Planning A Round-The-World Adventure With United Miles

When they announced in late 2013 that they were going to devalue the United award chart, I decided to burn my United miles for my first, first class experience.  I’m not sure why other travel hackers/bloggers prefer AA miles over United (pre-devaluation) since they’re so generous with their routings.  I decided to plan a round trip from Los Angeles to Bangkok and began my planning in November 2013 for a trip in March 2014.  After looking at many, many, different routing options, I decided to do 6 vacations in one week.  I wanted to get a little crazy with the itinerary to see what I could get away with and to maximize the 24 hour connection rule. I also wanted to plan my stays around hotel check-in times.  So I wanted to depart from a city in the morning and arrive in another city in the afternoon.  ANOTHER thing I wanted was to arrive in Thailand just in time to make it to Ko Phangan for the Full Moon Party.  The stars just happened to align and all my bookings worked in one call. (Though there were some hiccups later)


Routing:
LAX-JFK-ICN-KIX-BKK-FCO-MUC-LAX


Final Routing:
LAX-JFK-ICN-KIX-BKK(stop)-FCO(stop)-MUC-SFO-LAX


I was very surprised when the United rep let me route this!!  I know I was being ambitious when I came up with the itinerary and had some expectations they were going to fight me on some of the segments, but it worked!


This is the route United.com will give you if you want to go from Los Angeles to Bangkok:


It’s direct and makes sense.  But, I want to go on an adventure!  I also have friends in these cities I wanted to visit too.  So this is my Los Angeles to Bangkok route:



And this is the routing of my entire ticket as I plan to have a stopover in Rome on the way home:


Actual itinerary:


It took about a year to get these miles through credit card sign up bonuses:
October 2012 – 50k miles – United Mileage Plus Personal card
December 2012 – 50k miles – Chase Ink Bold Business card
June 2013 – 40k miles – Chase Sapphire Personal card


As listed above, my departure times line up with the usual hotel checkout times and arrivals line up with hotel check-ins/outs. It was very difficult to rest with jet lag, I couldn’t get more than 3 hours of sleep each night.

Each airport also supported luggage storage (for a fee), I used this service in Seoul and Shanghai.  Since I’ve been to these cities before, I knew it would be very difficult to change from the airport train line to the local subway line with luggage.

How To Get To Machu Picchu

Pre-Trip: How to get to Machu Picchu!

In June 2012, I received a TravelZoo fare alert for LAX -> LIM for $280 in for late fall.  With a fare this ridiculously low, of course I booked it.  It was time to see Machu Picchu.  I started making arrangements for flights and hotels in October.  To get to Machu Picchu, you have to take a domestic flight from Lima to Cusco.  From Cusco, you NEED to take a train to Aguas Calientes.  The only alternative is an 8 hour bus ride through a windy road to get there.  Take the train, it’ll save you a significant amount of time.  Once in Aguas Calientes, you NEED to take a bus up to Machu Picchu.  It takes about 15 minutes for about $15.  You could walk it, but it’s a very steep/dangerous climb (no rails) and would probably take 1-2 hours.

“What is Visa Signature?”
If you’re on a tight schedule, or just for peace of mind, you should definitely book your Train Tickets and Machu Picchu entrance tickets in advance.  To do this, you can’t just use any credit card from the US, you need to have a credit card that’s “Verified by Visa.”  When I went, I had know idea what this was.  I tried 10+ different credit cards from myself and friends and it didn’t work.  Turns out, a “Verified by Visa” card is really a “Visa Signature” card.  All my credit cards at the time had no annual fee and those aren’t the type of cards to be Visa Signature cards.  Now, I actually have several Visa Signature cards that came with some nice promotional bonus points.  Since I didn’t have this at the time, I made it to Machu Picchu, but just barely.

