How I used points and miles to book my dream trip to Europe – The Points Guy

Welcome to the sixth installment of a yearlong series where Tarah Chieffi, TPG’s family travel reporter, shares her experience using various points, benefits, credits and access from her first premium rewards credit card, The Platinum Card® from American Express.
Previous installments:
Now that I've traveled to Europe and back using points and miles, I guess I'll have to retire my self-dubbed "newbie" status fairly soon. But, before I graduate through the ranks of my points and miles education (I certainly wouldn't call myself an expert … yet), I want to leave you with the culmination of my learnings since signing up for The Platinum Card® from American Express earlier this year: a one-week romp through Germany and Belgium that I was able to pay for using mostly points and miles.
A year ago, that never would have been possible because I knew next to nothing about using credit card spending (responsibly) to maximize points earning. With a little help from TPG's deep well of informational articles — and a lot of help from my co-workers — I made leaps and bounds in my understanding of earning and redeeming points and miles.
As with all our points and miles personal stories at TPG, it's my hope that relating exactly how I made this trip happen will help my fellow newbies feel less overwhelmed by the world of reward travel and encourage them to give it a try for themselves.
I've written pretty extensively about how I used points to get my husband and myself to Europe using American Express Membership Rewards points, so I won't spend too much time explaining it in detail. What I will say is that I did a couple of things that helped stretch my points a bit further than if I had just hopped on the Amex Travel portal and booked my flights on a whim.
But first, let's talk a bit about how I earned those points.
First, when you apply for most credit cards, including the Amex Platinum card, you receive a welcome bonus when you hit a minimum spending level within an allotted amount of time. At the time I applied for this card, I needed to reach a $6,000 spending threshold in the first six months of card membership to earn 100,000 bonus American Express Membership Rewards points.
The rest of my points I earned through everyday spending like groceries, shopping and dining out. When the card arrived in the mail, I shifted most of my purchases and recurring bills to this card.
The first thing I did that got me a 25% points bonus was to wait (however impatiently) for a transfer bonus to an Amex Membership Rewards transfer partner. I knew based on my dates and airports that I would be flying KLM, a member of the Flying Blue program, along with Air France. Amex Membership Rewards points typically transfer 1 to 1 for Flying Blue miles.
For example, 1,000 Membership Rewards points would equal 1,000 Flying Blue miles. Amex often runs promotions with their hotel and airline partner programs, however, and I waited until a promotion with Flying Blue banked me 1,250 Flying Blue miles for every 1,000 Membership Rewards points. I was able to convert 269,000 Amex Membership Rewards points to 336,250 Flying Blue miles. That was enough to cover business-class flights to and from Europe for me and my husband, minus the somewhat exorbitant fuel surcharges passed on by Air France and KLM (don't worry, most airlines aren't as bad).
During our trip, we bounced from Munich and Dortmund, Germany to Brussels (with a few day trips mixed in), driving or taking a train between most of our destinations. The drive from Munich to Dortmund takes over six hours, however, so a short, inexpensive flight was much more appealing.
I first checked Google Flights to get an idea of the routes and prices for economy tickets between Munich and Dortmund before checking the prices on the Amex Travel Portal. This comparison would be my second piece of advice when redeeming Amex Membership Rewards points for flights or hotels.
Sometimes the price you see through Amex is not necessarily the best price, but in this case it matched what I was seeing on Google Flights. I didn't have quite enough points to cover both of our flights, which came out to $339 with taxes and fees, but Amex gives you the option to pay with points and cash when booking through its travel portal. I held onto these points specifically for this trip so I didn't mind blowing through my points balance, and so that's just what I did.
I used what was left of my balance to cover a portion of the flights and paid cash for the rest. Spending $187.93 for two plane tickets was much easier than parting with the full $339.
Lounge access was another huge perk of using our Amex Membership Rewards points to book business-class flights. Although neither of us holds status with KLM or Air France, we were able to access the KLM Crown Lounge and the Air France Lounge because we were flying business class. It gave us a place to grab breakfast after we arrived in Europe and a light meal (and pre-departure cocktail) before we flew home at the end of our trip.
