How I used points and miles to visit my 50th state for less

2d ago

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In elementary school, I learned the song “Fifty Nifty United States” during music class one year — and the lyrics have stuck with me ever since. This makes for a great party trick whenever I tell someone I can recite the states in alphabetical order, but I think it also, in some way, created this subconscious desire to hit them all during my lifetime.

And recently, that goal became a reality.

Here’s how it happened — and why the trip became one of my favorites of the last few years.

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But first, some context

As a youngster growing up in New York, I traveled a fair amount with my family, but our time was spent mostly in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, with an occasional sojourn to a vacation locale like California or Florida.

However, four years of college in North Carolina, a two-year stint in Las Vegas (including a pair of cross-country moves) and finally a full-time consulting gig gave me a chance to visit a vast swath of our great country. In fact, by the time I hung up my road warrior shoes when my daughter was born in November of 2014, I had set foot in all but three states.

I checked off Montana with a visit to Glacier National Park in 2017. We spent time in Wisconsin on a spring break trip to Duluth, Minnesota, in March of 2021.

Which meant there was only one state left: Kansas.

The plan

In December of 2021, Frontier Airlines brought back its status match promotion — with one notable upgrade. Rather than being restricted to statuses with airlines, you could use existing hotel elite status to qualify. And, for the first few days, top tiers like Hyatt Globalist and Hilton Honors Diamond matched to Frontier’s highest level (Elite 100K).

This status tier essentially renders the carrier’s ultra-low-cost model moot, as it allows me (and my travel companions) the following on every trip:

  • A free carry-on bag.
  • A free checked bag.
  • Free seat assignments, including extra-legroom seats.
  • Refundability.

Even though we had taken our first international trip of the pandemic in November of 2021, many of our travel plans were still focused closer to home. And as soon as my Frontier 100K status was approved, I began investigating possible destinations from South Florida.

When I found the carrier’s nonstop flight from Orlando International Airport (MCO) to Kansas City International Airport (MCI) over Presidents Day Weekend — for $129.78, total, for three of us — I was sold.

Understandably, traveling to Kansas (and Missouri) in February probably isn’t high on many travelers’ wish lists. But we had a fabulous time.

Our first night was spent at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, which is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. I found an affordable rate I could stack with an Amex Offer and an unused Suite Night Award. This would also place us just minutes from the Missouri-Kansas border — and my 50th state.

Thankfully, my upgrade cleared five days before our arrival, bumping us into a parlor suite, which was spacious, modern and a perfect place for the overnight stay.

My Marriott Platinum status also allowed us to enjoy a terrific breakfast before heading out for the day.

But the property for our final two nights was the real standout, as we drove about 30 minutes to The Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs, Missouri.

The historic property first opened its doors in 1888 to house visitors flocking to the area to experience the supposedly healing waters of the natural springs. Unfortunately, the first two iterations burned to the ground (in 1898 and 1910, respectively). The current building was constructed in 1912 and has witnessed its fair share of history.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited in the 1930s to soak in the waters of Excelsior Springs in an unsuccessful attempt to treat his polio. President Harry Truman spent the night of Election Day in 1948 at the hotel shortly before posing with the now-famous issue of the Chicago Tribune that (erroneously) declared “Dewey Defeats Truman” on its front page.

The property was also a frequent haunt of Al Capone, while the European lap pool in the bowels of the hotel hosted a well-known speak-easy during the years of Prohibition.

(Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

As a Destination by Hyatt property, we were able to use World of Hyatt points for a standard suite (a steal at just 13,000 points per night). It’s worth noting, however, that this particular property did shift as part of the March 2022 category changes, so you’ll now need between 9,000 and 15,000 points per night for a standard room and 17,000 to 23,000 points for a suite.

Our third-floor suite was spacious and charming, featuring modern amenities with a rustic feel. It was far from the most luxurious room we’ve stayed in, but it was quite comfortable for the two-night stay — and a fantastic deal using points.

The hotel had a number of enticing amenities, including a heated outdoor hot tub and a full-service spa (my wife loved the treatment she had). My Globalist status also ensured we had free breakfast each morning.

Another highlight of the hotel was the nightly paranormal tour. Conducted by Jay, a longtime employee of the hotel, it was part history, part ghost story. And even if some of the tales seemed implausible, Jay’s enthusiasm and delivery had me shivering with goosebumps multiple times.

