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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!
Shannel & Elias 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 both of them for sharing their story!
What’s your name and how long have you been involved in the miles & points hobby?
Hi, we are Elias and Shannel, a married couple from San Francisco. We’ve had the great fortune of many free flights and a few hotel stays courtesy of miles and points for over six years.
What was the goal of your trip?
Our goal is to be more intentional. We’re calling this trip “100 Days Unpacked.” It’s our longest trip yet and we really wanted to hold ourselves accountable. Of course we’re doing some sightseeing, but by saying our goal is to “Go Unpacked,” we’re pushing ourselves to do more.
The theme is at the intersection of psychology and travel. It means unpacking our own craziness, long-held beliefs, ideas, habits, and routines that hold us back at home and to examine them while traveling. We want to proactively manage situations that don’t go as planned, to “get with ourselves” by sitting in uncomfortable moments and to face the very real and sometimes maddening challenges of being with a partner 24/7.
We look forward to grappling with how expectations differ from reality and talking to others from different cultures about taboo topics such as depression, relationships, and daily stresses.
As a psychotherapist, Shannel brings home from work stories and themes that help us form a picture of the mental health challenges people face. We strongly believe that travel builds resiliency.
In our routine at home, it’s easy for us to distract ourselves when uncomfortable feelings or situations come up. It’s much more difficult to escape while traveling. So our goal is to face the challenges head on and unpack them regularly in conversations between us and with others.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
We collected miles and points for this trip for about 6 months.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
We each collected 60,000 American Airlines miles from bonuses on the Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® and we earned an additional 60,000 American Airlines miles from the Barclaycard AAdvantage® Aviator™ Red World Elite Mastercard®. We earned 50,000 United Airlines miles with the Chase United MileagePlus® Explorer Card (no longer available).
For accommodations we were able to get 3 free nights in Hanoi with the bonus from the Hilton Honors Card from American Express. And the miles we earned when we both got the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® covered our shorter flights and a few Airbnbs.
Which cards would you recommend to open for a trip like yours?
Our favorites are the:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- Chase United MileagePlus® Explorer
- Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
We take advantage of being a couple. Shannel only applies for Chase cards at long intervals. And Elias cuts loose with everything else.
We focus on saving enough miles to cover flights and usually avoid hotel cards in favor of more budget accommodation that can be paid for with cash back or Barclaycard Arrival miles.
How did you search and find the award flights?
Our long flights were booked either directly through the United Airlines website, which is super easy to use, or the American Airlines site. We searched for shorter flights on Momondo, Sky Scanner, and Google Flights and then booked directly with regional airlines.
The most challenging part of booking our trip was figuring out how to navigate the American Airlines-Cathay Pacific partnership. We booked a Cathay Pacific flight to Hanoi via Hong Kong with American Airlines miles. After finding our ideal flight on the Cathay Pacific website, Elias called American Airlines to make the reservation.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
We booked our Hanoi stay on the Hilton website.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Without a doubt, the hardest part was convincing ourselves to embark on a longer trip and then executing a plan to make it happen. In the US, it’s not common to ask for a leave of absence from work for travel, so we were nervous about how our employers would respond. Thankfully, both of our bosses were incredibly supportive.
It just shows that our mind often creates excuses that hold us back from change and the unknown, even when it’s an exciting adventure like traveling. The next challenge will be to take what we’ve unpacked on this trip and bring it home with us.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
Our go-to activity, as uninteresting as it may sound, is simply to walk slowly through neighborhoods where people are going about their daily activities. Unstructured days often take shape through interactions with people we meet, both locals and travelers alike.
We always like to read a book about the country we are in or by an author from that place while we are there and write something every day, no matter the length.
Take a 2-day slow boat between Laos and the border of Thailand. It’s a great way to see the beautiful countryside and observe village life on the river. If you get off by 5:30 pm, rally other travelers and hop in a tuk tuk for a mad dash to the border before it closes at 6. It will feel like a scene from The Amazing Race.
When Elias discovered Bun Cha at a street food stall in Vietnam, he fell in love. Don’t be afraid to find a restaurant, tea shop, or bar that you like and return to it often during your stay. This is one way to ingratiate yourself in a local scene and feel like a regular.
We suggest visiting Kuang Si Waterfall near Luang Prabang, Laos. Arrive early and stay longer than the standard 3 hours that tuk tuk drivers recommend.
For a gentle introduction to meditation, sign up for a 2-day retreat with the Monk Chat office in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Buy comfortable white pants in advance. You probably wouldn’t wear the robe they sell around town, or even at home.
Never miss a sunrise or sunset in Bagan, Myanmar, and stay at least 3 or 4 days to get to know your way around. Make sure your e-bike battery is fully charged before following hundreds of cattle down a dirt path and getting stuck in the mud, like we did!
Udaipur, India, is a gem. Stay at least a week and volunteer with Kolam, a small NGO run by an inspiring Spanish couple. The organization helps children in the slums go to school and supports their families.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
As cheesy as it may sound, changing our surroundings doesn’t necessarily bring about personal growth. Travel as a change agent is a fantasy. We are learning that we have to choose to unpack our theme every day.
Traveling as a couple for an extended period of time provides a chance to see parts of yourself and of your partner that pleasantly surprise and frustrate you. It took time at the beginning of the trip to figure out our roles and how to leverage individual strengths. But once we found a rhythm, it reinforced that we work well together.
Lastly, we’re learning that something has been missing in our lives. How we think about death, spirituality, and the soul is limited by our exposure to such themes back home. India’s attitude toward personal growth more so than anywhere else we’ve been, continues to expand our very logical and concrete way of thinking. We feel more alive here and have interactions daily that grow our understanding and curiosity.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Set aside everything you know and believe, and dive into the unknown with confidence that you’ll figure it out! Make it happen or you will regret it.
That’s what we told ourselves when considering the status quo. Unpack why a trip is important for you and then come up with goals. Use Million Mile Secrets and other resources to help form a credit card strategy to bring down the cost of the trip.
If you’re interested, follow our journey at @gounpacked on Instagram.
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!