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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.
Angela 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!
1. What’s your name and how long have you been involved in the miles & points hobby?
I’m Angela, and I’ve been obsessed with miles and points for nearly a decade!
2. What was the goal of your trip?
The original goal of our trip was to see the band, Imagine Dragons, play in person. They weren’t playing any time soon in our city, so we had to plan a trip to see them in Austin, Texas. Our entire family loves their music, so the trip eventually got expanded to include my sister, 2 of my nephew’s friends, and 1 of the friend’s parents. In total, it was a group of 7 of us!
And as an added bonus, I love the fact that Dan Reynolds and Imagine Dragons do a lot of work to support charities with good causes, like children’s cancer charities (through the Tyler Robinson Foundation) and suicide prevention for at-risk LGBTQ youth (through Dan’s organization, LoveLoud). So putting my dollars toward supporting the band was an easy choice, especially when we love the music so much!
Because of their work with charities, I love seeing my nephews look up to people like this. I think they set a great example for them, especially because there are many other great performers out there, yet don’t quite do as much for charitable causes and may not be the best role models.
We knew that this trip would be something of a last hurrah before school started for the kids, so I wanted to make it as fun as possible. I really love the challenge of itinerary planning on a budget, and Texas has a nearly unlimited list of cool, family-friendly things to do! Before long, the trip had evolved from just a concert trip to an epic 5-day, 4-night, 3-city tour of Texas, complete with an amazing race-style challenge around Austin, participating in charity volunteer events, visiting a family member in San Antonio, and meeting up with a long-distance friend in Dallas. All of which would not have been affordable without the help of a diverse pool of miles and points, especially since members of the group were coming together from 3 different cities!
3. How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
I’m always trying to make sure my miles and points are well diversified across a few different programs, so I’m always earning and growing my stash of points. I did use the 5 months prior to the trip earning as many Hilton points as I could in order to redeem them for one of our hotel stays, but outside of that, I did not specifically save for this trip so it’s hard to say exactly how long it took me to earn the points needed. Instead, as soon as we decided on this trip, I just checked all my miles and points balances and began planning out what points should be used to cover certain expenses.
4. Which points did you save to take your trip?
I used quite a few different miles, points, and credit card benefits to pull this trip together. I regularly travel for work and I try to charge every purchase to the best earning card for that purchase type, so I had decent balances in a few different programs. I used American Express Membership Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points, Barclay Arrival Plus miles, Hilton points, IHG points, Drop points, and cash back portals to save money whenever I could.
In terms of credit card benefits I used, I used my Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® for lounge access, and I even used the return protection benefit of The Platinum Card® from American Express when I wasn’t able to return an item I bought for the trip. Lastly, when my nephew couldn’t find the number one souvenir item on his list, I put the AMEX Concierge to work finding it, and they were able to come through!
5. Which cards would you recommend to open for a trip like yours?
Outside of earning welcome bonuses on credit cards, I don’t consistently fly enough with any single airline to earn enough miles for a big extravagant trip. So I tend to favor miles and points currencies that are flexible, like AMEX Membership Rewards points and Citi ThankYou points. I also combine it with a good cash back card.
If I were to open some cards now to go on the exact same trip, I’d recommend any of the Southwest cards from Chase because earning the intro bonuses on the cards currently still counts toward the Southwest Companion Pass:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
Note: It’s no longer possible to have 2 personal Southwest cards at a time. However, you can still open 1 business (the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card) and 1 personal (Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card, or Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card) to earn most of the points required for the Southwest Companion Pass.
6. How did you search and find the award flights?
For this trip, I was booking flights to people coming from 3 different cities. Luckily, they were all cities were serviced by American Airlines, so I was able to book everyone a flight to Austin on American Airlines, using my British Airways Avios (transferred from AMEX Membership Rewards).
British Airways uses a distance-based award chart, so booking one-way flights only cost 7,500 British Airways points for coach, or 15,000 points in Business Class. As a special treat for the older teens, I decided to book them in Business Class, which they’d never experienced before.
7. How did you find your hotel accommodations?
I needed to book 3 rooms for the 7 of us. With such a big group, I had 3 priorities. I was looking for spacious rooms with at least 2 beds and a pullout or rollaway bed, free breakfast included with the hotel stay, and a convenient location.
I had a pretty good stockpile of Hilton points from opening The Hilton Honors American Express Business Card earlier this year after receiving a targeted offer. There were a couple of Embassy Suites hotels in Austin, one with an ideal location but a much higher price point, and another one that had a reasonably good location and was on sale for just 30,000 Hilton points per night.
