7 great places to take a sabbatical on points
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So many travelers diligently sock away points and miles in the hopes of redeeming them for the aspirational trip of a lifetime. Perhaps it’s a honeymoon spent in an overwater bungalow at the St. Regis Maldives. Or maybe it’s an over-the-top safari to experience phenomenal wildlife up close.
But points and miles can also be invaluable for helping you stretch your travel time and budget. Perhaps you have the opportunity to enjoy a few weeks off between jobs. Maybe you’re looking to take some time away from work, or are easing into retirement. There are plenty of reasons why you might want to travel for a month, or several, and take things slower. And if you’ve been hoarding hundreds of thousands of points accumulated over years of travel, this might just be the way to use them.
Today, we’re going to look at a few different destinations that are ideal for taking a month-long sabbatical (or longer) using your points and miles.
When thinking about where you might like to go, you’ll have to decide whether you want to be in a city or a place with more coutdoorsy activities such as hiking or surfing. You might also want to focus on a specific activity, such as volunteering in local villages, or working toward advanced scuba certification. In terms of points, think about the time of year, too, since you might be able to take advantage of off-peak pricing.
Rather than hostels, backpacking itineraries or extended journeys that hop from place to place, we will be focusing on single destinations where you can settle down for a while without spending too much money or millions of points.
Some of these are interesting choices because they offer off-season award availability and pricing. Others boast year-round budget-friendly accommodations. For each, we’ll pinpoint specific airline awards to get you there on the cheap, and then an option or two for where you can stay for several weeks using points.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Bright, blue skies, dramatic desert landscapes and a healthy dose of history all make New Mexico’s capital the perfect place for a stretched-out stay if you prefer to remain in the U.S.
Not only are there plenty of things to see and do in town, like the Palace of the Governors and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, but you can take day trips to Albuquerque, go hiking to see the cliff dwellings in Bandelier National Monument, or take a spa day at Ten Thousand Waves. If you go in the summer, you might even be able to catch a performance or two at the Santa Fe Opera.
Getting there: The Santa Fe Airport (SAF) is quite small and only receives a few flights, such as from Denver (DEN) on United, or Dallas (DFW) and Phoenix (PHX) on American Airlines. Instead, you’ll likely fly into Albuquerque (ABQ) and make the one-hour drive north along Highway 25. The airport gets flights from Atlanta (ATL), Los Angeles (LAX), Minneapolis (MSP) and Salt Lake City (SLC) on Delta; from Dallas (DFW), Los Angeles and Phoenix on American; from New York (JFK) on JetBlue, from Chicago (ORD) and Denver on United; from Baltimore (BWI), Denver, Las Vegas (LAS) and Los Angeles on Southwest; and from Denver on Frontier, among other options.
So really, your mileage choices are myriad. Keep an eye on the flash award sales airlines including American, Delta and Frontier have been advertising more frequently lately to see if you can score a cheap ticket for as few as 5,000 miles each way from other cities in the U.S.
Where to stay: For a city of its small size, there are plenty of points properties in and around Santa Fe. Granted, many of them, like Marriott’s La Posada de Santa Fe, cost tens of thousands of points per night. But there are a lot of cheap options as well where you won’t need to blow all your points for a month’s stay.
For instance, the DoubleTree Santa Fe costs between 24,000-30,000 points per night. Just the welcome bonus alone on the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, worth 150,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening, is enough for five to six nights there.
The Hyatt Place Santa Fe, which is a little ways outside town, only costs 8,000 points per night — you would have enough points for six if you got the World of Hyatt Credit Card with its potential 50,000-point sign-up bonus, and even more if you book off-peak awards (from 6,500 points per night) when Hyatt launches peak and off-peak pricing in March.
Given how low paid rates are at many of these hotels — well under $100 on most days — you might instead want to redeem points at a fixed rate for them. If you have the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or the Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card, your miles are worth one cent apiece when redeemed for travel purchases, including hotels. So for a $70 hotel room, you’d only be out 7,000 points.
