In On Points, Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, shares his strategies for getting the most out of your points and miles.
Frequent flyer miles can be incredibly powerful—used wisely, they let you travel in ways that might otherwise be out of reach, or at least painfully expensive. I’m not just talking about flying home for the holidays or getting a nice room for your friend’s wedding, but taking major, memorable trips.
Thanks to the points I’ve earned, I’ve been lucky enough to crisscross the globe, usually flying in first class and bedding down at high-end hotels, with little or no out-of-pocket cost. Here are my picks for the best destinations to visit on points, and how to do them right. They’re expensive to get to, pricey to stay in, and have unfavorable exchange rates—but they can also offer amazing value for your points and miles.
One of my favorite destinations, Paris is always worth visiting—and always pricey. But that shouldn’t faze a traveler with plenty of miles socked away.
Because Paris such a popular destination, there are a lot of options for redeeming miles for flights. For instance, economy travelers can get a great deal with American Airlines’ MileSAAver Off Peak awards—round-trip flights October 15 to April 15 can be had for just 40,000 miles (at least until March 22). There are also non-points options. If you’re based in New York or can get there cheaply, new all-business-class carrier La Compagnie often sells tickets to Paris for as little as $1,500 round-trip. While the airline doesn’t have the fanciest business class, at that price you’re nearing what other airlines charge for economy—and La Compagnie definitely beats any airline’s economy seats.
Even better, a number of five-star Paris hotels are in major loyalty programs. The Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme, a sleek, modern property near the Tuileries Gardens, for instance, costs 30,000 Hyatt points per night. If you’re a Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) member, the newly renovated Prince de Galles, a Luxury Collection Hotel is next door to the swanky Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris, and only costs 35,000 points per night (or 15,000 plus $275 if the Cash & Points option is available). Westin Paris-Vendôme, perhaps the best-situated hotel in Paris for museums, is just a 10-minute walk to the Louvre. It’s 35,000 points per night or 15,000 and $275. (With either hotel, try to book in five-night increments, because the 5th award night is free with SPG.)
This 11-square-mile island just northwest of Tahiti is synonymous with exotic luxury, with warm, tranquil blue waters, lush jungle and dramatic dormant volcanoes. Because Bora Bora is remote, it’s expensive to get goods and people there—round-trip flights from Tahiti cost upwards of $500, and dinner for two can easily cost more than $100. Use points to save as much money as possible on flights and hotels so you don’t feel guilty spending so much on food and beverage.
Air Tahiti Nui and Air France both fly to Papeete from Los Angeles International Airport. Air Tahiti Nui is an AAdvantage partner that sells one-way economy award tickets for 37,500 miles; one-way business class is 62,500 miles. Availability won’t show up on AA.com—you can only book by phone. (Pro tip: Expertflyer.com, a paid service, will let you search Air Tahiti Nui award availability and set an alert when award space becomes available.) Air France is a partner of Delta, and award availability is displayed on Delta.com. Search for flexible dates—economy one-way awards are 50,000 miles and business class costs 80,000 miles.
Bora Bora is known for its bungalows that are perched on stilts over crystal-blue water. From a points perspective, the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa offers the best value because the resort has only overwater bungalows, which start at $800 but cost a reasonable 50,000 points per night. (Most other island resorts charge a hefty upgrade fee for bungalows.) InterContinental opens up free nights at the 50,000-point level 50 weeks in advance, so book ahead. (Tip: the IHG Rewards Club allows you to stretch the value of your points with Points & Cash; 40,000 points and $70 per night—for an $800+ room—is the best redemption value for IHG rewards, in my opinion.)
A balmy coral archipelago in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are also a renowned indulgent escape. Like Bora Bora, the Maldives are tough to reach and expensive once you arrive. But points can really, really help defray the cost of visiting paradise.
