Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I Booked a Nearly Free Flight to Rwanda

Our latest international trip ended with a big first class Etihad Airways splash. People are probably getting tired of me talking about it, but it was epic. Well I caught wind of another deal that involves Etihad: booking Brussels Airlines award tickets with Etihad miles.

The prices are ridiculously low. For example the cheapest award ticket is economy class Brussels to Paris for 930 miles. A quick rule of thumb is to think of a mile as a cent, so that's pretty much $9.30 for a round trip. Business class for the same flight barely increases to $15.50.

People are always asking me "how can you afford to go to [X]" destination and I thought I would try harder to explain what I'm doing. Hopefully it doesn't bore you into a coma. So I have my crazy cheap Etihad award chart in hand. The flights from JFK to Brussels in business class are only 36620 points (or ~$350)!

I transferred enough points to cover the flight to Etihad's program from my SPG AMEX credit card. Then here comes the catch: this flight isn't bookable on the website, you have to call in. Not only that, but the award space isn't online either. So each call to their booking agents devolved into a game of Battleship.

"You sunk my patrol boat!"

By the time I finished booking I'd estimate I called in around 10 times, maybe for an hour total?

I never could find a business class flight from NY to Brussels but I got it booked economy class for 21972. Not too shabby. For my next trick I looked for the longest flight from Brussels I could find. They have an Africa-heavy lineup and Luanda, Angola was the farthest. I couldn't make the dates work, so I changed it to Kigali, Rwanda and I had success booking it business class for 39540 points! That's awesome because that flight will be even longer than the one from New York. Etihad is quickly becoming my new best friend.

So for those of you keeping score at home, these sample travel dates on JFK-BRU would have cost me $939 in cash money.

And BRU-KGL bidniz class would have cost me $2970, for a grand total of nearly $4K. I walked away spending only $173.23 in taxes.

As soon as I got off the phone I ran to my magnetic map and added the fabled green peg for a planned trip. Nothing says "official" like a magnet.

I'm looking forward to checking out Brussels Airlines' flagship lounge at Brussels airport. Their website's use of the word "flagship" is a bit generous as the only airports they even have lounges in are Brussels and Kinshasa, Congo. I had my mind blown at the Etihad First Class Lounge in Abu Dhabi and now I want to see what the rest of the world's airlines have to offer.

Well with Kigali, Rwanda pegged as my HQ I started checking out the neighboring countries to see if I could pick up any easy border crossings. Rwanda borders 4 countries, and the neighborhood is definitely a mixed bag. The State Department has a real sunny way of making one's vacation sound like a death march.

"The U.S. Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against all travel to Burundi.
Political violence persists throughout Burundi in the aftermath of the country’s contested elections, an attempted coup d’etat, and the debate over the President standing for a third term.  Gunfire and grenade attacks by armed groups occur frequently.  The Government does not have full command of the armed forces and security services.  Police and military checkpoints throughout the country can restrict freedom of movement.  Police have searched the homes of private U.S. citizens as a part of larger weapons searches."

Democratic Republic of the Congo:
"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of ongoing instability and sporadic violence, including armed robbery, murder, and kidnapping, in the provinces of North KivuSouth Kivu; the new provinces of Bas-Uele, Haut-Uele and Ituri (northeastern part of the former Oriental Province); and Tanganyika and Haut-Lomami (northeastern and central parts of the former province of Katanga)."
The fun-sounding provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu are the two that border Rwanda. According to CNN this area is known as the "rape capital of the world".

Uganda: No travel warnings

Tanzania: No travel warnings

Being both an Eagle Scout and a Millennial I decided to make myself this map that I can print out and bring with me for quick reference.

I've been reading a bit about Rwanda's culture and history. And of course I had to watch Hotel Rwanda which I hadn't previously seen. Early in the movie before things get ugly there are a few scenes at a nice hotel with UN guys hanging out. It gave me déjà vu from our hotel in Cap Haitien, Haiti which was was teeming with UN police.

I booked my flights for early May 2017 so I have plenty of time to plan. Nothing gets me quite as pumped as a trip on the horizon!

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