It’s a few days late, but the Reader Success Story for November 2019 features Prince of Travel reader Sarah R., who shared with me her experience using points to subsidize the cost of a family vacation to Iceland this past summer.
Iceland isn’t the easiest destination to get to on points, as there aren’t too many award chart sweet spots for getting there (especially if you want to travel in a higher class of service), and the general cost of travel can be quite high as well. Read on to find out how Sarah was able to her points to bring her family to Iceland in some measure of luxury.
One of the major items on my family’s bucket list (okay, mostly mine) has been to visit Iceland, the mecca of waterfalls and hot springs.
Price has been one our biggest concerns and one of the reasons we didn’t go until this last summer, but thanks to tips and tricks from Prince of Travel and other travel websites, we managed to book a somewhat-luxurious Icelandic trip without going completely bankrupt.
We found a cheap cash fare for the outbound journey, but on the return, where the cash fares were much more expensive, we flew from Reykjavik to Toronto on Icelandair using Alaska Airlines miles.
Each one-way ticket from Reykjavik to anywhere in North America is 22,500 miles per person and a fee of US$115 per person. I booked four tickets for a cost of 90,000 Alaska miles + US$460. I made the bookings four months in advance, but was tracking availability for three months prior to that, and availability Icelandair remained decent for most of August 2019 even after I had booked.
I had decided to make two bookings of two people each (whilst ensuring that each of my two children were attached to an adult), in the event that I wanted to upgrade some of the party to Icelandair’s Saga Class (their business class). And in the end, I did end up upgrading myself and my eight-year old for US$210 per person.
(As an alternative, I also could have flown on Air Canada Rouge using Aeroplan miles to Toronto or Montreal, although I usually avoid Rouge due to the cramped quarters on their planes).
To earn, the Alaska miles, my husband and I both got the MBNA Alaska Airlines MasterCard – both the World Elite (30,000 miles) and the Platinum Plus (20,000 miles) versions – for $99 and $75, respectively. Each card required a $1,000 spend in the first 90 days for the bonus.
Normally, MBNA does not allow you to carry both cards at once, but for some reason they allowed me to do so. My husband was not allowed to carry both cards, and he therefore only got the bonus of 30,000 miles when he applied for the World Elite version.
That gave us a total of 80,000 miles. We then got 3,000 additional miles from the spending required to get the respective bonuses, and for the remaining 7,000 miles that we needed, I transferred over 21,000 Marriott Bonvoy points that I had earned via the Amex Cobalt Card’s 5x return on food spend.
In total, the return journey cost us US$460 in taxes and fees, US$420 for the upgrade to Saga Class for two people, and $93 in credit card annual fees after the Great Canadian Rebates cash back offers, totalling about $1,262 in Canadian dollars for four one-way tickets – two in business class and two in the main cabin.
By comparison, if I had paid for the tickets, the cost for two business class and two main cabin seats, four months in advance, was about $4,450!
We stayed one night near Jökulsárlón in the southeastern region of Iceland, as we wanted to see the famous glacial lagoon there.
I paid for the stay using my points from the BMO World Elite MasterCard, which we had applied for during one of BMO’s no-fee promotions and had yielded 35,000 points, which could be redeemed for around $250 worth of travel. My husband and I had both gotten the card during the no-fee promotion, so that paid for the two rooms we needed.
We also stayed in Reykjavik for three nights, booking two rooms at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica partially through the sign-up bonus of 150,000 Hilton Honors points from the Amex US Hilton Aspire Card, plus the free weekend night on that card as well.
We still had to pay for three of the six nights in total, which cost a little over $1,000, but as we were entitled to breakfast and lounge access (as part of the Diamond benefits that come with the Hilton Aspire Card), it was well worth it for our stay.
I would highly recommend this Hilton if you are looking at a visit to Reykjavik. If you would like to offset your stay at this Hilton even more, you can additionally apply for the Amex Hilton or Amex Hilton Surpass cards, which come with signup bonuses of 75,000 and 125,000 points respectively.
For car rentals and non-Hilton stays in Iceland, I’d recommend that you look at cards like the Amex Cobalt, the Scotia Gold Amex, or the BMO World Elite, which have good points accumulation possibilities that can then be used as dollars to offset the cost of car rentals or accommodations.
Our family enjoyed a great vacation in Iceland, and I hope you and your family get a chance to do so one day too.
I do enjoy hearing from readers who are using points to take their families on trips, as the underlying goals and priorities are often quite different from the trips I usually book for myself. Instead of optimizing for value at every turn, the focus is usually on booking a smooth and convenient journey while finding whatever possible ways to maximize comfort and minimize the out-of-pocket costs that inevitably stack up when you’re travelling as a large group.
Sarah’s story was a great example of this. With her heart set on Iceland as a destination, she looked for the best ways to reduce the cost of this trip using points, formulated a plan of action relying on the MBNA Alaska, BMO World Elite, and Amex US Hilton credit cards, and got to work.
I’d be very curious how she was able to hold both the World Elite and the Platinum Plus versions of the MBNA Alaska – while I’ve heard a few other instances of this through the grapevine, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the norm, and I wouldn’t count on it happening at all (as in the case of Sarah’s husband, who wasn’t allowed to hold both versions at once).
I was also impressed by Sarah’s decision to redeem 22,500 Alaska miles for economy class for two people and then purchase an upgrade (using Icelandair’s Class Up service) for US$210 per person, which seems like a very reasonable rate to get a more comfortable seat for the six-hour flight (and arguably a better value than redeeming 55,000 Alaska miles for a business class ticket outright).
It’s worth noting, though, that not all airlines allow you to purchase upgrades on award tickets like this – in my experience across trips I’ve taken recently, Aegean Airlines had allowed me to purchase an upgrade on an award ticket, whereas Singapore Airlines did not. It’s worth doing some research beforehand to see if redeeming miles for economy and then paying for an upgrade might be an option in your case.
On the hotel side, Sarah made an inspired move in venturing south of the border to pick up the Amex US Hilton Aspire Card for its bonus of 150,000 points and annual free weekend night certificate. While those weren’t quite enough to cover the entire stay, she was also able to use her BMO Rewards points from the BMO World Elite to cover some more of her out-of-pocket spending.
As Sarah recommends, fixed-value currencies like BMO Rewards or Amex MR Select points can be a very useful tool to supplement the more valuable hotel loyalty points that you collect, especially for family travel, where the various out-of-pocket costs can add up quickly otherwise.
Thanks for sharing, Sarah, and I’ll be sending you 5,000 Aeroplan miles as a reward to get you closer towards the next big trip.
And if you’d like your story to be featured too, send me an email with “[Success Story]” in the subject line for a chance to be selected for the December edition!