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.
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!
Lori 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 her for sharing her story!
What’s your name and how long have you been involved in the miles & points hobby?
Hello, my name is Lori Lynn Llarena. I have been involved in this hobby for ~7 years. During that time, I’ve saved more than $130,000 on travel! And I did it all on an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher’s salary.
I consider myself a full-time educator and part-time traveler. In 2011, I was about to return to America. I was living and working in South Korea and decided I needed an affordable option to continue traveling. Million Mile Secrets got me started in the miles & points hobby!
What was the goal of your trip?
I wanted to take my dad to Asia because my mom had already visited me several times while I was living there. The objective was to get there for as little out-of-pocket money as possible.
I wanted to visit Hong Kong, Hanoi, Bangkok, and Phuket. So I needed to collect enough miles and points for 2 weeks of hotel stays and 2 round-trip Business Class tickets.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
I knew it would take some time to earn the 500,000+ miles and points needed for the trip. Keep in mind, this was before the American Airlines’ award chart devaluation took place.
Luckily, I was able to pay my rent (for a nominal fee) with a credit card. And my dad was able to sign up for a couple of cards. So we earned most of the miles & points we needed in less than 6 months!
I always recommend that people who wish to travel with miles and points take at least a year to research, plan, and get the right mix of credit cards.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
For this trip, I used:
- British Airways Avios points (In my opinion, one of the most overlooked programs!)
- AMEX Membership Rewards points (I transferred these to Asia Miles with no fee!)
- American Airlines miles
- IHG free night certificates
- Marriott points
- Hilton points
- Hyatt points
- Club Carlson points
Which cards would you recommend opening for a trip like yours?
My top 5 recommendations are:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card – I love the flexibility of Chase Ultimate Rewards points
- Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card – The $300 travel credit really comes in handy
- IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card – The annual free night certificate can be used at ANY location
- Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card – This card comes with a Category 1 to 5 free night certificate upon account renewal
- Barclaycard AAdvantage® Aviator™ Red World Elite Mastercard® – The current 60,000 American Airlines mile bonus after a single purchase and payment of the annual fee within the first 90 days of account opening is outstanding
How did you search and find the award flights?
I used the British Airways site to book the flights between Hong Kong, Hanoi, and Bangkok. Next, I called American Airlines to book 1 round-trip Business Class ticket for my dad and a one-way Business Class ticket for me.
I didn’t have enough American Airlines miles in my account to book the rest of my flight. So I transferred AMEX Membership Rewards points to Asia Miles and used them to book a partner award on American Airlines.
I paid out of pocket for the round-trip flights between Bangkok and Phuket, because the airfare was relatively cheap – less than $90 for 2 people. Booking the entire trip took ~2 hours. But I definitely didn’t mind, because I saved over $20,000 on the flights alone!
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
I booked all our hotels online. We each had an IHG free night certificate from the Chase IHG card. We redeemed those for 2 nights at The Intercontinental Hong Kong. The hotel, along with the views, are as spectacular as the reviews say they are!
I booked 4 nights at the JW Marriott Hanoi. I will never forget this hotel. It’s gorgeous and the staff are extremely courteous. I’ve never seen an executive lounge quite like this one. It had everything you can imagine, including macaroons, which are my absolute favorite. Plus, President Obama stayed there! If it’s good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me!
My Marriott Gold status (free with the Chase Ritz-Carlton card the first year) got me an upgraded room. It was massive, at least 1,000 square feet, and came with executive lounge access. This hotel also had a free shuttle or free taxi rides to a few of the main attractions. You had to pay to return to the property, which was ~$6 for a 20-minute taxi ride.
In Bangkok, I used Club Carlson points to stay at the Park Plaza Bangkok Soi 18 for 3 nights. In retrospect, I would have preferred to stay in central Bangkok to explore the fascinating sights.
I booked one award night at the Hyatt Regency Phuket, where I asked for and received a complimentary upgrade along with club access, all without elite status!
The final 3 nights in Phuket I redeemed Hilton points to stay at the Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort, which is massive. Because of my Hilton status (and my asking), I was upgraded and received lounge access!
Between the hotels and the airfare, I saved $30,000+ and spent only ~$500 to get these magnificent 2 weeks of travel!
What was the most challenging part of planning your trip? How did you solve it?
I planned far in advance, so there were few hiccups. Waiting for the miles and points to post was slightly challenging. At any moment, the airlines and hotels could have devalued their programs. But fortunately, that didn’t happen!
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
In Hong Kong, Victoria Peak is a must see. However, instead of paying to go all the way to the top, exit at the “ground floor,” make a right, and wander a bit down the road. You’ll see a clearing with unobstructed views of Hong Kong. Go at night when it’s dark and there are no other people around to capture the best pictures.
Take the hour-long ferry ride to Macau. Take time to sample the excellent food offerings. I had afternoon tea at the St. Regis Macao, which was wonderful.
Hanoi was my favorite city, because it’s not 100% touristy yet! The Hanoi Hilton (not the hotel), Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and the Hanoi Opera House were fascinating and moving. Hanoi does not have a metro system, so I’d recommend taking a taxi everywhere because the buses are usually packed.
Bangkok does a lovely job of seamlessly blending the old with the new. The Grand Palace is aptly named. I spent an entire day there and felt like I could have easily gone the following day. But being in the scorching heat again wasn’t a pleasant thought.
Take a tuk-tuk in Bangkok. It’s very affordable and can get you to your destination quickly. Yes, Bangkok has excellent and cheap public transportation, but I found the tuk-tuks to be a unique experience.
The food in Thailand is truly spectacular! While there, I had green curry short ribs that blew me away. I have yet to find a comparable meal in the New York metro area.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
This trip reinforced the mantra my parents instilled in me as a child. Always (politely) ask for an upgrade, and be prepared for them to say no. I’ve had at least an 85% success rate by simply asking nicely!
After this marvelous trip, I felt compelled to start a podcast (Master of Points and Miles). This has been the greatest outlet for sharing my passion with my family, friends, and fellow teachers who felt reading blogs took too much time. My podcast shares step-by-step guides on how to book travel with miles and points in less than 5 minutes!
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
When possible, get others involved. Start off with just 1 credit card. If it is manageable, then try another. Don’t go overboard because accruing interest negates the benefits of miles & points.
Miles and points are not just for the 1%! I’m living proof you can, on a relatively modest salary, use your good credit to unlock $1,000s in savings.
And it’s never too late to get involved. There are plenty of excellent offers out there, so be sure to take the time to look into one or more deals. And if you feel overwhelmed, ask for help!
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!