Note that many of the programs I used in the examples have devaluated or were even discontinued after our trips, but I think the moral of the story is how credit cards enabled me and my family to have some amazing experience that we wouldn’t have afforded otherwise.
Earning: 38 cards, 2.5M miles/points, and 12 free night certificates in five years
In the past five years, between my wife and I we opened 38 new credit card accounts, and earned about 2,500,000 miles/points in 18 different programs, plus 12 free night certificates. These miles/points were all from signup bonuses and did not include the miles/points we earned through spending or other program promotions. Since 4 of the cards offered free nights in lieu of miles/points as signup bonus, we earned an average of ~74K miles/points per card for the remaining 34 cards. All these may seem a lot, we are not considered aggressive at all - we each opened about 2 cards every 6 months to ensure our credit scores stayed excellent - in fact our credit scores gradually improved over these years. There are many people out there, including some of our readers, opened much more cards per year. If you visit our Deals page, you will see that all offers we recommended have at least 40K miles/points bonus, and over the years there have been quite a few offers in the 75K-100K range. What I am trying to say here is that if we could do it, you can do it.
Experience: long haul first class/business class flights, luxury hotel rooms/suites, and many amazing memories
I will use some of our most amazing miles/points redemptions as case studies. They are not in order of time/card/program, but rather random.
- Cathay Pacific Business Class Los Angeles-Hong Kong-Denpasar (Bali) round trip - 100,000 British Airways (BA) miles + $450 in fuel surcharges and taxes per ticket. Retail value: $6,150 per ticket. Our value: $2,250 per ticket at 1.8 cents per mile. How did we get the miles? Chase BA Visa Signature always have had great signup offers and back then we each received 100K miles upon opening new accounts. BA is also a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards (MR), Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR), and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG), we transferred about 100K MR points to BA miles to complete three bookings that required 300K BA miles. Needless to say, that was great value, but note that it was before the major devaluation of BA miles and now the same trip will cost much much more. The trip allowed my wife, me and our 2.5 years old to go back to China, to spend time with families and to visit the amazing tropical island Bali in Indonesia. The 15-hour transpacific flight is pretty tough in economy class - we have been there several times. In comparison, Cathay Pacific offers one of the best business class products out there, and its flatbed equipped mini-suite makes a complete different experience. We rested well and enjoyed decent food and champagne along the way. A BA award ticket allows two stopovers in a round trip, so we actually took the Hong Kong-Denpasar flight two weeks later, which lasted 4.5 hours and for the first time in my life I wished that I stayed on the plane longer. It was interesting that on this relatively short route Cathay actually operated a three-cabin Boeing 747, just as the one on a transpacific route. After we were seated in the business class cabin, the purser Eva came over to introduce herself and politely asked if we would like to be upgraded to first class for free since the cabin was quite empty. Of course we took her offer! Not only the first class suites were more spacious and better padded, the service we received from Eva and other flight attendants were so attentive that we were totally not used to it! I immediately understood why Cathay Pacific has constantly been rated as one of the world’s best airlines.
- Shanghai-Los Angeles-Salt Lake City-Los Angeles on United Airlines Business Class + Los Angeles-Seoul-Shanghai on Asiana Business Class - 90,000 US Airways (US) miles + $100 in taxes and fees. Retail value: $6,400 per ticket. Our value: $1,900 per ticket at 2 cents per mile. It was for my inlaws - they came over to the U.S. to help with our kids several times and the 13-hour flights in economy class surely weren’t much fun and that is why I thought if I could find availability we should use our miles to put them in business class once in awhile. Obviously that was before the American-US merger and 90K in business class between continental U.S. and East Asia was a great bargain. How did we get the miles? Both my wife and I signed up Barclays US Airways MasterCard and each received 40,000 miles. That gave us a good head start, and we also earned tens of thousand of US miles through various promotions (through the program or credit card) including acquiring miles at 1.1 a piece through US Airways’ amazing transfer promotions. So it wasn’t hard to have a total of 180,000 miles to get two awards tickets booked. My inlaws were amazed by the flights, and even though both airlines have flatbeds in long haul business class, both my inlaws agreed that Asiana offered better seats and food than United did and it was totally worth an extra stop in Seoul. It isn’t surprising, since Asiana has constantly been rated as one of the best airlines when it comes to in-flight dining and its business products are highly regarded by travelers.
