TPG Reader Hall of Fame: The United Island Hopper, a volcano and a last-minute escape from Asia
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It's not often travelers can say they scratched one off the bucket list and made it back home by the skin of their teeth, but today's TPG Hall of Fame reader Janice did just that.
Over the years, Janice has expertly leveraged rewards credit cards, online shopping portals and an eye for travel deals to work closer to her goal of visiting every country in the world. She's been to 139 U.N. countries (194 if you count territories and disputed states), and in January, she embarked on a journey to Asia via the United Airlines Island Hopper — one of the most aspirational trips for any travel enthusiast — to put a few more notches on her belt.
She overcame huge personal hurdles to get to this point, but this particular trip didn't turn out quite as planned.
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The United Island Hopper was magical
For Janice, travel is a passion, but in recent years, it's been a commitment to a journey she started before she got sick.
After being diagnosed with cancer (now in remission) and dealing with a divorce, Janice realized she could make the best of her mounting legal and medical expenses. By paying with rewards credit cards instead of by check, she was able to meet minimum spending requirements and earn big welcome bonuses. "I'd show up in the office with two or three new cards," she said, "and ask that they split the payments so I could hit the spend on each. I had to explain points to them and that I wasn't money laundering or doing anything illegal!"
Those points — combined with savvy spending on her cards — boosted her balances to achieve her dream trip on the United Island Hopper — a Boeing 737 that flies between Honolulu (HNL) and Guam (GUM), making stops at remote islands along the way. She booked it for early January 2020, in part out of fears that United's elimination of its award chart would drive prices up on the route, and tied it in to a bigger trip to Southeast Asia.
Living in New York City, she had to position to Honolulu to pick up the flight. While there are plenty of cheap ways to get to Hawaii, she snagged a little-known award to fly nonstop from Newark (EWR) to Honolulu for just 7,500 Turkish Miles & Smiles miles, transferred from Citi ThankYou Rewards.
- Majuro (MAJ) — three nights
- Kosrae (KSA) — via Kwajalein (KWA) — three nights
- Pohnpei (PNI) — two nights
- Chuuk (TKK) — two nights
- Yap (YAP) — three nights
Then, she redeemed a total of 32,000 United miles to fly from Yap to:
- Saipan (SPN) — via Guam — one night
- Guam — three nights
- Palau (ROR) — five nights
On the smallest islands where there aren't any chain hotels, Janice saved a ton of cash by using hotels.com free night certificates and best price guarantee matching, combined with her annual Citi Prestige® Card travel credit and fourth-night free benefit.
The information for the Citi Prestige has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
In Saipan, Janice redeemed 12,000 Hyatt points for a night at the Hyatt Regency Saipan. And in Guam, she made the most of The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card by using a free weekend night certificate and up to $250 annual resort credit (later comped because of issues with the stay) for two nights at the Hilton Guam Resort and Spa, and 20,000 Hyatt points for a night at the Hyatt Regency Guam.
Her next adventure was supposed to be a long-awaited trip to the Philippines, but this is when things started to get more interesting — and where having a stash of points and miles, combined with a little know-how, rescued what could have been a very disappointing situation.
A volcanic eruption took the trip in a different direction
After the eruption of Taal volcano, which caused dozens of flight cancellations and the temporary closure of the Manila airport (MNL), the region remained on high alert as Philippine authorities were predicting a massive eruption was imminent. Out of an abundance of caution, Janice elected to cancel her United award flight from Palau to Manila (22,500 miles) and instead set about crafting a new itinerary on the fly.
"Something I've learned from travel is you have to be willing to pivot," she said. "When I first started traveling, a situation like this would have made me very upset. But I knew I could always visit the Philippines another time."
From Palau, she decided to travel to Laos, which required a multi-stop routing via Guam, Nagoya (NGO) and Bangkok (BKK) before finally arriving in Vientiane (VTE). Enroute, Janice built in full-day layovers (combined with overnight flights) in Nagoya and Bangkok, which allowed her to get a taste of each city without spending additional miles.
In Nagoya, Japan, she had enough time to explore the castle and enjoy a phenomenal Japanese meal. After landing early in Bangkok, she met a friend at the Mandarin Oriental hotel for breakfast and booked herself a massage, in part to take advantage of a hot shower after traveling nonstop for three days.
Janice spent a total of 10 days in Laos, redeeming a combination of 22,500 United Airlines miles and paying cash for cheap regional flights to visit Vientiane, Pakse (PKZ), Phonsavan (XKH) and Luang Prabang (LPQ). Again, chain hotels were hard to come by so she leveraged discounted hotels.com gift cards and best rate guarantee bookings for a mixture of boutique hotel and guest house stays.
