This Couple Lived in Europe for 5 Months and Visited 16 Countries!

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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!

Rob is our newest reader success story to show folks it’s possible to travel without spending a lot of money.

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

Pure Bliss at the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands

A big thank you to Rob for sharing his story!

Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.

My name is Rob Markoff.  My wife, Barbara, and I have been collecting points since 1984, starting with American Airlines.  

I’m almost at 4 million lifetime miles and I’m lifetime Platinum.  I am also Platinum with Starwood and Marriott and Diamond with Hilton.  Barbara is at 2 million miles and is lifetime Gold.

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

We Lived in Rovinj, Croatia, for 5 Weeks. Rovinj Was Once Part of the Venetian Empire and Has a Lot of Italian Influences

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

I’ve participated in most of the “big schemes,” including purchasing almost $200,000 in gold quarters from the US Mint (which paid for my wife and I to take our daughter and her best friend to Rome, Florence, Venice and Barcelona, as a high school graduation present).  And also purchasing more than $50,000 in Vanilla Reload cards!  We go to Europe at least once a year, all on miles and points.

What was the goal of your trip?

My wife is a big fan of the TV show “House Hunters International.”  One night while watching the show she turned to me and said, “Let’s do this.”  Meaning she wanted to experience living like a local in a foreign country.  We are both experienced travelers but had never spent more than 3 weeks together on a trip abroad.  This trip was 5 months!

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

One of the Things We Love Most About Portugal Is We Can Afford Things We Can’t Elsewhere. We Love to Sail, So We Chartered a Boat With a 3-Person Crew!

We love Portugal and Croatia, and planned to stay in each country for at least a month.  We ended up spending 5 weeks in each, living in apartments like locals.  

In total, we visited 16 countries over the 5 months we were away.

How long did you collect miles and points for your trip? 

We’ve been collecting points and miles for over 30 years.  We “earn ‘em and burn ‘em,” so we don’t sit on our points.

We are perpetually collecting points and miles and had reserves of a million+ points in a variety of programs.  We are still collecting to “refill the coffers” for our next trip.  I’m earning miles passively while I’m typing this.  For example, we earn 10,000 American Airlines miles monthly from BankDirect.

Which points did you save to take your trip?

For this trip we used: 

What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?

Definitely any Chase card that offers Ultimate Rewards points.  Our “go to” cards are the Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Ink cards (for higher spending bonuses in specific categories).  

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

We Used Chase Ultimate Rewards Points for Our Stay at This Incredible Resort

We also use the Chase Freedom card in the appropriate quarterly bonus categories.  We earned:

How did you search for and find the award flights?

To book our flight to Europe, we used the American Airlines site.  For our trains, we used Rail Europe.  For our flights within Europe, we used the Chase travel portal so we could pay for those flights with Chase Ultimate Rewards points.  

How did you find your hotel accommodations?

For the “brand name” hotels, we used their specific sites (and by booking directly got to use our status benefits).  We stayed at some WONDERFUL properties from all 3 brands.  

We had well over a month of stays in brand hotels completely covered by points.  A HUGE bonus was that because of our status, we received breakfast for 2 daily (worth at least 60 euro) and where available, lounge access.  In Edinburgh, the food selection in the evening was so good that we didn’t eat dinner out for 2 nights!

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

At the John Lennon Memorial Wall in Prague

For local long-term accommodations, we used Airbnb and HomeAway.   For “non-brand” hotels, we had excellent results using the Chase Travel portal, especially in Croatia.  We stayed at some incredible properties (that weren’t Hilton, Starwood, or Marriott) and used Chase Ultimate Rewards points to pay.

What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?

The hardest part was limiting our Schengen area stays to 90 days within a 180-day window.  

We carefully monitored which countries we were in and how much time we had left.  We spaced out our 90 days with trips to non-Schengen countries, like the UK (England, Ireland, and Scotland), Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia.  We left a 4-day cushion on the end in the event that one of us got sick or we missed a flight, etc.  It is REALLY important not to exceed those 90 days.

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

Some Big Shoes to Fill in Kinderdijk

We only planned the first part of the trip – as far as getting to our apartment in Lisbon.  During the very hot days, we would stay inside and plan the next part of the journey and went out around 4:00 pm when it got cooler.  The internet is your friend! 🙂

Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination.  Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.

Highlights included a 15-night Viking Riverboat cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest (we paid for half with Chase Ultimate Rewards and booked it through the Chase travel portal).

Visiting Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands, going to the Baths in Budapest (a must!), spending time in the English Garden in Munich, seeing the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin, sailing up the Doro River in Portugal, seeing the Cliffs of Mohr in Ireland, living in apartments in the walled cities of Dubrovnik and Kotor and being there in the morning and evening with NO tourists.

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

Dressing the Part for a Port Tasting in Porto

Lisbon is a wonderful city with incredible history.  LOTS to see and do and it is SO affordable.

ANYTHING in Croatia (one of the most beautiful, friendly, and wonderful places we have been. This was our 3rd trip).  Rovinj is very special.  We lived there for a month.   Istria (northern Croatia) has wonderful food and wine as well as more Blue Flag (meaning ultra clean) beaches than anywhere.  It used to be part of the Venetian Empire.  Plitvice Lakes is incredible.  

