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Welcome to the next installment of our Reader Success Series where Million Mile Secret Agents share how they booked a trip with miles & points to get Big Travel with Small Money!
Ruben 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 Ruben for sharing his story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
Hi, my name is Ruben Ovando. I began collecting points and miles when I started traveling part-time for a job in 2005. I learned that if I joined a frequent flyer program, I could get points and miles towards free travel!
My job at the time allowed me to fly on American Airlines, and I started earning miles. I then got the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. With the sign-up bonus and the points I earned, I took my first trip to Australia on Qantas in Business Class!
What was the goal of your trip?
I no longer travel for work, but travel mostly internationally to discover new places. Last month, I traveled to Poland, Romania, Croatia (for the 4th time), Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Turkey (for the 18th time)!
I like to travel to places that are off-the-tourist-grid. I tend to look for destinations with a lot of history. Plus, I enjoy meeting locals and other travelers.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
What works for me is to spend money on airfare and hotels one year, and then use the points I earn for free travel the following year.
This year (2017) was the year for me to buy travel at the lowest possible cost, while making sure I was getting the most points possible for my paid flights.
For example, I flew Air Canada for my summer trip. I was able to buy the last seat left for under $800 for a multi-city stop. And was upgraded to Business Class for FREE on the Toronto-Frankfurt flight. So I earned Business Class miles on that flight!
I like Turkish Airlines’ Miles&Smiles program, because I only need to collect 37,500 miles within a 2 year period to keep my Gold elite status. I also continue to spend on my Citi American Airlines Platinum card. And usually have enough points for free travel every other year on American Airlines or their partners.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
I collect airline points, transferable credit card points, and hotel points. Because I use co-branded credit cards, I sometimes earn double points, which I try to take advantage of when possible. And because I’m unable to get a Miles&Smiles credit card, I continue to use my Citi American Airlines Platinum card to buy airfare and earn American Airlines miles. And then earn Miles&Smiles points for flying any airline within Star Alliance.
I’m also planning my travel for 2018!
I’ve used Southwest points to buy a round-trip ticket in March 2018 to Cancun for just $7! I also used to fly Virgin America during my work travel days, and converted those points over to Alaska Airlines and got a nice bonus. Between Alaska Airlines and American Airlines miles, I was able to get all of the legs of my flight to Lisbon in May 2018 for ~$320. These flights would easily cost ~$10,000+!
I made sure my longest flights were all in Business or First Class. And I’m still deciding where to go from Lisbon. But I have to end up in Zagreb to fly back home.
I will use my Turkish Airlines miles for summer travel, but I’m still deciding where to go. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments!
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
I recommend the Citi Premier Card, because you can now transfer points earned to Turkish Airlines at a 1:1 ratio.
And plan to use this card more. I also plan to keep and continue to use the Citi American Airlines Platinum card. You can find some great award travel if you book early. And they have some great sales for bonus points.
Just remember, currently, there are visa restrictions for US passport holders visiting Turkey. So be sure to read this post for more details.
I’m also a fan of the AMEX Hilton card, because I love the frills I get at the hotel, plus double points, and points for using the card.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the American Express Starwood card, too. I didn’t expect to get many frills, but I do, even at the Luxury Collection Hotels.
How did you search for and find the award flights?
I typically search for flights on websites like Google Flights, Kayak, and Momondo. But I buy award travel on the airline websites. I search Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Turkish Airlines for travel. And have to consider my travel days, taxes, and which airline charges the least amount of points or miles for the same travel.
I have actually found that Alaska Airlines often charges fewer points than American Airlines for the same flights in Business and First Class. Turkish Airlines seems to have a flat charge on points no matter where you fly. And I definitely like that.
I also see if I can save miles and taxes by using one-way flights. For example, I just booked my flight to Lisbon for May 2018. I used fewer points and was able to get First Class seats by flying from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, which I bought on American Airlines for ~$6 and 17,500 American Airlines miles.
Then, I got my ticket from Philadelphia to Madrid on Alaska Airlines and switched to Premium Economy to save on taxes, because that flight is on British Airways. And will fly from Madrid to Lisbon on TAP Portugal on a super cheap ticket.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
I typically search TripAdvisor and Booking.com, but I often end up booking on the hotel website. Because I will usually get upgrades, enjoy free breakfast, and free Wi-Fi when booking directly on the hotel website.
I do a combination of hotels and Airbnb when traveling. Because I have status at both Hilton and Starwood, I first look for location of the property and then which one I can book for fewer points. Or if I’m paying, which one will give me the most points.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
I had in mind where I wanted to go and in what order I wanted to see 7 countries. The main challenge was travel flexibility. Some travel days were cheaper to fly or there were no flights available, so I had to be flexible.
