We devote thousands of hours of research to help you get Big Travel with Small Money. You support us by signing-up for credit cards through partner links which earn us a commission. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
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!
Natalie and Josh are our newest reader success story to show folks it’s possible to travel without spending a lot of money.
A big thank you to Natalie and Josh 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 Natalie and Josh Mayer and we have been involved in the miles and points hobby for the past 4 years.
In college, we both traveled and spent time in Europe and Latin America. After graduate school, Josh worked in Logistics for a Fortune 500 retailer and was regularly traveling for work (and earning miles & points!).
While planning and budgeting for our wedding, we realized the incredible benefits of travel rewards through credit card sign-up bonuses. After saving thousands on our wedding, we started planning the next pillar in our life: to take a one-year trip around the world.
We used Million Mile Secrets for tips and advice to help us afford our tour around the world. Through these experiences we quickly discovered the benefits and value of hotel, airline, and car rental rewards programs.
What was the goal of your trip?
After our wedding we applied for several travel rewards credit cards through the advice of Million Mile Secrets.
Once we collected enough rewards points and hit our savings budget, we decided to take a one-year pause from our professional careers to explore the world on a sensible budget.
Our goal continues to be to travel across the world consciously and with purpose while soaking up the local culture to admire the beauty within the world. Currently we are in month 6 of 12 of our trip and have already visited 3 continents, 17 countries, and have traveled over 65,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) since leaving the USA!
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
The majority of our points were earned in the 12 months prior to our trip.
It took that long to stagger the card applications and achieve the minimum spend requirements needed to earn the sign-up bonus offers. At the beginning of our trip we had 10 different credit cards that all featured major sign-up bonuses.
As mentioned earlier, Josh also earned some rewards points over the past few years through occasional travel for work.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
As of 6 months ago we had the following rewards for our trip:
- 70,000 Starwood points, entirely earned through the 35,000 point sign-up bonus from the AMEX Starwood card (expired)
- 68,000 IHG points with Chase IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card sign-up bonus, points earned with reward redemptions and credit card spending
- 350,000 Hilton points. Josh had 100,000 points from work travel and we each earned credit card sign-up rewards points
- Over 165,000 American Airlines miles through credit card sign-up bonuses including Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
- 4 free nights at ANY Hyatt hotel through 2 Chase Hyatt credit cards and 18,000 Hyatt points through credit card spending
- 120,000 Marriott points, mostly from the Chase Marriott Rewards credit card sign-up bonus
- $1,000 in travel expense redemption accumulated from purchases for our trip and pre-trip spend on the Capital One Venture card
- 70,000 ThankYou points earned from the Citi ThankYou Premier (expired)
How did you search for and find the award flights?
Most of our award flights were booked via American Airlines using Oneworld partners, so we often searched the AA.com site directly.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
Typically direct through the hotel’s websites.
We would check some of the common search engines (e.g. SkyScanner, Kayak), but if we were able to leverage points and other offers (like our favorite offer: stay 4 nights, get the 5th night free with SPG, Hilton, and Marriott) we would book direct with the hotel site.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Learning when to leverage rewards points in order to maximize savings potential (versus spending to stay in hostels or Airbnb).
With so many points accumulated it would have been easy to “overspend” points early in our trip. For example, 70,000 Starwood points may allow 4 to 6 free hotel nights in the US, but provided us with 17 free nights while in Asia.
We spent many hours creating sample itineraries and learning about reward point values so we would maximize our savings potential. Natalie would record the nightly award redemption amounts within the hotel programs in different cities and countries. Then we would use the hotel chain with the lowest reward night rates – in addition to staying for 5 nights to get the 5th night for free with some chains.
For example, we used Starwood points in Southeast Asia and India because of their low points per night awards at high-end brands like Le Meridien. And we used Hilton and Marriott in Asia due to their low redemption rates in China and Malaysia.
For cities with a higher average hotel price per night, we would leverage Hyatt points and stay in the Park Hyatt or Grand Hyatt with free nights to maximize our per night savings. We have already saved over $7,000 because of travel reward programs and have plans to double the total savings amount by the time we finish our trip!
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
Below are the highlights (so far!) from our trip:
- Trekking the volcanoes (Mount Agung and Mount Batur) of Bali for absolutely surreal sunrises
- Hiking the Great Wall of China
- Exploring Milford Sound in New Zealand
- Experiencing the sights and smells of the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan
- Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, Australia
- Relaxing with an overnight cruise in Halong Bay, Vietnam
- Visiting the magnificent Angkor Wat kingdom in Siem Reap, Cambodia
- Renting motorbikes around the Greek Isles of Paros and Naxos
- Visiting Tuscany, Italy, during grape harvest in the autumn
- Attending a “100 Guitars Concert” at the Odeon of Herones Atticus (one of the oldest theaters in the world) in the Acropolis of Athens, Greece
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
Traveling has made us rethink what a proper work-life balance is truly like. Leaving our professional careers for one year was an important yet scary step to be able to travel independently for an extended period of time.
As we interact with different cultures and learn the societal norms of others, we learn more about ourselves and what elements of a professional career will be important for us to have when we return to the United States. Having extended time to see the world allows us to slowly absorb the local culture, rather than rushing from one tourist attraction to the next within a strict timeline.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Traveling the world is more affordable than most would think. The key is to have a plan, budget, and learn about travel tips on sites such as Million Mile Secrets.
The most difficult part was quitting our jobs, leaving everything and everyone behind for a short period in order to start the journey of a lifetime. Both of us have had life-changing experiences already on the trip, whether it was staring out over the tree-lined mountains that surround the Great Wall of China or visiting the multifamily home of locals in Jaipur, India, in which the first floor housed 15 cows.
One cannot recreate the feelings and emotions encountered while traveling the world. If you are new to the miles & points hobby you have the most to gain!
Our advice would be to start simple and apply for a credit card with a flexible rewards program (such as Capital One Venture or Citi ThankYou points) so you can use your rewards points for almost any type travel expense (and independent of brand).
Once you learn to travel for free, you’ll be hooked! We run a travel blog for our adventures (oneyearadventure.com) and would love to answer any questions you have about planning your own adventure!
Which Cards to Get if You’re Just Starting Out?!
If you’re just starting out, here are our favorite travel credit cards to get. Please read this post on applying for credit cards first!
2. Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express – 25,000 points after spending $5,000 within the 1st 3 months. Here’s more on using Starwood hotel points.
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!