Don’t forget, you can also redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a fixed value for travel, though the rate depends on the card you have. Cardholders with either the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card get a value of 1.25 cents per points, while Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders get 1.5 cents apiece. That means a hotel room at the Courtyard Santa Fe that costs $108 would only require between 7,200 and 8,640 points per night, which is a steal.
Luang Prabang, Laos
This former Lao royal capital on the banks of the mighty Mekong was long a sleepy backpacker’s bastion whose French colonial buildings seemed frozen in time. No more.
The small city is buzzing with new life as old villas are turned into private hotels; luxury properties like a Rosewood tented camp have come along; restaurants have opened cooking schools to teach visitors about Lao culture and cuisine; and outfitters take travelers on adventures ranging from whitewater rafting and jungle hikes to elephant treks.
Get up early to witness the dawn almsgiving ritual as hundreds of orange-robed monks shuffle through town, then head right to the Kuang Si Waterfalls to beat the crowds. Back in Luang Prabang, you might spend your morning marveling at the eye-catching frescoes of the town’s many temples, but be sure to schedule a visit to the royal palace and a stop at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre to learn about traditional handicrafts from around the country. You can even take multiday classes in weaving or dyeing at the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre on the edge of town (the café there serve delicious food, too). During your time, book a sunset river cruise to see it from the water, but also plan to hike the 355 steps up Mount Phousi in the center of town for tranquil treetop views.
You’ll also want to stop into Saffron Coffee for some local, fair-trade beans, and be sure to make a dinner reservation at Tamarind for a feast of typical Lao dishes (you can also take cooking classes here), or Manda de Laos for a leisurely supper of local specialties in a gorgeous setting overlooking a lotus pond.
Getting there: Part of Luang Prabang’s charm is that it’s still relatively hard to reach. Hard, but not impossible. You can fly to Luang Prabang (LPQ) via Bangkok (BKK) on Thai and Thai Smiles or Bangkok Airways, or via Bangkok Don Mueang Airport (DMK) on AirAsia. Vietnam Airlines, which is a member of SkyTeam, flies here via Hanoi (HAN), and China Eastern flies from Kunming (KMG). Hainan Airlines, which is partners with Alaska, flies via Haikou (HAK) on certain days, while you can also go via Singapore (SIN) on Scoot. The mileage options are limited, but you might be able to take advantage of the ultra-cheap fares to Asia we’vee seen lately to gateways like Shanghai (PVG) and Beijing (PEK), and then get a cheap intra-Asia flight (which might be more expensive than the transpacific leg!) from there.
Where to stay: While there’s a dearth of points hotels, this is one place where your cash-back and fixed-value points can go a long way thanks to the plethora of budget accommodations in town.
For instance, this cute little hotel will set you back just around $30 or 2,100 Ultimate Rewards points per night.
While a room in this villa accommodation is just $22, or 1,487 Ultimate Rewards points if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
You can even book a room at the Villa Santi, which is a former royal residence, for as low as 6,100 Ultimate Rewards points per night, so you could consider hotel hopping around town as long as your points will carry you.
Your rates with other fixed-value currencies such as Bank of America Premium Rewards and Capital One Miles will be slightly less, since they are worth just one cent apiece when redeeming for travel, but you’re still looking at somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 points per night, which is a steal.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Few places can rival the allure of Argentina’s capital, where plentiful points hotels, inexpensive apartment rentals and a weak currency make an extended sojourn simple. Part of what draws people is the low-key, cosmopolitan ambiance of a city that feels equal parts South American and European.
Pass your days window-shopping in El Retiro, admiring the massive mausoleums of Recoleta Cemetery, or taking in the historical sights around the Casa Rosada. Then, wander the galleries of the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires and learn about Argentina’s legendary first lady at the Museo Evita.
