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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.
John 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! Or take a look at our list of best travel credit card offers so you can start enjoying Big Travel, like John!
What’s your name and how long have you been involved in the miles & points hobby?
My name is John and I have been involved in this hobby ever since I received my first miles credit card just over 20 years ago. Since then I have booked over 80 round-trip flights with miles, including multiple international Business Class and First Class flights, valued at well over $60,000.
What was the goal of your trip?
The original goal of our trip was to celebrate my wife’s 40th birthday in Tahiti in 2019. We wanted to use our Alaska Airlines miles to book an award flight on Air France, but after a few months of not seeing anything pop up, we decided to change our plans. And given that Alaska Airlines and Air France ended their partnership earlier this year, it seems like we made the right choice.
We eventually decided to take our stash of miles and points to do a trip to Bali in 2018 instead!
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
It is hard to pinpoint exactly how long it took us to earn the miles and points for this trip. I knew the value of a Business Class award redemption from prior experience. So we had been saving miles and points in 2 specific programs for a trip like this for about 3 years.
Throughout this time, we would earn bonus offers through various credit cards with no firm plan on when or where we would use them. Once we made the decision to go to Bali we kicked into high gear to top off our miles and points balances.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
We used 4 different award programs for this trip.
For our flights we used 300,000 Alaska Airlines miles to book 3 round-trip Business Class tickets from Los Angeles to Bali with a 3-day stopover in Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. This also included First Class tickets on Alaska Airlines between Seattle to Los Angeles.
For our hotels, we used 154,000 Hilton points for 2 nights at the Conrad Hong Kong. And another 228,000 points for 4 nights at the Conrad Bali.
We used 51,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and transferred them to Hyatt for 3 nights at the Grand Hyatt Bali. Finally, we used 17,500 Marriott points plus cash to stay at the Marriott hotel near the Los Angeles Airport.
Which cards would you recommend to open for a trip like yours?
I would recommend the following cards for a trip like this.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card: The most significant portion of this trip in terms of value was the airfare. Cathay Pacific’s redemption through Alaska Airlines was 100,000 miles per ticket . So we needed 300,000 miles for my son, wife and me. The quickest way to earn those miles is though credit card welcome bonuses. Between my wife and I, the intro bonuses we earned in the 2 years prior to this trip, as well as daily spending, earned us 150,000 Alaska Airlines miles.
Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card: In addition to a very high welcome bonus offer, this card comes with complimentary Hilton Gold elite status, which came in handy because it allowed us to be upgraded to an executive room at the Conrad Hong Kong.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®: Chase Ultimate Rewards points are so flexible that this is a must have for any trip. And as a cardmember, you’ll receive perks like travel insurance, Priority Pass airport lounge access, a $300 annual travel credit, and more, all of which make this card a no-brainer. This is my go-to card when traveling since there are also no foreign transaction fees and I can earn 3X points per $1 spent on travel and dining.
How did you search and find the award flights?
Since Cathay Pacific’s award fights are not searchable via the Alaska Airlines website, you have to call the reservation line. After calling a few times, only to find no availability, I went in search of a better way and found that you can use both British Airways and Qantas’ websites to find potential Cathay Pacific award space. I chose to use Qantas for my searches.
Once I found some potential flights I called Alaska Airlines, who was able to confirm the availability and ultimately book the award flights. My out-of-pocket cost for these flights was $414. Without miles and points I would have paid $15,461!
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
We focused on Hilton properties as we had a significant amount of Hilton points which we pooled into my account since I have Gold elite status though the AMEX Hilton Ascend card. My original plan included 3 award nights at the Hilton Bali Resort. However, we decided to cancel that once we saw poor reviews online as a result of some major renovations the hotel was going through. We ultimately decided to book the Grand Hyatt Bali instead.
The Conrad Bali was also undergoing renovation and the main pool was closed. I reached out to the hotel in advance to see if I could get a guaranteed free upgrade as a Hilton Gold member to a Conrad Suite, which would give us access to the suite’s pool. They weren’t able to offer it for free but did allow us to book it at a discounted rate of $75 per night which we accepted.
In hindsight, I think this was still an excellent value. $75 was much less than the retail price difference between the award booking and the suite, plus we made up for it by taking advantage of things like free food and evening drinks.
The final hotel redemption was though Marriott from points that I had accumulated from past stays over the years. I didn’t have enough for a full redemption, but did have enough for a points plus $75 redemption. My cost for 10 nights was $405. Without any points it would have cost $3,277.
In addition, we also paid for one night at the Disneyland Hollywood Hotel in Hong Kong and 4 nights at an Airbnb in Bali.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
The biggest challenge was waiting for the final Alaska Airlines miles to post to my account. My statement period had closed just a few days prior to the award flights opening up but the miles hadn’t posted to my account. I decided to book both my wife and son’s tickets with our existing miles with the intent of booking mine at a later date. This was a low-risk option since Alaska Airlines allowed changes to award travel up to 60 days out with no fee.
After booking my wife’s ticket using her miles and my son’s ticket using my miles I was about to hang up with the agent when I just happened to refresh my account, only to see that my bonus miles had posted while I was booking the other tickets! I double checked with the agent who confirmed my miles balance and we proceeded to book my ticket as well.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
One thing that I was pleasantly surprised by was the amount of green space in Hong Kong. We spent a significant amount of our time wandering through several parks and trails while making our way to other places in the city. Of note is Hong Kong park which is a block away from the Conrad and on the way to the Victoria Peak tram. In addition, the Harlech road fitness trail, which is accessible from Victoria Peak, offers some great views of the Telegraph Bay area.
We also decided to hire a photographer to take family portraits while in Bali. This was a relatively inexpensive way to bring home some really good memories and something we will likely repeat in some of our future vacations. We found the photographer though a local tour guide that we hired. He provided an hour long photo shoot plus all the original photos, over 1,000 in total.
The highlight of our trip was renting a 36-foot boat with captain and crew and spending the day fishing, snorkeling, sunbathing, and having our fresh catch cooked for lunch. We went with a company called Bali Rizio and can’t say enough good things about them!
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
I learned that you need to be prepared for anything. On our 3rd day in Bali we experienced a 6.2 magnitude earthquake, which struck on the nearby island of Lombok. A week later a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck the same area. Fortunately for us, Bali didn’t suffer much damage and no tsunamis occurred, but you just never know. I would recommend that anyone traveling abroad register with the US State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which gives the US Embassy your travel itinerary and contact information in the event of an emergency situation.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
It may be tempting to use your airlines miles for domestic flights, but the real value is in international Business Class awards. Getting to your destination is part of the experience and flying in seats like Cathay Pacific’s long-haul Business Class and visiting their lounges turns mundane travel days into true vacation days!
Want to Share Your Story?
If you’d like to be considered for our reader success story series, please send us a note! We would love to hear about how you travel with miles and points! And if you want to get more stories like this one delivered straight to your inbox, please sign-up for our email list!