An Engineer Abroad

Over the summer I took my first major travel experience by flying over to Europe for 3 short weeks. With my girlfriend I covered the sites of Rome, Vatican City, Venice, Amsterdam, Paris, and London. At the risk of being cliche, it was an eye opening experience to witness so many cultures in so little time. Between switching time zones, languages, customs, and currencies the trip made me realize how little I actually know about the world and how many more wonderful curiosities there for me to discover. With this post, I hope to play travel blogger for a bit while putting a little engineering spin to it.

The trip itself took 6 months of design work in which I produced a centimeter thick packet comprising a 24 day itinerary, reservations, intra city connections, housing arrangements, survival notes, and redundancies. When I showed friends the itinerary I planned, it was described as obsessive and that I should consider becoming a travel planner. In reality, I would contend that we are living in an age where planning these kinds of trips is easier than it’s ever been. We have so much high quality information available and air travel is more affordable than ever. Further, credit card rewards programs can be gamed in a way that allow almost anyone to go on these trips without breaking the bank.

Admittedly, I started out by hitting the listicles for inspiration on cities and sights to visit in Europe. As an engineer I tried to optimize for minimal travel time and maximize time spent in the top cities. It was overwhelming to pare down the possibilities, but it’s better to trade off quantity for quality when dealing with the physical reality of travel. A handy rule of thumb for this is to take the number of vacation days, subtract 1 day for international travel, and divide the remainder by 3.5 to get an upper bound on the number of cities to visit. I eventually ended up with the route above which makes a nice arc across the continent with direct routes between each point. To further constrain the problem, I allocated 5-6 days in Rome, Paris, and London while leaving 2 days each for Venice and Amsterdam. With that, the problem is now specified to the point where we could book travel and accommodations.

In the past I’ve found ways to game reward programs using automation, but “churning” took a whole new level of creativity to maximize value. Prior to booking my tickets I had been amassing reward points through credit card sign up bonuses. For this trip alone we easily signed up for more than half of those cards above. In order to meet all the bonus requirements we had to use some odd financial maneuvers that basically converted credit card spending into cash which is used to go back and pay off the credit cards. My favorite was using reloadable debit cards (ironically intended for the underbanked) which can then be used to withdraw cash at ATMs. The practice felt almost criminal when I tried to explainit to people.

All told these cards paid for our international plane tickets on Iberia, a Hilton in Venice, and a Holiday Inn for London. To get there though, we have to look at the products of our churning reaction which is redemption.  You had to know all the (mostly unwritten) rules for booking awards. For instance with American Airlines you have to know their award chart, partner airlines, fuel surcharges, and how to search award availability. I ended up having to search for flights on the British Airways website, for award availability on Iberia, and call American Airlines to finally book my tickets. On top of that, I had to search segment by segment and had to reverse my travel route to find availability for us. While hotels awards don’t have the added complexity of partnerships, I did have to look for availability in each city for each chain and work out the redemption costs. This all meant making a lot of tables sorted by derivative measure of value. Definitely a lot more work than I anticipated, but in a way these inefficiencies are what allow people to do this kind of thing profitably.

For charting out an actual day to day itinerary I originally turned towards the internet, but it’s increasingly difficult to pick out the high quality information from it. Dismayed, I retreated to the travel section of the local library which hosts guide books for every destination on my list. Reading through the curated content inside the guidebooks gives a really good grasp of what each city has to offer along with all the necessary “tribal knowledge” that goes along with them. At that point, travel planning became an obsession of mine. I ended up reading through these books cover to cover as I plotted out the most aggressive itinerary I could. The objective here was to see as much as possible, because I didn’t know when the next time we’ll have an opportunity to do this again.

While I’d love to put off publishing this post even longer, I’ll let the photos tell the tale of the actual trip 🙂

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.