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For the next Award Redemption of the Week, I want to share a story from TPG reader Angie, who booked a business-class trip to Madagascar and beyond:

Madagascar has been my number one bucket list destination ever since I learned about its amazing wildlife and unusual species. In the last few years I discovered travel hacking, and knew I could use points and miles to book an amazing trip to see the so-called eighth continent for myself. I started almost four years ago with an eye on the long game: booking my dream trip to Madagascar in business class for my boyfriend and myself. (He’s not yet onboard the points and miles train, so it took me longer than it might have taken others — I was earning for one, but booking for two.)

I’m using a tour company with a personalized itinerary to get the most out of our trip, so I focused primarily on the flights and reducing ancillary expenses. I knew from reading The Points Guy and other blogs that award flights to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo (TNR), could be difficult to find. I also knew using United miles would likely be my best bet, as business class partner flights from the U.S. to Africa are 80,000 miles each way at the saver level.

Over the past four years, I opened the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, the United Explorer Card (the old version) and others. Going at a snail’s pace kept me under 5/24, which was helpful when the premium Sapphire Reserve card came out. I was able to rack up almost 150,000 United miles through sign-up bonuses, shopping portals, everyday spending, a couple flights, and bonuses accumulated through the MileagePlus Dining program and MileagePlus X shopping app on my phone. The rest of the points I needed were transferred over from Chase Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio.

We wanted to travel in late September and October, when the lemurs in Madagascar can be found with babies clinging to their arms. I started searching in November of 2017 when availability opened up for this fall, and having the United card let me see greater availability than I would have otherwise. I spent several days searching for one-way combinations from the East Coast to TNR with a return 15-20 days later. I found a perfect Turkish Airlines flight from JFK with a stop in IST and then on to TNR in late September, and booked two business class seats for 80,000 miles and $26.90 each.

Return flights proved more difficult to find, so I adjusted my search. After some time and effort, I found Turkish Airlines business class seats returning from the Seychelles (SEZ) to IAD 19 days after departure for 80,000 miles and $95 per person. To get to the Seychelles, we used Barclaycard Arrival miles to book flights from TNR to (MRU) on Air Mauritius with an overnight stop, and from MRU to SEZ on Air Seychelles. Our Madagascar dream trip now included island hopping in the Indian Ocean!

We booked a night on Mauritius at Le Méridien Ile Maurice using 7,000 Starpoints (before the Marriott merger). Since we decided to spend two nights on Praslin island in the Seychelles (where there are no points options), we bought Hotels.com gift cards at a 15% discount through an eBay deal.

Thanks to a combination of points, flexibility and persistence, my boyfriend and I are going on our dream adventure, leaving and returning on Turkish Airlines’ highly-rated business class product. I learned that flexibility is key — we had to be willing to depart from one airport and return to another, and to book alternate routing when finding flights home from TNR proved too difficult. Using one-way searches instead of round-trip was critical. We also had to be persistent in checking the United site for availability; I’d say it was probably two weeks or more of searching before I found award flights that I was happy with.

Angie tacked a night in Mauritius onto her trip (photo courtesy of Le Méridien Ile Maurice).

Angie nailed one axiom of award travel: flexibility is key. The more malleable your itinerary is, the more likely you are to find award availability that suits your needs, and I think a relaxed approach pays dividends beyond the booking process. Flexibility helped Angie and her boyfriend get to and from Madagascar, but it also made the prospect of transiting through MRU and SEZ on their way home feel like an opportunity for adventure rather than a long, obligatory layover. Sometimes you just have to be in a given place at a given time, but when you don’t, get acquainted with programs that work well with a flexible schedule.

If you’re headed somewhere that lacks hotel award options, you can use transferable points to book rooms directly at a wide array of properties, including many that don’t participate in a conventional loyalty program. As shown in the image below, Ultimate Rewards lists a dozen hotels on Praslin Island ranging from around 7,000 to 75,000 points per night (for Sapphire Reserve cardholders).

Booking through the Chase travel portal gives you a below-average return and not every hotel is available, but it’s a useful strategy to lower out-of-pocket costs.

Finally, not every award redemption needs to be split down the middle, but I recommend spending rewards equitably if your travels with other people are to be sustainable. You get to decide what’s fair: if some members of your group don’t have rewards to contribute, they can still pitch in by taking charge of tasks like researching flights or applying for visas. Travel can be a powerful gift, and there’s nothing wrong with sharing the wealth like Angie did with her boyfriend. But in the long run you’ll both be better off if you teach them how this game works.

In appreciation for sharing her story, we’re sending Angie a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and we’d like to do the same for you. Please send your own award redemption stories to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about the booking process and what you learned from it, and put “Award Redemption Story” in the subject line. As always, we’d also love to hear your success and mistake stories. If your submission gets published, we’ll send you a gift to spark your next adventure.

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

Featured photo by Pierre-Yves Babelon/Getty Images. 

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