- Xiamen-Hong Kong-Shanghai-Los Angeles-Hong Kong-Xiamen on American Airlines and Cathay Pacific First Class - 120,000 US Airways miles + $100 in taxes and fees. Retail value: $16,000 per ticket. Our value: $2,500 per ticket at 2 cents per mile. The only segment on American was from Shanghai to Los Angeles, and short haul segments were in business class since first class was not offered. For a short period time before US Airways frequent flyer program merged into American’s, US miles were particularly valuable since they could be used not only on Star Alliance partners (such as United and Asiana in the previous example) but also on oneworld partners (such as Cathay Pacific). The awards tickets were for my parents - it is the same thinking as in the previous example - we couldn’t be more thankful to them and always feel guilty that they need to travel this long distance at their ages. Since I couldn’t find availability in business class, I just went one step further to put them in first class. Only on the return leg I could find two first class seats on Cathay so I used American on the outbound leg, understanding that their first class products were pretty mediocre. How did we get the miles? We did it again with US miles - as explained previously we had a decent size balance of US miles even after burning 180K for my inlaws and at the time of booking, we were short of 70K miles. I thought it wasn’t a big deal since US Airways is a SPG partner and I could easily transfer some SPG points. However, I made a huge mistake that I transferred my SPG points to my wife’s US Airways account, which isn’t allowed. I almost kicked myself when I found out - even though I knew I would get those miles back I just didn’t have time to hold the awards which were hard to come by. Luckily there was a promotion going on allowing me to purchase US miles directly at 1.88 cents per mile and I immediately purchased 70K miles. Then I finally had the 240,000 US miles to complete the bookings. My parents were very excited to take the flights and agreed that Cathay Pacific’s first class products blew American’s out of the water. My mom also enjoyed the Krug champagne on Cathay Pacific so much that she drank a little too much. When asked how she liked her first experience of caviar, she thought it was salty and not very impressive. :)
- Tokyo-Los Angeles one way on Singapore Airlines Suite Class - 74,000 Singapore Airlines (SQ) miles + $130 in taxes and fees. Retail value: not available since the revenue ticket is sold in round trip and it costs $14,000 per round trip. Our value: $1,300 per ticket at 1.6 cents per mile. This is actually a flight my wife and I will take in June, so I don’t have the first hand experience yet. However, these awards are highly sought after since this product is considered one of the best first class products in today’s sky. Suite class is nothing but a glorified first class product exclusively available on A380 and obviously much nicer than Singapore’s regular first class found on other aircrafts. Each suite has a sliding door, and the two middle seats can be transformed into a full size bed if the couple occupy them elect so. We reserve two middle seats and are very excited to see how it all turns out. Unlike its regular first class products, Singapore won’t release any suite class seats to its partners so you can’t book them using AA or BA miles, and that is why we booked using SQ miles. How did we get the miles? It is actually not hard at all to collect SQ miles, since SQ is a partner of four major programs that allow points-to-miles transfer: SPG, UR, MR, and Citi ThankYou (TY). I transferred 130K TY points, accumulated from signup and spending on my Citi Prestige, and 20K UR points to get enough SQ miles for our bookings.
