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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!
Max and Jen 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 Max and Jen for sharing their story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
Our names are Max and Jen. We recently celebrated our second wedding anniversary and are expecting our first daughter in September.
Max has been using points and miles to travel around the world for the past 13 years and used cards and miles to visit Europe, South America and travel across the US. Since we’ve been married, we’ve gone to Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Hawaii together either for free or at a fraction of the price.
What was the goal of your trip?
To take a babymoon to Europe before our baby girl arrives in September. We also had a friend to visit who lives in Zurich. And wanted to see my family in New York on our way back home to Los Angeles.
Our plan was to fly Los Angeles to Munich and spend a few days in Munich and the Bavarian Alps before traveling to Zurich and taking a side trip to Interlaken and Lucerne. Then spend a week in New York visiting family. And we wanted to do the entire trip in Business Class.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
This trip was paid for using a combination of points and miles from cards we accrued over the previous two to three years. We had generated a lot of points and miles over time and were waiting for the right vacation on which to use them. Taking a fancy babymoon to Europe seemed like a good opportunity.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
A couple years ago we earned 100,000 American Airlines miles from the Citi Executive AAdvantage card which were combined with miles from previous flights and cards. (Now expired.)
Jen had the Bank of America Alaska Airlines card and flies on Alaska every time she visits her family in the Pacific Northwest. Last year we both signed-up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve for 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points each. (The 100,000-point offer has expired.)
And I also received a 35,000 point sign-up bonus from the AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest card. (That offer has also expired).
Having a wedding and expecting a baby makes it really easy to reach minimum spends.
We each transferred 70,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United Airlines. We then used those points to fly Business Class on Lufthansa for less than $6 per person.
It was only 50,000 Alaska Airlines miles for my wife to fly in Business Class on American Airlines from Zurich to New York AND New York to Los Angeles. We then took advantage of Alaska’s stopover rule for her to fly in Business Class from New York to Los Angeles on the same ticket as her Europe flight but allowing us to have one week in New York at no additional cost.
I spent 57,500 American Airlines miles to fly from Zurich to New York in Business Class. And then an additional 25,000 from New York to Los Angeles. Alaska Airlines miles were definitely the best deal of the trip by far.
We spent two nights at the Aloft Munich for 10,000 Starwood points per night. We stayed at a five-star hotel – the Hotel Maximilian – in a place called Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, around an hour from the Neuschwanstein Castle. Our car rentals and train tickets were reimbursed thanks to the Chase Sapphire Reserve $300 travel credit.
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
The Chase Sapphire Reserve was definitely the best. It allowed us to fly in Business Class for free to Europe, book a hotel through the Ultimate Rewards portal and we used the travel credit for car rentals and train travel.
After that, I’d say the Bank of America Alaska Airlines card was extremely helpful because it was only 50,000 Alaska Airlines miles to fly in Business Class from Zurich to New York, have a week-long stopover for free and then New York to Los Angeles in Business Class on the same ticket. If they ever were to release a 50,000 point card with the first year free, that would be the best airline card I could imagine.
In the time that I’ve had the AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest card, we used Starwood points for two free nights in Hawaii (last year) and then two free nights in Munich on this trip. That added up to at least $900 in free hotels without paying an annual fee.
How did you search for and find the award flights?
I took a few minutes every day to search on the United Airlines award calendar and American Airlines calendar until the flights we wanted became available. Finding flights that matched our dates for two people was difficult but once we had the start and end to our trip, it was a lot easier booking hotels through Starwood and Chase.
I had to use the advanced search feature on American Airlines to find only American Airlines flights going non-stop between Zurich and New York. This helped me avoid looking at the costly British Airways flights through London. When it came to United Airlines, I had to book coach tickets and then upgrade to Business Class as the trip got closer.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
Starwood’s website was pretty easy and flexible. When we were researching the trip, we searched through every Starwood hotel in southern Germany and opted against a more ambitious trip to just stay in the center of Munich for a couple days.
The Chase Ultimate Rewards travel booking didn’t have as nice of a user experience but we searched for reviews on different hotel sites for ones that Chase offered and ended up settling on a great five-star hotel in the Bavarian Alps.
In Zurich, we stayed with a friend, which was a better experience and helped us save a small fortune considering that a chicken sandwich in Zurich costs around $25. I wish there were a points-earning credit card with Airbnb. Having a kitchen and shopping for groceries saves a ton of money when we travel.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
The hardest part was getting into Lufthansa Business Class because they only open at the last minute (about a week before our flight). We solved the problem by booking two seats in coach very far in advance.
When it was around a month before the flight, I started checking every single day to see if two seats in Business Class had opened up. The United Airlines award calendar was very helpful for this. When I found open seats, I called United Airlines to upgrade us from coach into Business Class. We had to pay a $75 change fee per person, but $150 for two people in Business Class to Europe seemed like a fair price.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
Our favorite spots in Munich were wandering around the French Quarter, which felt like a much quieter and equally-beautiful Paris.
We had an excellent and cheap lunch at a place called Spoon Up and then gorged on pretzel, beer (for Max) and sausage at the Hofbraukeller beer garden. The surfers in the English Gardens were also pretty fun to watch.
Our favorite towns in the Bavarian Alps were Mittenwald and Oberammergau. And then I thought best part of Zurich was taking the S-Bahn to the top of the Uetliberg, which has endless views of Lake Zurich and the snow-capped Alps and is filled with hiking trails that can take you back into the city.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
I learned that traveling with a pregnant wife means carrying two people’s bags over cobblestone streets. 😉
Also, every city is going to have their touristy trap version of Times Square or Hollywood/Highland that you feel obligated to see and you won’t get anything close to a local experience. Get it out of the way early and then get on with the exploring.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Go! Find a friend in another country you want to visit or pick a place you want to see and start planning a year in advance. When it’s all said and done, these are the memories that will count a lot more than the reasons you never took a dream adventure.
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!