Free Trip to Thailand: Travel Hacking Case Study


When I haven’t been contemplating the puzzle of how to do everything, I’ve been planning my final international trip of the year.

Yes, it’s only July, but come September, I hit the road to meet readers in 63 cities for the Unconventional Book Tour. Therefore, next month’s trip is my final chance to get in a couple of new countries before putting my Frequent Flyer cards back in the drawer for a long four months.

When outlining the trip a few weeks ago, I decided to try to hit up three countries: Algeria, Belarus, and Turkmenistan. All three of these are fairly difficult to get to or arrange, at least for U.S. citizens. Algeria doesn’t see a lot of tourists dropping in for a visit, and therefore has a 20-day waiting period before approving a visa request. Belarus I’ve tried to visit twice and was shut out both times; this will be attempt number three. Lastly, Turkmenistan requires a letter of invitation to be issued before you can even apply for a visa.

You can probably see the problem—the mix of these three countries was a bit too ambitious for one trip. Even with two passports, it just takes too long to send them off to embassies in Washington and “hurry up and wait” for everything to come through. In the meantime I have to confirm the flights and other logistics, so everything hangs by a thread as I wait to see how it’s going to go.

Anyway, I could see that something would need to be cut, and since the Turkmenistan thing was going to take the longest, I took it out. Alas, I’ll have to sort that one out later.

This trip was arranged with US Air miles booked on Lufthansa—just like the past couple of trips have been. Earlier this year I earned 800,000 US Air miles in one fell swoop, and because I don’t want to keep so many in one account, I’ve been rapidly going through them. I’m down to 300,000 now, but it’s been a fun ride—bringing me to Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Ukraine, Cape Verde, and back and forth across the Atlantic a couple of times.

Here’s the interesting part of this particular reservation:

A trip to Asia, via Europe, costs 120,000 miles. A trip to only Europe costs 125,000 miles. So my first thought was, “Nice, I save 5,000 miles and get a free return flight to Turkmenistan.”

But then I didn’t need to go to Turkmenistan anymore, and in fact, I’d have to take it out. The irony is that I would then have to pay more miles NOT to fly to Turkmenistan. Random, but true. So I started looking around, wondering if there is another South or Central Asian city I could pop into before heading home. And indeed, Thai Airways showed up with good availability on the flights from Frankfurt and Munich.

At first I wasn’t sure it would work—could I really get a free Star Alliance flight to Bangkok, all the way from Frankfurt, without ponying up more miles? Well, yes—I could. And that’s not all. I go to Bangkok several times a year, but I’ve never been to Chiang Mai in the north. So at first my plan was to buy my own budget airline ticket from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for $88, which is a good value.

But then! It got even better.

I realized that I could actually include Chiang Mai on the itinerary, and fly there and back on Thai Airways instead of Air Asia. Now I have lounge access on both sides, an $88+ savings (the Thai flights actually cost quite a bit more), and much better flight times. Another bonus!

The final itinerary, booked mostly in Lufthansa and Thai Airways First Class, ended up like this:


And here’s a basic USA–>Europe itinerary, which would cost more:


Voila! It wasn’t hard to choose between those.

To be fair, it’s not a 100% perfect itinerary—I have to go home via the East Coast instead of back to Seattle, Denver, or Vancouver—but all in all, it’s pretty good. Free trip to Thailand, free flight up to Chiang Mai and back, and I save 5,000 miles by taking a flight that would otherwise cost $5,000 or more.

To do this yourself, it’s good to become familiar with the mileage redemption charts of various airlines. This is where I first realized I could head to Thailand—or almost anywhere else in Asia—for less than just going to Europe. For example, the current US Airways one (what I used in this case) is over here.

Next year I’m planning a travel hacking membership site as part of my ongoing goal to democratize travel, but until then, I’m happy to share what I know here on the blog and through the Frequent Flyer Master updates. I hope it helps in your own pursuit of adventure.


Speaking of, if you’re out on the road yourself this summer, Happy Travels! And thanks for all the feedback (hundreds of comments and emails) on Monday’s post. As promised, I’ll have a follow-up next week.


