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Welcome to the next installment of our Reader Success Series where Million Mile Secrets Readers share how they booked a trip with miles & points to get Big Travel with Small Money!
Sarah and her family are our newest reader success story to show folks it’s possible to travel without spending a lot of money.
A big thank you to Sarah for sharing their story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
My name is Sarah and we are a family of 5: me, my husband Jason, and our children John, 14, Beth, 12, and Peter, 7.
I started dabbling in miles and points about 6 years ago. I’ve always been a bargain hunter when it comes to travel, so much that my friends ask me to help them find deals. My husband Jason travels for his job and I started by using those miles for flights to see family and get free Marriott stays.
When we decided to make Europe a goal, I knew we couldn’t afford to pay cash for it, so I started doing research. I found Million Mile Secrets and I was off!
What was the goal of your trip?
To be able to afford 3 weeks in Europe.
We wanted to explore different countries at a relatively slow pace because our youngest child would be 7 at the time. And we knew he would rebel if we tried to pack too much into every day.
We wanted to have time to explore at a somewhat relaxed pace. We wanted to spend time as a family before our oldest started high school and to expose our children to the wider world. Neither my husband nor I traveled internationally until well into adulthood, so we want our children to see the world as an accessible place where good people reside.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
My husband already had Platinum elite status with Marriott and started flying United Airlines for work. So we had some Marriott points and United Airlines miles already. It took 2 years of being very strategic to save enough miles and points.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
I started out with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which I think is the greatest. I got a lot of bonus sign-up miles and miles from everyday spend. And then transferred 100,000 of those points to United Airlines to book award seats.
In total, we used 300,000 United Airlines miles (60,000 United Airlines miles per ticket).
We used the $300 credit that came with each card to upgrade our airline seats to Economy Plus (thus effectively taking the yearly fee to $100 per card). This made the flights much more comfortable. We even flew in a Dreamliner from Houston to London, which was great!
We each applied for the Chase United Explorer card, which got us 50,000 more United Airlines miles each. And then used the United Club passes we got as a perk of the card to get into the lounge in Houston. We were able to relax, charge our phones, eat, have a couple of beverages, and relax before the long flight.
Because of my husband’s Marriott Platinum elite status, we scored gorgeous, brand new upgraded rooms with spectacular views of Big Ben and the River Thames. Also because of his elite status, we had free breakfast in the Executive Lounge, and access to afternoon hors d’oeuvres and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in the afternoons and evenings.
This was a HUGE savings, as we definitely needed a drink after each day of touring with 3 children in tow! Also, soda is expensive in London, and the kids were able to enjoy as many soft drinks as they wanted due to this perk.
While in Paris, we rented an Airbnb apartment. This cost was mostly offset by a $50 credit from using our American Express card to book the apartment. And we were able to use American Express Membership Rewards points to pay for half the cost of the apartment.
Although the apartment was charming and spacious, we ended up having NO hot water the entire time we were there, so the host refunded half of our cash payment. So we ended up paying about $150 for 4 nights in a 3 bedroom apartment in Montmartre. We didn’t enjoy having no hot water, but loved the savings!
After Paris we took the train to Italy, changing trains in Milan to go on to Varenna, Italy, and then the ferry to Bellagio. We spent 2 nights at an amazing small, family run hotel on a hillside above Bellagio on Lake Como. The hotel was wonderful and the view SPECTACULAR and I found it by searching for accommodation using Citi ThankYou points.
We had a 2-bedroom family suite with included breakfast and I can honestly say, it was the most incredibly beautiful place I have ever been. One of our kids’ top memories of the trip was swimming in an Alpine stream behind the hotel.
After Lake Como, we took the train to Rome and spent 5 nights there. We ended up paying for accommodation there as I booked early and got a 2-room family suite with included breakfast for $78 a night, and we decided to save our Marriott points for another trip. We then flew home in economy class from Rome through Munich directly to Denver on Lufthansa, again in upgraded economy plus.
How did you search for and find the award flights?
I started searching for flights a full year out and took copious notes, charting what was available and when. After noting trends and deciding on the best routes (through Houston to fly the Dreamliner), I booked!
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
Again, I started searching as soon as Marriott’s calendar for our dates to become available. We have 5 in our family, and few European hotels won’t allow more than 3 people per room, so I knew we’d have to have 2 rooms. I read tons of reviews of all the Marriotts in London before deciding on the Marriott County Hall. It was a great choice!
Our Airbnb experience was not as great, but due to a credit from AMEX, paying for half the stay with Membership Rewards points, and then receiving a credit from the host for lack of hot water, it ended up being a very economical choice.
Finally, I don’t think I ever would have found our spectacular Bellagio hotel, Il Perlo Panoramo, if I weren’t using the Citi ThankYou rewards tool to search. It truly was one of the highlights of our trip.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
It was challenging to book flight and accommodation for 5 people. I bought a new spiral notebook at the very start of planning, 2 years before the trip, and kept crazy detailed notes. I knew how many miles and points we needed and I was strategic about accumulating them.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
We loved London: gorgeous weather and little parks all over.
I took a lightweight picnic blanket in my luggage and almost every day we were there, we picked up delicious sandwiches, etc.. at Pret A Manger and had picnics in various parks. This saved a ton of money, we ate very well, and really enjoyed the parks.
We also took several London Walks tours, which really gave us good context for everything we were seeing.
In Paris, we bought 2-day hop on/hop off Seine river cruise tickets, so we were able to see all the major sights along the river. We did several Walks of Italy tours while in Rome, which again, gave us good context.
Also, for several really touristy things, I checked entry prices at the site, then went online on my phone and was often able to save a lot by finding on line deals. We did this at Ripley’s Believe It or Not in London (kids needed a break from culture and it really ended up being fun) and at Warwick Castle near Stratford.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
While on side trips to the Cotwsolds, Lake Como, and Normandie, we learned that our family enjoys the smaller places off the beaten path. The exception was London, which we all adored.
Next time, we will stay in the smaller towns and make day trips to the big cities. It was fabulous being a family unit without the distractions of home and school for 3 weeks. We grew closer as a family and I am so grateful we had the opportunity. We are already planning our next trip!
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
I’d say, go for it! Start planning early, be meticulous, keep notes, and be strategic.
We could never have afforded this trip without using miles and points. It was the trip of a lifetime and none of us will ever forget it. It IS possible, and this is a smart (and fun!) way of making it happen!
Want to Share Your Story?
If you’d like to be considered for our reader success story series, please send me a note! Emily and I would love to hear about how you travel with miles and points!