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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!
Darren is sharing the 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?
We are Darren and Sherry Keast. And we almost always travel with our 4 children, Chenoa, Trinity, Tandela, and Safiya. We also operate a vacation property management company near Orlando, Florida, called Paradise Properties. If any of you are looking for a rental in the Orlando area, we’ll give you a 10% discount! Just be sure to put a note in your inquiry or booking to let us know you found us on Million Mile Secrets!
We have been collecting miles and points since 2013. So far, we have earned ~14.6 million miles and points. And we’ve used ~10 million miles and points in ~5 years.
What was the goal of your trip?
This trip was originally intended to be a trip to Greece to fulfill Sherry’s lifelong dream of visiting the places she had learned about in middle school. I have always wanted to visit Egypt, and Sherry wanted to see Petra. So we added those to our itinerary.
By time we had figured out the flights, we ended up seeing Montreal, Istanbul, London, and New York as well!
As most of our trips do, it morphed into an epic journey that included Montreal, Greece (Athens, Meteora, Rhodes), Turkey (Bodrum, Istanbul), Egypt (Cairo, Luxor), Jordan (Amman, Petra), London, and New York. We traveled by planes, trains, boats, automobiles, camels, and donkeys!
In total, we visited 12 cities in 6 countries on 4 continents in 18 days!
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
We follow a strict plan of picking up as many miles and points as we can, as often as we can. And we put them away until we find a use for them. So it’s hard to say how long we collected for this particular trip. We used a total of 1,409,800 miles and points for this trip. It generally takes us 6 to 9 months to earn this many miles and points.
Which points did you save to take your trip?
We originally were trying to use our American Airlines miles we had earned from the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard to fly to Europe. However, they were not the right tool for the job. There were virtually no available seats without flying on British Airways (which come with massive surcharges).
We ended up using 315,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles (partly transferred from AMEX Membership Rewards) to fly Air Canada and Turkish Airlines Business Class from Orlando to Montreal to Istanbul to Athens. We ended up having ~10 hours in Montreal. So we rented a van and visited Mount Royal, and took a carriage ride through old Montreal and stopped for some poutine!
We used 132,000 ANA miles (also transferred from AMEX Membership Rewards) to fly from Bodrum to Istanbul to Luxor to Cairo to Amman to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and EgyptAir, with 2-night stays in Luxor, Cairo, and Amman.
We also used 345,000 United Airlines miles (partly transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards) to fly Turkish Airlines and United Airlines Business Class from Istanbul to London to New York to Orlando, with 23 and 22-hour stops in London and New York.
We used 302,000 Club Carlson points to stay 4 nights in Athens and 2 nights in Istanbul in 2 rooms (back when the credit card offered every second night free).
We used 36,800 Hyatt points (partly transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards) for 2 nights (cash and points) in 2 rooms in Amman and 1 night in 2 rooms in New York (technically in Jersey City, right across the river).
We used 2 free night certificates from the IHG Rewards Club credit cards (the free night certificate for this card has changed) and another from an IHG promotion (equivalent to 150,000 IHG points in total) to stay 1 night in London in 3 rooms.
We used a free night certificate from the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, plus 15,000 Marriott points to stay for 1 night in 2 rooms in Bodrum, Turkey.
We used 72,000 Hilton points (cash and points) to stay 2 nights in 3 rooms in Luxor, Egypt.
Finally, we used 27,000 Starwood points to stay 1 night in 2 rooms in Rhodes, Greece, and 2 different hotels in Cairo.
In total, our flights and hotels should have cost us ~$109,100. But with miles and points, it only cost us ~$4,400!
Which cards would you recommend to open for a trip like yours?
For the most part, I recommend opening cards whenever there is a great offer for them.
However, for this trip (and most trips), cards that earn flexible points were particularly helpful. So I would recommend the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Business Preferred, The Platinum Card® from American Express, The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN (business or personal version when the bonus is at least 100,000 AMEX Membership Rewards points), and American Express EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card.
How did you search and find the award flights?
After I gave up on using American Airlines miles for our trip, I knew I had enough miles and points to make the trip on Star Alliance airlines. So I started searching on United Airlines from all of the North American hubs. And all of the European hubs to cross the Atlantic.
Once I found the Montreal to Istanbul and London to New York flights which had 6 Business Class seats open, I searched on the United Airlines site for ways to get to and from Orlando and from Istanbul to Athens.
With the rather circuitous routing we ended up with, I was able to take advantage of the option of up to 24-hour connections on reward tickets to visit Montreal (which we had never seen before), London, and New York (2 of our favorite cities).