Image: WHL

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  • Ben says:

    Haha greay way of ‘travel hacking’! Lufthansa and Thai first class are said to be awesome!

    I’m a pretty new follower of your blog, so I also read your posts about the 800k miles you got through that promo, because they were new to me.

    However, there’s something I don’t understand:

    In your 2009 post, you write that you’re expecting 280k miles with this promo. Then in 2010 you got 800k miles? What happened?

    One thing is sure though, I’ll be reading your blog so I won’t miss the next promo 🙂

  • Chris says:


    After I did the initial 280k, I upgraded to a further 800k along with many of our readers (some did a lot more than me, actually). The final result can be seen here.

  • Briana says:

    This is great inspiration. I am currently trying to find a cheap way to New Zealand from Europe to continue my own global adventure. Not having much luck so far, but there’s more hacking to be done!

  • Gail Blesch says:

    I have to ask, do you love the take-offs and landings as much as finding yourself in new places? A lot of people I know find those the worst part of air travel. I LOVE the thrill of the jets starting up and leaving land as well as the thrill of touching down again. Reading your itinerary with 20 starts and stops for this lag, I’m curious if it gets old?

  • Linda says:

    Lol–Here I’m trying to book a trip to San Diego ( I live in Los Angeles) with a hotel that accepts dogs, and I read your dizzying international itinerary with all the zigs, zags, and everything in-between, and just have to laugh.

    Chiang Mai is soooo beautiful–by far my favorite city in Thailand. The countryside is so lush, and the people so gracious.

    Have a wonderful trip Chris!

  • Karen Banes says:

    Have a great trip. Chiang Mai was one of my fave parts of a long trip to Thailand but that was several years ago. Would love to go back, so looking forward to hearing what you think about it in future updates. And looking forward hearing more about your travel hacking website. Can’t think of a better qualified candidate to set that up!

  • Lach says:

    I Chris. Great as always. I’ll have to study your system a bit more deeply, as I’ve recently had the opposite experience: blowing over $1,000 on flights I never ended up using.

    After getting a pretty good a one-way deal to Thailand (SYD-BKK) to rendezvous with my wife, I later tried to book onto the same return flight that she was going out on. Well, the cost of getting onto that particular flight was exorbitant. It tuned out it was actually cheaper to buy a return ticket (MEL–BKK–MEL) incorporating that flight, then to book the BKK–MEL flight alone. Go figure. So that’s what I ended up doing. Bought another outgoing flight I knew I would never be using. The kicker is that once I got to Thailand our plans changed and I ended up not using the return either. Perhaps Thai Air can use my generous donation of offset carbon emissions 🙂

  • Chris Dame says:

    It’s great seeing you actually use all of these miles, knowing they aren’t just sitting there.

    Do you transfer miles to different accounts, or just use them all on USAir and affiliates?

  • Etsuko says:


    Was the extra leg between Bangkok-Chiang Mai also included in the same package without extra miles/charge? How did you find that out? By studying the redemption chart, or do you have someone on the phone helping you by now? In any case, awesome planning!


  • Chris says:


    I use all of those miles on Star Alliance carriers — they can’t be transferred, but they be used on different carriers within the alliance. I also have accounts with about eight other airlines as well.


    Yes, that flight (BKK-CMX and back) was included. I thought I could get it as part of the same deal, but I wasn’t sure until I phoned up.

  • Jeffery Patch says:

    Enjoy Chiang Mai Chris. I absolutely loved it when I was there earlier in the year. If you have a couple of days and want an adventure followed by some big time chilling out, rent a motorbike and ride to Pai. It’s a beautiful ride through the hills (6-8 hours, yes you can do it on the smallest bike available from AYA service in CM) and you can drop them off in Pai and relax with all of the hippies. The 13-seater Cessna Nok Air return flight to CM is about $60 and a lot of fun.

