6 ways award travel and elite status pair well with my digital nomad life
Written by luck on February 28, 2023
I’ve spent the better half of the last decade traveling the world full time as a digital nomad. In the process, I’ve found that points, miles and elite status have made my experience a lot more enjoyable, especially given how much time I spend on the road every year.
For some background: My husband and I sold or donated most of our belongings and moved out of our Austin apartment in June 2017. We’d saved up points and miles for what we’d assumed might be a yearlong trip. But we quickly discovered we could make a living writing about points, miles and credit cards as we traveled.
We’re still living and working as digital nomads almost six years later. Here’s how living as digital nomads lets us maximize our awards and earn elite status — including some topics that can apply to shorter-term travel too.
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Utilizing one-way award flights
Most of our family — and the RV we traveled in for about a year during the height of the coronavirus pandemic — reside in the southeastern U.S. We return to the region multiple times each year, but we usually don’t book round-trip flights. Instead, we often book one-way award flights and positioning flights to keep our schedule flexible and avoid unnecessary backtracking.
You can sometimes find one-way paid flights that cost about half of a round trip. But some carriers — especially for international flights — charge more for two one-way flights than for a round trip. And paid tickets are often less flexible than award flights.
Luckily, you can often book two one-way award flights for the same cost as a round-trip award. Only a few airline loyalty programs require round-trip awards or offer discounts when you book a round-trip award.
Being able to redeem points and miles for relatively flexible one-way flights at about half of what we’d need for a round-trip provides great value. This lets us travel to various destinations before returning to the U.S., experience a variety of airlines and modify or cancel our onward flights with relative ease if our plans change.
Related: How to book your 1st award flight using airline miles
Maximizing complimentary hotel nights
Since we spend most nights in hotels and try to stay at least four or five nights in most places, we benefit massively from getting a fourth or fifth night free when redeeming points with select hotel loyalty programs.
We got 36 fourth-night rewards with IHG since July 2017 by buying IHG points when we can do so for 0.5 cents per point during buy-points sales. Getting a fourth or fifth night free and selectively choosing when to book a paid rate instead of redeeming points lets us snag redemption rates well over TPG’s valuations.
We also earn hotel free night certificates through credit cards and stays. And we’re able to truly maximize most of these certificates since we visit a variety of destinations. For example, we’ve redeemed up to 40,000 point certificates to stay at the Kimpton De Witt Amsterdam in the Netherlands on multiple occasions.
We’ve also visited several destinations primarily to redeem free night certificates. For example, we redeemed Hyatt’s Category 1-4 certificates to stay at Alila Fort Bishangarh in India last year. And in 2021, we redeemed three Hilton free night certificates to stay at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island in the Maldives.
Related: 8 types of underrated hotel redemptions I’ve made or plan to make soon
Less expensive to earn elite status
We still use some of the strategies we leveraged before becoming digital nomads to snag less-expensive flights and nights and earn elite status for less. For example, we still love visiting cities where you can book luxury hotels at budget prices. And we enjoy staying at World of Hyatt Category 1 properties for as little as 3,500 points per night.
But now we also frequently travel during the offseason and stay in less-visited cities or outside the tourist center of popular destinations. For example, we usually stay outside the center of London to snag lower rates. And if we want to be in a particular region but don’t have a specific destination in mind, we’ll do a broad search for the least-expensive hotels. For example, here’s a look at the cheapest Marriott award nights in all of France for a random five-night stay this summer:
And we can visit inexpensive destinations, such as Dubai, Bangkok and (during the weekdays) Las Vegas. These destinations can be great places to work and earn elite night credits with our favorite hotel loyalty programs without breaking the bank or digging too deep into our award stash.
On the airline elite status side, we both maintain Oneworld Emerald status through American Airlines AAdvantage elite status and Star Alliance Gold status through Asiana Airlines elite status.
We earn these statuses without spending as much money as would typically be required by jumping on flight deals — usually on partners of American Airlines and Asiana to utilize both programs’ partner-earning charts — and being very flexible regarding flight dates and destinations. Plus, now there are many non-flight ways to earn American Airlines Loyalty Points.