Spend your nights checking out the city’s sizzling restaurant scene, including classic parrillas like La Cabrera, contemporary continental classics at Milion or sneaking into one of the city’s many speakeasy-style puerta cerrada underground restaurants. Afterwards, join in the dancing at a milonga or take in a tango show.
Getting there: Although Buenos Aires has two airports, most international flights as well as major domestic routes come through Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE).
In Oneworld, American Airlines flies there from Dallas (DFW), Miami (MIA) and New York-JFK, and LATAM offers a nonstop from Miami. Delta offers service via Atlanta (ATL), while its SkyTeam partner Aerolineas Argentinas flies via JFK and Miami, and Aeromexico flies via Mexico City (MEX). United offers nonstops from Houston (IAH). There are plenty of ways to use points and miles, though business-class awards can be scarce. One workaround: Take advantage of frequent transfer bonuses to British Airways Avios and use them book cheap awards on American or LATAM. Miami or New York to Buenos Aires should cost 25,750 Avios each way in economy and 77,250 in business class.
Where to stay: Although there are many points hotels to choose from, including fabulous choices like the Palacio Duhau – Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, given how low room rates tend to be at boutique properties around the city, you might be better off just redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Bank of America Premium Rewards points or Capital One miles directly. For instance, the adorable 248 Finisterra Hotel Boutique Argentino in trendy Palermo is just around $108 per night, or 7,200 Ultimate Rewards points if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Even with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred, you’d only be paying around 8,600 points. With Capital One Miles, you’d be looking at 10,800 per night.
The cute Patios de San Telmo is an even better deal, at just $54 per night. You’d only need 3,600-4,320 Ultimate Rewards points per night, or 5,400 Capital One Miles or Bank of America Premium Rewards points.
You could also redeem these types of points as cash back against an Airbnb rental if you prefer something more self-service.
Often overlooked in favor of swinging Sydney and multicultural Melbourne, the capital of South Australia has a spate of new bars and restaurants, is close enough to take wine-tasting day trips in some of Australia’s most famous regions and is the jumping off point for some phenomenal wildlife adventures — all of which prove it surely deserves its tongue-in-cheek moniker of “Radelaide.”
Adelaide itself is home to a thriving new bar and restaurant scene thanks to recent relaxations in its nightlife laws. Try Indigenous-inspired recipes at Orana, or Afghan delights at Parwana (which The New York Times even took the time to review). Tons of up-and-coming wineries are cropping up in the Adelaide Hills, a 25-minute drive from downtown, while the more established outfits in McLaren Vale (including d’Arenberg and Wirra Wirra) and the Barossa (Penfolds and Torbreck) are all within an easy hour’s drive of the city.
Visitors can hop day flights (or spend a few days) watching wallabies and clocking koalas on Kangaroo Island, or venture farther afield the untouched Eyre Peninsula for dives with sharks and swims with sea lions. In short, Adelaide is a great home base to explore what the rest of the region has to offer without giving up the conveniences of the city.
Getting there: You won’t find nonstop flights from the U.S. or Europe, but there are still plenty of options for flying into Adelaide (ADL). You could redeem 40,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles to fly a combo of American and Qantas each way in economy and connect via Brisbane (BNE), Melbourne (MEL) or Sydney (SYD).
Alaska Mileage Plan would charge you 42,500 miles each way in economy on partner Qantas, or 40,000 miles each way to fly economy via Hong Kong (HKG) on Cathay Pacific.
Have Delta miles? You can put them to use on a combination of Delta and Virgin Australia, with prices starting as low as 40,000 miles each way, like these itineraries from Los Angeles (LAX) via Brisbane and Sydney on Virgin Australia. You can transfer Amex Membership Rewards points to Delta to stock up your account.
Finally, if you have United MileagePlus miles, which transfer from Chase, you could redeem 40,000 of them each way in economy toward flying a number of its Star Alliance partners, including Air China, EVA, Singapore Airlines, ANA and Air New Zealand via their various hubs.
