You’re here because you like to travel, and you want to do it more and spend less doing it. Some of the readers here have mentioned wanting to learn more about how I maximize points without using all of them to travel on one trip. Some have wondered how I book trips without spending tons of money. If you’ve read my previous posts, you probably know that we are planning a trip to Japan in April. So I thought one of the best ways to share some of these tips with you would be to share details about an actual trip that we are in the midst of planning right now: with real figures about points, rewards, and dollars used.
In these sample trips posts, I’ll share details on the flights and hotels I booked, along with information and tips in three areas:
1) How did I do it?
2) How to do it even cheaper
3) What to watch out for
So, here they are: the details about how my wife and I are going to Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong – with all flights and hotels included – for less than $700 (less than $350 each).
Spokane to Hong Kong, stopover in Seoul: $0 ($472.30 each before using 62,972 total points)
Hong Kong to Osaka: $53.83 ($26.92 each – more on this below)
Tokyo to Spokane: $115.32 ($57.66 each, using 25,000 Alaska miles each)
Total for flights: $169.15 (84.58 each)
1 night in Seoul: $3.87 ($53.87 before using $50 gift card)
3 nights in Hong Kong: $0 (8,564 points used to cover $128.47)
1 night in Osaka: $17.55 (1 hotels.com free night used worth $93.53)
3 nights in Kyoto: $273.54
3 nights in Tokyo: $223.15 (2 hotels.com free nights used worth $203.59)
Total for 11 nights at hotels: $518.11 ($47.10 average per night)
Total for all flights and hotels for two people: $687.26
How did I do it?
I Used Points and Miles
It’s the easiest way to reduce the cost of travel on already good deals. Each Chase Sapphire reward point is worth 1.5 cents when booking through the Chase reward website if you have the Sapphire Reserve card (learn more), so they’re pretty valuable in relation to other point programs. While we initially had the round trip booked using Alaska Airlines miles, I chose to change out the outbound trip for one purchased with these points for two reasons:
1) It helps me earn points from points (see below for more)
2) It helped us visit two additional countries than Japan for basically nothing
When it comes to using miles, I’m very careful about what I use them for. Generally, I don’t use them to book domestic travel unless I’m only finding terrible deals (like around the holidays). Internationally, it’s worth it to use miles when there isn’t a reasonable deal to be found. For example, flights to Europe are pretty cheap on a regular basis, so I’d never use miles to fly there. But if my flight is $800 (like I was finding for Tokyo to Spokane), I’ll use miles. Using 25k miles for an $800 one-way ticket makes the miles worth 3.2 cents each. Replacing a one-way to Europe that costs $200 with the same 25k miles would make each mile worth less than one cent each (.008). Balancing what’s worth it for mileage travel helps you get the most out of your free travel.
You also probably noticed I used hotels.com reward nights for some of the hotel stays. Their pricing per night may be slightly more than using priceline.com, but you can see the exact hotel you’re staying at, and you get a free night for every ten nights you stay – at basically any hotel brand. That’ a way better value than collecting points from a specific brand of hotel.
Sapphire Reserve Travel Credit
Every year, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card charges you $450 in the form of an annual fee. That helps pay for it’s many travel perks (like airport lounge access). But in the end, it’s really only $150 because of the $300 annual travel credit. How does it work? They credit your account for the first $300 in travel purchases you make each year. While this saves on the annual fee, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free travel – it just means you’re getting a refund for your annual fee (that’s how I see it), because you spent $450 to get that $300 – not exactly the definition of free. But there’s a loophole we discovered – and that’s why I’ve included this here under “How did I do it?”
If you sign up for the Sapphire Reserve at the right time (for us, it was mid-January), you are able to get your $300 annual travel credit before you pay the $450 annual fee. That means, if you book over $300 in travel and then cancel your card before the year is over, you can gain the benefit without the fee – which is exactly what we did.That means a $353.83 flight from Hong Kong to Osaka turned into $53.83 (or less than $27 for each of us). That price even includes a water bottle and priority boarding for each of us, which I normally wouldn’t purchase, but the airline says it doesn’t allow any outside food or dink to be brought on board (even if purchased in the airport).
Another factor to consider is that we cancelled my wife’s card, and not mine (we both signed up to get the point signup bonus they were offering). That means we still get the great benefits through my card, but don’t have the $150 net annual fee twice a year. So, all said and done, this only works if you have two people with the same card, and are looking to cancel one of them anyway (as we were). In other words, we got lucky. Maybe some of you can, too.
I Booked with Hong Kong Dollars
When purchasing our flight from Hong Kong to Osaka, they gave me an option to pay in American Dollars (USD) and Hong Kong Dollars (HKD). After calculating out the price it was charging me using either method, I saved about $45 by booking using the HKD option. Make sure if you do this, that your credit card doesn’t charge you foreign transaction fees.