The Azores (Portugal) are worth a trip by themselves and are only 4 and a half hours by plane from Boston.

What did you learn about yourself on the trip?

Trust was a big part.  Seriously.  

Getting a haircut in a foreign country where the person cutting your hair doesn’t speak the same language is an adventure.  What is the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut?  Two weeks. 🙂 

That patience is a virtue.  Not everything will go as planned and having contingency plans helps.  

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

Toasting Our Last Night Before Heading Home

That talking with people and meeting other travelers can be as meaningful of an experience as the venue.  We hardly met any Americans in the places we went, but we met some wonderful people from all over the world.  We had planned on living in a completely different city (Pula) in Croatia but met two servers on our river cruise from Croatia that encouraged us to stay elsewhere (Rovinj).  It was the best tip of the entire trip.

That food plays a huge role in understanding culture: cheese and wine are common food “threads” but are completely different in all countries!

That I married the right person!  Travel can be stressful – we learned that one doesn’t HAVE to do everything together – that it is OK to go to a museum by oneself while the other goes shopping.  

Did I mention that we traveled for 5 months with nothing more than a carry-on sized bag each?  Our motto is, “If you can’t carry it yourself, you can’t bring it.”

What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!

My wife and I are in our 60s.   We are still very fit and active but I wish we had done this years ago.  We were fortunate that we had an opportunity to take a “long sabbatical” from work and could get away for 5 months.  

The sooner and younger you are when you start, the more places you will get to go. 

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

One of the Best Parts of River Boat Cruising Is the Boats Often Dock Within Walking Distance to Some Incredibly Picturesque Cities. This is Passau, Germany

We listed our house with Airbnb while we were away.  For each night our house was rented in the US, we could afford 10 nights in Portugal and many other countries as well!  The income we made covered our mortgage and most of our domestic expenses and also provided some extra cash to pay for our trip.

When we started traveling on miles and points, we limited ourselves to “brand name” hotels because that’s where we had points and it was the easiest place to redeem.  As you get more experienced (both with travel and using the various programs) you will find that you can go almost anywhere and have points pay for the trip.  We’re off again in May to the “heel” of Italy and there are few brand name hotels – yet we are using points for the majority of our stays.

Some “consumer advocates” say that frequent flyer and point programs are a “ripoff.”  I hope they continue to discourage others because it means more opportunity for those of us that know otherwise!

This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries

Touring the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh, Scotland

Many say they can’t “afford” to travel.  By using credit cards to pay for our everyday expenses (and making small lifestyle changes to maximize earnings potential) we have traveled the world at little to no direct out of pocket costs.   At one time I had over 25 active credit card accounts.  The opening bonuses jump-started us to higher point balances.  Now I’ve limited the cards I have to about 5.

We buy gift cards for many “daily needs” at office supply stores using cards that yield 5X points.  Using the AMEX Starwood card gives 25% more American Airlines miles than identical purchases using the Citi American Airlines card.  Buying through portals can increase your earnings too.

The key is to use the right card for a purchase to earn the maximum number of miles per transaction.

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!

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17 responses to “This Couple Lived in Europe for 5 Months and Visited 16 Countries!

  1. Love this post! It’s so inspiring. Thanks for sharing your story. Happy travels!

  2. What a great post! I’ve been trying to work out how to take the family to Europe for the summer and I’ll be able to use some of the tips you shared. Keep on traveling!

  3. We pay for everything possible with variou cards to maximize points however, what card offers 5X points for gift cards?

    • Chase Ink when you purchase GCs at Staples.

      • Thanks, Gisele!

        Yes, we use our Chase Ink card to buy gift cards at Staples for almost everywhere we shop – including Starbucks, Whole Foods, to buy airfare gift cards for use on Southwest Airlines (no other place to get 5X points!), and most major department stores (Bed Bath and Beyond, Sears, Nordstrom, Home Depot etc.) Even movie theaters.

        We hosted a luncheon for my Mom’s birthday at Seasons 52 and used $300+ Olive Garden gift cards (they are owned by the same group and are reciprocal). 5X points for food is better than the 3X from our Sapphire Reserve). We use PF Chang’s gift cards at Pei Wei. You can even get cards for places like Subway. Every point counts!

  4. Loved this post. It’s inspiring to see other folks in their 60’s living the “good life” on points and miles!

  5. This was a really great post, probably my favorite among the Interview & Success Story series lately. There are some great recommendations here, in particular regarding those places in Croatia, which has been on my own list but about which I know rather little (on my own I would have probably only thought to visit Dubrovnik, for instance). Thank you for sharing, and I wish you the best with your further travels!

    • Thanks, Scott-

      Of all the places we have travelled in the world, Croatia has won our heart and we look forward to returning. Europeans already know about Croatia but not so many Americans (other than those on cruise ships – but There are SO many more beautiful places that the ships cannot reach – fortunately Rovinj is one of them).

      My advice – is GO NOW or as soon as possible, especially to Istria which is still relatively unspoiled and has EVERYTHING going for it – food, wine, olive oil, cheese., super friendly people and beautiful, clean beaches.

