How I’m booking a business-class trip to Turkey and Ukraine this spring
But as the world begins to reopen as the coronavirus vaccine becomes more widespread, I’m starting to plan future international trips with my points and miles. After all, there’s a ton of open award space and tickets are more flexible than ever with waived cancellation and change fees.
If COVID numbers continue to drop around the world, I plan to take my first international trip of 2021 in April. The tentative plan is to fly into Istanbul (IST) and spend a few days exploring the city. Then, I plan to get a COVID test and head to Ukraine — another country open to American tourists — and explore Odessa and Kyiv.
I’ve continued to amass points during the pandemic with my favorite credit cards and have been itching to spend them. Most of the points I’ve earned throughout the pandemic are American Express Membership Rewards points and Marriott Bonvoy points.
In this article, I’ll show you how I’m booking flights to Europe for this trip and how I’m booking hotels. Some of the travel was booked with points, while some was paid out of pocket. I’ll break down what I redeemed points for, how I earned said points and how I determined when to use points and when to pay cash.
You can use this as inspiration for your next points-fueled trip to Europe and beyond. Let’s dive in!
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Istanbul: Luxurious flights, reasonable hotel
Istanbul has been at the top of my travel bucket list for years now. There’s something about a city that’s half in Asia and half in Europe that has always amazed me. Plus, the city’s amazing food scene, historical sights and museums are other huge draws. Here’s how I’m booking my flights from New York to Istanbul and my tentative hotel plans.
Flights from New York City to Istanbul
I’ve wanted to fly Turkish Airlines for a while now. Its service is — according to previous TPG reviews — pretty great. Plus, the 1 p.m. flight from New York-JFK to Istanbul is operated by the airline’s 787 aircraft. This plane is equipped with the carrier’s new business-class product that TPG’s Zach Honig reviewed in 2019.
There is a ton of open business-class award space on this route, so I ended up booking a ticket for both myself and my friend. For my ticket, I ended up booking through ANA Mileage Club. The ticket was just 88,000 miles round-trip but was subject to $529.43 in taxes and fees. This is because ANA passes on carrier fuel surcharges to the customer when booking award tickets.
My return trip is also operated by Turkish Airlines. As you might expect, it goes from Kyiv (KBP) to New York-JFK via Istanbul. This time, I opted to try the flight operated by the carrier’s 777-300ER to compare the business-class product and onboard experience.
My friend and I plan to travel between Istanbul, Odessa and Kyiv together. As you’ll see later in the article, these flights are super cheap too. Since ANA Mileage Club includes a free stopover on all award tickets, I added a flight from New York-LaGuardia (LGA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) later in the year.
I amassed this stash of ANA Mileage Club points by transferring from American Express Membership Rewards. Amex points transfer to ANA at a 1:1 ratio.
Why we’re paying for our hotel in Istanbul
Istanbul is home to many great points hotels. Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton each have properties in the city, and you can see the best in TPG’s points and miles guide to Istanbul.
That said, many of these hotels offer excellent deals on paid cash stays — even the high-end properties. Because of this, I’m paying cash for my hotel stay.
Additionally, l split the cost of the hotel evenly to keep things fair. This brings down the hotel’s price significantly for both of us, so it makes far more sense to spend cash than points.
So, where are we staying? As of writing, we have a reservation at the W Istanbul.
I’ve always been a big fan of the W brand and am excited to check out another property. I was able to secure a three-night stay for $317.71 after taxes and other fees with my AAA membership.
This boils down to just $158.86 per person, a solid deal for a Category 4 hotel. I’d have paid 67,500 points for the same stay, given there’s a PointSavers promotion on this hotel, giving me just 0.47 cents per point in value for my points.
However, the stay is eligible for double points and double elite nights under Marriott’s “Better Two-gether” promotion. This means I’ll earn six elite nights and 7,864 Marriott Bonvoy points.
I’ll pay for this stay with my Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card and earn an additional 6x points per dollar spent. This brings my total points haul to an impressive 9,766 points, worth $78.12 per TPG’s most recent valuations.
Odessa: An inexpensive flight and hotel
Odessa is the second stop on our journey — and honestly, the city I’m most excited about visiting. It’s Ukraine’s third-largest city, with just over 1 million people. Odessa is located right on the Black Sea, so it’s within reach of endless beaches. I’ve heard great things about the city’s food scene as well — by far the thing I’m most excited about.
Flights from Istanbul to Odessa
Much to my surprise, three airlines fly between Istanbul and Odessa: Turkish Airlines, Ukraine International Airlines and SkyUp Airlines.
SkyUp is a low-cost Ukrainian carrier with a presence at most major Ukrainian airports. This carrier offered the best price on the Istanbul to Odessa (ODS) flight, with fares starting at just $72 one-way.
We decided to go with SkyUp as it was significantly cheaper than the other options. We both paid for a Standard ticket, which includes a full-size carry-on, free seat selection and a little more flexibility. This costs $20 more than the Basic ticket at $92 one-way — totally worth it as we’ll both have roller bags.
I paid for this ticket — and all other airfare — with The Platinum Card® from American Express. This card earns 5x points per dollar spent on airfare booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel (up to $500,000 in purchases each calendar year). In turn, this means I’ll earn 460 Membership Rewards points.
Staying at an independent property in Odessa
None of my preferred hotel groups have a property in Odessa, but I was able to find some excellent deals on Hotels.com.
Many hotels in Odessa are under $50 per night, but we were looking for a suite since my friend, cousin — who is meeting us in Odessa — and I plan to share a room for our four-night stay in the city. There were plenty of options, but I settled on the Gagarinn Hotel.
This hotel is located a little outside the center of Odessa in the Arcadia neighborhood. This puts it close to the Black Sea coast, which is a huge plus in my book. The neighborhood is also known for its pubs and restaurants — many of which have outdoor dining options. I think this will be a great way to end the trip.
The hotel is pretty solid too. The Family Suite has two king beds and a pullout sofa, perfect for a party of three. Plus, it has a city view and basic amenities like a workspace, air conditioning (important when in Eastern Europe) and a posh hotel lobby. The hotel also guarantees a 24-hour gap between room stays and room sanitization, which is a great bonus during a pandemic.
The room costs $411.92 for four nights, which breaks down to just over $34 per person, per night. I plan on booking my room through Hotels.com, so I can earn Hotels.com Rewards nights. For some background, this program gives you a free night after every 10 stays you book.
The value of the night is the average cost of your past 10 stays, so it’s essentially a 10% rebate on your Hotels.com nights. I frequently use this program when booking independent hotels or booking hotels under a brand whose points I don’t regularly earn.
I paid for this stay with my Citi Premier® Card. This card earns 3x ThankYou points per dollar spent on hotels, so I’ll earn a nice 1,236 points on the stay.
Kyiv: A super cheap flight and a nice hotel
Kyiv is the last stop on our trip. It’s the largest city in Ukraine, with just under 3 million people. The city has a thriving food and drink scene, and the architecture is — from what I’ve seen — incredible.
We also plan to stop at the Oleg Antonov State Aviation Museum. Here, you’ll find dozens of Eastern European aircraft from decades past.
Flights from Odessa to Kyiv
There are three ways to get from Odessa to Kyiv: an overnight train, a bus or a flight.
While the overnight train would be appealing to me during non-COVID times, we’re going to skip it for this trip. So, I fired up Google Flights and was happy to see that Ukraine International Airlines flies the Odessa-to-Kyiv route twice daily. One flight is operated by a Boeing 737-800 and the other an Embraer E190.
The cost? Twenty-two dollars one-way for every day on the booking calendar.
