Challenge! 3 Cards, 3 Continents. Buckle Up!

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The Frequent Miler team is ready for our next challenge!  While Carrie and Tim can’t join us in the field this time, Nick, Stephen and I are ready to compete.  The challenge goal?  Book an amazing 3-continent dream-trip using 3 welcome bonuses.  As we’ve done before, we’ll have a strict budget, we’ll have strict rules, and readers will pick the winner once we’ve completed our trips.  Next Wednesday we’ll hold a livestreamed draft where each of us will pick 3 credit card welcome offers that will make up our travel budget.  No bonus can be picked twice.  We’ll then use those welcome bonus points to book our September adventures (exact dates to be revealed later).  Buckle up, the challenge begins soon!

What went before

In our 2019 40K to Far Away Challenge, we each had a budget of 40,000 points and $400 to travel as far as possible.  And we traveled incredibly far.  Nick visited Hawaii, Japan, and New Zealand before making his way to a tiny island country named Niue in the South Pacific.  Stephen went to Europe and back and managed to visit 6 countries and 9 cities along the way.  After visiting Madrid, Spain, I toured Africa from Senegal to South Africa to the Seychelles.

COVID obviously put a damper on our travel challenges in 2020 and 2021, but we did what we could.  In Spring 2020, when travel was virtually impossible, we did our StayCay to Far Away challenge where we competed to create the best from-home travel videos.  Carrie was voted the overall winner, with Stephen second, and Nick and I tied for 3rd.   In 2021, Nick and I did our GUC Trip.  I offered Nick my Delta Global Upgrades (GUCs) but with strings attached.  He had to plan the trip and meet a bunch of challenges: travel safely and without getting cancelled during COVID; travel far; earn elite status from the trip; get outsized point value when booking hotels and activities; etc.  Click here to read all about the fantastic trip Nick planned.

At the end of the 40K to Far Away contest (which I won handily… but I won’t rub it in) we asked readers for suggestions for the next challenge.  And readers came through with awesome ideas.  The ideas that made their way into this year’s challenge include:

  • Require round-trip travel (40K to Far Away was defined as a one-way challenge)
  • Make it a luxury trip
  • Don’t design a contest where people sleep in airports or on buses
  • Keep the food and activity budgets separate: the purpose of the challenge should be centered around booking travel.
  • “Incorporate a fantasy draft style for the next time around.” (submitted by Jarrod)

Drafting the Dream

We loved Jarrod’s idea of a fantasy draft for selecting who gets which points and we’ve taken it a step further: we’ll be picking from real current welcome bonuses.  Whatever welcome bonuses are on our Best Offers page when the draft begins will be fair game.  Once a card bonus is selected, it’s gone.  The next players cannot pick it.  We won’t really be signing up for cards.  Instead, the cards we pick will define our points & miles budget for the challenge.

Our budget begins at draft time.  We each have a $1,000 budget for our travels, including first year annual fees.  So when the first player picks the Platinum 150,000 point offer, for example, that card’s $695 annual fee will count against the player’s $1,000 budget and leave him with only $305 left.  He’ll have to pick the next two cards very carefully!

We will also be limited to $15,000 credit card spend.  Most credit card welcome bonuses require lots of spend in order to earn the bonus.  In our made-up scenario, we have exactly $15,000 of unbonused spend available.  We can’t go above that.  So, for example, if someone picks the Chase Ink Business Preferred 100K offer which requires $15K spend, their next two picks will have to offer bonuses with no spend requirement (a bonus after first purchase is allowed) since the spend budget will be gone.

Using the leftover spend:  There’s a good chance that some contestants will spend less than $15,000 towards minimum spend requirements.  In that case, they can virtually spend the rest on whichever of the 3 cards they chose in the draft.  None of that spend will be in bonus categories, though.  For example, if I had $3,000 spend leftover and I had chosen the Capital One Venture card, that would be a good choice for my final $3K spend since it earns 2X everywhere and I’d end up with 6,000 additional points.

Challenge Goal

The goal of this challenge is to book the most amazing trip possible.  We originally thought of this as a luxury trip, but then realized that could be overly confining.  I expect that we’ll each try to fly in flat-bed luxury and stay in awesome places, but if an awesome option doesn’t fit that definition of luxury it shouldn’t be ruled out.  Ultimately, readers will decide who’s trip was the most awesome.

