About two years ago, my wife and I came to a fateful decision: We decided to adopt a child to grow our family beyond our awesome son. The process included lots of paperwork, doctors’ appointments, meetings with social workers, and waiting. The time waiting, though, turned out to be a blessing in one respect. It allowed me to learn about using points and miles to reduce the cost of the expected international trip. I’ll go into detail below, but to put the bottom line up-front, we spent around $3,150 for approximately $43,500 worth of travel. This is how we did it.
In June 2015 I came across Travel Miles 101, a site dedicated to teaching folks how to use credit cards to earn miles and points for reduced cost travel. There are many sites out there with information on this topic, but Travel Miles 101 offered a free course on how to do it, so I took the course. Over the next few months I began implementing their teachings, and started down the path to greatly reduced travel costs. At first I took it slow, signing up for just one credit card, meeting the spending requirement for their offered bonus through normal monthly spending, then signing up for a new one. Eventually, I learned enough to go full-bore, applying for up to 8 credit cards at a time, manufacturing spending using gift cards and money orders, and racking up the miles/points. Since I started the process we earned more than 3 million miles/points (today is December 2016), so in about 1.5 years.
We were told the trip to China would cost us approximately $15,000 total flying economy and staying in regular hotel rooms, including in-country travel and lodging. I thought we could do better. This is what we got instead:
· One-way on American Airlines to Shanghai for three ($16.42 – plus 105,000 AA miles [which cost me $69 to manufacture spend]). Total actual cost to me = $85.42 (to purchase these tickets it would have been $1,515 each based on American’s website, for presumed cost of = $4,545). I did try to get Business Class seats for this flight, but was locked out since our travel date notification was too close to the trip for me to book them far in advance, even by pleading for adoption support to the airline for the 8 available B-class seats on our flight over the phone. Had I been able to acquire business class tickets, I would have gotten a great discount of 210,000 miles (total cost for manufactured spending of $138) for a trip priced at $6,720 per person, or $20,160 for three. This value varies by day depending on what American thinks they can get for the tickets. I’ll tell you, though, 20 hours of flying time made me really really wish I had been able to get these B-Class seats!!!
*(Also, side note on this leg of the trip. This flight included a layover in Dallas/Ft. Worth of more than two hours. The family and I passed this time in the American Express Centurion Lounge, to which we gained free access because of the AmEx Business Platinum Card).
· One-night lodging at the Intercontinental Shanghai Pudong – Free! With the use of only 30,000 IHG points. Total cost for IHG points was $34.50, plus I still had 40,000 IHG points left from the bonus. (Note, using the IHG points for this stay also earned me an additional 3,580 IHG points for future use. Also, signing up for this card earned me Elite status at IHG, which then led to getting a room upgrade from a basic room to a Suite with 1.5 bathrooms, and a living room separate from the bedroom. Great for travelling with kids! This is a $198 value.)
· One-way on China Southern Airlines from Shanghai to Nanning for three ($18.00 - plus 37,500 Delta Skymiles.) Total cost for these miles was $34.50, leaving 12,500 balance from the bonus for future use. So, total cost for this flight was: $52.50. Actual cost on the airline for the flight would have been $710.54 (per China Sothern’s site).
· Marriott Hotel stay in Nanning for 6 nights = $873.56, for a deluxe room, upgraded to an Executive Superior Suite (due to Gold status derived from the American Express Business Platinum Card). This room would have cost us $1492.48 per the Marriott site. Through the status upgrade, we also received executive lounge access, free high-speed internet, and free breakfast for the whole family (Actually for 2, but kids share well!)
*Note – we had booked an AirBnB for this stay at a cost of $378, but the apartment was not what was promised on the site. Since we had miles and status, getting a room at the Marriott was simple. I would have used miles for the whole stay, but we are saving them for another trip, so I did not want to spend them on this in-expensive Marriott property. Key lesson here, though, is sometimes AirBnB can save money, but it’s a lottery on getting what you expect. I lost the AirBnB fee ($40) when I cancelled the reservation, but the remainder just went right back into paying for the Marriott stay.
