the right plan, even the most enviable locales are within reach.
“The key is to always work backwards from the trip. Know first where you’re likely going to stay and how you’d like to get there,” says Gary Leff, travel expert and founder of ViewFromTheWing.com. “Too many people take a scatter-shot approach. But if you want to take a specific trip in the near term you really need to be laser focused on that spot, and on the specific points and miles that will help you accomplish that goal.”
Here are three of the hottest vacation destinations trending in the travel world right now, along with insider tips on using rewards to get (and stay) there.
Richard Kerr, chief operating officer for the rewards-booking service ThePointsConsultants.org, likes to joke that Bali is the tropical destination for travelers who are “too cool for Hawaii.”
This Indonesian island boasts not only pristine tropical beaches, but spectacular waterfalls, hidden sea caves, breathtaking canyons, ancient temples, and a vibrant arts and culture scene.
“It’s got everything from an intense party scene to jungle seclusion, and you can tailor your trip to whatever fits your tastes,” says Kerr. “Americans have finally gotten wise to the diversity of the Bali experience, and it’s becoming easier than ever to get there and stay there using rewards and miles.”
To get to Bali, Kerr suggests finding one of several carriers that fly into Denpasar International Airport (DPS) and work backwards from there.
Kerr usually starts his search with Cathay Pacific, which can be booked using partner miles from major carriers like American Airlines, British Airways and Alaska Airlines. You can fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong from North American gateways like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago— and Alaska offers the bonus of a free stopover in Hong Kong if you’ve got extra time to explore.
“There are a ton of trans-pacific routes offered through Cathay. That’s typically the best way to get there,” says Kerr. “If that doesn’t work there are also a lot of Star Alliance options.”
When it comes to staying in Bali, Kerr says you need to make a choice: “Do you want party or do you want nature?”
For the party-minded, Bali’s nightlife is concentrated primarily in the southern part of the island in Kuta and Seminyak. A few years back Kerr stayed at the Stones Hotel in Legian, which is just an hour north of the airport and “right in the heart of the club scene.”
As a Category 5 hotel in the Marriott Rewards program you can score a free night for 25,000 points. Or try the Courtyard Bali in Nusa Dua to the more secluded north, with rooms available for 15,000 Marriott Rewards points per night.
Finally, the luxurious W Retreat & Spa in Seminyak—on the western end of Denpasar—is one of several Starwood properties on the island. As a Category 6 property, travelers can get a room for 20,000 Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points. It’s also a member of the Visa Signature Hotel collection, which means if you book using a Visa Signature card—which includes the popular Chase Sapphire Preferred—you can enjoy benefits like an automatic upgrade when available, VIP guest status and free in-room internet.
Over the past two years, miles and points expert Ari Charlestein says he has seen “a huge increase in clients wanting to travel to Iceland.”
With a population of fewer than 320,000 on a landmass about the size of Virginia, this once-overlooked Nordic island country tucked away in the northern Atlantic is definitely having a moment.
“I think the attraction is that it feels so far away but actually isn’t,” says Charlestein, who runs the points and miles booking service AwardMagic.com. “It’s actually quicker to get to Iceland from Philly or New York than it is to fly to Los Angeles.”
While getting to Iceland using miles and points can be a challenge, there are options worth considering.
In 2015, Icelandair (which flies out of 16 U.S. cities) launched a codeshare agreement and frequent-flier partnership with Alaska Airlines, which means flights on Icelandair can be booked with Alaska miles.
According to Charlestein, one of the best ways for travelers to earn Alaska Airlines miles is through the carrier’s co-branded credit card issued by Bank of America. Or you can transfer SPG points into airline miles and earn Starwood’s 5,0000-mile bonus when you transfer 20,000 points.
What’s more, you can book direct flights to Iceland with Delta, a member of Skyteam. Right now a one-way economy flight to Iceland goes for 30,000 SkyMiles (or you can book a business class flight on Delta with 40,000 Korean Skypass miles). American Express Membership Rewards points can be transferred into Delta, and Chase Ultimate Rewards can be transferred into Korean Skypass.
Staying in Iceland using rewards is a little trickier given the limited number of global chain options. Nonetheless there are rewards strategies through Hilton, Starwood and even Airbnb.
For example, The Canopy by Hilton is a relatively new four-star hotel in the center of Reykjavik with rooms from $440 or 70,000 Hilton Honors points per night. There’s also the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, which is just outside the city with rooms going for 60,000 Hilton Honors Points per night.
Starwood devotees can stay at the secluded Ion Adventure Hotel located within the country’s famed Golden Circle. With stunning views of the Northern Lights and proximity to the famed Gullfoss waterfall, this Starwood Category 6 hotel will cost you 20,000 Starpoints per night.
But one of the best lodging options, says Charlestein, is Airbnb. You can book Airbnb properties directly with American Express Membership Rewards points, so if you have a backlog of MR points, you can save money on some of the country’s more secluded and privately owned lodges.
According to Kerr, Australia (along with its neighbor New Zealand) is perennially third on his list of most requested destinations.
“The only problem is that it’s extremely expensive and will always be expensive to get there,” says Kerr. “And it’s one of the most difficult places to get to with points and miles.”
The problem, says Kerr, is that flying to Australia can take the better part of a day, and travelers are always clamoring to find direct flights. And while there has been a slight uptick in the number of carriers heading to the Land Down Under, low-level rewards seats are a perpetual pipe dream.
But if you’re willing to fly through Asia and make a travel plan about a year in advance, there are options.
For example, United Airlines is a Star Alliance partner and miles can be earned through Chase Ultimate Rewards (or SPG, transferrable at a 2:1 Starpoints-to-United-miles ratio). Economy seats go for 80,000 miles and you’ll need to explore routes with other Star Alliance partners such as All Nippon Airways or Singapore Airlines that take you through cities like Seoul or Bangkok.
“The connections usually aren’t that bad. Maybe two hours,” says Charlestein. “It may seem like out-of-the-way routing and a damper on the vacation, but if you’ve got some extra time why not take advantage of the layover and explore Seoul for a day or two?”
If you want to stay in downtown Sydney, Charlestein recommends the Park Hyatt Sydney, with rooms that can be booked for 30,000 Hyatt points (for a $700 room, that’s a value of about 2.4 cents per point).
If you’re using SPG Starpoints, start planning now. At about 10 months out, start maximizing your points by spending with an American Express Membership Rewards card, which gives you 500 Starpoints for every 1,000 you earn. Double down by planning to stay at one of the country’s myriad Starwood resorts and hotels, including those in Melbourne, Brisbane, Noose, Perth, Gold Coast and Cairns. You’ll earn two
Starpoints per dollar you spend on non-rewards nights.
“Planning a trip to Australia is on so many people’s bucket list that making it work can be hard. But not impossible,” says Kerr. “And if you make it there don’t just stay in Sydney. Rent a car and use an Airbnb strategy to find some boutique hotels throughout the country. It’s worth the time.”