Lima, Peru
LAX-SAL-LIM
This was a tough flight.  I hate having to take layovers, but it was necessary.  Luckily, this layover was just an hour.  When booking flights, I always try to find the shortest/most affordable path.  Medium (several hours) layovers are torture.  It’s not enough time to leave the airport to see the city or you’d otherwise just be too tired to go out.

On this trip, I happened to be traveling with my friend who is a smoker.  He can’t go more than a few hours without a cigarette.  He even considered smoking on the plane if the fee/ticket wasn’t too high.  As soon as we got off hit SAL, he made a dash for a bathroom to light up.  Since hour layover was only an hour, he didn’t want to go outside and have to go through security in a country where he didn’t speak the language.  He made me stand guard outside the bathroom.  I hate having to do that.  There was a cop walking by and he just kept passing by the bathroom.  Janitors were going to clean there too but it was occupied by my friend.  I get stressed out/anxiety when I have to assist in a crime.  Luckily, he got away with it again.  But there was a time in the Panama Airport where I let my guard down to look around while he was smoking and two janitors almost caught him.  But you’d understand if you’ve been to the Panama airport, it’s like a high-end mall!

When we arrived at the Lima airport, we had to go through security again to exit the airport.  That was strange.  But the screenings are randomized as you approach the line, there is a random machine that selects if you can proceed to exit or have to go through security again.  We both didn’t have to get screened and exited the airport.  As we exited the airport, we were surrounded by taxi drivers on foot trying to get our business.  We got price quotes to the hostel from several of the drivers and decided to just keep walking around.  We could not find the actual taxi station line.  It started raining.  So we gave up and decided to go with one of the drivers who seemed really sincere.  A couple of the other drivers seemed kind of shady.  They all showed us “official” taxi driver passes, but that could have easily been created by themselves.  Of couse any tourist would not know the difference.  I was a tourist so even though I was showed credentials, those didn’t mean anything to me since I had no way of really verifying.

I read online to avoid these taxi drivers at the airport since they rip you off.  Some really do.  Just be careful, smart, and ask a lot of questions.  If they quote you too much, they will rip you off so just keep walking.  Still, ALWAYS avoid the drivers right at the airport exit.

We asked the driver to take us to the hostel, he quoted us 30SOL (Peruvian Soles).  While other drivers were quoting us 40-60SOL.  It seemed like a good deal, but of course I was concerned.  Some of the Trip Advisor posts said to be careful of unregistered taxis due to kidnappings.  He took us to his car, which happened to be an unregistered taxi.  *Every post online said to avoid this*  It was an old and beat up vehicle, we decided to trust him and just go with it.

TIP: Since I am always concerned for my safety, never let the driver know how informed I am.  As we drove from the airport to the hostel, I followed along on a map of the city I printed out and used the compass app on my phone.  We got there with no problems on an appropriate route.  The taxi driver turned out to be a really nice guy and he was giving us the history of buildings and sites as we drove by them.  He also informed us we were staying in a bad part of town. When we got to the area, we agreed.  He offered to take us somewhere else, but we declined.  I have also heard of this trick, where the drivers try to take you to a different hostel/hotel for the commission.  We were only staying for one night, the area was bad, but the exact location we were staying in wasn’t that bad.  We stayed at “1900 Backpackers Hostel.”

Overall, the hostel wasn’t as great as what we were lead to believe by the reviews.  The bed sheets felt really stale so I ended up sleeping in my clothes with a jacket on.  It was cool that they had a pool table and a bar.  We got some tips on where to go, but there was not really any nightlife in the area we were in.  Pretty much this was just a place to crash until our flight to Cusco in the morning.

Cusco (Cuzco), Peru
The flight was about an hour.  For the most part, I slept through this flight.  As we got out of the airport, we were bombarded by many taxi drivers.  We got some price quotes from the airport to the hotel, and some of these guys were clearly trying to rip us off.  They said the place was really far and was quoting us 2x-3x the actual price.  We quickly learned that you really have to set the price and see if the driver agrees.