  • Andrew says:

    Hey Chris,

    Sounds great! The night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is worth it, comfortable and you get the bonus of sleep/travel.

    best of luck

  • Audrey says:

    We were talking about the Caucasus and Central Asia yesterday and had a chat with some Turkmen journalists afterwards about our visit to Turkmenistan in 2007. Unfortunately, it seems as if tourist visas have become extremely strict and difficult, even more so than when we visited a few years ago. There’s hope that the government may relax the visa regime again, but cutting Turkmenistan out now and landing in Thailand instead is the right decision. And, Thailand and Chiang Mai is a fun place to be for a few days and see the elephants.

    Now you’ve got me thinking about what we can do with the miles we’ve got in our various accounts.

  • Christina says:

    Hi Chris, i’ve been following your blog for just a little while and i must say you totally inspire me! i love, love, love to travel, and try to get-away at least once a year–which people think is weird because i LIVE in hawaii, and they’re all trying to come here! For the past 10 years, my sisters and i have always done all our Christmas shopping in Bangkok/Chiang Mai. We’d leave the day after Thanksgiving and usually stay for 2 weeks (the first week of Dec is the King’s birthday and items are even more on sale!) If you ever get the chance, mosey on down to the south of Thailand–Koh Lanta, Koh Samui, Phuket–it’s just awesome! I love Thailand and it’s people! Stay safe on your travels, and
    keep enjoying the world! Thanks!

  • Maxim says:

    I’m going to visit Thailand next winter. This is probably very exciting considering that I’m going to have a flight from Moscow (from -5 to -30, I expect) to Bangkok (+35?))…

  • Jacob Schweitzer says:

    I’ve been to Belarus, though unintentionally. I was on a train from St Petersburg to Kiev and didn’t realize it took a short trip to Belarus. I had no visa and they took me off the train to a city called Gomel. My phone didn’t work, no w-fi cafes (only internet on a shitty computer in the post office).. I was stuck. Nice girls there but not a great place.

  • Amy Putkonen says:

    Wow. That is quite the initerary. I have never even heard of some of those countries! I suppose the best cure for being “geographically challenged” would be to actually visit some of the countries in little corners of the world. I am fascinated by your plight (and flight).

  • Brett Henley says:

    Thanks as always Chris,

    It’s funny … just as I was scouring around researching mileage opportunities so my better half and I can fly to Thailand in early 2011, this blog post slapped me between the eyes.

    The universe is awesome in truly strange and wondrous ways, is it not?

  • Joel says:

    I love how you just roll with the punches and make things work no matter the circumstances…so awesome.

  • Casey Friday says:

    You are my hero, Chris! I’m working on getting tons of miles without flying. I used the recent Chase promotion and opened two checking accounts, in order to receive 50,000 Continental Onepass miles. I’m working on some credit card churning at the moment and hope to have around 300,000 miles by the end of 2010.

    You continue to inspire me to rack up more miles! Thanks so much!

  • Anne Bobroff-Hajal says:

    Nicky Bobroff Hajal’s (and my) ancestors probably came originally from Belarus: the village of Bobr, near Borisov. If you happen to get to (or hear about) either one, please let us know!

  • Patrice says:

    I second visiting Pai if you can squeeze it in. We detoured there from Chiang Mai on our Thailand trip in March and it was one of my favorite places in Thailand.

  • Devin says:

    Hey Chris,

    I want to know more about travel hacking. While I should probably know more about this portion of the travel industry in general, I also want to have a little leverage in working with the airlines. Truthfully, some of them are just the pits.

  • Thai Villa says:

    When you come to Thailand, do keep in mind the budget carriers. Whilst the average tourist will not have any interest in the frequent flyer programmes of local discount airlines such as Nok (as you need an armful of points to redeem anything and most travellers will not fly that much within the country), they do offer cheaper point to point flights. And if you want to fly from Thailand to Laos, then bypass the expensive international fares of Bangkok Air and Thai, and fly from Bangkok to Udon (near the Lao border) on Nok Air at under a third of the price, then take the US$4 bus from Udon Thani to Vientiane. Voila, you’ve earned yourself as free hotel room or two or even a night at Gecko Villa in Udon!

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