My husband and I both have nine-to-five jobs with limited vacation time, so we can't travel for fun as much as we'd like to. We maximize the time we do have by attempting to travel the globe, little by little. It’s important to us to show our children the world outside the small corner we live in.
Since the arrival of our two kids, our travel style has changed from backpacking in hostels without much of a plan, to nicer hotels and even business-class flights on occasion. And with the new additions to our family, our travel costs have doubled! Now, we rely on points and miles to make amazing travel possible for our family.
Here’s how we covered all of our flights and hotels over two weeks in Eastern Europe using points and miles.
Two weeks in Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia on points
Each year we try to do one bigger trip with a few smaller ones mixed in. We’d heard great things about Croatia from several friends who had traveled there, so for this recent trip, we visited the Dalmatian Coast and parts of Eastern Europe.
On this two-week trip, we visited Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia. We flew into Dubrovnik, and from there we took a beautiful drive to Mostar, Bosnia, and then headed back to Croatia to a lovely island called Korcula.
Then we visited the beautiful port city of Split, and continued on to the Plitvice Lakes, which were absolutely stunning. We finished our trip in Slovenia, basing ourselves out of the capital city of Ljubljana for four nights and doing several day trips from there.
We knew this trip would be pretty, but the scenery and landscape turned out to be absolutely jaw-dropping. The crystal blue waters of the Croatian coastline were the clearest and brightest I've seen in the world. The Plitvice lakes were absolutely awe-inspiring, and seeing the beauty and resilience of Mostar, Bosnia was one of the best parts of the trip. The Slovenian countryside dotted with their signature hay racks just begged to be aimlessly explored.
And best of all — even though many of these spots are off the beaten large-chain hotel path, we were still able to book all our lodging using points and miles to make the adventure possible. Keep reading and I’ll explain how we made this whole family adventure happen through the careful accumulation and application of points and miles.
Since my son wasn’t yet two when we took this trip, we only needed to buy three seats on these flights. My husband and I both periodically travel for work (usually on United), so we each had a stash of United miles that we used for this trip.
The largest chunk of United miles we earned for this trip, though, came from our United Explorer Cards. Since we use the “two-player mode” to earn points and miles, we each signed up for the United Explorer Card — at the time, it had a sign-up bonus of 70,000 miles. You can still do great by signing up for this card with the current sign-up bonus, though — earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months (plus an additional 10,000 bonus miles after spending $6,000 in the first 6 months).
We also earned (and continue to earn) easy extra miles by using the United MileagePlusX (MPX) app. Whenever we shop or eat out, we check the app to see if that particular merchant participates. If so, we purchase a gift card for the exact amount we need through the app and pay the merchant with the gift card. While this takes a small bit of extra time, by doing this we earn bonus United miles on top of the regular credit card points.
If you’re a United credit cardholder using this app strategy, then you’ll also earn an extra 25% miles — even if you don’t pay with your United card. When you log into the MPX app, it will simply recognize that you’re a United credit card holder and give you the extra 25% automatically. Such an easy bonus!
Despite all these easy earnings, at the time we booked our trip, we still needed a few thousand United miles to have enough to get our tickets. So we just transferred the rest over from the Chase Ultimate Rewards that we earn on my Chase Sapphire Reserve Card since Chase offers a 1:1 rewards transfer with United.
Something to be aware of is that unlike on domestic flights where a child under two is truly free when they sit on your lap, on international flights you do have to pay a fee. United charges 10% of the full price of your ticket to add an infant.
We could have saved on this fee if we’d used our Aeroplan miles to book this flight instead since they only charge a low, flat fee of $50 to add your infant in economy or $100 in business class. But for this trip, we opted to use our United miles and swallow the larger fee. In this case, my full-fare ticket came out to $4,933 for the cash price. So I paid 10% of that to add my son to my lap, for a total of $493.
Going to Europe, we used 70,000 United miles each (for a total of 210,000 miles) to fly Aer Lingus business class from Washington, D.C. to Dubrovnik via Dublin. Though Aer Lingus isn’t part of the Star Alliance like United is, they have a partnership that allows you to use your miles. On the return flights, we used 60,000 United miles each (180,000 total) to fly United Polaris business class from Ljubljana, Slovenia, to Washington, D.C.
As you can see below, we saved a tremendous amount by opting to use our United rewards for this trip.
|Expense category||Regular price||What I paid|
|Flights||~$14,800*||$715 taxes and fees, including lap infant fee|
Flight cost estimated based on prices as of December, 2019.