Where to stay: There are few points hotels in the city, so you might have to explore a few more creative options. Within IHG Rewards Club, there’s a Holiday Inn Express that starts at 25,000 points per night, an InterContinental that starts at 40,000 points (meaning it’s eligible for the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card’s anniversary free night) — both right in the city center — and a Crowne Plaza debuting in August.
Reward rates at the Hilton Adelaide start at a reasonable 25,000 points per night.
But given that room rates at many of the city’s nice hotels start in the $100 range, you might be better off redeeming a fixed-rate points currency like Capital One Miles, Citi ThankYou points or Chase Ultimate Rewards. For instance, if you had the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’d only need 7,876 points for a night at one of Adelaide’s nicest hotels, the Mayfair. With a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Business Preferred instead, you’d need around 9,450 points (still a bargain).
Compared to many of its European neighbors, this former Yugoslav republic is quite a bargain. That doesn’t mean it’s short on sights or activities, though. And its relatively small size means even if you base yourself in the capital of Ljubljana, you can hike the Julian Alps in the morning, go wine-tasting in the afternoon and take a sunset dip in the Adriatic off the shores of Piran by dark. If you’re in the mood for a more leisurely day, simply stroll the shore of Lake Bled admiring the gorgeous church that seems to float on an island in its center.
Ljubljana itself is compact but charming, with boat rides along the Ljubljanica River, tours of the mighty medieval fortress of Ljubljana Castle perched on a promontory overlooking the old town, and music and food festivals galore, so there are plenty of ways to keep busy. It’s also easy to take a few day-trips or extended road trips to neighboring countries including Italy (Venice is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Ljubljana), Croatia, Austria and Hungary.
Getting there: You won’t find direct flights from the U.S. to Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport (LJU), and the hometown airline, Adria Airways, recently suspended operations. However, there are plenty of flight possibilities on other carriers. Star Alliance flyers can earn and burn miles on carriers including Brussels Airlines from Brussels (BRU), LOT Polish Airlines from Warsaw (WAW), Lufthansa via Frankfurt (FRA) and Munich (MUC), SWISS via Zurich (ZRH) and Turkish Airlines via Istanbul (IST).
Low-cost carrier easyJet flies from both London Gatwick (LGW) and Stansted (STN). Oneworld options unfortunately seem to be lacking at the moment, though you could consider flying American Airlines’ newish flight from Philadelphia (PHL) to Dubrovnik (DBV) and driving from there.
In SkyTeam, Air France flies to Ljubljana via Paris (CDG). While we’ve seen flash award sales to Europe lately, you might want to take advantage of Air France/KLM’s Flying Blue Promo Awards to book awards at up to half off from the U.S. to Europe — meaning as few as 14,500 miles each way. Plus, there have been a few transfer bonuses to Flying Blue lately from Amex, Capital One and Citi ThankYou, so you can get even more value from your points.
Where to stay: There are three main points hotels in Ljubljana, but none are an outright bargain. The Radisson Blu Plaza Ljubljana is around 81 euros ($89) or 28,000 points per night.
Marriott has the Four Points by Sheraton Ljubljana Mons, which starts at just $60 per night, or between 10,000 and 12,500 points, though it’s outside the city center.
If you have Ultimate Rewards points, this is another city to consider redeeming them for accommodations, since even the better hotels in town are pretty inexpensive.
Cape Town, South Africa
In town, you can hike up Table Mountain or Lion’s Head, learn about the country’s apartheid past at Robben Island, or just laze on the beaches of Clifton or Camps Bay. There’s fantastic surfing in Muizenberg … and penguins at Boulders Beach. The city is also a 45-minute drive to the world-class wine regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.
You can go on safari in the Eastern Cape, take a road trip along the Garden Route or spend a few days flying up to Kruger National Park for the full-on traditional safari experience. In short, Cape Town is a fabulous destination in and of itself, but also a great springboard into what the rest of South Africa has to offer. Although expensive by African standards, the city is actually reasonable for U.S. travelers thanks to a strong dollar and plenty of points hotel in the lower categories of major chains.
