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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!
Jeanne 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 Jeanne for sharing her story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
Jeanne Burch. I’ve been using travel awards for about 5 years, after several business trips to Las Vegas on Southwest gave me enough miles to fly to Orlando for a vacation.
What was the goal of your trip?
Originally, I was just going to the World Figure Skating championship in Helsinki, Finland. However, after investigating several airlines, I discovered that Icelandair featured an “Icelandair Stopover.” This allows the traveler to schedule a stay in Iceland for no extra airfare.
Iceland was on my bucket list of places to go, so I extended my trip by four days. It wasn’t long enough! It would be easy to spend a full week or longer in Iceland.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
I’m an impulse traveler, so the trip was put together only ~4 months ahead of time. Instead of collecting miles, I analyzed what I had available.
I had enough miles on Alaska Airlines for a round-trip ticket to Seattle, and since Icelandair flew out of San Diego, I picked that as the first leg of my trip. Booking Icelandair through the Alaska Airlines site gave me some Alaska Airlines frequent flyer miles for the trip.
My hotel of choice is Hyatt. However, there aren’t any Hyatt hotels in Iceland or Finland. I used my Chase Hyatt card to charge my airfare (for 2X Hyatt points) and used Hotels.com, where I had a couple of free nights available, for booking hotel stays.
I now have enough Hyatt points to go to Tokyo for a week, so that’s on my agenda!
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
I use my Chase Hyatt card for all expenses.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Coordinating the flights. I did it myself, leg-by-leg.
I was terrified that I got a date wrong or that I didn’t give myself enough time to get from one airline to the next in Reykjavik on the trip home. But I made all connections without incident. Landing at the airport in Reykjavik on the way back was amazing. I didn’t see the ground until we were practically on it!
On the way there, I did get a glimpse of the Northern Lights out the window of the plane, although unfortunately I didn’t see any while I was there. The conditions weren’t right. That just means I have to go back! 🙂
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
I went to Iceland during the last week of March, when snow is still everywhere but the weather is warmer (about 35 degrees Fahrenheit most days) and there’s quite a bit of sunlight.
I highly recommend the Golden Circle tour, which will take the entire day. Included on most Golden Circle tours: Gullfoss, a spectacular multi-level fall, are on every tour. There’s usually a stop at Geysir near Haukadalur, which includes hot water pools and a geyser that goes off several times an hour (it went off twice in five minutes when I was there, catching many people off guard who thought they were safe from the spray).
The Kerid Crater is from an eruption about 3,000 years ago and is part of the Western Volcanic Zone in Iceland. (Yes, there is more than one Volcanic Zone!)
Finally, there’s Thingvellir National Park, which is a World Heritage Site. The park is one of the few places you can see the edges of tectonic plates as the North American and Eurasian Plates spread apart, but that’s not why it’s a World Heritage Site. It’s a World Heritage Site because the first ever parliament was held there circa 900. My guide referred to the park as “Parliament” rather than “Thingvellir.”
The particular tour I was on included a stop at the Hellisheidavirkjun Power Plant, one of the largest geothermal plants in the world. Iceland uses geothermal power for most of its energy needs. This provides endless hot water which, coming from California where water is rationed, I very much appreciated!
It’s true the water carries a whiff of sulfur, but that’s something you get used to quickly. According to my guide, there are very few thermostats in Iceland. The way people regulate the heat is by simply opening a window. My room at Guesthouse Galtafell didn’t have a thermostat. Because the hot water is run under the floor in most buildings, however, the floor was always toasty with an interior temperature that was always comfortable.
Reykjavik itself is a small, lively harbor city that is very friendly to tourists. The opera house, Harpa, is right next to the harbor. It has fascinating architecture and spectacular views.
For a birds’ eye view of the city, pay ~$15 to go to the top of Hallgrimskirkja, a church built on top of a hill that is visible almost everywhere in Reykjavik. There are many museums in Reykjavik, although I only had time to visit a couple. Most of the museum signs are in English and Icelandic, as are most menus.
My favorite was The National Museum of Iceland, which has fascinating interactive exhibits exploring Iceland’s settlement history. It was also notable as the only place in all of Reykjavik that had decaf coffee and lattes in its cafe.
For food, there is standard (for US visitors) fare such as hot dogs and hamburgers. But there are many restaurants that specialize in vegan and vegetarian fare. Kryddlegin Hjortu was recommended by a local tourist center as a place to get a light meal. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be an Indian restaurant!
The soup bar, however, was wonderful – endless soup and bread for a price that was (relatively) inexpensive by Reykjavik standards. The mushroom soup there was the best soup I’ve ever had. EVER.
Cafe Loki is near Hallgrimskirkja and has fantastic breakfast fare, including authentic Icelandic foods (helpfully listed in the menu as “Icelandic Breakfast No. 1” etc). I had Icelandic Breakfast No. 3, which featured two homemade rye bread slices, one with mashed fish (which tasted like warm potato salad to me) and the other with egg and herring, and rye bread ice cream on the side. Yes, rye bread ice cream. It was delicious.
At the Geysir Bistro I indulged my more adventurous side during dinner, ordering horse tenderloin with wild mushrooms and turnips. It was also delicious, but it didn’t taste that different from regular ol’ cow meat. This restaurant and many others offer various meals with Minke Whale meat and local favorite sheep’s head, both of which I balked at. I did have puffin as an appetizer several times and even tried the local dare-you-to-eat-this “rotten shark” appetizer (also called “fermented shark” in some restaurants and bars).
There are only 4 or 5 small pieces to this appetizer, which consists of shark meat that has been air-dried for several months. I’m told that it’s really more for tourists than for natives, although I’ve also heard it’s a national dish. I can’t say it tastes like much of anything – it’s more fumes than anything else. It often comes with a strong shot to help it down.
I had fun in Helsinki, but I spent almost the entire time at the Championships and didn’t see nearly as much of the city as I did of Reykjavik even though I was there for over a week.
My two excursions of note were to the Fortress of Suomenlinna (another World Heritage Site) in Helsinki’s harbor on my first day and a hiking tour of Nuuksio National Park my last full day there. All my time between was spent at the Hartwall Arena. If there’s any interest in sporting events as a destination, that could be a whole other post!
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
Being from Southern California, I was concerned about taking a vacation where there was snow. I’m sure that sounds odd, but I’ve only seen snow a couple of times in my life! I was especially worried about staying warm while I was out on the Golden Circle tour.
However, I did my research and planned well. I managed to stay comfortable and enjoyed the cold weather. Although I did buy some wool gloves the second day I was there. 😉
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!