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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.
Carole 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!
What’s your name and how long have you been involved in the miles & points hobby?
Hi! My name is Carole, and I’ve been involved in the miles and points hobby since 2015. I originally came across the concept of earning and redeeming points for free travel when I was planning a 2015 summer trip to the Pacific Northwest.
What was the goal of your trip?
One of the big goals was to create a dream trip for my eldest daughter. She just graduated from high school this spring, and I wanted our annual family trip to revolve around the things that she would enjoy.
Traveling outside the US was not something she wanted to do, even though she had taken 4 years of French. She was pretty heavily involved in theater production, and also enjoyed art and history museums.
So after doing some research and playing around with different itineraries, we settled on a plan! We decided we would fly from Sacramento to Boston, take the Amtrak Acela to New York City, take a flight to Montreal, then head to Quebec City before flying back home.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
I would say it took us around 1 year to earn the points needed for this trip. As soon as we redeem points for a trip, we usually start planning and earning points for our next annual family trip. It’s a non-stop cycle!
We did apply for the Amtrak Guest Rewards® World Mastercard® in August 2017. And earning the intro bonus at the time went a long way toward keeping the costs for our trip down. And it was a great feeling being able to cross off “train to New York City” off the bucket list!
Which points did you save to take your trip?
With a big family of 6, I knew that exclusively earning points with 1 or 2 rewards programs most likely wasn’t going to cut it. Plus, I knew that there would be times when it might take too long for points to transfer to travel partners, which could affect our ability to book flights or hotels on short notice!
For this trip, my husband and I had the following points at our disposal:
- Wyndham points
- Hilton Honors points
- Amtrak points
- Capital One Venture miles
- Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card points
- Merrill points
- US Bank Cash+ Visa rewards
- AMEX Membership Rewards points
In total, all of the cash back rewards and points we redeemed were enough to cover hotel accommodations, transportation costs like Uber and rental cars, costs to attend a Broadway show, and other entertainment and museum visits.
I also went out on a limb and applied for the Citi Prestige (not currently available for new applicants) in September because I figured the 4th night free perk could come in handy. By my calculations, that perk, along with many other of the card’s benefits, got us more than $2,000+ in value!
Which cards would you recommend to open for a trip like yours?
Many cards offer additional bonus point for making purchases in specific categories. If you can find a card that earns 2% outside of these specific categories, you should be golden!
But outside of that, we’d recommend the following cards:
- Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
- Discover it® Cash Back or Discover it® Miles
- Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card
How did you search and find the award flights?
I used a combination of Google Flights, United Airlines, and Air Canada websites, and Wikipedia to search for direct flights between airports. I can’t stress enough how helpful this was, using multiple sites to map out different routes!
And it ended up saving us money too! For instance, our flight from Quebec to Sacramento was originally $500 per person. But because I kept an eye out for sales, I eventually found a flight from Quebec to Los Angeles for just $230 per person! And then to get from Los Angeles to Sacramento I just used a small amount of Southwest points.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
I originally used AwardMapper, but then came to the realization that simply having miles and points was not necessarily going to make it easy. So I had to also look at other websites like Orbitz, Airbnb, and VRBO.
What was the most challenging part of planning your trip? How did you solve it?
One of the biggest challenges was finding hotel accommodations for 6 people. I couldn’t find a place in Canada where we could use our points, and even the award availability for the US portion of our trip was slim pickings.
I kept checking AwardMapper and was finally able to find a Wyndham hotel in New York City, which is where our Wyndham points came in handy. And for Boston, I ended up booking a hotel near the airport. It didn’t seem like the best decision at the time, but it ended up being a fantastic choice because the subway station was just a short 5 minute walk away!
Keeping costs down in Montreal and Quebec City was also a bit challenging because we were visiting during a holiday, so the price for train travel between the 2 cities was much higher! Because of this, we decided to rent a car instead of taking the train. Credit card perks like the 4th night free benefit on the Citi Prestige (no longer available for new applicants), and the miles on our Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, also played a big role in helping us keep overall costs down for the trip.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
I was on the fence as far as whether we should explore on our own, or pay for guided tours. In the end, we decided to explore the cities on our own, and I don’t have any regrets about that decision!
For Montreal, we really enjoyed visiting the Notre-Dame Basilica Aura Show and the Voiles en Voiles family theme park. We stayed in the Mont-Royal neighborhood, and I still dream about the amazing ice cream and coffee shops they had! The apartment where we stayed was in the heart of Old Quebec, and I felt like I was staying at the castle in Disneyland. It really was that amazing!
If you’re going to take a similar trip, make sure you are okay with walking! We ended up walking around 5 miles each day, so it’s not for the faint of heart!
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
In planning this trip, my gut feeling was to stack the hard-core sightseeing portion for the first part of the trip and gradually ramp down as we neared the end of our 2 weeks. This ended up being the perfect pace for our family. As much as I like to get maximum bang for my buck (as you have probably surmised), it’s okay to just take a long train ride or unstructured day to play on electronic devices and eat at random times.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
My advice is to dream big. Start with ALL the things you want to do, even if the price tag is high, because miles and points can really go a long way in cutting down your out-of-pocket costs. After all, our trip probably would have cost around $10,000 had it not been for points and our credit card perks.
Basically, try and look at all the ways you can come as close as possible to your dream vacation. Pick up each aspect of your dream, think outside the box, and be willing to settle for a bit of the dream. For instance, my girls would have swooned with happiness if I could have presented them with front-row seats to Hamilton. But the cheap tickets we had still allowed us to experience a wonderfully funny and well-known show on Broadway!
Finally, decide how much actual cash out of pocket you are willing to spend. Food and transportation is a huge hidden cost for large families, so don’t get so caught up in covering flights that you forget about these expenses!
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