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The dust has settled, the jet lag has been beaten back (well, for me – Sarah might still be working on it) and we are adjusting to life-as-normal back in Birmingham. Our trip was a great adventure and a grand success – we kept waiting for something to go wrong – the rental car tire to go flat, missing a flight, losing a passport – but nothing on this trek went bottom up, and I am super thankful for that.
This trip was planned on a relatively skinny budget, and one of the reasons I am doing this financial recap is because I want everyone to fully understand just how attainable travel is, especially when you use handy-dandy points! I’m going to dive into the finances of our trip – specifically, everything we paid as it related to 3 different categories – flights, accommodation and car rental. These three categories contain the three biggest costs of (probably) any trip and the ones that can be most easily offset by either using points or strategic maneuvering.
I did not include food, excursions or any random costs, like the Pride & Prejudice book I bought at a Salvation Army in Queenstown for a good flight read (Update: watched movies the whole time, didn’t even touch the book). Costs like these can fluctuate situationally for people – Sarah and I tend to run to a grocery store as soon as we get somewhere and stock up on bread, cold cuts, and fruit + veggies for meals. Sometimes this is difficult, like instant-coffee-every-morning kind of hard, but we were gone for 21 days, so either Hobbiton or eating out was going to get the boot, and I like to think I made the right decision 🙂
Alright, so let’s get ready to dive in. Three categories – flights, accommodations and rentals – and I’ll be including a running tab of what our actual cost would have been, so you can compare how well points worked out for us on this trip.
I’ll be honest – airfare was the most difficult part of this trip, and I actually started passively saving points a couple years ago. Australia and New Zealand had been in my mind as this really cool, trip-of-a-lifetime kind of experience for a while, so a couple years ago when I was not working at getting miles towards any specific trip, I got an American Airlines credit card, hit the $2k minimum spend over three months (via normal life spending, of course) and got 60,000 points. I repeated this cycle two more times over the next couple years with AA different cards, bringing my total bonus points to around 160,000 points, which was enough to cover our whole trip.
Booking our flights from Birmingham to Sydney, I paid 40,000 points each, and then from Christchurch back to Birmingham was also 40,000 points (though I got some points back as a perk on my Barclaycard). Having booked our there and back again, the last flight I had to take care of was getting us from AUS to NZD. To cover this flight, I used some Citi ThankYou points that I had leftover – it’s always handy to have some flexible travel portal-based rewards points to cover flights on random airlines.
Doing all this, I did incur some costs, though. There were some flight-related taxes that were passed on to me – even when you book a flight with points, airlines still hit you with the taxes and fees. Domestically, it’s not a big deal – only $5.60 per flight – but internationally they look a little different. I paid a total of $151.12 in taxes and fees, which isn’t bad, based on what some international taxes and fees look like. Here is my total points + total spend + total projected spend without points:
|Flight Segments||Points Used||Estimated Cost||Actual Cost|
|BHM - SYD|
CHC - BHM
|150,000 American Airlines points||$2,931.32||$151.12|
|SYD - AKL||29,312 Thank You points||$366.40||$0|
Accommodation tends to be the trickiest part of planning any trip – but also the one with the most flexibility. Hotel credit cards don’t provide the same kind of value as airfare cards, but counterbalancing that is a much wider range of options. Between Airbnb, hotels, and hostels, you can almost always find something to fit your price range.
Now I need to put a little bit of a caveat here because we did stay with friends while we were in Australia (shoutout to our awesome tour guides Andy and Nicole, and our amazing hosts Peter and Kerrie!). Our trip would have looked a little different if this wasn’t an option for us, and probably a little bit shorter – we are incredibly thankful for international friendships!
In New Zealand, there is a strong backpacking culture, so we had our pick of plenty of classy hostels or Airbnbs. Airbnb’s made the most sense for us, and we threw on some hotels with points towards the end of our trip.
