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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!
Keith 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 Keith 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 Keith and my wife’s name is Allison. We have been collecting miles and points for many years but only realized the true value of credit card rewards in 2014. We both received an offer for the AMEX Platinum Card with a 100,000 point bonus (no longer available). At first I pitched the letters in our shred pile. Why would anyone pay a $550 annual fee for a credit card?
But it was at that time that I found Million Mile Secrets and some of the other blogs. When I realized how valuable those points could be we both jumped on the offer and were approved. With the $200 travel credit that we were able to use twice in the first year and Global Entry fee reimbursement for each of us, AMEX actually paid each of us $50 to take 100,000 points!
What was the goal of your trip?
I had two goals as I was planning the trip. I wanted to do something really special to celebrate our 30th anniversary. And I also wanted to do something special for Allison. She suffers from chronic migraines and the last few years had been really tough for her. This trip was a chance to get away together and experience a trip that we could only have dreamed about in the past.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
We started planning this trip in the fall of 2014 with plans to travel in June 2016. Within 9 months, we had the miles and points we needed to book all the flights. After I booked the flights when the schedules opened, we switched our focus to hotel credit cards. It only took 3 months to receive the bonuses and book our hotels.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
In addition to the AMEX Membership Rewards points from the Platinum cards, we both signed-up for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard and US Airways cards (no longer available) when they were each offering a 50,000-mile bonus. We knew the programs were merging and this would give us a supply of American miles to use for Cathay Pacific.
I signed-up for the Citi Hilton Reserve (no longer available) and AMEX Hilton Surpass and Allison signed up for the Citi Hilton (no longer available) and AMEX Starwood personal card. I had previously opened a Chase Marriott Premier card and through work trips had built up a supply of Marriott points. The Citi Hilton Reserve card had a bonus of two weekend nights at most any Hilton.
Allison is self-employed, so she was able to sign-up for the Chase Ink Plus business card (no longer available) when it had a 70,000-point bonus. We transferred some of those points to British Airways for two of our flights.
I used a spreadsheet to create the itinerary and keep track of all of the details for the trip, including flights, hotels and activities in each city. As I was booking the flights and hotels with points I also noted the cash cost. Our flights and hotels alone would have cost over $35,000 for this trip. Using credit card points and miles, our out-of-pocket costs were less than $3,000!
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
I would recommend focusing on cards that earn transferrable points at first. I would start with the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve for the ability to transfer Ultimate Rewards points. And also get the Chase Freedom for the rotating 5X categories and the Chase Freedom Unlimited for 1.5X on everything. This combination can generate a significant number of points just with your everyday spend.
I would also recommend the AMEX Everyday Preferred card for the bonus points on groceries and gas stations.
How did you search for and find the award flights?
I searched on the British Airways website for Cathay Pacific flights from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. I was able to book one First Class and one Business Class ticket on Cathay Pacific using American Airlines miles by calling American as soon as the flights opened for our preferred dates. I used the American website to find the Austin to Los Angeles leg and was able to feed the segments to the agent.
I used the Singapore Airlines website to book our return flight from Singapore to Tokyo and on to Los Angeles in Suites Class. I had to buy tickets from Los Angeles to Austin and used Citi ThankYou points to book the flights.
Flights within Asia were so cheap that I used the Bangkok Airways website to book cash fares for flights between various cities. I also booked two flights on the British Airways website using British Airways Avios points to fly on Cathay Pacific.
Thanks to Million Mile Secrets and others, I was able to research these tactics in advance and felt very comfortable booking our flights. I had originally thought that I might use a booking service but I was able to save a great deal of money by doing this myself.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
I accumulated almost 200,000 Marriott points from business trips and used the Marriott website to book the JW Marriott in Hong Kong, and hotels in Bangkok, Singapore and Tokyo. I used the Hilton website to book the Conrad Koh Samui which was the highlight of the trip for us. Can’t imagine a better place to relax and celebrate 30 years of marriage.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Finding and booking the flights to and from Asia. Cathay Pacific typically releases one First Class award seat when the schedule opens and the others closer to the date of the flight. I was able to book the one First Class ticket and one Business Class ticket but I searched using Award Nexus and British Airways almost every day for the second First Class ticket. During the time I was waiting, American Airlines announced the significant increase in prices for award tickets.
Luckily, like a smart husband, I had put Allison’s name on the First Class ticket. I was never able to upgrade my ticket to First Class. But even though we weren’t able to share the experience, I was able to give her a very special start to our trip. And because it was for our anniversary, they let me come up briefly for a photo and gave us champagne, candy, and a card signed by the flight crew.
With Singapore Airlines, I was able to book the exact flights we wanted when the schedule opened and had both flights in Suites Class on the A380 with a stopover in Tokyo. But about six months after I booked the flights, they switched the aircraft on the Singapore to Tokyo route twice and we ended up on a plane with only Business Class. By that time it was too late to find alternate flights that had First Class. I tried to get seats released but had no luck. I was finally able to call Singapore Airlines during the trip and change our flights to a different day and time where we could still fly First Class and visit the Private Room.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
We highly recommend the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
You are able to get up close to the elephants and feed and bathe them. The park rescues elephants that have been injured or abused. After seeing how the elephants are trained to allow people to ride on them we were glad that we visited this park.
For Vietnam and Thailand, we recommend trying the local food. Some of our favorite meals were from local restaurants and street vendors. One we highly recommend is Bale Well in Hoi An. There is no menu. They just bring out the ingredients and show you how to fix the most incredible rolls. It is hard to find but well worth it.
We also hired local drivers and guides in Siem Reap and Bangkok. It took so much stress out of the trip knowing that we were going to be well taken care of and didn’t have to worry about driving in those cities. We used Tour with Tong in Bangkok and hired a private driver named Synon Korng in Siem Reap. They were both excellent and gave us so much information that we would not have learned on our own.
We loved taking a cooking class in Bangkok. We found Cooking with Poo through a blog and it was a great experience to see a wet market and learn to cook local dishes.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
I had always been nervous about traveling in foreign countries where we did not know anyone. Our only other international trip was to Spain and Morocco where we were always with friends who lived there. This trip showed me I can navigate foreign countries, including using public transportation.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
What are you waiting for? Do it! There are so many incredible resources like Million Mile Secrets that can help you plan and book amazing trips liked this. Find a trip report that you like from one of these resources and start with those details. Then customize it to your interests. Use YouTube, TripAdvisor, and FlyerTalk to research the locations. Make it your trip of a lifetime!
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!