In 2013, we created the most incredible reward trip with Aeroplan, circling the globe with Star Alliance. And in 2018 we're doing it again!
TurnipseedTravel debuted nearly six years ago (and does anyone else remember our very first green and grey template?). Nearly 18 months later, that debut became a fully fledged launch when Ryan and I took our readers along for the journey of a lifetime.
We cashed in all our points for what was technically a trip to Australia but instead embarked on an amazing round-the-world trip fueled entirely by Aeroplan. See, we had learned about all the reward flight loopholes needed to "hack" our travel plans and create a mini round the world trip with Star Alliance partners. With stops in Europe, Asia, North America (and, of course, Australia), we had 9 flight segments on Star Alliance flights (and visited about 15 different locations) and paid about $300 each for taxes and fees. As you can tell from our nostalgic photos, thanks to Aeroplan, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Or so we thought....
We're making our Star Alliance reward points work for us.
Hello, 2018. We're going to do it all over again!
Yes, we have cashed in all of our Aeroplan points and have booked a trip to Australia. And, once again, we are taking advantage of the plethora of Star Alliance flight schedule possibilities and making a whole lot of "free" stops along the way. It's shaping up to be our most incredible trip ever and, just like the first time, we hope you'll join us for every leg of the journey.
What are these "free" stops we speak of? It's embracing and manipulating the natural gaps in the Star Alliance partners' flight schedules to our advantage. It's capitalizing on the rules which allow for two extra stops on your itinerary. Imagine the very opposite of a direct flight, a meandering, chopped up flight path that's technically a trip to Australia but in reality is the opportunity to visit several cities along the way - provided each additional layover is less than 24 hours. For those hoping to reach their main destination as quickly and easily as possible, this would be a nightmare. But for us, it's a dream come true, with endless opportunities to discover incredible cities, one day at a time. We've been loving the opportunities and challenges of layover based travel for years - you can read our top tips here (including what we do with our luggage).
Check out our spectacular itinerary!
So where are we going and when? This fall, we leave home (with just one carry on bag each) and hit our first under-24-hours-layover, New York City. If you have a keen memory, you'll recall that this was the first stop of our 2013 trip too. We're feeling sentimental, so we might retrace some of our stops - like tracking down an "egg cream" for me to drink.
Next, we'll be flying overnight to Milan. We'll have a day in Italy's fashion capital. We're looking forward finally seeing more of the city than just the train station. And, if I'm being honest, we're also looking forward to finally eating a Milanese meal that's NOT prepared in said station's Burger King.
Next, we fly overnight (eek! Two nights in a row. In economy class. Oh dear....) to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We had dearly hoped to have a free day here but alas the schedules were not in our favor. In fact, it's our shortest layover of the entire trip - just two hours. So we're going to wake ourselves up after the long flight with a dash though the airport!
Next, we fly to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe - site of our first stopover. As mentioned above, reward flights such as ours allow for passengers to turn two of the short layovers into full, lengthy stopovers. We'll be spending 3 weeks here and throughout Southern Africa, including Zambia and Botswana. It will be Ryan's first time in Africa and my first visit since 2004, when I lived Malawi.
When Ryan and I got engaged all those years ago, I wanted to honeymoon in Botswana. Sadly, our budget only covered two nights of camping in New Brunswick (Canada) instead! So while we always welcome the chance to explore further afield during stopovers, this particular adventure is going to be very meaningful.
From our stopover in Victoria Falls, we're heading to Johannesburg via a very short stop in Gaborone, Botswana. My fellow book lovers know Gaborone is the setting for the "No 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series by Alexander McCall Smith. It's a long shot but I cherish hopes of finding a kiosk at the airport which sells the book. It would be the perfect souvenir of a very short stop! (Update! No such luck. We did, however, see a kiosk about Botswana diamonds. No souvenirs for us).
Our time in Johannesburg is tight. We're hoping to cram in as much as possible - as well as potentially fitting in a visit with one of Ryan's friends, who he last saw when he lived in Belgium at age 18. On our 2013 trip, we made a special trek to Liege, Belgium, to retrace his teenage steps and it would be wonderful to revisit this time period once again.
Also - because I'm no fool - I am determined to stay at a hotel with a great bar that specializes in South African wines. Why should our late evening arrival limit our opportunities to deepen our wine knowledge?
