It was 2015, and we needed a break.
My wife and I had been married for a few years and enjoying our new life together in California. We got new jobs in 2014, which meant more money, but also a lot more time at work and a lot more saving.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what I was saving and investing towards, but I was hellbent on doing it. Saving 50 percent of your income isn’t easy, but it’s doable. You make cuts, keep a budget and spend responsibly.
But sometimes you want to ball a little.
The Treat Yo’self Trip
In order to enjoy the spoils of all of our hard work, we decided to indulge once a year.
We thought about what we were comfortable giving up in terms of money every year and thought about what would be the best way to spend it. We considered buying things, maybe clothes. We entertained fine dining or some other local experience. But when we thought about it, experiences meant a lot to us.
So it was decided that once a year we would treat ourselves to one trip where we would ball.
This didn’t mean we were taking only one trip a year. We averaged two international trips a year and like four domestic, but all trips except this special one had to fit within the existing travel budget. It was just this once a year celebration of our hard work that got its own special budget.
So, We’re Going to Hawaii
We moved from the east coast to San Francisco in 2012 and had been “Californians” for almost three years. We had heard that flying to Hawaii was a right of passage for west coasters, so we thought that would make a great trip. I went to work as the official travel planner of the household.
By this point, I was deep in the travel rewards game and had become obsessed with flying for free. I had stacked up travel points using Chase cards and had earned a few free hotel nights on Hotels.com. Most of my points were from sign-on bonuses, but by being strategic with my work travel, I managed to earn even more.
I went to work, finding us a flight and a few hotels to look at. At this point in my life, I was becoming bougie. (I try and be honest with myself and you all.) Because of all my business travel, staying at the cheap two-star hotel wasn’t going to cut it.
While looking for hotels, I learned something: Hawaii is expensive!
What’s Good With Bali?
Back when I was getting married in 2012, I had decided that Bali was where we needed to have our honeymoon. All the pictures and reviews looked amazing. The beaches, the culture, the food … I was sold.
Alas, I couldn’t make the budget work. We were both graduating grad school at the time, myself from MIT and my wife from Carnegie Mellon. We had one job secured between the both of us and had student debt for the first time in our lives. For our honeymoon we had an amazing time in Costa Rica and Antigua, but no Bali.
As I was struggling in 2015 to find a nice hotel that wouldn’t blow our special trip’s budget, it dawned on me: I wonder how many more points it would be to go to Bali?
Looking at the United mileage award search, apparently flying to Bali was the exact same cost as flying to Hawaii. But, when you looked at the hotels, they were like half the price. We could stay in our own private Villa for cheaper than a single room at a regular hotel in Hawaii.
With my free hotel night vouchers, going to Airbnb would mean skipping on hotel savings and was out of the question. It looked like by going to Bali we could have a true luxury vacation within our treat yo’self budget.
After a quick confirmation with the Mrs., I was planning a new trip.
I’m Saying Though, Let’s hit Thailand, Too.
One very annoying aspect of international travel with miles is the number of crappy flights. You can usually get around it by spending more miles, but since that would mean less flights for us, I almost never do it. This has lead to hours spent in German airports, a few extra hours between us and Brazil, and other irritations that don’t outweigh getting a $2,000 flight for $50.
In the time it took me to run the new location across my better half, all the good flights went up in price. Now, it looked like layovers in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand would be inevitable. Still well worth it, but annoying enough to avoid.
So I thought: Why does our trip to Asia need to be limited to one island? We’re young, we don’t have any kids (yet) and my wife had never been to Thailand.
Now, our new updated itinerary has become a true adventure:
Taipai, Taiwan – 1 night layover
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia – 3 nights
Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia – 4 nights
Bangkok, Thailand – 3 nights
Hong Kong, China – 1 night layover
Putting it All Together and Making Reservations with Travel Rewards
Now that we had an itinerary, it was time to put it together and make it real.
Starting with the flights, I searched on United’s website for the most accurate availability and prices for flights. I had already seen the flight and was able to secure two round-trip tickets for a total of 160,000 United miles and $150 in taxes.
At this point, I hopped over to Chase, logged in to see the balance on my Chase Sapphire Preferred (this was before the mightier Chase Sapphire Reserve card existed) and transferred my points to my United Mileage Plus account. Transferring points is the best option 90 percent of the time compared to redeeming directly through the credit card company.
Next, the hotels.
One trick I learned that has worked great for me is that if you travel for work, book your hotel on Hotels.com.
When it comes to earning travel rewards, airplane flights have always been easier to me. You do the best by picking one airline and sticking with it for all flights. The same goes for hotels. The problem was I often had trouble finding my brand of hotel (Starwood) in the city I wanted to go to. And if I did, it wasn’t in the right part of town. I’ve found big hotels are great if you are just traveling to big cities, but this strategy can breakdown when going on vacation.
Hotels.com solves a lot of these problems. Since the site just lists other companies’ hotels, they have a great selection of hotels, from big brands like Westin, Hyatt or Marriott, to small bed and breakfasts with no rewards program at all. The best part is Hotels.com offers its own rewards system that works for all hotels interchangeably. For every 10 nights you book, you’ll get a voucher for a free night. You can use this free night voucher on any hotel the site offers. So, instead of picking one chain and staying loyal, my work trips would pay off in vouchers I could use anywhere.
Now that I was looking for obscure villas in Bali, unaffiliated with any major chain, these free nights were coming in handy.
After lamenting over reviews and different ways to allocate the trip’s budget, I picked some hotels and got lucky. In addition to two villas in Bali, I had managed to get us into the Mandarin Oriental. I hadn’t heard of it before, but if a hotel could have six stars, this is the one. What sold me was that every floor has a “floor butler.”
I had to see what this was about, and I was willing to risk being spoiled for life.
The Actual Vacation and All Its Glory
When I’m stressed and need to find my happy place, I think back to this trip.
Yes, it was that good.
Balling in Bali
We started our trip in Ubud, a central city in Bali. We like to mix culture and local flare in addition to just relaxing on vacation. Personally, I find resorts and resort cities boring. How long can you spend at the hotel pool or beach?
One of the things that made Bali so amazing is how cheap everything is. The exchange rate helps your American dollar go far. I love traveling to countries with favorable costs of living. You can get a five-star luxury resort for the cost of a Motel 6 in New York. All the time spent researching paid off as we swam in our private pool or bathed in our private outdoor shower. Funny thing is, this first hotel was our worst on the trip, but we loved our stay at The Mansion Resort Hotel & Spa. It’s both a mansion and private villas with beautiful grounds and plenty of space.
I’ll never forget the traditional Balinese dance show we watched one night. It was an example of why we came to Bali. Getting a chance to witness something local that was created well before all the resorts came.
After a few days, we went to Seminyak for resort style relaxation. This part of the island is almost exclusively beach resorts and tourism. You’ll find great places to stay, eat and relax, all at super low Bali prices. You’ll also find a ton of Australians here on “holiday”.
Our villa in Seminyak was insane.
Our new pool was three times bigger. Every morning we were woken up by the staff as they prepared us breakfast in our personal outdoor kitchen. Free shuttles took us around to the beach and restaurants. And we were able to get very affordable massages at our villa. And of course we had an indoor/outdoor bathroom so you could soak and look outside at our stay at The Kunja.
The second half of our stay in Bali was filled with resort style relaxation, amazing massages, beach side lounging and water sports. We hired a driver for an entire day for the cost of getting to the airport. We had a chance to see other parts of the island while partaking in activities and fine dining.
