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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! This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Nicole is our newest reader success story to show folks it’s possible to travel without spending a lot of money. If you would like to be inspired by more stories like this one, take a second to subscribe to our newsletter!
What’s your name and how long have you been involved in the miles & points hobby?
Hi there! My name is Nicole and in 2014, I aggressively started opening credit cards to earn as many points and miles as I possibly can. My interest in this hobby originally started when I came across an article in the New York Times talking about what you could do with these credit card programs. I have always been a frequent traveler, and my original focus was basically just trying to find the cheapest airfare possible. But after stumbling across that article, I shifted my strategy to focus more on how miles and points could help me travel for free.
What was the goal of your trip?
The goal of this trip was to spend some quality time with my husband. We wanted to spend about 3-4 weeks in Asia, with most of the time being spent in Sri Lanka. We had our minds set on flying the transpacific route on Cathay Pacific in Business Class on an award flight if possible, and then finding cheap fares for the short haul flights in Asia. We live in California and have the Southwest Companion Pass, so we had the option of flying out of pretty much any west coast hub. We both also had free night certificates for IHG and Marriott hotels and wanted to stay in high end properties in some of the bigger cities we would be visiting.
Our trip consisted of:
- 2 nights in Hong Kong
- 3 nights in Hoi An
- 2 nights in Hanoi
- 2 weeks in Sri Lanka
- 2 weeks in Bangkok.
Although we had previously traveled throughout Asia, we had yet to visit Sri Lanka. We wanted to go somewhere that had both beaches and jungles, so this seemed like the perfect destination. And it ended up being a great decision!
I also want to say that the Business Class flight on Cathay Pacific was amazing. All of the food, including the snacks, and the overall service we experienced throughout the flight were all outstanding!
One of the things we enjoyed, for instance, was when we were treated to possibly the most fantastic hamburger ever! It was a perfectly cooked medium beef patty on a toasted brioche bun with a crispy pickle. It was so delicious, we decided to skip the entree on our flight home to make sure we had room for the burger!
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
We generally book our flights really early. For this trip, we finalized the itinerary and booked it online in September 2017, for a flight in July 2018! My husband and I each opened up new credit cards about every 3 months, so it probably took up about 6-9 months total to earn the points we needed for this trip.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
To get from Sacramento to Los Angeles, we simply used our Southwest Companion Pass, so it was essentially a free flight.
Flying from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, we redeemed 50,000 Alaska Airlines miles. This was a Business Class flight on Cathay Pacific, and we paid only about ~$130 in taxes and fees!
Then, to fly from Hong Kong to Da Nang, we redeemed 4,500 British Airways Avios to fly on Cathay Dragon, and only paid $64 in fees.
From Bangkok to Los Angeles, we used 70,000 American Airlines miles. This was another Business Class flight on Cathay Pacific, and also only had ~$130 in out-of-pocket costs for taxes and fees.
For our hotel stays, we used our free night certificates for a 2-night stay at the InterContinental Hong Kong, which was absolutely fantastic! And in Bangkok, we stayed at the brand new Bangkok Marriott Hotel, The Surawongse, which was also phenomenal. Here, we were upgraded and given access to their “M Lounge” where we had an incredible breakfast every day that included a make your own Thai iced tea station! I was in heaven!
Which cards would you recommend to open for a trip like yours?
We’d recommend a few different cards for those looking to take a similar trip. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® were the cards we used to earn miles for our long-haul flights.
For our free night certificates, the Chase IHG Rewards Club Select (no longer available) and the Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card (no longer available) both came in handy. The newer versions of these hotel cards still come with a free night certificate: IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card and Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card.
But the cards I would recommend the most are any of the Southwest credit cards:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
Earning the welcome bonus with a Southwest credit card will go a long way towards earning the Companion Pass.
For us, the Companion Pass has made international travel so much easier because it lets us fly Southwest to airports we would not generally fly out of for big international trips.
How did you search and find the award flights?
I called a few places in order to find and book my flights on Cathay Pacific. I started with British Airways and Alaska Airlines, before finally settling on a booking through American Airlines. I basically just told them the award flight I wanted to book based on the availability I found on the British Airways website.
For the other flights, I ended up using my British Airways Avios to book an award flight through the British Airways website on Cathay Dragon.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
I typically look at sites like TripAdvisor to see what places have been highly rated by others, and I focus on places that not only have a high rating, but that have also been rated by a large number of other people.