Once we had figured out the rest of the journey, I also searched the United Airlines site for the short flights. Using United Airlines miles, the short flights would have cost us more than 400,000 miles. But using ANA miles, it was only 132,000 miles!
It was very expensive to fly out of Athens, because of taxes and airport fees. So we used ferries to go from Athens to Rhodes to Bodrum, where we could fly to Egypt for much less than flying out of Athens. Plus, we got to see 2 more places!
We could not get award tickets for 2 of us for one flight in Egypt, so we had to pay cash. However, I used the EgyptAir site in Egypt, rather than the American EgyptAir site, and saved nearly 50% on the cash tickets. It often pays to check the airline’s home country website whenever paying for flights in other countries.
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
I used AwardMapper to see all of my options for each city on our trip. I used TripAdvisor to find well-reviewed locations, and then went to the individual hotel’s chain website to search for award nights. We were able to find availability in the hotels we wanted without any issue.
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Finding Business Class seats across the Atlantic for 6 of us while school is not in session and it is not our busy season (so basically just June) was the biggest challenge. As noted above, searching each and every hub in the alliance you have chosen and every transatlantic route from those hubs is how I managed to find availability.
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
Definitely visit Montreal. A wonderful city with great people.
When you are in Greece, from our perspective, get out of Athens. It was a major disappointment, with big crowds, wicked traffic, and hawkers harassing at every turn. Definitely go out to visit the monasteries at Meteora. Rhodes has pretty much everything Athens has, plus much more without all of the negatives.
For us, we would highly recommend getting tour guides in Egypt. Despite going when many people were afraid to, we never had any concerns about our safety, and everything ran like clockwork. In fact, Egypt is probably the country where the people were most accepting (even celebrating) of our multiracial family.
Also, definitely go now while tourism is still suffering. Not only does it help the people of Egypt, you can see everything without crowds. We had the Temple of Luxor and the Temple of Hatshepsut completely to ourselves when we were there.
Also, go see everything in Egypt very early in the morning. We spent ~6 hours each day touring, and were back at the hotel by noon every day but one. The other day we stayed out past noon, and it was brutally hot (and we came from Florida, so you know it was seriously hot). If you can afford it (because you have paid for everything else with miles and points!), spring for a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.
The Hilton Luxor is a great hotel with wonderful people. But the Le Meridien Pyramids in Cairo is a dirty hotel with nasty people. The Italian restaurant in the Grand Hyatt Amman is pricey, but has great food.
We had excellent luck with using Tours by Locals in several places along the way.
If you are visiting Jordan with a large family like ours, you can be your own tour group! Jordan has a tourist visa that costs ~$60 per person. But if you are part of an organized tour and spend at least 2 nights in Jordan, the visa fee is waived. We used a licensed tour operator to drive us down to Petra from Amman, and spent 2 days at the Grand Hyatt Amman on points, which saved us ~$350.
Oh, and one more tip: If you are only traveling with carry-on luggage, don’t buy a bottle of wine as a souvenir!
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
Although we love to be on the go and do something every day when we travel, I found out there can be too much of a good thing. By the time we got to Istanbul on day 14, the children were getting cranky, and I was sick. So we didn’t get to do as much as we wanted to. We had also planned to see Wicked in London and New York on consecutive nights just because we could and it is kinda cool. But the family was too worn out to go in New York. We just crashed in the hotel instead.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Earn as many miles and points as you can, whenever you can. Having points available in lots of programs gives you much more flexibility and allows you to get the best value out of every program.
For this trip, we used 2 kinds of flexible bank points, 2 types of airline miles, and 6 different hotel points to make it happen! For the last 5 years, we have gotten an average value of 8.66 cents per mile for our airline miles and 1.58 cents per point for our hotels points (including 1.08 cents for our Hilton points). Diversification is your friend!
Take advantage of the sweet spots in each program; you never know when they will go away. In 2015, when we took this trip, we could get 2 award nights for the points cost of 1 night in the Club Carlson program, but not anymore. And IHG had a promotion where you could earn free nights anywhere, but not anymore. Always strike while the iron is hot!
You also need to make sure you make great use of airline partners. I used Air Canada Aeroplan miles to fly Turkish Airlines for the lowest price, and with no fuel surcharges. I used ANA miles to fly Turkish Airlines and EgyptAir for a small fraction of the miles other programs would have charged.
Finally, traveling with points and miles is NOT free. But the money you save by using them can allow you to fly in a balloon over the Valley of the Kings, take a carriage ride through old Montreal, see a show in London, and hire tour guides to allow you to get the best out of wherever you travel.
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!