Point Me to First Class with Devon Gimbel MD | Umrah Travel and Booking Using Points with Amena Bakali

47. Umrah Travel and Booking Using Points with Amena Bakali

Jan 22, 2024

There are tons of incredible uses of points that allow you to have new travel experiences, take trips more regularly, or travel in style and luxury for a fraction of the cost. While many of us use our points for leisure travel, points can also help with booking travel that is of religious or cultural significance. One example of that is how my guest this week used points to book a trip to observe Umrah, the Islamic pilgrimage to their Holy City: Makkah, Saudi Arabia.

Amena Bakali is an award travel educator, travel blogger, and family travel enthusiast. She loves to take on new adventures, make memories with her family, all thanks to points & miles, and teach others how to do the same. Travel doesn't have to stop when you have kids, and Amena loves showing other families on how to make travel work for all budgets, preferences, and lifestyles.

Tune in this week to discover Amena Bakali’s tips for booking a culturally significant trip like Umrah using points. Amena is walking us through how she chose her hotels, flights, and experiences during this pilgrimage, and she’s sharing her tips for planning a trip like this for you and your family.


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What You’ll Learn from this Episode: 

  • How Amena started seeing the potential that points travel offers.
  • Some of the amazing leisure trips Amena has taken her family on using points.
  • The religious, cultural, and historical significance of Umrah.
  • Amena’s tips for booking Umrah as cost-effectively as possible.
  • The importance of being flexible when booking a trip like the Umrah Pilgrimage.
  • 4 loyalty programs to focus on to make Umrah as cheap and comfortable as possible.
  • Amena’s top tips for securing air travel for Umrah using points.


Listen to the Full Episode:


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Full Episode Transcript:

Welcome to Point Me to First Class, the only show for employed professionals, entrepreneurs, and business owners who are looking to optimize their higher-than-average expenses to travel the world. I'm your host, Devon Gimbel, and I believe that your expenses are your greatest untapped asset if you know how to leverage them. Ready to dive into the world of credit card points and miles so you can travel more, travel better, and travel often? Let's get started.

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the podcast. One of my favorite things about points is that there are so many incredible uses of them that can help you have new travel experiences, more travel experiences, or, my favorite, luxury travel experiences. While most of us probably use our points the majority of the time for traditional leisure travel, like taking vacations, points can do so much more than that. Points can also make it possible to book travel that has particular religious or cultural significance to us. 

On today's episode, we are going to be talking about one particular example of that with guest Amena Bakali. Amena is an award travel educator, travel blogger and family travel enthusiast, and we're going to be discussing how she used points to plan a trip to observe Umrah, which is an Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah, the holiest city for Muslims. I hope you all enjoy this conversation. 

Devon: Welcome to the podcast, Amena. I'm so, so happy to have you here today. How are you doing?

Amena: Good. Thank you for having me, Devon. 

Devon: Absolutely. I have been waiting to have you on the podcast because you are such a wealth of knowledge and expertise about, I mean, really all things points travel, but around this subject in particular that I have had so many people ask me about. That I think whether or not someone wants to undertake this exact trip, or they just want to learn more about some of the really incredible things that you can do with points and miles. I'm so excited to have you here today. 

But before we dive in to our topic, can you just give us a little bit of background on who you are, what you do, and how you originally even got into points and award travel to begin with?

Amena: Well, I just want to say, again, thank you for having me. It is such an honor, such a privilege to be chatting with you and your audience today. My name is Amena Bakali. I am based out of Dallas, Texas. I was born and raised here, been here my entire life. Super boring, never lived anywhere else. I've been married for 18 years. We have three kids. They are 14, one will turn 11 tomorrow, and our little one is three. 

My background is originally in the nonprofit social impact space. I did finish my master's in a pandemic. We have been travel hacking for a few years. I want to say about six to seven years ago, my husband, his job switched. How life got of it, he wanted to be able to spend more time with our family. 

At that time, we just had the older two. They were younger, and he would have long workdays. I had kind of taken a step back in the workforce at that time, just having my hands in different parts and projects that, mostly just doing what I could from home. This way the switches work better for our family, and he was starting to travel. So he would work from home, and then he would travel. He would travel more often, like every few months or so. These points would start racking up. 

