TPG challenged 3 people to fly as far as they could for $725 — here’s what happened
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When your boss asks you if there's a week in late September or early October that you can go on a trip, the answer is always yes.
When he or she then says you'll have $725 to spend on airfare, hotel, food, ground transportation and visas — and that you can go anywhere in the world or just stay in the U.S. — the answer is still yes.
And then reality sets in.
This is the story of how three TPG reporters — Samantha Rosen, Zach Wichter and Vikkie Walker — ended up on the other side of the world, showering in airports, eating instant ramen and flying on 16-hour coach flights in the span of four days. Yup, all for $725, and all to see who could fly the farthest.
Combined, we all flew over 60,000 miles — and we did offset all that flying, with around $121 in carbon offsets (which was not counted toward our budgets).
None of us three held airline elite status. The quest was to earn miles the really, really hard way.
The rules of our mileage-run competition were as follows:
- We each got $725 to spend on air, hotel, food, ground transportation and visas.
- We could leave our New York City homes anytime after 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 22.
- We could go anywhere in the world, including staying in the U.S.
- We had to be home by 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28.
- Each of us was randomly partnered with a TPG coach who helped search for flights and strategize — and provide emotional support as needed.
- But whoever took lots of public transit, showered in lounges, ate lots of cheese cubes there, etc., was expected to get a better story.
- No upgrades could be applied to the journey. No calling in any special favors.
- Whoever could earn the most elite qualifying miles without going over-budget would be the winner. We knew that the challengers would not actually get status since each airline also has a spending requirement that would not be met.
The mileage-run challenge started off like any other weird challenge here at TPG: by picking our coaches out of a hat. We were each paired up with a TPG expert on a particular alliance: Zach Honig for Star Alliance, JT Genter for Oneworld and Summer Hull for SkyTeam. Sam matched with JT, Zach W. with Summer and Vikkie with Zach H.
By pure chance, and probably to our boss's dismay, we all ended up flying to Bangkok. In fact, Bangkok's main airport, Suvarnabhumi (BKK), might be the best place for a mileage run from the U.S. But that's a story for another post.
Zach W. found a really cheap ($468.94) routing on a Delta partner, China Eastern, from New York-JFK through Shanghai — JFK-PVG-BKK-PVG-JFK — which left him enough money for a same-day turn to Houston on Delta for $221, plus a tiny bit of money for a hotel and ground transportation in Bangkok. He paid for both flights and his hotel using his Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3x points on those charges. Not much was left over for food, but armed with credit cards and lounge access, he figured he'd make it work.
As for Sam, she created a bit of a puzzle, but JT handled it with flying colors. Since she was traveling solo as a woman, she really needed to be cognizant about where she was traveling to. She told JT she was fine going to Asia, since that's what would generate the most elite-qualifying miles, but narrowed down her list of destination cities to Tokyo (her favorite!), Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai. Since we were on a tight budget, she also wanted to make sure that there was enough money for her to Uber to the airport if she had an early-morning or late-night flight.
JT was able to find flights — seven, to be exact — including a hotel booked through AA Vacations, for a grand total of $642.88. Sam's routing took her from New York-LaGuardia to Dallas, Hong Kong, Bangkok, back to Hong Kong, then to Los Angeles, Boston and finally, back to LaGuardia: LGA-DFW-HKG-BKK-HKG-LAX-BOS-LGA. We're exhausted just typing that out. She charged it all on her trusty Chase Sapphire Reserve to get 3x points on airfare and get valuable trip protections. With seven flights in the mix, Sam didn't want to take any chances.
As for Vikkie, she paid $584.03 for her flights from Newark to Los Angeles then Tokyo Haneda, Bangkok, Tokyo Narita and back to New York-JFK: the routing was EWR-LAX-HND-BKK-NRT-JFK. She purchased her flights using her Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which also offers trip-cancellation and delay protections and earns you 2x points on airfare.
*Cue collective anxiety as the trip approaches.*
We all spent the weekend before the trip packing and relaxing. Sam even got a foot massage. We also may or may not have "borrowed" a bunch of snacks from the TPG office. And before we knew it, the journey began.
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Goodbye, New York
The journey begins...
