The Best Points-and-Miles Bucket List Trips in the US

Apr 28, 2019

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American workers accumulated 705 million unused vacation days in 2017, according to the US Travel Association’s most recent annual report on the State of American Vacation. With just a few of those days, you can explore some phenomenal destinations right here in the US — without a passport or a week away from work.

You can go for the culinary or the beachy, an adventure or just a nice all-inclusive resort . No matter what you’re speed is, there are bucket list trips right at your doorstep (or, at least within a manageable flight’s distance).

Here are eight destinations in the United States that you should visit in your lifetime, where your points and miles will come in handy.

New York City

(Photo by Luca Bravo / Unsplash)
(Photo by Luca Bravo / Unsplash)

The Big Apple has something for everyone: world-class museums, exciting Broadway shows and historical sites like the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.

There are plenty of ways to spend your time in New York City, so be sure to use a credit card whose points you can maximize on either earning or redeeming for transit, dining, tourist attractions and entertainment. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and Citi Premier® Card earn three points per dollar on travel purchases, including airfare and hotels, but also public transportation, such as rideshares and the subway. The Citi Prestige® Card earns 5x points per dollar on dining, so you can max out your earning at some of New York’s hottest restaurants, while the Citi Premier earns two points per dollar at restaurants as well as on entertainment expenses like live theater, museums and art galleries.

Getting there

If you’re coming from another East Coast hub like Boston, Philadelphia or Washington, DC, your best bet is probably rail, including Amtrak. If you haven’t been maxing out your Amtrak Guest Rewards with the current Double Days points promotion, you still have some options. You could pay for your ticket with a card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®, which earns two miles per dollar on all purchases. Those miles can then be redeemed for travel expenses, including train tickets, at a rate of one cent apiece plus a 5% mileage refund.

If you are coming from farther away, the city’s three main airports are New York JFK (JFK), LaGuardia (LGA) and Newark (EWR) in New Jersey. Delta has been offering flash award sales with tickets for as low as 10,000 miles round-trip within the US and hopefully we’ll see some equally cheap redemptions from United as it institutes its new dynamic award pricing.

Where to Stay

With around 800 hotels and new ones opening all the time, New York City is a place where you can use your hotel points to help stretch your budget. Each of the major chains is well represented here, so where you stay will just depend on your cash or points budget and what part of town you prefer. Among TPG’s top New York City hotel choices are the recently opened The Times Square EDITION, which is going for around $700 or 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night; the St. Regis New York for around $1,100 or 85,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night; the new Conrad New York for around $400-$600 or 65,000-80,000 Hilton Honors points, and the Park Hyatt New York for around $945 or 30,000 points. Of course, there are more wallet-friendly options, too.

Hawaii

(Photo by Luca Bravo / Unsplash)
(Photo by Luca Bravo / Unsplash)

There’s no wrong time to visit the islands of Hawaii. But if you’ve been putting off a trip to the 50th state, now is better than ever. Southwest has finally launched flights there from the West Coast, which has pushed airfares down for the time being.

Hawaii has adventures galore: surfing lessons off Waikiki, airplane-wreck diving and a plethora of historical sites like the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, the Iolani Palace and the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design. You can spend your days kayaking with whales off Maui, diving with manta rays on Hawaii or hiking through Waimea Canyon on Kauai.

Getting there

With Southwest’s new flights, we’ve seen competitors’ airfares dip as low as $217 round-trip from the US mainland to Hawaii. In those cases, you might want to simply purchase a ticket with a card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, which earns two miles per dollar that can then be redeemed at one cent apiece. If you have a premium product like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can redeem Ultimate Rewards points directly (rather than transferring them to a travel partner) at a rate of 1.5 cents apiece and you’d only need 14,467 of them to cover that airfare.

Alternatively, you can redeem British Airways Avios – which transfer from Amex, Chase and Marriott – on either Alaska Airlines or American Airlines. It’ll only cost 12,500 Avios each way from the West Coast of the US, which is a big discount on flight awards that would otherwise be 20,000-22,500 each way.

Finally, East Coast travelers have plenty of nonstop options. Hawaiian Airlines launched its new service from Boston (BOS) to Honolulu (HNL), making it the longest domestic flight in the US. It also flies from New York (JFK), while United flies from Newark (EWR) to Honolulu.

It’s easier than ever to island-hop using miles, although you might want to spend your time exploring just one island in depth rather than trying to hit several.