Now I know every company is different. But back then he was able to literally double and triple dip where book it in whatever portal you want, book it on your card. However, granted, we didn't know anything about that time. The way things like we do now. Right? We were just, these points would add up. Every time they would, I was just booking southwest flights. I just felt so, like this world is amazing. 

Then I was like how do we do more of this, maybe more international travel, without me having to wait for him to come home after a week of travel. Easily on Southwest, we would get like 30,000/40,000 points, right? I was like there has to be a way to do this without him having to travel.

After some [inaudible], of course, let's make the most of it. Next thing I started going down the rabbit hole. Then we kind of started dipping our hands into it a little bit more. Then, of course, COVID hit. So 2020/2021, took a little bit of a pause. Then 2021 just really got into it a lot more. We've been able to actually hit up some pretty cool places since then. 

So a lot more on the international front. Our toddler, our three year old, has been to 10 countries. So my older ones always say where was this when we were two or three? I say well, Mom and Dad just were not that smart. Mom has it figured out. So basically instead of asking for gifts, they asked for places to go. So that's where we are. That's my story.

Devon: That's absolutely incredible. You mentioned that you have now used points and miles to take a lot of trips. Can you just give us a sort of brief but broad overview of just some of the countries that you've been able to travel to with your family using points and miles?

Amena: Yes. I want to always say, and I say this too, is that there is a good amount of cash involved as well. We are now a family of five. So when I points and miles, it's, of course, our hotel stay. But let's say if we’re booking a second room, it's obviously in cash. Then our flights on points. So I always try to be as transparent about that as possible. 

Let's see. Some of the places we've been to. We've been to Costa Rica. One spring break, we went to Costa Rica, we went to Bahamas one October. My kids get like a fall break. My older two. My little one’s in pre-school so she's around, thank God. 

But we went to Bahamas one October. We did a month long trip the summer of 2021. That was partially on points, a good portion on the cash. Obviously, in 2020, no one was going anywhere. We did Spain, France, and Turkey. So some of our flights and stuff we got covered in points and miles. We spent like a month in Europe. It was like a bucket list trip. So we did that. 

We were in Tokyo for a total of 10 days, that includes travel time. I did a girl’s trip with my daughter recently in this past October. Me and her and then my sister-in-law and niece went to New York, also fully on point from hotel and flight. So that was pretty awesome because we all know New York’s can get expensive, right?

Devon: That was incredible. The reason why I kind of wanted to give that background is because you obviously from having planned and taken all of those trips, different places in the world with a family, you have a lot of experience navigating this world of points and miles and how to plan points trips and how to go about booking them with different points currencies and different airlines. 

One of the things that I was really excited about because I follow you on Instagram. Everybody should follow you as well. We'll link up all of your contact information and how to find you on the end of the show and in the show notes. But one of the things that I have been really inspired by following you and the way that you travel is that you had recently talked about a really important and significant trip that you took with points and miles. I think one of the greatest things about this form of currency because I very much believe that points is just another form of currency.

Amena: Absolutely correct.

Devon: Absolutely. Like we can take the traditional family trips, right, the spring breaks or the winter breaks or we can take the anniversary trip with our partner or solo trips. I love that. I mean, I take a lot of those types of trips solely because of points and miles, and I love that.

But I actually think that points and miles opens up the window to so many more other travel experiences as well that can have, in some ways, even more importance and significance to us than just really incredible sort of tourist travel or leisure travel. 

One of the trips that I recently saw you starting to post more and talk more about is your experience using points and miles for Umrah, and I think that this is a topic that so many people could benefit from learning more about and getting more actionable information about what does it actually look like to try to take this type of trip, and where can points in miles come into play? So I am just really excited to have you here to share your wisdom and your experience. 

But for those of us on the podcast, or people listening to the podcast, who maybe don't have first-hand experience with Umrah, what it is, its significance, can you just give us a little bit of background on it and explain some of its importance for all of us? 

Amena: So Umrah, simply put, it's a trip made for the purpose of visiting the Kaaba, Kaaba, you've probably seen images, black with gold. It's a mosque in the city of Makkah. That's really the purpose. Now it's a little bit different. I'm sure many people, a lot more people may be aware of Hajj. Hajj is a longer pilgrimage, maybe a week, two weeks. I know it's hard work, but we try to squeeze it in at least in that two week time. 

