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!
Andy and his family 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 Andy for sharing their story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
My name is Andy Pfister and I took up the miles & points hobby almost exactly 4 years ago – back in January 2013.
My career is in corporate purchasing, so I’ve always been one to carefully manage money – and that certainly applies in my personal life as well. However I do love a good deal.
So embracing this method of travel has allowed me to enjoy the challenges faced through our constantly changing world of points, and look forward to more travel – without being concerned about the mounting costs!
What was the goal of your trip?
My wife, son, and I have enjoyed big travel with miles & points for several years now. And wanted to share this experience with our extended family.
At Christmas 2015, we gave both sides of our family a packet containing all the information on Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas. And told them that our Christmas present to them for 2016 would be to spend the holiday together there!
So my goal was to get all 9 of us there with as little out-of-pocket travel expense as possible.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
I had a decent amount of points before we decided to take this trip. But those were collected leisurely over a 2-year period…kind of were carryover, unused from our multiple trips over that time-span.
After making the decision with my wife to give this gift to the family, I didn’t have to chase down a ton of points for this trip. So it only took about 2 months to square up what I needed for both flights and hotel.
However, I did end up getting a lot more to facilitate other additional travel in the meantime, and refresh my available point balances.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
I am a huge fan of Southwest and fly with them almost exclusively for domestic flights. My Companion Pass expired at the end of 2015, so I timed it so I could double up on getting new Chase Southwest cards – both the Premier and Plus – in January 2016, to renew my Companion Pass through 2017.
This also got me a 110,000 point refresh (and then some) of my Southwest balance. Not to mention it immediately covered one of the round trip-flights to Nassau for a family trip!
I stay at Marriott hotels, so that is always my preferred hotel group. And conveniently Atlantis became part of the Marriott Autograph Collection a few years ago. Over a couple years I had built up a decent amount of Marriott points, but used the 140,000 point bonus (no longer available) from the Chase Ritz-Carlton Rewards card, as well as 80,000 points from a new Chase Marriott Business card to top off what I needed to book our trip to the Atlantis.
I also used the $300 travel credit on the Chase Ritz-Carlton card, as well as Chase Sapphire Reserve travel credits, to pay for Global Entry for the whole family. That way we all had TSA PreCheck on flights – much easier security experience, and could skip the long line in customs.
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
- Any and all of the available Chase Southwest cards: Get the Companion Pass and plenty of points to set this trip and likely several others, depending on how many flights you’re covering
- Chase Marriott cards – both personal and small business: Depending on sign up bonuses at the time, this should get you near 160,000 Marriott points
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Large sign up bonus, great points on dining and travel, and $300 (automatic!) travel credits. How can you go wrong?
- Chase Freedom: I really like this card for the NO annual fee, as well as the quarterly bonus categories. Nice way to build Chase points
How did you search for and find the award flights?
I live in Wisconsin and typically fly out of Milwaukee or Chicago. So that gives me lots of options for flights – especially on Southwest.
Having Southwest add international flights has been an awesome opportunity for me…and no different for this trip! I was able to find flights that worked for all of us with a connection in Fort Lauderdale before continuing on to Nassau. The majority of us flew out of Chicago (Midway), but my in-laws “snow-bird” in Florida, so their flights were from Tampa.
I got them booked right when the December scheduled opened up – which would have been early June, I believe.
Note: Flying into Nassau costs the normal TSA fee of $5.60. However, the flight back has an added “tourist tax” of just over $100 per flight (this is paid no matter what, but cannot be covered with Southwest points). Not a big deal, but it was a surprise to me when booking the flights. Due to the fees, ended up that I did have ~$950 out of pocket cost for the round-trip flights. But that’s not bad.
When initially booking, the point costs were high…some over 20,000 points per flight. I didn’t have quite enough Southwest points, but wanted to book right away to ensure we were all together and flights didn’t fill up, so I transferred the additional needed balance from my Chase account to my Southwest account. As most in our hobby know, these transfer 1:1, and show up in Southwest account immediately.
I can never say this enough…THE BEST DEAL WITH SOUTHWEST IS NO CHANGE FEES.
Use this as part of your strategy – check back on rates early and often! I went through at least 3 additional rounds of rebooking the exact same flights at lower point costs. Total, for all of the flights, this SAVED me over 68,000 Southwest points (vs. my original booking total)!
In my world, that’s an additional ~7 flights to Florida at a later date!
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
I called Atlantis and found December award nights would be available in mid-January.
I called their reservations specialists right on the day to make sure we could get the timing we wanted – knowing available awards nights would fill up fast, especially around the holidays.
I ended up booking December 18 to 23, which worked out great, as that would still get us home in time for Christmas so our son wouldn’t “miss Santa.”
The great thing about booking Atlantis (Marriott) is I was able to book 4 nights, and get a 5th night “free” (no more points). So great way to extend the point value!
I was able to reserve 2 deluxe suites at The Cove tower. Two rooms for 5 nights cost me 360,000 Marriott points. Pretty good value in my book.
I did have ~$700 out of pocket in resort fees. Not bad at all for 9 people.
At Atlantis, you also have to pay out of pocket for food and drink. So that was additional as well. But I got good point value back as I charged it through my Marriott card and got 5X points. But you can keep food costs very reasonable if you want to – all a matter of how fancy you like your meals.
The rooms were beautiful, the views breathtaking. Hotel employees were all very approachable and helpful. Amenities were second to none, and we especially enjoyed being at “The Cove” tower for the exclusive beach and access to exclusive pools – especially the adults-only pool.
There was also plenty for our son to do, as there are multiple kids pools, and he absolutely loved seeing the fish, sharks, turtles, etc., in the various aquariums.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
When checking-in for our first flight from Chicago, we had major issues getting my son’s boarding pass.
We arrived around 2.5 hours early. But there was a long line at the international desk (and no “fly-by” for A-List). Then, a system glitch that wouldn’t allow the agent to print his pass.
By the time we had it figured out, we were only 35 minutes from our schedule departure! Thank goodness we had TSA PreCheck, and the line was non-existent (if we didn’t have TSA Precheck, we never would have made it).
So the only solution was to swallow our pride and do the “Home Alone” sprint through the Chicago Midway airport. 🙂
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
“The Current” was one of our favorite water park rides – it’s a “fast river” that pushes you along with big waves and 4 or 5 different sets of rapids. And then conveyors you up to 2 different water-slides. Also, the “Challenger” racing slide was the other favorite – 2 slides, side by side, and timed runs to compete with each other.
For dinner, I’d suggest sticking to the Harbor Village. Lots of great casual dining there, with street performers to enjoy on the way. And not to mention have the chance to see some amazing yachts! There were a couple that had to be 200+ feet long…unbelievable. When we were there, ROCK.IT was docked – it is owned by the founder of Jimmy Johns.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
It was a great adventure to embark on together as a family.
Despite some flight trouble along the way (both directions), we made it through and enjoyed our time together. The experience was well worth the work I put in to get us there!
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Make it happen! It was an awesome trip, and unforgettable experience for our entire family!
If you’re new to the miles & points scene, there’s no better time than the present to get in. It takes some effort, but for me it has become a fun hobby and something that brings good value to our family. And has opened doors to travel opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise pursued. Good luck, and God bless!
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!