Because award travel is limited, finding the right dates and seats can be challenging. Award travel can disappear almost instantly, so when exploring for flights, I try to book right away after comparing Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Turkish Airlines.
With my current job, I have to ask for vacation 1 year in advance, which can be nice because it’s easier to find award travel that far in advance. But booking far in advance has its cons due to flight schedules changing or aircraft swaps.
I tend to check the status of my flights periodically to make sure they haven’t been cancelled or changed without my knowledge. Because this has happened to me in the past.
I checked the status of the flight and saw that my flight home from Istanbul had been canceled, because Air Canada had stopped flying from Istanbul to Toronto. I called Air Canada and was able to change my flights for free, and enjoyed a few days in Montreal. I took a month off of work to complete my incredible 7-country journey, and being flexible was key!
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
The best advice I can give is to wander and also do the free walking tours. I have found the most amazing places by just wandering. Of course, safety should always be considered.
Krakow, Poland is beautiful and there’s a lot to see. Taking a free walking tour gives you ideas on what you want to visit later. Auschwitz is a must! Powerful! A guided tour will provide a lot more information, and some of the guides are survivors of the camp.
Warsaw was also a pleasant surprise – it’s beautiful! I ran into 4 local festivals going on in one day, which I found just by wandering. There are bike trails all over the city. Plus, I had the best Polish food in Warsaw. I found a great local restaurant right outside the Old Town.
Bucharest is a busy city that has some sites to see, but Brasov and Transylvania were absolutely beautiful. The castles are amazing! There are also skiing resorts in the area.
Croatia is one of my favorites, too. I usually go to Split and Zagreb. It’s easy to travel to the islands from Split, and there are also nice beaches in the area. In Split, I typically stay in an Airbnb apartment, because I like staying in the Old City. Restaurants are expensive in the immediate area, but if you walk just outside of the Old City area, you’ll find very affordable local food.
Zagreb is fun, safe, and has a lot of green space. I love Zagreb! It’s also a great place to wander. The pedestrian walkway is a fun place just to hang out.
The Bosnia countryside is beautiful. Kravice Waterfalls in Herzegovina is an amazing place. And Sarajevo is a city with a lot of history.
You still see buildings that are full of bullet pock marks from the war. I recommend going to just about any restaurant, you usually can’t go wrong with the food. The Srebrenica Exhibition, which details the genocide that took place, should not be missed.
I was only in Pristina, Kosovo, for just a day and a half, so I stayed in the city. Pristina is being rebuilt, and there are places to see in the older part of the city. It’s easy to walk and very affordable. The food is also similar to what you find in the rest of the Balkans.
Macedonia is my hidden secret. This was my second time in Skopje, and like Croatia and Turkey, it’s a country I want to visit yearly. There’s Matka Lake, the Old City, the Millennium Cross, Ohrid Lake, and the food – the best in the Balkans. Locals are very friendly and helpful. They’ll usually give you tips on what you should see and visit.
Istanbul, Turkey, is where I usually finish my travel before flying home. This was my 18th visit to Istanbul! I have made really close friends, including some vendors from the Grand Bazaar. They are very friendly, and I’ve even gone to their homes to have dinner with them and their families. There’s just so much to see in Istanbul! Definitely do the Bosphorus boat ride, Sultanahmet area, and the neighborhood of Bebek. You can’t go wrong with the food, it’s good whether you eat at a fancy restaurant or buy the food from a street vendor. The rest of Turkey, like the coast and Cappadocia, is amazing.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
I can travel alone. I did a combination of solo and couple travel this time. It’s okay to let my guard down and have conversations with others. I met other Americans and a British guy who were also traveling solo, and we hung out together visiting places. My perceptions of others or what I heard and read usually were not true of the countries I visited. As an American of color, I’ve never experienced any racism. There was curiosity from locals once they found out I was Native American. Which would often lead to interesting conversations.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Affordable travel is possible. I try to earn points any way I can, from answering questions from the airlines, to paying with rewards earning credit cards. Find a credit card that works for you and join an alliance that is the best for you.
I save on food, airport Wi-Fi charges, and luggage charges by getting status with a frequent flyer program. When traveling on airlines in the Star Alliance, I often get upgrades or have a row blocked off for me if the flight is not full. I spend a lot of time researching trips, alternate airports I can use for cheaper travel or fewer miles, and how to use local transportation to save on cost.
I decided a year in advance where I wanted to go for my last trip, and then spent time researching ways of getting there and what there was to do in the area. I don’t always end up going where I planned, due to difficulty of getting there. So always keep an eye on alternative places to go. Be flexible.
Want to Share Your Story?
If you’d like to be considered for our Million Mile Secret Agent success story series, please send me a note! Emily and I would love to hear about how you travel with miles and points!