2015 Travel Year in Review – How We Saved $18,202 Visiting 6 Countries on 8 Trips

The end of 2015 is drawing nigh.  It’s time to reflect with a “year in review” post.

All told Patty and I took 8 significant trips in 2015, each one different and fun in its own way!  We visited 6 countries, spending much less than you might imagine for the trips.  We saved $18,202 by using points, miles and a free night certificate.

Hopefully sharing how we were able to take these trips without spending a fortune will provide ideas for readers and some inspiration!

Here’s where we went, and how we did it without breaking the bank!

1. Guys Ski Trip to Aspen During X Games (January)!

Once a year I head out west with buddies for our annual ski trip.  This year’s ski trip kicked off my 2015 travel.  Our crew’s destination changes from year to year; for 2015 we decided to visit Aspen.

We were excited to check out Aspen – “a place where the beer flows like wine, where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano”- as we hadn’t visited the famous ski town before.  Learning that the 2015 Winter X Games would be in town during our visit made it that much more exciting.

Aspen Mountain Panorama 800
The natural scenery of Aspen was stunning! We got some bluebird days on the mountain though the surface conditions weren’t the best.

Flying into and out of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport was the epitome of convenience.  The ski resort and the condo we rented were a mere 10-minute drive from the airport. Aspen is a great ski town to enjoy on any weekend; the X Games took it up a notch to incredible!

How I Did It

I booked a flight to Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (ASE) on United using 12,500 MileagePlus miles.  For the return, I booked the first leg – ASE to Denver – on United metal using 10,000 United MileagePlus miles and the final leg from Denver on US Airways using 12,500 American Airlines miles.  Because I held the United MileagePlus Explorer card I got a free checked bag on the United flights.

Savings Using Points and/or Miles

Approximately $800 in flights and checked bag fees using 22,500 United MileagePlus miles!  Effective value of 3.6 cents/mile.

$244 in flights using 12,500 American Airlines miles.  Effective value of 2.0 cents/mile.

Total Savings: $1,044


2. Phillies Spring Training Baseball in Clearwater (March)

My mom is a huge Phillies fan so it’s always been a goal of mine to get her down to their spring training home in Clearwater, Florida.  This was the year I pulled it off, and my brother joined us, making it even better!

Phillies Spring Training Baseball Brighthouse Field Clearwater Florida 800
Spring training baseball in Florida is a great reprieve from the cold of winter elsewhere in the US. Ticket prices aren’t necessarily “cheap” but they’re lower than regular season games, making it somewhat reasonable to get close to the action.

How I Did It

I booked my roundtrip flight on Southwest using 16,865 Rapid Rewards points.  A bit earlier in the year I had earned a Southwest Companion Pass, mainly through credit card signup bonuses, so I started out the year with my mom as my companion.  She was therefore able to fly free, other than a few dollars in air taxes.  On top of that, with a bounty of Rapid Rewards points from the credit card signup bonuses that yielded me the Companion Pass, I decided to book one of my brother’s flights for him.  His flight cost me 7,619 Rapid Rewards points.

We stayed at the Hampton Inn Clearwater Central for two nights.  It’s not going to knock the socks off of any frequent travelers but it fit the bill for us.  It was within walking distance of the stadium and included free breakfast.  I had booked the room using 51,150 British Airways Avios.  That was a somewhat unorthodox redemption but at the time the room was selling for roughly $500 for the two nights and I didn’t foresee any other near-term uses for the Avios for me.

Savings Using Points and/or Miles

$662 in flights using 24,484 Southwest Rapid Rewards points and Companion Pass!  Effective value: 2.7 cents/point.

$500 in lodging using 51,150 British Airways Avios.  Effective value: 1 cent/Avios.

Total Savings: $1,162


3. A Long All-Inclusive Weekend in Cancun (May)

On most of our vacations we go, go, go.  We love activities and there is so much to do and see when you first visit a destination.

For once though, we decided to restrain our desire to explore and simply relax.  We booked three nights at the all-inclusive, adults-only Hyatt Zilara Cancun (check out The Ultimate, Definitive Review of the Hyatt Zilara Cancun for all the details) and lounged!

Hyatt Zilara Cancun Beach Cabanas Caribbean Sea 800
The view from the Hyatt Zilara Cancun was storybook with turquoise blue Caribbean waters, a white sand beach and curtained cabanas.