My friend and I each grabbed a ticket on the morning flight. Again, we paid an extra $12 per person to upgrade to Economy Standard. This lets us bring a standard cabin bag on board, which we’ll need as this is an 11-day journey.
Ukraine International Airlines was once an Air France-KLM Flying Blue partner, but it recently severed ties. This means I won’t earn any meaningful points on this flight. But for the price, I’m thankful for a quick journey between the two cities.
As usual, I’ll pay for this flight with the Amex Platinum and earn 5x points per dollar. This gives me 160 Membership Rewards points toward a future trip.
Staying at an Accor property in Kyiv
I was surprised to see how good of a deal Kyiv hotels are. While Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt options are limited, I found that Accor has a reasonable number of properties in the city. Two properties are under the budget Ibis brand and the other is a Fairmont. The hotel that stuck out the most to me was the Ibis Kiev City Center.
It’s located right in the center of Kyiv near plenty of restaurants, cafes and pubs. It’s also within walking distance of many sights like St. Sophia’s Cathedral. The price is right too — for our dates, the hotel was roughly $36 per night.
Because of how cheap this stay is, we’ll each book our own room at the hotel. Again, I’ll book my room with Hotels.com so I can earn more Rewards nights. This stay will actually push me over 10 nights in my account, so I’ll have a free night certificate when I’m home.
Like the hotel in Odessa, I paid for the booking with my Citi Premier card.
Other considerations we took when planning
Of course, planning hotels, flights and activities is one thing. But when you’re traveling during the coronavirus pandemic, there are plenty of other considerations you must take.
How we settled on Turkey and Ukraine
I have dual citizenship in the U.S. and Czech Republic and can access much of the EU (albeit with a test or quarantine), but my travel companion does not. We needed to find countries that would let us into the country for tourism without being subject to a mandatory quarantine.
We found Turkey and Ukraine on TPG’s list of countries that currently admit American tourists. That is, if they pack a negative COVID test.
These were easy picks since both countries have been at the top of my and my friend’s travel bucket list for quite some time. It also helps that the two countries are located so close to each other, making this multi-destination trip possible in COVID times.
COVID testing at home and abroad
Another thing we had to keep in mind was COVID testing. Turkey recently started requiring all foreign tourists to present a negative COVID test less than 72 hours old upon arrival. I plan to get tested in New York three days before our flight to Istanbul.
Likewise, Ukraine requires all foreign travelers who have spent time in “red zone” countries within the 14 days before arrival to present a negative COVID test that’s less than 48 hours old at the border. The U.S. is on the list of red countries, so my friend and I will get a test at Istanbul Airport earlier in the day.
The airport offers 24/7 COVID testing for roughly $16. Even better, these tests are inexpensive and processed on-site, so you can expect results within two hours. This is super impressive, and I’m excited to see if the airport can meet these claims — that said, we plan to arrive at the airport early to be safe.
Finally, we’ll both need to get tested within 72 hours of returning the U.S. The U.S. accepts both PCR and rapid antigen tests. Thankfully, Kyiv Boryspil airport also offers 24/7 on-site COVID testing. A rapid test costs roughly $28 at the airport and results are guaranteed within 20 minutes, so we’ll both do this before our flights home.
Staying safe on the road
Of course, we’ll do everything we can to stay safe on the road. We’re both planning to buy a pack of N95 masks before our trip and use them when traveling, going out and when in common areas of our hotels.
These masks were previously hard to find, but I’ve had luck buying them on eBay from trusted sellers. Make sure to do your own research and find a mask that works for you — it’ll keep you safe and comfortable when on the road.
Traveling during the coronavirus pandemic is tough but can be totally worth it if you’re willing to do some extra planning and take proper precautions.
Here, I showed you how my friend and I are booking a trip to Turkey and Ukraine later this year. While it may not be the most luxurious trip, we stretched our miles and dollars, giving us a great first international trip of 2021.
Stay safe out there!
Featured photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.
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