TPG Reader Hall of Fame: 1.4 million points for a luxury honeymoon on the edge of coronavirus
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For Sam Selig, a Philadelphia-based investment management company staffer, hoarding hundreds of thousands of points was not an option, especially after getting married.
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He amassed a ton of points and miles from spending and welcome bonuses on various travel rewards credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve, The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard. He also earned points through referring his now-wife, Sarah. She had “zero” experience with credit cards or points, Sam said, but he quickly converted her.
“When we went to open her first credit card, she actually had to get one of those secured cards because she didn’t have any credit,” he said. “I think she got Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card, with like a $500 limit to start … and then applied for the Chase Freedom (No longer open to new applicants), and then I referred to her to the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.”
The information for the Chase Freedom, Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard and Capital One Savor has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
With their wedding out of the way, what was the best way to spend those points? With a dream honeymoon vacation that took them to three countries in March.
“[The Maldives] was an absolute must,” Sam explained. “We were never going to not go there, and we wanted to basically lay on the beach for a week and kind of do nothing from our villa. So one of the first things I said was, ‘okay, well how do I get there?’”
Here’s how they got — and stayed — there.
A ‘perfect’ flight in Qatar Qsuite
Their nearly 18,000-mile journey to the Southeast Asia archipelago started from their home in Philadelphia (PHL). Sam’s a United Club Card holder (no longer available to new applicants), which comes with complimentary Hertz Gold Plus Rewards President’s Circle membership. The couple rented a BMW for the drive up to New York-JFK’s Terminal 8.
The pair booked Qatar from New York to Doha (DOH) to Male (MLE), in Qsuite both ways, using 140,000 American AAdvantage miles obtained through the Aviator Red and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®. Qatar’s Qsuite won the TPG Awards prize for Best International Business Class in 2018 and again in 2019, so the couple was eager to see if the product lived up to the hype.
The two sat in seats 3E and F so they could sit together. “It was perfect,” he said. “They made our bed into a double bed, and we got some pretty decent sleep.”
Related: The ultimate guide to Qatar Qsuite
“We had the most food that I’ve ever had,” Sam said, “but everything was delicious. The flight attendants were so helpful.”
Upon landing in Doha, the pair had a couple of hours to themselves, so they killed time at the Al Mourjan Lounge, which he said was “packed” at 6 a.m. The two lucked out and got to shower in the Al Safwa First Lounge after asking an employee, as the business-class lounge had a wait time of over 40 minutes.
After grabbing a quick bite to eat, it was time to catch the last leg of their flight to Male, which was also on Qsuite.
Stairs lined with Cristal bottles at St. Regis Maldives
The couple arrived in Male ready to enjoy a five-day stay at the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort. After clearing immigration and having their temperatures taken, they were escorted to a lounge to wait for their seaplane. If you’re interested in recreating this trip when it’s safe to travel again, note that seaplane transfers in the Maldives are separate from your hotel costs. That means you should budget for several hundred dollars for the seaplane (or yacht, depending on your resort) transfer. Sam said the two paid roughly $1,500 for the transfer.
The couple spent 240,000 Marriott Bonvoy points obtained through several business and personal cards each. The two booked the stay during the final days where even the most extravagant Marriott properties could be had for a maximum of 60,000 points per night. They also took advantage of Marriott’s fifth-night free perk on all award stays. As a Marriott Platinum elite member, the two were upgraded to a St. Regis Overwater Villa.
Moments after stepping off the seaplane, the couple were greeted with enthusiastic St. Regis employees who handed them coconut water (“in the coconut!”) and took their bags.
After check-in, they settled in for an action-packed getaway. The couple went snorkeling with sharks, dolphins and other wildlife. They also had a private dinner on the beach at the St. Regis Maldives and indulged at the Iridium Spa. They even got a private tour of the John Jacob Astor Estate, the uber-luxe room with nightly rates that range from $21,000 to $26,000 and up, depending on when you visit.
“I had a 90-minute caviar facial, and my wife had a 90-minute massage, which she said was the best she’s ever had,” Sam said.
Sam said he’s in a few Marriott loyalist Facebook groups, and several group members recommended staying in Suite 520 because of its distance from the other villas. He reached out to the resort to request the suite, and luckily, after check-in, the two found out they’d be staying there.
“It’s 3,000 square feet, [with a] gigantic deck and gigantic pool and obviously snorkeling right off your villa,” he said.
“Everything’s done on an iPad. All the curtains, the TVs, the music, like everything’s controlled by an iPad. [We] had a huge shower that had seven different rain heads and handheld faucets. There was a huge tub [where you could] watch TV, and you could look at the water while being a bathtub.”
Sam also said the service was impeccable.
“Our butler was amazing,” Sam said. “He made everything happen for us. I knew that you had to book reservations for dinner in advance for a lot of the things booked up at the primetime hours.
“He told us as we were driving up to our villa with our luggage that he booked rest for us,” Sam explained. “He said we could make changes as we see fit, but he wanted to make sure we had reservations at the best times. And we were just so grateful because one of the things that he booked us was this place called The Decanter, which was probably our favorite night.”
The restaurant features a private wine cellar, and the stairs are lined with Cristal bottles.
“It must be millions of dollars of Cristal,” he remarked.
“We were like, ‘oh my God, this must be so expensive,’” Sam said. “And we looked at the bill, it was like supposed to be $495 a person, but we got a hundred dollars off for being a Platinum member. So it was only $395 for a five-course meal, plus wine.”
Even if you book your hotel stay using points, you’ll quickly find out how pricey everything else is in the Maldives, from food to alcohol to excursions. That’s a lesson Sam found out the hard way when it was time to do laundry.
“Every day, they’ll press two items for you for free, so they’ll steam it or iron it,” Sam said. “They unpack [your luggage] fully, so you get your bag, and they literally unpack and fold everything for you.”
The couple’s butler asked if the two wanted to do laundry to clean their clothes that had gotten dirty from the gym. The butler asked if Sam wanted to fill out the form, which he declined.
“Are you sure?” Sam recalled the butler asking. That was for a reason.
“For six pairs of socks, five pairs of underwear, four shirts and a sports bra, it was like $390.”
Related: Is the St. Regis Maldives worth the trip?
Noticing the coronavirus effect in Thailand
The Maldives was only the beginning of their honeymoon. After a restful five days, it was time to head to Phuket. The couple flew Air Asia to Phuket (HKT) and stayed five nights at The Naka Phuket, Marriott Design Collection, a Category 6 property, which they booked using 200,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for standard dates. Similar to the St. Regis, the couple also got the fifth night free.
Hotel employees picked the two up in a BMW — the customer service was perfect, he said — and stayed five nights in a one-bedroom pool deluxe villa king room. During the stay, they visited the Thailand Elephant Sanctuary, an ethical sanctuary where they got to feed elephants and take pictures. One day they did a private boat tour to Monkey Island.
“We had a room that had like a giant pool that overlooked the ocean, and our bedroom was floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the ocean,” he said.
At this point, they started to notice the changes the novel coronavirus had wrought on the world.
“We actually went off-resort a few times, to explore a little bit,” he said, but everyone was wearing masks and gloves, and it was like a kind of a little unsettling, cause we had just come from the Maldives where nobody cared about it.”
As the virus started to spread, they realized they needed to alter their travel plans, but ran into headaches doing so.
“We were originally slated to go to Hong Kong instead of Dubai for the third leg of our trip,” Sam said. “We were scheduled to stay at the Conrad Hong Kong and fly home nonstop from Hong Kong (HKG) to New York-JFK on Cathay first class, which I was so excited for.”
Unfortunately, Sam said he should have waited to cancel the flight and hotel as waivers hadn’t gone into effect at that point.
“Due to the virus, we audibled pretty late in the game, and although I did get my miles and points back, we had to pay redeposit fees because the virus wasn’t covered as a reason yet. So next time, I will heed TPG’s warnings to wait until the very last minute to cancel in case of a waiver situation.”
Camel riding at sunset at the Al Maha
After Phuket, they flew to Dubai in Emirates first class on the Boeing 777-300, which they booked by transferring 197,500 American Express Membership Rewards points (or 98,750 points each), to Emirates Skywards at a 1:1 ratio.
“It was a short flight, like six hours,” he said, “but we got all the champagne and caviar, all the food.” He also noted that the cabin crew were all wearing masks and gloves.
The couple spent five nights at the Al Maha Dubai, which they paid for with 320,000 Marriott Bonvoy points (including the fifth night free), the two went camel riding at sunset with a champagne toast, and archery and falconry. They also played golf at the Emirates golf club, where the Dubai Desert Open is played.
They went to dinner at several restaurants, including Pierchic & Opa. But he noted that the city was “basically shut down” as COVID-19 took over the last couple days. “They closed everything,” he said. “All the pools, all the spas and most of the restaurants.”
They capped off their trip in the Middle East with a three-night stay at the Waldorf Astoria Dubai International Financial Centre, for which they paid 195,000 Hilton Honors points, partly obtained by opening the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. As a Hilton Diamond, Sam was upgraded to a King Corner Suite with Skyline View.
“It’s usually 80,000 points,” Sam said, “but when I went to book the standard room was only 65,000 points so we jumped on it.”
“We kind of just hung out in the room,” he said. “We got room service and asked to be taken to the local strip malls.”
‘Wonderful’ Etihad Apartment
After a whirlwind vacation around the world, it was time to come home in style. Remember: The two had to cancel their flight on Cathay Pacific due to the coronavirus. Well, they made it up in a big way.
“How do I beat [flying Cathay Pacific First] or come close to it?” Sam asked himself. “So, obviously, what made sense was to book the Etihad Apartment.” He transferred 121,650 Amex points to Etihad at a 1:1.25 ratio, from a 25% transfer bonus. He was able to find award space from Abu Dhabi (AUH) to New York-JFK using ExpertFlyer, which pinged him at 2 a.m. while in Thailand. (ExpertFlyer is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures).
“We were the only two people in first class,” Sam said. “We had the captain come to greet us. We had the chef come and greet us.”
“They addressed us by full name,” he continued, “and asked how we wanted to be addressed, brought over the champagne … and then we ate every meal together, which was wonderful.”
The total cost for the trip? 1.4 million points: roughly 320,000 American Express Membership Rewards points transferred to Emirates and Etihad, 140,000 American AAdvantage miles for Qsuite, and 955,000 hotel points from Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors. The cost of a dream getaway before a life-altering pandemic? Priceless.
Have an epic points and miles adventure to share? Email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org (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.
Featured photo courtesy of Kathleen Porter Kristiansen/The Points Guy.
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