- Maximizing Chase Fairmont Visa Signature - eight free nights in fabulous suites and more. We love this card! Upon opening a new card and meeting the spending requirement, you will receive two free night certificates and four $25 breakfast certificates; the Fairmont Premier status come with the card gives you five additional certificates: one suite upgrade, one room upgrade, one third night free, and two $25 dining/spa. Our first Fairmont experience was at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Maui. Both my wife and I signed up the Chase Visa, so that we enjoyed four nights in a 800 sq. ft Garden View Suite for free, which retailed over $550 per night, and we used the $150 certificates toward breakfasts. Since the basic room type at this resort is a suite, the suite upgrades only got us one category up, which was better than nothing. The resort has three beautiful pools, and the beach in front of the resort has some finest sands on the island. After about a year, I planned another Hawaiian vacation involving using the ongoing benefits of the card. My wife canceled her card but I renewed mine with a $95 annual fee. I also charged $12K on the card during my first year to receive another free night certificate. I booked two nights at $329 each in a basic room at the Fairmont Orchid in Big Island Hawaii through Amex FHR (which will be discussed in more details later) to receive complimentary breakfasts and a $100 spa credit, then applied the Third Night Free and the Visa Free Night certificates to get another two nights, and finally used the suite upgrade to get us in a 1,000 sq. ft Executive Suite which retailed at $799 per night. So our total cost for four nights in this suite, $80 breakfast credits, and a $150 spa credit all came down to a mere $660 plus taxes - amazing value. The resort is beautiful with newly renovated rooms and two pools which we never used, since we spent most time on the beach and in the shallow ocean water in the bay. We also celebrated our five years old’s birthday at Brown’s Beach House. After having great experience with the Chase Fairmont Visa, I had my wife apply for this card again late last year, as soon as I heard that the Grand Del Mar in San Diego, which has been constantly rated as one of best resorts in California and in the entire country, joined the Fairmont chain. Per Chase T&C, you will receive the signup bonus again if you are not a current cardholder and the last time you received the bonus was more than 2 years ago. Needless to say, when we visited the Fairmont Grand Del Mar earlier this year for our anniversary, we enjoyed two nights in a 1,000 sq. ft Prado Suite and $150 breakfast/dining certificates, all complimentary from Chase. The suite retails at $1,000 per night and is beautifully appointed in a classic Italian decor with two bathrooms. Our dining experience at Amaya, their main restaurant, was also amazing.
- Park Hyatt Paris and Park Hyatt Tokyo - two free nights from Chase Hyatt Visa Signature. They are for our upcoming June trip. I wanted to used both free nights at Park Hyatt Paris but I couldn’t find any availability other than one night so I decided to use the other at Park Hyatt Tokyo. Paris hotels are notoriously expensive, let alone one of the most luxurious properties in the city. A basic room at Park Hyatt Paris retails at $1,150 per night at the time of our visit. Park Hyatt Tokyo is a property that defines a new era of luxury Tokyo hotels since 1990s, and a basic room retails at $575 per night at the time of our visit.
- JW Marriott Shenzhen - 90,000 Marriott points for 7 nights. This five-star business oriented hotel in Shenzhen was a Category-3 hotel at the time of our visit back in 2012, and is now a Category-5. Retail value: $200 + taxes per night. Our value: $89 per night at 0.8 cent per point. How did we get the points? We signed up Chase Marriott Premier Visa Signature as well as JPM Ritz-Carlton Visa Signature, and it was not hard to pool a lot of Marriott points (Ritz-Carlton points are essentially Marriott points). The hotel totally lived up to the five-star rating in terms of rooms, service, and food & beverage. Thanks to the Marriott/Ritz-Carlton Gold status come with my JPM Ritz-Carlton Visa, we also got complimentary access to the Executive Lounge, which provided meals throughout the day and was much better than most hotel lounges in the U.S.
- Eight nights at four Radisson Blu hotels in France - 25,000 to 35,000 Club Carlson points per night. These are also for our upcoming trip in June, and I booked awards nights before the June 2015 devaluation from Club Carlson and the US Bank co-branded credit card. Now the same award night will require double or even triple points. Retail value per night: Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan in Paris $436, Radisson Blu Champs Elysees in Paris $523, Radisson Blu Nice $376, Radisson Blu 1835 Cannes $326. Our value per night: Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan $175, Radisson Blu Champs Elysees $175, Radisson Blu Nice $125, Radisson Blu 1835 Cannes $175, based on 0.5 cent per point value. How did we get the points? We both signed up US Bank Club Carlson Visa Signature, and each received 85,000 points at signup and an additional 40,000 points upon the first anniversary. In addition, we also had some left over points from previous Club Carlson promotions. It was not hard to pool 260,000 points for these bookings. These Radisson Blu are all five-star business oriented hotels, which while not the most luxurious in their cities should be pretty nice I will assume.