Because I needed to book 3 separate rooms and we were planning on staying for 3 nights, I needed a total of 270,000 Hilton points. I had earned 240,000 thanks to earning the intro bonus, using the card for many of my daily purchases, as well as some work-related travel I had booked with Hilton.
One thing I like about Hilton is that you are able to book a refundable reservation with cash and points, and then later when you’ve got more points, you can cancel and rebook entirely with points or cancel and rebook with more points and less cash, which is exactly what I did. And I knew that in order to earn the remaining 30,000 points, I would need to spend either $2,500 on Hilton stays (which would earn 12x Hilton points per dollar), or $5,000 on purchases that would earn 6x points per dollar on select business and travel purchases.
I knew I wouldn’t be spending $2,500 on Hilton stays, even though I could probably have given how much I spend for my work-related travel, but I have other cards that I prefer to use for that type of spending. So instead I made sure to use The Hilton Honors American Express Business Card for purchases at restaurants, gas stations, our cell phone bill, and shipping costs. Our cell phone bill alone is about $240 per month (we have a family plan with 5 people on it), so that knocked out $1,200 in spending alone.
Gas purchases over 5 months made about $700 in spending. Between work travel and eating out at home over 5 months, restaurant spending came to about $2,000 (I always volunteered to pick up the tab and expense it at group work outings). That bonus spending earned me an additional 24,000 Hilton points, and the remaining points I needed were earned with a single Hilton stay.
For the 4th night in Dallas, I used IHG points, and we booked a Holiday Inn Express near the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. I had a good stash of points from the last IHG Accelerate promo that happened to line up with a couple of work travel stays, so I was able to easily cover that stay with points I already had.
8. What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
One of the hardest parts was also the most fun, and that was finding creative ways to use miles and points to reduce the cash cost of the trip as much as possible. That’s where flexible miles and points programs came in handy. I used a big stash of those miles to get a statement credit for a super cool water adventure we did on Lake Travis called Waterloo Adventures. It was a giant inflatable obstacle course on the water, and our whole group had a blast doing it! The teenagers totally wore themselves out while the parents relaxed and enjoyed the cool water on a hot Texas day.
Another tough challenge was finding appropriate transportation for all of us. I found plenty of party buses that could hold groups of up to 20 people, but oddly enough I could not find a single one that did not come with a stripper pole inside. That would have really made for an awkward ride with a group of teenagers!
I had planned a really fun amazing-race style challenge through the Austin airport, into town, and ending at our hotel, so I needed the teams to have pre-arranged transportation to take them where they needed to go once they solved certain clues. Luckily, I found ExecuTesla, a terrific company with prices even better than a regular car service, with the added bonus that the group got to ride in TESLAS! The teens were so excited and had ear-to-ear grins as they raced from location to location in a brand new Tesla Model X.
9. Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
In Austin, we did some of the more iconic things like checking out all the murals around the city as well as the Congress Avenue bridge bats. If you’ve never heard of the bridge bats, it’s a must see in Austin! A couple MILLION Mexican free-tailed bats all start coming out from under the bridge at the same time around dusk. It’s quite a sight to see!
Our most memorable activity (aside from the concert, of course) was volunteering at the Ronald McDonald house. The 7 of us made breakfast for families who were staying there and who had sick children in a nearby hospital. Not only did we make some special memories, but the teenagers really blew us away with their cooking skills! I made a grocery store challenge for shopping for the breakfast ingredients, and it really served as a great message to the kids that the more fortunate we are, the more important it was to give back and take care of others whenever possible.
The Ronald McDonald house is always looking for volunteers in Austin, so if you’re ever looking for a group volunteer activity, I highly recommend it!
10. What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
Traveling with 4 teenagers may not seem like everyone’s idea of a good time, but to my fellow childless travelers, let me just tell you there is NOTHING like seeing the world through a teenager’s eyes! Borrow a couple of teens and take them on a trip. I’m serious! Yes, teenagers can sometimes be smelly, rude, or weird. But they can also be heart-achingly kind, brave, smart, and funny. They may not always want to talk, but when they do, they have incredible things to say about the world around them if you listen. And seeing their excitement and appreciation in experiencing new places and new activities absolutely restored my own wanderlust and reminded me how magical exploring the world can be.
11. What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Huge international trips are certainly something to aspire to, but don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Whether you love the snow or the desert, the beach or the bayou, our own country pretty much has it all! You can take amazing trips and make lasting memories without having to take years to earn miles and points.
And because of the risk that miles and points can be devalued at a moment’s notice, it’s a good idea to use them when you can! Take what you’ve got now and think about how you might be able to put it to good use sooner rather than later. There’s a whole wonderful world out there just waiting for you to explore it, whether it’s halfway across town or halfwaya across the world!
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