Getaway Day: A Refugee’s Story, Revisited

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Photo credit: Luca Zanon via Unsplash.

We’ve been privileged to have some wonderful, amazing writers grace this blog, but two of the most amazing have been Kendra Collins and Ariana Arghandewal, who specialize in collecting reward points and airline miles. It’s a complex sort of game that’s getting more complex all the time, but it’s fascinating to read their blogs — Kendra’s Points and Pixie Dust and Ariana’s PointChaser — to get some insight into how they do it. (Not that we could repeat what they do.)

If you’ve been wondering what they’ve been up to, you’re in for a treat. Ariana just returned from a heartwarming trip to revisit her refugee roots — and she was able to pay for it almost entirely using points and miles she had saved up.

If you ever think the points/miles game is too frivolous to be worth anything, this will change your mind. We are reprinting it from the PointChaser blog with Ariana’s permission, but we highly encourage you to check out her blog on a regular basis. Kendra’s too.

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By Ariana Arghandewal

About a month ago, I booked a spontaneous trip to Europe in order to volunteer with two organizations helping refugees in Greece and France. The route outlined in the title is the same one hundreds of thousands of refugees are taking every year to a safer place. I’m lucky, like every American passport holder: I got to travel this exact route safely, comfortably, and with the protection of the U.S. Embassy if I ran into trouble along the way.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn countries every year don’t have any of those privileges. They trek through dangerous terrain, travel through unsafe waters, and thousands of them don’t make it to the safe shores of Europe.

My own family left Afghanistan in the ‘80s under difficult circumstances. Most of my extended family fled to Pakistan and one of my aunts made the long trek largely on foot, with her family in tow. At one point she was separated from her husband and two of her kids for several days before reuniting with them in a refugee camp across the border.

My immediate family was lucky because my dad, being the miracle worker that he is, promised my mom that she wouldn’t have to endure the dangerous journey to Pakistan: He would get us to Europe – by plane, something my mom laughed at. But he made it happen, and while the journey presented its own challenges, my parents were grateful that they no longer had to worry about whether their home would be next to get hit by rockets while warlords fought to control the country.

The plight of refugees is something I’ve always been concerned about, and I wanted to make things a bit easier for those who were following the path my family took 27-plus years ago.

Some of these refugees have language difficulties, they leave home with very little, and rely on the kindness of strangers to survive until their asylum claim is processed and they’re able to rebuild their lives.

With many of the refugees speaking Pashto and Dari, languages I’m fluent in, I wanted to offer up my services as a translator. I reached out to a few organizations in February but couldn’t really make it work at the time.

When award space opened up to Thessaloniki on AirBerlin in early July, I decided to book it two days before departure, keeping the rest of my travel plans loose so I could make routing changes and book hotels on the go. When you do as much obsessive planning months in advance as I do, this isn’t so difficult.

Ultimately, it was my collection of points and miles that made this trip possible. Here’s a breakdown of how I covered pretty much all of my travel expenses using points and miles, which would have otherwise cost over $5,000 [Editor’s Note: if the following is a little hard to follow, Ariana covers the details on her PointChaser blog]:

  • AirBerlin Business Class SFO-DUS-MUC: 57,500 AAdvantage miles + $141.86 taxes and fees (14,186 Arrival Miles).
  • One night at the Hilton Munich Airport: $218.09 = 21,809 Arrival miles. It was pricier than most hotels in the area, but it was the most convenient option and I was ultimately very happy with my choice (and the 7,086 points I earned from the stay).
  • Air Berlin Economy Class MUC – SKG: 7,500 British Airways Avios and $37.90 cash.
  • One night at the Hyatt Regency Thessaloniki: 6,000 points + $70 cash charged to my Discover It Miles card.
  • Two nights at The Met Hotel Thessaloniki: 14,000 Starwood points + $70 in room service charged to my Discover It Miles card.
  • Aegean Air Economy Class flight SKG – CDG: $135.44 (13,544 Arrival Miles).
  • One night Hyatt Regency Paris CDG: 6,000 points + $70 charged to my Discover It Miles card.
  • Train ticket from Paris CDG to Calais via Lille: $49.95.
  • Four nights at the Ibis Hotel Calais (room, breakfast and two room-service dinners) $480.21 (48,021 Arrival Miles).
  • Three nights at the Holiday Inn Calais: 25,000 IHG points + $240.46 (24,046 Arrival Miles).
  • Eurolines bus/ferry from Calais to London: $55.74.
  • American Airlines Business/Economy Class LHR – ORD – SFO: 57,500 AAdvantage miles + $270.66 taxes and fees (27,066 Arrival Miles)

