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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!
Steven 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 Steven 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 Steven. My wife is Jennifer. I picked up the points and miles hobby ~5 years ago.
I was jealous when hearing my friends talk about using miles to upgrade their seats on flights. So, I started researching credit cards that earned rewards and reading various blogs. I found blogs that are my “go to” sites: Million Mile Secrets and 2 others, which I don’t need to name here. 😉 I read these sites daily.
Over time, I was able to convince my wife to join me in this hobby. She was wary about hurting her credit score. However her credit score has remained outstanding and, more importantly, she has come to love the trips we can take using our points and miles.
What was the goal of your trip?
Previously, we used credit card points for coach and Business Class airfares to and from Europe, as well as flights and hotel for a trip to Disney World.
Our most recent vacation was our honeymoon to Hawaii! We were married this past January, but we saved our big trip for the summer. We are both public school teachers and wanted to maximize our time away.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
Honestly, I have been collecting miles and points for years in anticipation of this honeymoon.
In the past when I used points and miles for travel, I was obsessive about finding saver fares and spending credit card points in an economical way. I knew I wanted to have flexibility when planning our honeymoon, and I wanted to have hundreds of thousands of points banked so we could book luxury travel without many constraints.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
Chase Ultimate Rewards points were invaluable for this trip. We accumulated these through sign-up bonuses and making the most of spending in 2X, 3X, and 5X categories.
We also used American Airlines miles, which I largely earned with 2 Citi cards and a Barclaycard that offered great sign-up bonuses. One of these cards was originally from US Airways, and I was able to transfer these miles to my American Airlines account after US Airways merged with American Airlines. Of course, the only way I learned how to do any of this was by staying current with my daily blog reading! 🙂
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
- Chase Sapphire Reserve – This gave us travel insurance, car rental insurance, 3X on travel (like hotels & transportation), and 3X on dining
- American Express Hilton Surpass – This gave us Hilton Gold elite status, which we eventually upgraded to Diamond
- IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card – This gave us IHG Platinum Elite status, which then allowed us to upgrade to Hilton Diamond through a status match promotion. The card also gives a free night at ANY IHG hotel each year
- The Hyatt Credit Card – This gave us each 2 free nights at any Hyatt hotel (offer no longer available) as well as Hyatt Discoverist elite status. Through a status match with MLife, we upgraded our Hyatt Status from Discoverist to Explorist after Hyatt introduced the World of Hyatt program earlier this year
- United MileagePlus Explorer Card – Because we often rely on Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which transfer to United Airlines, this card gives us increased award seats as well as priority boarding and a free checked bag on United Airlines flights
How did you search for and find the award flights?
I signed-up for ExpertFlyer to search for saver award flights, but, because we were looking to book during a peak travel time, 2 saver award tickets were almost impossible to find.
I joined several airlines’ mileage programs to look for award tickets, and even called Korean Air to see about booking a flight on Hawaiian Airlines. I had little success.
I considered paying for an award booking service. But we had had a specific itinerary and travel schedule in mind, which did not give us much flexibility to find alternate dates. Ultimately, we booked 2 saver Business Class award tickets on American Airlines from New York to San Francisco.
This was a 3-class plane, with lie-flat seats. The tickets gave us access to the American Airlines Flagship Lounge at JFK. For our other flights, we used the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, which allowed us to pay for flights at 1.5 cents per point due to our Sapphire Reserve Card. We found reasonably priced First and Business Class flights for all of our long-haul travel and paid with points.
We flew from San Francisco to Maui in lie-flat seats on United Airlines. We returned from Oahu to Dallas in lie-flat seats on American Airlines. Our American Airlines flight home from Dallas to New York was in a traditional, domestic First Class seat – but no complaints!
SeatGuru was helpful in choosing our flights and seats so we could ensure the most comfortable seats available on a given route. By paying with points, we did not have to outlay any cash for these flights.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
We had a lot of Hilton points, Starwood points, and Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, so we looked to stay at Hilton and Starwood/Marriott hotels as well as Hyatt hotels.
Our trip began in San Francisco where we attended a friend’s wedding. We stayed 3 nights at the Hilton San Francisco Airport Bayfront, but because the cash rate was $135 per night, we paid for the room rather than spending 150,000 Hilton points. With our Diamond elite status, we were upgraded to a Club level room and the Club lounge at this hotel is fantastic!
After searching for hotels in Maui and Kauai, we saw Hyatt hotels were our best options for 7 reasons:
- We could use our 4 free night certificates
- As World of Hyatt Explorist elite members, we had Club level upgrades to apply to our rooms and we would receive upgraded rooms at check-in
- You can instantly transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to a World of Hyatt account
- Redemption rates seemed reasonable – between 27,000 and 33,000 Hyatt points per night for Club level rooms
- All resort fees were waived for our 16 free night awards, which saved us hundreds of dollars
- A World of Hyatt promotion gave us a 10% rebate on points redeemed for award stays over the summer
- We were excited to stay at the Grand Hyatt Kauai!