How We Did It

We flew Southwest Airlines to Cancun.  I used 19,040 Rapid Rewards points for my round-trip flight and Patty flew for free using our Southwest Companion Pass.  Southwest flies to quite a few Caribbean destinations and their flight schedule for Cancun and some others is quite good.

We used 75,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for our 3-night reservation.  The points covered the lodging, food, etc. for both of us (I’ve seen a recent report that the 25k point/night rate may actually cover 3 people in the same room).

The points we used were actually part of a windfall of sorts that resulted from Hyatt canceling our Baha Mar reservation.

Savings Using Points and/or Miles

$609 in savings for flights, using 19,040 Southwest Rapid Rewards points and Companion Pass!  Effective value: 3.2 cents/point.

~$1650 in lodging, using 75,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.  Effective value: 2.2 cents/point.

Total Savings: $2,259


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4. Summer Weekend in Dewey Beach, Delaware (June)

Patty had been longing to visit Dewey Beach for years.  Every time it came up as a possibility some other roadblock showed up in the way.  This year was the year we finally made it happen.  We visited the famous (infamous?) summer vacation spot, checking out quite a few bars including the new Dewey Beach Beer Company and stalwarts like The Starboard and the Rusty Rudder.  Despite terrible weather we had a great time.

Dewey Beer Company Brewing Machinery Dewey Beach Delaware 800
Dewey Beer Company is a new addition to the famous beach town and it might be our new favorite. They use a 7 barrel brewing system to create fresh beer on site.

How We Did It

Much of the lodging at Dewey Beach is of the house variety.  Hotels are not as common as they are at nearby vacation spots so using points in Dewey has historically been a challenge.  However, in late 2014 I got word of a Hyatt Place which had opened in Dewey Beach.  And it isn’t in some crappy location – it is right across the street from the Rusty Rudder!

I immediately chatted with Patty to pick a weekend for a visit and then we booked our reservation pronto.  We used 24,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for the 3-night reservation.  Shortly after we booked, the Hyatt Place Dewey Beach was moved up a level from Category 2 to 3, meaning it now books at the rate of 12,000 points/night.

Savings Using Points and/or Miles

~$750 in lodging using 24,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.  Effective value: 3.1 cents/point.

Total Savings: $750


5. Independence Day Weekend in Kansas and Missouri (July)

One of my goals is to visit every one of the fifty states in this amazing country.  With the Southwest Companion Pass and some free hotel night awards and points in hand, Patty and I decided to make some progress toward that goal over Independence Day weekend.

We surveyed the map to determine locations most feasible to visit over a four day span with the intent of visiting at least two states I hadn’t visited yet and getting some viewing of the country’s pasttime in as well.

We settled on a mini “midwest swing.”  Kansas and Missouri were our choices.  Specifically, we decided to visit Kansas City – both in Kansas and Missouri – and St. Louis.

The BBQ food of Kansas City lived up to its reputation – it was literally the best BBQ’d meat I’ve ever eaten.  We ate at Kansas City Joe’s (formerly named Oklahoma Joe’s), devouring ribs and brisket.

Oklahoma Kansas City Joe's BBQ 800
This may be one of the most boring pictures I’ve ever posted but the BBQ food served inside of Kansas City Joe’s BBQ was the opposite – it was supreme!

We also visited the Liberty Memorial, the University of Kansas and took in a game at Kaufmann Stadium, watching the Royals play the Minnesota Twins.

From KC we headed to St. Louis.  There we visited the Gateway Arch, riding up the elevator to the top for some excellent views of the entire metropolitan area.  We also visited the Budweiser headquarters where we received a tour of the brewing facilities (and saw a couple Clydesdale horses!).

Sticking with our baseball theme, we watched a game with some friends at Busch Stadium and stuck around for the post-game fireworks.

Busch Stadium in St Louis Missouri 800
The view from behind home plate at Busch Stadium is great – you can see the Gateway Arch clearly. The fans are devoted and knowledgeable in St. Louis, making a game viewing at this stadium very enjoyable.

How We Did It

This trip was our typical whirlwind adventure.  We never stopped moving!

We flew to Kansas City, then on to St. Louis and back home from there.  For our three flights, all on Southwest, we used a total of 25,962 Rapid Rewards points.

We stayed in two hotels in Kansas City, spending our first night by the airport at the Hyatt Place Kansas City Airport, and our second night at a Four Points by Sheraton at the Sports Complex.

