Visiting 5 US Cities With Family for Next to Nothing – Rachel Makes It Happen by Earning Over 500,000 Miles and Points!

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Welcome to the next installment of our Reader Success Series where Million Mile Secrets Readers share how they booked a trip with miles & points to get Big Travel with Small Money!  This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Rachel is our newest reader success story to show folks it’s possible to travel without spending a lot of money.  If you would like to be inspired by more stories like this one, take a second to subscribe to our newsletter!

Rachel Q Success Story
My Husband and I Explored Hotel del Coronado Without the Kids Because Touring a Hotel is Boring For Them.  Instead, They Stayed in the Room Watching a Movie and Eating Snacks

What’s your name and how long have you been involved in the miles & points hobby?

My name is Rachel, and I started the in the miles and points hobby in 2016.  Due to time constraints, we typically only travel over long weekends.  I’m a working mom with 2 kids, the younger one with autism.

She is quite impatient, so we can’t stay in one place for long.  I am also a self-employed physician (my husband helps me run the business) so we can’t be away for long.  Our trips are a short 2 to 5 days, and usually, involve local or short-haul flights only.

My go-to blog sites are Travel is Free and Million Mile Secrets.

What was the goal of your trip(s)?

Between the kids’ school schedules and working, our goal is usually to get a quick break from chores and find magic in our weekends.  Very mundane really, but a good method to keep our sanity, especially as a couple with children, jobs, and chores.

Our older daughter attended college out-of-state for a year, so miles and points made it less costly for her to fly back home.

Rachel Q Success Story
Ostrichland in Solvang

How long did you collect miles and points for your trip(s)?

With various credit card welcome bonuses, it took us ~10 months to amass 180,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, 150,000 Hilton points, 160,000 IHG points, and 50,000 Choice hotel points.

We had additional miles and points from regular spending, but those amounts were earned primarily from welcome bonuses on cards like:

Which points did you use to take your trip(s)?

Since we live in Los Angeles, we are very close to a lot of interesting places.  And if they aren’t close by, we were able to get a great deal using only miles and points.  Here are some of the places we visited!

1)   Catalina Island for 3 days and 2 nights – I used the $300 annual travel credit from the Chase Sapphire Reserve to cover the cost ($278.50) for island ferry tickets for 4 people.  And used 60,000 IHG points for 2 nights at the Holiday Inn Resort Catalina Island (30,000 IHG points per night).

Rachel Q Success Story
View of Avalon Harbor, Catalina Island, From the Catalina Express Ferry

2)   Solvang for 2 days and 1 night – We drove from Los Angeles to Solvang and used 30,000 Choice points to stay at the Solvang Gardens Lodge, a neat boutique hotel.

I bought a lot of my Choice points during the yearly Daily Getaway promotions because the Choice Privileges® Visa Signature® credit card is not the best for our spending patterns.

Rachel Q Success Story
Do Take Your Time Exploring the Quaint Shops and Architecture of Solvang, Aptly Named “Little Denmark”

3)   Dallas for 3 days and 2 nights – My husband transferred ~28,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest for 4 tickets from Los Angeles to Dallas (7,045 points + $5.60 fees per ticket).  And I used 60,000 Hilton points for 2 nights at the Homewood Suites by Plano-Richardson.

This trip was just to drop off our older daughter to college.  She eventually moved back to Los Angeles because she missed home!

4)   SeaWorld in San Diego for 3 days and 2 nights – We drove to San Diego and used 61,000 Hilton Honors points for 1 night at the Hotel Del Coronado.  And we used our AAA membership to get a discounted rate for the 2nd night.

Rachel Q Success Story
The View From Our Hotel Room Balcony at Hotel del Coronado.  I Thought it Was Nice, but the Rest of My Family Were More Interested in Other Things, Like Snacks!

5)   Las Vegas for 5 days and 4 nights – We drove to Las Vegas and used 120,000 IHG points for a 4-night stay at the Staybridge Suites Las Vegas.

In general, we try to stretch our points by staying at mid-level hotels that require fewer points.

Which cards would you recommend to open for a trip(s) like yours?

For small trips like ours, we recommend flexible Chase Ultimate Rewards points from cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and Chase Ink Business Preferred.  We also use the old Chase IHG card with the $49 annual fee (no longer available).