- Above are just some examples of how we used hotel points and credit card free nights for our hotel stays, and we have done much more during the past several years, from luxury to budget hotels. In addition to using points and free nights, we also leveraged Fine Hotels and Resorts (FHR) and other similar programs when paying “cash” for hotel stays. FHR is an Amex program dedicated for its Platinum Card and Centurion Card members. It covers more than 800 luxury hotels and resorts worldwide, including chains such as Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, St. Regis, Park Hyatt, Waldorf Astoria, Rosewood, Fairmont, Aman Resorts, Six Senses, Banyan Tree, and many individually managed hotels. Through FHR, you pay the same Best Available Rate as you would when booking directly with the hotel or through a third-party agent, but you receive exclusive perks: daily complimentary breakfasts for two, room upgrades upon availability, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and a hotel specific amenity (usually once per stay) such as a $100 dining/spa/hotel credit, a complimentary lunch or dinner for two, or 50-minute massage treatments for two. In addition, many FHR hotels regularly participated in 3rd Night Free or 4th Night Free promotions. There are several similar programs, including Virtuoso (not tied to a bank/credit card, but you need to find a Virtuoso agent to work with you), Signature Travel Network (similar to Virtuoso), Ensemble Travel Group (similar to Virtuoso), Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection (for Visa Signature card members), World Elite Luxury Hotels and Resorts (for World Elite MasterCard members), etc. Now I will give a few examples how we leveraged these benefits for our stays. Park Hyatt Aviara Resort - Panorama View Room retail value $300 per night & our value $70 per night. I booked a basic room for three nights at $250 per night, and the benefits we received included a two-category room upgrade, the third night free, daily buffet breakfasts for two (retailed at $50, our value $30), waived resort fees ($25 per night), a $100 resort credit per stay, a $25 F&B credit per stay, and welcome amenity in the room. You do the math. Highlight of the hotel: friendly staff and impeccable service. The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, an Autograph Collection Hotel - Terrace Suite retail value $280 & our value $100. The view is the key - if you are in the right side of the hotel you will enjoy the best view of Vegas. I booked a $230 suite that doesn’t have the famous fountain view, but I knew the next category would guarantee a view. In fact, they upgraded us three categories to the Terrace Suite which not only has a gorgeous view but is a larger suite of over 900 sq. ft. We also enjoyed check-in at the VIP lounge (to bypass the long line), buffet breakfasts for two at the Wicked Spoon (retailed at $48, our value $30), a $100 spa credit which my wife used toward manicure and pedicure. Highlight of the hotel: gorgeous Bellagio Fountain and Strip view. Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara - 1BR Residence retail value $595 & our value $120. I booked a basic room at $260, and received a $75 breakfast credit (our value $40), a $100 F&B credit which we used toward dinner, and a one-category upgrade to the beautifully appointed residential suite of over 1,200 sq. ft. Highlight of the hotel: one of best hotel suites I have ever stayed in to date. Taj Campton Place, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World (LHW) - Deluxe Room retail value $300 per night & our value $132 per night. I booked a basic room for four nights at $250 per night, and received the fourth night free, a one-category upgrade, daily $60 breakfast credits (our value $30), and a $100 F&B credit which we used toward lunch. While the hardware was probably not up to the five-star or LHW standards in my opinion, the service must have been among the best we have received in a U.S. hotel and could be on par with a good luxury hotel in Asia. If you wonder, yes, Asian hotels are mostly better in service than the U.S. hotels. Hotel Park City, a member of LHW at the time of our visit and now an Autograph Collection Hotel - Luxury Suite retail value $299 & our value $45. I booked a basic suite for $179 and received a three-category upgrade to a huge 1 BR suite of over 1,400 sq. ft, a $16 breakfast credit, and complimentary 50-minute massage treatments for two (retail value $200+, our value $120). Highlight of the hotel: rustic and understated luxury in a beautiful surrounding. Casa Marina Key West, a Waldorf Astoria Resort - Ocean View with Terrace retail value $449 & our value $140. I booked a basic room for $279 and received a three-category upgrade to a recently renovated room in the historical wing with a huge terrace overlooking the resort pools and ocean, a $100 breakfast credit (our value $40), and a $100 resort credit which we used toward dinner. Highlight of the hotel: the resort’s main restaurant Sun Sun, which offers great seasonal food in a open air ambience and an amazing sunset view.