Challenge Rules

  • Round trip: This year’s challenge will be round-trip.  Each player must start and end in the lower 48 United States.  Players do not need to return to the same airport that they departed from (but readers are free to give their votes to the players who do).
  • 3 Continents: Our trips must include stops in at least 3 continents.  North America counts only if the stop is outside of the lower 48 states.  The purpose of this rule is to make sure that this is a big dream tip.  As a result, I think we should hold more to the intent than the letter of this rule.  For example, if someone gets Santa Clause to accept Wyndham points and wants to claim the North Pole as a continent, they have my blessing (and my vote).
  • Travel Budget = $1,000 – Annual Fees + Welcome Bonuses: We start with $1,000, but then subtract out the first year annual fees of any cards we virtually sign up for.  After signing up for cards, we might have as little as $0 or as much as $1,000 left which can be used towards travel.  Also, of course, points, miles, and cash back virtually earned from welcome bonuses will make up our budget.
    • Example – Suppose a person picks the following cards in the draft: Amex Platinum Card 150K Points, $695 Fee; Citi Premier Card 80K Points, $95 Fee; and Marriott Boundless 5 Free Nights, $95 Fee.  In that case, they would have a total travel budget of $115 ($1K – $695 – $95 – $95), 150K Amex points, 80K Citi points, and 5 Marriott Free Nights.  In reality they would have a slightly higher budget because the minimum spend on each card also earns points so they would also have 6K additional Amex points, 4K additional Citi points, and 10K Marriott points ($5K spend x 2x earnings).
  • Travel budget inclusions.  We must account for each of the following within our budget of $1,000 – annual fees + welcome bonuses: lodging, flights, trains, buses, airport transfers, transportation of any kind for the purpose of getting from one place to another, award taxes & fees, visa entry fees, etc.
  • Budget includes credit card perks.  The benefits of cards picked in the draft aren’t limited to welcome bonuses.  Contestants can also make use of perks offered by each card they chose.  For example, a person with the Sapphire Reserve card gets $300 of additional travel spend thanks to that card’s annual travel reimbursement.  Similarly, someone with the VentureX card gets $300 in travel booked through the Capital One portal.  Someone with a consumer Amex Platinum card would get $200 in airline incidental fees, $15 in Uber credit (which unfortunately only works in the U.S. and so it can only be spent here), and $200 towards Fine Hotels & Resorts or The Hotel Collection.
  • Separate budget for food & activities: We don’t want to encourage contestants to stretch their travel budgets by doing only free activities and/or by eating ramen noodles for every meal.  Instead, we plan to enforce a separate budget for food & activities.  The exact dollar amount of this separate budget hasn’t yet been set.
  • Covid costs don’t count: Covid testing fees, mandatory Covid insurance, and any other costs related to Covid will not count against either budget.
  • Start from scratch: In the 40K to Far Away challenge, we allowed each contestant to use things they already had: elite status, credit card perks, lounge membership, upgrade certificates, etc.  In this case, we’re assuming the opposite: everyone must start from scratch.  A contestant can rely on credit card perks only if one of the 3 cards he signed up for includes that perk.  During travel a contestant may accept an upgrade due to previously held elite status, but then he must show what the experience would have been like if he hadn’t accepted it.  In other words, we will ask readers to vote on how fantastic the trip is based on photos and descriptions of un-upgraded travel (except where the contestant used their travel budget to upgrade).
  • Points or miles must be used: It would be possible to earn only cash back welcome bonuses, or to cash out welcome bonus points and then to book travel entirely based on cash deals.  That’s not allowed.  Challenges like these are useful because they force us to find outsized value opportunities and to push the limits of what’s possible.  It’s fine to take advantage of some cash deals, but the bulk of travel should be based on using points to either book travel altogether or to upgrade paid travel.
  • Deals are allowed: Public deals that are available while the contestant is booking travel are allowed.  For example, through August 19th, Chase has a 50% transfer bonus to Marriott.  If a contestant had earned Chase points from the credit card draft, then they could virtually convert their Chase points to Marriott points with this bonus in place.  They must announce the intent and the number of points transferred by or before August 19th (because we don’t want people taking advantage of a deal after its over).  With hard to get deals like some of the Daily Getaway Deals, the contestant must record the final check-out screen in order to use that purchase in this challenge.
  • Purchase flexibility: Each contestant must account for all costs as if they used the points earned with their welcome bonuses, but in reality they may use other points, free night certificates, or even cash to book their travel.  Here are some examples:
    • A contestant may assert that they transferred points to British Airways Avios in order to book Qatar Q-Suites.  In reality, they may prefer to pay with their own big stash of American Airlines miles.  That’s fine, but they must snapshot award availability through BA and account for the number of Avios that BA would have charged as well as the award taxes and fees that BA would have charged.  The prices charged by AA are immaterial to the contest.
    • A contestant may assert that they booked a Marriott hotel with points transferred from Chase.  In reality they might have a free night certificate they would prefer to use.  That’s fine, but they must account for the number of points that they would have spent if they hadn’t used the certificate.
    • A contestant may assert that they used Virgin Atlantic points to book Delta One Business class.  In reality they might have a Delta Global Upgrade certificate and prefer to buy a Premium Select ticket and use the upgrade certificate to get into Delta One.  That’s fine but they must show Delta One availability through Virgin Atlantic and account for both the number of points and the taxes and fees that Virgin Atlantic would have charged.

