Both my wife and I are music teachers, and when we get breaks during the year, we try to travel as much as possible. With our income, coupled with our desire to try to travel luxuriously, getting the best value from our credit card points was an amazing way to help us plan two exotic vacations without spending much money.
This year, we really wanted to vacation in Hawaii, safari in Tanzania, relax in Cape Town, and visit family in India. We were able to do huge chunks of those trips for just $2,620 out of pocket!
Let’s start with the credit cards I needed to accumulate the points that would make this trip a reality.
First, we knew that we wanted as many Marriott points as possible to help fund our entire week in Hawaii. So in late 2016, I signed up for the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Card (80k signup bonus). After adding my wife as an authorized user (7.5k points) and completing the minimum spend (3k), we had just over 90,000 Marriott points.
As the merger between SPG and Marriott was completed, I knew that accumulating SPG points was a great way to add onto my Marriott points balance. AMEX was offering a 35,000 bonus on their SPG Personal Credit Card in early 2017. I signed up first, referred my wife (which gave me an additional 10,000 points), and then had get the same card. All in all, with about 10k spend on both cards, the two SPG cards netted us 90k SPG points.
When I transferred my SPG points to Marriott (1:3 transfer ratio), my total was now at 360k Marriott points, which is exactly what I needed to book a Marriott Hotel + Air Package in Maui!
We booked 7 nights during our April vacation at the Wailea Beach Resort in Maui, a category 8 property that recently went through a significant renovation! In addition to this, we received 132k United miles included with our package! Although I tried to use those points to book airfare Boston to Maui, there wasn’t any saver level availability on our dates since it was spring break for most schools in Boston. I instead purchased one-way tickets on American for $375 to get to Maui and redeemed 22.5k Delta miles for each of us on the return flight home.
Back to the 132k United miles I had just accumulated: I knew we wanted to take a huge trip to Africa and India in the summer, and MileagePlus saver awards are plentiful to the destinations I wanted. We wanted to visit Tanzania for a safari, Cape Town to relax, and India to visit my family. Ordinarily with our budget, we never fly business or first class, but after doing some research, I learned that upgrading to business class for this entire itinerary would basically cost me about $2500 total for both of us! Our itinerary was BOS—DAR—CPT—BOM—BOS. I calculated that I needed 320k United MileagePlus miles to fly my wife and I in business class for most of the trip. This is thanks to the great United Excursionist Perk that made our leg from DAR—CPT free! (and in business class!). Unfortunately, after the recent MileagePlus devaluation, you would now need 330k United miles to complete this same itinerary.
Having 20k United miles already in my account when I signed up for the Marriott Hotel and Air package, my total went up to 152k United miles. I was 168k short of what I needed! Ordinarily, I would never think about purchasing miles, but in this case, United was offering a 100% bonus on all miles purchases, so I thought this would at least be a decent value. I purchased the maximum amount of miles you can in a year, 150k. That cost me about $2,700! Even though it felt like a lot of money, I quickly realized that it was getting me close to $19,000 worth of tickets and the comfort of a lie-flat seat for all of the long-haul flights. However, even with the 150k, I was still 18k short! My last step was to transfer 18k of my Chase points from my Chase Sapphire Reserve account to United—a 1:1 transfer that happened instantaneously. I finally had my 320k, and I was on the phone with a United representative almost immediately to book my ticket!
I ended up booking a flight on SWISS from BOS to DAR because Swiss has a lie-flat product that flies to DAR. I noticed that Turkish Airlines or Egypt Air (the other options, did not.). For the flight from DAR-CPT, the leg was completely free for both of us and connected in Johannesburg on South African Airways. The final leg from JNB—CPT was on the A340-300 with fully reclining seats! I ended up purchasing an economy ticket from CPT to BOM on Emirates for 320 dollars each, which I thought was a much better value than using miles or points. My other choice was a 2-stop flight on Air Seychelles for 260 dollars, but I chose the more reputable airline in this case. The final leg from BOM—BOS will be on Turkish Airlines. I really enjoy their catering (one of the best in the business) and am excited to show my wife the crazy, but enormous business class lounge in IST.
