Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.
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!
The Wenger Family 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 The Wenger Family for sharing their story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
We are the Wenger Family: Eric, Kristin, Josh (14), Alexa (12), and Nathan (10). I (Eric) have enjoyed the miles and points hobby since graduating from college more than 17 years ago.
Before cell phones were common, I remember earning oodles of frequent flyer miles by signing-up for long-distance telephone service. That goes back quite a few years!
What was the goal of your trip?
We live in Pennsylvania and wanted to take a family road trip through California. During our 16-day adventure from San Diego to San Francisco, we saw 18 of the 25 top-ranked California attractions as rated by TripAdvisor.
Our itinerary was busy and diverse – cities, beaches, National & State parks, zoos, aquariums, amusement parks, scenic drives, and more!
Our kids are a great age to enjoy and remember travel. Not to mention being old enough to schlep their own suitcase!
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
Most of the airline points we used I accumulated several years ago via credit card sign-up bonuses. As airlines continued to devalue points, I realized it would make sense to use our points for a big family trip instead of stockpiling them indefinitely!
We earned most of the hotel points within the 8 months prior to our vacation.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
Our flight miles were primarily earned from the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® and the Chase United MileagePlus® Explorer Card sign-up bonuses.
My wife and I both earned hotel points from a variety of chains by signing up for credit cards:
- Chase Hyatt Visa card which provided 2 free nights for each of us (4 total) at ANY Hyatt hotel worldwide. We used 2 free nights at the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego. A brief courteous email to the hotel manager a few weeks before our arrival resulted in an upgrade to an $800/night suite on the 29th floor with an amazing view of the San Diego Harbor. For our stay at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa we were upgraded to a full ocean view room.
- 60,000 point Chase IHG card (which was subsequently matched to 70,000 points by Chase). This card also gave us a free night stay after the credit card’s anniversary date. That allowed us to stay in a mini-suite at the Holiday Inn Express Fisherman’s Wharf, in the heart of San Francisco tourist attractions. This was the only hotel in the area that offers free breakfast, which is a meaningful perk when traveling with our always hungry growing kids!
- AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest personal and small business cards with 25,000 and 35,000 point sign-up bonuses, respectively, as well as Sheraton Club lounge access. We were able to watch Disneyland fireworks from our 9th floor balcony at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Anaheim.
- Our Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Cards provided each of us with a free night stay at a Category 1 to 5 hotel.
More recently, we were approved for 100,000 Marriott points through the Marriott Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card. We also received the American Express Platinum Card which resulted in 100,000 Membership Reward points. These points will be used for future trips! (Note: These offers are no longer available).
How did you search for and find the award flights?
Our family of 5 flew United Airlines coach on one-way award tickets from Philadelphia to San Diego. And we flew home non-stop in coach from San Francisco on American Airlines.
Finding and reserving award seats was step #1 in our vacation planning. Because we booked flights in October 2015 for our June 2016 trip, we had a number of desirable flight options available, even when booking 5 award seats!
Interestingly enough, because we reserved our airline award tickets 8 months in advance, both airlines ended up changing our flight departure times (one by 15 minutes, the other by 90 minutes).
I had read that airline schedule changes entitle the passenger to cancel their reservation with no fee if desired. I did not accept our schedule changes online until the day of our flight check-in in order to have this free built-in “trip cancellation insurance.” Fortunately, we didn’t need to change or cancel our trip!
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
It was a fun challenge to find the “perfect” hotel for each segment of our vacation. We considered the points required, location, amenities, award availability, and accommodations for 5 people (always an extra hurdle).
We had more than enough points to cover all of our hotel stays because we had significant point balances with IHG, Hyatt, and Marriott, as well as the various free night vouchers with Marriott and IHG.
Being able to cancel and change award stays without penalty allowed us to improve our hotel selections as our itinerary was refined. Our family finds that Residence Inns (Marriott) and Staybridge Suites (IHG) are favorites that give us plenty of space!
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Booking accommodations in Yosemite National Park was definitely the most challenging.
Staying outside of the park would have required commuting nearly 2 hours each day. However, the in-park lodging options are reserved nearly a year in advance during peak summer travel season.
The National Park lodging reservation system allows people to cancel or change reservations until 1 week prior to their stay. As a result, there is a lot of jockeying for reservations at the last minute.
Persistence paid off and eventually we secured 2 back-to-back nights of the same room type at Yosemite Valley Lodge at the Falls. This was the only hotel we paid for during our 16-night trip – they don’t accept points!
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
San Diego is a beautiful city with a perfect climate year-round. We found the Go San Diego passes to be a great value that included admission to 43 attractions in San Diego, Newport Beach, Anaheim, and even Los Angeles!
The 8.5 mile Panorama Trail hike in Yosemite is phenomenal.
From Yosemite Valley, take the bus 30 miles one-way up to Glacier Point. Then spend the day enjoying the sometimes challenging but mostly downhill hike back to Yosemite Valley with amazing valley and waterfall views!
We learned the hard way that Mark Twain wasn’t joking when he said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” We didn’t bother packing jeans for this vacation, and we were surprised by the sub-60 degree July temperatures, wind, and fog that never fully lifted above the Golden Gate bridge!
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
Researching and planning a busy but inexpensive 16-day travel itinerary provides countless hours of planning and strategizing, but it is a very enjoyable part of the vacation experience (as least for miles / points junkies like me)!
Being able to enjoy experiences as a family that we would never pay for out-of-pocket is icing on the cake!
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 find many people assume you have to be a major traveler to accumulate serious miles and points. In reality, the fastest and easiest way to accumulate lots of miles and points is through credit card offers (not by traveling!)
Follow various points and miles websites such as Million Mile Secrets so you can act quickly when new offers appear. The website / app AwardWallet can help you to manage and monitor your point balances and expirations.
We also found that by contacting hotel managers via a courteous e-mail a few weeks before our arrival we received some incredible free upgrades to suites, club access, etc.
We calculated our airfare and upgraded hotel accommodations would have cost over $12,000, but we paid next to nothing and created priceless family vacation memories!
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!