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Erik Van Dootingh used points to get his family to Thailand to see relatives — and he traveled in style. He also stocked up miles and points along the way so family members in Southeast Asia don’t miss any important baby milestones.
Route: Round trip from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago to Hong Kong International Airport to Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok Dates of travel: Nov. 10-22, 2017 Airlines: Delta Air Lines, Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, All Nippon Airways (ANA) Class of service: Business
We started the trip from our home airport in Cincinnati and paid for the short positioning flight on Delta to Chicago. From there we took a Cathay Pacific business-class flight to Bangkok with a brief layover in Hong Kong.
We all flew out on Nov. 10, 2017. I returned alone on Nov. 22, 2017, with an identical itinerary, but in reverse order. My wife and daughter enjoyed some extra time in Thailand and returned on Dec. 14, 2017. They flew Thai Airways business class to Tokyo and then ANA business class to Chicago before a final leg home on Delta to Cincinnati.
Q: Did you visit a lounge at the airport?
A: Our business-class tickets on Cathay got us access to the British Airways business-class lounge in Chicago. It was a cramped lounge with an odd layout and little available seating. The food options were limited and not well stocked.
We also visited the AmEx Centurion lounge in Hong Kong, which I had access to because I have The Platinum Card® from American Express. This was a much better experience than in Chicago. The staff was helpful and the food and drink options were great.
Q: Who did you travel with and why?
A: My wife and daughter. My wife was born and raised in Thailand, and most of her family still lives there. We try to visit as often as possible. This was also our first trip since our daughter was born, and her family’s first chance to meet the baby.
The rewards program
Q: What loyalty programs did you use to get a free trip?
A: I used two airline programs for this trip: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and United Airlines MileagePlus. Most of the miles, however, were not accrued directly in these programs, but rather transferable currencies that offer better earning rates. I used the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express to acquire points to transfer to Alaska miles, and Chase Ultimate Rewards® to transfer to United miles.
Q: How long were you a cardholder/member at that time?
A: I have been a member of SPG since late 2015, and a member of Chase Ultimate Rewards® since 2011.
Q: How long were you planning/saving for this trip?
A: It had been two years since our last trip, so I had plenty of time to accrue the necessary points for this trip.
Q: Did you take advantage of promotions while earning points for this trip?
Q: Where and how did you book?
A: The booking process took quite a bit of research and time on the phone. Cathay Pacific awards do not show up on Alaska’s website, nor can they be booked online. I found the availability on British Airways site and called Alaska to complete the booking.
That part was easy enough, but since we were traveling with a lap infant, I had to make another call to Cathay to get our daughter added to the reservation and pay the lap infant fee.
Interestingly, though Cathay Pacific charges 25% of the adult fare to be paid in cash (not miles) for the lap infant, I was only charged approximately $500. Based on the publicly available business-class fares, it should have been more like $750 to $1,000, so this was a nice surprise.
The United portion of the booking was simpler, and I completed this online. I still had to make a call to add the lap infant.
» Learn More: How to fly with a baby
Q: How many miles did this cost?
A: My award booking on Cathay Pacific was 50,000 miles each way, so 100,000 miles round trip for me. My wife’s trip cost 50,000 outbound on Cathay, but her return trip on Thai Airways in business class to Tokyo, and then ANA business class to Chicago, was 80,000 United miles.
What’s up next?
Q: What’s your next travel rewards goal?
A: My biggest goal is to be able to take my family to Thailand over the coming years without having to fly in economy, which I have done twice and found to be excruciatingly painful. I have banked a large stash of points and miles and should be able to meet this goal for the foreseeable future.
Photo of Erik Van Dootingh by Van Dootingh.
How flexibility can yield more travel rewards
If you can be flexible, your opportunities to earn more rewards may multiply.
Apply for a travel credit card that offers a higher rewards rate, even if it’s from an issuer you don’t have an account with.
Split your spending across well-chosen credit cards to maximize earning. Pair a flat-rate 2% cash-back credit card with a card from a different issuer that offers 6% back on groceries. Using the latter at the supermarket and the former everywhere else could lift your overall rewards earnings. Take advantage of shopping portals, rotating bonus categories, and seasonal and limited-time offers.
Research the best redemption options. By taking a little more time or being flexible when cashing in your rewards, you might find a deal that gets you 5 cents out of each mile, instead of just 1 cent.
Seek out guidance from those who have done it before. Check out NerdWallet’s Travel Community for personalized advice through a community of experts.
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: The Marriott-SPG merger: 5 things you should know How I flew for free: Round trip NYC to India using Chase Ultimate Rewards This strategy is how I started earning major travel rewards