For Muslims, it is required to perform Hajj at least once in your lifetime. What I mean by that is it is a very expensive trip. There's a lot that goes into it physically, financially, taking time out from your work and schedule. It also can be hard because we follow the lunar calendar. So it has to be performed during the month Dhul Hijjah, right? So all of that, planning that, planning for it. People plan for almost a lifetime to go for Hajj. 

Now Umrah is a type of trip where there's not as much that you need to do. You can technically, once you're there, you can visit the Kaaba, and it can just be a few hours. You go, you offer extra prayers. The best way to put it as a time to like just reset, to kind of focus on just getting away from your day to day, getting a little bit closer to God or to your Lord. Right?

As Muslims when we pray five times a day, we pray towards the Kaaba. So, when you are visiting from anywhere in the world, to be able to see the Kaaba in front of you, it just hits different. The historical significance really, like I said, it can be done any time of the year. It's different from Hajj. It's, I don't I want to say smaller. 

But I when I say smaller, I mean in the sense of you can make it a little bit more financially feasible. You can perform it any time of the year. You can literally just go for a few days. Now, obviously, there's travel time and transit. Within a week, you can literally just go in Makkah. You can also visit the neighboring city of Madinah. The Prophet's Mosque, prophet Mohammed, the last prophet that we honor, and we try to follow the teachings of that, of him. His mosque is there in Madinah. 

So, of course, and we have made up the time to go to Makkah, of course, we wanted to take out a little bit time. You can catch the train. You can go visit Madinah as well. But that is just, briefly, what Umrah is about. Just taking out that time to do additional prayers, additional worship. Visiting the Kaaba, seeing it in person. You're praying five times a day when you pray in your own home in that direction. So just seeing in person is really what it's all about. 

Devon: Yeah, thank you so much for sharing that. You've mentioned that undertaking this type of trip, even Umrah, which sounds like it's a little bit less maybe challenging than Hajj just in terms of the ability to go any time of year. You did mention though that one of the things that people have to take into consideration or contend with are the not so insignificant expenses that can come with planning this type of trip. 

So can you just tell us a little bit more about what are kind of the typical expenses that are usually associated with traveling for Umrah? Are there any unique points or any unique travel challenges or obstacles that you experienced when you were trying to plan this trip, as compared to, let's say, that sort of typical leisure trip that you've taken in the past?

Amena: Right, right. I think the biggest thing is, I have to admit, it took me some time too. I actually performed Hajj in 2004 with my parents and my sister. It took me, I want to say as life happens and you get busy and you have a family and kids and whatnot and taking time off, almost 17 years. Yeah, 17 years. I went back in November 2022 with my family. 

I think, for starters, a couple different things for us personally, we did this trip, this specific trip when we went. We did it on a mix of points and cash. For us, our biggest challenge was our little one was not quite two yet. Yes, you can take children. You will see pictures of children everywhere, but we did not want to take her. 

For me, I was like we are going for the first time. I wanted to really be able to talk with the older two, explain to them the significance of this trip. We're just so fortunate that both our families came together for those 10 days, and we were able to kind of tag team and watch her because she was not quite two. I was like I'm visiting after 17 years. I want to be able to focus. 

But I just want to make it clear that yes, you are able to take children. Sometimes they do have requirements as to with the age and how close you can go and distance or whatnot, but it's just easier if you're able to perform the journey without having a little one. 

I think the hardest thing is just the nature of where it is, which is the flights, right? So I know, for example, I have actually not visited like Dubai or Oman or Qatar, a lot of those neighboring regions. So I think just keeping in mind like you're coming from the U.S., and you're trying to go to this region, it's naturally just want to be expensive, right? Just basic economy flights.

I think, and that's a challenge I feel like. Like I said, you have that even when you're visiting the neighboring areas. Multiply that by two, three, four, five. I think, again, like we say in the travel space, just plan as far out as possible. That area, like the hotels are pretty prepped because like the four major hotel programs that are there, they have a stake in how close they are to the respective mosque. 

So you'll see the four main hotel programs like within just in that radius of where the Kaaba is in Makkah and respectively in Madinah as well. So they are prepped. They know that people are going to be tired. They know that there should be a good breakfast. They know that people are looking for non-smoke beds in a hotel room. These kind of specific challenges to that area. 

