2015 is coming to a close, and it's been a very experimental year for me.
And one of the most fun experiments I ran over the past twelve months was visiting all six continents for under $1,000.
That's right. And no, with the exception of one flight (Singapore to Los Angeles), these costs are not offset by frequent flyer / credit card points. Aside from that single flight, I paid less than $1,000 in cold hard cash to visit all six continents.
Of course, you're wondering how I could pull that off, and you may not believe me when I tell you it was extremely simple. But before I explain, let me post the four major flights I took this year and the prices I paid for them:
Keep in mind that this is just a list of my four major flights - I've omitted minor and regional flights, since that aggregate number totals more than 50 for 2015. Yes, the price of all of the flights in the last 12 months I took exceeds $1,000, but they weren't necessary in my visiting all six continents.
It's worth noting, though I won't belabor the point here, that the frequent flyer miles I received for these flights actually exceed the cost of the flights themselves. That's right - the airlines paid me to get on these flights. More on that in a future post.
So this is why I want to talk about how I jetset from one place to another so regularly. I call my method modular travel. It stems from my general frame of thinking, which generally involves taking a disproportionate amount of small risks. And it's the travel doctrine you wish you'd heard of.
Modular design has gained a lot of traction in recent years, particularly in industries like architecture and construction. If a building can be built for 10% of the cost overseas and then shipped to wherever it's being erected, that's a pretty magical thing. But modular on its own simply means something that can be both split and combined in distinct individual components.
But when it comes to travel, very few people have been thinking about applying modular principles there, myself included. It actually wasn't until many months after I began the process that I realized what I was doing.
I was on an island in Thailand known for it's world-famous Full Moon Party. I got a Twitter notification telling me that an extremely cheap roundtrip flight from New York - Johannesburg had became available, and it was very obvious that the price wouldn't last long (though, it being late at night on Chrismas Eve in Dallas-Fort Worth, American Airlines' headquarters, the circumstances were at least a little bit on my side). So, as we sat with our feet in the sand sipping from a pair of coconuts, a new friend and I booked it immediately, having no plans to be in New York in October, but knowing that we could be if we wanted to. If living on a Thai island wasn't enough, this was my little Christmas gift to myself.
A few weeks later, in mid-January, the same thing happened again: this time the deal was Toronto to Rio de Janeiro for $400. At that time I actually needed to return to Toronto for at least a week to renew my Canadian passport, so combining it with a trip to South America - a spot near the top of my to-go list - sounded pretty ideal. I chose a fairly arbitrary departure date in mid-June, mainly so that the time I spent in Toronto would be during the summer, and planned my return from Rio to be five days before my departure from New York to South Africa. The beauty of selecting this return date was twofold: the five days I would be home for fully encapsulated Canadian Thanksgiving, and if I didn't want to go home, my return flight from Rio had a layover in New York City, so I could just crash with some friends there for a few nights before going off to Johannesburg.
Just like that, a fairly interesting year was starting to unfold.
And no more than a few weeks later, in early February, another remarkable flight popped up: Dubai to Manila for $5 each way. Some friends and I jumped on it again, and we booked it for two weeks after my return flight from Johannesburg to New York. As I mentioned before, since that flight had a stop in Abu Dhabi, I simply got out there and scrapped my flight to New York. All of a sudden, I'm perfectly poised for my next flight, and I've got two weeks to explore Abu Dhabi and Dubai and hang out with a few friends who have settled there for the time being.
The fact that these three flights lined up perfectly, both in time and in geography, may seem like a total stroke of luck. But in reality, the odds of something like this happening are quite high, and they form the basis of modular travel. Here are some underlying facts about the flights I was booking:
Now you know a bit about the nature of error fares, but you're still skeptical. Is this sustainable?
I'm working on some more modular trips right now. I'm writing this on November 30, and just last night I booked a roundtrip flight from Guangzhou, China to Melbourne, Australia with a full-day stop in Singapore for $10 total. How was I able to do it? I already have a flight booked from Kuala Lumpur to Macau (that one cost me $3), which is just across the Chinese border from Guangzhou, so I just planned my flight to Melbourne for a week later. I can spend my week in any of Macau, Hong Kong, or anywhere in southern China before getting back to Guangzhou in time for my Melbourne flight.
And looking at the specifics of this flight, it's not luck that I was able to make it work: the error fare was available to multiple cities (ending in Singapore, Melbourne, or other cities across Australia), and was valid for any time between February - September 2016. What I'm most pleased about is how open it leaves me for my next move: I had already been planning to spend a month or two exploring China around April/May (that's why I had booked the flight to Macau in the first place) so I can always take my return flight and do that. Or, if something more enticing comes up, I can catch a flight from just about anywhere in Australia, Singapore, or Guangzhou, Macau, or Hong Kong. And given how cheap flights are within Southeast Asia (I can get from Singapore to nearly anywhere in SE Asia for under $100), I'd include all of that region in my list of potential departure cities as well, meaning my target area encapsulates an area larger than all of Canada. It sounds ridiculous, but it makes perfect sense.
And when you think about it like this, modular travel starts to make a lot of sense, too. Not only can you visit places you had only dreamed of for the extremely low prices I've shown, but the more you do it, the better it works. So yes - by definition - modular travel is sustainable.
Think of modular travel from the perspective of a risk matrix. What's the risk of booking an error fare? Whatever the price of that ticket is, of course. And what's the reward? An amazing trip to a new place. Even if there's only a 50% chance of you taking the flight, that means that as long as the fare is no more than 50% of the price of a regular ticket, you should book it. But here's the kicker: these error fares are normally more like 10% of the cost of a regular ticket, so the equation, seen the other way, gets a lot sweeter. Now the question is this: Is there at least a 10% chance I'm going to board this flight? If you plan your modular travels well, the answer is almost always yes, so booking the flight is nearly always the right move.
Here's how to start applying the principles of modular travel immediately:
Of course, most of you won't listen to this advice. Right now you're thinking, "Well, those are all good points, but they'd never work for me. I have a full-time job / family / yoga on Thursday mornings that I can't just leave behind!" And maybe you even feel good when you say it. For you,
We've been flying for 100 years now. It's time we understood how to do it better.
This has been a very short introduction to modular travel. I can elaborate on the methods, my own experiences, and how-tos a lot more if you're interested, but for now, let me know you gained something from this post by
And if you haven't seen it already, my flight hacking company