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Cleared for Takeoff: A post-pandemic trip to Spain with a backup plan for Colombia

April 13, 2021
11 min read
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With the world slowly returning to normal after mass distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, lots of readers are eager to put their large point balances to use on a trip abroad. Reader Trey S. reached out to us recently with a request: He has almost 3 million points saved up and wants to know how best to maximize it for a trip to either Spain or Cartagena, Colombia.

"Hi y’all! I have about 850k Southwest Airlines, 800k American Airlines and about 1.1 million Marriott points. What’s the best way to transfer/utilize for maximum benefits?!"

While Spain is his first choice, there's still no word on when Americans will be able to travel there. So Colombia is his backup choice in case Spain doesn't work out.

Trey is traveling out of San Antonio International Airport (SAT), which isn't a major hub but offers plenty of connecting flight options. Let's break down what those options are exactly and how many points he'll need to redeem for these two trips.

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The points stash

The good news is that Trey has more than enough points for both a trip to Spain and Colombia. The AAdvantage miles he's been saving up are ideal for a trip to both destinations. The potentially bad news? They might be ripe for a devaluation, so I would recommend booking these trips sooner rather than later.

  • 850,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points
  • 800,000 American AAdvantage miles
  • 1.1 million Marriott Bonvoy points
Puerta del Sol Madrid
Madrid. (Photo by Dominic Dähncke/Getty Images)

Airfare to Madrid

Route: SAT-DFW-MAD or SAT-CLT-MAD

Miles needed: 45,000-110,000 miles + $57.45

With 800,000 AAdvantage miles, Trey can book a round-trip ticket to Madrid for as little as 60,000 miles in economy class. American Airlines is currently offering Web Special awards on this route, bringing the business-class price down from 115,000 to 110,000 miles.

If he really wanted to stretch his miles, he could opt for an off-peak economy award at 45,000 miles round-trip by traveling between Nov. 1-Dec. 14, 2021.

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(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

My suggestion? Splurge on business class. With almost a million AAdvantage miles saved up and a possible devaluation looming, I would personally want to part with those miles sooner rather than later.

(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

Even if a devaluation doesn't happen this year, on a flight that long, it's nice to have a comfortable seat. On the international segment, American offers flatbed business-class seats, which provide a much better experience on a 15-hour flight than coach.

Award availability is also excellent right now, with plenty of space throughout the summer months (which is historically the busiest travel season and the hardest to find award space for).

Airfare to Cartagena

Cartagena. (Photo by Inspired By Maps/Shutterstock)

Route: SAT-ORD-MIA-CTG

Miles needed: 30,000-60,000 miles + $89.15

Flights between the U.S. and Colombia can be as low as 35,000 miles round-trip in economy class during off-peak dates. American Airlines defines off-peak as Jan. 16-June 14 and Sept. 7-Nov. 14, 2021. However, thanks to another Web Special, these fares are currently just 30,000 miles round-trip.

Outside of these dates, Trey can expect to redeem 40,000 miles round-trip for economy and 60,000 for business class.

How to book these awards with points

American Airlines allows both of these awards to be booked online, which is as simple as it gets. You'll need to log in to your AAdvantage account on the AA homepage. Then simply add your route and dates in the "Book" field. For the purpose of this example, I'm going to select a June 7 departure date with a June 14 return. Make sure "Redeem miles" is checked off.

(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

On the results page, you can view flights by cabin and even filter results so the cheapest awards appear first.

(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

Alternately, you can choose the "Calendar" function to view award options by month. This is great if your travel dates are flexible and you want to find the cheapest award possible.

(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

Once you've picked your flight, you'll be taken to a page where you can see your trip total and provide your personal information. Since you'll be logged in, most of this will be pre-populated for you. Don't forget your Known Traveler number if you have Global Entry or TSA PreCheck!

AA award booking process
(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

Next, you'll have the opportunity to choose your seat for all your flight segments (assuming they're operated by American Airlines).

