Escaping South Africa, luxury nights in Japan and more: My best points and miles redemptions of 2020

Jan 4, 2021

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My husband JT and I have lived and worked on the road as global digital nomads for almost three and a half years. In 2020, we had a hectic travel schedule before the coronavirus pandemic mostly halted our travel in March.

But, despite being grounded in the U.S. for most of 2020, we still made some excellent redemptions this year. Specifically, here are my favorite points and miles redemptions from 2020.

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In This Post

40k Virgin Atlantic miles to escape South Africa before lock-down

Spirit of Atlanta Delta plane in JNB
Delta’s The Spirit of Atlanta took us back to Atlanta as borders began to close. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Although not a particularly aspirational redemption, my favorite redemption of 2020 allowed us to get out of South Africa shortly before the country implemented lockdowns in March.

Having transferrable points ended up being essential for this redemption. As flights filled up, JT snagged award seats on what would end up being the second to last direct Delta flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta.

The cash price for this flight was more than $1,700 per person when we booked. And, Delta wanted 230,000 SkyMiles per person. But, JT snagged us seats for just 40,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles and $41 per person. Based on TPG’s valuations, these miles are worth $640 per person.

Since this redemption, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles became Virgin Points.

Related: How much does a seat on a repatriation flight cost?

107.5k Marriott points for 11 nights just outside Kruger National Park

Larger king room at Protea Hotel Kruger Gate
A larger king room at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate in South Africa (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The Marriott Bonvoy Category 2 Protea Hotel Kruger Gate is easily the Marriott hotel I’m most looking forward to revisiting. The location right outside Kruger National Park is excellent for a self-drive safari. And since JT is a Marriott Bonvoy Titanium Elite, the hotel upgraded us to a large room in its newly built section. The hotel has a great breakfast buffet, free parking and an infinity pool overlooking a river that borders Kruger National Park.

We’d originally only booked a five-night stay for 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points. But, as entry requirements changed for our next destination amidst coronavirus lockdowns in mid-March, we extended our stay to 11 nights for a total of 107,500 Marriott Bonvoy points. Of course, we used Marriott’s fifth night free on award stays perk twice.

Related: Dreaming of South Africa: How I’m planning to return using points, miles and cash

Qatar business class from Atlanta to Johannesburg for 75k American Airlines miles

Qatar Qsuites paired seats in middle
We sat in QSuites 9E and 9F, which convert into a double bed. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

I’ve flown Qatar QSuites twice now on transatlantic flights to Doha using American Airlines AAdvantage miles. You can redeem 70,000 American Airlines miles to fly one-way from the continental U.S. to the Middle East in business class. But, for just 5,000 American Airlines miles, you can continue to Africa.

That’s right: American Airlines only charges 75,000 miles one-way to fly Oneworld and partner airlines from the U.S. to Africa. And, the routing rules allow transit through the Middle East. So, although you’ll usually fly a non-QSuite business class product for the leg between the Middle East and Africa, it’s still a great redemption.

Finding award availability on your desired QSuite route and dates can be tricky. But, TPG will sometimes write about wide-open availability. In our case, JT found availability for flights last March from Atlanta to Johannesburg via Doha. So, I planned a trip that would’ve taken us to four outstanding Marriott Bonvoy Category 1 and 2 hotels in three African countries. Unfortunately, this trip got interrupted due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

Related: Maximizing redemptions with American Airlines AAdvantage

2 luxury hotels in Japan with Marriott 60k certificates

St. Regis Osaka
I thoroughly enjoyed my night at the St. Regis Osaka. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

As the end of 2019 neared, we still had two Marriott Bonvoy free-night award certificates worth up to 60,000 points set to expire in January 2020. JT wanted to try out Delta One Suites on the A350 and he found award availability from Atlanta to Tokyo that would let us arrive in time for New Year’s Eve. So, I searched for the best experience we could get from these certificates in Japan.

After considering many different Marriott Bonvoy properties in Japan, I settled on staying at the St. Regis Osaka and Ritz Carlton Osaka on back-to-back nights in early January 2020. After all, this seemed like a fun way to compare the properties and experiences. And neither of us had ever stayed at a St. Regis or Ritz-Carlton before.

Thanks to a combination of JT’s Marriott Bonvoy Titanium Elite status and our one-night bookings, we were given impressive suite upgrades at both properties. And we maximized the provided 4 p.m. check-out time at both properties to experience slightly more than 48 hours of luxury in Osaka.