Where to stay

This will all depend on which island(s) you end up visiting. However, we have a few TPG favorites. Those include the Andaz Maui at Wailea, which runs around $500-$700, or 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night; and The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, also on Maui, at $500-$900, or 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night. Koloa Landing at Poipu, Autograph Collection on Kauai costs around $300 or 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points. The new Westin Hapuna Beach Resort on Hawaii is around $340 or 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night, while the classic Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Autograph Collection across the road costs around $500-$600 or 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.

Washington,  DC

(Photo by Avinash Arunachalam A M / Unsplash)
(Photo by Avinash Arunachalam A M / Unsplash)

Whether you make it there for cherry blossom season or not, the nation’s capital has an incredible array of museums, Michelin-starred restaurants and grand hotels. Although taxis or rideshares can take you everywhere, you can also take advantage of the extensive Metro system to trek on the cheap. Just be sure you purchase your tickets using a card that earns a bonus on mass-transit purchases, such as the The World of Hyatt Credit Card or the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

Although you could spend your days shopping in Georgetown or visiting national monuments, true #avgeeks should make time for two stops in particular. The first is the National Air & Space Museum, which contains treasures like Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the world’s first airplane, the Wright Flyer. Equally interesting, the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is just five miles from Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) and is home to other iconic aircraft like space shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay and a Concorde jet.

Getting there

As with New York City, you might come to DC by train if you’re traveling from the East Coast. The city is also served by three major airports: Reagan National (DCA), Dulles (IAD) and Baltimore/Washington (BWI). DCA is closest to the city and is just a quick Metro or taxi ride away from most sites. Dulles is farther out but is one of United’s hubs, so if you’re a Star Alliance flyer, look out for United award sales as low as 5,000 miles each way. Baltimore/Washington, meanwhile, is a Southwest hub, which is great because the airline doesn’t charge change fees in case you need to alter your dates of travel. Plus, you can bring up to two checked bags per passenger for free. If you scored a Companion Pass with one of the recent credit card sign-up deals, you can even get there for half price.

Where to stay

Points-proficient travelers have a wide choice of hotels in DC. If you have the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, take advantage of the opportunity to redeem your annual free night award or earn bonus points at one of the city’s nearly 20 Kimpton hotels. The Park Hyatt Washington DC is a refined redoubt in Georgetown that’s either $285 or 20,000 World of Hyatt points. Marriott Bonvoy collectors, meanwhile, have many options, including the W Washington DC for around $500 or 60,000 points.

Grand Canyon

(Photo by Peter Secan / Unsplash)
(Photo by Peter Secan / Unsplash)

One of the seven natural wonders of the world is located in the northwest corner of Arizona, just a three-hour drive from Phoenix, or four hours from Las Vegas. The Grand Canyon is one of the deepest gorges on earth, averaging one mile down and 10 miles across. It runs 277 miles and was carved by the Colorado River over millions of years. It’s celebrating its 100th anniversary as a national park this year. Visitors can take multi-day mule treks, chug along a historic scenic railway and fly down a 2,100-foot-long zipline 1,000 feet above the ground.

Getting there

As mentioned, the two closest major hubs to the Grand Canyon are the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) and Las Vegas McCarran International (LAS). There are airfare deals aplenty to Las Vegas, and if you have the The Platinum Card® from American Express, you can use it to access the Centurion Lounge there.

American Airlines flies to Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG), which is a 90-minute drive to Grand Canyon Village. It is periodically featured on American’s Reduced Mileage Award list for eligible Citi AAdvantage cardholders like those with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® and will be back there again in July. The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum 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.   

Where to stay

There aren’t many points hotels near the Grand Canyon, but the Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire is not too far and costs around $250 or 36,000 Best Western points per night. The Holiday Inn Express & Suites Grand Canyon is not far and costs about $230 or 40,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night, which also makes it a possibility for the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card’s annual free night redemption.

You could consider camping at one of the many recommended campground and RV parks instead. They are included in the travel-merchant category for cards including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Citi Premier® Card, so you can earn bonus points on your rental fees. Alternatively, you could redeem miles from a card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard for your campground charges to shave some dollars off your budget.

New Orleans

(Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan / Unsplash)
(Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan / Unsplash)

The Crescent City celebrated its 300th anniversary last year, and its joie de vivre is still going strong. So laissez les bons temps rouler during a visit to this Southern stunner.

