Melissa Plemmons has confirmed that news of Travel Miles 101 is spreading beyond the borders of our beloved homeland. Her dad heard about the site from a fellow traveler while hiking the El Camino trail in Europe. As soon as he sent Melissa the link to the free course, a whole new world opened up to the Plemmons family of five.
“I had used points before, but I didn’t know any of the really good tricks. My big secret was flying in the off-season to get better fares,” she said, laughing.
Melissa took the free course in December of 2015 and by January, she and her husband started signing up for credit cards. By June, they had accrued 300,000 points across United, Chase and SPG.
The family wanted to take a 10-day tour of Spain for Christmas, so Melissa began searching for award availability. With a family of 5, she knew that finding availability might be a challenge. But United (and their partner, Lufthansa) came through for her, and Melissa began transferring her points to the airline as quickly as she could.
“I finally found the award seats I needed but not all of the points had hit my United account. I got on the phone and the agents held the seats for several days until the points showed up.”
Each ticket cost 60,000 miles and routed from the family’s hometown of Charlotte to Madrid on Lufthansa, then a short hop from Madrid to Barcelona mid-trip, then Barcelona to Charlotte for the return.
Those 300,000 frequent flyer miles for the family of five represented a savings of $17,000 off the list price for the tickets.
“The savings were incredible,” Melissa said.
With the airfare booked, Melissa started researching lodging, restaurants and tourist sites for the family to explore. At 19, 15 and 13 years old, the family has a range of tastes and travel personalities to satisfy.
“My kids love Europe. We’ve taken them to Portugal before, so they were so excited to explore Spain.”
The family landed in Madrid, where they stayed the first two nights of their trip. Melissa said the city felt like Spain’s version of New York City – artistic and diverse, but with surprisingly few historical sites and adventures. The family did enjoy the Prado Art Museum in Madrid, the National Royal Palace, and more than a few stops for coffee, churros and chocolate.
Lodging in Madrid was an apartment Melissa found through TripAdvisor. The space offered two beds and a sleeper sofa – enough for the whole family. It was centrally located and gave the family access to all the sights and sounds of the city.
On day three of the trip, Melissa rented a car from the train station in Madrid and drove four hours to Granada so the family could tour the Alhambra Palace. Just one word was needed to describe the experience of walking through the Moorish masterpiece, “Amazing,” Melissa said.
She added a few words of wisdom for other travelers – tickets for the historical site must be purchased ahead of time and they are often sold out more than a month in advance. They are also very strict on timing, so if your ticket indicates a 4 p.m. start time, show up early!
After the 4-hour tour of Alhambra, the family loaded back into the car and drove another three hours to their hotel in Ronda, where they were scheduled to stay for the next two nights.
What’s that, you say? You’ve never heard of Ronda, Spain? Well, pull up a chair.
“Ronda was actually my kids favorite part of the whole trip,” Melissa reported. “ I read about this little hotel in the Rick Steves book – it’s called EnfrenteArte in this beautiful, small village in the south of Spain. The staff was amazing. Pablo would make gourmet breakfast for us every morning. We had free drinks 24 hours a day. The place had funky decorations in every room and the most beautiful views. The kids favorite part was probably the big fish tank area where you could get a fish pedicure – hang your feet into the fish tank and they will eat the dead skin off your feet.”
The entire experience, including two rooms for their family of five, cost around 100 euros per night.
The family spent their Christmas in Ronda, which is also renowned for its flamenco performances, and Melissa scored tickets for a flamenco show on Christmas Eve – an unforgettable experience for the family.
“The hotel is what drew us to Ronda, and this stop was the most relaxed part of our trip. We saw old gardens and palaces and spent hours walking around town, stopping at bakeries and people watching.”
On Day 5 of their trip, the family left their gourmet breakfasts and fish pedicures behind and drove from Ronda to Madrid. That night, they stayed at the Crowne Plaza Madrid using 25,000 IHG points to ensure they were close to the airport for their flight to Barcelona the next morning.
For the last four nights of their trip, Melissa and her family stayed at Barcelona Go, a budget hotel she found through research. Nothing fancy, the hotel offered updated, clean and affordable rooms, and it was a welcome option in a city full of high-end and high-priced rooms.
It was a good thing the family had a relaxing stay in Ronda, because Barcelona kept them hopping – Melissa reported they walked 10-13 miles a day as they criss-crossed this magical city.
The highlight for Melissa was the famous cathedral, La Sagrada Familia. She said construction on the building began in 1882 and they are hoping to finish sometime in the next 10-15 years. (and you thought your bathroom remodel was behind schedule…)
“Barcelona is a city full of cathedrals but this place was unlike any cathedral I’ve ever seen – it was truly amazing. The interior was constructed like a rain forest where the columns were tree trunks and they branch out at the top in stained glass.”
They also enjoyed the Picasso Museum and the many parks and green spaces dotted throughout the city.
FRUGAL TIPS AND TRICKS
Spain isn’t considered a budget traveler’s paradise, but Melissa said she found a few money-saving tips along the way.
Student Discounts – Melissa found many discounts and sometimes free passes for college students during her research. At the Alhambra Palace, her two younger children enjoyed a significant discount off the hefty entrance fee. Be aware, the organization will likely require the students’ passports to prove their age.
Free Nights – much like museums across the States, Melissa found that the Prado Art Museum in Madrid offered free entrance one evening a week. This little find saved the family 60 euros. “It was great seeing it at night when it’s all lit up.”
Homework – Melissa reported that she took many months researching lodging options, restaurants, and tourist sites. That time investment paid off with a economical hotels and unforgettable experiences across Spain.
Family Travel – when Melissa and her husband take a trip, they run nonstop. But she new her teens wouldn’t enjoy the high octane schedule. “We really embraced the Spanish philosophy of moving slower through our days, taking a siesta in the afternoon, and not getting overloaded.” The lighter schedule created a better experience for the kids, as well as the parents. “It was so much fun seeing the country through their eyes for the first time.”
Your turn! Have you toured Spain in the last few years? Comment below with your favorite experience to help new travelers build a dream itinerary!