We tried to keep our Airbnb’s under $50 per night, which meant that on some nights we were in private rooms instead of separate apartments (which I love #localchats and Sarah is so-so about #noprivatebathrooms). Our total cost for 6 nights across NZ was $289.99. We also did a discounted night at a holiday park for $91 and used some flex points for a nice lakefront stay at an Airbnb at Lake Hawea. Our trip wrapped up with 3 nights in Queenstown, which happens to be one of the few areas with hotel chains in NZ, so we did two nights at a Doubletree by Hilton and one night at a Crowne Plaza by IHG using points.
|Location||Points Used||Estimated Cost||Actual Cost|
|Fox Glacier, Thank You Rewards Portal||1,736 Thank You points||$113.00||$91.00|
|Lake Hawea, Airbnb||10,000 Arrival points||$119.77||$19.77|
|Queenstown, Doubletree by Hilton, 2 nights||60,000 Hilton points||$596.98||$0|
|Queenstown, Crowne Plaza by IHG||IHG Anniversary night||$444.31||$0|
So, rental car. I’m used to rental cars here in the States where I can get a car for dirt cheap, especially if I book way in advance, but that is not the case in NZ. This was easily one of the bigger trip costs we needed to cover, especially since it included a North-to-South island ferry and our ferry tickets.
I booked my 10-day rental through Apex Rentals for $605 and just so happened to check the price again a month before liftoff and it had dropped to $519. I called and the nice Kiwi I talked to was cool enough to update my reservation to reflect the new price, saving us some dolla bills – so it goes to show that if you see a lower price for something you’ve already booked, just call and ask, because it can’t hurt! For this expense, I used my Arrival Plus card by Barclaycard and the flex points on that card to take $404.66 off the $519 list price, making our rental only $114.34! An added perk of using this card is that it came with all the car rental insurance we needed, so we were able to decline Apex’s coverage and still have peace of mind.
Unfortunately, gas is super expensive in NZ, and there wasn’t anything I could do about that, except just keep thinking about how great it was that the American dollar was strong in NZ while I was pumping the liters. We drove allllll over New Zealand, putting almost 3,000 kilometers on our rental, and spent a total of $320.35 in gas.
|Car||Points Used||Estimated Cost||Actual Cost|
|Rental||40,466 Arrival points||$519.00||$114.34|
The Simple Summary
To recap, minus food and excursions and not including the annual fees of the cards used (~$140), the cost of our trip was $986.57, savings of $4,714.55 from the normal trip cost of $5,701.12. This represents an 83% discount, which feels pretty great! I could have saved even more money if I had more time to go after other bonuses, but at some point, you just have to pull the trigger and go.
|Points Used||Estimated Cost||Actual Cost|
|Flights, Accommodations + Rental||291,514||$5,701.12||$986.57|
One of the reasons spending so little on travel was so important to us was because New Zealand and Australia are chock full of incredible and unique experiences, and we wanted to divert as much of our budget towards those things as possible. Because of our travel savings, we were able to experience things like taking a day tour of Hobbiton, spending a weekend in Hunter Valley Wine country, going rafting in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, going on a cruise of the Milford Sound, doing a Skyline Luge in Queenstown, quad biking on sand dunes in NSW, and going to the Toronga Zoo in Sydney. Though I was able to use some points for certain events, those mini-trips were things we wanted to be able to do, and spending so little on travel allowed us the flexibility to see and do some bucket list items.
One of the reasons I wanted to do a financial deep dive into our trip was to demonstrate how possible it is to travel affordably – we spent 3 weeks in Australia and New Zealand and had a fixed cost of close to 1 month of rent! I know that our trip cost of $986 does not include variable costs such as activities – but that’s the beauty of the costs being variable – you can pick and choose what works for your budget and plan your trip accordingly. We had some “must-see” activities – Sarah was definitely not leaving New Zealand without seeing glowworms in a cave, and there was no chance I was not seeing Bag End – and we were able to make those work by planning ahead and budgeting for them.
We went halfway across the world for 3 weeks and spent under $1,000 doing it. Trust me, your travel dreams are attainable! It just takes patience, a clear understanding of how credit cards can work for you, and careful management. Travel-dream big, because all of a sudden, one day you’ll be standing in a New Zealand glowworm cave, wondering how it all worked out so well.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions down in the comments below!