To plan our trip, I used the Hyatt website to search for available award rooms at the Andaz Maui, the Hyatt Regency Maui, the Grand Hyatt Kauai, and the Hyatt Regency Waikiki. There were no award rooms at the Andaz, but by inputting a few different date combinations, I found consecutive award nights for our stays in Maui, Kauai, and Oahu.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Coordinating our trip within our desired travel dates was a challenge.
As teachers, we have plenty of vacation time during the summer, but this is also peak travel season. Award seats, especially saver awards for 2 people, were almost nonexistent.
Also, once we knew we were going to start our trip at our friend’s wedding in San Francisco, we had little flexibility with our travel dates. I had to keep checking airline and hotel websites to see if and when award bookings were available.
For example, at first, Hyatt did not have award rooms for all of our travel dates. But I kept checking back until I was able to book the rooms we wanted. Hyatt phone representatives were extremely helpful in confirming the rooms and then consolidating my free night certificates and award bookings into a unified reservation. 🙂
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
We stayed in the Lahaina / Kaanapali area at the Hyatt Regency Maui. We liked the hotel’s relatively private location on the far end of the public beach walk.
There are bike ride tours down the mountain, but we were happy we didn’t do that – we were exhausted and hungry after the sunrise. We also rented a car for the Road to Hana drive. We were glad we didn’t take a tour for this excursion and we could go at our own pace. Get on the road early! We left Lahaina at 7:15 am, but had wanted to leave even earlier.
For the drive, download the Shaka Maui app and pay the ~$5 for the Road to Hana tour. The app used our phone’s GPS to narrate the drive and suggest stops. Heads up for the drive – the 7 Sacred Pools at Ohe’o Gulch are currently closed because of a rock slide earlier this year. And there’s no clear timetable as to when they’ll be open.
Definitely drive the full loop! Don’t turn around at Hana. The back part of the drive is amazing. We also had dinner at Mama’s Fish House, which was one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten. Jen was clever enough to book a reservation months in advance because the restaurant fills up quickly.
We stayed on the south shore at the Grand Hyatt Kauai. It was an unbelievable hotel. As Explorist World of Hyatt members, we received an upgrade to a Club level, deluxe oceanfront room, complimentary access to the spa, and other benefits.
In Kauai there are resorts on the south shore and the north shore. The south shore has better weather; the north shore is more beautiful. It might have been nice to split our time between the 2 areas. A highlight of our trip was a doors-off helicopter flight with Jack Harter helicopter tours. We also took a fantastic hike on the Mahaulepu Heritage Coastal Trail, which begins right at the beach of the Grand Hyatt.
We visited Pearl Harbor to see the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, a powerful experience. We also visited Sea Life Park, where Jen swam with dolphins. I have never seen her so happy! And we took a fantastic snorkeling tour in Hanauma Bay led by Pure Aloha Adventures.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
I learned a few great lessons. For instance, it takes a heck of a lot of points for a trip like this. I am glad we saved up over time, even though that meant we endured devaluations and changes to some loyalty programs.
I also learned how amassing points and miles can truly lead to a dream vacation. We never could have afforded this trip otherwise.
For 16 nights, we stayed in luxurious rooms in incredible hotels with free breakfasts, afternoon snacks, (and sometimes dinner) in the Club lounges. And we paid ZERO dollars out of pocket! Deluxe club rooms at our hotels and resort fees would have cost us close to $10,000 for our 16 nights.
Also, by using the Club lounge for breakfast and other meals, we saved even more. With these immense cost savings, we were able to pay for some amazing excursions.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Try to get elite status at a particular hotel or with a particular airline through a credit card.
Also, self-advocate! Before checking into each hotel, I contacted the general manager. In one case, I had to do intensive searching before I came across the correct LinkedIn profile.
I let the hotel staff know we were celebrating our honeymoon and politely asked for any upgrades possible. We received upgrades and an early check-in at every location. The Hyatt Regency Waikiki even extended our check-out time to 5:00 pm so we could enjoy the beach all day and then shower before our evening flight!
At each hotel we were welcomed with a letter from the manager and various goodies including chocolate-covered strawberries, local delicacies, and champagne. In fact, the room manager at the Grand Hyatt Kauai reserved a deluxe ocean front room for all of our stay even though our free night certificates were only valid for a basic, garden view room. At all locations, the Hyatt staff were incredible.
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!