Jackie is a points-and-miles enthusiast with a passion for travel — and the holidays don't slow down her love to see the world. While many people are home with their families, she and her boyfriend have a long-running tradition of traveling during the holiday season.
For a few years now, Jackie and her boyfriend have celebrated each new year in a new country. Neither of them had been to Asia before, so they selected Japan as a brand-new destination to ring in 2019. And, to have a “vacation from their vacation,'' they decided to stop in Hawaii on the way home.
Japan and Hawaii are typically expensive destinations, but with the help of points and miles coupled with some strategic planning, Jackie and her boyfriend were able to save over $7,000 on their flights and hotels — bringing the two-week trip total down to just $2,564.
If you’re curious about how points and miles work and how they can make your next trip less expensive (or you just have a dream to travel to Japan or Hawaii specifically), keep reading to learn how Jackie and her boyfriend made their holiday adventure come to fruition.
Jackie and her boyfriend’s flights involved three one-way flights and four different airports, but this all led to one incredible trip.
Their first flight from Houston (IAH) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) was aboard United Airlines. Jackie had started looking for airfare earlier in the year, right around the time they opened their new United credit cards. As a United cardholder, Jackie’s search revealed an award-fare class available exclusively to her.
She jumped on the tickets, booking the first leg of their trip using United MileagePlus points. The flight was 30,000 miles per person to fly in economy, for a total of 60,000 United miles. The fact she was flying during the holiday season, specifically Christmas Eve, had inflated the cash prices, so Jackie got a great deal by booking with miles.
Jackie booked their second flight from Fukuoka Airport in Japan to Honolulu, Hawaii, with Delta Airlines, in economy as well. For this flight, she decided not to use points and miles since the value of paying in cash was better than using miles. So, she opted to pay around $700 total for her and her boyfriend using her Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. Jackie said she doesn’t mind Delta economy as she flew with Delta countless times when she lived in Atlanta. And their experience on this flight was actually even better than normal. Why? Delta gives complimentary slippers to everyone in the Main Cabin for US-Japan flights.
The third flight from Honolulu, Hawaii, back to Houston, Texas, was again with United Airlines. This flight was 45,000 United MileagePlus miles for each of them. Jackie was able to earn a majority of these United MileagePlus points using her United Explorer Card. However, she was still a few thousand miles short. But, luckily Chase and United are transfer partners. So, for the points she was short, Jackie was able to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to her United MileagePlus account. As a Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder, she could transfer her Chase Ultimate Rewards to United at a rate of 1:1. This meant every point was worth just as much with United as it was with Chase.
Jackie’s flights from Houston to Japan and then Hawaii to Houston would have cost nearly $3,200 per person total had Jackie paid cash. In fact, all three flights for Jackie and her boyfriend would have amounted to a cash price of just over $7,000 — but she managed to only pay $700 out of pocket by using points and miles for the rest.
|Expense category||Regular price||What Jackie paid|
|Flights for 2 people||$7,100||$700|
Jackie is based in Austin, Texas, but it wasn’t ideal for her and her boyfriend to fly out of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) since it does not have direct flights to Tokyo. So they made the two-hour drive to Houston to fly out of George Bush International Airport (IAH).
Jackie decided it would be best to make the drive to Houston the night before their flight to make the start of their trip easier on themselves. In Houston, they stayed at a Hyatt property that provided an airport shuttle and free parking. In fact, she was able to leave their car for free at the Hyatt for the duration of her travels. This hotel package was just $109 for the evening.
Jackie had an intriguing strategy for booking her hotels for the Japan portion of their trip. While she has earned thousands of hotel points with loyalty programs through Marriott and IHG, she chose to pay cash for the majority for her trip. Jackie explained that unless a particular hotel is perfect for her needs, she will opt to pay cash for the right hotel rather than booking something just because she has points. She summed this up by saying, “I’m not going to inconvenience myself to use my points.” The nine hotel nights she paid cash for totaled $1,135.
With this strategy in mind, Jackie booked the majority of her hotel nights in Japan using Expedia. This included four nights in Tokyo and three nights in Kyoto. She booked with Expedia rather than directly with each hotel because it was typically a few dollars less on each reservation. In addition, Expedia has their own rewards program. When Jackie booked, she was awarded $20 worth of Expedia points. These points can be used for future hotel bookings through Expedia.
Jackie also stacked her savings by using the Rakuten shopping portal to earn cash back on those seven hotel nights. By doing this, she earned about $55 back from Rakuten.
To see how much Rakuten can save you on your hotel costs, you can sign up for a free Rakuten account. If you use Google Chrome as your primary browser, you can download the Chrome extension as well. If you do that, you will see the potential savings when you visit a participating hotel chain’s website. For example, I visited the Hilton website and was met with the opportunity to earn 8% cash back.
To take advantage of that cashback offer, simply click the red button in the upper righthand corner, and you will be redirected to a new link. You can continue your hotel booking as normal. When you checkout, you will be awarded cash to your Rakuten account.
The hotels Jackie chose in Japan were not brand-name chains, such as Hilton or Marriott, so she didn’t miss out on any points-earning opportunities or utilizing her hotel loyalty status. However, there were a few occasions where she decided to use her points and miles to her advantage.
To celebrate New Year’s Eve, Jackie wanted to be in an ideal location for the festivities. They decided to stay at the Holiday Inn Osaka. To pay for this one night, she used an IHG free night certificate from her IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card. This certificate is awarded each year after the cardholder’s card anniversary. This was a great use of this certificate as rooms were running approximately $400 per night during the New Year's festivities.
