How Chase Ultimate Rewards Saved Us over $50,000 on Plane Tickets

No, that title is not a typo. Recently Luis and I booked two flights using credit card rewards points. The first flight was a one way flight in business class on Iberia Airlines, non-stop from Boston to Madrid. The second was a round trip flight in first class on board All Nippon Airlines, non-stop from San Francisco to Tokyo Narita. If we had paid cash, those same redemptions would have cost us $53,495. Now, being completely honest, we would never pay that much for a flight. Truthfully, I don’t think many people ever actually pay the full ticket price for first class tickets. Still, it is an amazing feeling to see those numbers when you don’t have to pay them.

Earning the Points

There are several different points programs, and picking the right one for your situation can be difficult. If you always or nearly always fly on a single airline, then it usually makes the most sense to join that airline’s frequent flyer program. Luis and I, however, will fly whatever airline works with our destination, dates, and budget. On our trip to Shanghai, we flew with Asiana. Singapore, we flew United. Iceland we are flying on Delta. On other recent trips we have flown on Jetblue, Miami Air, American Airlines, and Alaska Airlines. We just aren’t loyal enough to justify investing in any airline specific credit cards.

Instead, we decided to invest in a travel rewards program that could be used for a multitude of airlines. The three main points programs that are available include Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi Thank You Points. Each program has different strengths and weaknesses, and different partners, but in the end we decided to go with Chase Ultimate Rewards.

The Ultimate Rewards Cards
The three cards we used to get our free flights. Chase Freedom, Sapphire Preferred, and Ink Business Preferred

Ultimately, we have four cards that are able to earn us Ultimate Rewards. The first is the Chase Freedom, which does not earn Ultimate Rewards points on it’s own, but can transfer points to another card which does earn points. We then have a Chase Ink Business Preferred, and we each have our own Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Sign Up Bonuses

The bulk of our points came from initial bonuses just for getting the cards and reaching a minimum spend amount. These bonus points are not repeatable, but they do offer a very large head start towards reaching your first redemption. The Chase Ink Preferred business card came with an 80,000 point sign up bonus. The Chase Sapphire Reserve originally had a 100,000 bonus, which I was able to take advantage of, but it currently only has a 50,000 bonus, which is what Luis received. Still, for the three cards that was 230,000 points. Enough points for the first class ANA redemption, which runs 220,000 points.

Intelligent Spending

Aside from the sign up bonuses, the other way to quickly earn a lot of points is to maximize the bonus opportunities. The Chase Freedom has rotating categories; every quarter a few new categories will earn 5x points. The Sapphire Reserve, on the other hand, has a set of static bonus categories; 3x the points on all travel and dining purchases. By consistently using the right card for each purchase, you can rapidly earn the points needed for a redemption.

The Redemptions

Now, for the fun part! Once you’ve earned enough points it’s time to start planning some trips. Now, just because Chase is not affiliated with a single airline does not mean you can transfer to anybody; Chase currently partners with only 9 airlines. Still, with the proper planning and knowing about alliances, your options are nearly limitless. The 9 airlines Chase can transfer points to include: British Airways, Air France, Singapore Airlines, United, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, Korean Air, Iberia, and Aer Lingus.

Business Class on Iberia Airlines

Since Iberia is partnered with Chase, we were able to easily transfer points from our Ultimate Rewards account directly to Iberia. Iberia has an award chart that varies by route and time of year, but for BOS-MAD in October the normal fare would be 34,000 points per person from the east coast or 42,500 points from the west coast, each way. We were able to find a special deal, where our flight would only be 25,500 points each, but we had to fly from Boston.

Since we live in Nevada, Boston is quite a ways away for a flight, but a deal’s a deal. A quick check on Google Flights, and we were able to find a flight from Salt Lake City to Boston for only $100 per person on Delta in basic economy.

Business Class for 2 on Iberia would have cost us $13,000 had we paid cash

The cash price for a first class ticket from Boston to Madrid on our travel dates is currently $13,024.80 for two people. Instead, we booked it for 51,000 points, $180 in taxes, and $206 for a flight to Boston. Our total savings? $12,638.

First Class on ANA

Unlike Iberia, ANA is not a partner with Chase. However, three of Chase’s partners have the ability to book ANA flights: United, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic. Each option has pros and cons; United has the lowest taxes, Singapore allows you to book one way awards, and Virgin Atlantic offers redemptions for the fewest points.

