How Many Frequent Flier Miles Does It Take to Travel Around the World?

Budgeting a trip with miles is easier than doing it with cash. Whatever currency you are working in (United miles, American miles, etc) has set rates for travel between distinct regions of the world. Miles required doesn’t change dynamically the way cash prices do. It’s the same number of miles to go from Sao Paolo to Capetown on a Tuesday in July as it is on the Saturday before Christmas. The sticky point is whether seats are available (something I’ll cover in another post).

If you’ve read our post on our mileage earning this year you know that we have miles in 4 distinct programs that we can use for flights.

  • United (Mileage Plus)

  • American (Aadvantage)

  • Chase Sapphire (transferable to multiple partners)

  • Starwood Guest Preferred (transferable to multiple partners)

Though it has been far easier to earn American miles this year (between 5 credit cards and 2 checking accounts we’ve earned about 350,000 miles) United has significantly more transfer partners including both Chase Sapphire and Starwood Guest Preferred. We have at our disposal a little over half a million United miles (assuming we transfer from Sapphire and SPG).

It also so happens that United has the industry’s best award booking engine. It’s fast, accurate, works all the time (a sad thing to have to note as an unusual feature) and, most importantly for our purposes, it shows its alliance partners availability and costs. This means that it will give us a generally accurate snapshot of how many miles we can expect to use on our flights this coming year.

(The itinerary we are following is the same general one I used for the longer 7 part series on how much it would cost to pay for flights around the world.)

Intercontinental Flights

  1. Atlanta, USA>Cartagena, Colombia

  2. Lima, Peru> Capetown, South Africa

  3. Capetown, South Africa> Rome, Italy

  4. Rome, Italy> Delhi, India

  5. Delhi, India> Bangkok, Thailand

  6. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia> Atlanta, USA

 

Atlanta, USA> Cartagena, Colombia

Atlanta to Cartagena is pretty simple and cheap. 20K miles and $24.90. We actually booked this ticket a few months ago when we found $150/person tickets on Spirit. With bag fees that’s out of pocket almost $400 and, looking at our mile/point haul for the year, was probably a mistake. We could have held onto enough money for a week’s accommodation and flown a significantly nicer carrier.

Lima, Peru> Capetown, South Africa

Lima to Capetown is the priciest award flight we’ll be taking. As further examples below will demonstrate, the cost in miles has nothing to do with distance. Instead it has to do with the opaque and intricate process by which airline alliances decide what constitutes a region and what they can all agree to charge to travel between them. 

55K and 42.84 isn’t bad. That’s one credit card bonus worth of miles for a flight that could cost $1300-2000.

However, something interesting happens when we check on the cost of flying from La Paz Bolivia (just two hour’s flight east of Lima).

So to fly from La Paz, about 1,000 km closer to our destination, costs almost half the price. We could save 50K miles just by flying out of Boliva instead of Peru.

30K miles to fly from La Paz to Capetown while Atlanta to Cartagena, a distance of 2750 km, cost 20K miles. For just 50% more miles, we can fly three times as far (8,678 km).

That’s 7.2 miles per kilometer to go ATL>CTG, compared to 3.46 miles per kilometer for LPB>CPT: almost half the cost.

Even stranger, as you can see in the pop-up, the routing for the flight from La Paz actually goes thru Lima. We’d be leaving Peru and entering Boliva just to fly back to Peru. We’d actually be flying further

Why?

As you can see above, United says that Boliva is in SOUTHERN South America and for some reason, this halves the price. This is the strange logic of reward pricing.

Flights from Lima to La Paz are close to $500, so it’s not a given that this routing would be more economical but it is an example of how creativity and knowledge of the rules can stretch your dollar (or mileage account in this case).

(For our summary at the end, I’m going to assume we are still flying from Lima.)

Capetown, South Africa> Rome, Italy

Another great example of how regions affect mile pricing: our 8455 km journey from the tip of southern Africa to southern Europe is only 30,000 miles just like our trip from La Paz to Capetown.

Rome, Italy> Delhi, India

The fees associated with award tickets are typically airport and government taxes (which are often the same thing). You’ll notice they are higher leaving Europe or entering the US.

Delhi, India> Bangkok, Thailand

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia> Atlanta, USA

In perhaps the greatest example of how region drives prices, this monster 27 hour flight of almost 16,000 km is only 40,000 miles or 2.5 miles per km.

 

All Together Now

In total, our costs look like this:

ATL>CTG - 20K miles and $24.90

LIM>CPT - 55K miles and $42.84

CPT>ROM - 30K miles $36.70

ROM>DEL - 25K miles $61.39

DEL>BKK - 35K miles $35.35

KUL>ATL - 40K miles $65.10

 

205,000 Miles and $266.28 per Person

This is a far cry from the $3,500- 4,500 per person we estimated in our series on the total costs of buying flights for our RTW trip. Our miles could save us between $6,000 and $8,500 and mean 2-3 extra months of travel.

This also leaves us with close to 100,000 extra United miles and more than 350,000 Aadvantage miles leftover. That means we could upgrade to business class on a few flights (La Paz to Capetown in business class is 45,000 instead of 30,000, still 10K less than Lima to Capetown), keep our Sapphire and SPG points for hotel programs or just have some miles leftover for next year.