One challenge we faced, which didn't have so much to do with points. It was more of our logistics because we weren't sure if we're going to be able to take that trip. Mind you, I had been planning early spring, but telling family and asking family hey, can you watch the little one? Everyone's schedule. Just because my schedule allows me to book six to nine months out doesn't mean their schedule is going to allow them to watch. 

So I think the challenge we ran into is when I was looking for hotel rooms, it was like three beds and then like a pull out. I was like perfect. Mom, dad, me and my husband, and then my older two. Perfect. When we went to actually book them, we waited too late. The reason we waited to book is because I wanted to make sure someone can watch her. I mean 10 days is a long time, right? 

So we’re like this is great. I had the Hilton points. I was like I'm going to be able to book both the places in points. Then when I went to go book, the room we wanted with the four single beds was not available. It was gone. So there was a little bit of points and cash. 

So that's also something to keep in mind as if you're trying to just stick to maybe one room that has or like a suite, I think technically the way they named that room was maybe some level of a suite, right? Because it had the three single beds plus a pullout bed that my husband just like literally pulled down from the wall. For that kind of stuff, if you're trying to stay in one room and maybe you're trying not to book multiple rooms, book early. 

Another thing we ran into this issue in Makkah as well is that you have to keep in mind sometimes there can be a little bit of a language barrier too because you're booking from here. Then you can't just pick up the phone and say hey Hyatt Place, wherever. Because we have older kids as well, when we went and we said hey, we have this confirmation. We've already booked it. They we're like oh, we've actually upgraded you. We’re like oh, great. You upgraded us, nice. 

Well, the upgrade actually broke us into two separate rooms. So it's fine. The two separate ones were not right next to each other. It was like a room, elevator, a room. Now it's okay because we just, me and my daughter's stayed in one room. That gave us, because the kids are older too. Then on the other side of the elevator, my husband and my son. So it kind of worked out in that sense. 

So, like I said, for us, it was just more personal logistics that held us up, which is why it was a mix the way we booked it on points and cash. That's why it came out like that. So I think those are some specific things just to kind of keep in mind. 

I think normally when I'm booking here in the U.S. or even Mexico or Caribbean or wherever, it's booking two rooms. You get the queen bed, or you get the one king attached to the queen. I think it's a little bit different there because these hotels, even ones that may not be so close or walking distance, like they know why you're there. 

They know that you're going to try to squeeze in as many people as you can in a room, especially if you're going as a family, and you have minor kids. It may not be so easy to just split up like we did. We make it work just because it ours is a little bit older. 

But yeah, I think for the most part, the respective challenges that would apply to just travel hacking, especially when you're going further out from the U.S. When I say further, I'm using U.S. as the home base. I think you would just need to keep that in mind as like hey I'm not just one person. So, I have four, five, six people, right?

Devon: Yeah, those are always great things to keep in mind. You mentioned in terms of talking about arranging accommodation for Umrah that there are a couple of major hotel chains that do have properties that are in pretty good location or proximity for observing that trip. 

Can you tell us a little bit more about what are those options if people want to start looking into using points specifically for their accommodations? Are there certain points currencies they should really start focusing on building up for this type of trip?

Amena: It really depends on, and I tell people this too when I do client consultations. I say this that you have to be flexible because like, for example, we love Worlds of Hyatt. We are a family of five now, and now we have to do this whole two room, booking two rooms, excuse me. When it was just us four, two queen beds, and we're good to go, right?

Now, I can't really get away with that so much anymore, right? Maybe a suite, and I can say hey she's not in a bed, right? She's in her playpen. But now she's three. So she is going to be in that pullout bed, right. I think that the four major hotel programs you'll find there Hilton, IHG, Marriott, Hyatt.

When we went in November of 2022, we decided we were going to stay with Hilton in both places. Now, we normally do not stay at Hilton. So we had to plan further out in advance. We had to get the respective cards. Player one, he gets it. Wait, player two, I got it simply for the purpose of this trip. So I think maybe be flexible. Look at where you want to stay at. 

Like I said, when you are looking on the map for Makkah and you're looking in Madinah, you'll see Madinah, you might have a little bit less on the options. Like there's no Hyatt in Madinah, for example. So I think just keep that in mind. If you have flexible reward currencies like Chase or Amex, Citi. I think generally speaking, I think a lot of us tend to lean towards that anyway because then we can be flexible about who we transfer our points to. 