I Earn Points from Points
While it may sound crazy, you can actually travel for free and earn more free travel while doing it. That’s exactly why I re-booked our flight out to Asia with my Sapphire points. By booking a flight this way, it looks to the airline like a normal ticket purchase. That means you can earn miles on the flight (as opposed to earning none when you travel using airline miles). Some of the miles I used to book our return flight on this trip were collected while flying on KLM in 2014 for our honeymoon – a flight that cost me $0 because it was paid for with points. This is one fundamental reason why I don’t grab airline credit cards, because even at three miles per dollar, they’re not as valuable as three points per dollar where I can earn miles on my award flight.
I Set Myself Up for Spending Less
You probably noticed that we aren’t flying in to Tokyo from Hong Kong. Instead, we decided to go directly in to Osaka (KIX). That decision did two things: It allowed us to save time by not having to take the train down from Tokyo and saved us from potentially having to spend the night before being able to do so. We wanted to have some time in Tokyo, but since we are flying out of Tokyo , we would end up there anyway. Why not start with the other main place we wanted to go? It just so happened that there’s a great aquarium in Osaka and we found a good deal on a hotel just steps away from it – there’s our first day, and with more direct travel to where we wanted to go. You’ll also see a bit later that in doing this, it extended the usefulness of the Japan Rail pass so that we will have use of it until we leave.
How to Do it Even Cheaper
Good idea: Go during a less busy time
One of the reasons why we spent so much on places to stay was because we are going during a time that could be peak season for cherry blossoms in Japan, and there are two places you can see the most of them: Kyoto and Tokyo – both places we are staying three nights each. That’s like trying to book hotels in the northeast USA during fall colors season (translation: it’s either hard or expensive, if not both).
You might be thinking that one of the reasons you’d go to Japan is to see the cherry blossoms, and if it is (like it is for us), then you’ll have a hard time avoiding these challenges. If not, going just a little later might save you some money and open up more possibilities for what you can see and do. One of the places we were hoping to see was an area with wisteria gardens – but it doesn’t hit peak time until around May. So, you may miss out on one thing but gain another and be able to save as well.
Good idea: Book hotels early
As soon as you know where you’ll be and for how long, try to book soon – especially if you’re going to see something like the cherry blossoms in Japan. I looked at our Lonely Planet travel guide in Kyoto and found a couple good lodging options that weren’t a lot of money, but when I went to the website, all the rooms were booked already. I searched hotels.com to see what I could find, and a good percentage of places were already booked. In fact, one hotel I looked at and considered booking became fully booked and didn’t even show up on my search just a couple days after I looked. So, if you can plan far enough out, it might save you more on hotels. The reason we didn’t is because we were trying to finalize what we were going to do on which days so we could know how many nights we even needed to book in which place.
Maybe a good idea: Share a bathroom
This could have saved a ton. Many places to stay (guest houses, hostels) have rooms that share a bathroom with other guests. In a hostel, usually you’re sharing the same room with others, but guest houses and some hostels have separate rooms you can have to yourself, while still sharing a bathroom. If you’re not married (or are and neither of you care about having your own bathroom), maybe this isn’t a big deal to you. If it isn’t, you can save a whole lot of money.
Bad idea: Use more points
Of course, I could have saved even more by using more points on hotels when they were most expensive – but I don’t typically do that. That’s because I most always want to reserve a good deal of my points to be able to go somewhere else. In this case, I finished booking these with over 200,000 points my Sapphire reserve account. You can do the math, but I’ll save you that work: I used less than 63,000 points for about $950 in free flights, which means those 200k points are probably worth at least $3,000 in travel. Why save so many? Because I’m always thinking about where I want to go next, which you can read about here. So, by saving points and using some now, I can afford this trip and set myself up for being able to afford another big trip in the near(ish) future.
What to watch out for
Often, travelers come home having spent much more money than they budgeted to spend. That’s because we tend to think something is going to be a cheap trip if we find a good deal on flights. That’s why I’m including this information about things to watch out for once you’re there.
On this particular trip, the biggest non-flight or hotel expense is the rail passes in Japan. In Hong Kong, things are fairly cheap, but that’s not the case with a Japan Rail Pass. They run at least $250 for a week-long pass (in coach class, first class is about $100 more), which can add up pretty quickly if you’ve got more than a solo trip planned. That week-long pass may actually not cover you for seven 24-hour periods, because if you start using it in the evening of day 1, that part-day counts as a full day toward the seven days. When looking at rail or bus passes, be sure to inspect the details like this. Most will probably be similar in that respect – one time I found myself walking back to my hotel at 1:00 in the morning without a map through the streets of Rome because my metro pass expired just before I tried to walk through the turnstile near the Colosseum where I was trying to take pictures a few minutes before.
In Japan, if you’re planning to hop around the country for a whole week, spending the money on the pass may be well with the money, especially because it gives you access to the shinkansen (bullet trains), which will cut down on travel times and allow you to see more – which is almost definitely cheaper than returning for a second trip because you wanted to drive by car the distance from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and ended up missing seeing the monkeys bathing in the hot springs of the Japan Alps because you ran out of time.
I hope you have been able to get some ideas for maximizing your point and reward travel by seeing how I chose to use some of mine on our trip to Japan, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Thanks for reading and please share with others to spread the word, and if you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below!