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I recently returned from a luxury First Class trip to the USA funded pretty much entirely by loyalty points and miles.
My wife and I flew from London to Phoenix, Arizona in BA First Class. We then made our way around the South West USA (including stretches of Route 66) by car, staying in a variety of Hilton and Marriott hotels – again without actually paying any money for them.
Ok, well done you. What’s your point?
While I’d love to bore you with endless tales of my American adventures, I thought the most productive approach would be to take you step-by-step through how I secured this free trip.
One of the key purposes of InsideFlyer is to show you that, while we do often get to travel in style at a fraction of the cost – you can too. It really is not rocket science (at least it’s not until you get Joe talking about Alaska Miles, in which case my eyes glaze over, despair sets in and I am forced to nod gently while desperately scouring the room for exit points).
You may not be able to make a similar trip, on a similar (low) budget, immediately, but hopefully there’ll be a tip or two here that you can make use of.
There was of course taxes and fees to pay on the “free” first class flight, and a few local taxes etc on some of the hotels, but it is certainly fair to say this was a luxury Transatlantic trip at a shoestring cost – thanks to my use of points and Miles.
The First Class return flight
The First Class flight was with BA, booked with good old Avios.
For me, outside of the fee-capped Reward Flight Saver European flights, the only way to get real value on BA Avios reward flights is to i) travel in Business or First Class and ii) use a BA Companion Voucher*.
My reasoning on (i) is that when you factor in the Avios spend and the taxes and fees, you’ll rarely find a long-haul Economy redemption that is actually value for money when compared to the outright cash price, or the cost with other airlines.
I add point (ii) because, even with an Avios redemption in a premium cabin, the Avios, tax and fee hit is such that options like the ultra cheap Qatar premium class flights will generally offer considerably better value (when factoring in taxes, fees, your spent Avios, the Avios you earn with Qatar, cashback etc).
*If you’re wondering, the BA Companion Voucher is available with the BA Amex, and entitles you to two Avios redemption flights, while only needing to spend the Avios required for one. This will apply whether its a 9,000 Avios short haul Economy flight, or a 200,000 Avios long-haul First Class flight.
Here’s the First Class return itinerary – around 9 hours each way in BA Boeing 747 First Class luxury:
Paid for with 200,000 Avios (not 400,000, due to the Companion Voucher giving you “buy-one-get-one-free”):
I really enjoy BA First Class, and I really like the Boeing 747. However, this is a “how-to” guide rather than a review, so I’ll leave you to do the research on whether BA First Class is worth aspiring to (it is).
(For the record, I’m not nearly as lavish in my praise for BA Business Class.)
The free hotels
As a Hilton lover, I had no problem with the Hilton redemptions based on my points haul from past stays. So, I booked us into a couple of Hilton properties along the way, funded by my Hilton Honors Points stash:
Note that my Hilton balance has been heavily boosted by their copious double points offers and my Diamond/Gold status bonuses. The lesson here is to always always sign up to these double points promos on day 1. Here’s a recent points total, showing just how many additional points you can earn on stays:
The Hilton nights were interspersed with some Marriott options (for variety and quality. I like Hilton, but I really try to not be a slave to them, however hard I am working towards that Diamond status).
However, I did not have enough Marriott Rewards points. As a result, I needed to transfer some American Express Membership Rewards Points (earned via my Amex Platinum, not least thanks to the 35,000 free Amex points welcome bonus) to Starwood Preferred Guest. I then transferred these on to Marriott Rewards via the internal Marriott/SPG conversion option:
This therefore allowed me to book my Marriott hotel nights:
Without paying any money…
We then finished up with another free Hilton night in the lovely, but roasting, Palm Springs:
Hotel award nights do not generally include breakfast (the obvious exception to this is hotels that include breakfast for everyone, such as the fantastic Hampton by Hilton), so this was set to be a cost. However, I had breakfast included without charge at all the hotels I stayed at, as follows:
- I am Hilton Gold (through my loyalty I am pleased to say, although I could also have obtained this through my Amex Platinum card).
- I am Marriott Gold (this time entirely through my Amex Platinum card, which gave me SPG Gold status – which I instantly matched to Marriott Gold status). Note that you now need Marriott Platinum status to get free breakfast, but at the time Gold was sufficient.
Car hire discount
Ok, so I paid for the car hire. However, I got a pretty substantial rebate on the booking via TopCashback:
Rentalcars.com is very much my “go to” option for car hire. It’s a comparison site and consistently appears to offer the best value options, plus generous amounts of cashback via TopCashback.
There’s a fine line between wasting your time trying to secure every little deal out there, and just getting on with enjoying your holiday. However, here are a few other bargains I secured along the way, for things I was going to do anyway:
- Free $5 credit with Bird electric scooters in Santa Monica
- Free entry to Madame Tussauds Hollywood with MyVegas
- Cut price entry to Eiffel Tower viewing deck at Paris, Las Vegas via Groupon
- Various free bet offers by signing up to the loyalty schemes in Vegas.
This fantastic trip was the culmination of months of canny points-saving and bonus-hunting.
“Earning and burning” is very much the buzz phrase with oft-depreciating loyalty points, and there is a lot to be said for redeeming points as soon as you reasonably can, rather than sitting back and admiring your swollen balances.
However, if you can build a stash of points and are willing to engage in a bit of forward planning (in particular to secure the Avios premium class reward flights, which are in high demand), then you really can book the holiday of a lifetime for next to nothing.