(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

The last page is where you can pay for your flight or put your itinerary on hold. American Airlines allows holds up to five days, which is great if you are exploring different options and don't want to lose out on award availability. The exact hold period will depend on how far ahead you're booking:

  • Five days: When you book 15-331 days before departure
  • One day: When you book 1-14 days before departure
  • Up to two hours before departure: When you book within 24 hours of departure

Related: The best credit cards for booking flights

How to earn enough miles for these awards

Trey has plenty of miles for either of these awards, so there's no need for him to pick up another rewards card to top off his balance. However, if you want to replicate this award and need more miles, you can do so fairly easily. Most of the AAdvantage credit cards are offering sign-up bonuses high enough to cover at least an economy award ticket to Madrid or Cartagena.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard: Earn 65,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days. Additional 10,000 miles when an employee card is used for a purchase.

CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard®: Earn 65,000 American Airlines bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first four months of account opening.

AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard: Earn 60,000 bonus miles and a $99 companion ticket awarded after you make a purchase within the first 90 days of card opening.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®: Earn 50,000 miles after you spend $2,500 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®: Earn 50,000 miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

The information for the CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select, AAdvantage Aviator Red and the AAdvantage Aviator Business cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Hotel

With 1.1 million Marriott points, Trey has plenty of points to cover his hotel stays, regardless of whether he travels to Cartagena or decides to embark on a tour of Spain.

Marriott has over 100 hotels in Spain, giving Trey plenty of options for putting his points to use. In Madrid, the best hotels range from Category 4-7. The Westin Palace, Madrid is a popular option and can be booked for 40,000-60,000 points per night. Rates in June are around $350 per night, giving you around 0.7 cents in value. With the fifth night free, you'll approach a value closer to 0.8 cents.

View of balconies leading to the stunning cathedral in Cartagena, Colombia

In Cartagena, there's the Category 4 Ermita hotel, which goes for 25,000 points per night in June. Cash rates are close to $120 and since TPG values Marriott points at 0.8 cents each, this isn't the best use of points.

At this rate, I would personally opt to charge the stay to my Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and then redeem miles toward the hotel stay. Plus, the card earns 2x miles on all spending, which is pretty solid.

However, these are guidelines. So if Trey prefers to keep his out-of-pocket costs down on this trip without acquiring a new credit card, then redeeming Marriott points is certainly an option.

How to book a Marriott hotel with points

The process for booking a Marriott hotel with points is identical to paying cash. The only difference is that you have to be logged in to your account and check off the "Use points/certificates" checkbox on the search dashboard.

If you're booking at least five nights, the free fifth night will be reflected in the total redemption rate.

(Screenshot courtesy of Marriott.com)

How to earn Marriott points

Once again, Trey has a well-stocked Marriott balance to book these hotels with. The important thing is to compare the point rate against cash rates to ensure he's maximizing his value. With travel demand set to increase in the coming months, hotel rates will rise and he may get more value out of his Marriott points for those bookings.

If you're looking to stock up on Marriott points for a similar award, here are the current Marriott card welcome bonuses:

Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card: Earn 95,000 Marriott Bonvoy bonus points after you use your new card to make $5,000 in eligible purchases within the first three months of card membership.

Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card: Earn 75,000 Marriott Bonvoy bonus points after you use your new card to make $3,000 in eligible purchases within the first three months of card membership.

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card: Earn 3 Free Night Awards (each night valued up to 50,000 points) after you spend $3,000 on purchases in your first three months from your account opening. Certain hotels have resort fees.

It's also worth noting that the Capital One Venture Card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.

The Venture Card really came in handy during the two trips I took during the pandemic, when airfare and hotel rates were too low to justify redeeming points. It's a great card to have handy, especially as hotel chains are moving toward dynamic pricing.

Bottom line

Whether Trey is able travel to Madrid or ends up with his awesome backup option of Colombia, he's got plenty of points to make it happen. If you're thinking about traveling either domestically or abroad in the next few months, be sure to plan ahead and try to redeem your points sooner rather than later. Several airlines have already devalued their programs and more could be on the way.

If you have a destination in mind and need help figuring out your points strategy, send us an email and we'll be happy to look into it.

Featured image by Madrid, Spain (photo by Jorge Fernandez-Salas / Unsplash
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
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  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
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  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
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  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
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Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees