Using Frequent Flyer Miles | How I’ve Been Able to Fly 36,000 Miles and Spend 37 Nights in Hotels in 2012

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I’m committed to living a frugal and simple lifestyle, and I travel more than most people would be willing to dream about.


I already tried to explain it once on my travel blog when I wrote how to get an almost free around the world trip with six credit card applications.  But, I realized I haven’t explained it here, and you folks are the most likely to wonder how can I afford to travel so much and still be committed to a frugal and simple lifestyle.

For me, living a frugal and simple lifestyle involves limiting our spending and living expenses not based on what we earn, but based on what we’ve determined is enough.

Our family has done that.  We’ve done all this traveling in 2012 and we’re still living on the same salary we’ve always lived on.

The challenge is to figure out how to get as much juice out of the lemon as possible.  How to squeeze as much activity out of the income you’ve allocated for your family.

This year, our family of five has visited Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Canada, and Argentina.  My wife and I also visited Hungary.

So, the question I bet you’ve been wondering is: how much has this guy spent on travel in 2012?

Last week, I finally got around to adding up all the pennies.

The total cost – $5,821.87.  That’s airfare.  That’s hotels.  That’s visa entry fees.  That’s meals.  That’s activities.  That’s what we paid for our family of five.  To be clear, a good chunk of our flights have been excluded as they were covered as a reimbursable expense as part of our relocating to the States.

Does that sound like a lot?  On the one hand, it is.  However, that’s over a two month period with no other bills.  Honestly, it didn’t cost us much more to travel than it did when we stayed put in one area.

Why am I telling you this now?

Well, we’re getting ready to take another trip, and some of you might wonder what’s gotten into us.

In early September, we’ll be heading to Hawaii, Equador, and Canada.

Let’s get back on track:

How Can We Afford to Travel So Much?

1.  We took advantage of a unique life opportunity.

I’m going to be clear about the fact that our supporting church allocated a set dollar amount to get us back to the States.  With their consent, we took that amount and tried to create as flexible and cheap itinerary back to the States as possible.  Our tickets to Malaysia and Thailand were covered as part of that expense.  On the flight back to North America, we had enough funds to cover three tickets and used air miles for two tickets.

Not everyone will have that opportunity, so it might not be reproducible.  However, when there is an opportunity in life, you can either take it or pass it over.  We decided to take it.

2.  We determined what types of spending brings us joy.  I’m not an ascetic.  I don’t believe that God wants us to constantly feel guilty about what we own.  I think that God wants us to be both joyful and responsible.  Income is a blessing and a burden.  We must make sure that we’re taking care of others in the midst of our blessing.  Our family replaced almost all our clothes when we arrived back in the States. (We had 3 suitcases with all the clothes and shoes we owned for a family of five.)  Almost everything we bought was second hand.  We fully furnished our house with second hand items.  We drive around a hail damaged PT Cruiser that we bought for $1,800.  We don’t own a home, but we rent instead.

It’s not like we’re living it up over here.  But we do spend money on luxury items (specifically travel).

Buying new items doesn’t add any value to our lives.  However, we’ve always invested in vacations because we believe that they help nurture a positive family environment.  We simply have different values and priorities than many people.

The point: we all spend money on what is meaningful, and we pass over the other things.  Our responsibility as Christians is to be sure we’re limiting our spending in some ways for the glory of God.  I spend more on travel, and others spend more on other things.

2.  We maximize how we are using frequent flyer mileage accounts.  When it comes time to spend our miles (our primary way to travel), I want to get the most value out of every single mile.  As an example, when we flew back from Argentina using our miles, we added a free flight to Hawaii.  Most people don’t know you can do that.  In fact, when I told the folks at American Airlines that’s what I wanted to do, they said it wasn’t possible – until they double checked.

One of the primary ways we maximize miles is by ‘triangularization’.  Flying in triangles is the best way to get the ultimate value of your miles.  Consider our next trip.  We could have flown to Hawaii and back to Denver for one trip.  Then from Denver to Equador for a second trip.  Then from Denver to Ontario, Canada for a third trip.  Had we used miles to do that, we would have spent a total of 100,000 miles per person for the three trips.  However, by flying to Denver – Hawaii – Ecuador – Canada – Denver, we can do that for 50,000 miles per person.

3.  We have flexibility.  I work from home, and I’m my own boss.  This means it’s easy for me to get vacation time.  My kids are homeschooled, and so their teacher (my wife) is willing to make the necessary arrangements so we can travel.  The greatest benefit is the ability to travel off-peak since our kids are at home.

