How Four Days in Japan Saved Me $400 Dollars

The best way to find cheap flights is to be flexible. If you can search more destinations over more dates, you’ll be much likelier to find a flight within your budget. (Unless, of course, your budget is the same as that for a new used car. If that’s the case, stop reading this and go back to browsing Facebook. You’re set.)

When searching for transpacific or transatlantic flights, I use a method called the continent-to-continent trick. Simply put: search for departures from every large city on the continent you’re leaving from, going to every large city on the continent you’re arriving on.

I used this trick when I traveled from Shanghai to Minneapolis last May, and I booked a transpacific flight for $200 usd, from Tokyo to Los Angeles. Flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles were about $900 when I needed to fly. So, even with travel costs, I saved about $400 by visiting Japan.

To find the flight, I started my search five months ahead of time. I used the ITA Flight Matrix, the software which powers most flight search programs, to find flights departing either: Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Osaka, or Bangkok; and arriving in either: Chicago, New York, Newark, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, or Portland. (ITA lets you enter one city, and then search all airports within up to 2,000 miles from it. You don’t have to enter these cities manually).

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Even though I had only approximately a week’s worth of days I could travel on, I searched for a whole 30 days of dates starting from the middle of May. On one of my possible travel days, Tokyo to LA one-way was only $200, and as I had always wanted to visit Japan, I went ahead and booked this leg as my main flight home.

Closer to my travel dates, I booked the two matching flights to get me to and from my transoceanic flight. To get to Tokyo, I found a flight leaving Shanghai on Spring Airways, the biggest no-frills, gets-you-there-but-that’s-all airline in China. The ticket was $150 USD, and it arrived in at Ibaraki airport, a three-hour bus ride from Tokyo central.

Tickets from LA to Minneapolis on the day I needed were about $300 one-way, but flights from LA to Milwaukee, with a connection in Minneapolis, were only $90. I went ahead with the cheaper fare and simply walked away once I arrived at my home airport.

Using the continent-to-continent trick does have its drawbacks. As you are booking several tickets, the other airlines have no responsibility to get you to your final destination in the event of a delay. To prevent this from happening, I give myself long layovers. For this trip, I had (obviously) several days in Japan and 15 hours in Los Angeles.

Traveling in Tokyo made for a great four days. I had accommodations for $4 a night in a cute capsule-style youth hostel, thanks to a mess-up on the British Expedia site (but that’s another story). On the bus into Tokyo, I made a friend who helped me navigate the crazy Tokyo metro, and then showed me some of the coolest sights and things to see. My total costs of sleeping, transport, food, and entertainment for four days in Japan was $170 usd.

All together, I spent $610 to get from Shanghai – Tokyo – Los Angeles – Minneapolis, including the expenses of a trip to Tokyo. The same flights from Shanghai – Los Angeles – Minneapolis would have cost me $1,000, so I saved approximately $400 usd by traveling in Japan and using the contintent-to-continent trick to help me find a sweet-spot of a cheap flight.

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(A page from my travel notebook, May 18th, 2013)

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Round the World (and back again) in Business Class

I recently booked a round trip set of flights from Minneapolis to Shanghai in business class, and I want to explain how I did so.

I needed to head back to China (to resume teaching English) after the end of the photo season in Minneapolis (where I was taking portraits and wedding photos). I had one week free with which to travel between the two cities, so I decided to try and book the craziest round-the-world hop I was able.

I booked the set of flights with US Airways miles, and routed myself from Minneapolis – Chicago – Frankfurt – Istanbul – Bangkok – Seoul – Shanghai – Zurich – Munich – Chicago – Minneapolis. This includes my way home for Christmas during my three-week break.

Here is what my flight path to Shanghai looked like:
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The cost of the trip was 90,000 US Airways miles.
In June, I opened a US Airways Master Card, which gave me 30,000 miles after my first purchase. In August, US Airways had a sale of frequent flier miles: buy up to 50,000 miles and get the same amount for free. As it costs 90,000 miles to travel between North America and North Asia in business class, I purchased 30,000 US Airways miles for $1,200 USD, and got the final 30k miles for “free”.