This is where planning in advance comes into play is that if you decide that okay, well, I'm a world of Hyatt fan, but I want to stay at a Hilton. I don’t have Hilton points, right? So I've got to plan in advance for that. So I think keeping things like that in mind.

And I talk about this in my guide as well as that when it comes to Umrah, it can be physically taxing. You are trying to make regular prayers. You're going to be tired. You're going to wake up early for the early morning prayer. You're going to go, and you're going to pray. You're going to come back. You're going to do other acts of worship, other acts of service. There's obviously shops, and people love to get like the dates from Makkah and Madinah, those kinds of things. You're going to be tired. You may not be able to go for every prayer. That's fine, right?

So just being flexible is key because your goal for this trip is proximity to the respective mosque. Now, for example, not everyone can afford to book so close. So yes, you will find people who have traveled from thousands, been saving up for even just an Umrah trip, right. They stay a little bit further. You'll see people walking like maybe an hour or two before the respective prayers and just wait to try to get like a good spot. 

So it's just keeping in mind the season when you're going, the crowd. If you're able to, obviously if you're able to just book in advance with points and miles, you have that luxury of booking one of the major four hotel brands because you want to be as close as possible. 

Especially because not only was it tiring for us, it's hard to keep our children motivated too because this was their first time going. While it wasn't our, me and my husband's first timer going, it was the first time going for Umrah and especially together like as a family. So we're all tired.

Then I did end up getting sick towards the end of the trip. So just like keeping that motivation to like we're here for a purpose. Let's relax. They’ve got all the food there, the KFC, the donuts, the coffee, and the tea. They’ve got all that. So just keep that in mind. 

Devon: Yeah. I'm curious, do you happen to remember because you mentioned that you're a World of Hyatt family, but for this specific trip, Hilton made more sense for your plans. Do you happen to remember kind of ballpark about how many points did you all end up needing to book specifically your accommodations? Or did you use a combination of points and cash or points and free night awards that you got from credit card signups?

Amena: I apologize. I don't remember the exact. I remember when I was making the guide, I was looking at Hyatt, and I was like I don't know why I didn't use Hyatt points. I have to say one of the reasons we leaned towards the Hilton is simply because my husband had gone the year before, him and a friend and his brother, they had gone prior.

So I think, honestly, that was just our reason for leaning towards Hilton. He was like hey, I stayed at the Hilton. This time do you want to stay at Doubletree Hilton? I've heard it’s a little bit more family friendly. It's nice. We said, okay, and we went for it. That was one reason. 

The second reason for Hilton was because during the pandemic, I had actually gotten one of the Hilton cards with kind of this purpose in mind but not really knowing it was a great offer. I'd gone for it. Then, of course, the world shut down. 

So that's kind of why we kind of thought outside of the box. We’re like we have these Hilton points. I think this is the only trip where it makes sense for us to use it. Because when we're traveling elsewhere as a family of five, those Hilton points don't go as far for me. So I think that was a reason for doing Hilton, to be frank about that.

Devon: Yeah, that's so helpful to know. Again, just because there are multiple different options of properties that you can book using points. Obviously, not everybody is going to end up wanting to stay at the same one. But it's nice to know that there are multiple different points currencies that could come into play. 

Sometimes the way we make decisions is that oh, we have some points, like you said, sitting in an account. I don’t really know how we're going to end up using those in the future. So it can be useful just to get those spent so that we know we're going to get some value out of that.

Amena: Exactly. That was really, it was just like hey, honey, I have these X amount of Hilton points left over from 2020. Do you just want to get another Hilton card, and we'll just, at least we can cover our stays that way? That was our original plan. Of course, when we went to actually book it, it had to be a mix of both because of our personal logistics.

Devon: Yeah. for people who are interested in booking this trip. I'm just curious, do you remember the name of the specific property that you stayed at? Would you recommend it for other travelers, other families?

Amena: We stayed at Doubletree. There was a road called Jabal Omar Road. In Makkah, they have, you'll see like all three properties. You'll see Marriott. They have like, a lot of other hotels are similar. The hotels have shuttles where they know why people are saying at that respective property, right. So they have shuttles. If you maybe wait a few minutes or whatever, they'll take you to Makkah, or you can walk too if you want, right? When you have two sleepy tired kids, sometimes we’re like okay, shuttle it is. Or when we're tired from walking around ourselves. 