TIP: For taxis, just offer a number of soles and the location you want to go to.  Depending on how far it is, you’re looking to spend between 4-10SOL in Cusco.  Since Cusco is not a large town.

I found out online that the taxi should cost 10-15SOL from the airport to our hotel.  Since we were getting ripped off at the airport, we decided to start walking to the hotel.  I also had a map ready.  About 2 minutes into our walk, I was out of breath.  The altitude really hit us, plus we were backpacking it.  Just outside the airport, we flagged another taxi and just set the price.  We offered 10SOL for him to take us to our hotel, Hotel Golden Inca.  The driver eagerly agreed.  I was a little concerned that he agreed too easily and hoped he really was going to take us to the hotel.  Turns out he was a really nice guy.  We arrived within 10 minutes and he brought our backpacks into the hotel.  As I was going to pay (with tip), he denied payment.  He was friends with the hotel employees and I guess he was going there anyway to hangout.  They let us check in several hours early with no problems.  So far, all my concern that people were going to kidnap and rip me off were just crazy internet rumors.  For the most part, everyone is nice and helpful in Peru!

We stayed in Cusco for 2 nights to allow ourselves to climatize to the elevation.

Buying Peru Rail Tickets
After checking in, we were kindly provided by the hotel a map of Cusco.  They gave us directions from the hotel to the Peru Rail Office.  It was a short walk.  When we arrived, ALL tickets from Cusco to Aguas Calientes were sold out!  We immediately asked if there was any other way to get there.  It would have been a big waste of time and money to go from Los Angeles to Cusco without seeing Machu Picchu!  The workers were kind enough to give us a solution that turned out to save us about $60USD each.  She informed us that we can take the communal taxi/van from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.  From Ollantaytambo there was train seat availability to Aguas Calientes.  She even gave us upgraded seats on the train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo at no extra charge. But these tickets were only available certain days which changed our hotel plans.

I orginally booked 1 night Lima, 2 nights Cusco, 2 nights Aguas Calientes, 1 night Cusco, and 1 night Lima. for the full week.

So on the fly, we booked our Peru Rail tickets and tried to change our hotel reservations.  After several calls to our hotel in Aguas Calientes, there was no answer.  No one answered the telephone.  Even though there was 24 hours to cancel, we could not reach them and no one responded via e-mail.  We just took the hit on the price.  Luckily, we were able to book the same room at our current hotel in Cusco at the same rate ($40USD), they even let us leave our heavy backpacks in the room so we wouldn’t have to bring them on the train! Hotel Golen Inca was the best!

TIP: Stay in Cusco!  You don’t need a hotel Aguas Calientes, especially since you can get to Machu Picchu in a day and back from Cusco. If I had planned it better, I would have just stayed in Cusco for 3 nights, and the 2nd day planned to take the 1st train from Cusco (05:00) to Aguas Calientes to see Machu Picchu.  Especially if you go without a tour group, Machu Picchu is open from Sunrise to Sunset.  Roughly 05:00 to 17:00.  The website should state the exact details.  After Machu Picchu, there is NOTHING to do in Aguas Calientes.  No real bars or clubs to visit late at night.  The nightlife is significantly better in Cusco.

The next morning, we got up early since we absolutely had to catch the 5am communal taxi to Ollantaytambo.  There was only a 30min window for us to get to our train with the only available seats.  We were told that it was 10SOL, for the communal taxi, but they charged us 12SOL.  The difference was less than $1USD so I didn’t mind and it wasn’t enough for me to really fight over.  The drive from Cusco to Ollantaytambo is a little over an hour.  And you are PACKED in this van with very little space to move the entire time.  Be prepared for the ride if you take this route and make sure you use the bathroom before the ride!

TIP: Ollantaytambo 12-15 soles (really, 10SOL for tourists and 5SOL for nationals).  The difference wasn’t high enough for me to argue about since it was $1-2USD at most for an hour drive.  Either way, it’s best to know how much you’re looking to pay.

