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Winter is the perfect time of year to catch up on your favorite television shows or snuggle up with a good book. But, it’s also a smart time to travel – and for more reason than one.
Since winter is off-peak travel season in many destinations, you may encounter lighter crowds and lower prices when you book. If you have a stash of airline miles to burn, you may even discover you’ll need fewer miles to reach many destinations. Cash prices for winter travel plans are also lower on average, particularly if you’re flexible on where you travel to.
4 winter travel ideas when you have miles to burn
If you’re swimming in miles and craving a change of scenery, it’s smart to look for ways to maximize your rewards this winter. We reached out to travel experts to learn tips and tricks to stretch your miles as far as they can go during winter months, and here’s what they had to say.
1. Book a sightseeing tour or ski trip to Japan
Tanja Hester, an early retiree and the author of “Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way,” says Japan is a smart destination for winter travel for a plethora of reasons. Crowds are a lot smaller in winter than the rest of the year, and high temperatures in cities like Tokyo still reach the low 50s in January and February.
“Costs are usually lower and, if you just pack a good coat and maybe some long underwear, you can still do nearly everything you’d do during a summer trip,” she says.
You can easily fly round-trip in economy from the U.S. to Tokyo with 40,000 to 55,000 miles from Al Nippon Airways (ANA), an American Express Membership Rewards partner.
While Tokyo is worth a trip on its own, Hester says it’s easy to get around Japan with in-country flights on ANA, which you can book with miles from the United MileagePlus program. Because United Airlines is part of the Star Alliance, Hester and her husband used United points to book on ANA for flights to Niseko in the northern island of Hokkaido.
Niseko is a wonderful place to ski that’s so much cheaper than U.S. ski resorts, said Hester.
“We paid around $50 to ski each day as opposed to more than $100 a day here, so if you can get there on points, you can have a surprisingly economical ski vacation in Japan,” she said.
2. Explore Europe on the cheap
Travel blogger Grant Thomas of TravelwithGrant.com says he is leveraging some of his airline miles to hop around Eastern Europe this winter. Because winter is the true off-peak season in all of Europe, the crowds are mostly gone, the popular tourist sites are nearly empty and award flights are much more easily found than they are in June or July.
Thomas leveraged his stash of miles to book flights, including 70,000 United MileagePlus miles to fly Turkish Airlines business class product from Chicago to Moldova, then 37,500 Air Canada miles to fly economy home from Sofia, Bulgaria, to San Francisco. Thomas also paid cash for flights to Bucharest, Romania, and Sofia, his final stop.
Paying cash for flights within Europe is common and is usually the smartest move, since you can often score cheap one-ways on discount airlines like Ryanair for less than $100.
While Thomas is exploring Eastern Europe on his trip, the entire region is perfect for a winter getaway – especially if you have miles to burn.
American Airlines even offers an award chart that lets you pay 45,000 miles for a round-trip SAAver Award to Europe from November to early April (excluding holidays) compared to the 60,000 miles required for economy flights the rest of the year. For this reason and others, bucket-list destinations such as Paris and Rome are ideal for a winter vacation.
3. Take a Caribbean cruise (and book your flights with miles)
Cruises can offer the perfect escape from grey skies and winter weather, and that’s especially true if you’re cruising to the sunny Caribbean. The collection of islands that make up the Caribbean and West Indies feature balmy temperatures in the 80s for most of the year, plus plenty of sun and opportunities for fun.
January and February typically have low cruise fares since most kids are back in school, and you are far enough beyond hurricane season that you don’t have to worry about storms ruining your trip.
Travel writer Nancy Powell of MilesforFamily.com is taking her family on a Disney cruise in early January that features a special Star Ways Day at Sea. To cover flights to her departure port in Florida, Powell leaned on points from her U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature card.
“We used the Real-Time Mobile Rewards feature to instantly redeem points for flights on Southwest Airlines,” said Powell. “For the other three flights, we transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards from the Chase Sapphire Reserve card to the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program.”
Powell also forked over points from her World of Hyatt Credit Card to book two rooms at the Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport for the night before her cruise.
While the writer says she paid cash for her family’s Disney cruise so she could save her points and miles for another day, some rewards cards are perfect for covering cruises. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is the perfect option since it lets you earn 2x miles for each dollar you spend and a sign-up bonus of 70,000 miles after you spend $5,000 on your card within the first 90 days.
On the redemption side, you can cash in your points for a cruise or any other type of travel at a rate of one cent per point. There’s an $89 annual fee (waived in the first year), but the sign-up bonus alone will knock $700 off your cruise fare.
4. Book an all-inclusive getaway
Travel blogger Dan Miller of Points With a Crew says he and his family love to escape the cold weather that plagues his home town of Cincinnati each winter, and they prefer to travel somewhere tropical.
“It’s always nice to go somewhere where you can wear shorts and swim,” he says.
All-inclusive resorts are the perfect winter getaway because they are easy to book with points, and most are found in the sunny Caribbean anyway. Since all-inclusive resorts bundle your food, drink (including alcohol) and entertainment for one rate, they can also offer excellent value if you pay cash and exorbitant value if you’re staying free with points.
Two airlines with fare-based loyalty programs (JetBlue and Southwest) fly to various Caribbean destinations, so you can easily find flights to destinations with all-inclusive resorts for less than 25,000 miles round-trip per person if your dates are flexible. Both airlines are also partnered with Chase Ultimate Rewards, so you can transfer Chase points to these programs at a 1:1 ratio.
During Miller’s most recent all-inclusive getaway, he and his wife cashed in anniversary nights from their legacy IHG Rewards Club Select credit cards for two nights at the Holiday Inn Resort in Montego Bay. They also redeemed 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night for a few more free stays at the Hyatt Zilara Montego Bay Resort, which is just down the street.
If you’re eager to book your own all-inclusive getaway, doing so with points and miles should be a piece of cake. IHG Rewards and World of Hyatt both offer their own co-branded credit cards, but they’re also transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards. Each program offers all-inclusive resorts in both Jamaica and Mexico.
If you’re a Hilton Honors fan instead, this hotel brand offers all-inclusive resorts you can book with points in destinations like Costa Rica; Rose Hall, Jamaica; Playa del Carmen, Mexico; and La Romana, Dominican Republic. Free stays at Hilton all-inclusive properties start at around 52,000 Hilton Honors points per night.