Who doesn’t want to head out on an adventure this summer? For many of us, that’s what we save our miles for—a free vacation to a warm, sunny spot we’ve been dreaming about. Fortunately, there are lots of good options for award travel this summer, especially if you know how to pick the right destination.
The trick to booking your vacation using miles is simple: avoid destinations that other travelers are also trying to get to using miles and points. A trip to Hawaii, for instance, is something that a lot of people save their miles for, so those tickets were booked up months ago. The same goes for places like Orlando, Las Vegas, Paris, and Rome.
But if you turn to alternative destinations, you might find more open space and some appealing deals. Many airlines put short domestic flights on sale just for passengers who are redeeming points. On American, for instance, if you want to reach a destination less than 650 miles away, you only have to spend 7,500 miles each way to get there, instead of the 12,500 miles it takes to get to most domestic destinations. (And if you have an American Airlines credit card from Citi, you may also be eligible for an additional discount on your next award redemption.) United offers flights to destinations under 700 miles away for 10,000 miles each way, and Delta offers similar discounts.
Hotels do the same thing. IHG, for instance, has a popular Points Breaks promotion that puts various hotels (typically in less-frequented destinations) on sale for just 5,000 points per night, instead of the usual 10,000 to 50,000 points per night.
Need inspiration? Here are a few unique spots that you can fly to or stay at with your miles.
1. San Antonio, Texas. If you want to explore the historic Alamo and stroll along the popular River Walk, redeem points for an elegant stay at the beautifully restored St. Anthony, A Luxury Collection Hotel, or the lively Westin Riverwalk, each of which costs 12,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points per night. And if you have lots of Starwood points, they can even help you get to San Antonio for free: If you transfer 20,000 miles to your preferred airline, Starwood will toss in a bonus 5,000 free miles, which is enough to redeem for a free domestic saver award ticket.
2. Naples, Florida. Just a few hours’ drive south of Orlando, this spot on the Gulf Coast is a family-friendly destination. It is also home to two luxurious properties that many travelers forget they can use points for: the Ritz-Carlton Naples and Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort Naples. With large swimming pools, an educational kids’ program, and impressive spas, these hotels are excellent places to stay, and you can get there with Marriot points (as well as the points from Ritz-Carlton’s rewards program). What’s more, you can transfer points from a Chase Ultimate Rewards program to Marriott Rewards and pay for your room that way. The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort costs 50,000 points per night while the beachfront Ritz-Carlton Naples costs 70,000 points; guests at either property can use a free shuttle to access the amenities at both resorts.
3. Ireland. The Emerald Isle is closer than you might think, especially now that national carrier Aer Lingus offers more redemption options than ever. You can use both American and United miles for flights on Aer Lingus at 30,000 miles for a one-way economy class flight. And travelers coming from Boston can get an even better bargain: If you can use Avios points (the mileage program for British Airways or Iberia), you can get to Ireland for only 12,500 each way. And don’t forget, Avios is also a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, so you can use those points to book the trip too. (Also, it’s worth noting that if you live in Boston, there are lots of deals on award flights to Europe this summer with Air France and KLM taking 25 percent off business class redemptions with Flying Blue points, another American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner.)
4. Tahiti. If you are looking for the truly exotic vacation, look no further than Tahiti in French Polynesia. Your Delta miles can get you there on Air France for 50,000 miles each way, or American miles can pay for a flight on Air Tahiti Nui for 40,000 each way. Connecting flights to Los Angeles are even included in the price. Once you’re there, the oft-photographed Hilton Bora Bora costs between 50,000 and 80,000 Hilton HHonors points per night for a standard room (you can pay a supplement to get an overwater villa).
5. Southern Spain. Awards seats to popular Barcelona are often taken, but you can still get equally beautiful Spanish cities like Valencia and Murcia. What’s more, those particular destinations also offer hotel deals. The Intercontinental Mar Menor Golf Resort and Spa in Murcia is available for 25,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night. (IHG is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.) If you prefer Starwood, two of Valencia’s best hotels include the elegant Westin and the new Design Hotel member Hospes Palau de la Mar—each costing 10,000 Starwood points per night. They’re both within walking distance of the City of Arts and Sciences, which is an entertaining and educational complex of museums including art, science, and zoological exhibitions; it is considered one of the 12 “Treasures of Spain.” And once you’re there, you can always take the train to Barcelona for a few days.
6. China. Hotel prices in China are a bargain, but rates can rise in major cities. To get around this expense, spend time in cities that are near hot spots like Beijing or Shanghai but offer better deals. For example, Suzhou (considered the “Venice of China”) is a one-hour train ride from Shanghai and is filled with canals flowing through ancient streets lined with shops and cafes. Hangzhou, also near Shanghai, sits alongside West Lake and is home to stunning pagodas and some of the country’s most famous tea plantations. The Marriott and Renaissance hotels in Suzhou cost only 10,000 points per night, half of what it would cost to stay at their sibling properties in Shanghai. So why not spend a few nights in Shanghai and then head to Suzhou or Hangzhou? You’ll be able to stay longer, and you’ll get a calmer, less crowded view of China.
Lastly, if you insist on traveling to popular destinations like Hawaii, just remember that airlines make flights available for reservations (including award tickets) around 330 days or 11 months in advance. You know what that means: It’s already time to start planning for next summer!
Ramsey Qubein wings his way to every corner of the globe covering the hotel, cruise, and airline industry, scooping up points and miles along the way. He has visited 164 countries and flies nearly 350,000 miles per year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at DailyTravelTips or on his website RamseyQ.com.