“Travel, especially international travel, is costly.”, that is often the presumption most people hold. So when I told my friends back in May, that I was planning a 10-day trip to Europe, where I’d be flying business class among the 4 different European countries I was about to explore, and staying at a hotel suite with a private pool, overlooking the Aegean Sea, they either thought that I hit the jackpot, or that I was a “trust fund babe”, or that I was simply going “cray cray”…But the truth is, I paid nothing out of my pocket besides government-imposed taxes and fees (therefore almost free) for my flights to and from, as well within Europe; and the nice hotel suite was also free. So how did I pull that off? Today I’m going to introduce a very valuable “currency” that not so many people know about — credit card reward points.
I’m sure many of you have credit cards that offer some sort of reward points or cash backs, but not all credit card points are of the same value. The “major players” in the points game these days are Chase Ultimate Reward (UR) points, American Express Membership Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points, and Citi Thank you points. For this particular trip, I mainly used Chase UR points to cover my flight and accommodation expenses. Therefore, I’m going to use my trip as an example to show you how you can maximize the value of your Chase UR points while traveling in style.
Originally, when I first got the idea of going on a trip in Europe, I didn’t mean to make it a “luxury” one, so when I came across a good-value open jaw flight ticket, flying from Philadelphia to London, then from Paris back to Philadelphia, I booked instantly, through Chase Ultimate Reward travel portal, by redeeming 44750 UR points from my Chase Sapphire Reserve card, at a 1:1.5 ratio, to purchase a ticket that was $671.26. So I paid nothing out of my pocket.
As I was planning the trip within Europe, one day, it suddenly occurred to me that I had always wanted to visit Greece. And since I purchased an open jaw flight ticket, I could build in a quick trip to Santorini, Greece, instead of just taking a train from London to Paris.
It was soon after the incident where United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger from its flight, and everybody was NOT happy with United. As I was researching my flight options within Europe, I suddenly rememered that I had a bunch of United miles sitting in my account, then a light-bulb moment struck me, “why don’t I book an award ticket with all these miles!”
So I went onto UA’s website to look for award flights. To my surprise, the award availability from London to Athens, and from Athens to Paris was wide open! I could find award seats pretty much every day during my trip! And one good thing about UA’s website is that it shows other Star Alliance members’ award flights as well. So when I came across the Business Class seats from Turkish Airlines with a layover in Istanbul, I knew it was the one. Not only because Turkish Airlines had been nominated as the Best Airline in Europe for many years and their CIP Lounge in Istanbul is one of the best airport lounges in the world, but also because TA deployed A330-300 wide-body jets for this route, while other airlines used smaller planes, like A321. My AV geek side kicked in, and chose a flight with a longer layover in Istanbul on purpose, so that I can have more time to experience the famous CIP Lounge in Turkey (a flight/lounge review will be up in the near future).
The TA Business Class award tickets were 25K UA miles each way, plus government imposed taxes and fee, so in total I needed 50K UA miles for the round trip. But I only had 30K UA miles in my account at that moment, and here was when Chase Ultimate Reward points came to rescue. United Airlines is one of the 11 transfer partners of Chase. Ultimate Reward points can be transferred to UA miles at 1:1 ratio, and the transfer can be done instantaneously. So I transferred 20K UR points to my United account instantaneously, and booked the round trip Business Class tickets. In the end, I only paid $133.90 government imposed taxes and fees for 2 Business Class tickets that retailed for $6000 at that time. (Score!)
Now if you look closely at the snapshot above, you can find the dates on the tickets are inconsistent with my trip dates, and no, it wasn’t a mistake. It was a trick I played to avoid the $75 per ticket close-in booking fee. Basically, United charges a $75 “close-in booking fee” for award ticket booked less than 21 days in advance. And it was only 2 weeks away from my trip, so I had to play a trick to game the UA ticket system to avoid the fee. And my real itineraries are as follows.
After all the flight tickets were taken care of, I started my hotel booking process. And again, I used Chase Ultimate Reward travel portal for most of the bookings. Out of all the countries I visited, Greece is definitely the most memorable one. Not only because the views in Santorini was breathtaking (it still gives me goosebumps when I think about it right now), but also because I stayed at a hotel suite that normally costs $3000 per night after tax, for totally free!
The hotel I stayed at in Greece is called Santorini Secret Suites & Spa. I originally booked the Grant Suite with Private Pool & Caldera View. The rate at the time of my booking was a little over $1200 per night. And since I have Chase Sapphire Reserve card, I was able to redeem only 80K UR points for the suite through the Chase UR travel portal, same procedure as my flight booking. And as I’m writing this article, I just went to check the rate for Grant Suite again, which is now more than $2000 before tax. (Who says Greece is going bankrupt?!🙄)
I was so excited that I finally got to visit Greece, so when I landed in Athens from Istanbul, I felt even the air smelled sweeter. As I was picking up my rental car from Hertz in Santorini airport, the agent told me that he could upgrade me to a brand new Audi A3 Cabriolet, and I was literally the first customer to drive this car! “Hell yeah! Let’s do this!” I almost gave this agent a high-five!
The odometer proved his words, this sweet baby only had 14km in mileage!
And the sweet treatment continued. After a 30-minute drive along the whining road on the island, I arrived in the town of Oia, where my hotel is located. (Legend has it that Oia has the most beautiful sunset in the world.) When I got to the hotel, it was still early in the morning. So the front desk lady, Maria, brought me to the hotel restaurant, Black Rock, to treat me with a complementary breakfast while I waited for my room to be ready. The Black Rock restaurant is on the cliff overseeing the Aegean Sea. So I got to enjoy the view while having my breakfast, thinking “This must be what heaven looks like!😍”.
After I finished my breakfast, the 2 nice ladies at the front desk told me that I was upgraded to their most expensive Honeymoon Suite, with a private infinity pool and a private spa room! (I almost pinched myself as if it was a dream! Because I knew the regular rate for their Honeymoon Suite is over $3000 after tax! What did I do to deserve this?!😭)
One lady even gave me a tour of my suite because it was so freaking big! There were 2 beds in the bedroom, one of which was a round bed… I wonder where they got the bed sheet from🤔…?
After I settled in my suites, I jumped into my private infinity pool overlooking the caldera and the Mediterranean Sea. Life could not be better…
It was definitely a trip of a lifetime, and I thank Chase’s UR points to make it happen for free. And by now, I’m sure many of you have the same question, “How (the hell) did you rack up so many points?” Well, congratulations, you just predicted the topic of my next post! Keep your eyes peeled, because I’m going to teach you how you can earn points in different ways!