All in all, I was able to book parts of two vacations for my wife and I using 3 credit cards, minimal cash (for a trip this extensive), and the Marriott Air and Hotel package. This ended up saving us about $19,000 (the value of the hotel in Hawaii and all of those business class flights to Africa and India) and further demonstrated how you can totally plan extraordinary trips for a reasonable price thanks to miles and points!
Recently, two friends asked me to plan a vacation for them to an all-inclusive resort in either the Caribbean or Mexico. They provided their dates, price range, and wish list, and I did the research and presented the best options to them. I ended up proposing Le Blanc in Cancun as a resort they should consider. It is well documented as the best all-inclusive resort in Cancun (according to ratings) and Mexico provides a better value for money than most of the Caribbean. (especially since flights to Cancun are cheaper). If you use Le Blanc's website, an all-inclusive package including meals, room, airport transfers, and flights is $5,100 for 6 nights. However, since I was taking my time and researching multiple other sites, I was able to find a much lower price for the identical package on CostcoTravel for only $4,500. On top of that, anyone who books this package at Costco receives a $300 gift card to shop at Costco, further reducing your out of pocked cost to $4,200! So if you are a Costco member and looking to book an all-inclusive vacation, check out CostcoTravel. I was able to save my friends almost $900 by knowing where to look for the best deal possible!
Hawaii is an aspirational vacation for many people. The convenience of being in the United States coupled with the perfect weather and scenic geography is a unique combination for many travelers. However, flights and hotels in Hawaii are not the only expensive part of the vacation. Once in Hawaii, prices for food, tours, and transportation can add on serious costs. Most couples need to save at least $5,000 to vacation in Hawaii for a week. My wife and I recently spent a week in Maui for under $2,000. Here are some tips that helped us save money!
TIP #1: BOOK WAY IN ADVANCE or LAST MINUTE, AND KNOW WHEN THE PRICE IS RIGHT
When looking for the cheapest flights, know what a good deal is: From the East Coast or Middle of the Country, fares under $800 round-trip are available during peak times if you book way in advance. Sometimes, last minute flights are even cheaper. Flying from Detroit to Kona next month is only $373 round-trip! From the west coast, never pay more than $400 round trip. Tickets as low as $300 are occasionally found. Use google flights to track prices for a few weeks before pulling the trigger.
TIP #2: IF NOTHING CHEAP IS AVAILABLE, USE MILES
The following airline currencies are the best value for redeeming miles to Hawaii: Air France Flying Blue, Korean SkyPass, British Airways Avios (from the west coast), Alaska MileagePlan, and Singapore KrisFlyer. All of these airlines offer round trip tickets to Hawaii from the mainland for 25k--35k miles. Availability is often difficult to find, so you really need to research how to redeem these currencies and which airlines they partner with. As a comparison, Delta, American, and United offer flights to Hawaii for more than 40k round trip.
TIP #3: STAY IN A PLACE WITH A KITCHEN
Unfortunately, dining options in Hawaii are quite expensive. Each meal can cost more than $75/couple. Using groceries stores like Costco and spending time cooking at home can save lots of money in a week. My wife and I asked for a microwave in our hotel room, and only spent $150 all week on breakfast and lunch by eating in our room and packing sandwiches to go.
TIP #4: TRAVEL TO THE BIG ISLAND
All of the islands in Hawaii are spectacular. The big island (also known as Hawai'i) tends to be the cheapest for accommodations. Because the island is more spread out and less congested than Maui or Oahu, prices for Hotels and AirBnB's tend to be cheaper here, while there is more to see on this beautiful island than the smaller island of Kauai.
TIP #5: TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HAPPY HOURS
When eating out, we found amazing happy hour specials on both food and alcohol in nearly every restaurant. Food would be discounted nearly 50% and many drinks were cheaper as well. Beer and Wine tends to be much cheaper in Hawaii than cocktails. We spent two meals at Maui Brewing Company and saved over 50% on our bill by ordering pizzas before 5:30pm! Our dinner bill never went up past $75 using this strategy.
