For the past few years, we have gone on many trips for very little money out of pocket.We do this by “paying” for the flights with frequent flyer miles.

We don’t actually rack up the miles by flying though. Instead, we get big chunks of miles by applying for credit cards with hefty sign up bonuses. It may sound risky, but if you are careful with how you use the credit cards (like we always are) then it can get you some great deals.

Getting credit cards is only a good solution if you are responsible with how you use them. Always make sure to pay off your balance in full every month!! You may worry about negative effects on you credit score, but in our experience our scores have stayed fairly constant.

For some of the cards, you only get the sign up bonus if you complete what they call a “minimum spend”. It’s usually a few thousand dollars within a few months. We don’t typically put that much on a credit card, so we’ve had to figure out some creative ways to do this. If you’re interested, let us know and we can share our strategies.

Getting to South Africa

Based on a variety of factors, we decided to start our trip in South Africa. We knew from research that the best miles to redeem to get to South Africa would be United miles. (We aren’t actually flying on United though. One other cool thing about miles is that you can redeem them on an airline’s alliance partners. United in in Star Alliance along with a few African airlines).

We also knew from the award chart that you need 40,000 United miles to get to South Africa from the US. Luckily, we also knew that the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offered a signup bonus of 40,000 United miles. We each got the card, completed the minimum spending requirement, and had our miles.

Then we had to search for the flight. Using the United website, we searched for award redemptions to Johannesburg from a variety of U.S. cities. Unfortunately, availability was a little limited so we didn’t have a lot of options. We were this close to flying via Nigeria until we read some horror stories about layovers there. On the other hand, we read some positive things about layovers in Cairo, so we ended up booking a ticket on Egypt Air. We should have time on our 12 hour layover to see the pyramids – pretty cool!

But, very little in life is free unfortunately. There are some fees associated with the journey: $3.50 per person. So, we can’t say we are flying to South Africa for free. It’s going to cost us a whole $7.

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You may notice that we still need to figure out how to get to NYC for our flight. No definite plans on that yet, but we are hoping we can figure out a way to use miles :-).

If you’re interested in learning more about how to travel for cheap, here are some resources we enjoy: