14 years ago I saw a film called “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Mediocre film, incredible scenery. It was filmed in and around Phuket, Thailand. At the end of the movie I said to myself “I have to go to Thailand”. Long before people started (over) using the term “Bucket List”, Thailand was on mine.
Maya Bay “The Beach”
At the time, I was working for Delta Air Lines and I honestly have no idea why I didn’t just hop on a plane and go (for free)(most likely in Business Class). Most things in Thailand are relatively cheap, but I think in the back of my mind I thought it was too expensive. Or too far. I don’t know the reason, but we didn’t go.
Fast forward to 2011 when I am just getting into collecting miles and points and I start thinking about Thailand again. By now I have a 3 year old son and getting there seems more difficult than ever. Or is it? In late 2011, Hubby and I each applied for a Chase United Mileage Plus credit card that was offering a 60,000 mile sign up bonus. A round-trip ticket to Southeast Asia was 65,000 miles. Easily do-able. For two. I had no idea how I would get that third ticket. In March 2012 Capital One was offering a “mileage match” on their Venture card. If you applied for and were approved for the Venture card, they would match the miles you had in another airline Frequent Flyer program up to 80,000 miles. Remember, I’m the girl sitting on over 300,000 Delta SkyMiles.
Capital One Venture card offers a “Purchase Eraser”. Basically, you buy airline tickets, hotels, train tickets, car rentals etc, and they will “erase” the purchase using your points. 80,000 Capital One points would “erase” $800 in travel expenses. Doesn’t sound like a great deal except A) those points cost me nothing and B) you earn 2 points for every dollar spent on the card. Earning an additional 50,000 points on that card would not be that difficult with some Manufactured Spending and using that card exclusively for the next year.
I started looking at United availability during different times of the year. United has a very good and flexible mileage program. They allow a stopover AND 2 open jaws on international award tickets. You can also get a “free one way” when you use your United stopover creatively. (as I did!)
Stopover – when you stop at a city for more than 24 hours on the way to your destination. Your stopover can last up to 1 year.
Open Jaw – flying into one city and out of another
Since it takes so long to get there, I wanted to spend 2-3 weeks in Thailand to feel like I “got my miles worth”. I wanted to see Chiang Mai, Bangkok and of course Phuket. Hubby and I are also Scuba Divers, so we wanted to get in some diving in the Similan Islands.
My initial plan was to fly into Phuket and use my stopover for a week or so in Bangkok. I thought we would take the train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. But after thinking about it, I decided that was not a good use of my stopover and I wasn’t taking advantage of the Open Jaw flexibility. So I changed my plan to fly into Chiang Mai and out of Phuket, taking a train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and flying a domestic carrier from Bangkok to Phuket. It worked on my award routing, but the paid ticket (that I planned to erase with Capital One) was pricing at over $4,000. There was no way to get the routing I wanted at a price I could afford. The cheapest option was to buy a ticket directly in and out of Bangkok or Phuket (with no open jaws or stopovers) for around $1,600. But that would require a lot of back and forth domestic travel in Thailand and I thought there had to be a better way.
A month or so later I got an e-mail from United about a promotion for buying miles. They would give you a 50% bonus on purchased miles. I had around 10,000 United miles left over and I needed 65,000 miles. I was 55,000 miles short. I could purchase 37,000 miles (for around $1300) and they would give me a bonus of 18,500 and then I would have the 65,000 miles needed to redeem the 3rd ticket. I verified with Capital One that they would erase the mileage purchase before I went through with it.
If you think about it, even if I did not have the option to erase the purchase, $1,300 to get the routing I wanted was still cheaper than paying $1,600 for the not-so-great routing.
We now had enough miles for the trip, but I wanted to go at “just the right time”. I wanted my son to be old enough to appreciate it and I also wanted to travel at the right time of year for the destination. Unfortunately, the best time to travel to that part of Thailand is December through mid-April. My son was about to start kindergarten and we would become slaves to the school schedule. I have long been a believer that not all learning is done in a classroom and an experience like this one would well be worth a couple weeks out of school. I spoke with the principal of his school before even enrolling him, and she agreed to excuse a 2 week absence prior to Spring Break, so we would have 3 weeks to explore Thailand.
Most airlines release seats 331 days in advance. In late April 2013, I started checking the United schedules every day. The very minute the schedule opened up for my dates, I booked it. After I booked the award tickets, I priced them out as paid tickets and they came to $4,195 each. Absolutely incredible that they cost me nothing other than $79.50 each in taxes.
We are flying from Cincinnati to Chicago to Stockholm. We have a 6 hour layover in Stockholm and my plan is to go into the city for a couple of hours. Just to say we’ve been there. We then fly from Stockholm to Chiang Mai with a 1 hour layover in Bangkok.
On the way home, we fly from Phuket to Chicago with a 2 hour layover in Seoul. We have a 4 hour layover in Chicago before our flight to Cincinnati, but our United cards gave us 4 passes to the United Club where we can shower and stretch out after the 12 hour flight from Seoul. In coach.
Yes we are flying coach. It would have cost 55,000 more miles per ticket to fly Business class. That’s 165,000 more miles. It would have taken much longer for me to earn that many more miles and as I have said, we believe the destination is more important than the journey. Yes it will most likely be uncomfortable, unpleasant and long. But we are going, and that’s what matters.
Oh yeah, about that Free one way ticket
Last year for Spring Break we went to Disneyland in California and loved it. We love California in general, and will go there any chance we get. Why not go back to Disneyland? I’m sure my son would be all for that. So…our stopover on the Thailand ticket is Cincinnati. I added a flight from Cincinnati to Los Angeles departing on June 7 (2 months after we get back from Thailand). Of course we have to get back home from Los Angeles, but there are many airlines that offer one way awards. So, if we had booked roundtrip award tickets to go to California in the summer (which I was thinking about doing anyway), it would have cost 25,000 miles per ticket. I booked 3 one way award tickets at 12,500 each. So adding that “free one way” onto our Thailand tickets, I saved 37,500 miles! Sometimes it can be hard to book the free one way ticket online and you may have to call in to do it. But don’t let it slip away! It is an awesome advantage to booking United award tickets and there are plenty of creative ways to take advantage of stopovers and open jaws on United awards. I will try to write a post on doing that in the near future.
Two weeks from now we will be leaving on our “Trip of a Lifetime” to Thailand. My son is at the perfect age for this. He is starting to understand geography and different languages and cultures. I think it will be an incredible trip for all 3 of us and I do not have any regrets about pulling him out of school to do it.
Below is a chart of how I got our $15,808 trip to Thailand for $580. I will do another post soon on the hotels and of course I will post a full trip report when we return!