  6. Very interesting. I liked that you both still are inspired for travel and adventures

  7. Love it! From a 50-something reader!

  8. My favorite success story I’ve read.

  9. Hi Rob. Did you guys spend much time in or around Dubrovnik? What did you enjoy most there?

    • This was our third trip to Dubrovnik and yes, we did spend two nights there this trip (and rented an apartment inside the walls of the old city.) Unfortunately, Dubrovnik is not the city it was 6 years ago when we first started coming to Croatia. Now that the Game of Thrones is filmed there, there are many themed tours, gift shops and it has become a regular stop for cruise ships so it can get very crowded during the day. That’s why staying in the old city allows for getting up early and staying out late to explore. Don’t get me wrong, we still recommend a visit, but love Istria more 🙂 Two nights/three days (for us) would be more than enough. You can also catch a bus to Kotor (highly recommended). Montenegro is like Croatia was six years ago.

      Highlights of Dubrovnik are:

      Walking the city walls.

      Taking a boat over to Lokrum Island to hike and swim, riding the cable car to the top and sitting at a table at the bar overlooking the city for a drink.

      Doing a wine flight (or several) tasting/education at D’vino Wine Bar http://www.dvino.net/

      Eating wonderful meals!

      We like:
      Kopun http://www.restaurantkopun.com/ romanic, classy and delicious
      LAJK (super friendly, wonderful people) http://www.lajk-restaurant-dubrovnik.com/
      Moby Dick (for lunch) http://www.moby-dick.hr/

      If you are athletic, there are fun group kayak tours or rent one on your own.

      Once when the city was overrun with two cruise ships arriving simultaneously, we went to the harbor and found a boat and captain and paid to be taken on the water for two hours just to get away.

  10. This is fabulous ! We are in our mid-50s and just got married. My husband is a big traveler and I was a huge points nut so now we both are using points to travel. It seems we have much in common with both of you… we fell in love with Porto (also went to Sandeman), loved the Cliffs in Ireland, and are heading to Budapest (baths – yes) and Croatia this summer (spending one night in Plitvice on the recommendations from Hungarian friends). And watch HH International since it’s based here in Knoxville. I just wish we could figure out how to leave for 5 months but am definitely going to research Schengen limits for the future and the possibility of doing Viking on Chase! Thank you for the tips! And a question – where do you live that you can rent your home on AirBnB?

    • Hi Nina- thanks!

      We live in a small beach community north of San Diego, CA. BTW, my wife is from Nashville!

      We adore these baths in Budapest: Szechenyi Baths and Pool http://www.szechenyibath.hu/
      Plan on a day – with a break for lunch……well worth it. We loved the “we don’t care what your body type or physique is” (no body shaming) attitude of everyone there. It isn’t about all the “beautiful people” – but about LIFE and relaxing/having a good time.

      What they don’t tell you in advance:

      Bring CASH for the towel deposit (or bring your own) – but the towels are clean and of excellent quality so why haul one with you.

      You can rent a bathrobe (recommended)

      There is a small stand selling beautiful quality towels and footwear at the entrance – which may be a great souvenir.

      The food/drink offerings are very reasonable or you can pack a picnic and store it in your cabana.

      Food in Budapest is delicious and inexpensive – but for a splurge (which would cost double anywhere else) – the one Michelin starred Onyx is worthy and memorable. http://www.onyxrestaurant.hu/ Be sure to book WELL in advance.

      • Rob one other question – I figured out how to search and pay for points on “activities” on Chase (food tours, etc.) but under cruises the only ones that show up are all the popular cruises lines. Did you have to call Chase to negotiate paying a portion for Viking? Or credited some of the charge to points? That idea intrigued me since the cost is so high for the riverboat cruises. Goodness I haven’t stopped talking about your story! Btw, my husband happens to be in the music biz in Nashville but works out of here now.

        • The Chase travel site (in my experience) is like any other travel agency. I initially discussed the cruise with Viking
          and got advice from them re: which cabin class and location – then received a reservation number that I gave to the agent at Chase. You call them up and get assigned to an agent who then books everything. Then they apply the points to the bill and you pay $$ for the additional.

          Interesting story- Initially I wanted a “fancier” cabin with a veranda/balcony that was much more expensive than the “french balcony” that we ended up reserving.

          The Viking agent could have sold me the more expensive cabin but asked me why I wanted it. I thought it would be great sitting out on the balcony as we cruised or having coffee in the morning. His reply was that most of the cruising between ports was at night (true) and during the day, how did I know that the “cool castle” wasn’t on the other side of the river as we cruised?

          Being on the balcony limited half of what we could see. Sometimes the boat docked against a wall and the balcony would have been useless. Other times the boat docked “three deep” tied against another boat so your balcony would have faced another right up against it. He could have earned a much higher commission with the more expensive cabin but was spot on – a French Balcony mid-ship was perfect! It had floor to ceiling windows and was a great call. However, when cruising, one wants to be on the top deck or in the sun lounge. For us on this particular itinerary, the extra $$ for a balcony would not have been a good investment :).