Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. 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!
Satish 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 Satish 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 Satish. And I’ve been at this “hobby” since 2012.
I was a business traveler before 2012, collecting miles. And never actually used them for anything meaningful until 2012, when I quit my job and started my own venture. Accumulating miles and points became both a hobby and a useful tool for both personal and professional travel from then on.
What was the goal of your trip?
When I traveled for work (mostly overseas), my wife temporarily became a single parent managing two small (6 and 9) kids and a full-time job. Many times, I was gone for several weeks.
She was turning 40 soon and I wanted to do something special for her 40th birthday.
I looked into different birthday gift ideas and finally settled on travel. A surprise trip, where she got to travel across the globe this time, while I stayed home with the kids. I researched 6 cities that she would enjoy in 6 continents. I tried to add the 7th continent in her itinerary but the cost to Antarctica killed my budget.
I made up a story for her so she wouldn’t get wind of my elaborate planning. I told her I needed her to travel and help with some paperwork. She wasn’t interested but obliged anyway. She asked me why I couldn’t travel instead of her. I told her that my startup needed me to be in town.
I took her to the airport and checked her in. Just before she was ready to go through security, I gave her 6 packets and asked her to open the first one. And forbid her to open the other 5 before the date written on each of the envelopes.
She, of course, was ecstatic when she found out that she was going on a mystery trip flying in Business or First Class around the globe. I also got our kids involved by working with them to create riddles, which she would need to solve to find out her next destination.
Each envelope contained details of her next destination, her flights, hotel information, airport pickup and drop-off information and any tours I had organized for her at that destination. Her destinations were:
- Cuzco, Peru
- Milan, Italy
- Livingstone, Zambia
- Perth, Australia
- Bangkok, Thailand
- Osaka, Japan
- San Francisco
There were many reasons for picking these places apart from being in different continents. The weather was one. No extreme weather, and a light jacket (in May) would be sufficient.
Also, I tried to keep the time difference (hence jet lag) to the minimum. For example, Milan and Zambia were almost in the same time zones.
Below is one of the riddles my kids and I sent to my wife for her to solve. When we sent her this below text, she was already in Milan and her next destination was Zambia (Victoria Falls), which she didn’t know.
“Where the Zambezi River crawls
And two nations meet
You’ll see the world’s largest waterfalls
With plenty of tropical foods to eat.
Where the nights are warm and starry
After a long day in a safari
I know it’s a long flight from Italia
But I am also sure, you’ll love…”
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
From the time I got the idea to execution, it took me about 9 months.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
How did you search for and find the award flights?
I was able to access many Star Alliance partner flights. At that time, United Airlines also allowed me to change or cancel flights without any fees because I was a United Airlines 1K elite status member. Double open jaw with stopover was another feature I efficiently used.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
A friend helped me get Marriott “friends and family” prices at certain Marriott locations.
For other locations, I used Lonely Planet’s recommendations. I should mention that at my wife’s Bangkok stopover, I secretly made arrangements for my mother-in-law to fly to Bangkok too. I arranged for her flight, airport pickup, visa and food. She arrived just a few hours before my wife and was waiting for my wife in her Marriott room.
I explained over the phone to the hotel manager about my plan. Many members of the Bangkok Marriott staff played along – even hiding from my wife the fact that my mother-in-law was waiting for her in her room. They were super awesome.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
It was hard to plan a trip even with adequate miles and enough time ahead without my wife knowing about it. I spent countless hours researching about travel restrictions, visa requirements, vaccination requirements, hotel ratings, sleep timings based on time zone changes, airline connection times, traffic times to airports, talking to hotel managers, wiring money for tours and many hours with United Airlines customer service.
My one United Airlines trick was to call around 10:15 pm Pacific Time. This was the time my wife and kids were sleeping.
Also, this is the time when the 1K elite customer service line transferred over to the regular 24/7 line (around 10:00 pm). When the representative saw that a 1K customer had called the regular customer service line, they were extra nice and accommodated many strange requests (I had a few from seat selection to routing options).
The other challenge was vaccination requirements. Certain countries in Africa and South America require yellow fever vaccination certificates even for transit. I had to plan the flight routing so my wife could enter and leave without this requirement affecting her while she entered and exited South America and Zambia.
But my biggest challenge was keeping this plan a secret from wife and making her take time off from work while making up a convincing fake story for her travel. 🙂
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
I don’t have to say anything more about Macchu Picchu. Amazing place. However, due to high demand, sometimes the officials restrict access to the site to visitors only with prepaid tickets. So I had to buy the ticket well in advance instead of buying it at Cuzco. This was a challenge when planning a trip months in advance.
The home of Victoria Falls, world’s largest waterfall (in terms of volume of water). It is small town but there are tons of other activities. It is also to the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe. I had arranged for my wife to take a day safari (river and jungle) trip from Livingstone to Chobe National park in Botswana. She also took a whitewater rafting trip on the Chobe.
Livingstone is a friendly town. Most locals go out of the way to make sure you enjoy their town, food and culture. You can find inexpensive accommodation from hostels to super luxurious villas inside the jungle. During my (many years earlier) trip, I saw a lioness hunt a warthog 10 feet from my jeep.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
That I am awesome! 🙂
And I am also patient. Losing my cool over the phone while planning with customer service representatives would have exposed my plan to my wife.
I also had to provide “customer support” to my wife while she was traveling. Like the time she left her phone in an Uber in Europe and I called the driver from the US and arranged for her to pick it up. Or the time she didn’t know where her First Class lounge was. Or the time she didn’t know which terminal and gate she needed to go to at LAX and the airport/airline staff were unhelpful (Google to the rescue!).
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Do it. It seems complex, complicated – but it is not. Also, the rewards are huge and awesome. Recently using my miles, my 9-year-old daughter and I did a father-daughter trip to Ecuador and Galapagos Islands. Our daily budget was $50 including food, accommodation and sightseeing.
There are lots of sites that tell you how. All you need is the urge to travel. Everything else can be put in place. I have seen and been to some amazing destinations just using my miles and points.
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!