From Luang Prabang, Janice decided to continue to another country she hadn't yet experienced: Myanmar. Her Bangkok Airways flight cost just 11,500 Flying Blue miles, which she transferred from American Express Membership Rewards.
Janice spent an incredible three weeks in Myanmar, hopping on inexpensive flights to Nyaung-U (NYU), Heho (HEH), Loikaw (LIW) and Yangon (RGN). In that time, she stayed just two nights in big-chain hotels — the Hilton Mandalay and Wyndham Rangoon — with the rest spent in guesthouses and independent properties. Again, she used her deal-stacking strategies to bring her accommodation costs way down, taking advantage of hotels.com coupons, Priceline deals and other online travel agency promotions.
But the universe wasn't done with throwing roadblocks in Janice's way on this trip. Toward the end of her stay in Myanmar, it became clear that the novel coronavirus outbreak was starting to cause major travel disruptions, with flights from Asia getting canceled and the window of opportunity to get home to the U.S. quickly closing. After assessing her options, she decided to book a cheap IndiGo flight from Yangon to Kolkata, India (CCU) and make her way to the U.S. from there.
COVID-19 was the last obstacle
Just before departing for Kolkata, Janice found out the Indian government had imposed restrictions on those with recent travel to Japan. Since she'd spent less than 24 hours in Nagoya, and there was a lack of clarity on the restrictions, she went to the airport anyway where she received the bad news — she would not be able to board the flight.
Undeterred, Janice decided to book a night at the Melia Yangon, but because it was after midnight she wasn't able to make a booking online. Instead, she went directly to the hotel and used a trick she'd learned in her travels. "When you book in person, always negotiate a free breakfast," she explained, "and be persistent if they say it's not possible." In this case, the front desk staff initially refused her request, but after letting them know she'd happily take her business down the road to a different property, they bundled the breakfast into the rate. "It was one of the best hotel breakfasts I've ever had, especially the wonderful breads," she recalled.
Related: How to get free hotel breakfast
But now, Janice had a problem on her hands — how would she get back to the States? After researching her options, she decided her best bet would be book a cheap flight to Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) and try to get home from there via Europe using United Airlines miles.
Her two nights in Singapore didn't cost a thing — thanks to another hotels.com free night and the annual award night certificate from her IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card, which she used at the charming Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong.
By this point, President Trump had announced a ban on travel from Europe to take effect in the coming days. It was next to impossible to get hold of United Airlines on the phone, and attempts to book a flight home online were fruitless — the United website kept displaying phantom award space and would crash when Janice tried to book a flight with miles. An acquaintance from United Airlines suggested she go to the airport and try her luck there.
Janice met other anxious travelers trying to do the same thing at Changi's United counter, but was eventually able to book herself to New York-JFK via Munich (MUC) using 43,500 United miles on Star Alliance partner Lufthansa. Luckily, she made it home just one day before the coronavirus-related travel restrictions from Europe kicked in.
How to earn miles for a similar trip
While some of the miles and points she used for this adventure came from actual paid flights and hotel stays, most of balances came from earning welcome bonuses and spending on rewards credit cards. Janice has opened dozens of credit cards over the years, but there are a handful she uses on a regular basis to maximize bonus category spending and everyday expenses. Among her favorites:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve — For travel purchases: The card earns 3x points on travel and is the best overall card for travel insurance
- Citi Prestige — For dining: This earns 5x points at restaurants, both dine-in and takeout
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card — For entertainment and other expenses overseas: The card earns 2x miles on all purchases and doesn't add foreign transaction fees
- The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express — For entertainment and other expenses in the U.S.: Earn 2x Amex Membership Rewards points on all purchases on the first $50,000 in purchases per calendar year (then 1x)
Also in Janice's bag of tricks: Hotel credit cards that come with annual award nights, including:
- The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card — Earn a free weekend night certificate good at almost any Hilton hotel each cardmember year
- IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card — Earn an annual award night certificate good at IHG hotels up to 40,000 points per night
One other tip? Janice uses the United Explorer Card to pay taxes and fees on United award tickets in the U.S. to get a free checked bag.
Related: The best travel rewards credit cards
This unexpected, whirlwind adventure reinforces the fact that points and miles (plus some clever travel deal strategies) can give you the ultimate flexibility, especially if things go sideways along the way.
"One thing travel has taught me is to not sweat it when things go awry," Janice said. "I've realized that in any crisis — not just travel related — people panic and get stressed because they don't have the tools to manage the situation. Points and miles are my tools to turn obstacles into opportunities."
What an incredible journey, Janice! Thank you for sharing your inspiring story.
Have an epic points and miles adventure to share? Email your story to email@example.com (put “TPG Reader Hall of Fame” in the subject line), message us on Facebook, or tell us about it in the TPG Lounge; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected.
All photos courtesy of Janice Lintz.