How to Use Airline Miles & Hotel Points to Travel Around the World

RTW How To
Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort

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Inside: Calling all road warriors! Here’s how to put all those airline miles and hotel points to extraordinary use to redeem your round-the-world dream.

This post is an except from my book, “The Grown-Up’s Guide to Globetrotting.”

This chapter is a love letter to those of you who felt more than a gentle pang of recognition while watching George Clooney in the movie, “Up in the Air.”

I hear you. I am one of you.

If you’re a road warrior like me, a trip around the world is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put all those airline miles and hotel points to extraordinary use.

But this chapter is not just for business travelers.

Don’t have airline miles or hotel points? No problem.

There are lots of ways to earn airline miles these days (other than the old-fashioned way of actually flying them).

Some credit cards offer bonuses of up to 100,000 miles just for signing up. Open just two cards with generous offers like that and you might have enough frequent flyer miles to take you around the world.

Airline Miles Around the World Travel

So whether you’re a career road warrior with hundreds of thousands of airline miles to burn. Or just a savvy airline credit cardholder earning frequent flyer miles with every purchase. Here’s your chance to put those rewards to work.

But for the sake of argument—and my love for George Clooney—we’ll start this chapter focused squarely on the road warriors with oodles of airline miles and hotel points to burn.

Redeem Your Dream: The perks of road warrior life

Status is everything in the business travel world. If you spend enough time on the road to earn elite status with airlines and hotels, your trip can be all the more luxurious.

My Delta frequent flyer miles have funded one first-class and ten business-class tickets around the world. Each of those had an approximate value of $40,000 if I’d paid for the flights individually.

Frequent flier miles Air France First Class
My Air France 1st Class Seat – Complete with Pajamas

If that’s not a perk of frequent business travel, I don’t know what is. 

Upgrades & More

Elite status with the major U.S. hotel chains has also yielded some incredible upgrades on my RTW trips. From a luxury two-story villa at the Sheraton Phuket in Thailand to an overwater bungalow at the Hilton Moorea, elite status has its advantages.

But before we move on to hotels, let’s start with the airline ticket.

Redeeming Airline Miles for a RTW Ticket

Since the first edition of this book, there have been lots of changes to the option of booking Round-the-World tickets with frequent flyer miles. And, at first glance, none of those changes have been good.

In 2014, American Airlines announced changes to its mileage program that discontinued the ability to use airline miles for Round-the-World Explorer awards. Delta soon quietly followed suit with changes to its Skymiles program in 2015.

Why?

According to a statement from Delta, the tickets are no longer offered because they were so rarely booked (just over 200 in 2013). It didn’t make financial sense to keep the RTW award desk up and running.

And as of 2019, United Airlines seems to have also eliminated the award RTW ticket. They switched to a “flexible” award pricing structure and did away with set award levels.

But there is some good news for those airline miles

All of the major U.S. carriers do now offer the option to book one-way tickets with frequent flyer miles.

This means you can still use your airline miles to travel around the world, you just have to get a little more creative.

One perk to booking individual one-way tickets instead of a single RTW ticket? Flexibility on cabin choice. With the old-school mileage RTW, it was economy, business, or first for the entire ticket. Now, you can mix business class awards for longer flights with economy awards for shorter flights.

Another benefit? Say, for example, you’re dying to add Prague to your itinerary but the mileage seats just aren’t there. You can always just buy that one flight!

Prague with frequent flyer miles
See Prague with your frequent flyer miles

Redeeming airline miles to travel around the world

Generally speaking, award tickets are an entirely different (and often confusing) ballgame from revenue (or paid) tickets.

The most important thing to remember with award tickets is that they’re not just a matter of forking over the miles and booking whichever flights suit your fancy. The flights you want to book must have award availability.

Have you ever been frustrated while trying to redeem airline miles for a single domestic award ticket? Now tack 15 more flight segments onto that experience and you’ll get the idea of the kind of fun in store.

Frequent Flyer Miles on Air France
Air France’s A380 in Paris – where will it take you?

Most award tickets have similar options and rules. Here are a few universal words of advice for booking any award ticket.

How far in advance should I book when using airline miles?

Aim to book your flights at least 6-9 months before you plan to travel. As a general rule, the earlier I’ve booked, the better luck I’ve had.

For my first RTW trip, I booked the ticket 8 months out and got nearly everything I wanted. On later trips, I’ve procrastinated and had to modify my itinerary significantly to make it work. 

Conversely, on my 3rd RTW trip I set a personal record for the shortest lead-time ever. I booked the entire thing three weeks before departure. I had to take what I could get on the flights, but I did surprisingly well.

The flip side – if you book very close to departure, often new seats have opened up that were not available at, say, three months out.

Which flights will be the most difficult to book with airline miles?

