Judging Stage 1 of the Flying by the Seat of our Points Challenge…


Update: This post has been updated to incorporate a reader suggestion about how we scored our guessing challenge, ranking it as a single possible point for the correct guess instead of rank scoring for closest, second closest, and last.

Stephen and I have been working hard on this year’s annual challenge for the last months…while Greg, Nick, and Tim have been staying intentionally in the dark. Why? Because this year the theme is last-minute travel and we didn’t tell our three contestants where their Wednesday night destination was until Monday night!

You can check out the information below for more general details about this challenge, but in this post, we’ll talk all about how our contestants scored for their first stage: domestic convergence in LA.

Our 2024 team challenge Flying by the Seat of our Points tested our last minute award booking skills with a series of last minute travel challenges assigned and judged by Stephen and Carrie. Over the span of a week, Greg, Nick, and Tim used their knowledge, points, elite standings, and even upgrade instruments to tackle each challenge with the best combination of frugality and luxury they could, all before the next assignments were given. Final Scores: Tim won this challenge by the seat of his points! Calculations
Check out our contestant journals, recap videos, and more here. And follow us on Instagram, YouTube, and this blog to find out about our future challenges!

In addition to getting to LA last-minute and in style, our contestants also had these additional goals:

  1. Contestants had to try and get to the hotel in LA first to get a King room all to themselves (while the other contestants shared a room.)
  2. To level the playing field for our East Coast and West Coast participants, no one was allowed to arrive before 3pm (or they’d be penalized with a half hour wait time, not allowed to leave for the hotel until 3:30pm.)
  3. Once in LA, they’d have to find a meal that represented the country they expected to be sent to next.

Greg’s trip summary

Greg Stage 1 Score (revised)

Despite searching many different options, Greg ultimately paid:

  • 15K Turkish + $5.60 for United First DTW-IAH-SFO, leaving Tuesday, (and therefore requiring an overnight.)
  • A category 1-4 cert for the Hyatt Regency SFO overnight
  • $153.47 for his SFO-LAX United flight. $25 of that was paid with UA credit given automatically by the IHG card every 6 months (which was going to expire soon, unused) and the remaining $125 was paid with his Altitude Reserve to double dip: counting towards his annual $325 travel credit (plus he could pay with points through Real Time Mobile Rewards to get 1.5cpp value.)

For the above itinerary, Greg got just 1 point for value (mostly because of the extra overnight layover), but 3 points for experience (because he had a nice long first class flight and a very un-rushed experience.)

His trip was noteworthy in a few ways:

  • He visited two Centurion lounges, one in Houston and one in SFO.
  • He made use of his SFO layover to film a podcast with All the Hacks.
  • He made use of a (not always easy) Turkish sweet spot, which earned him 1 bonus point.

And for the additional challenges, here’s how Greg faired:

  • His flight, scheduled to arrive at exactly 3pm, was early and he got to the hotel first at just 3:17pm! This earned him 1 bonus points – for getting to the hotel first, and for finding a flight that landed at exactly the allowed time!
  • Greg guessed “Greece” as his destination, symbolized with a gyro (which…in hindsight we saw suspiciously no video evidence of…), winning him 1 bonus points for being the closest guess only 167 miles away from his actual next destination of Croatia!

Greg’s Total for Stage 1: 7 points

Nick’s trip summary

Nick Stage 1 Score (Revised)

Nick also had many considerations, and ultimately paid:

  • 13K AA miles + $5.60 for ALB-PHL-PHX-LAX, where Nick got an upgrade to domestic first for the longest segment

For the above itinerary, Nick got 3 points for value but just 1 point for experience. It was a pretty straightforward flight…which works better in real life than it does in a challenge, so we gave him 1 bonus point to acknowledge the realistic factor (or really to avoid punishing a flight that was realistic).

