The points & miles game is amazing. It’s a rare exception to the saying “if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.” Within the U.S. at least, it really is true that those with good credit can sign up for a few credit cards to earn hundreds of thousands of points and travel the world in luxury, nearly for free. But, when push comes to shove, the game often isn’t as easy as it sounds. Booking awards can be especially challenging and mistake-ridden. Some of the decisions that need to be made along the way can be difficult, even for people who have been doing this for years (like me).
With today’s post, I’m trying out a new blog series: “Award Booking Adventures.” The idea is to (hopefully) entertain and educate readers by chronicling real-world award booking challenges and how they were overcome…
Six Senses Laamu, Maldives
Ever since Six Senses luxury resorts became bookable with IHG points, I’ve been interested in Six Senses Laamu, Maldives. And, after visiting the Maldives and loving it, I became even more interested. Then, after writing “The Best Points-Bookable Hotels in the World” (which features Six Senses Laamu, among others), and “‘World’s Best’ Round the World Trip w/ Points” (which also features Six Senses Laamu), I was really pumped about the idea.
My wife and I have tentative plans for a 2022 trip where we may be able to fit in a side jaunt to the Maldives. Given this, I decided that it made sense to book the Six Senses now and cancel later if it doesn’t work out. That’s preferable to waiting until our plans are solid and then likely finding that award space is gone.
For all dates that I’ve looked at, Six Senses Laamu charges over $1,500 per night for a Lagoon Water Villa. Alternatively, you can book the same villa for 100,000 IHG points per night. If you consider that IHG sometimes sells points for only a half cent each, this means that it’s possible to book Six Senses Laamu for only $500 per night, with points, even if you’re starting with no points at all.
In my case, I was starting with 257,688 points and I have the IHG Traveler card which offers 4th Night Free award bookings (the IHG Premier card offers the same). So, I knew I could book 4 nights at Six Senses Laamu for the price of three: 300K points total. I was only 42,312 points away from being able to book this 4 night award.
Only 75K points per night! But I couldn’t book it…
File this under “Greg wasn’t thinking clearly…” When I first searched for a four night stay at Six Senses Laamu, the results showed that a Lagoon Water Villa was available for only 75K points per night rather than the expected 100K! I did a quick calculation in my head: with the 4th Night Free (which I get thanks to my IHG Traveler Card), I should be able to book four nights for 75K x 3 = 225K points. I had more than enough points for that! But I couldn’t book it. The checkbox next to 75,000 Points / Night was grayed out and un-clickable.
Eventually it dawned on me: The website was showing 75K points per night only because I was logged in and it knew that I qualified for the 4th Night Free. So, it automatically figured out that the 100K point per night award, with the fourth night free, averages to 75,000 points per night. As I previously expected, I needed 300,000 IHG points to book this stay. I was 42,312 points short of enabling that checkbox.
Options for acquiring points quickly
In order to get the 42,312 points that I needed for booking this award, I identified the following options that could be completed quickly:
- Buy points directly
- Transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Transfer points from a family member’s IHG account
- Buy points indirectly (by booking and cancelling Points + Cash stays)
I then dug into each option one by one…
Buy points directly
Through October 8, 2021, IHG is offering up to 100% bonus on purchased points. You can check for your bonus here: Offer link (our affiliate link). Depending upon how many you buy, this can lower the cost per point to half a cent each if you qualify for the 100% bonus. In my case, I qualified for a 75% bonus:
IHG charges more for points when you buy fewer of them. When I selected to buy just over the exact number of points I needed, the cost came to $287.50:
But when I later selected the option to buy slightly more points, the cost came down to $260:
By buying a total of 45,500 points instead of 43,750, I could save $17.50! How crazy is that? Spoiler alert: l didn’t realize this craziness until after I acquired points a different way.
One downside to buying points this way is that the purchase goes through Points.com rather than through IHG and so the purchase itself doesn’t count as travel. In other words, you won’t earn bonus points if you pay with a credit card that offers extra points for travel purchases.
Transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards
If you have a premium Chase Ultimate Rewards card (Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Ink Business Preferred, etc.), you can transfer points from Ultimate Rewards to IHG. Please don’t. Since IHG points can often be bought for much less than a penny each, you’d be better off cashing out your Chase points for 1 cent each and buying IHG points on sale instead.
Consider that I needed 42,312 IHG points. Since transfers from Chase must be in 1,000 point increments, I would have to transfer 43,000 points. Alternatively, as shown above, I could buy 45,500 points from IHG for $260 and then cash out 26,000 Chase points to cover that charge. I don’t really like the idea of cashing out Chase points for only a penny each, but if you really want to use your points to get IHG points, that’s the way to do it.
Conclusion: Transferring from Chase is an awful option.
Transfer points from a family member’s IHG account
Within my family, we have more than enough IHG points for the 300K award, but they’re not all together in one place. One way to correct that is to move the needed points, for a fee. IHG charges $5 per 1,000 points. If I moved 43,000 points from a family member’s account to mine, it would cost $215.
$215 is cheaper than the $260 fee for buying enough points, but it’s still a bad deal. Our current Reasonable Redemption Value (RRV) for IHG points is 0.6 cents per point. That means that it is reasonable to expect to get that much or more value when booking IHG stays. By using 43,000 of a family member’s points in this way, we’d be losing out on a stay worth at least $258. By buying the points, those 43,000 points will remain in my family member’s account until we need them for a valuable award stay and I’d pay only $45 more ($260 vs $215).
