I came across a tweet earlier this week from an academic in the planning world over at Kansas State University. He has a buddy who is trying to get to Lithuania to present his work on a recent paper. They decided to set up a Go Fund me to help support the trip, the link is here for those of you who want to send some love their way.
I dug into the expenses/budget for the trip, and it seems that they are seeking $3,000 for 10 days, from July 7th-17th. The biggest expense seems to be airfare:
— Derek Lawson MS CFP® (@DerekLawson2) February 19, 2016
While I hope they get the $3K they need, as a contingency plan, I thought to share some ways to reduce the cost. The most effective way to do this is going to be with points and miles, but let’s start out with a ‘just cash’ approach.
I’ve grown to love ITA Matrix for Airfare. Even though I don’t actually pay cash when I travel, I use the search tool to find routes. Sure enough, MHK-VNO comes in at $1688.
The reason for this seems to be the limited competition for flights from this smaller airport, which drives up the price. However, if we were to swap airports to a larger one within Kansas, such as MCI, we can get an immediate price drop to $1255. That’s $430 in exchange for schlepping to MCI airport, a 2hr ride.
As an aside, some people might be able to reduce the cost of this further with a travel hack called Fuel Dumping, as the ticket has $300 of potential value here, it’s not something I personally do, nor am an expert at, but worth noting for academic reasons.
For more on that, you can see a post by Jamison on the topic.
For hotels, I find any of the larger consolidators work well, out of habit, I still find myself looking at Hotels.com. When it comes to hotels, location does matter, but beggars can’t be choosers. When I first started attending conferences in Vegas I’d stay at the cheapest joint in town (places like the Excalibur) and head over to the Mandalay Bay for the event.
In this case, the ISSBD 2016 conference in Lithuania is being held at a Radisson BLU Hotel Lietuva, which is pretty central in Vilnius. Hotels.com has it listed at $117 per night, which would kill the budget. Luckily there seems to be a Best Western nearby at $51 per night, though you’d have to shop around a few sites to find availability for the duration, and to avoid pesky 3rd party booking fees.
From a budget perspective, we could now be down to about $1255 for the flight and under $600 for hotel. Add on transport to /from the airport for another $145 would make it a round $2,000. At this point, you could bring Ramen, or look for a cheaper hotel/room. AirBnb has an apartment for $31 per night in walking distance of the conference. With their fee, it would be $347 for 10 days, and the apartment could be shared with another conference attendee.
Wrapping up cash
Cash is never the cheapest way to travel, but you can find good options, and get the cost of travel under $2000 for this trip. Running through cash prices also shows you where the low hanging fruit is for points and miles. If you were able to pick just one option, being able to offset airfare could save you $1200, whereas offsetting accommodation might only save you $300 or so. This tells us to focus first on using air miles, and if time permits, perhaps offsetting the room.
What miles to use?
Miles are complicated. But if you have gone through the cash steps above you should know what airlines operate routes that work. If you recall, the issue with the pricing from MHK was due to lack of airline competition. What I did notice when I looked is that American Airlines operates there. As such, the first stop when looking for an award ticket is AA.com.
Note that when you have a complex itinerary (lots of smaller airports) then the search engines might crap out on you, so breaking up the legs when searching helps. However, in this case we can see space.
30,000 AAdvantage Miles each way in economy is a bargain, but the route is painful… 4 flights and it gets you into Vilnius 2 days after you departed.. but it does depart from MHK… unfortunately with American Airlines, even departing from MCI requires 4 flights to reach VNO.
We already know that MCI opens up more options. Delta could get you there, but prices aren’t ideal. United seems to be a good bet. They offer a number of routes for 30,000 miles.
So, if you could somehow generate 60,000 United miles, you could get yourself roundtrip airfare covered. What’s more, when you book a Roundtrip ticket using United miles, you still get a free one way at the end. So you could book something like:
- MCI>VNO July 7th
- VNO>MCI July 17th
- MCI>Vegas October 21st
All in for 60K. The rules on that last leg are that it must be completed 1 year from the date that you first book the ticket, anywhere in the US works for 60K, and other locations, such as the Caribbean can also work, though the price might change a touch.
How to get 60K United Miles
You have 3 options to get the miles quickly, they are all credit cards:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: 50K pts when you spend $4000 in 90 days, 5K pts for adding an authorized user. That is 59K..
- Chase Ink Bold, 60K when you spend $5000 in 90 days, that’s 65K.
- Chase United Explorer has a 55K offer lurking around somewhere, similar earning schedule to the Chase Sapphire
Note that the Ink is a business card, and requires a small business.
Also note – credit cards require maturity and responsibility to exploit them, if you cannot handle this you might well end up in debt, and the whole idea is terrible.
The race to spend!
The challenge is that you need to spend about $5000 to get the points needed. The Chase Sapphire and Ink Bold points (Ultimate rewards) transfer instantly to United miles at 1:1 ratios, but you need at least a statement to close before the Ultimate Rewards hit your account. Therefore, if you aren’t regularly spending $5000 a month it is a bit of a challenge. For a student, paying tuition by credit card might be a good idea, even with a 3% service fee. Other ways to generate spend include prepaying bills, or buying gift cards. The truly crazy turn these into Money Orders for quick turnaround. I’ve asked around in the Forum and they mention that this is doable in Manhattan, KS.
There’s a chance that while you are racing to spend the award seats on United dry up, so while you are working to earn the miles it is wise to focus on the original goal of saving money to pay for a cash ticket, but if the stars align, you could drop the most expensive component of the trip down to $100-200 in fees.
How about hotels?
For the truly adventurous, you might want to also try to reduce hotel fees by getting some hotel nights covered. A good way to see how viable that might be is to use a site like AwardMapper.com to see options in the town. In Vilnius there is one super low cost option for this, though it is hardly ideal from a location perspective, you could book 10 nights at the ‘other’ Radisson, for 9000 per night. With the sign up off on the Radisson credit card at 85K pts, another few thousand in spend covers everything.
Personally, based on the cash rates showing, I might be inclined to go for a pseudo cash card such as the Barclay Arrival+ or the CapitalOne Venture. Both come with 40K signup bonuses which be used for travel related purchases, so each covers $400 in hotel expenses, putting you in the center of the city.
A big one might be getting approved for a card (or cards), as a student you may have problems on the income side of things, but it is important to start building that credit history, and getting access to these premium cards sooner, rather than later. Travel is the easy way to start with these reward cards, though watch out for the slippery slope of cash back, else you might end up like some of the guys I know who graduated Business School, MBAs, and PhDs with no debt….
If anyone wants to help Barrett get to Vilnius without losing his mind in the points and miles game, you can help out with that ‘Go Fund Me’ donation too.