I left my apartment in Midtown Manhattan at the not-quite-bright but very early hour of 4:58 a.m on Sept. 23. My shared Lyft ride to LaGuardia cost $22.31, which meant I had $59.81 left. Things were looking pretty good. The line at TSA PreCheck was horrendous, and there wasn't any CLEAR at Terminal B, so I made it to my gate just as the flight was boarding.
My early morning flight to Dallas was uneventful. Most people dozed off.
I wasn't resting, though. I had a plan to execute. In the days leading up to my flight, I obsessively checked my seat map from DFW to HKG, and it turned out there were about 30 open business-class seats! Since we couldn't use "special favors" (cough, cough, American Airlines systemwide upgrades that JT could have offered...), I was planning on asking for one the old-fashioned way: You know, being nice. It's long odds, but it doesn't hurt to try.
After landing, I strolled on down to the gate and politely asked the agent if there was any potential way to upgrade to business, seeing as how there were so many seats open. He checked my boarding pass and said the best he could do was a premium-economy upgrade for $300. No dice. I took my sad self to the Centurion Lounge, which I accessed via my Platinum Card® from American Express, and downed the free food to prepare for the long journey ahead.
I totally and completely dreaded my flight to Hong Kong. Clocking in at over 16 and a half hours, it was the longest out of my seven flights. Every time I've flown to Asia in the past year, I've been, well, a little more comfortable. I armed myself with a neck pillow, a plush blanket, eye mask and even a foot sling. The $20 foot sling I previously ordered from Amazon came in handy yet again: It allowed me to stretch my legs out, and when the seat was reclined, it was almost, dare I say, comfortable. I also lucked out on this flight because I didn't have anyone sitting next to me.
My biggest complaint here was the food. I requested diabetic meals because if I'm going to eat pasta for four days straight, I want to be in Italy and not in American Airlines economy. According to American's website, diabetic meals are "[s]uitable for reduced sugar, hyperglycemic, hypoglycemic and carbohydrate controlled meal requests." On the flight from DFW-HKG, I was served — wait for it — potato gnocchi for dinner, and yogurt with 15 grams of sugar for breakfast. I'm not diabetic, but I really took issue with these nutritional choices and am concerned for those who really do have health issues to keep in mind. American Airlines really needs to up its game here.
My no-seatmate luck continued on my Cathay Pacific-operated flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok, too. I had a section of two seats all to myself for the three-hour hop. I could almost see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it was shining on a bed and a shower. For what it's worth, the food on this flight was much better: Cathay served grilled chicken, broccoli, carrots and potatoes. I weirdly didn't have much of an appetite at this point, and still feeling the snacks from the Hong Kong Centurion Lounge, only had a few bites.
Related: Credit cards that can get you into airport lounges
Meanwhile, back at the ranch JFK, my Terminal 1 experience was...fine. After hearing T1 horror stories, I expected it to be even shabbier than my boyfriend's 2006 Saturn Ion (which got me to the airport and made an appearance later in this adventure), but aside from having trouble finding the check-in desk and having to take my shoes off for security, I didn't really have any issues, especially once the Korean Air lounge opened up for Priority Pass members such as myself.
China Eastern's boarding process requires everyone to line up well in advance, essentially forcing me to be a gate louse. Once I was on the plane, I was able store both of my carry-on bags in the overhead bin and scored a little extra foot room. Needless to say, I definitely wasn't looking forward to 15 hours in 10-across economy on the 777, but it was less awful than I was expecting. Even though I had a seat neighbor, I didn't feel too cramped.
"Not as awful as expected" quickly became theme of my trip. Even the economy meals on China Eastern were OK. A few hours into the flight, I had a seafood-and-noodles entree that was fairly flavorful. Another meal came a few hours before landing in Shanghai, and though it wasn't the greatest omelet I ever had, I was pretty hungry and just happy to have something to eat.
I had an 8 p.m. flight from Newark but left my apartment in Brooklyn around 4:30 p.m. — my tight budget didn't give me enough money to take Uber or Lyft, so the A train it was! It cost $2.75 to take the subway to Penn Station and $11 for the New Jersey Transit train to Newark. There was no Priority Pass lounge at Terminal C, so I sprang for water and Chex Mix for $8 to do away with pre-flight hunger pangs.
