Accounting for costs: How much did the GUC trip cost us in total?

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Our recent “Passing the GUC” adventure to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and the Maldives was an incredible trip that was a lot of fun — both for us and for many readers who followed along on Instagram. One question that came up often was how much the entire trip cost us. While we previously wrote about how we upgraded our flights and how I booked activities (both posts included our costs), we didn’t have it all laid out in one place.

Truthfully, that didn’t feel terribly important to me as the purpose of the trip was to use Greg’s Delta Global Upgrade Certificates to plan a trip and meet challenges that we hoped would be both entertaining and useful for readers to understand. My goal was never to create a trip that somebody should try to copy. For example, I can’t imagine that I would ordinarily want to take a hot air balloon and also drive on a Formula 1 track on a single day. I didn’t even expect those two activities to appeal to the same groups of people.

The point here was to show you that if a hot air balloon or race car or Hyatt premium suite is on your bucket list, it can be done with your points. If my goal were to have a good trip without spending a ton of points or with a cash limit, I may have planned differently. In this case, we were willing to splurge a bit in the hopes that readers would benefit from knowing things like whether Le Meridien Maldives was worth it and how to book those Hyatt Premium Suites, etc. I think we got a great value for the trip we did (far less than paying the cash price), but I recognize that most readers would have done aspects differently.

I also recognize that a lot of people wanted totals, so this post is all about the totals for what they are worth to you.

What’s a GUC?

GUCs are Global Upgrade Certificates available only to Delta Diamond elites.  Earlier this year, Greg had offered to share his GUCs with Nick, but with a catch: Nick had to plan the whole trip.  Please see the original post on this topic, here: Passing the GUC: Greg gives global upgrades to Nick… with a catch.

Accounting

Retail price comparison

While I don’t generally like to compare point value to full retail prices that I would never pay, I thought it might be worth noting the approximate total cash price of the trip we put together. Based on the typical cash prices for things we booked, our trip would have cost at full price:

  • Flights: $9,000 (the nonstop first class flights between Dubai and the Maldives are obscenely expensive and the Air France/KLM flights would have also been pricey)
  • Hotels: $5,300 per person (the Prince Suite was about $2,000 per night x 2 nights (but then divided by two people since we split it) and Le Meridien was about $2250 for a room for 3 nights with sea plane and all taxes and the Four Seasons was about $250. Costs like food and COVID tests would have been the same as shown below.
  • Activities: Over $1,000 at full price

That leaves out a few costs, but in total that is over $15,000 per person. We didn’t pay anywhere near that, nor would we. This is why we play the game: to enjoy experiences far beyond what we would ordinarily consider thanks to mastering “the game” of miles and points.

A note about Capital One Hotel Special Offers

A big piece of my personal accounting for the Marriott charges I incurred during the trip is the fact that I have access to a special Capital One redemption that most cardholders do not. Some older Capital One accounts, including my Capital One VentureOne card opened around 2014 (I think), have the ability to redeem Capital One Miles for “Hotel Special Offers”. I had previously written about this capability here. A couple of partners have since dropped off, but I still now have the ability to redeem 64,250 Capital One Miles for a $900 gift card to:

  • Marriott
  • Ritz-Carlton (same thing as Marriott I assume)
  • Raffles
  • Fairmont (note that Raffles and Fairmont are both Accor chains)

The redemption value in that case is is 1.4 cents per Capital One mile. That’s a pretty good deal since 64,250 Capital One miles could ordinarily be used to erase just $642.50 in travel charges (alternatively, they can be transferred to airline and hotel partners for better value).

I had redeemed 64,250 Capital One Miles for a fresh $900 gift card specifically for this trip just a couple of weeks before departure. I used almost the entire card at Le Meridien Maldives (and I still have the remaining balance on that card). I’ll therefore account for the cash costs at Le Meridien in terms of the number of Capital One miles they cost me at 1.4c per mile. Recognizing that most people don’t have access to that particular sweet spot, I am including the cash prices also for your reference.

Flights

During the trip, we took the following flights at the following costs:

  • Air France from Washington, DC to Dubai nd KLM on the return from Dubai to Washington, DC for $608 round trip per passenger. We upgraded our economy-class flights to business class with Delta Global Upgrade Certificates. The cash price for a similar business class ticket would start around $3,000.
  • Emirates First Class from Dubai to Male, Maldives for 71,250 Emirates miles + $78.95
  • Emirates First Class from Male, Maldives to Dubai for 71,250 Emirates miles + $96.40
  • I will include the sea plane transfer under “hotels” below.

All-in, that is $783.35 plus 142,500 miles per passenger.

I’ll note that I’m not sure we can justify having flown first class between Dubai and the Maldives. Business class surely would have been totally fine and would have saved us about 20K miles each way (or even more round trip). Greg and I both have a lot of miles and don’t often get the opportunity to fly Emirates first class, so we were willing to splurge. In my case, I had earned 100K Brex points (transferable 1:1 to Emirates) just by linking it up to PayPal during a promo earlier this year, so I was less emotionally tied to those points since acquiring them was pretty low effort. I certainly wouldn’t argue with anyone who thinks we should have flown business class or even economy for far fewer points.

