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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!
Julie 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 Julie for sharing her story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
Julie. My husband Jack and I have been involved in points and miles for over 25 years, always loyal to American Airlines and Starwood and always charging every last expense. We have never paid a single penny of interest.
Through the years, we would typically use points or miles for hotel or airfare, but never both. After we committed to taking our family of 4 to Europe for 2 weeks, we quickly realized we would have to branch out to other brands to make this trip happen for us.
What was the goal of your trip?
The goal of the trip was to expose our 2 teenage daughters to a mix of classic European highlights (Buckingham Palace, Neuschwanstein Castle, Prague’s Charles Bridge), spectacular natural wonders (the Rhine River Valley, the Swiss Alps), sobering historical sites (Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, Berlin Wall), grand cities (Salzburg, Vienna, Prague), and small towns (Bacharach in Germany, Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland, Lazy pod Makytou in Slovakia, Usti in the Czech Republic).
Sure, there will be the opportunity for other big city European adventures, like Paris. But in this era of year-round travel sports teams, we carved out the time to take the trip a 2-week trip when it would be memorable for our younger daughter (8th grade) and at the same time cool enough for our oldest daughter (junior in high school) – and before she had to start worrying about ACT tests and college applications.
At first, we thought it would be no problem to just fly American Airlines and stay in Starwood hotels. But as we started planning, we realized that a family of 4 usually needs 2 rooms in Europe (unlike US where one room with 2 queens is sufficient for us.) It immediately became unachievable with the cards in our wallets and the miles and points in our accounts.
So operation points and miles quickly began.
The itinerary ended up including: 1 day in England (London), 3 days in Germany (Black Forest, Rhine River, Disney Castles), 2 days in Switzerland (Lauderbrunnen, Swiss Alps), 3 days in Austria (Vienna and Salzburg), 2 days in Slovakia and Czech Republic (two separate and awesome family visits and Prague), and back through (1 day) Germany (Berlin).
It was truly an unbelievable trip in every way! The sticker value of our trip was upwards of $20,000 and we ended up being out of pocket about $5,000. $1,000 of the cost was actually airfare taxes and fuel surcharges on our “free” tickets which we paid a year in advance, and the remaining out of pocket expenses were 3 hotel nights, rental car, gas, food, and admissions tickets. Not bad for a 2-week adventure that took us to 6 countries!
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
It took about 18 months and we ended up “over-pointing” which was even better because then I became obsessed with never again paying for hotels or airfare again.
Since this trip, we have stayed an additional 50 hotel nights for free and have yet to pay for an airfare. The European trip entailed 14 overnight stays. Nine were on points. Two nights with family. Three paid for with cash (Black Forest and Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland).
Which points did you save to take your trip?
We used American Airlines miles for our flights. Early on, we learned of the Starwood transfer to American with the 20% bonus, and we ended up transferring 60,000 Starwood points to American Airlines miles in 6 months earning a bonus of 20,000 miles.
We used a total of 200,000 miles for 4 of us to travel on miles to London and then to Dusseldorf. Then home from Berlin.
We ended up adding cities, rerouting and adjusting because I was determined to fly all on miles. We originally wanted to include Paris but we couldn’t make it work within the miles budget. I kept saying, the girls can go to Paris someday on their own. But it’s a safe bet they might not travel across Europe to 6 countries in a car ever again.
We carefully planned our itinerary based on which hotel chains we could stay at and where. We would then both open the cards (and add the other as an authorized user – I later learned this was a mistake because being an authorized user counts as having a credit card, but I didn’t know I would care at the time), use the cards, earn the sign-up bonus, and book the rooms. Then, we would focus on the next one.
We stayed at the Park Hyatt Vienna, 2 rooms, 2 nights, on our Hyatt free nights rather than spending $2,500 out of pocket. The place was absolutely incredible and is a great use of Hyatt free nights.
We stayed outside of Salzburg at the Sheraton hof bei Salzburg, 2 rooms, 2 nights, all on points. Could have stayed in downtown Salzburg, but the point cost was double. The hotel we stayed at was wonderful and about 10 miles outside of Salzburg.
How did you search for and find the award flights?
Searching for flights was straightforward on AA.com. One drawback with AA is they partner with British Airways, which had outrageous fuel surcharges and really devalued the miles on the London to Dusseldorf leg.
We ended up spending one day in London on a 9-hour layover because it worked best to then get us to Dusseldorf on miles, so London was a one day-bonus.
Sure, the one day was a little crazy and very jet-lagged, but the girls go to see a taste of London before we took an evening flight to Dusseldorf. We stayed at the airport Sheraton (on points) our first night in Dusseldorf, Germany, so we didn’t need to rent the car until the next day. We changed the entire trip to make it work using points.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
We studied each city, where we wanted to stay or in some cases, thought we wanted to stay. And then figured out which cards to open and how to make it work.
We discovered the Chase Sapphire Preferred in this process. We both opened the Chase Marriott, Chase Hyatt, and Chase Sapphire Preferred cards in order to make this all happen. We already had the AMEX Starwood card.
We have since both opened Hilton cards and the Chase IHG card, but used neither of those for Europe. For some locations like Lauterbrunnen, the experience and environment outweighed the fact that there wasn’t a property that could be paid for with points close by and so we had to use cash.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
The most challenging part was to maintain discipline for which card needed to be used for a certain total amount to earn the point bonus before moving on to the next one.
More than anything, this takes organization and communication.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
The Swiss Alps was our favorite place of all. We spent a day mountain biking in the valley in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.
On the second day, we went to the top of Alps, where we hiked, skied, and zip lined. We ended the day swimming in Interlachen in the Thunersee. It was just the most incredible part of the trip. Our trip was the perfect mix of big city visits with country adventures.
My husband’s favorite place was Augerstenin Brewery in Salzburg. The Disney castles were also cool to see. We did a mix of commercial places like those and local haunts like the brewery in Salzburg.
The girls loved the Prater in Vienna. It’s a local amusement park which was totally over-priced but memorable after a long day touring the Summer Palace of the Hapsburg’s. Spending 2 days and nights with family in Slovakia and Czech Republic was an unforgettable experience.
Our cousin drove back with us to Prague from her dad’s home in Slovakia and then we met her husband. They showed us around Prague, which we loved!
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
How adventurous and determined my husband is and how much fun it is to experience different cultures and countries. How flexible and enjoyable the girls are. They had a great time together. It was an unforgettable family adventure.
We all decided we would do it again in a few years, when our youngest is going to be a junior in high school. We have already begun plotting and collecting points so we can make it happen again! 🙂
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Start slow and build on it. It’s crazy to pay for rooms and airfare if you don’t have to.
It’s a really fun hobby for me and I totally enjoy the chase and conquest of the adventure. And, even more than that, I love seeing the world (or anywhere!) at a fraction of the cost! You can plan an incredible 2-week European adventure for the cost of what most families pay for a weekend at Disney World.
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!