Throughout our European adventure, we stayed at a mixture of large chain hotels and small boutique properties — and we were able to use points to pay for them all.
In Dubrovnik, Croatia, we spent three nights at the luxurious Imperial Hilton Dubrovnik for 70,000 points per night. Because I have Hilton Diamond elite status, we were upgraded for free to a junior suite with a spectacular balcony view of the old city.
Here’s how this happened: I had corresponded with the hotel concierge over email prior to arriving, to make sure we were okay to have both kids in the room with us, and to make sure there would be a crib available. In our email exchanges, I mentioned that since I am a Diamond member (and entitled to available room upgrades), we would surely appreciate any larger rooms that may be available. When we checked in, we were told we had been upgraded to the junior suite. I often politely ask for available upgrades in advance of checking in and am often given a better-than-standard room.
Hilton Diamond status also entitled us to full use of the Executive Lounge, as well as free daily breakfast buffet for all four of us. The Executive Lounge is a private room chock full of drinks and snacks that you can access all day, as much as you please.
I automatically received my Diamond status thanks to having a Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. Hilton Honors points are also easy to rack up quickly with the Aspire card, and frequent bonus promotions throughout the year. With this card, we earn 14X points on eligible purchases within the Hilton portfolio, 7X points on qualifying travel purchases made directly with airlines/select car rental companies or Amextravel.com, 7X points at U.S. restaurants, and 3X points on all other purchases.
For our stops in Mostar, Korcula, Split, and Plitvice, there weren’t many traditional chain hotel options — and that suited us just fine. We were able to stay at a series of unique, local properties and still use points to book them.
We used a total of just over 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book six nights across the four cities. Because we booked our stays directly through the Chase portal, our points were worth 50% more because we hold a Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. That means instead of each point being worth one cent each, we locked in a value of 1.5 cents per Ultimate Reward point.
Using Chase Ultimate Rewards is a great way to be able to book smaller, unique properties and still pay with points. One of our favorite stops was at a small, family-owned private chalet. We were able to book a two-story family cabin complete with a kitchen, child’s playroom, hot tub, and private playground set on a fairy tale-esque babbling brook — for only 11,000 points per night!
Our final leg of the trip had us staying four luxurious nights at the InterContinental Ljubljana. Since my husband and I each have the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, we each had an annual free night certificate that we used toward this stay. The final two nights were 40,000 IHG points each.
A perk of the IHG credit card is that it comes with automatic Platinum Elite status. Thanks to this status, we were upgraded for free to a Club Level room during our stay, which gave us access to an amazing complimentary breakfast every day, as well as snacks and drinks in the spectacular panoramic penthouse lounge. Oh, and an evening cocktail reception to boot!
|Expense category||Regular price||What I paid|
|Imperial Hotel Dubrovnik||$475/night x 3 = $1,425||$0|
|Small properties over 6 nights in Bosnia, Korcula, Split and Plitvice||$993||$0|
|InterContinental Ljubljana||$287/night x 4 = $1,148||$0|
We opted to pay cash for this expense because we found a great deal — or so we thought.
Often, rental cars can be expensive when you pick up and drop off in a different country. For this trip, we were starting in Croatia and ending in Slovenia so we braced ourselves for steep prices when we started our search. Initially, we were looking at prices around $700 total for a small SUV for the two-week trip.
We regularly use the Autoslash website to save money on car rentals, and this time it found us an incredible deal for only $254 for the car we wanted! Autoslash helps you find the best deals on rental cars by searching for all the major rental companies and applying coupons to help you find the very best deal.
Unfortunately in this case, when we arrived in Croatia, we were told there had been a problem with our reservation and it wasn’t honored. Desperate and with two tired kids in tow, we bit the bullet and rented the same car we had booked for $254 — at the market price of nearly $1,000!
When we arrived home, even though the rental car company wouldn’t give us any refund, Autoslash had our back. We explained the situation to them, and within a few days we had a check in our mailbox for the over $700 difference between what we thought we were going to pay and what we ended up paying.
