We devote thousands of hours of research to help you get Big Travel with Small Money. You support us by signing-up for credit cards through partner links which earn us a commission. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.
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!
Shawn 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 Shawn for sharing his story!
Please introduce yourself to everyone and tell us how long you’ve been involved in the miles & points hobby.
My name is Shawn! I started collecting miles and points when I first started traveling for work around 2009. At the time I was mainly looking for ways to get better seats on Delta flights as I was sick of sitting in the middle seats!
Low and behold, a few followed links later I stumbled into this crazy world. I was immediately hooked and started reading everything I could (including Million Mile Secrets!) about how to grow my points stash.
What was the goal of your trip?
To travel the world unhindered by the time constraints of vacation hours! The trip idea initially came about when my wife Kate and I decided that we wanted to move to Colorado. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) neither of our employers had an office there so we would have to leave our current careers to move. We decided we would take the opportunity to travel as much as we could, thinking that would be about a year.
That’s been extended a bit as I am currently typing this 14 months and 2 days after we left the USA and we don’t have any plans to stop soon!
How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
For hotels, my biggest stash was Hilton at just over 1 million points saved. I also had around 100,000 IHG points and 35,000 Starwood points. I mainly acquired the IHG points (through credit card bonuses) so that I could get Spire elite status and then have Hilton match me to Diamond elite status.
I was already Hilton Gold (again through a credit card), but Diamond elite status let us have free breakfast every morning at Glass, the swanky restaurant at the Hilton Sydney, where we stayed for 5 nights over New Years 2017! It was amazing!
For air travel I had saved around 200,000 American Airlines miles, 100,000 Virgin Atlantic miles, 80,000 Delta miles, and maybe 60,000 United Airlines miles. The American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and United Airlines miles we acquired solely through credit card bonuses. Delta was a mix of credit card and flying for work. We’ve since used these mainly for ‘big hop’ flights between continents, and I converted a lot of the Virgin Atlantic miles to Hilton.
I would be in trouble if I didn’t also mention my wife’s points. Before meeting me, she used her Capital One card for pretty much everything and had a nice stash of around 250,000 points saved along with some smaller stashes of various other programs which we sometimes combined with mine or vice versa.
What cards would you recommend to someone starting out with miles & points?
Opening cards really depends on your goal. You should determine what you want to do and work backwards. For an open ended long term trip like ours, I would recommend the following cards, but only when there is a big bonus offer:
Hilton Honors™ Surpass® Card from American Express: Some people hate on Hilton’s points valuation. I love it.
With the AMEX Hilton Surpass card, you get automatic Gold elite status which generally nets free breakfast (though usually in the lounge and not at the nice restaurant) and sometimes a nice room upgrade. You also get 5th night free which is an awesome deal. When we decide to stay at a Hilton hotel, we always take advantage of this. Hilton points are super easy to acquire via various credit cards or paid stays with double or triple points promotions.
Hilton has always taken care of me, I’m a big fan and loyal customer.
Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express: Everyone loves Starwood points. Some of the highest valued points out there. It also provides unlimited Boingo Wi-Fi access on 4 devices! For the minimal yearly fee, it’s worth it. We stayed at a nice resort hotel on the Gold Coast of Australia with Starwood points.
American Airlines Credit Cards: There are currently 4 personal cards and 1 business card available, so you can really rack up the American Airlines bonus miles! And with most of these cards, you’ll get 10% of your miles back on award redemptions.
American Airlines has a lot of partners. We used American Airlines miles for several extremely cheap flights around Australia and we recently used American Airlines points for a super cheap Etihad flight from South Africa to Egypt. Just be careful when using on British Airways, as the fees are crazy!
How did you search for and find the award flights?
Our typical first point of search is Skyscanner for the route(s) we are looking at. It searches all of the big airlines and most of the low cost ones around the world as well. Then, using some simple math, we are able to determine if using miles makes sense. If the price is right, we’ll save the miles for a better award and pay for the flight. Else we will then go to the airline website and start searching the award options.
This part can be tricky. Some airlines have really terrible award booking engines. This forces you to look up some of the airlines partners and go to their sites to find the available seats.
Then you call the proper airline award desk with the flight details to book the seat. My biggest tip here is that if you can’t book the award online and you have to call, do not let the agent try and charge you a fee for the phone booking! Also, be on the lookout for award fees that are sometimes so high that using the miles isn’t worth it!
How did you find your hotel accommodations?
Since we are traveling for a very long time, we primarily use Hostelworld and Booking.com for our hotel searches. If we are specifically planning on staying on award points, we will log-in and search the respective hotel chains for available nights. We typically only use our precious hotel points in large, expensive cities. It’s an awesome break to stay some place really nice every few months!
What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
Believe it or not, the biggest challenge we have faced was on DAY ONE of our trip traveling on a one-way ticket outside of the US. We had one-way tickets booked from Cleveland to Mumbai, India, with layovers in Detroit and Paris. We used 40,000 Delta miles each to book the tickets months in advance.