If you’re originating in the U.S. and trying to book your initial departure out of a major airline hub (United out of Chicago, American out of Dallas, or Delta out of Atlanta, for example) you’re going to have the same award availability challenges you would have with any mileage ticket.

In my experience, the toughest two flights to get on a RTW itinerary are the initial flight out of the U.S. and the last flight back in. Once you get overseas to partner carriers, the availability and mileage redemption levels are often much better.

Plan ahead before you call to book

Before you call to book (and you will likely have to call, most international one-way awards have to be booked by an agent), do your homework.

Not just a rough itinerary, get exact flight numbers for your preferred flights. Use the alliance website to check flight routings. Or make use of the nifty tool on Kayak that allows you to search flight options by airline alliance.

Sites like ExpertFlyer can help you research actual award availability in your cabin of choice. You’re more likely to get the flights you want if you can tell the agent exactly which flights to check. Never rely solely on the agent to find the flights you need.

Map out your itinerary, but be flexible

Have your ideal itinerary mapped out. But since flexibility is key, have back-up in and out dates for every stop, and even back-up destinations in mind.

For example, I tried to get the same Atlanta-Quito flight to reach the Galapagos Islands as the first stop on my RTW trip for four years straight. It was unavailable across the entire month of January every single time.

Airline miles to the Galapagos
I finally did make it to the Galapagos, but I paid for that flight!

Be prepared to pivot on your itinerary, if needed. Or if all else fails and you just have to go there, buy that ticket and use miles for the rest.

Airline mile flights aren’t totally free

Remember that your ticket booked with frequent flyer miles is not entirely free. You will still be responsible for applicable taxes, duties, fees, charges, and surcharges.

The fees on my tickets around the world have ranged from $188 to $425 over the years. It all depends on how many stops you make and what the airport fees are. The more stops, the higher the taxes and fees.

(Note: the book includes a complete breakdown of each alliance and which members still offer RTW tickets with frequent flyer miles but for the sake of brevity, I’ve left that section out)

Now, let’s talk about redeeming hotel points!

Redeeming Hotel Points

Depending on how long you decide to travel around the world, the cost of accommodations on your trip could easily surpass the flight costs. And that’s where hotel points come in!

Marriott Bonvoy

My hotel program of choice for many years was Starwood’s Preferred Guest, which is now part of the Marriott Bonvoy program.

FUN FACT: I was featured on the SPG TV channel in Starwood hotels all over the world for 3 years. (Super cool experience but also a little strange to walk into a random Sheraton hotel in Thailand and be on the TV in the lobby!)

SPG TV Member Postcard Jenny McIver
My SPG TV “Member Postcard”

There’s a laundry list of reasons why I favored Starwood but mostly it just came down to a personal preference for their hotel brands.

I mean, what’s not to love about a Westin Heavenly Bed? Or the Whatever/Whenever approach to service at swank W Hotels?

W Retreat and Spa Maldives
The seaplane dock at W Maldives

But the only thing constant in the world of travel is change!

In 2015, all Starwood Hotel brands officially became part of the Marriott family. In 2018, the much-loved SPG program was merged with Marriott’s existing Marriott Rewards program to become the new “Bonvoy” program.

Marriott’s 30 hotel brands are the most robust worldwide boasting a whopping 6,900 properties across 130 countries. If you’re looking to save up points for a BIG trip or get a rewards credit card with a generous sign-up bonus, go with Marriott.

W Retreat Koh Samui Thailand
“W” is for WOW at the W Retreat Koh Samui, Thailand

With Marriott’s Bonvoy program, you’ll get free Wi-Fi and special member rates just for joining. They also offer 5 levels of Elite Status: Silver, Gold, Platinum, Titanium, and Ambassador.

You can reach Silver Elite status after just 10 nights. With Gold status (25 nights), you’ll score room upgrades, access to club lounges, and late checkouts.

Hilton Honors

Though Bonvoy is now the heavy-hitter on the international scene, Hilton is definitely the next best option for traveling around the world.

With more than 5,000 properties in 100 countries across six continents, the options are certainly plentiful enough to carry you around the world in style on your Hilton points. Hilton’s 18 brands include international properties like Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, and Embassy Suites (Canada and Latin America only).

Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa
My favorite place to use Hilton points – the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa

Hilton Honors offers three elite tiers after a qualifying number of stays (or nights). Silver (5+ nights), Gold (20+ nights), and Diamond (30+ nights). Silver members enjoy a 20% points earning bonus on stays. With Gold status, you’ll get better perks like free breakfast and space available upgrades.

IHG Rewards Club

Intercontinental Hotels Group’s Rewards Club is the world’s first and largest hotel loyalty club and has been named the “Best Hotel Rewards Program in the World” by the readers of Global Traveler magazine.

