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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.
Nancy 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?
My name is Nancy East and I have been active in the miles & points hobby for ~6 years. My family adopted 1 of our sons from Ethiopia, and we wanted to take our other 2 children with us to meet their new brother.
I was floored at how much we spent on airfare for the 2 trips we were required to take for the adoption process. I didn’t have the luxury of time to earn points for these trips, but it was the jump start I needed to start researching less expensive ways to travel as a family of 5 in the future.
My family now travels extensively on outdoor and adventure-based trips, and I share our journeys and travel tips on my blog, Hope and Feather Travels. Just like Million Mile Secrets loves to teach folks about free travel, I love to teach people what’s possible (and tons of fun!) to do in the Great Outdoors and in wilderness areas, especially with kids.
What was the goal of your trip?
The goal of most of my family’s trips is to visit as many National Parks and wilderness areas as we possibly can. We love to hike and backpack, so our trips usually center on those activities. My husband and sons are avid mountain bikers and skiers as well, so we’re always looking for new areas to explore on skis and tires, too!
We want our kids to appreciate our public lands and we hope to foster environmental stewardship in the process. We build these connections by taking them to these places and heading off the beaten path, beyond the typical tourist spots.
It’s one thing to stand in awe at the rim of the Grand Canyon, but to backpack into it and camp at the bottom, while watching the canyon walls become illuminated by moonlight, creates an entirely different level of connection with it. If that doesn’t inspire someone, I don’t know what will!
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
We are always collecting miles and points for any given trip we have planned in the future. Between sign-up bonuses, bonus categories on specific cards, and using reward portals to earn miles & points, they add up efficiently and easily.
Thanks to miles and points, and with some organization and planning, we never have to say “no” to our travel dreams!
Which points did you save to take your trip?
For our adventures in the United States, we are huge fans of Southwest points, especially when coupled with the benefits of the Southwest Companion Pass. We have visited 17 different National Parks in the last 5 years, almost always flying with Southwest.
For our international destinations, Chase Ultimate Reward points are our favorite. When we hiked the West Highland Way in Scotland, transferring our Chase Ultimate Reward points to United Airlines was the perfect solution to get us across the pond. We were able to fly out of our small regional airport in Asheville and land the next morning in London, for the same amount of points it would have taken to drive a couple of hours to a larger airport.
After exploring London for a few days, we took a train to Glasgow, hiked the West Highland Way, then flew back home on United Airlines, departing from Glasgow.
Our Chase Ultimate Reward points were invaluable for this trip. We booked United Airlines coach saver award tickets (30,000 United Airlines miles one-way in coach). And found there to be plenty of available seats, even in the peak summer months.
Which cards would you recommend to open for a trip like yours?
The Chase Southwest cards are hard to beat for most US National Park destinations. Oftentimes we fly into one city and out of another, so we can create a one-way journey across a region and visit multiple parks.
For more flexibility and options with points, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is one of my favorites. Especially with the 2X Chase Ultimate Rewards points you earn on travel and dining purchases.
Plus, because I own a small business and can qualify for small business cards, the Chase Ink Business Cash credit card is another current favorite card. I especially like that it earns 5% cash back (5X Chase Ultimate Rewards points) on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on phone, internet, and cable TV services each account anniversary year.
How did you search and find the award flights?
Since the majority of our travels take place in the United States, we primarily use Southwest’s website to book our award travel with Southwest point. It’s a very user-friendly site. And with Southwest’s generous cancellation policy, it’s incredibly easy to change my reservation to a lower priced award ticket, if one becomes available.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
Since we often camp on our trips, we typically don’t need to use as many hotel points as most travelers. However, on a trip to NYC, we took advantage of Starwood’s 5th night free perk.
We stayed at The Westin New York Grand Central for 5 nights on points that we earned from the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express. Our kids loved looking out our hotel window directly at the Empire State Building!
We are also big fans of Marriott, specifically their Springhill Suites chain. Springhill Suites’ rooms will often sleep 5 people, which is a huge benefit for our family since it negates the need for a second room. Both of these chains also offer free breakfast, which is an added bonus when you’re feeding 3 growing teens/tweens who often blow our budget with their enormous appetites!
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
The most challenging part about planning any of our trips is matching our kids’ physical abilities to the park we’re visiting and where we’d like to explore. I am a huge advocate for taking kids into wilderness areas, but it’s imperative to do it safely and empower yourself with knowledge before heading out.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
If you are ever fortunate enough to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, visit Phantom Ranch and enjoy an ice cold lemonade or beer in the “Canteen.” It will quite possibly become the most refreshing beverage to ever touch your lips!
One of our kids’ favorite National Parks is the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. If you visit, make sure to go sand sledding (you can rent sleds for this purpose).
Encourage your kids to become “Junior Rangers” at National Parks by completing a fun activity book obtained at visitor centers. They’ll learn loads about the park you’re visiting in a fun and engaging way (you probably will too!).
If you visit the Statue of Liberty National Monument, make advance reservations to climb the stairs into Lady Liberty’s head. One of my kids’ most memorable experiences on that trip is sticking their head out of the vents in her crown and having their picture taken!
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
I am repeatedly awestruck on all of our trips. The world is a place to be revered and deserves our protection. Our public lands are a tremendous gift to ALL of us, and the best way to protect them for future generations is to expose our children to their beauty, so they have a desire to advocate for them as well.
I’m also reminded of how enormous the world is every time we travel. There’s no possible way I’ll ever see every place on my list. However, points and miles are the best chance I have to keep whittling it down and explore every nook and cranny I can.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Just get started and don’t overthink it! Start with a destination in mind before applying for a credit card, to make sure the points you’ll earn will match your ability to get there easily. And if you have a business, make sure to take advantage of applying for small business cards, too.
Also, maximize the miles & points you earn with bonus category spending. On my phone, I keep a list of the cards in my wallet and each card’s bonus categories, so I have a quick reference and won’t get them mixed up.
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!