I'm taking my dream trip to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands for less than $200 thanks to credit card points

galopagos islands

Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com

Feeding turtles in the Galapagos Islands. The author is not pictured.

  • I've been booking trips using credit card points for years, but my travel goal for 2020 is to go on an epic trip to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands.
  • Thanks to United's Excursionist Perk, which lets you book a free one-way flight within your itinerary, I'll be able to take my dream trip for less than $200 out of pocket and about 40,000 United miles.
  • I can earn the miles I need with the sign-up bonus on the United Explorer Card alone. If I want to cover accommodations or activities, I can use the Chase Ultimate Rewards points I already have saved.
  • See Business Insider's picks for the best rewards credit cards »

I've booked some pretty mind-blowing award travel over the past few years of collecting credit card points, but none of my trips come close to what I plan on booking for 2020: Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands.

The best part? All I need to go on this trip are 40,000 United miles, and I can earn them all with the sign-up bonus on one credit card.

How to use United's Excursionist Perk to hack your award redemption

United has several quirks when it comes to redeeming miles, the most lucrative of which might be its Excursionist Perk.

This perk allows you to book a free one-way flight that's embedded within a multi-city award ticket, with some restrictions:

  • Your overall trip has to start and end in the same MileagePlus region.
  • The free one-way flight must also start and end in the same MileagePlus region, but it can't start or end in the region where your overall trip originates or terminates.
  • You have to travel in the same cabin class for your free one-way as you do for the flight preceding it.
  • If you decide to embed more than one one-way flight into your multi-city itinerary, only the first one will be free.

United uses the example of booking an award flight to Europe, traveling to both London and Paris for the cost of going to just one of those cities:

  • Chicago (ORD) to London (LHR) - 30,000 miles
  • London (LHR) to Paris (CDG) - 0 miles
  • Paris (CDG) to Chicago (ORD) - 30,000 miles

In other words, you need 60,000 United miles to book a round-trip flight to either London or Paris. But by taking advantage of the Excursionist Perk, you can visit both cities at the same price.

How I plan to use the Excursionist Perk to cross off two bucket list goals in one

While visiting both London and Paris in one trip would be enjoyable, I tend to be a little more ambitious with my award redemptions. Looking at the way United defines its MileagePlus regions, I realized that Peru and Ecuador are both in the same MileagePlus region of Northern South America.

Peru is home to Machu Picchu, and Ecuador is home to the Galapagos Islands, two destinations I've had on my bucket list for as long as I can remember.

First, I had to make sure United operates flights to the correct airports. The closest major airport to Machu Picchu is in Cusco, Peru, which United flies to. The Galapagos Islands are trickier, as there aren't any international airports on the islands. But I can fly to Quito, the capital, and take a quick flight to one of the main islands in the Galapagos archipelago from there.

While I'd have to cover the leg from Quito to the Galapagos Islands on my own, roundtrip flights can be had for under $200.

How many United miles you need for a trip to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands

United no longer publishes an award chart, but flights from North America to Northern South America typically bottom out at 20,000 miles each way, meaning my whole trip would cost 40,000 miles.

  • Los Angeles (LAX) to Cusco, Peru (CUZ) - 20,000 miles
  • Cusco (CUZ) to Quito, Ecuador (UIO) - 0 miles
  • Quito (UIO) to Los Angeles (LAX) - 20,000 miles

You can easily search for flight prices on any given date by going to the United homepage and using the flight search tool. You'll want to click on "Advanced search" to do a multi-city search and choose the book with miles option.

When I searched for my trip, Saver Award flights in Economy were available, which is what I wanted. While business class would be nice, availability is a lot harder to find, and I don't have enough time to save up the miles required.

When it came time to select a flight for my second leg, from Peru to Ecuador, there were options for Economy flights at 0 miles, thanks to the Excursionist Perk. Thankfully, it was one of the shorter trips without an overnight layover.

Screen Shot 2020 01 16 at 1.05.51 PM

Elizabeth Aldrich

In the end, the entire trip would cost me 40,000 United miles and $125.15 in taxes and fees. I consider this to be a great deal, given that a comparable itinerary costs close to $1,000 when paid for in cash, and $850 if you're willing to do overnight layovers. I'm getting well over 2 cents per point in value with this redemption, and earning 40,000 United miles will be a breeze.

Screen Shot 2020 01 16 at 1.11.34 PM

Elizabeth Aldrich

How I plan to earn 40,000 United miles

United is one of Chase's Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, and I already have more than enough Ultimate Rewards points to transfer over 40,000 and book this trip now.

However, Ultimate Rewards points are my favorite to use for their flexibility and high value, and United miles are pretty easy to earn. I also have plenty of time before I plan to go on this trip, so I can wait a while to reserve flights while I earn United miles so that I don't have to touch my Ultimate Rewards points.

To earn the 40,000 United miles, all I have to do is open the United Explorer Card and spend $3,000 within the first three months. This would get me the card's sign-up bonus, which is currently 60,000 United miles⁠ - even more than what I need.

I should have my United miles and be ready to book flights by April, and I plan to go on the trip in October of this year. I can also postpone to April of next year if availability is an issue.

I might use credit card points to pay for other parts of the trip, such as accommodations, transportation, or activities. I can use my Ultimate Rewards points to book an all-day panoramic train journey from Cusco to Machu Picchu (22,600 points) or a day trip to the oft-Instagrammed Rainbow Mountain from Cusco (3,666 points). I can even book small boat tours to some of the more remote Galapagos Islands for 18,000 to 25,000 points.

I'm excited to go on my dream trip for just over $100, especially since earning the miles I need will be easy.

Learn more about the United Explorer Card »

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