From Ollantaytambo, it was smooth sailing (well, train-ing) to Aguas Calientes.  Okay, it wasn’t smooth, but we got there.  The train ride was very rough but we made it.  Be prepared if you have motion sickness.  On the way there, Peru Rail handed out candy/snack and a really cool map.

Aguas Calientes, Peru
This is really just a city that completely depends on tourism.  Everything is marketed for tourists, and the sales people know all kinds of languages!  I’m Asian, and they tried talking to me in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and of course English.  I was very impressed, they were very multi-lingual.  When we checked into our hotel, “Machu Picchu Green Nature.”  When we got there, we attempted to get a refund for one the nights booked and explained that we called and e-mailed with no response.  The lady at the desk couldn’t help us.  But we were able to negotiate.  Since there were two of us; and we booked one room for two nights; and we would only be staying one night; she let us each have our own room for one night.  She even let us select which room/floor we wanted.  I selected the top floor, the 4th floor.  This of course is before I realized they did not have an elevator.  I hiked up to the 4th floor while my friend only had to walk up to the 2nd floor.  We ate at several places around town.  None of the food was that great.  I think it’s only because people are in town for one day, it doesn’t really matter what they’re served since they’re unlikely to return.  Prices for things also seemed to be marked up.  Cusco is a much better place to stay so plan accordingly!

Machu Picchu
The next morning, it was time to see Machu.  There were two things that we had to do.  One, we had to buy tickets from the official government office in town since we didn’t do this online or through a travel agent.  There are a limited amount of tickets available, but we took a gamble since we went during the slow season (October 2012).  Luckily there was a surplus of tickets.  But tickets were sold out for Huayna Picchu, which was a more restricted side of Machu Picchu.  Those are limited to 200 per day.  You will need to have your passport with you to purchase the ticket.  We got our tickets and then went to look for the bus tickets kiosk.

We found the ticket kiosk which happened to be placed along the river in the middle of town, by the middle bridge.  Very centrally located.  We picked up tickets for a round-trip bus ride which was less than $20USD and then queued up for the bus.

TIP: Be sure to bring your passport to Machu Picchu!

Luckily we had our passports, but no one told us we would need them.  Once you get to the entrance of Machu Picchu, you need to go through a gate where they check your passport and your entrance ticket.  Once your past that gate, your free to roam around Machu Picchu.

Overall experience in Peru, everyone is really nice.  Of course there are always a few people trying to rip you off here and there, but those people are everywhere in the world.  I really enjoyed Peru.  People were friendly and very easy going.  I absolutely recommend a trip there!

On the train ride back from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, we got to ride in the VistaDome car.  The seats were a little better/roomier and there was a show.  After we departed Aguas Calientes, there was a “traditional” dance by some demon on board with a story explaining the situation.  This was then followed by a fashion show.  The clothes in the fashion show were of course for sale.

We had no hotel booked in Lima for the next night, I ended up booking something immediately and scheduled for an airport pickup to avoid the hassle of finding a taxi driver.  The price was about the same as what a taxi driver would have charged, 40SOL.  I really liked this part since this was the first time I arrived at an airport and there was a driver waiting for me holding a sign with my name 🙂

Killing a day in Lima
When we got back to Lima, we had an entire day to kill with no plans.  Pretty much we just went to three malls, watched a movie, played pool, went to a video game arcade and ended the day with a trip to the water fountains.

Free Hotels Around the World – A Lesson in BRG

With the copious amount of online travel booking sites (Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline), competition to draw in customers is essential for a business to survive.  Many promotions are available to loyal customers, and vendors want consumers to believe they are getting the best rates when booking.  Many online travel booking sites have instituted “Best Rate Guarantees” or something worded along those lines that provide massive savings.  There are too many sites to choose from which has caused the need for travel site search aggregators (Trivago, Hipmunk, Kayak), which compare the hotel rates from multiple booking sites all at once.  This has made the search for acquiring the Best Rate Guarantees (BRG) incredibly easy.  For most of my vacation, I tried to maximize the value provided by these BRG’s as much as possible.  

