Fly lie-flat business class. Sleep primarily in comfortable hotels rather than on airplanes or lounges. Book ANA’s Round the World Award (finally!). Eat incredible food. These are the goals that I imposed upon my trip over and above those required by the 3 Cards, 3 Continents Challenge. The explicit challenge goals were: 1) Visit a minimum of 3 continents; and 2) Limit all travel expenses to the rewards earned from 3 credit card welcome bonuses plus whatever was left from an initial $1,000 cash budget after “paying” the 3 card’s annual fees. Then, I added Maisie, the Culinary Concierge to the trip. This made this trip way better because she planned awesome culinary adventures at every stop, but it made booking the trip waaaay harder. Airlines often release only one business class award seat at a time. I now had to find two business class award seats on every flight. It was a bit crazy for me to add on such a huge additional requirement, but I thought it was important to show what was possible.
Card Draft Results
After our 3 Cards, 3 Continents Card Draft, I had the following budget to work with:
- Amex Gold Card: 94,000 Amex Membership Rewards points
- Citi Premier Card: 84,000 Citi ThankYou Rewards points
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless: 5 50K Free Nights + 10,000 points
- Cash: $560 remaining after paying annual fees
I also had $2K of minimum spend left in the budget and I applied that to the Marriott card in order to earn 4,000 additional Bonvoy points. Additionally, I transferred 2,000 of my Amex points to Marriott so that I would have 16,000 Bonvoy points total. After these modifications, the budget looked like this:
- Amex Gold Card: 92,000 Amex Membership Rewards points
- Citi Premier Card: 84,000 Citi ThankYou Rewards points
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless: 5 50K Free Nights + 16,000 points
- Cash: $560 remaining after paying annual fees
That was my total budget for all travel expenses, including visa fees. Food and activity fees were intentionally not limited by this budget.
Maisie & met up in San Francisco and flew to Tokyo on United Polaris Business class, followed by Tokyo to Saigon on ANA Business class. Both flights offered nice meals and comfortable lie-flat seats. In Saigon we checked into the swank Le Meridien Saigon. We enjoyed drinks (including worm shots!) that evening with the chef at one of the best restaurants in Asia: Anan. The next day we did a guided tour of the Mekong Delta where we visited the floating market, enjoyed a traditional tea service, ate an incredible lunch, and more.
Budget details: The flights to Saigon were part of the much bigger ANA Round the World Award which cost 90,000 ANA miles (transferred from Amex) plus $476.77 in taxes and fees. The visa to enter Vietnam cost $25 per person. One night at Le Meridien Saigon cost 16,000 Marriott points (I transferred 2,000 points from Amex so that I had enough points). Taxis in Saigon cost ~$12.
Major food & activity costs: Drinks and “food” at Anan cost us $72. The private Mekong Delta tour cost ~$400 for the two of us. Food and activity costs did not impact our travel budget for this challenge.
We flew from Saigon to Doha on Qatar Airways’ Boeing 787-8. The service, amenities, food and drink were fantastic! This was our favorite flight of the trip. In Qatar, we took a private tour of Doha, ate local food, and enjoyed a harbor cruise where I actually danced with some tourists from Bangladesh! We didn’t stay at a hotel in Doha because even though it was nighttime there, we were well rested from the Qatar Airways flight and so it felt like daytime to us.
Budget details: I booked the Qatar Airways flight for 50,000 British Airways Avios. This cost me slightly fewer than 36,000 Citi points because I transferred points from Citi to Qatar Avios when there was a 40% transfer bonus. Altogether for this flight and the next one to Sofia, I transferred 40,000 Citi points into 56,000 Avios.
Major food & activity costs: The private tour of Doha cost $140 for the two of us. Food and activity costs did not impact our travel budget for this challenge.
We flew Qatar Airways business class from Doha to Sofia. This flight wasn’t nearly as luxurious as our previous Qatar Airways flight, but it was still very nice for a 5 hour flight! We stayed one night in the gorgeous Sense Hotel and ate an absolutely fabulous meal at nearby ANDRé (that’s chef André above with Maisie and me). After a great sleep, I did a historical walking tour of Sofia while Maisie explored Sofia’s food scene. She discovered a baker with UNESCO bread, and much more. We ate a terrific picnic lunch with her findings before heading to the airport for our next adventure.