His trip was noteworthy in a few ways:

  • He also visited two Centurion lounges.
  • Two of his segments were upgraded.
  • He stayed competitive the whole time, attempting to get a bump in order to increase the value of his flight even more.

And for the additional challenges, here’s how Nick faired:

  • His flight was scheduled to land only 18 minutes after Greg’s, and actually landed only ~12 minutes after Greg’s…but it took him awhile to actually get off the plane. He made it to the hotel second.
  • Nick switched his guess at the last minute, guessing “Sweden” with a box of Swedish Fish ceremoniously purchased from the CVS across the street mere minutes before our live checkin. This was the second closest 1,716 miles away from his actual next destination of Morocco!

Nick’s Total for Stage 1: 5 points

Tim’s trip summary

Tim Stage 1 Score (Revised)

Tim worked hard to figure out how to make his short-haul interesting, and ultimately paid:

  • 11,000 Avios + $5.60 for his favorite domestic non-lie-flat product, First Class Alaska E-175 Sea – SBA
  • 950 Hertz Points for Hertz Car rental (a Malibu to Malibu, so to speak!) for his SBA – LAX journey. The fun pun (and the fact that he didn’t get Hertz-arrested) won him 1 bonus point.

For the above itinerary, Tim got 2 points for value and 2 points for experience.

His trip was noteworthy in a few ways:

  • Despite having less to work with in some ways with just a short-haul flight, he added flair by flying his favorite product, down to the seat.
  • He turned the rest of the trip into a fun road trip, leaning into the food challenge in a fun way.

And for the additional challenges, here’s how Tim faired:

  • Despite having the least distance to travel, Tim made basically no effort to score the King bed, and arrived basically just before the live check-in.
  • Tim decided to guess the destination he hoped for instead of the destination he expected. But…at more than 5,000 miles between Thailand and his actual destination of Switzerland.

Tim’s Total for Stage 1: 5 points

Current standings heading into Stage 2

Greg: In the lead with 9 points, Greg will now be making his way to Croatia and tackling these 3 challenges:

  • Eat something that either still has eyeballs, still has tentacles…or both.
  • There are many ways to enjoy the water in Croatia – show us one of them.
  • Teach us what makes Croatia’s black risotto black…

Nick: In second place with 7 points, Nick will now be making his way to Morocco and tackling these 3 challenges:

  • Find an authentic, Moroccan dish, served in a tagine
  • You impressed your kids with a visit to Santa…now can you do something that convinces them you’re Indiana Jones?
  • Can you do what we failed to do in Macau and find a place to enjoy some live music?

Tim: Last, but just behind Nick with 6 points, Tim will now be making his way to Switzerland and tackling these 3 challenges:

  • Switzerland is notoriously expensive. Can you eat something authentic for under $20?
  • Get high…er than the hills so you can see if they’re really alive with the sound of music.
  • We know you like a nice glass of wine…but see if you can find this drink, (which originated in Switzerland): Absinthe.


Stage 1 Scoring

This piece of the challenge will not be easy (especially for Nick, who got assigned “Morocco” after an off-handed comment during one of our Ask Us Anything’s when he said “I just hope we don’t get sent to Europe.”) If you have any tips for our contestants, make sure and comment on their individual journal posts here!

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Daniel A

Suggestion for a post-challenge post – Common Near-In Award Availability. This should be fresh on all the travelers minds and something I think many readers would find of interest. I’ve gathered some random tidbits on this, like that Lufthasa first opens up a couple days before the flight, which Greg shared in an On-The-Air. I also recently discovered through doing random searches that ANA releases near-in business seats. I had searched many, many ANA itineraries in the 2-11 month out timeframe (my normal booking window) and had never found a single ANA business seat, so you can imagine how excited I was to find 4 (!!!) business seats available for award booking on a near-in flight and 1-2 seats on most of the other near-in flights. Are there others?


I would have brought North Korean food for the reaction alone.


