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The view above is what I am looking forward to for my almost free holiday next year. Read on to see how I did it.
The Good Old Days
Anyone remember when you could use Tesco Clubcard vouchers for entirely free holidays? I do. Back in the day we would exchange them for Cosmos vouchers, and could usually get a 2 week holiday in somewhere like Majorca at a decent standard apart-hotel every year or so.
Then we progressed to AirMiles and had a couple of entirely free economy flights to Boston. This was very exciting, I didn’t even imagine what it would be like up front, just free flights was good enough for me (How times change)
Back then we shopped exclusively at Tesco, using Clubcard Plus (a little known, and no longer available account that pays 2 points / £ in store) and putting a good amount of work related travel expenses on the Tesco Finest World Mastercard (back when it used to pay 1 point / £2)
A number of things have contributed to making a free holiday harder to achieve;
- Taxes and fees were “invented” – When AirMiles became Avios in 2011, these were added to all redemption flights
- Tesco removed some Clubcard partners, and placed limits on the total value of vouchers per booking
- Airlines have reduced the value of their miles, so more are required for each redemption
What did you do about it?
Me? I looked at alternatives, and decided to try and book a holiday for my wife and I for no cost, or as little as possible using accrued airline and hotel points. It’s not that I’m *that* tight, I just wanted the challenge. The criteria loosely agreed between us were:
- Beach must be in walking distance
- Weather should be warm enough to use beach in June when we plan to go
- Flight time should not be too long if we are to ‘suffer’ economy travel
Having just got back from a First/Club redemption trip to Boston, my Avios balance was a little depleted, but not in too bad a state. As we only wanted a week, long haul wasn’t an option, but I had enough to cover Economy to most “sea-side” areas in Europe. A quick look at the Avios Explorer Map on ba.com shows where 15,000 Avios can get me in Economy with Reward Flight Saver.
For accommodation, I had a couple of options;
- Hilton ~50,000 points
- IHG ~ 190,000 points
Since obtaining Diamond status with Hilton, I have enjoyed the privileges, and would opt for Hilton as a preference. As I have dropped to Gold in IHG I would not expect any significant privileges. However, the points balance is compelling; 50,000 points is not going to get you a holiday in a Hilton anywhere decent, so IHG it is, then.
Location & Hotel Options
Then I recalled having read Joe’s review of the Holiday Inn Algarve.
- Flights to Faro fit the Avios and flight-time budget
- IHG points will cover 7 nights
- The hotel is on the beach
- The weather in Algarve should be pretty warm in June.
All sounds good….
Time to check if they have reward night availability.
Joe’s review is very positive about the Holiday Inn, but was focused on the extraordinary value when paying cash for the stay. This is highlighted with the above search results, showing reward night availability and cash rates for a week in June. What this also shows me is that for an additional 5,000 points per night, I can stay in a €360/night Crowne Plaza in the very pleasant resort of Vilamoura.
Let’s look at the value of IHG points in these examples.
Cash price: €104 : 20,000 points =€0.0052/point (approx 0.45p)
€360 : 25,000 points = €0.0144 (approx 1.23p)
Although I probably wouldn’t have spent €2,520 on this if I didn’t have the points, let’s work out a truer value, as I would have earned 28,140 points for booking this rate.
€2,520 ÷ (175,000 + 28,140) = €0.0124 (approx 1.07p)
The Crowne Plaza gives me around 2.5x the value
Besides the better value, the Crowne Plaza Vilamoura had a couple of positives for me.
Brand – Call me a snob, but Holiday Inn is not in the same standard as Crowne Plaza. There are exceptions for sure, but this one looks well reviewed on TripAdvisor and IHG’s own site. There must be a reason it’s 3x the price per night.
Location – Vilamoura is a fabulous resort as I recall (granted it was last millennium when I was last there) with plenty to do, places to eat, and the hotel is in front of the beach. It’s also 10 minutes closer to Faro airport.
That was decided, Crowne Plaza it is. One of the great advantages of IHG Reward Nights, is that in my experience they can always be cancelled without penalty, so I had no risk in booking the hotel right away (don’t want those reward nights selling out!).
Hotel Booked: 175,000 points, saving the equivalent cash rate of €2,520 (approx £2,160). Actual cash spent: £0
Time to find flights, as we were booking 9 months in advance I didn’t expect too many options but for 2 of us, travelling in Economy I was hopeful of decent availability. As it happens, you can fly to Faro with BA at the weekend from Heathrow, Gatwick, London City and Stansted. Living in the Midlands, Heathrow would be my first option, with Gatwick as a second. City is just too difficult to get to for me, either a long drive through or round London, or train/tube/DLR which is no fun with luggage. Stansted is just too far away. As it happens, the Stansted and City departures are Sunday, and that’s wasting a day of the holiday.
In the end we settled for flights to and from Gatwick. I say ‘to and from’, as the default search on BA is London (All airports) and you might need to make sure you are coming back to the same airport, especially if you park there!
All airports are priced the same, so each return flight was 13,000 Avios (these are off-peak dates) and can be booked with Reward Flight Saver, where you pay a flat fee of £35 per person towards taxes and fees. Looking at the equivalent revenue fares;
Someone may say I could get cheaper flights by booking a “Basic” (hand baggage only) fare, but realistically, we’re going to want at least one checked bag for a week away, so that wouldn’t have been an option. I do also benefit from more flexible change and cancellation conditions with an Avios booking.
As a redemption
Number of used; 26,000
Actual Cash spent: £70
As a revenue fare
Cash cost: £462.04
Avios earned: 2,152
Avios value (Cash fare – 2 x £35 RFS) ÷ (26,000 Avios spent + 1,072 not earned) = £0.0139
Not quite as impressive as I achieved flying First and Club with the American Express 2-4-1, but more realistic perhaps?
An almost free holiday, then?
Yes, genuinely. Based on the points spend, we got 7 nights in a 5 star hotel in Portugal, with flights for £35 per person. You’d spend more on a Sun holiday for a week at some 1960s holiday camp! Of course, I will have other costs such as food and drink, but having spent so little on the holiday so far, we can treat ourselves perhaps to an extra cocktail, or a slightly better bottle of wine with dinner. Travel to and from the airports needs arranging, but I have plenty of time to figure out how to do that for free. I wonder if my wife would mind hitch-hiking along the Algarve?
Hopefully this article has shown that it is still possible to get yourself a holiday using points and miles, and very little actual money. It takes a bit of work, as you will need to research reward availability for flights and accommodation separately, but I think the results are worth the effort.
If you have similar experiences or suggestions, please add them into the comments at the foot of this article.
If you are short of points, remember to keep an eye on insideflyer.co.uk for tips and tricks to maximise them. Joe’s list of the best hotel promotions is a great resource to keep an eye on for opportunities to top-up your hotel points balance, and then of course consider one of the points earning credit cards that offers rewards in your chosen points currency.