But perhaps most importantly, the property was just 35 minutes from the airport, making it a convenient spot for virtually anyone around the country to visit. And it also put us in a great spot to experience the area.

Dining and drinking in Missouri

The terms “fine dining” and “local wineries” probably don’t conjure images of Missouri and Kansas for many people, but we loved all of our meals and our winery visits on the trip.

As we planned our getaway, we came across Willow Spring Mercantile, a fantastic little wine shop along Broadway, the main strip of downtown. And it just so happened that our first night in town coincided with the shop’s monthly wine dinner. The three of us enjoyed a fantastic four-course meal in the brick-walled basement of the shop, with each course paired with Missouri wines.

(Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

Intrigued, we made plans to explore three local wineries the next day, all of which were within 15 minutes of The Elms.

We started at Four Horses and a Dog, just a few minutes north of downtown, where we enjoyed some wines and a picnic tray with sausage, cheese, crackers, almonds, chips and dark chocolate.

(Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

Our next stop was Fence Stile winery, situated about 10 minutes from the hotel. The modern tasting room was spacious, and while we enjoyed the wine we tasted, my wife and I both thought the spiced apple sangria was the true winner. We also loved the hot-pressed panini with ground mustard and olive spread, and the chocolate truffles.

(Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

After naps and a quick dip in the outdoor hot tub back at The Elms, we ventured to nearby Rayville, Missouri, for wine and dinner at Van Till Family Farm. This winery has an enclosed, heated winter garden with a brick oven, so every Friday and Saturday, you can enjoy your wine with fresh-baked pizza. We tried three of the pies, and they were outstanding (as was the slice of chocolate cake we took to go).

(Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

On our last day in town, we walked four minutes up the street from the hotel to check out Dubious Claims Brewing Company — named for the ignominious history of the town. We loved the pretzel rolls, and the beer was quite tasty as well.

(Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

But our enjoyment of the trip went far beyond these experiences. We had an absolute blast meeting and talking with local residents, too.

My first interaction came when calling Willow Spring Mercantile to reserve our spots at the wine dinner. Daphne (who owns the shop with her husband, Jim) made the reservations for us, but we wound up chatting for nearly 20 minutes. Her friendliness emanated through the phone, and when we met them at the store, they were so welcoming. They even gifted us our souvenir Christmas ornament (we buy one on every trip we take).

And none of the servers at the restaurants and wineries were interested solely in taking our orders. They also all made a point to chat with us and seemed genuinely thrilled we had come to visit their corner of the country.

Reaching my final state

Of course, the main reason for the trip was to spend some time in Kansas, so after checking out of the Ambassador Hotel (and a short stop at Union Station), we headed for the border.

While the bridge we took over the Missouri River didn’t have a sign to designate when we (officially) crossed the border, our Toyota 4Runner did the job for us.

“Welcome to Kansas,” it proclaimed.

I was 39 years, two weeks, two days and roughly seven hours old when I officially set foot in my 50th state.

To celebrate, we did what anyone should do when visiting Kansas City, Kansas. We ate barbecue — though not just any barbecue. We’d done our research ahead of time, and we opted to visit Slap’s BBQ. The food was outstanding, and the heated patio was a perfect place to celebrate the occasion.

We spent the rest of the day driving through downtown to see the murals and we visited the Legends outlet center in western Kansas City. And after a pit stop for ice cream at Culver’s, we were off to Excelsior Springs and the rest of the trip.

For a number of years, I figured that checking off my 50th state would be an exciting milestone on a less-than-exciting trip — but nothing could’ve been further from the truth. We had a blast on our three-day sojourn to Kansas and Missouri, thanks to the terrific food, great hotels and wonderful residents. I highly recommend a visit to the area the next time you’re looking for a quick getaway to an off-the-beaten-path destination.

(Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

In many ways, this trip was simply a continuation of a recent trend to focus on domestic destinations, which included outstanding trips to Twin Falls, Idaho; Duluth, Minnesota; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Detroit. None of these would’ve been high on our pre-pandemic travel wish list, but we’re so glad we got the chance to visit each and every one of them.

As for what’s next, I’d love to visit every country in the world, but my family has some more immediate goals. After all, this trip took my wife up to 42 states, and my daughter is now at 31. It’s only a matter of time before they notch their own Nifty 50 — and I’ll be thrilled to come along for the ride.

Featured photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy.

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