4.  We have hospitable Christian friends and family.  When we were passing through Brisbane, Australia, we sent an email to a family there.  We’d never met the family, but got in touch with them through a mutual friend.  That lovely family welcomed us in, gave us a place to sleep, and even insisted on feeding us.  During our time in Malaysia, we had a Christian man who we’d known in Houston drive us around for a day.  Not only did that save the cost of a rental, but a local guide is always a great way to see the city.  The church in Kuala Lumpur had a potluck and fed us like kings when we visited there.  During our month in Houston, the church found us accommodations, and we ate at different families’ homes 3-4 times a week.

By the way, if I included our time in Houston (with our overseeing congregation), we’ve actually stayed 57 nights in hotels, but since we didn’t pay for that stay, I didn’t think we should include it.

For this upcoming trip, we’ll be staying in a Hilton hotel in Hawaii using my Hilton HHonors points.  In Quito, Equador, we’ll spend some of the time with some dear family friends who are doing missionary work there.  We’ll even have the opportunity to spend a few nights at the local preacher school.  Of course, in Canada we’ll be staying with family as we celebrate our first Canadian Thanksgiving with my family in over a dozen years.

5.  We strategically apply for credit cards to get the sign up bonus.  I just signed into my account that I recently set up.  That site is saying that our family currently has 1,759,556 total points across all the mileage and points programs that we have.  The estimated value of those points is $18,456.  Credit cards are certainly not for everyone, but if you are disciplined and pay off your balance every month, you can earn a bunch of free or nearly free travel.

Travel Credit Cards Worth Mentioning

Starwood American Express

Both of the cards below have good sign up bonuses and solid earning rates for hotels or flights.

Right now, the Starwood American Express is offering up to 30,000 Starpoints.  These points can be extremely valuable for hotels.  Personally, I think Starwood points are the most valuable hotel points around.  This is especially true when used as cash and points.  For example, when we were in Kuala Lumpur, we stayed at the Sheraton Imperial hotel for $30 per night, plus a mere 1,600 points.  During our stay in Buenos Aires, we paid 2,800 points plus $45 per night.

As you can see, with 30,000 Starpoints you can get an awful lot of nights and value out of your 30,000 points.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Another credit card that I think has some tremendous value for people is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.  After reaching the minimum spend ($2,000 in three months), you’ll get 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points. Those points can be used directly for travel with a 25% bonus.  That means you’ll get $500 worth of travel.  Otherwise, you can transfer the points to airlines like Southwest. (40,000 points are worth $672 on Southwest Wanna Get Away flights.)  You can transfer them to airlines like British Airways.  British Airways awards are distance based, so the closer the two cities are together, the less miles you’ll use.  We can fly from Denver to Dallas round trip for 9,000 points.  Thus, the 40,000 points could get us just shy of 9 one way flights between Dallas and Denver.  Points can be transferred to United Airlines.  40,000 miles can get you a roundtrip flight from anywhere in the States to Hawaii, Caribbean, North or South America, or Central America.

If you’re not a credit card user, I don’t want to try and convince you to change.

However, if you are a credit card user and you want to be sure that the card you have is earning the most return possible, I do offer a free service over on my travel blog where I analyze your current cards and offer better alternatives (if any).  To access that free service, you can click here.

There you have it: my explanation as to how we can afford to travel so much and still live a simple, frugal, debt-free, and generous lifestyle.


  1. says

    Great article illustrating how Christians with modest incomes can be creative and enjoy some nice things. Travel must be great for your family on so many levels., I’m happy for you. I would probably only encourage credit cards to accumulate miles for those already out of debt, and who can live within a budget each month.

    • says

      Thanks for the reminder on the importance of this strategy for those who are out of debt. I usually put a disclaimer about only getting credit cards if you pay off the balances every month. I guess I missed it this time, but folks are bound to see it if they read the comments. Thanks again.

    • says

      By out of debt, do you just mean credit card debt or all debt? I think it would be great to apply to a new card every time one has a great deal like this, but I think it would lower my credit score, which I need for future mortgages and possibly car purchases.

      • says


        My stance is that one should be able to pay off the balance every month and this would be a profitable hobby. If a person doesn’t pay off his or her balance every month they need to find another hobby.

        10% of your credit score is made up based on the amount of new credit. Thus, out of a possible 850 points the biggest impact would be a drop of 85 points. In the two plus years that I’ve been tracking my score it hasn’t dropped by more than 25 points and at times is even higher than when I started applying for multiple credit cards.

        If a person is looking to get a new mortgage they will need to be more conservative as too many credit card applications could be a red flag for the mortgage company.

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