The Amex Travel Portal is a platform where you can book travel if you hold one of the following cards: The Platinum Card® from American Express, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express or American Express® Gold Card. You can pay with cash, American Express Membership Rewards points or a mix of both.
The Amex Travel Portal is treated as a third-party booking site, so it isn't always necessarily the best value over transferring points to an airline or hotel partner. However, there are other perks to consider like the American Express Membership Rewards points you can earn and whether the hotel is part of Amex Fine Hotels + Resorts or The Hotel Collection.
I had built up enough of a points balance to cover our hotel stays in Europe, as well. I did this with a combination of Amex Membership Rewards points and Marriott Bonvoy free night certificates. I earned five free nights valued at 50,000 points per night when I signed up for the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card earlier this year and hit the $5,000 minimum spending level within the first three months of account opening. The card's annual fee is only $95 — a fraction of the value you can get from those five free nights, along with the card's other perks.
For our hotel in Munich, I booked through the Amex Travel portal and paid using Membership Reward points. I could have booked our room at Roomers Munich directly through Marriott using my free night certificates, but there was a bonus to booking through Amex.
Roomers Munich is part of the Hotel Collection, a selection of hotels on the Amex Travel portal that come with perks like complimentary room upgrades (when available) and a $100 on-site credit to use for dining and other experiences for stays of two nights or more. I was able to take advantage of that and I still earned Marriott Bonvoy points for my stay, which isn't always the case when you book through the Hotel Collection (read: your mileage may vary). We did not receive an upgrade, but I was happy with the room I booked so that wasn't a big deal to me.
For our one night in Dortmund (to see Borussia Dortmund take on FC Bayern in soccer), I depleted my Amex Membership Rewards points balance further by paying with points for our stay at Hotel der Lennhof through the Amex Travel Portal.
The hotel was beyond charming and our rate included breakfast, which really made it feel like a steal. It is worth noting that when you pay cash for flights and hotels through the Amex Travel Portal, you are required to pre-pay. Make sure you pay close attention to the cancellation policy before booking just in case your plans change.
The final stop of our trip was in Brussels. I had depleted my stash of Amex points so I used two of the Marriott Bonvoy free night certificates I had earned for two nights at the Marriott Grand Place in Brussels. The location could not have been better — we were within easy walking distance of train and subway stations, dining and shopping and Grote Market (or Grand Place), Brussel's central square.
The only fee I was responsible for was less than $10 in taxes and I received perks for being a Marriott Bonvoy Gold member, a status I received just by being an Amex Platinum cardholder. I earned bonus points, had access to late checkout and enhanced high-speed internet.
Marriott Bonvoy utilizes a dynamic pricing model for award rates. Essentially, you may need more points for the same room depending on the hotel's cash rates and occupancy levels. You can use free night certificates, like the ones I earned by signing up for the Bonvoy Boundless Card, for any hotel night priced at 50,000 points or less.
Some welcome offers provide points rather than free night certificates and you can also earn points through spending. You can redeem those points for award night stays and you won't be beholden to the 50,000-points-per-night limit.
You can also redeem points for upgraded rooms or pay a portion of your room with points and the rest with cash. These options aren't available at all properties, but they should display when you are searching for availability.
Would a points and miles expert be able to pick apart the flaws in my plan where I could have saved even more money? Sure. I've said this before and I'll say it again, but we all have to start somewhere. My goal with booking this trip was to utilize points and miles for comfortable flights and unique hotel stays in the middle of the action. I got exactly that.
The only things we paid cash for (other than those pesky fuel surcharges) were train and subway tickets, food, beer (which was surprisingly cheap in Germany) and a few souvenirs.
Don't let the fear of not getting it exactly "right" stop you from giving it a try.
Read up on which credit cards might be best for you and how to maximize the points and miles you earn — and then put that knowledge into practice by booking a trip. Like me, with each booking you'll learn a bit more and be well on your way to expert status.
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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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