TIP #6: USE AUTOSLASH FOR CAR RENTAL
When renting a car, use the company AUTOSLASH! We were able to get a luxury car for the week in Maui for only $270. However, if you want to cut costs even more, avoid renting a car for the days you want to relax by the pool or beach. Car rental companies are available in many tourist areas around the city, not just the airport. Renting a Jeep or Convertible for a few days instead of a week could save you hundreds!
TIP #7: USE INTER-ISLAND FLIGHTS TO BE CREATIVE
When my wife and I were looking for mileage tickets to Hawaii during our spring break in Boston, we couldn't find anything available to Maui since it was vacation week! I ended up searching flights to Lihue airport on the smaller island of Kauai and found an amazingly cheap flight back to the mainland. This allowed us to use our Delta miles, see Kauai for a full day, and take a scenic inter-island flight on Hawaiian Airlines. Flexibility is usually the key when traveling during peak times.
TIP #8: THE BEACH, WEATHER, AND WATER IS FREE
The activities and tours available in Hawaii are seductive. From whale watches to snorkeling excursions, each of these activities usually costs more than $100/person and can quickly add to the cost of your trip. Hawaii has so many beaches, waterfalls, and volcanoes that can be just as entertaining. Bringing your own snorkeling equipment and snorkeling yourself can give you a similar experience to the expensive tour companies. We snorkeled with turtles and were only 20 feet off-shore in a public area!
TIP #9: VISIT PLANTATIONS AND FARMS
Another great thing to do is visit the local agricultural scene. Coffee plantations, banana farms, and other local businesses often welcome visitors to their properties without any costs. Make sure to stop at local pop-ups by the side of the road for fresh fruit, popsicles, or baked treats. The banana bread at the halfway house to Hana was the best 5 dollars we spent!
TIP #10: SKIP THE RESORT AND FIND AN AIRBNB INLAND
The prices for resorts in Hawaii can be outrageous. The dining options in these establishments can be even more shocking. The savings of staying further away from the ocean in an AirBnB can be more than 50%. If you rent a car, you can still access the water almost anywhere quickly. Using AirBnb can not only save you money on lodging and food, but can give you much for space for a family or even two! Sharing your Hawaii vacation with friends and family and renting one AirBnB can lead to huge savings on your trip! There are options as low as $40/night on the Big Island.
Ever wonder how much money one credit card signup bonus is worth? There are many websites to find the best current offers, which change constantly. Just search "best current credit card offers" to get to most updated offers. Here are some examples of current offers (as of 12/15/17) and how much free travel you can get from each of them! There are many more options than the ones listed, but this is just a start!
AMEX Platinum--Current signup bonus: 60k points (some people can get 100k points if you are targeted)
This summer, Caitlin and I traveled back to Troy, Michigan for our wedding. We wanted to stay in a hotel the entire week since 9 other family members were staying at my parent's house. I wanted a three-star property close to their house, but at an affordable price. We wanted a hotel that provided free breakfast that had good reviews. The only matches at the time on multiple websites were going for about $130/night. However, when I went to Priceline.com, I realized that they often discounts hotels greatly by not telling you what hotel you are booking, as long as they book something within your parameters. At the time, Priceline was offering a hotel that fit all of our criteria for only $51 dollars a night ($66 with taxes)! After doing some research about the what hotel it may be, I realized that they were going to book me in the Marriott in Pontiac Auburn Hills, a fantastic 3-star property, with a great lounge that provides free breakfast! (there are lots of tricks on how to figure out which hotel Priceline is going to offer you...) I went to hotels.com to check the price of the Marriott and it was $129/night! We ended up booking 5 nights through Priceline.com for only $338 and ended up saving over $300! On top of that, I was able to earn Marriott rewards from the reservation despite it being booked on a third party site like Priceline. Learning how to get a bargain on Priceline certainly saved us a ton of money, and we really enjoyed the hotel during a special week in our lives.