In St. Louis we laid our heads down at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch, which was within a couple hundred feet of the iconic monument.

View of the St Louis Gateway Arch from Hyatt Regency 800
The view from our room at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch was exactly what we hoped for when we booked it. We saw the iconic monument glistening in the night sky from our room window.

Savings Using Points and/or Miles

$831 in flights using 25,962 Southwest Rapid Rewards points. Effective value: 3.2 cents/point.

$109 in lodging using 5,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.  Effective value: 2.2 cents/point.

$320 in lodging using a Hyatt Free Night award from renewal of Chase Hyatt credit card.  Effective value: $245 ($320 – $75 annual fee for credit card).

Total Savings: $1,185


6. Lucerne, Switzerland; Salzburg, Austria; Paris, France (September)

Our most extensive trip of 2015 was a journey to Europe.  Our original plan was for a long weekend in Paris to meet up with family that were temporarily living abroad.  That simple plan quickly morphed into a more substantial vacation.  We decided to hit Salzburg, the main site of Patty’s favorite movie – The Sound of Music.  Our flight searches revealed a great award flight into Zurich.  So that led to the idea of Lucerne being the first destination on the trip.

The Kapellbrucke Chapel Bridge in Lucerne Switzerland 800
The Kapellbrucke (Chapel Bridge) is a beautiful, historic covered wooden footbridge that spans the River Reuss in central Lucerne.
Hohensalzburg Castle (Festung) in Salzburg Austria 800
The Hohensalzburg Castle sits high atop a hill overlooking Salzburg. In this view out of a cannon embrasure you can see the town and the river that runs through it.
Eiffel Tower in Paris France 800
During our visit to Paris we made the obligatory visit to the Eiffel Tower (or Tour Eiffel as they call it). The tower was beautiful at night and the elevator ride to the top provided great views of the city.

How We Did It

Our trip started with a nonstop flight to Zurich, Switzerland.  We redeemed 60,000 miles total for the two of us to fly on United in economy.

Once we arrived in Zurich we hopped aboard a train to Lucerne.  In Lucerne we stayed at the Ameron Hotel Flora for three nights.  I used my Barclaycard Arrival+ card to pay for the $367.47 hotel charge and then redeemed 36,747 Arrival+ miles against it, effectively making our hotel stay free!

After a quick train ride back to the Zurich airport, we flew to Salzburg on Intersky, paying 198 Euros total for the two of us.

We stayed at the Sheraton Salzburg for three nights, using 40,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points.  We provided my SPG Business American Express for incidentals at check-in.  That card offers a great perk – free use of the club lounge.  We made the most of that – eating and drinking quite a bit at the lounge, minimizing the amount of money we spent outside the hotel for meals.

We then journeyed from Salzburg to Munich via train and hopped our next flight – Munich to Paris.  For that flight we paid 127 Euros for the two of us.

Our stay in Paris was wonderful (check out my post Paris in 17 Pictures).  We spent our first two nights at the Hyatt Regency Paris Etoile, a high-rise hotel in the northwest part of downtown Paris.  That two night stay was paid for with 30,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.

We booked the Radisson Blu Hotel Champs Elysses for the last two nights of our trip.  For those nights we used most of our remaining Club Carlson points, first combining Patty’s points into my account to get us to the level needed for a single night.  The second night was covered via the Bonus Award Night perk which has since been discontinued by Club Carlson.

We flew an American Airlines flight from Paris back to the states, using 30,000 American Airlines miles each for the one-way flights.

Savings Using Points and/or Miles

$367.47 in lodging using 36,747 Barclay Arrival+ miles.  Effective value of 1 cent/mile.

$961 in room cost + ~$100 in food and drink at Club lounge using 40,000 Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints.  Effective value of 2.7 cents/Starpoint.

$445 in lodging using 30,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.  Effective value of 1.5 cents/point.

$814 in lodging using 70,000 Club Carlson points.  Effective value of 1.2 cents/point.

$5,546 in airfare using 60,000 United MileagePlus miles.  Effective value of 9.2 cents/mile.

$3,128 in airfare using 60,000 American Airlines miles.  Effective value of 5.2 cents/mile.

Total Savings: $8,488


7. Four Nights at the All-Inclusive Hyatt Zilara Ziva Rose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica Area (November)

After having a great stay at the Hyatt Zilara in Cancun we decided to try out the Zilara and Ziva combo resort in Rose Hall, which is outside of Montego Bay, Jamaica.