Hotels

We stayed at the following hotels with the following costs including all taxes:

  • Grand Hyatt Dubai (Two nights for $375 + 18,000 Hyatt points total. We split the Prince Suite so we paid $187.50 + 9,000 points each). Note that this suite was selling for more than $2,000 per night with tax during our dates. We also paid $68 each for a COVID test.
  • Four Seasons Dubai $254.21 for each room (-$200 Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts credit, so net $54.21 each after the credit)
  • Le Meridien Maldives folio: My bill at the end of the stay came to $864.29. I covered this with Capital One miles at a value of 1.4c per point by redeeming for a $900 Marriott gift card with Hotel Special Offers. This deal is limited to some cardholders. See the section about Capital One Hotel Special Offers above.
    • $147.84 COVID test (10,560 Capital One miles)
    • $296.45 Food & Drink (21,175 Capital One miles)
    • Sea plane from MLE to Le Meridien $420 (30K Capital One Miles round trip
  • Le Meridien Maldives room reservation: I used a Marriott 75-night choice benefit to get a free night certificate good for up to 40K points for one night and 60K Marriott Bonvoy points for the other two nights (30K per night). Greg used 35K Marriott free night certificates. Neither of us paid any money for the room itself. Based on cash rates during our stay, the total for just the room on a cash rate after taxes would have been around $1800 for 3 nights before the sea plane cost.

I still have a remaining balance on the Marriott Gift card that I will use down the road.

Totals for hotels (for one person):

  • $309.72 in cash (for Grand Hyatt and Four Seasons)
  • 61,735 Capital One miles
  • 9,000 Hyatt points
  • 60K Marriott points
  • A 40K Marriott free night certificate

Activities

Sunrise from our hot air balloon over the dessert — one of many adventures this week.

Nick booked the following activities — see this post for full details about how he booked at the prices below and figured point values.

  • YAS Driving Experience: $340. I redeemed 34,000 Point Debit Card points (but 22,667 Chase Ultimate Rewards redeemed at the grocery store would have also been good). Full price for this experience would have been $500.
    • I also bought the video of my driving experience for $57.19.
  • Hot Air Balloon: This should be $275.50 each ($551 total), but a month later I still haven’t seen the cash back from Capital One. I have not had good luck with their in-login shopping offers. At this point, it is still looking like $650 total (after $10 back from Dosh which did post) or $325 each. That’s a bummer as the original tour would have been a decent chunk cheaper (see more of the story in this post). I accounted for this with 21,666 Ultimate Rewards points redeemed via Pay Yourself Back (when grocery stores were an option)
    • We also bought the video of the hot air balloon ride (don’t do this, it wasn’t worth it) for $54.46 ($27.23 each)
  • Food Tour / Walking Tour: 17,000 points total points booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards (8,500 Ultimate Rewards points each). As I noted in the post about booking activities, this felt overpriced. I bought a couple of souvenir items in a shop on this tour. I surely overpaid and spent $36.76 (I actually think they must have overcharged me).

Totals for activities:

  • 34,000 Point Debit Card points
  • $121.18 in cash
  • 30,167 Chase Ultimate Rewards points

Rental Car

We rented a car in Dubai mostly to drive to Abu Dhabi. We also used it to get around Dubai a bit. We rented:

  • The cheapest available car through Budget for $58.07 total (so about $29 each). I found the cheapest rate through Autoslash.com.
  • We spent $18.79 in in gas ($9.40 each). We only filled up once.
  • We also got hit with $9.63 in tolls ($4.82 each)

Total for the car:

  • $72.29

Miscellaneous

We spent money on a couple of other things that come to mind:

  • There was a meal at a nice restaurant in the mall. I don’t recall exactly what this meal cost.
  • We spent $22.59 each on a Virgin Mobile local phone number to try to meet requirements that were being put in place to enter Abu Duabi.

Final Totals

  • 1,309.13 in cash
  • 100,000 Brex points (transferred to Emirates miles from Brex PayPal bonus)
  • 72,666 Ultimate Rewards points: 42,500 points transferred to Emirates miles plus 8,500 points for the food tour and 21,666 redeemed at 1.5c per point to cover the hot air balloon.
  • 61,735 Capital One Miles
  • 34,000 Point Debit Card points
  • 9,000 Hyatt points
  • 60k Marriott Bonvoy Points
  • One 40K free night certificate

If we want to count all points as equal (they clearly aren’t, but if you want a totally broken down total so be it), the total was 337,401 points (and a free night cert) plus $1,241.13 for one person. Greg’s total would be 60K points less and two free night certs more.

You could surely do just as exciting or a trip for fewer points or less money or both. In fact, just a couple of years ago, we proved that you can have an amazing trip with just 40,000 points and $400 when we ran a challenge to see which of us could get the farthest away on that budget. See this post for more on that effort.

But overall, I am happy with a trip that was pretty awesome and yielded a number of useful finds and posts. The trip was a lot of fun and while not a “budget” experience, we got far outsized value nonetheless. Being able to plan something like this “just for fun” is a luxury afforded to us thanks almost entirely to playing the miles and points game.

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