|Expense category||Regular price||What I paid|
The travel credit cards I used
|Card name||Welcome bonus||Earnings rate||Annual fee||Special perks|
|United Explorer Card||Earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months (plus an additional 10,000 bonus miles after spending $6,000 in the first 6 months)||2X miles on dining, hotel stays, and United purchases and 1X miles on everything else||$95 (waived first year)||First checked bag free for you and one companion|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve Card||Earn 60,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months||10X points on Lyft rides, 3X points on travel (excluding $300 travel credit), 3X points at restaurants, and 1X points per $1 spent on everything else||$550||50% more value in points on travel redemptions|
|Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card||Earn 150,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months||14X points on eligible purchases within the Hilton portfolio, 7X points on qualifying travel purchases made directly with airlines/select car rental companies or Amextravel.com, 7X points at U.S. restaurants, and 3X points on all other purchases||$450 (See rates and fees). (terms apply)||Complimentary Diamond status|
|IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card||Earn 150,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months||25X points per $1 spent on stays at IHG hotels and resorts; 2X points at gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants; and 1X points on other purchases||$89||Anniversary night certificate|
United Explorer Card
My husband (aka “Player 2”) and I each signed up for the United Explorer Card when the welcome bonus was at an all-time high of 70,000 miles. That gave us an easy 140,000 United miles, and covered 35% of the miles we needed for this trip. The current welcome bonus is still a great one — you can earn 60,000 miles.
Even though you’ll get 2X miles on dining, hotel stays, and United purchases and 1X miles on everything else, this card is not great for everyday spending. You’d get 3X on travel (excluding $300 travel credit) and restaurants if you used a Chase Sapphire Reserve Card.
But the United Explorer card does come with some great perks beyond the welcome bonus. It gives you a free checked bag for you and for your traveling companion every time you fly if you book your trip on the card. This could save you $120 per round trip flight!
Holding this card also unlocks award availability that regular United flyers may not be able to see. This is a great little-known benefit of the United Explorer card that can be very helpful when you’re looking for coveted award seats.
Chase Sapphire Reserve Card
The Chase Sapphire Reserve Card has been a staple in my wallet since it launched with much fanfare in 2016, and I still consider it one of the best travel credit cards in my wallet. That's because it earns 3X points on travel (excluding $300 travel credit) and restaurants, and its Ultimate Rewards points are worth 50% more when used to book travel in the Chase portal.
Thanks to this card, we’re able to book smaller, non-chain properties using points. When we book travel through the portal, we’re able to lock in a value of 1.5 cents per point, and we’re able to use points to stay at properties that fit our travel style.
In addition to the bonus points you’ll earn when you use this card to book travel, you’ll also get peace of mind coverage. The Chase Sapphire Reserve covers your trip if it’s cancelled, delayed, or interrupted. It also covers collision damage on your car rental up to $75,000 both in the U.S. and abroad.
Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express
The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is one of my favorites! Even though it comes with a seemingly steep annual fee of $450, this card actually pays for itself and then some if you stay at Hiltons a few times a year.
It comes with a $250 airline incidental credit on one qualifying airline each year, plus a $250 resort credit at one of dozens of Hilton resorts worldwide. To access these benefits, you just need to make sure you select an airline and book an eligible property. On top of these credits, it also comes with a weekend night certificate (you can use this at any Hilton property) and gives you top-tier Diamond status for free.
Because we were Hilton Diamond members, we were upgraded to a suite in Dubrovnik — which made the stay much more comfortable with our kids. We also were entitled to free daily breakfast and lounge access as Diamond members, which saved us more than $200 in food costs during our stay.
IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card
The IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card is another “no-brainer” hotel rewards card for both my husband and I to carry because the value we get more than covers the annual fees.
Since we each have the card, we each get an annual free night certificate to use at any IHG property, worth up to 40,000 points. On this particular trip, we redeemed both of our free night certificates at the InterContinental Ljubljana when rates were $287 per night. The annual fee of $89 was more than made up for by these nights.
Better yet, if you redeem IHG points for your stay and you hold this card, you’ll get your fourth night free. This unlocks a fantastic value better than the fifth night free you’ll find at Marriott and Hilton. Plus, you’ll earn an incredible 25X when you use your IHG Premier Credit Card to pay for IHG hotels and resorts (10X points for being a Cardmember plus 10X for being an IHG Rewards Club member plus 5X with automatic Platinum Elite Status).
|Expense category||Regular price||What I paid|
So there you have it — a trip that would have cost nearly $20,000 set us back less than $1,000. If your family has a bucket list trip, you can see that it’s possible to make your dream a reality. With points and miles, even business-class tickets and luxury hotels with a family are within your reach!
One key piece of advice that I have for you — don’t be afraid to have multiple credit cards with annual fees. The value and the perks you get from the cards can far outweigh those fees and make it possible to take amazing trips.
And, if you’re working in “two-player mode” with your travel partner, consider opening the same credit cards for both Player 1 and Player 2 so you can get double the benefits like free night award certificates. For example, you both might hold a Chase Sapphire Preferred or both hold Hilton credit cards.