If you prefer a particular hotel chain, check into getting a hotel credit card with an annual free night since the annual fees are usually less than the cost of the free night.  You can earn an annual free night certificate with cards like the Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card and The Hyatt Credit Card.

How did you search and find the award flights?

Our trips mostly involve driving.  However, for flights within the US, I check Southwest and AwardHacker.  For last-minute travel, I check the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, and also each airlines’ individual websites where I have miles or points.

I often use Google Flights for the price of flights, because sometimes it’s possible to get a better deal by paying cash.  And while traveling internationally is more difficult for us, I do check AwardHacker every now and then so that we’ll be prepared for the day we can travel overseas.

We actually do have an upcoming trip to Europe that we planned using AwardHacker!

How did you find your hotel accommodations?

I use Google Maps to draw a radius based on my destinations, then find the best hotel within that radius to suit our needs.  I also use Travel is Free’s hotel maps, and sometimes AwardMapper.

We like to stay in family-friendly hotels near the city center, preferably with free breakfast buffets.  Ordering from a restaurant menu may seem fun, but I can tell you that doing this with kids is a parent’s recurring nightmare.

What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?

Anything involving air travel is challenging with my special-needs daughter.  To prevent or minimize meltdowns, we normally plan for flights that last less than 6 hours, make sure we have a fully charged iPad with games, and also bring sketch pads and snacks.

Whenever we end up flying somewhere, we really like the Priority Pass lounge access we get from our Chase Sapphire Reserve card, especially given our daughter’s sensitivity to noises.  We’ve gotten great use of airport lounge access for over 2 years now!

Rachel Q Success Story
We Watched a Movie in Our MinuteSuites Room at the Dallas Airport While Waiting for Our Flight. MinuteSuites Is Part of the Priority Pass Lounge Collection!

Another challenge is our daughter’s possible meltdowns when exploring new places.  This is why I choose hotels in the city center, so it’s only a short trip back to the hotel if needed.

Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination.  Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.

1)   Catalina Island – Rent a golf cart for 2 hours (instead of the usual 1 hour) and drive around the entire island.  The Catalina Island Museum is amazing, even if small, and you can linger for ~30 minutes there.

Rachel Q Success Story
Very Few Cars Are Allowed on Catalina Island. So Grab Yourself a Golf Cart to Explore!

2)   Solvang – Take your time browsing the quaint shops, but don’t forget to visit Ostrichland with the kids. You can feed the ostriches and even buy a 2-pound emu egg for a giant omelet!

Rachel Q Success Story
At Home Preparing an Emu Egg Omelet!

3)   Dallas – We loved sampling exotic food like alligator strips and frog’s legs at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, a Cajun restaurant with locations across the US.

4)   Coronado Island, San Diego – While the beach was okay, our kids didn’t really appreciate the “charm” of Hotel del Coronado.  So it might be better to get a less expensive beach hotel if you’re traveling with kids.

5)   Las Vegas – Staybridge Suites Las Vegas is a non-smoking hotel that doesn’t serve any alcohol, which is great if you are looking for a really quiet family hotel.

I particularly recommend it for families of children with “sensory integration” conditions.  It feels so soothing to come back to this hotel to after an entire day’s worth of stimulation from the Las Vegas Strip.

Rachel Q Success Story
Sign at The Venetian Hotel: “Unattended Children Will be Given an Energy Drink and a Puppy”

What did you learn about yourself on these trips?

We realized that dreaming of the future for that ONE epic trip of a lifetime often times prevents us from enjoying the present.  So instead of continuing to daydream, we decided to live the magic of the present, right now, whenever and wherever we can.

What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip?  Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!

You can take a walk to the nearest park and appreciate the here and now.  If you have miles and points, you can extend that appreciation to include the places and experiences near you that you’ve always thought of but never got around to exploring.  Small experiences can lead to bigger adventures.  With miles and points, you really can get Big Travel without spending too much money!

Want to Share Your Story?

If you’d like to be considered for our reader success story series, please send us a note!  We would love to hear about how you travel with miles and points!  And if you want to get more stories like this one delivered straight to your inbox, please sign up for our email list!