Buy points indirectly via Points & Cash
When searching for award stays through IHG’s website, IHG usually offers both an all points price and one or more Points & Cash options. In the example above, I was shown the option to book with 46,000 points or 26,000 points & $115. When you choose a Points & Cash option, IHG sells you the extra points. With the example shown above, booking the Points & Cash option means that, behind the scenes, you are buying 20,000 points for $115. If you then cancel the booking, IHG keeps the $115 and you keep the 20,000 points. This is made explicit in the terms and conditions when checking out. When I booked a two night stay, I had to check a box accepting the following (among other things):
I authorize a charge of USD $115.00 per night for a total of USD $230.00 charged to my specified payment method for the immediate purchase of 40,000 total IHG® Rewards Club points to be applied toward this Reward Night booking.
This point purchase fee is non-refundable, even if the reservation is cancelled. In the event of reservation cancellation, you will keep all points associated with the transaction.
The trick to indirectly buying IHG points at a good rate is to find gems like this one ($115 for 20,000 points), book the Points & Cash stay and then immediately cancel it (Make sure the reservation is fully cancellable before committing to it). The hard part is that IHG doesn’t always offer very good Points & Cash rates. When searching for the best Points & Cash deals, I found the following options for indirectly buying points:
- Buy 20K points for $115, $119, $133, or $139
- Buy 15K points for $89, $95, or $104
- Buy 10K points for $60, $64, $68, or $79
- Buy 5K points for $30, $33, $37, $41, $42, $43, $47, or $48
The best deal I found was $115 for 20,000 points. I easily found this by looking for reward nights in Los Angeles and looking at various properties that cost around 40,000 points per night. Finding a good deal for 5K points was much harder. I finally found multiple options to pay only $30 by looking for reward nights in Mexico City and sorting by award price. Award nights that cost around 11K to 14K per night sometimes showed the $30 option.
After researching the best Points & Cash options, I determined that I could buy all of the points I needed with the following two bookings:
- Buy 40K points by booking two nights where the cash component is $115 per night
- Buy 5K points by booking one night where the cash component is $30 per night
- Total: 45K points for $260
At the time, I thought that I was saving money over buying directly. The original price I had found for buying directly (with my 75% bonus) was $287.50 for 43,750 points. So I went ahead and booked and cancelled the Points & Cash awards to add 45,000 points to my balance.
While writing this post, though, I found that I could have bought more points for less: 45,500 points for $260. In other words, the cost to buy 45,000 points indirectly with Points & Cash bookings was exactly the same as the cost to buy 45,500 points directly with no fuss.
I don’t feel bad about the decision to go the Points & Cash rate, though. If all goes well, I’ll earn more rewards with the Points & Cash route that I took:
- I started my bookings from the cash back portal TopCashBack. While we sometimes see portal rates for IHG as high as 10% back or more, the best I could find when I did this was 6% back from TopCashBack. I don’t know if the purchase of points in this way will really result in portal rewards, but as shown above, TopCashBack has reported that both bookings tracked. It’s at least possible that I’ll earn 6% back from the $260: $15.60.
- I paid with my US Bank Altitude Reserve card. I’m pretty sure that the purchases will code as travel since they were charged directly by IHG rather than Points.com (which is the vendor when buying points directly). As a result, this purchase should count towards my card’s annual $325 in dining & travel credits. In other words, I should get the purchase price back. Plus, I’ll earn 3 points per dollar for the purchase. With Altitude Reserve points worth 1.5 cents each, that’s a 4.5% return. I could have done the same trick with my Sapphire Reserve card, but on that card I’ve already used up the card’s annual $300 travel credits.
Booking the 300K award
Once I had the required 300,000 points, it was easy to book my award stay at Six Senses Laamu. As you can see above, the check box to the right of the 75,000 Points / Night option was no longer grayed out. I selected it and clicked “Reserve”.
On the following pages there was some useful information. Here’s a summary:
- You must cancel more than 14 days before the reservation to get a refund. So, I scheduled a future reminder to myself to cancel before then if the trip doesn’t work out.
- There is a $6 USD “green tax” per night
- Taxes are 23.2% per night (but that won’t be relevant to my room rate since the nightly rate is effectively zero when paying with points)
- As with all resorts in the Maldives, you have to pay per person for round-trip transfers from/to the Malé airport. Unfortunately, the 23.2% tax really bites you here:
- Price is USD 590.00 per adult subject to 23.2 percent tax and service charge or USD 726.88 inclusive of tax and service charge.
- Price is USD 455.00 per child (age between 2 to 11 years old) subject to 23.2 percent tax and service charge or USD 560.56 inclusive of tax and service charge.
- You can pre-purchase dining experiences:
- The Chili Table: Five course chili menu to be enjoyed under the stars: Price is USD 215.6 for adult and USD 107.8 for child inclusive of tax and service charge.
- The Sunken Table: “Dine on the beach, not ‘On the sand’ but ‘In the sand’ in a sunken table enjoying an ocean of stars.” Price is USD 320.32 for adult and USD 160.16 for child inclusive of tax and service charge.
- Dining in the Dark: “How does food feel with five senses? Blind one of your senses while discovering the potential of your other five senses: Hearing, Taste, Touch, Smell and Beyond… a fun, interesting and learning experience that will develop your curiosity for food texture, smell and taste. Let our Chefs surprise you!” Price is USD 283.36 per adult and USD 141.68 per child inclusive of tax and service charge.
- You can pre-purchase a 4-night stay excursion (Discover Laamu 4-night Stay) for $770 (inclusive of tax and service charge) for 2 adults:
- Sandbank Sunbathing
- Sunset Dolphin Cruise
- Maldivian Cooking Class
- Plus a choice of one from the followings:
- Guided Snorkeling
- Aerial yoga (per person/private class)
- Meditation under the stars
- Laamu Chaalu Moonu (DIY facial mask)
- Manta ID-ing crash course
- Earth Lab Discovery
For all of the add-ons described above, I clicked the button titled “SKIP – YOU CAN ADD THEM LATER”.
And that was it. My booking was complete!