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One of the things I love most about being The Points Guy is getting to hear stories from readers about how award travel has affected their lives — the exotic vacations they’ve planned, the trips they’ve made to be with family and friends, the premium seats and suites they’ve experienced and so much more, all made possible by points and miles. I love to travel and explore, and it’s an honor to be able to help so many of you get where you want to go.

I like to share these success stories to help inspire you the way you inspire me! From time to time I pick one that catches my eye and post it for everybody to enjoy. If you’re interested in sharing your own story, email it to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. If we publish it, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure!

Recently, I posted a success story from Paul, who used Hilton Honors and Chase Ultimate Rewards to book a honeymoon trip to the Maldives. Sticking with the same theme, today I want to share a story from TPG reader Jeff, who booked his own exceptional honeymoon to New Zealand. Here’s what he had to say:

IHG Intercontinental in Wellington, NZ
Jeff and his wife were able to get good value using points at properties like the InterContinental in Wellington.

It’s safe to say my wife Chris and I began planning our honeymoon before our wedding. We knew we wanted to go to New Zealand, but understanding a multi-week trip could get way outside our budget, we came up with a rewards strategy to keep the trip affordable. Together (and with many thanks to TPG), we targeted sign-up bonus offers and both applied for the same cards to double up on points, racking up hotel nights and round-trip flights in the process. It took a fair amount of time and effort, but through regular spending we were able to take a memorable trip with almost all travel incidentals covered by our rewards.

Finding United Saver award availability to New Zealand for two during peak travel season (December to February) can be difficult. It requires patience and creative routing, so we began looking for seats about 11 months in advance, which is pretty much as soon as they became available. We were able to book an economy itinerary from Newark to Auckland (via San Francisco) and then back from Christchurch (via Auckland and San Francisco) for 80,000 miles plus $75.46 per person.

Depending on the date of departure, the trans-Pacific flights could be on a 787 or 777. We originally booked onto the Dreamliner, but were notified of an equipment change to the 777 in advance. MileagePlus Premier Silver status got us same-day upgrades to Economy Plus on both long-haul flights and the inbound p.s. flight between SFO and EWR.

Hotel award availability can also be hard to find in New Zealand. Only IHG and Hilton seemed to serve our destinations, and even then only in major cities, but we were able to get some amazing value from those programs. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza in Auckland for just 25,000 points, three nights at the Holiday Inn in Rotorua for 60,000 points total, and the InterContinental in Wellington for 35,000 points. We easily covered that with the combined sign-up bonuses from our IHG Rewards Club Select cards.

As for Hilton, we stayed at the DoubleTree in Queenstown, which was a bargain at 30,000 points per night. My Hilton Honors Gold status got us a full breakfast at the incredible lakeside Wakatipu Grill connected to the property. All of our hotel stays were excellent with fantastic service across the board. We received complimentary room upgrades (thanks to credit card and earned status) at all of these properties, and even got handwritten notes and Champagne delivered at the Crowne Plaza, InterContinental and DoubleTree, just because I had noted it was our honeymoon during the reservation process.

I paid for our other nights with points earned from my Citi Prestige Card through the Citi Thank You Rewards travel center, where I was able to find acceptable deals on non-chain properties in smaller markets. For the few nights when we were well off the beaten path (with no hotels available), we paid cash for cabins and hostels. I also used Citi Prestige for most of our daily spending (since it has no foreign transaction fees), and to pay for our rental car and activities (since it has worldwide rental car coverage and trip interruption coverage).

With most of the high-value items covered, we took advantage of a favorable exchange rate to splurge on other experiences, including a helicopter ride and ice hike on a glacier, a cruise through Milford Sound in the extremely remote Fiordland National Park, a day exploring the uniquely fascinating glowworm caves of the central North Island, and an exclusive evening tour and banquet at the Hobbiton movie set.

In the end, we made almost a full-circle loop of both islands. We planned to stop in all of New Zealand’s major cities, but since we’re both photographers, we also wanted to hit up as many national parks and scenic areas as our itinerary would allow. It was a lot of driving, and adjusting to the left side of the road was an adventure in and of itself, but every mile was worth it!

Jeff makes several great points here. First, Australia and New Zealand awards are more expensive and harder to come by than most; if you’re planning a trip to Oceania with points and miles, give yourself extra lead time to find the flights you want. Second, hotels have a soft spot for honeymooners. It’s worth adding a note to your reservation if your visit is oriented around a special occasion, whether it’s a wedding, anniversary, birthday or other celebration. There’s no guarantee of better service, but many properties will offer upgrades and other amenities to try and make your stay more memorable.

Many of the most popular hotel brands are invisible in New Zealand — Hyatt, Starwood, Marriott and Club Carlson have no presence there (the Sheraton Auckland isn’t scheduled to open until November). However, you still have plenty of award hotel options. As Jeff pointed out, Hilton and IHG have several affordable options, as does Wyndham. If your schedule is flexible and you’re willing to forego a bit of luxury, you can get great value out of the Choice Privileges program, especially since Choice Hotels has a wider selection of properties available.

Cormandel Peninsula / Cathedral Cove
Saving money on flights and hotels allowed Jeff and Chris to splurge on exploring New Zealand.

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! To thank Jeff for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 Visa gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you.

Again, if the strategies you’ve learned here have helped you fly in first class, score an amazing suite, reach a far-flung destination or even just save a few dollars, please indulge me and the whole TPG team by emailing us with your own success stories (see instructions above). Feel free to also submit stories of your most egregious travel mistakes. In either case, you’ll have our utmost appreciation, along with some extra spending money for your next trip.

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Featured image of Queenstown courtesy of Matteo Colombo.

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