A Surprisingly Successful Christmas Travel Hack

Miles aren't worth what they used to be

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United flight / Credit : Tim Gouw

If there was any doubt that we were just a few weeks away from Christmas, I saw my last doubts evaporate last week, like snow in Houston. In addition to Christmas trees, breakfasts, lunches and dinners coming from everywhere, I’ve had the ultimate validation only a few days back.

Crazy Christmas flight prices.

Because my wife and I have realized that we had no plan for Christmas when Thanksgiving hit us, we were a little late in the ‘book-your-christmas-flight’ game. Our plan is to spend a week in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, with the family around Christmas.

This is what United (the only respectable direct flights to Cancun) proposed to us:

United Cancun Cash cost

Ouch…

My wife and I looked at each others. We realized in an instant that our Christmas vacations were far from confirmed.

“Fear not” I tell her, “I’ve signed-up for all these credit cards this year and accumulated many miles, I’m sure we can find a way out of this!”.

Here’s what the challenge was, for 2 adult tickets and 1 lap child, IAH-CUN:

  • Cash cost : 1,257.28$
  • Available United Miles (me) : 40,000 miles
  • Available United Miles (her) : 23,000 miles
  • Available American Express Miles : 83,000 miles
  • Available Ultimate Rewards Miles : 73,000 miles

How can we optimize that with the minimum amount of cash and miles used?

Using United Miles

Because there was no way we would pay that kind of money for a 2h flight, our first idea was to go check what we could get with our United Miles. Tickets to Cancun are usually available for 30k miles award tickets, so we were hopeful that our combined 63,000 miles would be our solution.

Until we saw this:

United Cancun United Miles cost

You’ve got to be kidding me.

150k miles and 200$ of fees to go to Cancun? We could fly to London or Paris for that many miles. We could also be more than half-way to the moon. How does a 2h flight can even pretend being worth so much?

That’s when we had our second look at each other: this trip was toast.

Until I checked an alternative option.

Using Ultimate Rewards Miles

Motivated by curiosity more than hope, I decided to check what the booking would be through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards website. A little desperate maybe, I log on chase.com, look for their Ultimate Rewards button which redirects me to their booking system.

I enter my trip details into their booking tool and, somehow, it tells me that I can book my ticket for half the miles that United wanted. Intrigued, perplexed and tad hopeful, I proceed with the booking to see where it takes me. The confirmation screen appears: I can book my ticket with 37,000 miles and 0$ in cash.

“Nah, that can’t be right”, but I click anyway. And then this email lands in my inbox:

Ultimate Rewards booking confirmation

And at the bottom of the email, it shows the reassuring cost of 0$ and 37,224 miles.

Ultimate rewards payment confirmation

Hurray! I rush to my wife with the news and announce that if I could also book her ticket, this trip was back on track. BAAA-AM, another ticket:

At a cost of 38 miles / $ spend, this was a pretty good deal. Funny how a dollar spend is worth 38 miles through the booking website and just 1 mile when making day to day purchases. But I digress…

The only grey spot on this otherwise very nice booking experience is that I couldn’t book a lap-child ticket on their website but had to do this over the phone. I also couldn’t use miles so it cost me 90$.

Summarizing it all

Let’s see what the final numbers are, using Ultimate Rewards to book our tickets:

  • 1 adult ticket for me 37,224 miles and 0$
  • 1 adult ticket for her 34,759 miles and 64$
  • 1 lap-child ticket at 90$
  • TOTAL : 71,983 miles and 150$.

So this trip for 3 is basically costing us 150$.

Compared to the initial 1,257$ that United wanted to charge us, we saved 1,100$.

I think it’s pretty clear that the travel hacking game has moved past the simple accumulation of miles. It now depends on which platform you spend your miles on. I don’t know how booking through American Express would be, but this is definitely something I’ll look into when I need to buy tickets with their partners.

Thinking about it, it is crazy that :

  1. Ultimate Rewards miles were worth 2x the miles from United
  2. United wanted to charge 150k miles and 200$ fee
  3. Our trip costs us only 150$ simply because I opened a credit card earlier this year

I know one thing already, my wife is getting a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card next year.

-Nick

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6 COMMENTS

    • It’s amazing how much benefit you can get with a good deal, but this was my first one. You’ll have to give us an update how your experience is going!

  1. Nice work! We’ve recently been cycling through both the Chase Preferred and Reserve cards to rack up some Ultimate Rewards so its good to hear it was so successful for you folks. It definitely looks like a good platform. Thanks for sharing!

    • For us, the ultimate rewards points have definitely been a good option when the airline miles weren’t great. And since they can be transferred to most of airlines, they are indeed a good deal. If you have both the sapphire and the reserve, you should be set for great savings!

    • This was our first attempt at using miles acquired through credit card rewards (so at no cost), and the savings were great. Definitely a good perk of those cards!

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