In Bali is the first time I actually ate at a fine dining restaurant, which apparently is a thing. One thing about me is I’m not a foodie. The idea of spending $400-$500 dollars for a small meal that is an “experience” is crazy to me. But, with Bali prices, we were ably to get a $500 meal experience for around $100, including drinks. If you’re ever in Seminyak, try KuDeTa beach club.
With two different Bali experiences under our belt, we were ready for Thailand.
Balling Harder in Bangkok
I love Thailand.
As someone who loves a good bargain, Thailand is filled with them as prices are way below what we are used to in America. In addition, the Buddhist influence makes Thai people warm and hospitable. It’s a huge city with everything you need, tons of culture and great food. It was my second trip here, but I was anxious to go back and now had an old classmate living in town.
The Mandarin Oriental was everything I expected and more. I remember walking through the lobby in my polo shirt and shorts and looking damn near homeless compared to the people checking in with LV shirts, Gucci belts, red bottoms and brands I just don’t know. (I get all my luxury info from trap music.) Everything about the place is amazing (and expensive). Even with a 50 percent off special the hotel offered, it was the most expensive stay on our trip. Breakfast was great, with staff refilling my mimosa before I could finish it, not to mention the multiple flavors. Ever had a mimosa with fresh squeezed watermelon juice? That $%$#& is good.
And back to the floor butler …
On every floor, there is a person there at all times for whatever you need. The person remembers you, asks you how your day was, walks you to your room from the elevator to open your door, and basically just takes care of things. You get a little button to call the butler, just in case going in the hallway is too much.
We spent our days touring the city and hitting all the landmarks. My previous trip here while in business school was short, and this time there was plenty for me and my wife to discover in the city. We went to markets, buying up all the cheap high-quality goods we could find. We visited national monuments and temples. We ate the street food (which is extremely high-quality in Thailand).
My favorite sight (besides the Mandarin’s hotel bar with a live black jazz performer) was Wat Pho, Temple of Reclining Buddha. It’s one place worth checking out and marveling at the gorgeous Thai statues and decoration.
What’s the Damage?
I didn’t even mention our trip to the night market in Taipei or cocktails and hookah in Hong Kong, but it’s all on the IG feed if you’re curious.
When we took this trip, we were just starting to grow our net worth in a meaningful way. We were only a year into our new jobs and salaries, so our treat yo’self budget wasn’t high. As a comparison, the first two trips were two nights long and required two-for-one flights on Southwest to Vegas and Mexico.
I’m very proud to tell you our hotel and flight costs, for two people and 13 nights, came to a grand total of just $2,447.69.
We spent 13 nights in four and five star hotels across Asia for two people. Not bad. More specifically, we spent:
- Two United Round Trip Flights (Taipai -> Bali -> Bangkok -> Hong Kong): $148.32 + 160k points
- 3 nights at The Mansion Resort Hotel & Spa in Ubud, Bali: $654.78
- 4 nights at The Kunja in Seminyak, Bali: $188.93 + 3 free hotel.com nights
- 4 nights at Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, Thailand: $1,199.94
- 1 night in Taipai: $115.48
- 1 night in at The Butterfly on Wellington in Hong Kong: $140.24
We still talk about this trip years later. We travel a lot, hitting Korea, Mexico, Japan, Brazil, France, England, the Dominican Republic and Turkey all in the last five years, in addition to this trip and a bunch of domestic trips. With all those amazing places, this trip is still one of our favorite international trips.
Without the use of points, we would have easily spent twice as much, and we could have gotten it lower if we chose different hotels or fewer dates. But, this was well within our travel budget and was worth spending the extra money.
Leave a comment with any great destinations you’ve been to or ways you have saved using travel rewards.
Damien is a Personal Finance Nerd and former Facebook Product Manager who started Wealth Noir to help others find wealth. He actively invests in stocks, robo advisors, and cryptocurrency … but loves real estate investing. He holds an MBA from MIT and a Comp Sci & Econ degrees from Unv. of MD. He’s a proud dad, which is his biggest accomplishment.