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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!
Austin is our newest reader success story to show folks it’s possible to travel without spending a lot of money.
A big thank you to Austin 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 Austin Church – not to be confused with all of the churches in Austin, Texas. 😉
I picked up the hobby in December 2010 after I stumbled across Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Master. I bought the guide, hoping that I would learn how to score a cheap vacation to Hawaii for my wife and me.
I wasn’t disappointed. I successfully booked 2 round-trip flights on American Airlines to Oahu for 35,000 miles and $20 each.
Of course, I was hooked, and my wife and I have since used miles and points to take some amazing trips to the Virgin Islands, Mexico, Greece, Portland, and Dominican Republic.
What was the goal of your trip?
My most recent travel hacking goal came along with an upcoming business trip to Belgium and Sweden: lie-flat seats in Business Class for as little cash out of pocket and as few miles as possible.
It was a ton of fun doing the research and figuring out 1) which award tickets gave me the best value, and 2) how to actually book it.
I eventually landed on using Etihad miles to book 2 tickets on a Brussels Airlines Airbus A330-300 that flies non-stop from New York (JFK) to Brussels.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
I already had most of the points and miles I needed for the trip. But moving them around involved some strategy and timing.
In October 2016, Etihad ran a promotion where they would give you a 20% bonus on any hotel points or flexible rewards you transferred. So I transferred:
- 20,000 Starwood points (which became 25,000 Etihad miles)
- 20,000 AMEX Membership Rewards points
- 21,000 Citi ThankYou points
Thanks to the 20% bonus, I had the 73,240 Eithad miles needed to book the Business Class award seats. Then, it was just a matter of waiting for the seats to show up, which happened in mid-November.
The award booking only cost me $184 out of pocket! That’s pretty good compared to the retail price of $6,398.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
- American Airlines miles for the flights from Knoxville to New York
- Flexible reward points (Starwood, AMEX Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou) to convert to Etihad miles for the transatlantic flight
- Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the Brussels to Stockholm flight
- Club Carlson for a night at the Radisson Blu in Stockholm, 2 IHG annual free night certificates
- Delta miles to fly from New York back to Knoxville
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
- AMEX Business Platinum (love the free lounge access, $200 in fee credits, no foreign transaction fees, travel and dining concierge, and other benefits)
- Chase Ink Plus (no longer available) or Ink Preferred (free primary coverage on car rentals)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve (nice sign-up bonuses and flexible, easy-to-use points)
- Citi Prestige (4th night free, $250 travel credit, and other benefits)
- AMEX Starwood personal or small business (currently a 35,000 point sign-up bonus, 5,000 mile bonus on every 20,000 Starwood points converted to miles)
How did you search for and find the award flights?
I used United Airlines’ website to search for award seats, and ExpertFlyer to set up a notification. When I got the notification, I called Etihad to book the awards as quickly as possible.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
We’ll end up at Double Your Freelancing Conference at Yasuragi Spa outside of Stockholm. The organizer, Brennan Dunn, obviously picked that spot. For our other accommodations, I used TripAdvisor to pick hotels in the best areas of Brussels and Stockholm, and then booked them using points.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Honestly, the most challenging part was the award booking with Brussels Airlines. Because Etihad is notorious for not having accurate, up-to-date award information online.
I found several blog posts explaining booking Business Class award seats was theoretically possible. But I couldn’t find anything written by someone who had actually done it.
So I had to transfer the points in October without 100% confidence that I could pull off the award booking. I might have ended up with Etihad miles I didn’t really need.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
My wife and I always sniff out a cool coffeeshop or cafe where we can enjoy a cup of coffee, read, and tackle jetlag head on.
We typically use an app like Yelp or TripAdvisor to find a nearby restaurant with good reviews for lunch or dinner, and once we’ve made that decision, we’ll pick a few attractions – architecture, parks, or museums – to keep us moving and away from the hotel where we might be tempted to take a nap.
Mostly, we just love walking around and getting lost on purpose. We’ll ask friends we make along the way for more recommendations. Locals always know about the special places and experiences that are off the beaten path.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
When it comes to travel hacking, I can be a wee bit obsessive.
I mean, I was logging into the Etihad website several times a day to see if the transfers had posted yet. So with travel hacking and all sorts of decisions you make for trips, I’m learning that the perfect trip can’t be the goal.
If it is, you constantly second-guess your choices. No, the goal of the trip needs to be the thrill of the chase followed by an openness to what comes, a commitment to enjoying the journey as much as the destination (as cheesy as that sounds).
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’ve started using a helpful new app called Pointimize.com. It can show you quickly about how many miles you will need for certain redemptions. Let’s say you’re flying from Los Angeles to Sydney. You can enter all the details, and see what your options are in terms of airlines and costs.
Another tip that comes to mind is being open to flying to an out-of-the-way city. We didn’t have to go to Brussels, but when you’re doing a trans-continental flight, adding an extra leg or two is worth it if it enhances the experience as a whole.
Ryanair, EasyJet, and some of the other budget European airlines make it cheap and easy to hop from city to city.
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!