Budget details: I booked the Qatar Airways flight for a ridiculously cheap 6,000 British Airways Avios (see the full story about that deal here). Altogether for this flight and the previous one to Doha, I transferred 40,000 Citi points into 56,000 Avios. For the Sense Hotel I paid cash in real life (~$160), but for accounting purposes for this challenge I used one of my free night certificates. The metro between the airport and the hotel cost less than $1 per person each way.
Major food & activity costs: Dinner at ANDRé, including drinks, came to under $82 USD or about $41 per person. A reader accurately pointed out that the bill should have been about twice that. I don’t know if André comped part of our check or if there was some kind of special discount that evening. The walking tour was free, but I tipped the guide $10 (I normally tip $20, but I didn’t have any other cash on me at the time). Food and activity costs did not impact our travel budget for this challenge.
Istanbul was amazing. Actually, the amazement began with our ~1 hour flight to Istanbul from Sofia. Turkish Airlines not only offered incredibly plush business class seats for this short flight, but they also rolled out extensive catering. We had a great meal on a 1 hour flight! In Istanbul we stayed two nights at the awesome Adahan DeCamondo Pera, Autograph Collection Hotel. On our first evening we ate a terrific meal at the Sunset Grill & Bar which offered a spectacular view over the Bosporus. On the next day we did an all day food tour with Richard from Edible Istanbul Food Tours. We walked all over the place and took a ferry back and forth between continents, and we ate incredible food from countless street vendors and restaurants. On our final morning in Istanbul we met up with a rowing club and rowed the Golden Horn. The Istanbul stop alone was so great that I think we would have been satisfied if our trip had stopped there. But we still had amazing adventures ahead…
Budget details: The flight from Sofia to Istanbul was part of the much bigger ANA Round the World Award which cost 90,000 ANA miles (transferred from Amex) plus $476.77 in taxes and fees. The visa to enter Turkey cost only 25 Euros per person by paying on arrival rather than in advance. The two hotel nights cost 30K points per night, but for accounting purposes for this challenge I used two 50K free night certificates. Taxis from and to the airport cost $30 altogether.
Major food & activity costs: Sunset Grill for two cost $168 (including drinks). The all day private food tour for two cost $200 not including most of the food (but the food was cheap). Rowing the Golden Horn for two cost $30. Food and activity costs did not impact our travel budget for this challenge.
We flew Turkish business class from Istanbul to Stockholm. That was another great flight. In Stockholm we stayed in the Sheraton Stockholm Hotel, mostly because it was incredibly convenient for our plans (and it turned out to be pretty nice too). Our first adventure in Stockholm was when we did Caviar bumps and vodka shots with Katherine Bont of Punk Royale. That was awesome! We then had a terrific meal at Matbaren which is a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant. The next morning Chef John Wallén gave us a behind the scenes tour of Sweden’s “most opulent restaurant,” Operakällaren. We finished the brief stop in Stockholm at the famous bakery Vete-Katten (which means “Wheat Cat”) where we sampled a number of delicious items. I really enjoyed Stockholm and would love to return for a longer visit.
Budget details: The flight from Istanbul to Stockholm was part of the much bigger ANA Round the World Award which cost 90,000 ANA miles (transferred from Amex) plus $476.77 in taxes and fees. The hotel night cost 40K points (which I paid for with a 35K cert plus 5K points), but for accounting purposes for this challenge I used a 50K free night certificate. The high speed train between the airport and downtown cost $38 per person round trip.
Major food & activity costs: We were not charged for the caviar bumps & vodka. Dinner at Matbaren for two cost $130 (including drinks). We were not charged for the restaurant tour. Food and activity costs did not impact our travel budget for this challenge.