It’s generally fastest and fanciest to get to the Maldives from the U.S. via the Middle East. Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways are both partners with American Airlines, so you can use your AAdvantage miles on them—but you have to call to book awards because those opportunities don’t show up on AA.com. To fly Emirates, you’re best off transferring SPG points (for free) to Japan Airlines, which has a distance-based award chart and, unlike its partner Emirates, does not add fuel surcharges. A flight from New York to Dubai to Male in at 8,734 miles, so costs 65,000 miles one-way for business class or 100,000 for first class.
For first class redemptions you’re better off booking via Alaska Airlines, also a partner of Emirates and an SPG transfer partner. Alaska has a region-based award chart, so you can book awards on alaskair.com without any fuel surcharges. LAX to Male is just 72,500 miles one-way business class or 90,000 miles in first class. You can also transfer American Express Membership Rewards for free to Emirates’ Skywards program, but the airline tacks on huge fuel surcharges and the costs of its award flights are pretty inflated compared to their partners.
When it comes to accommodations, there are some very luxurious options. The Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa—whose base rates often start at $1,000 per night—offers standard rooms for 25,000 points. You can spend $200 and upgrade to pool and water villas. The Hyatt Visa card gives customers two free nights at any Hyatt property; redeeming those certificates in Maldives can yield over $2,000 in value, given the standard room rates.
The Conrad Maldives, Rangali Island costs a heftier 95,000 Hilton HHonors Points per night; the property also allows cash upgrades to water villas pending availability. The Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card provides two free weekend nights at any Hilton property, and this is a good place to use them.
Johannesburg is a whopping 7,969 miles from NYC—9,227 if you go via Amsterdam. The trick is to use your miles on airline tickets so you can make the long journey in relative comfort; hotels and food are relatively cheap, and you can't use points for most safaris.
South African Airways flies from New York and Washington Dulles; there are few award flights, but it’s not impossible to find one (they begin releasing more award seats closer to departure). If you book via United (a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner) you’re looking at 160,000 miles round-trip for business class. If you want to splurge, you can book Lufthansa First Class via Germany for 130,000 United miles, one-way. When you consider that those tickets can cost over $8,000, it isn’t a terrible use of your points. Lufthansa generally only releases award seats to partners within a week or so of departure, so you can book business class and change to first-class if availability opens up.
Qatar Airways flies via Doha, and American Airlines allows you to book from the U.S. to South Africa for 75,000 miles each way as long as you fly Qatar the entire trip (this is an exception to their normal routing rules, so if an agent tries to charge you more, ask them to look up this exception). I recently flew from Cape Town to Doha to NYC on Qatar and it was a smooth ride—especially on the new Boeing 787.
Delta flies from Atlanta to Johannesburg nonstop, but expect to shell out 175,000 SkyMiles one-way for business class and 55,000 SkyMiles one-way for economy.
High-rolling Tokyo is a great place to redeem points for fancy hotels so you can splurge on haute cuisine.
There are so many flight options. American’s MileSAAver Off Peak awards are a great deal—economy seats cost just 25,000 miles one-way from the U.S. You can fly on partner Japan Airlines, which generally offers better economy-class experiences than American, though you need to call to book a JAL Award Ticket. Partner off-peak awards end next year with the program changes, so last call to take advantage of these rates this winter.
As in Paris, the Japanese capital has incredible hotels that can be booked with points, including the Park Hyatt Tokyo (where Lost in Translation was filmed) for just 30,000 points a night. Outside Tokyo there’s the gorgeous new Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto. I stayed here last December and felt like I’d transported in time, even though it’s a new hotel. It also just won best design award from the travel-agent network Virtuoso. Rates are high even in the off-season ($450 per night in December) so spending 60,000 Marriott Rewards points for a room can make sense. Marriott has a Hotel + Air Package where a you can get a week in a Tier 4 Ritz-Carlton (like Kyoto) and 55,000 AA miles (enough for a round-trip) for 470,000 Marriott points.