I checked-in online and printed our boarding passes as I typically do. We passed through security and got to the gate about 10 minutes before boarding. We heard our names called over the loudspeaker to check in at the gate. We figured they just wanted to check our India visas (which we had) before letting us leave for India.
The gate agent did in fact ask for our passports, and then proceeded to ask us when we were coming back to the US. We explained we were traveling for an indefinite amount of time and were planning to travel overland to Nepal after India. He said that we had to have tickets purchased showing that we were coming back to the US because the “government wants to know where you are and when you are coming back.” Knowing this was completely false we argued with him to call his supervisor. Meanwhile the flight is now boarding.
He did call the supervisor (on the phone so we couldn’t hear) and then reported back to us that he said the same thing. We asked if we could just buy a ticket (refundable) now on the spot and board. He declined that as well saying we had to have already purchased the tickets. The boarding gate is now closed.
Feeling dejected, we left the gate and headed down to the Delta desk to re-book our flights. After waiting in line, they informed us that because they were award flights that we would have to call the Delta SkyMiles desk.
We found a quiet corner and decided on a plan. We knew approximately when we wanted to leave India, so we booked a local cheap one-way flight from New Delhi to Kathmandu, Nepal, just so that we had some proof of onward travel from India (NOT back to the US though).
We called the SkyMiles line and the agent informed us that the next available award flights weren’t for 2 weeks! She was working really hard for us and then had an amazing idea. She said that since we had booked onward travel, and that our layover in Detroit was for 5 hours (3 remaining) that she could re-issue our tickets out of Detroit, and we could rent a car and drive from Cleveland to Detroit and probably just make it. Challenge accepted!
She transferred me to a car rental agency, and I was booking a car on the phone as we were running to the rental desk. We arrived at the desk and were in the car and out of the airport in literally less than 10 minutes. I drove way too fast, but we made it to Detroit, turned in the car and ran for the check in desk. Seeing our panic, the agents came out to help us check in and assured us we would just make it. Now here’s the gem:
As we are checking-in, they asked us when we were coming home. We simply said we have onward travel booked to Nepal. End of discussion. They didn’t even ask to see it.
We went through security as fast as they would let us and ran to our gate expecting it to be almost closed to boarding. Instead we found the flight delayed!
This was BY FAR the most stressful part of our 14 months on the road so far. Since we are pretty flexible in our timeline, planning is relatively easy. We just plan as we go!
Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
Traveling in any country is a lot easier than you think. Even if there isn’t a lot of English spoken. People of the world in every country are amazingly nice and helpful, despite what you might read in the news.
There is an amazing place in Kathmandu called Roadhouse Cafe that serves a sizzling brownie a la mode. You’re welcome.
The Japan rail pass is an amazing value if you’re spending at least 2 weeks in Japan. You can literally hop on and off Shinkansen (bullet) trains at will and go wherever you want, whenever you want.
Mossman Gorge in Australia is one of the most amazing places!
If you plan on hiking any of the great trails in New Zealand, book your hut stays like right now!
Bali sounds a lot cooler than it is. The Gili Islands (especially Gili Air) are way way nicer!
If you go diving at Sail Rock (Thailand), you’re almost guaranteed to see a whale shark!
Vietnam has the best food anywhere! Also, you can buy a motorbike, ride it from one end of the country to the other, and then sell it for the same price you bought it. Amazing value!
Mongolia is stunning. A week trip to stay out in the yurts of the Gobi desert is truly unforgettable.
The DMZ and JSA in South Korea are highly recommended. You will literally go to the line of North and South Korea where the soldiers stand face to face with their enemy every day.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is an amazing experience!
I have so many more but I’ll stop here, hah!
What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
I’ve learned that I don’t need “things.” For 14 months (so far) we’ve been living out of 45-liter backpacks, wearing the same clothes for days on end, and visiting many, many countries without buying a single “thing.” It’s been a great experience. Not having much really de-clutters your mind. I know exactly what’s in my pack at all times. We sold most of our stuff before we left, but after returning I think I’ll be able to trim down what we’ve kept even more. I really love living simplistic.
What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
For those planning a similar trip I would say stop planning and get going! The hardest part is taking the first step of quitting your job, selling most of your possessions, and hitting the road. It’s a big step and a big life decision. I can honestly say though we don’t regret it one bit!
For those that haven’t taken a miles and points trip, I would say to use your points the way YOU want to use them. Don’t get too caught up in only using your miles and points for maximum monetary value. Use them in a way that is maximum value TO YOU. There is a lot of chastising of people online who don’t use their points to the absolute max. It’s ridiculous.
I’ve taken award flights in First Class and ones in coach. For me, I’d rather take more free flights in a lower class than just one luxurious flight in First Class. But that’s me. As they say on the Pacific Crest Trail, hike your own hike!
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!