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.

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!