So they're all there. We stayed in Hilton both at Makkah and Madinah, and we loved it. In Madinah, as far as the options, it is a little bit less, as far as the points options. You'll see a lot of like non-major hotel brands too that are there that are close, but you just may not be able to cover it in one of the currencies that you might already have, or even in the flexible rewards currencies. I think when it comes to like breakfast and when it comes to like accommodations, things can work a little bit differently in international properties. So just something to keep in mind. So.

Devon: Yeah, absolutely. We talked a little bit about the accommodation part of this trip, but I think anyone who travels frequently knows that the other major expense that comes into play when we are thinking about traveling internationally are those flights. 

I'm really curious to hear from you in your research for planning this trip, and I'm sure in helping a lot of other people plan this type of trip as well. Are there any airlines that you find to be particularly useful in terms of having award availability to take you from the U.S. over to Saudi Arabia? Or what are some of your top sort of tips for securing airfare using points, or at least some portion of that, for Umrah?

Amena: For starters, like I said, for this particular trip, our flights, we paid cash. I am based out of Dallas. So Dallas is a big AA hub. I'm lucky. I have a big Southwest hub, a big AA hub. What I would say, and I do talk about this in my guide as well, is that I guess I can't relate to that struggle of hey, I'm in a small town. I need to position myself. But you can book what's called a positioning flight and get yourself to another city. A short, cheap flight to another city that has like major airline hubs. 

But I think, again, it's about working backwards. It's going to Google Flights and saying okay, I want to go for Umrah. A lot of people go for Umrah during their children’s breaks. So like summer would be really hot. So that's normally avoided. Not that you won't find people. You will find people because if that's the only time you can go, that's the only time.

But a lot of times people go during spring break, fall break. I don't know if all the schools have it, but here in Dallas kids fall break in October. They'll go during Thanksgiving break. That's when we went. Or they'll go during that December break. Honestly, the most expensive times to go, right?

So I think looking at those routes, kind of working backward a little bit and saying okay well, I'm in this city. This airline will take me to, you can either fly into Jeddah or you can fly into Madinah. It's your choice. We visited Makkah first. We landed in Jeddah, and from Jeddah we took like a transfer ride. So we visited Makkah first. From Makkah, we take a train to Madinah. 

So you do have two options. You either can fly into Jeddah or you can fly into Madinah. I think it’s just working backwards, looking at the routes, and saying okay. Who is the airline that's flying them? Do I have the points that transfer to this airline? If it doesn't, what cards or what points do I need to earn to transfer to them? 

It's really, you're generally speaking, I think, from anywhere in the USA it’s, generally speaking, going to be the same routes that keep popping up. Which is like either through Turkish Airlines, through Emirates, through Qatar, or maybe their partner airlines respectively.

Devon: Yeah. so I think one of the things that people can take into consideration is there's always a lot of different sort of combinations or approaches that you can take to this type of travel planning, right? Like you were saying, the airfare may be the portion that you want to pay for using cash if that's what's going to give you the best availability or the best itinerary for the dates that you choose to travel. 

Or you can look to see is there a way to offset some of that cost using points, again, based on when you're traveling, what airlines have availability for award flights that are going to get you as close as you possibly can get to the region if you can't get yourself all the way from your starting point A, like you said to Jeddah, all the way sort of at the other end of that trip. 

I'm curious to hear from you because I know that you took this trip with your family. Do you find that when you're helping people plan for an Umrah trip, is it very common for people to go in larger groups? Or is it a very sort of equal amount of people who do this as either a solo type of trip or just with a partner? Do you think that there's any sort of challenge in terms of the number of people that you're trying to travel with to coordinate this type of trip?

Amena: So I think it depends. Like my sister is actually planning a solo trip I think within the next month. So she going to go by herself. We are a family. So there's four of us. My husband went alone. So he only had to worry about one ticket, but he went with like his brother and friend. I think it just depends. There are actually groups that will take that planning off of you. So that, obviously, you have to book in cash, right? Or you can charge it.

I was going to say that was my next thing is because we had our respective flights were all in cash just because we waited a little bit too late. I mean, we're four, right? Maybe we could have gotten one or two. But we wanted to be on the same itinerary, wanted to be together, long story short, which is why ours ended up being in cash. Like I said, our personal logistics is what delayed us in booking it sooner. 