Believe it or not, we haven't even hit our main destination yet! From Johannesburg, we head to Singapore for the day. Yes, I'm bravely revisiting the city where I was viciously attacked by a caterpillar! Though we'll no doubt be tired from our long overnight flight, Singapore is the perfect stopover location. Day tours are easy to arrange from the airport, which is also home to a huge list of amenities and lounges for easy recuperation. There's just one thing we want to do differently from our 2013 trip. No Burger King! Or, in the case of Singapore, "Hungry Jack" (same brand, different name). Due to some poor planning (on our part, and that of others) our last visit was a bit scattered and we didn't get to explore the city's famous food scene. What is it with us and Burger King? Hopefully we'll do better this time.
From here, we finally head to Perth, Australia, our main destination. We'll be here for just under a week. We are extremely excited for Perth's many world class (and free!) attractions - we already have a page of notes outlining different ideas and potential plans. And, while we know that Sydney and Perth are different cities on different coasts, we are hoping we can copy some aspects of our 2013 Sydney itinerary. That includes visiting Australia's gorgeous beaches, spending some time at an animal rehabilitation center, visiting galleries, and exploring the food scene.
From Perth, we head to Bangkok. While our 2013 trip included two stops in Bangkok, we really didn't get a sense of the city. Instead, we were cooling our heels in the hotel as protests congested downtown. But we weren't complaining - it was a welcome spot of rest and relaxation in a very busy trip. This time, we're hoping to get in one concrete activity (but we won't beat ourselves up if there's also a bit of extra sleep and some lazy room service orders).
Next up, we have an overnight stop in Dubai. This is a tricky stop. It's really just 12 hours and it's overnight. Should we go into the city and try to see a bit late at night? Should we relax at a beautiful airport hotel? We're struggling because we want to see it all - but we also don't want to be unrealistic. This is one stop that definitely requires a lot of research to facilitate our decisions. Thankfully, Withlocals provides incredible inspiration with their long list of flexible, private tours in Dubai - perfect for anyone with a layover like us. (And there are several foodie themed adventures - so tempting!)
Fortunately, we have a leisurely day at our next stop - Istanbul. This was my least favourite stop from our 2013 trip. I was tired and grouchy. And a less-than-stellar tour certainly didn't help. Thankfully, we were able to salvage the day and a subsequent visit in 2015 made me fall in love. This time, Istanbul was a non-negotiable stop. Among other reasons, I have a list of spices to pick up from the market - and if that isn't a reason to fly thousands of miles, I don't know what is!
Next, it's on to our final stopover. We're flying to Rome and we're going to spend a day or two in the Eternal City before heading to Tuscany. We've been dreaming of an extended visit to Tuscany for a while now, constantly drooling over travel shows that highlight the region's incredible wine, cheese, olive oil, and more. I'm also looking forward to revisiting Rome. On my last visit, I was covered in bed bug bites - not ideal for an enjoyable trip.
Last but not least, we're in Zurich for the longest of all layovers. We're here for just under 24 hours. We loved our time in nearby Bern in 2016 and we can't wait to become acquainted with the city and discover cheese, chocolate, history, museums, and more.
Finally, we're on our way home, with just one very short layover in New York standing between us and our bed in Ottawa.
Can you believe that all this cost less than $500 a person? Seriously! The total taxes and fees are just $497 per person.Here's how we did it, building upon the success of our last trip.
What you need to know to book your own Star Alliance round the world rewards trip.
Everyone wants to know exactly how we managed to pull this together - and with such a tiny cost. There's no real secret to it, but there are a lot of tips and tricks that make it all come together.
First, you've gotta love research. Or, at the very least, be motivated to learn all you can. Ryan led the charge, reading all the fine print and rules regarding reward flight redemption. He also frequently visited Flyer Talk, a website which is home to a community of passionate travelers who are an invaluable source of information and inspiration.
Secondly, you've gotta be organized. Building a reward flight is quite the experience. The world is your oyster and there's virtually nowhere you can't go - provided that Star Alliance (of which Aeroplan is a member) will fly there. But there are a few limitations. For instance, your entire trip must be 16 flight segments or less. There are a lot of limitations when it comes to backtracking - for the most part, you have to be moving closer to your main destination with each flight segment. And while it's generous, there is a limit to how many cumulative miles are allowed for all your segments. And we pushed it - in one case, we were just 29 miles under the limit! Luckily Ryan had an incredible spreadsheet to track all our options.