Rewards Club offers the chance to earn and redeem at 5,200 hotels worldwide (including international options primarily with Intercontinental, Six Senses, Holiday Inn, and Crowne Plaza). Elite levels are achieved at 10 qualifying nights for Gold status and 40 qualifying nights for Platinum.

Intercontinental Kowloon Hong Kong
View of Hong Kong Island from the bar of the Intercontinental Hong Kong Grand Stafford

Have IHG points to burn? You’ll discover their international options aren’t nearly as plentiful as those of Marriott or Hilton. However, their luxuriously exotic Six Senses resorts and Intercontinental properties like Hong Kong and Bora Bora are worthy of a stop on any RTW trip.

Yes, I have points! Now what?

If you have points with multiple programs, research each destination on your RTW itinerary and make a note of the points needed for the various hotel options.

You may find there are only a few options or the opposite might be true.

For example, Bangkok has a staggering 20 Marriott properties ranging from 12,500 points for the hip Aloft Sukhumvit to 35,000 for the flashy St. Regis. (My favorite? the Royal Orchard Sheraton at 17,500/night – excellent Towers lounge with an incredible view over the Chao Phraya River.)

Sunset Chao Phraya River Bangkok Thailand
Sunset views over Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River from the Royal Orchid Sheraton’s Towers Lounge

Hilton has 7 Bangkok properties ranging from 18,000-74,000 points per night. (I like the Millennium Hilton, a steal at 18k/night, and another fab executive lounge.) If Bangkok is on your RTW itinerary (and it should be!) you can spend a LOT of points there or hardly any at all.

I use my points where rates are high (Europe, the South Pacific) and pay for the room where rates are low (Asia, South America). The “Cash & Points” option can also stretch your points and dollars further.

Tip: Identify your “splurge” destinations (or a certain Marriott, Hilton, or IHG property you’re lusting over – mine was the incredible St. Regis in Lhasa, Tibet). Devote the most points there. Then work your way down the rest of the itinerary to stretch your remaining points as far as possible. Think of it like a puzzle.

The St. Regis Lhasa Resort Tibet
The St. Regis Lhasa Resort – A Bucket List hotel for me!

Do your research and get creative!

Use your points and earn your status

Over the years I have managed to stretch my Starwood, Marriott, and Hilton points to reduce my hotel budget on each RTW trip down to virtually nothing.

And keep my status with each program along the way by taking advantage of booking super-cheap stays in inexpensive markets.

Which brings me to my next point…

Earning Airline Miles and Hotel Points on Your Trip

A trip around the world is obviously a terrific opportunity to redeem hotel points and airline miles. But it can also be a great chance to earn them.

If you’re not already an elite member of a major hotel chain, a RTW trip is an easy way to get there. Pay for some of your flights instead of using airline miles and you’ll also earn miles toward status with your favorite airline alliance.

There are other programs offered by a variety of smaller hotel chains. But you’ll find that the three mentioned above offer the best options for earning and redeeming points worldwide. It really comes down to personal preference with the hotel chains.

Status = Upgrades

It’s worth noting that, in my experience, the international properties of both Marriott and Hilton are especially generous with upgrades.

I’m rarely offered suite upgrades at domestic Marriott and Hilton properties. However, upgrades are extremely common for elite members traveling overseas.

Pool Villa Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort
The terrace of my Sheraton Maldives Villa – Another status upgrade!

I attribute it primarily to the fact that domestic properties are barraged with elite guests while international properties see fewer.

Even when redeeming points, I’m often offered a suite overseas without hesitation. Status definitely pays off on a RTW trip!

Don’t skip the Club Lounge

If you’ve traveled extensively within the US for business, you’re probably familiar with the typical lounge. Or at least you used to be before COVID-19 closed them all.

Free breakfast in the morning, a few squares of cheese, and an “honor bar” glass of wine in the evening. Nice as a free perk but probably not worth paying extra for, right?

As you travel around the world you’ll discover that many club lounges overseas are far more lavish. Those in Asia, in fact, are some of the best in the world. With a delicious array of local specialties, an open bar, and a knockout view.

And finally…

Making the most of your airline miles and hotel points can be time-consuming. But like booking a RTW ticket, the benefits are absolutely worth the effort.

So, what are you waiting for?

Reward travel is an art. Be your own Rembrandt.

Looking for more Round-the-World travel advice and inspiration? Start here:

The Ultimate Guide to Planning the Round the World Trip of a Lifetime

8 Reasons to Stop Dreaming & Start Planning A Trip Around the World

Why Every Woman Should Travel the World Solo (at least once!) & How to Stay Safe Doing It

How to Travel Around the World with Just a Carry-On: A Girl’s Guide to Traveling Light

Need some destination inspiration to plan your itinerary? Start here:

Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences

This post is an excerpt from my book, The Grown-Up’s Guide to Globetrotting, available on Amazon.

Download your copy today and start planning your own trip around the world!

The Grown-Up’s Guide to Globetrotting