Spoiler: I fell head over heels in love with Bergen! We flew SAS to Bergen and took the light rail from the airport to town. There, we checked into the Nordic Choice Hotel: Hotel No13 for two nights. That afternoon we explored Bergen on foot and via funicular (the views were amazing!). Then we capped the evening with an incredible meal at the Michelin starred restaurant Lysverket. The next day we did a tour that took us via a van to Voss and then to Nærøyfjord which is considered to be one of the most beautiful fjords in Norway. There we took an electric boat cruise through the fjord. The experience was too amazing and beautiful for words. Wow! We ended the evening with an excellent meal at Restaurant 1877.
Budget details: The flight from Stockholm to Bergen was part of the much bigger ANA Round the World Award which cost 90,000 ANA miles (transferred from Amex) plus $476.77 in taxes and fees. The two hotel nights cost 24K Choice points (12K per night), but since Citi points transfer to Choice 1 to 2, it cost me only 12K points altogether! The light rail between the airport and town cost only ~$4 per person each way.
Major food & activity costs: Dinner at Lysverket for two cost $442 (including drinks). Restaurant 1877 cost $312. The tour to Nærøyfjord cost $182 per person. Food and activity costs did not impact our travel budget for this challenge.
We flew United Polaris business class from Bergen to Newark and then Air Canada from Newark to Toronto. In Toronto we arrived very late and so we stayed in the Sheraton Gateway Hotel connected to the airport (which turned out to have an incredible lounge!). The next morning we rented a car and drove to Niagara Falls. It’s easy to forget how awesome the falls are until you’re there: The view. The sound. The raw power that you can feel in your bones. I wasn’t looking forward to this stop, but I was blown away by it when we arrived!
Next we visited Pearl Morissette which is a winery, a restaurant, and a bistro. We were given a tour of their farm dedicated to producing ingredients for their restaurant and bistro. Then we enjoyed a truly wonderful lunch and wine tasting at their bistro, RPM Bakehouse.
Our visit to Canada made North America our 3rd continent for this trip. The rules as originally stated made explicit that North America would count as long as we visited someplace outside of the lower 48 U.S. states.
Budget details: The flights from Bergen to Toronto were part of the much bigger ANA Round the World Award which cost 90,000 ANA miles (transferred from Amex) plus $476.77 in taxes and fees. The hotel night cost 40K Marriott points, which I actually paid for with a 35K cert plus 5K points, but for accounting purposes I used a 50K free night certificate.
Major food & activity costs: The rental car was an activity cost since it was used to get to and from activities (if I had rented it to get to/from a hotel/airport then it would have counted as a travel cost). I used a free National Car Rental day plus about $2 to rent a high end Mercedes SUV. The Niagara Falls boat ride cost $27 per person, and parking cost another $22. We spent $54 for lunch and wine tasting.
For the short flight from Toronto to Detroit, I wasn’t initially able to find award availability for two on the same flight so I booked us on different flights. Mine was at 8:20 in the morning and Maisie’s was at 4PM. The idea was to change my ticket to the 4PM flight once another award seat opened up. And, as I expected, the seat did open up. But, because… Air Canada… ANA wasn’t able to move me to that flight. It’s a long story, fully documented here. In the end, I used United miles to book the 4PM flight, but accounted for it as if I had used Avianca LifeMiles. This put me $61 over budget.
Budget details: LifeMiles charges 6,500 miles plus ~$73 for this flight. For accounting purposes, I transferred 2,000 Amex points and 5,000 Citi points to make that happen. After doing so, I only had $12 left in my budget and so I went overbudget by $61 in order to pay the taxes and fees.
Here’s a summary of how well we achieved each of my major goals for this trip…
Fly business class
We flew in very comfortable business class on almost every leg of the trip. The only exceptions were very short (~1 hour) flights from Stockholm to Bergen, Newark to Toronto, and Toronto to Detroit. Of those, only the Newark to Toronto leg had a business class at all, but no business class award seats were available.
Maisie and I agreed that our favorite flight was with Qatar on their Boeing 787-8 flying from Saigon to Doha. The best food was on the 1 hour Turkish Airlines flight from Sofia to Istanbul. Most airlines don’t provide a real business class experience on flights within Europe, but Turkish is a notable exception. Both of our Turkish flights were wonderful. Both of our United flights were better than I expected, but Qatar and Turkish catering and service was a huge step above.