For more information, please see Google.

Date City Hotel Name Booking Site Out of pocket BRG Award Net Spend Notes
3/9/2014 New York The Gem Hotel – Midtown West Choicehotels.com $3.50 First night free $3.50 Choicehotels.com BRG = free night
3/10/2014 N/A
3/11/2014 Seoul Noble Hotel Expedia.com $0 $50 BRG -/+ -$50 Used $50 voucher, aqcuired $50 voucher
3/12/2014 Shanghai Seagull on the Bund Orbitz.com $74 $74 Orbitz Bucks $0 $74 out of pocket turned into Orbucks
3/13/2014 Osaka Best Western Shinsaibashi BestWestern.com $70 $100 BW Cert $30 $100 Best Western certificate (not sure if stackable)
3/14/2014 Bangkok aloft Bangkok StarwoodHotels.com 3000 Starpoints N/A $0 Used points via Credit Card bonus points
3/15/2014 Koh Samui Replay Residence and Pool Villa Expedia.com $33.51 Used $50 BRG $33.51 Expedia Flash Sale, Used $50 BRG (originally $83.51)
3/16/2014 Koh Samui Replay Residence and Pool Villa Expedia.com $0 $0 $33.51 was cost for 3 nights
3/17/2014 Koh Samui Replay Residence and Pool Villa Expedia.com $0 $0 $33.51 was cost for 3 nights
3/17/2014 Koh Samui Al’s Resort Orbitz.com $17.17 Used $74 Orbucks $17.17 Had a hotel paid already, but wanted one by the beach
3/18/2014 Bangkok Admiral Premier Expedia.com $14 $50 BRG -/+ -$50 Used $50 BRG and gained $50 BRG
3/19/2014 Bangkok Admiral Premier Expedia.com $14 $50 BRG -/+ -$50 Used $50 BRG and gained $50 BRG
3/20/2014 N/A
3/21/2014 Rome Radisson Blu es. Hotel Rome ClubCarlson.com 44k CC points N/A $0 Used points via Credit Card bonus points
3/22/2014 Rome last night free $0 Last night free on a 2 night stay with hotel credit card
3/23/2014 Florence Plus Florence Hostel $4.94 $50 BRG -/+ -$50 Used $50 voucher, aqcuired $50 voucher
3/24/2014 Florence Plus Florence Hostel $67 $67 Changed vacation plans to stay another night
Totals 11 Hotel Paid Nights $298.12 -$48.82

After spending about $300 for 11 paid hotel nights, I’m left with 4 Expedia $50 BRG Vouchers and $100 in Best Western credit. This will definitely help me maximize my next trip.


For my March 2014 Around-the-World Adventure, I “capitalized” on the following BRG programs:


ChoiceHotels.com
Find a lower rate and your first night is free.  Booked just one night so my entire stay was free at the Gem Hotel Midtown West in New York.


Orbitz.com
Depending upon your Orbitz membership level, you can receive UP TO (depending on how much you spend) $100/150/200 back for a booking.  The crappy thing about this (that I found out the hard way) is that if you use any portion of your Orbucks in a reservation, you will not qualify to make a BRG claim.  I got burned on this by using Orbucks on a non-refundable reservation that would have qualified for an BRG claim.


Expedia.com
Find a lower rate and Expedia will match the rate and include a $50 Expedia voucher.  The great thing about this is that when Expedia looks at the lower rate, they look at the advertised rate WITHOUT taxes which can save you a significant amount of cash.  In addition to this, your BRG rate qualifies even if you use a BRG voucher to book the reservation.


BestWestern.com

Find a lower rate and receive a $100 Best Western gift card.  

There’s many more sites and promotions, these are just the ones I found that worked best for this trip.

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