Hop aboard the iconic St. Charles Streetcar, stroll through Jackson Square and visit St. Louis Cathedral before having beignets at Café du Monde. You can jog or bike along the 2.6-mile Lafitte Greenway connecting Mid-City to the French Quarter. Skip the French Quarter’s crowds, though, and sightsee through the stately mansions of the Garden District instead. Bring your own picnic to Audubon Park and then dress up for an evening of live music on Frenchmen Street or a bar hop through the funky Bywater neighborhood.

Getting there

Although the opening date of its new terminal has been pushed back yet again, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) is still open for business. Passengers can fly nonstop from 54 cities on 14 airlines, including Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United. So, how you get here depends on  what kind of miles you want to earn or redeem. As for getting around, you can earn bonus points on the streetcar by using a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, or taking advantage of the The World of Hyatt Credit Card‘s double-points bonus on local transit and commuting. Or there are always taxis and Uber.

Where to stay

There are many points properties in town, including the landmark The Roosevelt New Orleans, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where nights start at around $200 or 60,000 Hilton Honors points. New Orleans is currently experiencing a boutique hotel boom, too. The most recent additions to the scene include the restored Pontchartrain, the trendy but understated Royal Frenchmen Hotel & Bar and the Ace’s new adjunct, Maison de la Luz. You will not earn traditional hotel points by staying at one of these, but if you have the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and book through Hotels.com Venture, you can earn 10x miles per dollar spent through Jan. 31, 2020, which is a great return on your spending.

Aspen

(Photo by Xsandra / Getty Images)
(Photo by Xsandra / Getty Images)

You might associate this Colorado mountain town with tony ski vacations (or brazen jewelry heists). Aside from being a winter playground, though, it’s a gorgeous destination year-round with summer and fall activities that include hiking and mountain biking, not to mention a full roster of film, art and food festivals.

This winter, there was even an Amex offer for some American Express credit cards that provided a $75 statement credit or 7,500 bonus Membership Rewards points for spending $300 in one or more eligible transactions at Aspen Snowmass, so there are lots of ways to stretch your points and dollars in the mountain air.

Getting there

Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (ASE) is three miles northwest of town. While flights can be expensive during the height of ski season and the summer, the city is actually one of American Airlines’ reduced mileage award destinations for April and May this year. So if you are an eligible Citi AAdvantage credit cardholder, you can score awards that are 5,000-7,500 miles cheaper than usual.

Otherwise, your best option is to fly into Denver (DEN) and drive four hours. Just make sure you get a bargain on a car rental by using a site like AutoSlash. You might have a credit card that offers rental elite status with expedited service and upgrade options, such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, the Platinum Card from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Also be sure to look for any coupon codes or discounts that can save you money and also score you thousands of bonus airline miles.

Where to stay

For a town with a population of only around 7,400, Aspen is chock-full of points hotels. If you are sitting on a stash of Marriott Bonvoy points thanks to a recent welcome bonus from a card like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card or Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, the St. Regis Aspen Resort has rates starting at around $475 or 85,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night while the nearby Westin Snowmass Resort has rooms for around $130 or 35,000 points. At the Hyatt Residence Club Grand Aspen, save 35,000 points per night and instead pay rates of $133.

If you have the Platinum Card from American Express, you can book luxury properties like The Little Nell and Hotel Jerome, an Auberge Resort, through the Fine Hotels & Resorts program to enjoy benefits like food and beverage credits, room upgrades, late check-out and free daily breakfast.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something new, the W Aspen is slated to open in July. Rates are not yet available, but it’s a Marriott Bonvoy Category 8 property where award nights should cost around 85,000 points per night.

Orlando

6000 Universal Blvd. Orlando. (Photo by Erasto Chavez / Unsplash)
6000 Universal Blvd. Orlando. (Photo by Erasto Chavez / Unsplash)

Home to one of the densest collections of world-class theme parks on the planet, Orlando should be on every family’s bucket list.

Check out our Ultimate Guide to Walt Disney World Resort for tips on maximizing your time, money and miles while navigating this enormous entertainment landmark. We also have advice on how to get the most out of a day at Universal Orlando, including how to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to save money – especially now that ticket prices are going up – and which rides are not-to-miss. There was even a recent Amex Offer to save $100 on Universal Orlando vacation purchases of $500 or more. Plus, there’s SeaWorld, where the whole family can learn about fascinating marine creatures.