So there's any sorts of combination. Now if people, a lot of times if people are traveling alone, or even like my parents who are considering going again, there are groups that will take care of all that planning for you. So you can be with strangers from all over the U.S., right? 

Like if I want to go in April, for example. I can tell different groups that take people individuals, families, a group of friends for Umrah, and they'll say okay. These are the dates we have. You can pay, and they’ll book. They'll do your flights. They'll say okay, here's your flight itinerary. I'm sure now in the world of group travel, we see this. 

But for Umrah and for [inaudible] especially this is happening for a while. So any combination, there is, you'll see any, I think it just depends on your lifestyle. If you're living alone then obviously you're going to go alone. Maybe you'll try to jump on a group, but there'll be other people. 

Like in our, when I went with my parents actually six months later just because they're older, and I wanted to go to help them. We went, my dad wanted to go with a group. When we booked, we did DIY in the sense that when you go with the group, you obviously are paying a fee because there are spiritual leaders who are kind of guiding you throughout the trip. They're taking you to different historical landmarks, different places of significance in history, and you're getting that maybe one on one kind of group time with them. Plus someone is doing all the booking for you. 

So that being said, I think it just depends on your respective situation. My parents are older. They did not want to have to worry about the booking. They wanted like a scholar or spiritual leader. They wanted some guidance. They were like we've been visiting Makkah and Madinah for so many years. We want someone to kind of guide us through all these different places of historical significance.

So I think it just depends on what you're looking for. We, as a family of four, we had to do a little bit of the DIY, right? I had to see okay, well, if I'm booking my flights on cash and if my hotels are a little bit a mix of both, how can I cover other costs through other cards that may not be a straight shot is like points and miles? But as we know in the space, there's other cards that can help you cover like other eligible travel related costs or whatnot. You can't really DIY it here with the crew because they want to keep everyone on the same itinerary. So I hope that answers your question and kind of made a little bit more sense.

Devon: Yeah, absolutely. For people who do want to DIY this type of trip, beyond the typical travel cost of airfare and accommodations, are there any other expenses that people should expect that are unique to Umrah, or at least traveling to this region? Like, are there any permits or visas that people need to be aware of that they need to coordinate prior to their travel? 

Amena: Yes, you do need to get a visa, and then the visa lasts for, I want to say, for maybe up to a year or whatnot. Which is why my sister is trying to go again because when we went in November of 2022 I think my parents too, like I said, we had gone for Hajj in 2004. 

So I think my parents after the pandemic, I think it kind of it scared them a little bit, to be honest. So when they saw us go, I think that gave them a little vote of confidence, so to speak. They didn't go with us, but they were like hey, we can do this too. We're not getting any younger. So they decided to go in April of 2023. 

I actually joined them as well because I wanted to be able to help my sister help them. So that it was, yes, being able to perform it again in a span of six months is not something I take for granted. But it was more so about being able to serve them and help them. Things that like maybe when we you're traveling with your own family, it's like yeah, I can call a ride or I can do this. They're older. So they don't work like that, right. 

Devon: Yeah, absolutely. Before we wrap it up on this episode, I was just curious to hear from you. Do you have maybe like your top three tips or recommendations for people who do want to use points for an Umrah trip about what you think would be most useful for them to keep in mind?

Amena: I think the number one thing, and I know everyone has their own way to book. I think just remember, especially when you're traveling from the U.S., keep in mind where you're going, right? Especially if you're times three, four, or five, you have to give yourself time. It can get so frustrating trying to find that award availability. I can tell you even when we were booking the hotels, I was like just yesterday the award availability was for three beds plus a pullout bed was there. What happened? 

I also joke because I had left that part to my husband, and I also joke. I'm like I should have just done it. But all jokes aside, you have to give yourself time. I generally, and I talk about this too. I generally book my travels six to nine months out. 

Now, that being said, for something like this, I would maybe even do it a little bit sooner. If I had done it sooner, I could have easily gotten the availability like you mentioned earlier. Keep in mind where you're going, book as far out as possible because actually, like we know, earning the points and actually being able to redeem them, all of that takes time. So you're going pretty far, right? So. 