Ultimately, because of the amazing value, we went with Virgin Atlantic for our redemption. Virgin Atlantic can book first class on ANA for only 110,000 points round trip from the west coast, or 120,000 points from the east coast. Compare this to United which charges the same amount of miles for only one way. That puts Virgin Atlantic in a very sweet spot for Asia redemptions. There are a couple of downsides; you have to book a round trip ticket, it has to be non-stop (which means there are only a small handful of eligible US airports), and seats only become available 336 days out. There are only 2 seats on each plane available for these reduced rates, so it is possible that travelers booking directly with ANA or with another partner have already booked all the available award seats. Still, if your dates are somewhat flexible and you can book almost a year in advance, Virgin Atlantic offers an amazing redemption opportunity for ANA.

Round trip First Class tickets on ANA would have cost us over $40,000 if we had paid cash

The cash price for a first class ticket from San Francisco to Tokyo and back on our travel dates is currently $40,470.44 for two people. Instead, we booked it for 220,000 points, and $513 in taxes. Our total savings? $39,957.

That’s a grand total of $52,595 in savings over two trips.

Getting the Best Rate on Foreign Currency

US, Chinese, and Japanese Currency

One of the unique things to think about when travelling internationally is the logistics of foreign currency. In America the majority of stores and restaurants will accept credit cards, but that is not always the case. In many countries cash is king, and being stuck without cash on hand could be extremely problematic. That is why it is crucial to know how and where to get local currency. Equally as important, you need to know how to get the best exchange rate when purchasing foreign currency.

Paying with a Credit Card (in the Local Currency)

Often the best exchange rate you will get comes directly from the major card issuers. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express all calculate their own exchange rates, and often they are the best rates available. The rates between the three issuers are often very close to one another, although MasterCard often has a slight edge. When you make a purchase with your credit card, as long as the merchant charges in the local currency, you benefit from the exchange rate calculated by your card’s issuer.

Aside from the card issuer, you also have to consider the bank that issued you the card in the case of Visa and MasterCard. Many cards will charge a small fee on every purchase made in a foreign currency. 3% is a common fee, and while it appears small, it can add up significantly over the course of a vacation. That being said, there are a large number of cards that do not charge any foreign transaction fee. It is a very good idea to have at least one card in your wallet that does not charge a foreign transaction fee.

Using a Debit Card in a Local ATM

Just as with credit cards, debit cards use the exchange rate set by the issuing bank, almost always Visa or MasterCard. It is very important, however, to choose the local currency if the ATM gives you a choice. If you use an ATM in China and request US Dollars, for example, the ATM determines the exchange rate. This rate will often be significantly worse than the direct rate offered by the card issuer. This also gives you the great benefit of having local cash, in case the need should arise.

Also like credit cards, there are fees that can be charged depending on the bank the debit card is attached to. Although not as common as credit cards with no foreign transaction fees, there are a few banks that do not charge any withdrawal fees for using out of network ATMs. A few banks will even reimburse you for any fees charged by the bank that owns the ATM. USAA, if you qualify for an account, and Charles Schwab are two such banks. For other banks the fee charged could be a flat amount, such as TD Bank’s $3 fee per withdrawal, a percentage of the withdrawal amount, such as Ally Bank’s 1% per withdrawal, or a combination, such as Chase Bank’s fee of $5 plus 3% of the withdrawal amount. This fee is separate from any fee charged by the bank that owns the ATM.

Purchasing Foreign Currency From Your Local Bank

One option for obtaining foreign currency before you travel would be to purchase currency from your local bank. Not all banks will offer this option, and each bank that does sets their own exchange rate. This rate is often worse than the direct rate offered by Visa or MasterCard, typically by around 5%. Aside from the worse exchange rate, banks will often charge an additional shipping fee to deliver the foreign currency to your home or a local branch of your bank.

This option is typically only available if you have an account with the bank in question. For example, Wells Fargo and Bank of America both offer foreign currency purchases, but they require you to pay with your associated checking or savings account. With the exchange rate being approximately 5% worse and an added shipping fee, it might seem like a bad idea to purchase currency. However, it could be necessary or just extremely convenient, depending on your plans when you arrive. For example, if you are arriving in a country via cruise ship or over land rather than flying, there may not be a convenient ATM. Having cash on hand when you first arrive can be invaluable, both to save time and in case you need cash before being able to find an ATM.