Aside from the parks, the city of Orlando itself boasts one of the country’s premier arts venues, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. There are also outdoor activities like kayaking Shingle Creek, hot-air ballooning with Orlando Balloon Rides and jetting through the Wild Florida Airboats & Gator Park in Kenansville. Or, you could spend a day learning about the US space program at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

Getting there

Orlando International Airport (MCO) is one of the busiest in the country, serving nearly 48 million passengers in 2018 with nonstop flights to more than 100 cities on all the major US carriers. Though you could consider using award miles to get here, there have been recent deals as low as $98 round-trip on American, Delta, JetBlue and United from cities like Chicago (ORD), Los Angeles (LAX), Newark (EWR), Philadelphia (PHL) and Washington, DC (DCA), so you might want to pay cash or redeem fixed-value points like Capital One Venture Rewards miles or Barclaycard Arrival miles instead.

Where to stay

This will depend on where you want to focus your activities. If Disney World is your main goal, take a look at our rankings of accommodations near the park. There are a ton of great points options, including the Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista-Disney Springs Area, which costs 45,000-50,000 points per night, or $140-$200. Or, you could go for the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World (an Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts property) and enjoy its in-room wine dispensers.

On the value side, there is the relatively new Hyatt House across from Universal Orlando Resort with suite-style rooms and free breakfast. Rates there start at around $150 or 12,000 World of Hyatt points. That also makes it a good choice for the World of Hyatt Credit Card’s annual free night redemption.

For something different, the Staybridge Suites Orlando at SeaWorld is a family-oriented, all-suites hotel that’s also a quick drive to Universal Studios or Disney. Since it is an “Official SeaWorld Hotel,” guests get extra benefits like FastPasses and discounts. Rates there start at 30,000 IHG Rewards Club points or $120. And if you have the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, you can put your annual free night to use here or get the fourth night free on award stays.

Alaskan Cruise

(Photo by Tegra Stone Nuess / Getty Images)
(Photo by Tegra Stone Nuess / Getty Images)

An Alaskan cruise can combine the best of an adventure trip, a wildlife safari and a family vacation. Cruises visit hard-to-reach corners of the enormous state with awe-inspiring scenery, from ice-filled fjords to pods of orcas on the hunt and bald eagles circling above coastal forests. Cruise itineraries often include extensive water and on-land touring with activities such as whale watching, ziplining, scenic train rides, visits to Native American villages and panoramic helicopter tours.

The major cruise companies offer similar itineraries, so what you book will depend on the line you prefer, your budget and whether you want a large, family-friendly ship, a luxury experience like those aboard Cunard, or an expedition cruise like the ones National Geographic Expeditions offers. Cruise Critic has a great post with an overview of the best options for the 2019-2020 cruising season.

Getting there

Before you cruise, you have to get to the port of embarkation, of course. Typically, cruises leave from San Francisco (SFO), Seattle (SEA), Vancouver (YVR), or Anchorage (ANC). If your flight departs from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or Alaska, you might consider flying Alaska Airlines. Flight awards start at 5,000 miles each way. If you have the , you might be able to take advantage of its annual companion ticket benefit to fly for nearly half price.

Maximizing your points

Although you won’t get a phenomenal return on your spending using a co-branded cruise credit card, there are other great ways to reap value from your points when booking a cruise. First, make sure you pay with a credit card that earns multiple points or miles per dollar on travel purchases that include cruises, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® or Citi Prestige. Also, double-dip on your purchase by booking through a portal like bookaacruises.com or cruises.mileageplus.com. These sites offer multiple American or United miles, respectively, per dollar spent on associated cruises as well as onboard credits. Likewise, CruisesOnly offers discounts and points bonuses with Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors.

You could pay for your cruise with a card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard. They both earn two miles per dollar, which can then be redeemed at a rate of one cent apiece toward travel purchases including cruises, and you get 5% of your miles back with the Arrival. Otherwise, you might consider paying with points via Citi ThankYou Travel or Chase Ultimate Rewards if you have either of those currencies. Amex Travel lets you redeem Membership Rewards points for cruises as well, but you only get 0.7 cents per point in value, so this might be one option to avoid.

One final note: Given the expense and time of a cruise, it’s often worth either purchasing travel insurance or paying for your voyage with a premium rewards credit card with comprehensive travel protections just in case your dream trip does go awry.

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Featured photo of New York subway by Nicole Y C / Unsplash

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