After landing at LAX, I made my way to Tom Bradley International Terminal. I arrived sweaty and out of breath after walking briskly for 25 minutes, and boarded All Nippon Airways' Star Wars-themed 777 to Tokyo just as the gate agents called my name.
The cabin crew served "some kind of turkey roll and fruit," which were completely inedible, for the main meal. Things were not going well. Breakfast was much better with rigatoni with bolognese, fruit and yogurt, and the service was phenomenal, but since it's ANA, that shouldn't be much of a surprise.
After landing in Tokyo Haneda, I splurged for a 30-minute shower near a currency exchange — it was worth every penny of the $22 I spent. I also grabbed a coffee and bagel before heading out into the city.
I tried to make the most of my time and stopped at all the tourist spots: Akihabara for video games and candy, Asakusa for the market, Demboin Temple Garden — oh, and I ate ramen for $10.
I really had a surreal moment when it hit me that I was actually in Tokyo. I started fading by midafternoon but pushed through and headed back to the airport for the next flight.
One night in Bangkok
The world's your oyster — well, sort of.
I landed at the airport in Bangkok at 10 p.m., went straight to my hotel and returned to the airport at 10 a.m. The hotel had an airport shuttle that cost 500 baht ($16). I'd never been so happy to see a bed in my entire life.
Once I landed at BKK, I had to wait 20 minutes for the hotel shuttle. It cost 150 baht ($4.90). I stayed at the luxurious Nest Boutique Hotel, which cost a grand total of $12 per night. Most importantly, though, it had free bottled water — which really came in handy, seeing as how I only had 78 cents left to spend on food for the rest of the journey, and I was still on the other side of the world. Needless to say, the Clif Bars, pretzels and instant ramen I brought with me really came in handy.
After spending the day sightseeing (which didn't count toward the budget), I splurged on water from a street vendor, setting me back 65 cents. With 13 cents left in my budget for food, I went back to the hotel to cool off and eat instant ramen. The next morning, I took the shuttle back to the airport, cozied up in the Air France-KLM lounge and enjoyed the first fresh fruit I'd had in days. Ah, sweet lounge access.
Like Sam, I also lucked out and didn't have a seatmate on my flight to Bangkok ... and I actually passed out and missed the meal service. I woke up ravenous. By the time I got to Bangkok around 5 a.m., I stopped in the airport Burger King.
By this point, I was so tired I could barely stand, and fell asleep for the next 12 hours. Better luck next time, Bangkok.
The journey home
What a long, strange trip it's been.
The light at the end of the tunnel! I went straight to the Oman Air lounge at Bangkok Airport, per JT's suggestion, and it didn't disappoint. I don't think I would have been able to make it through the trip without my Priority Pass and Centurion Lounge access.
After that, it was a hop back to Hong Kong (I was really getting to know the Centurion Lounge!), LAX, Boston and finally, sweet home LaGuardia.
While my HKG-LAX flight wasn't as long as DFW-HKG, it was still a real long-haul. I lucked out again and I swear I had the only empty seat on the entire plane next to me.
The highlight of the trip, though, was my five-hour layover at LAX. Why, you ask? Three words: In-N-Out. Yup, I hauled my jet-lagged self over to the famous In-N-Out near the airport known for its planespotting, had myself a protein-style double burger and animal-style fries (balance!), and wondered what in the world my job was exactly. From there, my home felt so close I could taste it — and it tasted like burgers, fries and a Diet Coke. Very worth the $11 for food and $13.67 for Lyft rides, even if it may have put me dangerously close to busting my budget.
I still had time to kill, so I went back to LAX where I sat at — gasp! — the gate, since Priority Pass wasn't available here. By a weird alignment of the cosmos, my coach JT and his wife Katie were transiting through on their layover to Hong Kong, and not only did they come over to say hi, but they guested me into the Admirals Club. Ice-cold water has never tasted so good.
One minor snafu: My flight from LAX-BOS was delayed an hour because of mechanical problems. Since I had a tight connecting flight back to LGA, this meant I had to shift the last and final leg back two hours. At this point, I was so tired and ~ over it ~ that I fell asleep on the plane, woke up, wondered where I was and realized ... still on the ground at LAX. I put my eye mask back on and slept for the next five hours.