The total number of miles spent was 302,172, which is well worth it considering how much I saved, even if I had opted to fly in coach.

  • 148,672 Arrival Miles
  • 115,000 AAdvantage miles
  • 25,000 IHG Rewards Club points
  • 7,500 Avios
  • 6,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points

My out-of-pocket cost was around $400, which consisted mostly of cab and bus fares, tips, and the occasional meal or expense that I couldn’t pay with a credit card. This was mostly in Calais, where taxis didn’t accepted credit cards and I needed cash for some incidentals and the daily two-Euro roundtrip bus fare. Along the way, I also took some Uber rides, which I charged to my Discover It Miles Card so I could offset the cost with miles.

For travel purchases over $100 (mostly hotel expenses), I used three different Barclay Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercards. I have my own card and I’m an authorized user on my dad and brother’s accounts. I’m regularly generating miles across all three cards, which I used to cover hotel stays and award taxes. I don’t like to wipe out a single account balance, so it was preferable for me to pull miles from all three Arrival accounts and still maintain decent balances across the board.

I probably could have saved more cash and miles if I had booked this trip in advance, but I think I did pretty well considering the time crunch and the fact that I was able to keep my travel plans flexible and make some big changes in the beginning (i.e., abandoning Thessaloniki and heading to Calais instead). It was a slightly stressful trip in the beginning and I thought of abandoning it, but I’m really glad I stuck it out.

It wasn’t all work. I got to visit my cousins in London after not seeing them for six years, took a scenic train ride through the French countryside, had fun exploring Calais, and met some really great people. The disappointing part of the trip was finding out a few days after returning home that the police had raided the camp, shut down all the businesses, confiscated the merchandise, and arrested the owners. The raid included the Jungle Books Kids Restaurant, which is where unaccompanied minors were served hot meals free of charge.

At the moment, I’m concerned that the local authorities will make good on their promise to shut the entire camp down, but in the mean time I highly encourage anyone who is interested in helping, to make donations to L’auberge Migrants/Help Refugees, the organization I worked with in Calais. They have a warehouse where they collect donations, prepare meals, and organize the distribution of necessities. It’s really impressive how organized they are, but they were running low on supplies during my stay and really needed donations. Another great organization is the Al Khair Foundation. Their team was single-handedly feeding the 2,000-plus Syrian refugees living in the Softex refugee camp in Thessaloniki.

Aside from some of the issues I encountered along the way, this was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had. It sounds terrible, but I’m not much for volunteering my time. In the past I never felt like volunteering made a difference; however, I came away feeling like I was being useful and the work we all did as a team mattered. I look forward to returning to Calais, next time for a longer period. What’s holding me back? I still have a couple of months left to max out the 5 percent bonus on the Wells Fargo card (insert mocking hashtag here).

I’m grateful as ever that my job allows me the flexibility to not only work while I travel, but to cover my travel expenses via points and miles. While other volunteers were staying in hostels and camping in tents to keep costs low, I had a very nice hotel to go back to at the end of a long day – at a fraction of the cost.

At times, I’ve taken this hobby for granted and thought it was somewhat shallow and silly. I definitely left this experience feeling grateful for what it has made possible. Among other things.