Austin Yoder’s frequent flyer miles get him to Yellowknife, Canada, for spring break to see the northern lights.

AS HUNDREDS OF STUDENTS were flying south for the winter, down to Mexico to get drunk on beaches and do tequila shots at various Senior Frog’s’s, I was all by myself. Freezing my ass off on a lake in Yellowknife.

I spent four glorious days there taking in the aurora borealis during what was easily the most memorable spring break of my life.

The best part? My round-trip airfare costs totaled a whopping $32.50. How? Miles. 25,000 of them.

Here’s how it went down.

If you want the free travel, you have to understand the miles.

A good rule of thumb is that 25,000 frequent flyer miles will get you a free round-trip domestic ticket in North America, including Alaska and Canada (during off-peak season).

Frequent flyer miles are a method for airlines to incentivize loyalty in their customers. The idea is that for every flight you take, you’re rewarded with miles — points you can redeem for free travel at some intangible point in the future.

During the summer of 2009, I was able to secure 25,000 Continental miles through a debit card signup bonus that Chase Bank was running. This means I signed up for their debit card, completed the requirements they set, and became eligible to receive 25,000 frequent flyer miles. At the time, I had no idea what I would do with all those miles, but I figured it was better to have them than not.

When January 2010 rolled around, seeing the northern lights was way high on my list of things to do. I had no idea how I was going to swing it, because plane tickets from anywhere on the East Coast into the subarctic were going for northwards of USD $2,100.

Way too expensive for me on a student budget. Especially since I was only going to be there for about 4 days.

I was sitting around trying to scheme up a plan to hitchhike to Alaska, or con a relative into buying me a plane ticket to the frozen wastelands of the north, and then it hit me: Miles. That stupid debit card signup from last summer. I had 25,000 miles lying around in an account somewhere, and in theory, that was enough to get a free to trip anywhere in North America. I jumped onto Continental’s “United Mileage Plus” online booking tool and began poking around:

  • Whitehorse, Yukon (YXY) — no availability from Charlotte, NC (CLT), Washington DC (WAS), Baltimore (BWI), or New York (NYC) — the entire East Coast. Out of luck.
  • Iqaluit, Nunavut (YFB), just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Greenland — no awards availability. No availability.
  • Fairbanks, Alaska (FAI)? Out of luck. Again.

Then I found little city in the far reaches of Canada’s Northwest Territories: Yellowknife. A quick search showed it was prime aurora-viewing country.

Yellowknife was my last hope.

I was slouched over my keyboard, feeling defeated. I searched through every possible combination of dates in early March, 2010. I searched for over an hour, looking at what happened if I left from different cities on the East Coast on different days of the week, and different times of the day.

Nothing was coming up for me. And then, one of those combinations worked. This is the route I took to see the aurora for $32.50: BWI – EWR – YYC – YZF – YVR – ORD – BWI.

I couldn’t believe it. Yellowknife (YZF) departing March 9, and returning March 13 had one award seat left if I connected in Newark and Calgary, and returned through Vancouver and Chicago O’Hare. These were prime aurora-viewing dates, and there were strong predictions that the aurora would be making its first appearance of the season around March 10.

I clicked “book” immediately. Continental’s online reservation system prompted me: Did I want to pay the $32.50 miles redemption fee, and go through with my booking?

Hell yes, I did.

So there I was. Sitting on a frozen lake in Yellowknife.

The author, in Hoth attire

I’d been stupid enough to think a pair of hiking boots I’d bought for a camping trip through West Virginia would be sufficient to brave subarctic temperatures without all of my toes falling straight off my feet. Thank god that Tessa, the owner of the Blue Raven B&B, was kind enough to lend me a pair of her husband’s massive fuzzy boots.

My nostrils burned like hell.

I desperately wanted to capture this moment with a photo, to prove that this had worked. It was so cold the shutter on my camera wouldn’t open. Whether that’s because it had frozen shut, or because it was too cold for the chemicals in the battery to do their job didn’t matter. The point is that temperatures were spiking down below -40°C, bottoming out at just below -50°C thanks to some seriously harsh winds.

Green and pink streaks hung heavy and low, snaking in the sky above my head — a psychedelic, spectral kelp. I tried my camera again and again. It wasn’t working. I put it down my pants to warm it up a little bit. What else could I do?

I whipped it back out on that frozen lake in Yellowknife, and I guess I’d warmed it up just enough. The camera turned on long enough for me to take just a few shots, and captured one of myself looking like a tauntaun jockey from the planet Hoth.

Everyone should see the aurora at least once before they die. I challenge you to do it for less than $32.50.