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Many of us imagine traveling around the world, filling our maps with pushpins and — one day — crossing every country off the checklist. Now, imagine seeing all 196 at the young age of 21.

On May 31, Lexie Alford (a Northern California resident known as Lexie Limitless to her followers on Instagram), set a world record as the youngest person to travel to all 196 UN-recognized countries, plus the Vatican and Taiwan — and she told The Points Guy she “couldn’t have done this without points and miles.”

Lexie in Libya

The Strategy

While her parents are owners of a travel agency (which, obviously, comes with its perks), Alford said she self-funded most of her travel expenses. She proudly boasted, “I still wear the same clothes from high school” and that she has been working since she was 12 years old.

But that doesn’t mean points and miles haven’t played a huge part in her quest to reach 196. Her parents use various travel cards for all their personal and business expenses, and Alford credited her mom with being the “mastermind” behind the points and miles strategy. So she took it on herself to follow in their footsteps with her own credit cards to earn points.

Her favorite card is the The Platinum Card® from American Express because it earns 5x Membership Rewards points on flights booked directly through the airline, and the wide variety of airport lounges she can access across the globe. She said the lounges have saved her a “surprising” amount of money on food and coffee throughout her travels.

She used the points she earned by transferring them to the applicable reward program needed for each flight. To stretch her miles as far as possible, she said a coach ticket was her way of travel “95% of the time.” However, she did spoil herself a few times with premium-class seating on Emirates and Saudia. But her favorite airline? Delta, she said, for its timeliness.

As for hotels, she mainly stayed in Hilton or Sheraton properties on points, but also sometimes bartered her photography work for a place to stay. She noted that “a large [social media] following can turn into a paycheck.”

On the few occasions when points, miles or photography couldn’t help her arrange flights or accommodations, she would pay cash for flights and stay in hostels or use Couchsurfer for a place to bed down.

Overall, her strategy was quite simple: “Keep your overhead as low as possible” and “plan way in advance.”

Bitten by the Travel Bug

Alford has been traveling for as long as she can remember — and because of her parents’ business, was able to visit 30 countries before she was 16.

As she went through high school, however, she experienced bouts of depression that were amplified by high school courses that, she said, were not fulfilling. During her sophomore year, she decided to test out of her courses, graduate early and enroll in the local junior college. By the time her classmates were graduating from high school in 2016, she had completed her associate’s degree in behavioral and social sciences, which gave her more time to travel. Not long after graduating, she had already visited over 50 countries. That’s when she realized she was on her way to breaking the record.

Getting to 196 countries, however, was just the first step. Earning the official seal of approval from the Guinness Book of World Records would prove to be incredibly difficult, too. There’s a long list of stipulations and verifications required to break the record currently held by James Asquith, who took the title when he was 24, in 2013. Because of the strict rules (photos of the “challenger” in front of recognizable landmarks in every country) she actually had to travel to around 30 countries for a second time because she didn’t have proper verification from her first visit.

So, what qualifies as “visiting a country” when it comes to the world record? According to Guinness, you simply need to step foot within the country’s border and be able to prove you were there. In theory, you could “visit” a country by simply having a documented layover at one of its airports. To Alford, however, the definition of “visiting” ought to include, “A vivid memory of what you did while you were there.”

The final country on Alford’s list, however, was North Korea — and US citizens cannot visit North Korea at this time. Alford exhausted her options trying to visit the country, and had to settle for visiting the Joint Security Area at the DMZ: the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. The Guinness Book of World Records, fortunately, agreed this would count.

“It’s surreal, but also a relief that this project is complete,” Alford said.

The Journey

After traveling the globe, Alford says going to countries labeled “dangerous” such as Pakistan and Venezuela were some of the best memories of her travels, as they had “incredible people and the countries were gorgeous.” (Pakistan, for example, landed on the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual list of the world’s most dangerous countries for women this year.) There is more good than bad in this world, she says. and young women should be empowered to travel on their own.

And now that she’s seen it all, what comes next? Her plans are to start speaking publicly about her travels and what the power of travel can do for someone. She is giving a TEDx talk on her experience and has plans to write a book. Her wish is to share several messages about her journey — that you can do anything you set your mind to, and anyone can have a life filled with wanderlust if they prioritize correctly.

All photos courtesy of Lexie Alford.

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