We had read a lot of great things about the InterContinental Hong Kong so we knew we wanted to stay there for sure. For the Marriott free nights I searched online to see what others had to say about how to best utilize it, and the Bangkok Marriott Hotel, The Surawongse was listed as one of the best new properties eligible for the free night certificate.
Sri Lanka was probably the most challenging place to find hotel accommodations because we found that there were virtually no hotel chains outside of Colombo, although it does help that I find it’s pretty easy to wing it when traveling in Asia when it comes to booking a place to stay or finding activities to do during the day.
For Mirissa beach, we stayed at a family owned place called Peacock Villa, which was excellent as it was about a 10 minute walk from the beach and super quiet and peaceful.
And yes, there were tons of peacocks running around! We also wanted to go on a safari at one of the many national parks and decided on Udawalawe National Park because they have a lot of elephants there! We stayed at an adorable place about 10 minutes outside of the park called Private Organic House for $37 a night. The owner had his own safari jeep and took us on a 6 hour safari for just $35. We saw so many elephants we lost track!
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
We knew we did not want to rent a car in Sri Lanka, but we weren’t terribly crazy about taking public transportation either. In our 20’s and 30’s we would have been willing to sit on a $5 bus for 8 hours, but now in our 40’s we are more interested in comfort. So we decided to try and hire private drivers to get us from point A to point B. This ended up being really easy because each place we stayed at was more than happy to help us with booking transportation to our next destination. We spent between $40-50 for each ride.
Most of our rides were maybe 40-70 miles long, but would end up taking much of the day as traffic and road conditions were often congested and some roads were in poor condition. We did decide to take the train from Ella to Kandy and this was probably the most beautiful train ride we had ever taken! We splurged and booked First Class seats for a just $15 total, and we got to enjoy comfortable seats and air conditioning for the whole ride. I highly recommend you take that train ride if you are ever in Sri Lanka!
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
The elephant safari in Udawalawe was incredible and definitely a highlight of the trip. From Kandy, we hired a driver to take us to a 5th century rock temple called Sigiriya and another called the Golden Temple of Dambulla. There were some serious crowds as it was a holiday weekend but it was actually fun since we got to talk to a lot of people as we waited to climb up to the temples.
Although we’d been to Bangkok nearly a dozen times, we were finally able to visit a place I’d wanted to see for a few years – Bangkok’s Airplane Graveyard! This is a unofficial tourist attraction so you’ll have to just find it on Google maps, and when see the 747 you’ll know you have arrived! The story behind this attraction is that it was purchased as a vacant lot by a local a few years ago, who used it to store some old airplane parts for scrap. And now whatever is left can be seen by tourists! A family lives on the property and charges 200 baht (around $7) to get in and walk around. When we visited, there were about 4 planes, including a 747.
I was able to crawl in through the cargo door of 1 of the planes, climb up a ladder, and then make my way to the upper deck.
As much as we love temples and climbing around old airplanes, we really love to eat. In Colombo, we had an awesome meal at the Ministry of Crab, which is currently on the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list. Basically, whenever we travel we try to book a few fancy dinners since we don’t really spend too much money on flights. And in Bangkok we ate at Nasammah Bottling Trust and Nahm. Both are considered upscale Thai restaurants.
In Vietnam we focused on places that had more local dishes. In Hoi An we loved eating Cao Lau, and in Hanoi we ate a lot of Bun Cha! So Vietnam is more than just Pho! This being one of our first trips to Southeast Asia, perhaps it was fitting that we literally ate our way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi!
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
I was reminded of something I have learned many times already, which is to not overbook things. I enjoy the planning process nearly as much as the trip itself, and I have a tendency to plan a bit too much. When we arrived in Mirissa Beach we had initially booked only 3 nights, but we immediately knew that we wanted to stay longer. So we extended the stay to 5 nights and had a much more relaxing time.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Every time I start to book a big trip like this a start to freak out a little. I start asking myself if I should really be doing this! A small part of me feels like I should be working more or something. But then once I book the flights and hotels, I get a great feeling of exhilaration and excitement at the thought of going on the trip!
I’m also starting to lose the imposter syndrome feeling when we board in Business Class because part of me feels like I don’t belong. And that’s mainly because I know how expensive those tickets are without the help of miles and points!
If you are hesitant to book a big trip, or have not taken a miles and points trip yet, just start somewhere, anywhere! Start with a short jaunt for a weekend. Then you’ll be hooked!
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