· Flight from Nanning to Guangzhou for 4. (Due to the timing of our notification for travelling, I could not book the one flight at the time I needed to make this trip with points. Had I been able to do so, it would have been $24.00 and 50,000 Delta SkyMiles. Total cost to earn those points being $69 [although some of these points would have overlapped with the bonus used from Shanghai to Nanning]. Instead, we paid $425 through our adoption agency travel folks. Not ideal, but given the time constraints, we had no choice. Timing is key on getting the flights you want. Adoption timing is difficult to coordinate with airline availability.)
· AirBnB in Guangzhou - $568 for 6 nights. Turns out, again, AirBnB did not pan out as we had expected. The apartment was without heat in most rooms, and the external window in the kitchen could not close, leaving most of the apartment too cold. Therefore, yet again, we scrambled for a hotel after spending one night in a less-than-ideal apartment. Our guide set us up in The Garden Hotel, which is very popular with adoption families. The additional cost for this place was $890, which was only partially made up for by a $126 reimbursement from AirBnB. Yes, we ended up losing money on this one because we lost $442 on the AirBnB. Grrr! I’m done with AirBnB in China. The Garden Hotel has a living-room, free Wi-Fi, free breakfast, and even gave us a small backpack with some stuffed animals and other things for our adopted daughter. It’s a beautiful hotel next to lots of amenities. We’re quite happy here, wishing we had just listened to our adoption agency person who suggested we book it in the first place. To save around $400 I ended up losing an extra $400. Live and learn.
And, for the coup de grace:
· Four one-way First Class seats on United Airlines from Guangzhou to Washington Dulles by way of Beijing ($125.04 – plus 320,000 United Airlines Miles.) Cost of obtaining the miles = $138.00. Total actual cost to me is $263.04. The rest were earned through organic spending on various Chase Ultimate Rewards Miles cards. This leg of the trip will be the most taxing considering our new daughter is still adjusting to us, we’re all very tired, and it’s a 19-hour experience. I was so happy I could get these tickets on United. This is the first time anyone in the family will have flown First Class. There are 8 seats in the cabin, of which we are occupying 4 of them. I feel a little bad for the other First Class passengers, but at the same time, hopefully my family will be most comfortable coming home. The cost of these tickets on United.com is $8,836 each, for a total of $35,344 had I purchased them with cash. This value varies by day, depending on what United thinks they can get for the tickets.
Finally, to add it all up.
Leg of Trip Travel Miles Cost in $ Real World Cost in $ Savings in $
DC - Shanghai $85.42 $4,545 $4,459.58
Hotel in Shanghai $34.50 $198 $163.50
Shanghai to Nanning $52.50 $710.54 $658.04
Hotel in Nanning $953.73 $1,492.00 $538.27
Flight to Guangzhou $425 $425 $0.00
Lodging in Guangzhou $1,332 $890 ($442.00)
to Washington $263.04 $35,344 $35,080.96
Total $3,146.19 $43,604.54 $40,458.35
Travel is not free. Yet, we discounted our trip by more than 92%. That’s pretty good. I won’t even bother considering the discount had we used miles for the flight from DC to Shanghai (American Open Your Seats!!!) or points for the Marriott stay in Nanning.
All-in-all, we saved approximately $12,000 from what the adoption agency quoted us, and more than $40,000 from paying out of pocket for the same travel experience. Here are my lessons learned:
· A little bit of planning for travel can save you a lot of money.
· Book foreign travel rewards seats as early as possible. Had I known our exact travel dates a month earlier I could have gotten those American B-class seats, as they were open at that time.
· Be very discerning about AirBnB. It’s a great service, and we’ve had some positive experiences there, but sometimes it’s a crapshoot. Probably not yet family friendly reliable yet in China.
· Miles redemption value goes way up when you go for Business or First Class, versus Economy, so may be worth considering those if you have the miles available.
· Patience with travel planning pays off.
· I’m totally unprepared to be a parent for two kids!