What about award-scarcity?

With travel skyrocketing, award travel has become more difficult than ever before.  One Mile at a Time has declared this The Summer Of Non-Existent Airline Award Seats.  And Live and Let’s Fly says “Saver award space has all but dried up lately, with even last-minute seats no longer available… Even in late September, the traditional shoulder season, it is virtually impossible to find saver space.”

So, are we doomed?  September was the only month this year in which the three of us could travel at once.  Should we put this off for another year?

These are questions the FM team has bounced around.  We decided to move forward with our challenge plans.  Sure, we might not be able to assemble the trips we could have during normal times, but we feel confident that we can still cobble together amazing journeys.  Award scarcity will force us to work harder, be more creative, and to look under rocks (so to speak) that others have passed.  The hope is that this will lead us to discoveries that will benefit everyone following along.  Need I remind the reader that it was because Nick was “stuck” with what we thought were suboptimal Citi points in the 40K to Far Away challenge that he found the incredible ability to fly to Hawaii for only 7,500 miles?

Where will we go?  Where will we stay?  What will we do?

We don’t know and we’re not telling.  Yet.  While we may seek advice from readers, each of us will book our travel secretly and reveal our plans as we go.  We’ll post early and often to social media and at least daily to the blog.

I imagine that one of us might focus mostly on incredible flights, while another shows off incredible lodgings, while another finds incredible destinations and activities.  In reality, we’ll each try to do some of all 3, but I’m sure the focus will differ.

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for many more posts about the contest.  Specifically, Nick will soon post details about the upcoming livestream draft.  Following that, we’ll each post about our strategies, great new findings, abandoned plans, etc.  Finally, in September (specific dates TBD), our journeys will begin.  During that time we will post to the blog at least daily, but the best way to follow along is through Instagram.  Please follow us there!

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frank

I just see this! Love it, you are my favorite travel blog!

[…] France and Ireland. Almost as soon as we get back from that I’ll be jetting off again for the Frequent Miler 3 Cards, 3 Continents challenge. It therefore didn’t seem worth getting an annual pass right now seeing as we wouldn’t […]

Grant

Greg, will you also include costs for award searching tools like Point.me, ExpertFlyer, and the other search tool to check award space for an entire year? Excited to see the upcoming draft 🙂

Josh

This is so fun!!! Cant wait to follow this!

Steven

Very fun! Looking forward to posts. Maybe some videos!

PM1

Amazing concept! Looking forward!!!

WR2

I love the FF draft idea! This to me is your best challenge yet. What will be the first pick off the board? What will be the hotel points strategy? I think there will be at least one ANA RTW in J using MR that are currently being thrown around like candy, and probably a lot of Hyatt stays from UR…at least that’s how I’d play it.

AlexL

Just read the introduction and it is exciting already. 40K to faraway 2.0! Rematch!

Dr. McFrugal

I’m excited to see what all of you come up with. I know it’s going to be good.

THEsocalledfan

Wow, FM team, well done challenge! (I’m the “Pass the GUC” ideal guy) Might I suggest having a way for readers to play? While I would not, might there be a team of 3 who would take up the challenge to? Could then see how they do compared to you guys with same rules. Just an idea. Would have to be teams of 3 to keep comparable.

THEsocalledfan

Greg,

Here is my idea…..ask folks who want to participate to let you guys know. You then assign to teams of 3. Each team has a captain who is assigned with organizing the draft and assuring rules are followed. Have them run it and you only help if clarifications of rules, etc are needed. You provide the tracking spreadsheets to them to use which you guys would also have access to. Then, when the trip occurs, simply ask them to document their journeys somehow. Maybe try to incentivize them that the winner for each group will get a prize from your team and each participant who completes the challenge gets some FM swag. (good prize would be a lunch/dinner with FM team even if only virtual is possible) I think if they document it, you might get some good, additional FM content to post…..could also let them use some hash tags on social media when they do it. It would be fun to compare their experience/success to you guys, “the pros.”

This is such a demanding challenge, I can’t imagine you’d get more than 1-2 teams so I think the work could be manageable for you.

