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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!
Zack is our newest reader success story to show folks it’s possible to travel without spending a lot of money.
What’s your name and how long have you been involved in the miles & points hobby?
My name is Zack, and along with my wife Anna, we’ve been collecting miles & points since 2014. We started with the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card , and from there, we were hooked.
What was the goal of your trip?
In general, our goal is always to see as many destinations as humanly possible on a given trip, and this one was no exception. We knew our Japan Rail Passes would give us a tremendous opportunity to see as much of Honshu, Japan as we could handle. We put them to good use!
You can check out our blog post with more details of our trip here.
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
We had to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and so ~6 months before the trip we signed up for the Chase Hyatt card in order to earn the 2 free night certificates (this was just before the sign-up bonus was changed). Aside from that, we already had a pretty big stash of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Hilton points, and Expedia+ points, so we were good to go.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
We transferred 45,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt for stays at the Hyatt Regency Hakone and Hyatt Regency Kyoto. And redeemed 13,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points directly through the Chase Travel Portal to stay at the Cross Hotel Osaka. We then used a Hyatt free night certificate at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and a Hilton free night certificate (from the now defunct Citi Hilton Reserve card) at the Conrad Tokyo.
We also redeemed 95,000 Hilton points for a second night at the Conrad Tokyo, and finally, used 8,500 Expedia+ points to stay at the Chisun Hotel Hiroshima. In total, our points were worth ~$3,100 in free travel!
Which cards (max 5) would you recommend to open for a trip like yours?
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is a great choice both for Hyatt transfers and direct bookings through the Chase Travel Portal. Additionally, the Chase Hyatt card, though limited by the new sign-up bonus, will still earn you enough for a night at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, plus extra Hyatt points that can be used toward one of the excellent Hyatt Regency hotels, and so is still a solid option.
We leaned heavily on Chase Ultimate Rewards points. But a card earning AMEX Membership Rewards points (such as the The Platinum Card® from American Express) would have also been great for several reasons. Not only can AMEX Membership Rewards points be transferred directly to All Nippon Airways, but they also transfer to Choice Hotels. And while Choice hotel redemptions are often ignored (for good reason), redeeming Choice points can be surprisingly valuable in Japan.
How did you search and find the award flights?
For various reasons, our window for travel was very rigid. Not only were our dates and times inflexible, but as soon as we were able to book the trip, we had to purchase our airfare immediately. Therefore, we paid cash for ANA in Premium Economy, using the Citi Prestige for both the $250 airfare rebate as well as earning 3X Citi ThankYou points on the tickets.
As noted above, if we had a little more wiggle room, I would have explored transferring AMEX Membership Rewards points to ANA.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
The Park Hyatt Tokyo and Conrad Tokyo are pretty typical bucket-list redemptions for Tokyo. So those were already on my mind. The Hyatt Regency Hakone is also regarded as one of the best Hyatt Regency properties, so we wanted to stay there as well. For the rest, we relied on word-of-mouth and TripAdvisor.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Trying to fit 6 destinations into 8 nights was tough, even with the flexibility that the Japan Rail Pass offers. Two indispensable resources were the HyperDia app, which allowed us to plan our rail routes down to the minute several weeks in advance, as well as the guidebook Japan by Rail. I would say both are must-have resources for a trip like this.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
In Tokyo, the Robot Restaurant is touristy but necessary (in my mind). And if you’re staying at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, you obviously need to grab a drink at the New York Bar (perhaps after watching or re-watching Lost in Translation for a refresher).
In Hakone, Itoh by Nobu was an incredible and intimate dining experience.
In Kyoto, hire a guide! The must-see destinations are quite far flung, and you’ll never be able to cover all that ground on your own (we highly recommend Tetsuo Shimoyama from privatetour-kyoto.com, but there are many options).
Also, try to stay at least 1 night in a traditional Ryokan — our experience at Hiiragiya was one-of-a-kind.
Finally, for anyone thinking about the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, I highly recommend the visit. We were initially concerned it might be too somber for our trip, but it was an enlightening and eye-opening experience.
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
I learned Japan is an incredibly diverse place — the bustle of Tokyo, the ancient streets of Kyoto, the culinary scene in Osaka — and that any assumptions I might have about a place I’ve never been to are almost invariably off-the-mark. And my wife learned she really can fit 9 days worth of clothing into a carry-on if she applies herself!
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 do it! Even if you’re not sure where you want to go, start with a card earning transferable points and go from there. You don’t need to have an entire trip planned out before you apply for your first card, and maybe starting a stash of miles & points will inspire you to see where they can take you!
Want to Share Your Story?
If you’d like to be considered for our reader success story series, please send me a note! Emily and I would love to hear about how you travel with miles and points!