I had time to kill at Boston Logan International Airport, so I went over to Stephanie's, which was part of Priority Pass. Translation: free breakfast and, most importantly, coffee. (Here's all 29 free airport restaurants you can eat at for free with your eligible Priority Pass card.)
When my flight finally landed at LGA, I almost kissed the ground.
To get home, I had originally budgeted $2.75 to take the Q70 bus to the 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue station, and then the R to the 6 train back to my apartment in Midtown — however, a family obligation popped up at the last minute and I had to take a Lyft to Long Island, so we aren't counting that $56.18 towards my total. My grand total was effectively $708.98 for 21,987 EQMs. Boom.
After I finished all of the fresh fruit in the Air France-KLM lounge (I kid, I kid), I boarded my Shanghai Airlines-operated 737 back to Shanghai. I also lucked out with yet another empty seat (in fact, for the whole Asian part of my trip, I only had one seat neighbor, on the flight from JFK to PVG).
My luck didn't last long, though, because a few hours in, I started to smell a distinct burning odor. I'm not sure where exactly it was coming from but I was thoroughly convinced people were smoking. This has been known to happen on Chinese airlines, as TPG himself experienced it on his first class flight in 2017. It was the most unpleasant part of the trip, but I was served a full meal, which certainly helped and smelled more pleasant. I took advantage of the Toto Washlets in the Priority Pass lounge, as one does, before boarding my flight back to New York.
After landing, I was curbside within 20 minutes, thanks to Global Entry. I had been planning on taking the bus home, but was able to catch a ride with my boyfriend in the aforementioned Saturn Ion, who was passing by JFK soon after I arrived — what luck! (No really -- his job has him driving back from Long Island to Queens late Thursday nights, and he was in the vicinity of the airport when I exited the terminal.)
The next day, the real surprise came. I went back to the airport, courtesy of public transportation, and hopped on a flight to Houston and back (with seat neighbors both ways this time). We're a chatty bunch, but I had kept this extra jaunt down to Houston under wraps. I was even able to meet up with my coach, Summer, who lives near Houston and brought me a Texas-style cheeseburger from a Whataburger that's in a nearby terminal — the flavor of victory. In the end, I netted 22,998 MQMs and spent $724.87. The trip wasn't nearly as painful as I expected, but I'm definitely not itching to get back on a plane again so soon — at least, not if I have to fly economy.
Bangkok was the first point at which I had access to a Priority Pass lounge, thanks to enrolling through my Business Platinum Card® from American Express, so of course, I went all out. I also made myself at home in the Oman Air lounge and loaded up on eggs, fruit and pastries.
I don’t know if I was dehydrated and delirious, but the orange juice might have been the best I’ve ever had. I was so intent on stuffing my face that I was, in fact, one of the last to board the flight to Tokyo.
The flight was uneventful, but I had already exhausted my budget (and then some), so I couldn't afford to be picky when the salmon and rice arrived. By the last leg of the trip, I just wanted to eat and sleep. I slept pretty much the entire flight and woke up about three hours before landing, just in time to watch "Detective Pikachu."
The winner is ...
Though all of the teams ultimately found their way to Bangkok, some racked up more elite qualifying miles and fewer expenses than others. There can only be one winner, and in this case, it was Zach and SkyTeam, finishing up with just under 23,000 Delta elite qualifying miles -- with 13 cents to spare. That alone puts him within easy striking distance of Delta elite status that starts at the 25,000-mile level, albeit with spending requirements to also fulfill. (Psst, Zach, you can just pick up some elite qualifying miles from the Delta credit cards next time.)
- Zach: 22,998 Delta elite qualifying miles for $724.87
- Sam: 21,978 American Airlines elite qualifying miles for $708.98
- Vickie: 20,423 United elite qualifying miles for $747.59
Believe it or not, We all agreed that the mileage run wasn't as terrible as we'd thought it would be.
Was it fun? Well, no.
Would we do it of our own free will? Also probably a no.
But, hey, it's a good story, and a lot of miles.