Sleep in comfortable hotels
I chose to fly west around the world instead of east so that we could spend more nights in comfortable hotel rooms rather than on planes. While lie-flat business class seats are awesome, I’ve never been able to sleep as well on a plane as I do in a hotel. That’s also why I chose the Marriott card for one of my 3 cards. That one card gave me 6 nights in hotels: 5 with free night certificates and one with points earned primarily from the signup offer minimum spend. I also picked the Citi Premier card, in part, to take advantage of its ability to transfer to Choice Privileges 1 to 2. I made great use of this in Bergen where a Nordic Choice hotel cost only 12,000 Choice points per night (or 6,000 Citi points).
Altogether we stayed 8 nights in 6 different hotels (we stayed 2 nights in Istanbul and in Bergen). If we had paid the best flexible cash rate for each of these hotels, the total would have come to $2,360. Instead, we paid entirely with free night certificates and points. Fortunately none of these hotels imposed destination fees.
Book ANA’s Round the World Award
I’ve been sitting on ANA miles for a while now, and I had long since decided to use them on a Round the World award before they expired (see: My Round the World business class adventure – Planning Phase). The particular plans that I developed in that series of posts never came to fruition because COVID made it impossible to visit some of the countries we had in mind. So, with my points now set to expire in March 2023, I really wanted to use my ANA points in this challenge. Plus, since I had already done a lot of investigation into the amazing ANA Round the World Award sweet-spot, I wanted to take it to the next level and actually do it.
Above is ANA’s Star Alliance Round the World Award Chart. If I had been able to pick the 150K Platinum card offer in the card draft, I could have flown up to 25,000 miles around the world. That would have been a piece of cake to plan compared to what actually happened. Stephen snapped up the 150K offer and I instead picked the 90K Gold card offer. That gave me a flying budget of up to 14,000 miles on Star Alliance carriers. That’s far short of the earth’s 25,000 mile circumference and so I knew it would be tough. But I like a challenge!
I tried many routes and even booked a couple with ANA (or thought I had) before settling on this final route:
Great Circle Mapper thinks that the route shown above is 13,996 miles long. ANA doesn’t use the same distances, though, so their total came to 13,942 miles. Either way, you have to admit that we eked out nearly every single flown mile possible since we were limited to 14,000 miles!
For more about ANA Round the World Awards, see: Tips for booking ANA’s Round the World award.
Find two seats on every flight
This was the biggest challenge! It’s hard enough to find business class seats for one, but to find two on the same flights when going all the way around the world and when constrained by the contest limitations and by the 14,000 mile distance limit (in order to keep the ANA award to 90,000 points) was seemingly impossible.
But I did it. Even on that problematic last flight (which caused me to go slightly overbudget due to crazy issues that most people are unlikely to encounter), I eventually found award space for both of us. For details about that last flight, see: Greg’s very stressful not-so-good last leg.
Eat great food
Thanks to Maisie, we sure accomplished this! Sushi in Tokyo. A myriad of great foods in Vietnam and Istanbul. Fine dining in Sofia, Istanbul, and Bergen. Caviar bumps in Stockholm. Farm to table dining in Ontario. We loved it!
Maisie and I had an absolutely fantastic round the world trip! We visited 7 countries on 3 continents. At every stop we ate amazing food and enjoyed amazing experiences, including all kinds of boat rides from paddling in the Mekong Delta, to rowing the Golden Horn at sunrise, to a fjord cruise of a lifetime, to riding into Niagara Falls’ mist. And, we traveled in luxury the whole way. We stayed 8 nights in terrific hotels. Our long flights were all in lie-flat business class seats and most of our short flights too were incredibly comfortable. Our business class tickets gave us access to swank airport lounges and had the added benefit that we could travel with real luggage: we didn’t have to worry about baggage fees (unlike my competitors who flew parts of their journeys on low cost carriers and carried all of their stuff on their backs to avoid paying extra).
With an initial stake of $1,000 and just 3 credit card welcome bonuses (plus $61 extra at the end), we put together a trip of a lifetime.