My points and miles journey started with a cheap ticket to Abu Dhabi

Oct 20, 2019

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What I remember about Christmas Day 2014 was waking up to zero gifts bearing my name underneath the tree.

As a college senior, I’d grown accustomed to the dwindling pile of gifts as I grew older. I didn’t even get a pair of socks — the quintessential “you’re an adult now” Christmas present.

But what I remember most about that day was the great Abu Dhabi mistake fare. If you have no clue what I’m talking about — I’m so sorry. For you.

I’d barely awaken that morning when I got an urgent text from a friend: wake up right now. Immediately my brain considers the worst — perhaps there was an accident, or someone was seriously hurt. But she quickly assuaged my fears by explaining that there was an incredible sale on flights to the Middle East. I was wide-awake with her next sentence: The tickets are less than $300 round-trip.

Back then, I only had a Capital One student credit card, and it was strictly for groceries. I didn’t even bring it to Virginia, where I stayed that Christmas. As I played with the dates and priced out the itinerary, I checked my checking account to make sure I had enough money to make it work. I then enlisted two equally insane friends, sending the Google Flights link and imploring them to book before the error was fixed.

I went back and forth with myself for nearly 15 minutes before deciding to pull the trigger on the $265 round-trip nonstop flight between Washington Dulles (IAD) and Abu Dhabi (AUH) on Etihad. I paid with a debit card — my, how things have changed.

Picture this: three broke college students flying from the U.S. to the Middle East on one of the most luxurious airlines in the sky, and we paid less than a one-way Acela ticket from D.C. to New York.

I’ve written about this experience before, but I want to talk about what I learned from the Abu Dhabi mistake fare.

What I remember most about that trip — and the first thing I always mention — was how inclusive the deal was. People who’d never been out of the country before were descending on the Middle East. Some didn’t even have passports.

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touch the sky.

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And that’s what the trip taught me — travel doesn’t have to expensive, and it’s supposed to be accessible to everyone.

After Abu Dhabi, I did some research because I wanted to experience (cheap) luxury travel again. I’d also heard that the Department of Transportation ruled that airlines didn’t have to honor so-called mistake fares. That — coupled with seeing people in my Facebook groups eating steak in lie-flat seats — led me to credit cards, bonus categories and welcome bonuses.

Since Christmas Day 2014, I’ve been able to utilize points and miles for restful weekends at Hyatt properties in Washington, D.C. and birthday trips to Cuba. I’m currently planning my birthday trip to Zanzibar entirely on points and miles. These experiences seemed inconceivable just five years ago, but are second nature now.

I signed up for The Platinum Card® from American Express for the extensive network of airport lounges worldwide, Global Entry credit and complimentary Hilton and Marriott Gold status. I also signed up for a slew of frequent flyer programs, have been on mileage runs and take advantage of Amex Offers. I went from relying on “glitch fares” in order to travel cheaply to opening credit cards to travel practically free.

My travel journey hasn’t been without several pain points, however. The travel industry is still overwhelmingly white, despite research that shows African-Americans contributed $63 billion to the industry last year. That’s true of the points and miles community, too.

For people unfamiliar with what I do, some have assumed that I’ve done something nefarious to travel cheaply. Still, others knowing how I grew up, ask downright hurtful questions-that-aren’t-really-questions implying that I don’t deserve these experiences. While I lovingly correct people whose assumptions are good in nature, I recognize that this is foreign to many travelers — because it was once foreign to me.

I’m still figuring out the intricacies of points and miles — like whether I want to fly Qatar QSuites or Etihad’s apartment with American miles I earned on my Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard for my next trip to the Middle East. But I’m thankful for that cheap Eithad ticket, because it opened a world and community I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Featured photo courtesy of Getty Images

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