While this card is no longer offered, the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card is available and comparable to the IHG Select. The IHG Rewards Club Premier comes with complimentary Platinum Elite status, one free hotel night per year, and no foreign transaction fees.
In addition, Jackie decided to use 60,000 IHG points and $115 at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki for two nights. Each of these nights would have been roughly $250 each.
|Expense category||Regular price||What Jackie paid|
|1 night in Houston||$109||$109|
|4 nights in Tokyo||$550||$550|
|3 nights in Kyoto||$350||$350|
|2 nights in Fukuoka||$235||$235|
|1 night in Osaka||$400||$0|
|2 nights in Waikiki||$500||$115|
|Total for 12 nights of hotels||$2,144||$1,284|
*The total of $1,284 that Jackie paid accounts for the $75 Jackie earned back in cash from Rakuten and Expedia.
While transportation was not an area of significant savings for Jackie, she did learn some excellent tips and tricks when it comes to international travel.
Japan is known for its excellent public transportation systems. When Jackie and her boyfriend visited, they decided to use the rail system to move around the country. Upon researching, they found the Japan Rail Pass, which is specifically for visitors to Japan. The rail pass cost them $280 per person for the entire duration of their stay.
While using the rail can be a pain with heavy luggage, Jackie and her boyfriend decided to take advantage of a courier service from Tokyo to Kyoto as they knew they wanted to stop and sightsee before arriving at the hotel. They paid roughly $20 total for both of their suitcases to arrive on their own, and this allowed them to travel hands-free as they got in some sightseeing.
For the two nights they were in Hawaii, Uber was their main source of transportation. Rental cars and fuel in Hawaii can be quite expensive, so using a rideshare service can sometimes be a more affordable and convenient option.
For both the rail service and rideshare costs, Jackie used her Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. She earned 3X per dollar on these expenses as they are both categorized as travel.
The travel credit cards Jackie used
|Card name||Sign-up bonus||Earnings rate||Annual fee||Special perks|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||Earn 50,000 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||$300 annual travel credit, access to Priority Pass lounges, Global Entry/TSA PreCheck Credit, and trip interruption/cancellation insurance|
|United Explorer Card||Earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months||2X miles at restaurants, hotel accommodations booked directly with the hotel, and eligible United purchases; and 1X miles on everything else||$95 (waived first year)||$100 credit for TSA PreCheck/Global Entry, one free checked bag for primary traveler and one companion, United Club passes, and trip interruption/cancellation insurance|
|IHG Rewards Club Premier Card||Earn 140,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 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||Free hotel night after each card anniversary, complimentary Platinum Elite status, trip interruption insurance, and $100 credit for TSA PreCheck/Global Entry|
Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Chase Sapphire Reserve was Jackie’s “go-to” card on this trip. She used this card for all her expenses and was able to earn a considerable amount of points along the way.
With this card, you can earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. In addition, you will earn 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. The Chase Ultimate Rewards you earn are extremely valuable as you can transfer them to a variety of airline and hotel partners, just like Jackie did when she transferred her Chase rewards to her United MileagePlus account. The Sapphire Reserve also comes with a $300 annual travel credit that both Jackie and her boyfriend used on this trip. That alone allowed them to greatly reduce their travel expenses.
In addition, this card comes with outstanding travel insurance coverage in case things go awry. You will have trip cancellation insurance, rental car insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, and trip delay reimbursement. The card comes with a $550 annual fee, but it is an annual fee worth paying because of all the benefits.
United Explorer Card
The United Explorer Card allowed Jackie and her boyfriend to travel two of their three legs of the trip completely paid for with points, aside from taxes and fees. And, because of the card, she was also able to book seats that aren’t normally offered to other United travelers.
Jackie’s primary start to earning United MileagePlus points was the sign-up bonus. You can earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months. And when you use the card, you will earn 2X miles at restaurants, hotel accommodations booked directly with the hotel, and eligible United purchases; and 1X miles on everything else.
Lastly, the card comes with a wide array of perks including United Club access, 25% back on United inflight purchases, premier upgrades on award tickets, and no foreign transaction fees. The annual fee for this card is $95 (waived first year).
IHG Select Card
Lastly, Jackie used her IHG Select Card to earn a free night certificate to the Holiday Inn Osaka. In addition, she earned the IHG points for her two nights in Hawaii from the sign-up bonus and daily spending on the card. Jackie travels for work frequently so she has utilized this card for her work-related expenses. Unfortunately, this card is no longer available for new applications. However, there are comparable options to earn IHG points.
One of the IHG cards now offered is the IHG Rewards Club Traveler Card. This card is a great option for someone that is interested in earning more IHG points while paying $0 for an annual fee.
With this specific card, you can earn 60,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months. Up to 15X points at IHG hotels (5X for being a Cardmember plus 10X for being an IHG Rewards Club member); 2X points at gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants; and 1X on everything else can be earned when you use the card for your spending.
|Expense category||Regular price||What Jackie paid|
Jackie and her boyfriend saved over $7,000 on their trip — which is an incredible feat. However, don’t feel discouraged if you don’t match that level of savings. If you are using points and miles instead of cash to reach your travel goals, that is a victory worth celebrating.
If you’re curious about how points and miles can make a trip like this a reality for you — or make any trip less expensive for that matter — the best place to start is at the beginning. Our beginner’s guide to travel rewards will walk you through exactly what you need to do to get started.