The resort shared some elements in common with it’s sister property in Cancun and it offered some differences as well.  One of our first experiences on site was witnessing sea turtles hatching and scurrying towards the sea.  It was incredible.

IMG_1967 Sea Turtle Hatchling at Hyatt Ziva Zilara Rose Hall Montego Bay Jamaica 800
One of the dozens of sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from the sand on the beach of the Hyatt Ziva Zilara Rose Hall. After making it to the sand surface they instinctively headed straight to the sea.

The resort offered a ton of activities and some good food options, though like most all-inclusives there were also some subpar food offerings.

Check out The Ultimate Definitive Review of the Hyatt Zilara Ziva Rose Hall (Montego Bay, Jamaica) for a thorough breakdown of the resort.

How We Did It

We flew nonstop from the states to Montego Bay airport on Southwest, using 18,690 Rapid Rewards points for my flight and the Companion Pass for Patty.  The hotel is a complimentary 15-minute ride from the airport.

We redeemed 100,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for our four-night stay.  Of course this included our food and drinks since the hotel is an all-inclusive property.

Savings Using Points and/or Miles

$598 in flights using 18,690 Southwest Rapid Rewards points.  Effective value: 3.2 cents/point.

$1708 in lodging using 100,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.  Effective value: 1.7 cents/point.

Total Savings: $2,306


8. A Three-Day Trip to Visit Family in South Florida (December)

We’re sneaking one last trip into 2015, heading to the West Palm Beach, Florida area before the calendar turns, to visit family.  This is one of the best aspects of “playing the game” of points and miles – you can visit family and friends much more often that you would be able to if you were paying cash for all of your travel.

If the weather cooperates, we'll make a visit to the beach on our trip to Florida.
If the weather cooperates, we’ll make a visit to the beach on our trip to Florida.

How We Did It

This is probably our simplest trip of the year.  We’ll hop a quick flight to West Palm Beach International airport, using 36,572 Southwest Rapid Rewards point for my flight and the Companion Pass for Patty.  We’ll be staying with family for this trip so there was no need to book lodging.

Savings Using Points and/or Miles

$1,008 in flights using 36,572 Southwest Rapid Rewards points and Companion Pass.  Effective value: 2.8 cents/point.

Total Savings: $1,008


The Tallies!

Eight vacations.

Six countries visited.

$18,202 savings from use of points, miles and free night awards!

Our best return per point or mile for this year was a whopping 9.2 cents/mile for United MileagePlus miles!

We were fortunate to travel extensively in 2015 and we loved all of it!  I’m not sure that 2016 will be quite as travel-packed but we already have a few trips planned!


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Where did you travel in 2015?  Share your experiences in the comments section below!

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2 thoughts on “2015 Travel Year in Review – How We Saved $18,202 Visiting 6 Countries on 8 Trips

  1. taxes won’t be charged. I know Dariaus says they won’t and other sites say they won’t but there is no site/link recrfenee. Is it just from personal experience? The credit card offer only says refer to Gold Passport program. Searching on the Gold Passport T&C for the word taxes simply says taxes may be incurred. I ask because where I’m going the taxes could be over $500. Does anyone have a link to something in writing from Hyatt that states taxes are not charged using awards for free nights? and remember there are at least 2 kinds maybe 3: The 2 free night awards, the Annual Cat 1-4 award and Gift Card Nights (you would buy these for somebody else). They may all have different policies. I’m looking for something in writing regarding the taxes specifically for the 2 free nights and the annual night. Thanks!

    1. Hi Andjjargirlls!

      My personal experience, and that of many others, is that you will not be charged taxes for award night stays at Hyatts, whether they are booked with all points or free night award certificates. I’ve completed probably 10 to 15 such stays and never paid taxes. Almost all hotel taxes are a percentage of the cash price paid and a percentage of zero equals zero. There may be a couple places in the world where there is some fixed amount of lodging tax. In theory you could still be assessed that in such a situation but those situations are few and far between if they exist at all. I’ve never encountered such a situation. Perhaps because that infinitesimal possibility exists, Hyatt doesn’t put a definitive statement about taxes for award stays in writing. Which property are considering staying at? I will research it further and respond if you let me know.

      It seems that you’re planning to book with award nights so the following doesn’t apply to you in this case but I include it for reference: If you book with a points + cash option then you very well may have to pay taxes on the cash portion of your booking.

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