Third, you can't fall in love too easily. As we discovered, there were a lot of theoretical flight paths that don't translate into real life flights - let alone flights with availability for rewards members. There were a lot of dream destinations that we had to kiss goodbye because the route didn't seem to exist outside of the flight map. And sometimes the rules can break your heart. As you know, all layovers must be 24 hours or less. We were SO CLOSE to having a layover in Yangon but we would have been on the ground for 10 minutes too long. It was a no go. We wanted to return so badly - it was a beloved 2013 stop - that we even seriously debated making it one of our two stopovers. In the end, Rome won the battle.
Fourth, you need a balance between firmness and flexibility. In 2013, when we were much newer at all this, we basically copied a route that someone else had created (thanks, Flyer Talk friend!) We were open to anything and everything! This time round, with more knowledge than ever before, we realized that we could go just about anywhere. Suddenly, nothing seemed off limits. It was incredible to realize we could include Africa in our trip - but we also spun our wheels a lot considering theoretical routes, including stops in Bogota, Madrid, Lome, Accra, Bahrain, Delhi, Amsterdam and (heartbreak!) Paris. It really helps to know what your priorities are, what you're willing to compromise on, and what you're willing to be utterly flexible about.
One extra reason to be flexible - saving money. Some Star Alliance members have fuel surcharges and others don't. Certain airports are expensive to fly to or from as they charge improvement fees. We easily saved hundreds of dollars by keeping this at the forefront of our minds as we looked at potential itineraries. And, in some cases, certain countries were dropped from our plans because their tourist visa costs were prohibitively high for a wee 24 hour visit. (*shakes fist in the direction of globe - You know who you are!*)
Fifth, you've gotta make sure it all works. This means checking and double checking your dates, times, mileage, routes, and the actual existence of all the flights. You've got to put all these tips together! We had the most amazing Aeroplan agent (Petra from Montreal - we LOVE you!) but I've heard from other travelers than some agents get a bit overwhelmed when it comes to booking these itineraries. Be prepared for a long phone call. It took us about 2 hours and $30 each, the standard cost of doing a phone booking. All well worth it to have it confirmed by a real human!
Yes, we really are flying in economy class!
Yes, we really are doing this entire trip in economy fare seats. And, yes, we may just be crazy. We have cross referenced the various aircraft with Seat Guru to select the least objectionable seats which are close to the front (so we can quickly get off and enjoy that layover!) On one flight, we'll be paying a bit extra to select exit row seats. It will cost us $100 but we think it will be worth it on a 10 hour flight! But that is our only 'upgrade', if you can call it that. (We're still investigating if we can take advantage of the stopover-paid-by-carrier program. You should check it out - yes, you really can have your airline pay for your hotel on certain stops.) Along the way we will be flying on many Star Alliance partner airlines: Air Canada, United Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways, Singapore Airlines, THAI, Turkish Airlines, and SWISS.
How we earned our Aeroplan points
While this trip sounds impressive, Ryan and I actually aren't that into mile hacking. If we put more effort into it, we probably could have done this all in business class! So how did we accumulate all these points? The first time round, Aeroplan was having a special promotion. If you visited a certain number of Aeroplan-partner businesses in a certain time period, you got a huge amount of bonus points. It seemed impossible - until we realized that buying just $3 worth of gas at an approved gas station counted as a business visit. Suddenly our $60 fuel purchase was worth 20 "visits", so long as we bought $3 worth at a time. It took a long time to fill up our car every week, but we did it and, combined with a few other savvy stops, we got our bonus and made it past the necessary threshold.
This time round, there were no special promotions. We've each had an Aeroplan Visa card for nearly 10 years. (And if you have an American Express Platinum Card - you can transfer your AMEX points to Aeroplan points!) We use them often but not obsessively. We still visit the Aeroplan partner gas stations - but not all the time, and only if their prices are the best. But in the five years since our last trip, we've traveled more than ever in our work as travel writers. More flights means more points, especially when we book them with our Visa. We've also had a few large purchases in the past 5 years, like when we bought all new appliances for our new house. Overall, no tricks, no secrets - just slow, steady growth.
Normally, I'd encourage everyone to read the rules, follow the promotions, and just keep at it, using your credit card responsibly and within your budget. But it's worth noting that Air Canada has announced that they're decoupling from Aeroplan by 2020 and will launch a new program of their own. We're not sure what that will look like and we're eager to make the most of our classic points while we can.
This is the right move for us right now. And while I'm sure we'll have moments where we'll regret not using all our points for a first class flight to a singular destination (Hawaii, we thought long and hard about this), we might never get a chance like this again. We're going to make every moment of this slightly crazy trip count and we hope you'll follow us with as much enthusiasm as last time. We love having you along for the ride!
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