Using a Dedicated Currency Exchange Service

The last option we will discuss is to use a dedicated foreign currency exchange service. You can find these in almost all major airports, and as such it can be the most convenient option if you find yourself needing foreign currency on very short notice. Unfortunately, this convenience comes at a cost; these services often have the worst exchange rates you will find. Travelex is one of the largest and most well known exchange services. Based in London with over 1,500 stores across 27 countries; you can almost always find a Travelex. The rates are often 10-15% worse than the rate offered by the banks, along with an additional processing fee.

Sample Exchange Rates

Chinese to US Currency

Below is a table showing the exchange rates and fees for the different options discussed above. These rates were taken as of September 20th, 2017, and show the cost of purchasing 20,000 Japanese Yen using each option. For Visa and MasterCard, we assume that you have a card that does not charge a foreign transaction fee.

Exchange Rates – USD to JPY – Sept. 20, 2017
Master Card Visa Bank of America Wells Fargo Travelex
Exchange Rate 1,000 Yen = $8.98 1,000 Yen = $8.99 1,000 Yen = $9.44 1,000 Yen = $9.47 1,000 Yen = $10.10
Cost Before Fees $179.71 $179.88 $188.80 $189.54 $202.05
Fee $0 $0 $7.50 $15 $10
Total Cost $179.71 $179.88 $196.30 $204.54 $212.05

10 Amazing Animal Encounters


One of the wildest experiences you can have when travelling the world is getting to see local wildlife up close and personal. Zoos and aquariums can be a great way to see a wide variety of animals, but sometimes there is an even greater adventure out there waiting. We have gathered together 10 of the best animal encounter vacations you can plan today. It is very important to note that some tour companies who offer animal encounters do not care for the welfare of the animals. All of the excursions we feature are responsible, and this list will be updated if any of these activities no longer meet that criteria.

Animal Encounters in North America

1. Polar Bears Under the Northern Lights – Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
Polar Bear Mom and Cubs
Churchill Wild | Great Ice Bear Adventure

Churchill Wild operates four remote, fly-in ecolodges in Manitoba, Canada. Two of their lodges, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Seal River Heritage Lodge are members of the esteemed National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World collection. All four of their lodges are remote and their tour packages include transportation to Winnipeg, then Churchill, and finally a scenic flight to the lodge.

Between the four lodges, Churchill Wild offers 9 unique polar bear safaris. All have a chance to see the Northern Lights and many polar bears, as well as a wide variety of arctic wildlife. Aside from polar bears you can see Beluga whales, wolves, black bears, moose, caribou, foxes, and hares. Tour packages range from 7 to 11 days, and start at $10,000 CAD per person, although that is almost all inclusive. The season lasts from July to November each year.

2. Salmon Fishing with Brown Bears – Katmai National Park, Alaska
Grizzly Bear with Salmon
Dmitry Azovtsev | Wikimedia | daphoto.info

Katmai National Park and Preserve is a 4 million acre park filled with volcanoes and a wide variety of Alaskan wildlife. Most famous of all the wildlife in the park is the Alaskan Brown Bear. Every year in July and September hundreds of bears flock to the Brooks River to feed on Sockeye salmon.

The park is only accessible by float plane, landing at Lake Brooks Seaplane Base. Flights are available from Anchorage, Homer, King Salmon, Kodiak, and a few other towns in Alaska. Lodging options in the park are limited to a few lodges or camping. Brooks Lodge is the most popular destination in the park, and the best place to bear watch. The National Park Service even has a number of webcams setup, so you can bear watch from your home.

For more Alaska adventure ideas, check out our review of our first Alaskan cruise.

3. Bike with Gators – Shark Valley, Everglades National Park, Florida
Alligator at Shark Valley
Shark Valley | January 13, 2017

When visiting the Everglades one of the most popular wildlife tours is taking an airboat ride. Unfortunately, the loud and rough airboats can have negative impacts on the local wildlife. As a result, the National Park Service has been instituting restrictions on the number of airboats and where in the park they can go. If you want a chance to see the famous alligators of the everglades up close while maintaining the peaceful atmosphere, your best bet is the Shark Valley Trail.

Shark Valley Trail is a 15 mile paved loop with a number of walking trails and an observation tower. You can take a tram ride, rent a bike, or walk the trail, all while in the company of hundreds of alligators and a wide variety of birds. The trail is flat, and a very enjoyable experience no matter how you choose to see it.