Related: The best ways to travel to Japan with points and miles

3 intra-Japan flights using American and United miles

Japan Airlines 777-200 from Tokyo to Sapporo
Japan Airlines’ 777-200 from Tokyo to Sapporo (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

During our trip to Japan at the beginning of 2020, we took three domestic flights:

  • Tokyo Hanada to Sapporo Chitose on JAL for 7,500 American Airlines miles plus $0 taxes and fees each to ski at Niseko United using our Ikon ski passes
  • Sapporo Chitose to Osaka Itami on JAL for 7,500 American Airlines miles plus $0 taxes and fees each to position for the luxury hotel nights described in the previous section
  • Osaka Itami to Tokyo Narita on ANA for 8,500 United miles plus $0 taxes and fees each to position for our flight back to the U.S.
    • ANA flights on this route are currently bookable for 5,500 United miles plus $0 taxes and fees per person for many dates in 2021

The cash rates were relatively high for the flights to and from Sapporo, so redeeming American Airlines miles was an easy choice on these flights. After all, based on TPG’s valuations, 7,500 American Airlines miles are worth about $105.

There’s a lot more competition on the Osaka to Tokyo route, including the option to take a bullet train or fly into Tokyo Hanada at a reasonable rate. But we decided to redeem United miles to fly to Tokyo Narita to position for our flight the following day.

Related: 11 things to know before your first visit to a Japanese bath

8k Choice points per night for central locations in Japan

Osaka river
The Comfort Hotel Osaka Shinsaibashi is a short walk from this river view. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

My first stop when searching for lodging in Japan is Choice Privileges. After all, you can often book centrally located Comfort Hotels in Japan for between 8,000 and 12,000 Choice Privileges points per night. Based on TPG’s valuations, these points are worth between $48 and $72. Especially if you don’t plan to spend much time in your room, using Choice Privileges points in Japan can provide great value.

Most hotels were fully booked over the New Years’ holiday in Tokyo. However, by frequently searching as our trip approached, I eventually secured a five-night stay at the centrally located Comfort Hotel Tokyo Higashi Nihombashi for 8,000 Choice points per night. This particular Comfort Hotel is in a quiet neighborhood within walking distance of many famous sights.

I was also able to snag a larger room at the Comfort Hotel Osaka Shinsaibashi for 8,000 Choice points per night on either side of our luxury hotel nights in Osaka. I’ve stayed at this particular hotel on several occasions due to its central location near Dotonbori. Although many of the rooms are small, the spacious lobby sitting area is comfortable.

Related: Why I often choose IHG and Choice hotels, despite limited elite perks

One-way from Japan to the U.S. for 20k American Airlines miles

Katie Drew on AA economy web special
We were surprised to find TPG’s Drew and his wife Carrie on our flight from Tokyo to Las Vegas. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

After the redemptions discussed in the previous three sections, it was time to find a way back to the U.S. from Japan. Luckily, American Airlines added several direct flights between Tokyo Narita and Las Vegas in January 2020 to support Consumer Electronics Show (CES) traffic.

However, since we were returning to the U.S. when most of the CES travel was departing from the U.S., we found inexpensive economy web special awards. Specifically, we flew from Tokyo Narita to Steamboat Springs via Las Vegas and Dallas-Fort Worth on Jan. 12, 2020, for just 20,000 miles and $62 each.

Interestingly, as I walked through the cabin mid-flight, I noticed TPG Senior Product Manager Drew Macomber and his wife, Carrie. The inexpensive award had also attracted them to the flight. So, after clearing immigration and customs, we all relaxed in the Las Vegas Centurion Lounge together before our next flights.

If you were currently looking to fly on an American Airlines award from Tokyo to Steamboat Springs on Jan. 12, 2021, you’d need to pay between 35,000 and 105,000 miles and between $58 and $62 to fly in economy. So, the 20,000-mile award we snagged in 2020 was indeed impressive.

Related: 5 tips for finding cheap award flights

48k Choice points for a 4-night Rocky Mountain National Park stay

Ridgeline Hotel in Estes Park
The Ridgeline Hotel in Estes Park is bookable through Choice. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

We originally planned to travel to Thailand with JT’s sister and her husband in July 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we changed the destination to Cozumel before opting for Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park is located just outside two of the main national park entrances and is where most park visitors stay.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Estes Park was busy when we visited in July 2020. But, I snagged two rooms at The Ridgeline Hotel in Estes Park using Choice Privileges points. After all, The Ridgeline Hotel is bookable through Choice’s Ascend Hotel Collection. And, when we visited, we paid just 12,000 Choice Privileges points per night per room. Based on TPG’s valuations, 12,000 Choice points are worth about $72.