I see that you are attributing a total of 6 points for just GUESSING the next destination. That doesn’t sound fair. The 3,2,1 for correctly picking something that doesn’t show us ANYTHING is way to many points to give. How about 1, .5 and 0? We are entertained by the methods of travel, activities, etc…. not by the guessing. I love this and have watched every second so far.


My thoughts too! 3,2,1 is much too generous for semi-random guesses. I would have given 1,0,0 🙂 A bonus point for Nick’s 3-segment transcon when there are plenty of 2-segments? Admittedly, that might have cost more than 13k or landed not very close to 3pm, but it’s hard to optimize all aspects…

Stephen Pepper

That’s a great point – we’re going to revise how we score that.

Valerie Deblock

You guys are so fun to follow! Thanks for bringing us along on your adventures! ❤️


Props to Carrie and Stephen for the amount of effort they’re putting in to competition planning and judging. I was disappointed with LA as the first destination but now I see that it really set up the next round.

I do think Tim was due a point or two more for value-to-the-viewer. Highlighting the regional jets that have some really good seats (even in economy — during the live stream I was in row 12 of an American CRJ700 with about 5 feet of pitch) is thinking outside the box and probably new to many people. He also showed how to shop around partners for a cheaper price, how to plan for a nearly-guaranteed upgrade, how to leverage Finnair to manage oneWorld bookings, and how to book both cars and trains with points. And, he was the only one to stop and smell the roses (or, rather, tacos).

The next destinations are all great, and Carrie and Stephen should get bonus points for matching then so well to each contestant (especially switching Nick to Morocco last minute).

Although they each have the entire country to play with, Greg is going to have to get to the seacoast to make a go of his challenges in Croatia (the capital city Zagreb is hours away). If he does that then the challenges should be pretty easy — he can do the two food related ones in a single meal and you’re never more than 10 minutes from a beach.

Both Nick and Tim can double up their challenges as well (Nick by having a tagine someplace with live music and Tim by finding a bar that serves rosti and absinthe) but they both have more difficult challenges as well.

Morocco has lots of Indiana Jones opportunities but mostly outside the cities. Maybe recreating the Marion-in-the-basket scene in one of the medinas?

And what does getting “higher than the hills” mean? Does a mountain count? It do you have to be in the air? Would the flight in count?

Looking forward to this leg!


Depending on how flexible the rules are, Greg could:
1) Detour to Bundek Park upon arrival for a photo-op along the riverbank or lake (it’s literally between the airport the Center of Zagreb).
2) Take a tram from the main square to Jarun or Maksimir.


Well, I think it’s clear from the challenges that the judges imagined him on the Adriatic, somewhere in Dalmatia. I guess he could find a seafood restaurant in Zagreb and probably get a serving of tentacles but the food in Slavonia is so different from Dalmatia and Istria that he might have trouble finding the black rissotto (granted, he doesn’t have to eat it, just explain it, which could be done with a screen shot from wikipedia, but I don’t think that would get full points).

As far as enjoying the water goes, I guess a paddle boat in a city park would qualify but, again, I don’t think it’s what the judges had in mind.


He’s checking boxes and moving forward, but hopefully getting a glimpse of what makes this place special, and taking notes to return here at a more deliberate pace.


Surprised that everyone was sent to the same region, or close to it. I thought they would be dispersed around the world. I was expecting one in Asia, one in Europe, one in Africa or south America.


That would have been fun, too, but I imagine the planning-for-fairness aspect would have been difficult and it would probably have made it much easier to guess the final international convergence location, or at least the region.

Stephen Pepper

Like Larry said, we were trying to make it somewhat fair in terms of distance they each had to travel, but also because we ideally need everyone in a similar time zone for the livestream. Trying to pick locations where both Carrie and I would be available (she’s on ET and I’m in Alaska right now, so 4 hours behind) plus all three guys meant we had to keep them somewhat together geographically.

Craig Boller

These challenges Just make me so happy.