From Romania to Israel to Paris - Traveling for free with miles, points, and other tricks

Yes.  Really.  In 2009, I used miles, points, and program status to experience a three-week trip of a lifetime at an unbelievable price.  And not only was my trip nearly free of big-ticket expenses (outside of some savvy shopping of course), here are some incredible trip highlights specifically from reward program loyalty...

  1. All flights from NYC-France-Romania-Israel-France-NYC were free. Paid for by points.
  2. My flight from New York to France was upgraded to first class for free - yes, this was dreamy.
  3. Negotiated a free 5-day layover in Paris on my way home, spending half the points to add an additional adventure to my trip.
  4. I stayed in the Hilton Arc de Triomphe for free the entire time.
  5. I had free access to the executive lounge at the Hilton, which provided a huge beautiful breakfast and enough food and (yes) drink to ensure I only needed to pay for one meal each day (a huge savings when spending euros).

Tell me that's not classy ;).  And HOW did I pull this off?

First, I had to accrue all those miles and points.  Here are my regular earning habits:
  • Airline loyalty: I relentlessly book all my travel to one airline account (Continental OnePass), and use that account to accrue miles and status, even if I have to fly on partner airlines (theirs is the Star Alliance.)  At the time of this trip I accrued enough miles to achieve Gold status.
  • Hotel loyalty: I also relentlessly book all hotel stays at Hilton properties and use my HHonors rewards account to accrue points.  At the time of this trip, I accrued enough points to be Diamond status (top tier).
  • Use my credit card for anything and everything: I chose the American Express Premier Rewards card for it's point-earning power. I pay off my card weekly so it acts more like a debit card, and am debt free.
And then... to book the trip I: 
  • Tallied up my points across my many reward programs to see where I could pool and redeem them the with the greatest benefit.
  • Called Continental, told the agent my goal of my trip of a lifetime, and asked for her help to make it happen.  She was responsible for using my Gold status to grant the free first class flight upgrade and set up the five-day layover in Paris without charge.  (Be kind to customer service and they will be kind to you!)
  • Called Hilton Honors to see what my options would be to stay (anywhere) free in Paris.  They pointed out a promotion that was a "stay one night get one free" redemption option at the Arc de Triomphe.  I was set at a BEAUTIFUL hotel in the heart of Paris and paid half the points!
  • Filled the gaps with AmEx points to set up travel on less-common airlines in Romania and Israel, but was able to ensure a very fair redemption level (1% exchange).
  • Used my Diamond status with Hilton to access the executive lounge and save bundles on food while exploring Paris.

While it may seem crazy, this is something you absolutely can do too if you make the right efforts to focus your points and rewards programs on specific brands families and learn how to make the most of your rewards.  It took me many trips for business and pleasure to finally accrue the level of points needed for this trip, but the result was worth the diligence.

How have you redeemed points or miles for something great?  Watch my "Points and Rewards" page for more information about how to make these habits a part of your lifestyle for very Classy Not Pricey travel adventures.

Happy New Year!
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