However, Choice Privileges changes the award night pricing every couple of months for each property. So, for stays through Apr. 15, 2021, you’ll need to pay 20,000 points per night per room.

Related: 9 things to know about visiting a national park during the coronavirus pandemic

Round-trip from Los Angeles to Auckland for 12k American Airlines miles

Auckland, New Zealand
We spent a few days exploring Auckland, New Zealand on this inexpensive Economy Web Special award. (Photo by Matteo Colombo/Getty Images)

In Oct. 2019, American Airlines flyers were thrilled to see incredible economy web special awards from several U.S. airports to Auckland, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia. Specifically, flights could be booked for 6,000 miles one-way or 10,000 miles round-trip.

After seeing transcontinental flights for 5,000 miles one way, it was unclear whether these fares were purposeful on the part of American Airlines. After all, you never know what types of award rates you’ll find thanks to web special awards. But, American Airlines stated soon after the sale ended that it would honor the fares.

My husband and I booked several of these economy web special awards. But, since we had to postpone several of our tickets due to coronavirus entry restrictions, we could only fly one trip to New Zealand in late January.

We booked one-way tickets for 6,000 miles each way per person instead of round-trip tickets for 10,000 miles per person for this trip. If I remember correctly, we did so because that’s what we got to price on dates that would work. Based on TPG’s valuations, the 12,000 miles we each paid round-trip are worth about $168.

Related: 9 reasons New Zealand should be on your bucket list

60k IHG points for a 7-night resort stay

Holiday Inn Batam Indonesia
Holiday Inn Batam in Indonesia (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

For years, I’d seen a property in Indonesia that is bookable for 10,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night when I searched for IHG hotels in Singapore with low award night costs.

IHG award night search for Singapore
(Screenshot courtesy of IHG Rewards Club)

So, I was thrilled in mid-February 2020 when we had a long enough stay in Singapore to justify taking the ferry to Batam, Indonesia for a 7-night stay at the Holiday Inn Resort Batam. Although you can usually snag a room with one double bed for around $73 per night, you can book a one-bedroom suite with a queen bed for 10,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night.

If you stay for at least four nights and can get a fourth night reward, using points to book a one-bedroom suite is the way to go. We used points to book the one-bedroom suite, so our 7-night stay cost just 60,000 IHG Rewards Club points. If we’d planned our trip differently, we could have even stayed eight nights for 60,000 points, thanks to the fourth-night-reward benefit available to cardholders of the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card and IHG Rewards Club Traveler Credit Card. The information for the IHG Traveler 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.          

I loved my stay at the Holiday Inn Resort Batam. Batam is much less expensive than Singapore and the spa facilities at the resort are excellent. Although the resort is on the older side, I’d definitely return and plan for multiple massages on my next visit.

Related: A boat, a bike and a hike: The secluded AvGeek spot totally worth the trek

Bottom line

As I looked back at 2020 while writing this post, I was frankly surprised at how many redemptions we made in 2020. After all, we were grounded in the U.S. for most of the year.

This post only discusses some of the redemptions we made in 2020. But, here are several other 2020 redemptions that I considered adding to this post:

  • Turkish business class from Atlanta to Istanbul using 25,000 Aeroplan miles (no longer bookable)
  • A Saturday night at the Redmont Hotel Birmingham, Curio Collection by Hilton, in downtown Birmingham, Alabama for 30,000 Hilton Honors points
    • This stay cost 50,000 points when I booked, but I checked back shortly before the cancellation window closed and rebooked at the lower rate
  • Two nights over Martin Luther King weekend during ski season as the Comfort Inn Near Vail Beaver Creek for 20,000 Choice Privileges points per night
  • Several domestic American Airlines economy web specials starting at 6,000 miles

And, we’ve already got some excellent redemptions booked for 2021. But, we’re keeping our travel bookings flexible as the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep us grounded. After all, I fully expect that some booked trips will need to be canceled or postponed.

Featured image of Osaka, Japan by Katie Genter/The Points Guy.

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