US Airways is a part of Star Alliance, so with their miles I was able to book travel on any of their airline partners. (In fact, despite booking with US Airways, none of my flights were on their carrier.) US Airways is unique as their awards are booked without a computer to tell the booking agent whether or not the reward flight travels over too many miles or segments. For example, US Airways reward tickets are supposed to have eight flight segments or less. I was able to book my 10-segment reward after talking to a few different booking agents. US Airways also is unique as it allows you to have an unlimited number of layovers 24-hours or less, and one stopover (of any time length) in a city in the same region of your destination. My region was North Asia, so I chose Seoul to use my free stop over.

To get my 24-hour stopovers, I simply had to search out the reward availabilities on Star Alliance partners. I used United.com to search for reward availability, segment by segment, starting with the hardest first. I made a spreadsheet and a google map to make notes of available flights and to piece together the flights like a jig saw puzzle.

Eventually, I ended up with the following itinerary:

Minneapolis to Chicago on United, (15 hour layover in Chicago).
Chicago to Frankfurt on Lufthansa, (24 hour layover in Frankfurt).
Frankfurt to Istanbul on Lufthansa, (Eight hour layover in Istanbul).
Istanbul to Bangkok on Turkish Airways, (20 hour layover in Bangkok).
Bangkok to Seoul on THAI, (Three day stopover in Seoul).
Seoul to Shanghai on Asiana, (My final destination).

And then in December:
Shanghai to Zurich on Swiss, (24 hour layover in Zurich).
Zurich to Munich on Swiss, (24 hour layover in Munich).
Munich to Chicago on Lufthansa, (12 hour layover in Chicago).
Chicago to Minneapolis on United, (Home for two-weeks over Christmas).

My final itinerary looked like this:
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In my spreadsheet, I had made a note of every flight number, airline, and departure time. I called US Airways to book the award, and fed the agent each flight segment, and I was able to put the flights on hold for three days.

Once I was certain I wanted to travel on these dates, I called back to book the reward. I had to hang up and call again several times before I found a booking agent who was able to book the tickets for me. The final ticket cost 90,000 miles plus $140 in taxes.

The total cost of the flights was $1340 USD, including $1200 to purchase 30k miles and $140 in taxes on the award booking. That is a decent price in economy between Minneapolis and Shanghai, and a GREAT price to fly around the world in business class. According to my quick search on Kayak, it would have cost somewhere between $5,000 in cash to fly between MSP and Shanghai business class on my dates, and $19,000 to book the trip around the world.

The actual flights were incredible. I felt a bit strange, as I didn’t really need the experience of flying business class. But it was really fantastic to have flat-beds up in the sky, and to eat gourmet multi-course meals on each flight. I really appreciate that I was able to fly in such mega-luxury.

More so, it was really wonderful to have the ability to hop around the world for one week. I ate wild-roast sausage in the rain in Frankfurt, attempted to only speak German for 24-hours straight (With mixed success), fired a BB gun at a balloon over the Sea of Marmara in Istanbul (my first time firing any gun, ever). I partied the whole night long with hostel-mates in Bangkok, then had a Thai massage (Hangover cure?). I ate Bi Bim Bap in Seoul, and toured tunnels dug by North Koreans under the Demilitarized Zone.

Needless to say, I am really looking forward to the second half of this award, getting to experience being in Switzerland for the first time, and seeing the Christmas markets in Munich. Most importantly, I feel so fortunate that I have the means to travel around the world in order to be with the people I love over Christmas time.

Most of my knowledge I gleaned on how to book this reward ticket came from the travel blog Milevalue. It’s an travel blog run by a 26 year-old guy, who does a really nice job of laying out in easy-to-read blog posts how to find and book overly-complicated reward flights. Check out his blog if you want a greater in-depth knowledge of this brand of cheap travel.

Travel for me is about freedom; the freedom to be and explore new places, to meet new people and share ideas. I feel really lucky to have seen the places I’ve seen and I hope to explain how traveling doesn’t need to be as expensive or unattainable as it appears.

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