Htown Harry

Love this idea. I am already playing along, sketching out ideas for a shadow entry.

It is quickly becoming evident that planning an allowance for ground transportation, visas, resort fees and airline incidental charges will add a significant degree of difficulty to staying within the $1000 spend limit. My strategy might need to include taking a single carry-on bag so I can mix in some minimum-fare LFC flights, eliminating from consideration a UK to US flight with budget-busting high taxes, etc.

Some questions for the judges…

Is it required that the $1000 be spent on the three cards?

Related: requiring the travel expenses to be part of the $15,000 max spend would make sense to me, as I almost always reach first for cards with pending SUBs.

Will authorized user bonuses be allowed (with or without spend on the AU card)? If yes, is there a limit on the number? The P1 – P2 situation is very common, so I suggest a limit of one, with any required AU spending counting against the $15,000.

This might be a unicorn, but how about program sign-up bonuses? An example, although not available currently: Aegean’s 5000 mile pop-up deal from a couple of years ago. Athens to luxurious Santorini is available for 5000 miles this September…and spending 50 euros or 6000 Bonvoy points would provide the 2000 additional points needed to open up Athens-to-several more destinations on the Mediterranean shore. My vote would be yes if there is a public sign-up offer available for a player to have the SUB post between the draft and booking the flight or stay.

Can miles, points or rewards earned and posted during the trip be recycled into a flight or stay before the end of the trip? Reward capital built into a program’s rules would be an easy yes, I think: e.g. standard features like stay X nights, get one extra night free.

How about more challenging examples with time-to-post and availability risk: stay X nights – get Y points (or a free night certificate), flights booked mid-trip using miles earned on flights completed early in the trip, or Hyatt’s free night certificate for staying at 5 brands? I’d say no to allowing that kind of capital to be spent during the trip. It’s not representative of how most people plan rewards trips.

But please DO include a final tally of miles, points, certs and dollar balances in the end-of-trip reports, including any unspent SUB miles / points, earnings from flights or stays, and any cash “balances” resulting from coming in under the $1k or $15k caps. Seeing that a competitor cleverly managed both his retained and earned capital for a future weekend getaway might be a sort of tie-breaker. At the end of any trip, there is always the next trip to be planned…

Cavedweller

Greg
I told u years ago do ” A GIVEAWAY ” if u remember and I would fund it.Not today but I’ve given away 20 SW US flts so far . For some odd reason people like this and it boosts people looking for pocket change. Give away points u got a Zillion of them and Do it for this Deal and ever few weeks.
CHEERs

TravelerMike

Any thoughts open opening it up to your readers joining the competition? I think that would add an interesting twist …

DavidS

Love it.

Captain Greg

So it sounds like the draft includes both personal and business cards, correct?

Manny

Excited to see what comes out of it!

Another Jeff

No love for bilt? Could make for a spicy addition with the unknown changes about to drop. Could offset by charging others the Plastiq fee and capping the spend.

Ric-stu

Going to be Epic

Aloha808

Sounds great! But why not also allow the travel cash and/or cash SUBs to then use the cash to buy points if there’s a good deal? You folks talk about buying points frequently, and this would still seem to be in keeping with the overall theme centered around using mostly points for this competition.

Another Jeff

The anti-Stephen corruption clause 😉

Another Jeff

AF loophole may still work though…

Nick Reyes

You can certainly buy points. You just can’t get cash back bonuses and only deal hunt for cheap airfares and hotels

Sophia

Yay!

Oren

This sounds very fun. Excited to see what you come up with.

Captain Greg

This is a really thought out contest that will be on par with 40k to far away. I’m already thinking about which cards I’d be angling to get for the draft. I’m totally going to come up with a strategy as if I were drafting. It’ll be interesting to see how I compare with the experts!

Cavedweller

This time let’s keep it honest as in an Independent Review Board. I’ll be happy to chair it for 100K AA points (need to get to my Homeland)..

Debbie

Love it!!

SamBam

For Nick: is Niue a continent?

Seriously tho, what about Oceania? Hawaii?

Last edited 16 days ago by SamBam
Cavedweller

Yacht Club for the Rich..

LarryInNYC

Love these competitions!

Do you really think that someone might have put together a winning bid just by using cash back? Thought provoking if so!

TravelerMike

I wonder if using cash back to purchase points on sale to get another outsized value would be allowed?

C.J.

I saw the notification on my phone and immediately got excited for this!

Gwen

Awesome! Loved the 40k to faraway, can’t wait to see this challenge play out.

T. Jones

Agreed! I was soooo waiting for something like this. Love it!