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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!
Rob 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 Rob for sharing his story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
My name is Rob Markoff. My wife, Barbara, and I have been collecting points since 1984, starting with American Airlines.
I’m almost at 4 million lifetime miles and I’m lifetime Platinum. I am also Platinum with Starwood and Marriott and Diamond with Hilton. Barbara is at 2 million miles and is lifetime Gold.
This Couple Lived In Europe For 5 Months And Visited 16 Countries
I’ve participated in most of the “big schemes,” including purchasing almost $200,000 in gold quarters from the US Mint (which paid for my wife and I to take our daughter and her best friend to Rome, Florence, Venice and Barcelona, as a high school graduation present). And also purchasing more than $50,000 in Vanilla Reload cards! We go to Europe at least once a year, all on miles and points.
What was the goal of your trip?
My wife is a big fan of the TV show “House Hunters International.” One night while watching the show she turned to me and said, “Let’s do this.” Meaning she wanted to experience living like a local in a foreign country. We are both experienced travelers but had never spent more than 3 weeks together on a trip abroad. This trip was 5 months!
We love Portugal and Croatia, and planned to stay in each country for at least a month. We ended up spending 5 weeks in each, living in apartments like locals.
In total, we visited 16 countries over the 5 months we were away.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
We’ve been collecting points and miles for over 30 years. We “earn ‘em and burn ‘em,” so we don’t sit on our points.
We are perpetually collecting points and miles and had reserves of a million+ points in a variety of programs. We are still collecting to “refill the coffers” for our next trip. I’m earning miles passively while I’m typing this. For example, we earn 10,000 American Airlines miles monthly from BankDirect.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
For this trip we used:
- American Airlines miles
- Chase Ultimate Rewards points
- Citi Thank You points
- Hilton points
- Starwood points
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
We also use the Chase Freedom card in the appropriate quarterly bonus categories. We earned:
- Platinum elite status with Marriott using the Chase Ritz-Carlton card
- Gold with Starwood using the AMEX Starwood card
- Diamond with Hilton using the Citi Hilton Reserve
How did you search for and find the award flights?
To book our flight to Europe, we used the American Airlines site. For our trains, we used Rail Europe. For our flights within Europe, we used the Chase travel portal so we could pay for those flights with Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
For the “brand name” hotels, we used their specific sites (and by booking directly got to use our status benefits). We stayed at some WONDERFUL properties from all 3 brands.
We had well over a month of stays in brand hotels completely covered by points. A HUGE bonus was that because of our status, we received breakfast for 2 daily (worth at least 60 euro) and where available, lounge access. In Edinburgh, the food selection in the evening was so good that we didn’t eat dinner out for 2 nights!
For local long-term accommodations, we used Airbnb and HomeAway. For “non-brand” hotels, we had excellent results using the Chase Travel portal, especially in Croatia. We stayed at some incredible properties (that weren’t Hilton, Starwood, or Marriott) and used Chase Ultimate Rewards points to pay.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
The hardest part was limiting our Schengen area stays to 90 days within a 180-day window.
We carefully monitored which countries we were in and how much time we had left. We spaced out our 90 days with trips to non-Schengen countries, like the UK (England, Ireland, and Scotland), Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia. We left a 4-day cushion on the end in the event that one of us got sick or we missed a flight, etc. It is REALLY important not to exceed those 90 days.
We only planned the first part of the trip – as far as getting to our apartment in Lisbon. During the very hot days, we would stay inside and plan the next part of the journey and went out around 4:00 pm when it got cooler. The internet is your friend! 🙂
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
Highlights included a 15-night Viking Riverboat cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest (we paid for half with Chase Ultimate Rewards and booked it through the Chase travel portal).
Visiting Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands, going to the Baths in Budapest (a must!), spending time in the English Garden in Munich, seeing the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin, sailing up the Doro River in Portugal, seeing the Cliffs of Mohr in Ireland, living in apartments in the walled cities of Dubrovnik and Kotor and being there in the morning and evening with NO tourists.
Lisbon is a wonderful city with incredible history. LOTS to see and do and it is SO affordable.
ANYTHING in Croatia (one of the most beautiful, friendly, and wonderful places we have been. This was our 3rd trip). Rovinj is very special. We lived there for a month. Istria (northern Croatia) has wonderful food and wine as well as more Blue Flag (meaning ultra clean) beaches than anywhere. It used to be part of the Venetian Empire. Plitvice Lakes is incredible.
The Azores (Portugal) are worth a trip by themselves and are only 4 and a half hours by plane from Boston.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
Trust was a big part. Seriously.
Getting a haircut in a foreign country where the person cutting your hair doesn’t speak the same language is an adventure. What is the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut? Two weeks. 🙂
That patience is a virtue. Not everything will go as planned and having contingency plans helps.
That talking with people and meeting other travelers can be as meaningful of an experience as the venue. We hardly met any Americans in the places we went, but we met some wonderful people from all over the world. We had planned on living in a completely different city (Pula) in Croatia but met two servers on our river cruise from Croatia that encouraged us to stay elsewhere (Rovinj). It was the best tip of the entire trip.
That food plays a huge role in understanding culture: cheese and wine are common food “threads” but are completely different in all countries!
That I married the right person! Travel can be stressful – we learned that one doesn’t HAVE to do everything together – that it is OK to go to a museum by oneself while the other goes shopping.
Did I mention that we traveled for 5 months with nothing more than a carry-on sized bag each? Our motto is, “If you can’t carry it yourself, you can’t bring it.”
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
My wife and I are in our 60s. We are still very fit and active but I wish we had done this years ago. We were fortunate that we had an opportunity to take a “long sabbatical” from work and could get away for 5 months.
The sooner and younger you are when you start, the more places you will get to go.
We listed our house with Airbnb while we were away. For each night our house was rented in the US, we could afford 10 nights in Portugal and many other countries as well! The income we made covered our mortgage and most of our domestic expenses and also provided some extra cash to pay for our trip.
When we started traveling on miles and points, we limited ourselves to “brand name” hotels because that’s where we had points and it was the easiest place to redeem. As you get more experienced (both with travel and using the various programs) you will find that you can go almost anywhere and have points pay for the trip. We’re off again in May to the “heel” of Italy and there are few brand name hotels – yet we are using points for the majority of our stays.
Some “consumer advocates” say that frequent flyer and point programs are a “ripoff.” I hope they continue to discourage others because it means more opportunity for those of us that know otherwise!
Many say they can’t “afford” to travel. By using credit cards to pay for our everyday expenses (and making small lifestyle changes to maximize earnings potential) we have traveled the world at little to no direct out of pocket costs. At one time I had over 25 active credit card accounts. The opening bonuses jump-started us to higher point balances. Now I’ve limited the cards I have to about 5.
We buy gift cards for many “daily needs” at office supply stores using cards that yield 5X points. Using the AMEX Starwood card gives 25% more American Airlines miles than identical purchases using the Citi American Airlines card. Buying through portals can increase your earnings too.
The key is to use the right card for a purchase to earn the maximum number of miles per transaction.
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!