How to use rewards points to travel to hard-to-reach destinations
Off-the-beaten-path travel is possible using points and cash back -- you just have to plan creatively
Travel expert who writes the "Have Cards, Will Travel" column for CreditCards.com
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Rewards points work great to cover the cost of airfare and accommodation when you are sticking to the beaten track for your vacation, but how do you leverage your hard-earned miles when your holiday dreams are to a remote or difficult-to-reach destination?
While credit card reward points have the power to get you anywhere, the truth is some destinations are more difficult to access on rewards than others. The good news, however, is that there is almost always a way to use some points to offset your out-of-pocket expense.
See related: How to take a 'girlfriend getaway' using rewards
Traveling to Bhutan on rewards points
I put this theory to the test last year, and decided to check the hard-to-reach Kingdom of Bhutan off my travel bucket list while using as many rewards points as possible.
If you’ve even heard of Bhutan, you might know it is recognized as the happiest country on earth, as well as one of the most regulated countries for independent travelers.
To travel to Bhutan, you must book your trip through a licensed Bhutanese tour operator, pay a per diem government travel fee in addition to your visa and fly into the country on one of the two Bhutanese airlines. There is not much flexibility – a factor that does not bode well for award travel.
Don’t be dismayed. While it does take a little more work to plan a points holiday in the remote Himalayas than it would to jet set to Hawaii with the masses, free travel off-the-grid is possible.
Here’s how I hacked Bhutan and how you can get off the beaten track with the points you are packing.
1. Mix and match your miles and money
There are some destinations you’re just not going to be able to pay for 100 percent with rewards points – but that doesn’t mean you have to pay out of pocket for the whole trip.
In your research check to see if there are any ways that you can use points, and see where you can split the cost between points and cash where possible.
When I was planning my Bhutan trip, I wanted stay at the two Le Meridien (Starwood/Marriott) hotels in the country using points, but couldn’t simply book the reward nights online due to the restrictions on independent travel.
Thankfully my tour operator, Bridge to Bhutan, was willing to help me be creative in coordinating my trip itinerary (see #4).
I was able to use points earned on my Starwood Preferred Guest® from American Express Credit Card to get two nights in luxury hotels for free while I paid for the other nights through Bridge to Bhutan to stay in a local (and very nice) 3-star accommodation.
The suites I got at both Le Meridien properties were beautiful, and these two free nights helped offset the cost of the overall trip.
2. Be creative with your routing
Many off-the-beaten-track locations are served by smaller or national airlines that aren’t part of the three big airline alliances or reward point redemption partners. While this can make it harder to use points to pay for your travel, the way around this is creative routing.
To get to Bhutan, my airline choices were Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines. You’ve likely never heard of these airlines – they have no airline partners and fly with very limited routes to Nepal, Thailand and India.
While you can’t easily buy a ticket with your miles like you would for many other destinations, here’s how I maganed to offset the expense.
- I transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card to United (1:1 transfer partner) to get myself to Bangkok (BKK).
- From BKK I picked up a paid flight to Paro, the gateway to Bhutan.
- It wasn’t free, but the cost was well offset by flying three-fourths of the way there on points.
Also note that some flights you can’t purchase with miles through the airline are available for purchase with points directly through a credit card travel portal – be sure to review all of your options. If you head to Bhutan yourself check reward flights into Kathmandu – the flight onward to Paro from here is usually the cheapest option.
3. Leverage cash back rewards
If you bank a lot of cash back or travel cash back rewards, planning an off-the-grid trip is a good time to leverage those rewards.
Use your credit card to pay your local tour operator if possible, or use your rewards to cover the cost of those flights you can’t score with miles.
4. Work with a travel agent or flexible tour operator
You may not use travel agents or tour operators often, but you're likely to interact with one while organizing this type of off-the-grid adventure.
When you do, be sure to let them know early into your trip planning that you’d like to use your points for some of your travel, and that you would like to pay for any out-of-pocket costs with your credit card (and agree who will cover the credit card transaction fees).
On my trip to Bhutan working with a great tour operator like Bridge to Bhutan was key to being able to use my points to help offset the cost of my travel.
If you’ve ever thought of heading to the secret side of the Himalayas be sure to give Lotay and team a call. If it doesn’t seem to be working, shop around.
Whether it’s Bhutan, Bora Bora or even a remote atoll in the Andaman Islands or Maldives there is always a way to get there without breaking the bank!
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