We have just returned from our Hawaii trip and it is going to take some time before I finish editing all the photos and posting the trip reports. In the meantime, I wanted to share how we planned for this trip using points and miles to reduce our costs significantly. Long story short, the entire planning process took about 10 months with multiple changes in between, which explains this lengthy post.
When we were planning our vacation back in January, Hawaii came into the picture mainly because I had a 7-night Marriott hotel certificate that I was trying to use, and the Courtyard on Big Island with a standard rate of $250/night seemed to be a good option to maximize the value of the certificate. Since the hotel allows maximum occupancy of 4 adults without any surcharges, we figured it would be a good opportunity to make it a family trip and invited my parents to join us.
After deciding on the destination, I went ahead and booked our flights using award miles. For the outbound flight, I decided to use Alaska miles. The best flight option was for us to fly out of Nashville (because Alaska Airlines doesn’t fly to Huntsville), have an overnight layover in San Francisco (hubby can have a quick catch-up with his buddy), then fly to Kona the next day and arrive Kona in the afternoon. Total cost for this flight was 17,500 Alaska miles + $11.20 taxes per person.
For the return flight, I used American Airlines miles to book our flights from Kona to Huntsville, with layovers in LA and Dallas. Total cost for this flight was 20,000 AA miles + $5.60 taxes per person. At the time of booking, hubby had the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator credit card, which gives 10% rebate on all redemption so we got 2,000 AA miles rebate for each ticket.
We decided to rent a car to drive around the whole island. As I was browsing on Hertz, I noticed that my company’s corporate rate was significantly lower than all other rates I checked. The total cost for a 1-week using my corporate rate was $253, as compared to the next cheapest rate I could find of $425. Best of all, this is the ‘Pay Later’ rate so I went ahead and booked it.
As the trip was still a few months away and I had some work travels coming up, I decided to build up my Herts rewards points to have enough points for a 1-week free rental. As soon as I accumulated enough points in May, I immediately redeemed all my points for a 1-week rental with Hertz, knocking down the total rental cost from $253 to $65. I got super lucky with my timing because Hertz significantly devalued it’s program without any notice just few days after I made my booking, which requires 1,000 more points for a 1-week rental. I wouldn’t have had enough points for that if I hadn’t booked it in time.
With that, we’ve got almost all the big-ticket items covered for less than $100. Pretty easy right?
HAWAII IS STILL NOT CHEAP
While we may have the big-ticket items covered, Hawaii is still an expensive destination. For example, the hotel charges $25 per day for on-site parking, which means we’d still have to pay $175 to park for 7 days! Besides, Platinum elite members don’t get free breakfast at Courtyard hotels in the US so we can’t use the free ‘brunch’ to cut down on our food cost. P.S. Everything is more expensive on the island.
Majority of the chain hotels in Hawaii charges ‘resort fees’ on top of the published rate, and this fee is also imposed on award bookings. One of the main reasons why I chose Courtyard Kona initially was because they didn’t charge any resort fees (because it’s not a resort)….not until I noticed that the hotel started adding a “Destination Amenity Fee” of $22/day in May. Hence, the originally “free” 7 nights will now cost $329 (including parking)…and I’m NOT happy about that. The value of this hotel doesn’t seem to be as good as I initially thought. =(
The thing about booking flights early means there’s a high change for a flight schedule change, and that could be a good or bad thing.
I received an email from Alaska Airlines in August notifying us that our flight from Nashville to San Francisco which was supposed to depart on Thanksgiving evening was cancelled and we were rebooked on an early morning flight from Nasvhille to San Francisco, with an additional layover in Seattle. That means our journey would be extended by 12 more hours. This is the 2nd year in a row that this exact same flight on the same day is cancelled for us. I found out later than Alaska Airlines discontinued the BNA-SFO route entirely.
In October, I received the email from AA notifying me that my flight that was supposed to arrive early morning in Huntsville will only get in in the afternoon.
RENTAL CAR CHANGES
Well, the changes wouldn’t be complete without a change in the rental car too right? Fortunately, this was a relatively minor change. Our company decided to end its partnership with Hertz some time in July, so the amazing $253 rate that I got initially was also gone, and it went up to $611. Since I was using my points, the only impact was a $30 increase in the amount of taxes that we had to pay.
On a separate note, I almost made an extremly dumb mistake when I accidentally ‘modified’ my points booking which cancelled the original reservation, and had an ‘oh sh*t’ moment when the customer service agent told me that they couldn’t undo the cancellation. She told me that I had to make a new reservation using the new higher rate, which I obviously did not have enough points to do so. After spending an hour panicking and kicking myself for the dumb move, I tried using the same Promotional Coupon number I had on the old reservation and was able to retrieve the 1-week free rental at the same rate…phew!!! Lesson learnt, do NOT mess with a good deal!!
