Optimized Travel on a Budget

Often people look at travel as being only available to the wealthy but I beg to differ. The way to optimize travel and reduce cost is by having excellent credit. If you have credit difficulties, focus on fixing that first before you venture to plan the next big vacation. A Houston based organization like Money Management International, could help you get on the right foot. If you are already there, I will share some tips that took my vacation from a 7 to a 10.
Initially, I started following posts from The Points Guy and studying tips on which travel credit cards are best (note, I had a very established credit history before I got into this game. I always pay off balances to avoid interest fees). I was hesitant to have more than one credit card but now that I have learned the game, it really makes sense to have cards for brands you gravitate towards. Yet, to be smart with your credit utilization, you don’t need a million cards. Two to three can make a difference as long as you have the discipline to not fall into a trap.
My favorite is Chase Sapphire Reserve because it gives you 3x points for travel (ride-sharing, planes, buses,etc) and Restaurants (in addition to paying for global entry, lounge access, and more). Yet, the best part is when you use the points for travel, you get a 50% bonus towards the trip. For a cherry on top, you still earn frequent flyer miles for the trip booked with points (For example, since I love math, let’s say you use the card to buy a $200 flight. You will get 600 points, which basically is equal to 900  points or $9 toward a future flight. The points add up very quickly). Lastly, of the $450 annual fee per year, you get $300 reimbursed to you when you use charge travel (ground or air). You can very easily have the card pay you if you use it wisely.
In addition, some hotel cards will give you nights towards status or like Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG), instant platinum status if you have their card. This entitles you to earning bonuses on hotel stays, late check-out (4pm), etc. When combining a travel card and a hotel card, you get the best of both worlds. I am a big fan of Marriott, so it was imperative I get the Marriott card.
Lastly, getting specifically to my last international trip, another tip is to follow or subscribe to alerts such as Scott’s Cheap Flights, Escape Houston or Airfare Watch Dog. That is exactly how I scored a ~$350 round-trip United ticket to Singapore from Los Angeles. With Scott’s Cheap flights, you typically have to decide quickly. After an hour of booking, the flights shot back up to $700+.
Sometimes, when it is deemed an error fare, you should wait until it is confirmed to book any additional plans (but don’t be like me and think you booked your Houston to Los Angeles flight but actually find out 11 days before your trip that you didn’t. Yet, thank God for redeemable points from Sapphire Reserve for your $100 flight to $300 flight error, whew). Once confirmed, it was unbelievable that you could get a total round-trip ticket to SE Asia for less than $500 round-trip.

I decided that Singapore, though a great city, was not enough to go that far to see. I had been to Singapore before and figured it would be a great place to start the jet lag process, but wanted to venture somewhere else. After much deliberation, and advisement, I decided on Langkawi, Malaysia. I know Malaysia still is associated with the horrific disappearance with Malaysia Airlines (RIP), but you can’t live in fear if you want to travel and explore the world. It is counterproductive. For $100/roundtrip from Singapore, I opted to take the risk.
It was fairly simple to book American chain hotels in Singapore (and I stayed with a brand where I have status). Yet, Malaysia was new territory for me. I engaged Uniglobe Travel Designers and they made everything seamless. We were able to find a hotel for a reasonable price and an airport transfer (I am so happy I had a driver when I landed because there is nothing like getting in a random taxi in a country that you are unfamiliar).
Unfortunately, it rained a bit in Langkawi which is surrounded by outdoor activities. Rainy days  became rest days (rest and eat, repeat),  I was able to get a wonderful spa treatment (mud & aloe wrap 50 mins+ 50 minute deep tissue massage) all for $90. The dollar was going very far in Malaysia and I slightly didn’t know how to act. The food was amazing as well.
Meanwhile, I was unprepared for the monkeys being such a large part of the experience. Thankfully, we were not “robbed” by any for food but we were told stories. They were everywhere and generally not afraid of humans. Yet, none of them came within reach and I was happy to observe them from a distance. I noticed it was odd for me to see them in the wild, much like kangaroos in Australia. We learned about an infamous monkey named George who was disowned from his family because he cut his lip on a coke can when a tourist thought that was a great idea to share a coke (not!) So for over a decade, George has had to live alone because they didn’t recognize him with his deformed lip. (Do not feed the monkeys 0_0)
Our hotel didn’t have an adequate kids club (it was more for toddlers versus tweens), so we decided to switch hotels on the last day. I brought out my optimization software (I kid but not really) to see where we could stay with points and it became difficult very fast. The hotels in Langkawi are either reasonable or luxurious. No in between. We finally were able to find a stay at the Ritz Carlton Langkawi for 40k Marriott Points. With my status, I was upgraded from what was a $500/night value room to $700/night (note, my budget hotel was about $100/night w/ buffet breakfast). (A Marriott room in New Orleans for $293 is also 40k points so this was a much better deal)
Though, I didn’t have the budget to stay at the almost brand new Ritz Carlton the entire time, I am glad I had the contrast. The rain and clouds finally stopped, so before we left the budget hotel, we were able to visit the Sky Cab which was within walking  distance. I am so grateful the weather cleared up because not being able to see the views would have diminished the entire experience.
When we arrived to the Ritz Carlton, I felt like I stepped into a real life Zumanda. It was less crowded, the kids club was exciting and not an extra charge. The room was amazing and staff beyond hospitable. The monkeys were a bit more aggressive, but hey, I am in their space so, I should be grateful they allowed me to visit.
We went back to Singapore one more day before our trip and finished it off with a visit to the National Gallery. Interestingly, I had not been there before and it reminded me that you can never see all of a city. There is always something more to see. The art was amazing at the gallery. It was refreshing to see such a variety of artists (mostly from Singapore and Malaysia). The views of Singapore from the building were also amazing. We went back to the JW Marriott with a new perspective than when we arrived.  I was grateful that their lounge access included breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails. Yet, having traveled almost 17 hours to get there, my favorite amenity was them laundering 3 items for free.
In short, it does take some money to plan for a trip, yet there are ways you can stretch the dollar by combining it with loyalty programs and branded credit cards. With only a week to spare, we were able to experience another part of the world which always is a blessing. I encourage you to choose new places to travel, yet try to look up their customs before you go such as tipping, dress and top things to do. Lastly, be flexible and open-minded to experience a culture different from your own.