Especially another thing is because a lot of people want to go during those popular times because you don't want to go in the summer. It's really hot, right? Even when I went in April, late April, early May with my parents, I had sweat beads going down my back. So it can get hot. But the reason I went with that time is that's the time my parents chose. So book early because those fights are going to be the hardest. Hotels tend to be a little bit easier, but flights times however many people you have in your party.

Devon: Those are always great tips. Now, I really appreciate your coming here today, again, sharing all of your wealth of knowledge and wisdom and experience about making travel plans for Umrah with all of us. But for the people who are really interested in taking on this type of travel planning and would love to get even more information, get more help with this, I know that you're putting together an entire guide for Umrah travel. Can you tell us a little bit more about that guide, and when it's going to be available for people?

Amena: Yes, thank you for that. So my guide, it will focus on how to earn points for flights, for economy flights I want to say. How to also cover those hotels stays. I talk about the four major hotel programs. I kind of walk you through, show you how to look at the, because each hotel program works a little bit differently. Being flexible about hey, I normally say with one hotel brand, but I think the Hilton may be closer. Maybe I want to stay there. Kind of being flexible on that. How do you kind of think through that. 

I also refer briefly to, as we know, credit card life cycles. For us, the Hilton wasn't a keeper long term. Thinking through that and kind of maybe, as I like to say, getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is you may need to take out a card or two, obviously being financially responsible, for the purpose of this trip. Maybe that's not something that you were planning on doing, right. But maybe for this trip, you're going to be able to cover those flights and those hotel stays for your family and your travel party in points and miles. 

So just taking it outside of the box, being flexible, planning ahead. I also talk about, I show you there's video tutorials of how to find those award flights. Then I know some of these websites, we all love the Turkish Airlines website, don't we? No, but that that's a joke. We really don't. But how to search on partner airlines for that respective award availability and then how to go about booking that way. 

I also talk about if you decide that you need to book a hotel that's not one of the four major hotel programs, right, how can you cover that and how to do that? I talk about that as well. There's also transportation costs between the respective cities, which falls in line with the saying if there's costs that don't fall in the traditional like hotel cards or flexible currencies that can help you book flights, what costs can you cover? 

I kind of briefly touch on that as well on the lines of like doing the transportation between like Makkah and Madinah and the non-chain hotels. The guide will be releasing, I'm super excited to actually bring this to life. It has been a labor of love. It will release January 29, 2024. There is currently a super fun giveaway going on until the Friday before, until the 26th. I'm giving one lucky winner $200 gift card of their choice plus they get this almost 30 page guide for completely free. So yep, pretty excited. 

Devon: That's absolutely incredible. For people who are interested in making sure that they have access to this incredible guide that you're creating, where can people go to put their names on a waitlist or to go ahead and grab that guide, if, for instance, they hear this podcast a week or two after you've ended up releasing it?

Amena: Yeah, so I will have everything in my Stan store by then. Currently, I have an Umrah channel right now that they can join. I have a weekly newsletter that goes out. I will initially briefly kind of mention it there. I know sometimes it may not be of interest to everyone, and I respect that, which is why I have the Umrah channel that is there. 

So on the Umrah channel, I tried to share a little bit more tidbits that might be more respected to just planning and booking an Umrah trip. So you can currently join there. Then also just make sure you're part of my weekly newsletter. I drop it. It's free. I drop it every Tuesday. I try to share tips there. I'll be talking more about the giveaway, the launch, and just tips that you can just be in the know of. Because being aware of just those general deals and promotions can help you book this trip. At the end of the day, we want to make the most of our points and our cash, right? So.

Devon: Absolutely. For everyone who's interested, we're going to link up in the episode show notes for this episode all of those different links that you're going to need to be able to find Amena, her work, her guides. So don't worry. Just go to the episode show notes, and you're going to have all the information there for how to find her and her incredible work. I want to thank you so much for coming here joining me today. I really, really appreciate it.

Amena: Thank you Devon. It has been an honor and a privilege, and I look forward to actually being able to meet you in person soon.

Devon: Me as well. I'm very excited for that. Have a great day, and have a great day to all of our listeners as well. We will see you back here again next week.

Thank you for joining me for this week's episode of Point Me to First Class. If you want more tips on turning your expenses into travel, visit pointmetofirstclass.com to learn more. See you next week.

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