EARN AND BURN
Devaluation happens all the time because companies want to make money and that’s how the points and miles game go. There’s no point hoarding points and miles because we won’t know when they will lose their value. Lesson learnt…earn and burn them!
HOW NOW BROWN COW?
So, what’s our plan now with all these changes? Does that mean we are stuck with a more expensive hotel and a crappier flight schedule? Sticking with the original plan was definitely an option, but for me, these changes gave me an opportunity to re-strategize our points and miles plan, and relook at new options that may not have been available back in January. That means starting the trip planning from scratch. P.S. I enjoy trip planning and finding ways to optimize our points and miles so this was fun for me.
I wanted to use points for hotels but avoid paying whatever resort or destination fee. I had 3 hotel choices – Marriott, Hilton, and IHG.
IHG - IHG had a fairly new Holiday Inn Express in Kona that requires 40,000 points per night, does not charge any resort fee, and offers free breakfast. The points per night value is not great but since I had the Chase IHG Premier credit card, I was able to get the 4th night free for points redemption. I also had an anniversary free night (capped at 40,000 points) that came with the same credit card so I was able to use it to redeem one more night in the same hotel.
Marriott - When I first found out about the Courtyard destination fee, I started looking for ways to offset the additional fees. That was when I stumbled upon the Chase Marriott Boundless credit card offer that offered $250 statement credit and 1 Free Night Award (valued up to 35,000 points). This offer does not have the normal big signup bonus, but $250 credit was pretty good, and the annual fee is also waived for the 1st year (this card doesn’t normally waive annual fee). I used the 1 Free Night Award to book the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, which turned out to be a pretty good value because the published rate is $500/night. Besides, I still have a few Suite Night Awards to use by the end of the year and figured I’ll try my luck here. I also found out that the hotel moved up one category recently and it now requires 50,000 points for a free night instead of 35,000. Once again, I got lucky with my timing. =) This hotel still charges $30 resort fee (and $25 parking which I was able to get them waived), but I’m ok with that since it’s only for 1 night, and I’ll receive complimentary breakfast for my Platinum benefit.
Hilton – Since we were planning to drive around the island, I figured it would be more convenient to spend 1 night on the east side of the island (Hilo). There is only 1 chain hotel with presence in Hilo, which is the DoubleTree Grand Naniloa. This hotel charges resort fee but it is waived for Diamond members. Besides, I’d also receive 2 complimentary breakfast as a Diamond member. This hotel normally requires 50,000 points per night but they had a promotion for premium room reward so I managed to book a better room for 46,000 points.
Flight schedule changes mean I’ll have the option to change to my preferred flight schedule or cancel the flights for free. When FrequentMiler shared about the new sweet spot using Turkish Airlines miles from Continental US to Hawaii on United for 7,500 miles each way in July, I thought to myself that this would have been great for us if I hadn’t booked our flights for Hawaii. When I found out about the Alaska and AA flight schedule changes, I knew it was golden because here comes my opportunity to take advantage of this sweet spot and get some great value out of my points. FrequentMiler had several posts on how difficult the booking process could be and I wasn’t optimistic that I could find a route from Huntsville that had availability, especially since it was only 2 months away from our travel date.
I did my homework beforehand and found a flight from Huntsville to Honolulu, with a short layover in Houston. I tried calling first but few customer service agents that I spoke to couldn’t find the availability of the flights I quoted. I then tried emailing the Turkish Airlines ticketing office in Singapore and they were able to see the partner award availability and was able to help me to put a hold on the tickets. I didn’t have any Turkish miles but after confirming the ticket availability and putting the tickets on hold, I immediately transferred 60,000 Marriott points to 25,000 Turkish miles. The points transfer took about 3 days but fortunately, the ticket hold was still valid and I was able to call Turkish airlines and make the payment without any issue. After securing the tickets, I called Alaska Airlines to cancel our tickets and got our miles refunded. I repeated the same process when I found out about the AA flight schedule change. I emailed the Boston office to help with the ticket booking instead of Singapore as they never replied my email.
Since our destination is Kona (not Honolulu), we had to book separate inter-island flights on Southwest for $59 each. I could have used points for the inter-island flight but it wasn’t a good use of points so we decided to pay cash instead. Another reason why I chose to fly through Honolulu is to help my parents as they would be flying into Honolulu on Philippines Airlines, and will need to switch to Southwest for the inter-island flight. After booking our flights from Honolulu to Kona, I was lucky to get approved for the Hilton Aspire Amex credit card, with annual fee of $450 waived and included a $250 airline credit. As such, my Southwest ticket from Kona to Honolulu was free. =)
So, our plan that was originally simple became much more extensive but works better for our needs. While the out of pocket cost was higher up front, the value of miles and points we saved outweighs the cash outlay. We won’t need to pay for the ‘useless’ destination fee, and will get some savings on food expenses with the free breakfast. Besides, The 7-night hotel certificate and miles refunded for Alaska and AA have also been put to good use on our trips next year. =)
June 2020 December 2019