Getting there: We’ve covered how to use points and miles to fly to South Africa extensively in the past. The only news to add is that United will begin flying from Newark (EWR) to Cape Town (CPT) from Dec. 15, 2019 until March 31, 2020, and there has even been some economy award availability for 40,000 MileagePlus miles each way in economy. If you do manage to find business-class saver award space, it’ll cost 70,000 miles each way.
For Hilton Honors adherents, the DoubleTree Cape Town has rooms for 20,000 points per night, too. If you applied for the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card with its welcome offer of 150,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in purchases in the first three months, you’d likely have enough points from the bonus and spending for eight free nights right off the bat.
The chain to keep an eye on, however, is Marriott since it acquired Protea Hotels, with its portfolio of budget properties throughout South Africa, as well as properties in other brands. For 17,500 points per night, you could stay at either the AC Hotel Cape Town Waterfront or the (terribly named but decent) Protea Hotel Fire & Ice! Cape Town.
That means recent 100,000-point welcome offers (after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening) on the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card alone would net you eight free nights.
Koh Samui, Thailand
If you feel like a Southeast Asian beach destination rather than the bohemian enclave of Luang Prabang, Thailand’s sunny Koh Samui might be just the ticket. A virtual playground paradise, Koh Samui boasts some of Thailand’s nicest beaches (and some where you can find raging parties).
It’s relatively easy to get around, whether with taxi service or by renting your own car or scooter. But it’s also easy to use the island as a home base to explore the rest of the region, including the unspoiled archipelago of Ang Thong National Park, or friendly Koh Pha Ngan, which hosts the notorious full-moon parties, and is about a 30-minute boat ride away.
Koh Samui is also a fantastic place to take a yoga retreat at one of the many studios around the island, and there are dozens of dive centers offering scuba certification as well as packages that include lodging.
Getting there: Rather going through all the details, check out this handy post on the best ways to get to Thailand using points and miles. But some of the highlights include really low mileage rates using ANA miles to fly Star Alliance airlines, or great deals on Cathay Pacific business- and first-class awards using Alaska miles. In terms of getting to Koh Samui (USM) specifically, your best options will be Silk Air via Singapore (SIN), Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur (KUL) or, with the most frequency, Bangkok Airways via Bangkok (BKK).
Where to stay: While there are plenty of splurge-worthy hotels including the Four Seasons Koh Samui and the W Koh Samui, if you’re planning to stay for a month or more, you might want to consider other ways to stretch your points.
One is by redeeming them at fixed rates for mid-range options like the Avani+, where you’d need under 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points per night, depending on which credit card you have.
You could also consider more budget accommodations or renting a modest villa, many of which come with their own staff and swimming pools, for rates as low as 2,000 to 3,000 points per night, depending on which points program and which credit cards you have. Here are some examples of villas available using Ultimate Rewards points at a rate of 1.5 cents apiece.
If you have the Citi Premier℠ Card, you get 1.25 cents per point in value and would only need around 4,000 to 5,000 points per night for decent options (slightly more if you have the Citi Prestige or Citi Rewards+℠ Card, which only get one cent per point in value). Even at rates of 5,000 points per night, you could spend a whole month on the island for around 150,000 points total, which is pretty incredible.
The information for the Citi Premier and Citi Prestige Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Rates using other fixed-value rewards like Capital One Miles or Bank of America Premium Rewards will be slightly higher, since they are worth one cent apiece toward travel redemptions.
Even if you’re planning a months-long sabbatical, your points and miles can help you save money on budget and expensive accommodations alike. By thinking both in terms of the major hotel loyalty programs as well as the ways you can redeem points like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards at fixed rates toward travel purchases, you can really stretch your points balance to help you extend a trip in some fantastic destinations.
Feature image courtesy of the Slovenia Tourist Board
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