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Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Brandon, who used points to cover flights to Thailand with his girlfriend:

My girlfriend and I have both wanted to go to Thailand for a long time. I work for an airline, so I can usually fly for just the cost of taxes, but we wanted to take a trip without the headache of standby travel we usually endure. We had accumulated a stash of Ultimate Rewards points from both sign-up bonuses (on my Chase Sapphire Reserve and her Chase Sapphire Preferred Card) and regular spending (on dining and by taking the lead to book group vacations with friends). I also earned United miles by trying to use the MileagePlus Shopping portal whenever possible.

I began looking for flights that would maximize my points and allow me to try products I wanted to experience. We found awards from Newark (EWR) to Bangkok (BKK) in Swiss business class with a short stop in Zurich (ZRH) for 90,000 United miles and $23.50 in taxes each. Cash prices were over $7,000 per ticket, so this seemed like solid value. We then found awards from Bangkok back to Newark with a stop in Tokyo-Narita (NRT), so we can try both Thai Airways business class (BKK- NRT) and United Polaris on the 777-300ER (NRT-EWR), which I know is TPG’s pick for the best Polaris seat. Those awards also cost 90,000 miles with taxes of $53 each, versus a cash price of $10,000 per ticket.

We’ll pay cash for our flights within Thailand, because they’re cheap and don’t seem to be a good use of points. We took a similar approach to booking our hotels: I have a large stash of Marriott points that I was ready to use, but I realized prices were low in Thailand, so instead I decided to pay cash and maximize bonuses and shopping portals. Marriott currently has a promotion for double base points that overlaps with the bulk  of our trip. With my Marriott Platinum status and my Amex SPG card, this translates into earning 31 points per dollar.

We took advantage of a MileagePlus Shopping bonus to earn 10 miles per dollar on Marriott purchases, and I used the portal to book all 17 nights of our trip. Between all these bonuses and a special rate with bonus points at one of our hotels, I was able to earn over 80,000 Marriott Bonvoy points and 27,000 United miles on a cash spend of $2,700. Based on TPG’s valuations, that’s $640 in value back from Marriott Bonvoy points, and another $378 worth of united miles — getting over $1,100 worth of points seems like a massive win to us!

Sometimes the easiest way to maximize your rewards is to not use them at all. When airfare and hotel prices are high, you can get outsized value by redeeming points and miles to cover your travel. When prices are low, however, you may be better off paying cash and saving your rewards for a more lucrative scenario. It’s not strictly a question of redemption value; for example, you might also lean toward paying cash if you need elite credits to cross a status threshold or to earn more points for another upcoming award. You won’t get the short-term thrill of booking a trip with minimal out-of-pocket cost, but you’ll get better long-term value.

When you calculate the redemption value of an award, you should account for the opportunity cost of points and miles you would earn from paying cash instead. Brandon had already decided not to redeem points for hotels in Thailand based solely on the low nightly rates, but the haul of rewards he stood to earn made that decision even more sensible. Strong portal bonuses or promotional offers like the ones he found can tip the balance in favor of paying cash, so make sure to check what’s available before you book.

Finally, premium partner awards are not one of the MileagePlus program’s sweet spots. More efficient awards are available (through ANA Mileage Club, for example), but Brandon and his girlfriend couldn’t take advantage of them because ANA isn’t an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. A stash of Amex Membership Rewards points would have given them that option, and this story is a good reminder that diversifying your rewards is important not only among airline and hotel programs, but also among transferable points programs.

Related: The Best Ways to Get to Thailand Using Points and Miles

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Brandon a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes. If your story is published, we’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected.

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

Featured photo by frankie spontelli / Unsplash.

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