I traveled 21,000 miles and spent 51 hours in-flight for $340 and 182,500 award miles

Put your miles to work

It was finally time to put some award miles to good use.

To save you time, I’ll give you the goodies first. Then you can decide if you want to keep reading.

By the numbers:

  • 15 days
  • 9 flights
  • 21,060 miles
  • 50 hours, 45 minutes in-flight
  • 80% in business or first class
  • 4 continents
  • 6 countries
  • 182,500 award miles redeemed
  • USD $338.51 paid

I took nine flights to go from Bogotá to Tokyo to Seoul and back to Bogotá (with a few stops in between). The majority was spent in first class or business class thanks to a pile of award miles I had built. I logged more than 50 hours of in-flight time! Check out the costs and mileage below.

 

 

I spent about six hours in first class, 10 hours in Delta’s Delta One class (which is somehow better than first? C’mon Delta, first is first…), 25 hours in business class and around 10 hours in economy. All this for only 182,500 award miles and USD $338! That’s about $6.75/ hour in the sky (or $47/hour if you include the award miles).

You too can accrue

That should illustrate the power of earning award miles and doing a few hours of planning. Most of the award miles were earned through credit card signups that had bonuses from 30,000 to 100,00 miles/points.

I’m not pitching credit cards here because ain’t nobody paying me (sadly). But, I’ll list the ones I used to generate these award miles.

Chase Sapphire Reserve: bonus- 100,000 points (link to a post; not a CC signup link!)
Chase United Mileage Explorer: bonus- 60,000 miles
American Express Gold Delta: bonus- 50,000 miles
American Express Premier Rewards Gold: bonus- 50,000 points
Barclay’s AAdvantage Aviator: bonus- 40,000 miles
Citi AAdvantage Platinum Mastercard: bonus- 30,000 miles

Why splurge now?

Each year I take a week-long trip with three friends I graduated university with. This was our fourth such trip. Since we’re all on different sides of the world this year, it made it especially interesting to plan for. Usually, however, the location isn’t planned more than two months in advance. This time was no different.

We decided to return to Asia again this year, as apparently we couldn’t get enough of those long flights like we did in 2017 to Vietnam and Thailand.

Tokyo took the top place and was designated the meeting spot. From there, we agreed we’d split the week between Tokyo and Seoul.

Let’s get crackin’

Most routes from Bogotá to Tokyo make at least one stop in the US. This can be good news if you’re trying to break up an otherwise long trip—in-flight time takes over 18 hours with one stop in the US. Adding another stop, which happens a lot, and you can see in-fight time increase to over 20 hours. Both have a minimum total time, including layovers of 24 hours.

Layout all your options

From Bogotá, most one-stop routes usually stop in Texas, Mexico or via an eastern route through Europe, using Charles de Gaulle outside Paris, or London Heathrow before continuing to Tokyo.

There was a lot less availability on European routes and most used airlines that I didn’t have award miles with or couldn’t transfer to. I focused my attention then on going through the US.

The majority of my award miles are with Delta, United and American; using Chase and American Express I can easily transfer rewards points from these points systems to those three airlines.

I started looking through the major hubs for the airlines as these have the most daily departures and service the most destinations.

Delta

  • Detroit Metropolitan Airport
  • Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport

United

  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport
  • George Bush Intercontinental Airport
  • Newark Liberty International Airport

American

  • Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
  • Charlotte Douglas International Airport
  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport

Develop a plan

I began the same way I always do—searching round trips from my location to the desired destination to get an idea of overall prices. I average prices without award miles in economy, then in business and finally in first class.

The problem (or benefit I suppose) with trips of this distance are that because you’re going to have to stop at least one, there’s a ton of other options that you can link together.

Round trips are obviously easier to book because most of the time they’re through the same airline, or at least a partner one, and you can do it all in one go.

Adjust the plan

The problem was that we had planned to go to Tokyo, spend a few days, then fly to Seoul for the second half. This makes it difficult for a round trip because the round trip would have me flying back out of Tokyo and not Seoul.

This is where I usually look through Google’s “multi-stop” option to get an idea if booking three destinations is cheaper than two.

For example, a multi-flight from Bogotá to Tokyo,  then Tokyo to Seoul and finally Seoul to Bogotá only cost $300 more than a single flight from Bogotá to Tokyo or Seoul to Bogotá. Airlines, am I right?

Use Google Flights as an outline

The benefit of using this multi-flight tool is that you can then go and individually break down those same flights to try to get them even cheaper in cash or using award miles.

I’ll then check which airline is serving each specific leg of the trip and go into that airline’s award system to try to find awards availability.

Start comparing award travel to cash options

I’ve found that Delta usually has the most award flights available but are usually the costliest to redeem—in relative terms to the other airlines. American tends to have less availability, but the price (miles) seems to be lower for redemption in comparison. United typically falls in the middle with decent availability for redemption and provides an average value for redemption of your award miles.

I haven’t actually verified this, but experience with past redemptions points me in this direction. Maybe The Points Guy or another website dedicated to the nitty-gritty details can back me up (or dispute me, whatever, man).

After checking award availability, I begin attempting to line up the different legs. Since there isn’t an option to fly directly from Bogotá to Tokyo, the first leg has to be split into at least two flights.

If nothing works, try reversing your searches

I started here trying different options from Bogotá to the hubs I mentioned before and tried to figure out which best connected to Tokyo’s HND or NRT airports. Haneda is closer to Tokyo’s center and less costly to reach using public transportation. But Narita serves loads more flights from the US to Tokyo.

So I worked backwards from NRT to the US hubs and then tried to connect back to Bogotá. No luck. Almost every one-way was the same price of a round-trip from Bogotá to Tokyo.

Big isn’t always better

I started trying the lesser served hubs of The Big Three airlines. Less flights were available and most came with whacky hours, but all tended to be cheaper.

Then a brilliant idea washed over me. I plugged in my home airport of John Glenn International Airport, in Columbus, Ohio as a connection point between Bogotá and Tokyo. I figured, if I had to stop, maybe I could link up in Columbus and surprise my family with a visit.

Start with the longest routes first

Anyway, I find it more beneficial to book the longer flight first; the new first step would be to see if I could get a decent flight from Columbus to Tokyo. I’ve used United twice in the past to fly from the Midwest (Detroit) to Asia before (Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City), so I started here.

United wasn’t doing me any favors this time. I wanted to redeem award miles and when doing so internationally, the best bang for your buck is redeeming for premium cabins—this much I have verified. So to fly bougie in business or extra posh in first class, I navigated United’s awards system. They were all super expensive in these two classes and didn’t offer much from Columbus to Tokyo.

I switched to Delta and man did I hit the jackpot. I was able to play around with the dates a bit here, as I could stay in Columbus an extra few days if it meant getting a good flight. It paid off.

When unconventional airports pay off

For Delta’s Delta One cabin—the best they have—I had options. This cabin maxed at 375,000 miles, which if you use The Points Guy’s calculations and value at $0.012 per mile, that’d be a $4,500 flight. Not unheard of, but multiples more than I’d ever spend.

I scrolled down a bit and struck gold. For the super-duper small inconvenience of flying at 6am and having two layovers, I could get that same cabin for 80,000 award miles. That’s almost 80% off and comes out to about $960 equivalent if I paid dollars.

Only $960 in equivalent miles plus $5.60 in fees to fly Delta’s best cabin from Columbus to Tokyo? That’s a good value.

It’d be Columbus to Minneapolis to Portland then finally to Tokyo.

Long haul 1/2 complete at a cost of 80,000 miles and $5.60 in fees.

Line up the other long flight next

I realized early enough that booking an individual flight from Tokyo to Seoul was going to be easier than trying to connect it with my other flights. So the next part was booking a return from Seoul to Bogotá.

Since I flew Delta on the way there, I figured I’d give ‘em a shot on the way back.

It didn’t take long however to realize that United had a lot more offerings back to Bogotá. Most of them were cheaper too. I opened United’s award travel and started looking for flights from Seoul using award miles. Using United’s “Business Saver” award category was offering the best value, with a huge discrepancy between their “saver” and “everyday” categories for business class awards.

Make sure you get what you pay for

There’s another issue that you should be aware of when booking United awards. The cabins are often mixed. So you’ll read “Business Saver” and assume all the associated legs are in business class. This isn’t always the case, however. See the picture below.

This was what I kept running into. From Seoul to Bogotá, there were only mixed cabins available flying via the US.

Seoul to Beijing and Beijing to Los Angeles would be in business class. But the second longest leg, from Los Angeles to Bogotá, would be in economy.

Essentially, during the 14-hour in-flight time, you’d be in economy for seven of those 14 hours, even though you redeemed award miles for a business class award. Homie don’t play that.

Consider ALL the options

So I worked around it. I opted instead to take a longer option (about six hours longer) that didn’t go through the US, but instead flew through London.

For the exact same miles (85k) and about $30 more in fees, the entire trip would be in business class. Basically, I sacrificed a shorter flight time for a more comfortable class. I think it’s worth it.

Long haul 2/2 complete at a cost of 85,000 miles and $102.80 in fees.

Now connect the dots

The third part was connecting my initial flight out—yeah seems backwards. I checked flights flying from Bogotá to Columbus and found a decent flight with American. I ended up using award miles for a quick flight from Bogotá to Miami and then onward to Columbus. Here I didn’t feel the upgrade to a premium class was worth it, even though you do get a slightly better value for your miles.

Connector flight 1/2 complete at a cost of 17,500 miles and $90.41 in fees.

And add the finishing touches

The final flight was the easiest part, mainly because it was a three-hour flight with no stopovers and there weren’t a ton of options left. Of all my flights, the shortest one ended up costing me the most money and accounted for over half of what I ended up paying in cash.

I’d never flown the South Korean T’way airline before but was surprised that even their economy fare included an allowance of up to 15kg/33lb as a checked bag. Plus one for this budget airline.

Connector flight 2/2 complete at a cost of 15,310 JPY or about $140.

What do I have to show for it?

So that’s essentially it. All flights were booked. In total, I took nine different flights, spent 182,500 award miles and paid about $340 in cash.

In exchange, I flew 21,060 miles through six countries, over four continents flying in business or first class for over 40 of the 50 hours. Probably my best deal yet.

I felt pretty satisfied with myself after piecing that one together and was happy with the money I saved. I definitely needed those savings as both Tokyo and Seoul are two of the most expensive cities in the world.

Oh and let’s not forget the best part…I was able to stop over in Columbus and then head down to Cincinnati to watch the little one graduate!