Related: Elite status vs. miles: How to make the most of Oneworld partner tickets
Points, miles and cash stretch further
Many travelers are tied to specific destinations or dates when redeeming their points and miles. This inflexibility in dates and destinations can make it difficult to get outsized value from your points and miles — especially if you need to travel during school holidays.
But as digital nomads, we can choose when to redeem points and miles and when to book a paid flight or stay. After all, we don’t have enough points and miles to cover all our nights and flights, so we must decide when to pay cash and when to redeem. We tend to get redemption rates significantly higher than TPG’s valuations since we book paid rates when we’d get low or moderate redemption rates. Plus, we can earn well on paid flights and stays with our elite statuses and travel rewards cards.
Additionally, we have relatively few places we must be on specific dates. Sure, we usually spend the Thanksgiving and winter holidays with family in the southeastern U.S. And we have several gatherings, conferences or weddings we want to attend most years. But we can arrange all these well in advance, letting us often snag reasonably priced flights and hotels.
Otherwise, we usually let flight deals and award availability to places we want to visit (or on products we want to try) dictate our schedule. And we usually spend more time in places where we can stay and live inexpensively, such as many destinations in eastern Europe and southeast Asia. Stays in these destinations can let us accrue elite nights relatively cheaply and stretch our points, miles and cash further.
Related: 9 budget strategies for getting the most out of your points and miles
More use of elite status benefits
Since we mostly live out of hotels and each fly more than 200,000 miles most years, we get a lot of value from our elite statuses because we use the perks frequently.
On the hotel side, as remote workers, we appreciate elite benefits like breakfast, lounge access, upgrades and late checkout. In particular, we often book with Marriott Bonvoy or World of Hyatt to stay at a property where we’ll be eligible for guaranteed 4 p.m. late checkout due to our elite status.
And when we fly, we utilize the baggage benefits and lounge access we get as Star Alliance Gold and Oneworld Emerald members. We’ve found significant value in Oneworld’s first-class lounges, including the Qantas International First Lounge in Los Angeles and the Malaysia Airlines Golden Lounge in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
We generally find our hotel elite benefits are well honored and useful, especially outside the U.S. For example, while some executive lounges are still closed at U.S. properties, we’ve rarely encountered closures at properties outside the U.S. While room upgrades are inconsistent, hotels outside the U.S. tend to be more generous in proactively offering significant upgrades.
But we also often seek out stays that let us try certain perks. For example, we’ve already stayed at several InterContinental hotels this year with a club lounge to utilize my husband’s annual club access membership that he chose in January as an IHG Milestone Reward. And in 2022, we stayed at The Ritz-Carlton, Bangalore, primarily because it is one of the least expensive Ritz-Carlton hotels where you can use club-level upgrade certificates.
Related: 8 tips and tricks for finding a great travel deal
Enjoying special experiences
As we watched the sunset a few weeks back at the Westin Langkawi Resort & Spa in Malaysia, we recounted how many amazing experiences we have while traveling as digital nomads. And while taking a break from a self-drive safari at a rest camp in South Africa’s Kruger National Park last year, we considered how many of our fellow travelers were likely on bucket-list trips.
We’re incredibly grateful that our digital nomad lifestyle — and in some cases, points and miles stash — has unlocked so many incredible experiences. Of course, part of the trade-off is that we have to focus on our work in some awesome places.
Narrowing down our experiences to just a few “best” ones is impossible. But, some top memories certainly include the multiple Qatar Qsuite flights we’ve booked with American Airlines miles, spending two incredible nights at Al Maha in the United Arab Emirates and our amazing stay at Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives, which was even better due to our InterContinental Ambassador membership and IHG elite status.
Related: Is hotel elite status worth it anymore?
It’s certainly possible to live and work as a digital nomad without leveraging points, miles and elite status. But points and miles let us travel better for less cost. And elite status unlocks useful perks like upgrades and late checkout, as well as money-saving benefits like lounge access and complimentary breakfast.
Most of the ways award travel and elite status pair well with my digital nomad life can also apply to shorter-term travel. For example, if you spend less time on the road, you may need to pick one hotel elite status and focus more on non-flight methods when earning American Airlines Loyalty Points.
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