How I Got a $5,000 Luxury Trip to the Middle East for Less Than $1,500


A big thank you to Etihad from the sand dunes. (All photos: Janice Lintz)

This past Christmas morning, a real-life miracle happened. I woke up to find ridiculously low roundtrip fares from New York City to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, through Etihad Airways on

They were just $177.80! It was unclear whether the fares were a promotion or a mistake. Either way, these fares weren’t going to last long! My fingers could not type fast enough to secure them while simultaneously researching the destination to calculate the number of days I needed. The goal was to book the flights before the error was discovered and/or the promotion was sold out. I randomly selected six nights/seven days. I felt like I won the lottery when my flight was confirmed. The fare turned out to be an error, but Etihad, to their credit, honored the booking.

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Santa had delivered to me an offer that was just too good to be true. Now I had a challenge: Could I have a five-star luxury trip for less than $1,500? As a self-admitted credit card junkie, it was time to cash in my points and hotel certificates. Since I am also a country counter, I added Bahrain to my trip to bring my country count to 92 and make the trip a bit more enticing.

The total combined cost of my flights was now $393.72.

My Capital One Venture card’s 40,000 point sign-up bonus entirely erased this expense. My flights now cost nothing. With the remaining points, I was able to reduce my expensive, $170 Bahrain visa to just $76.03.

I stayed at the newly built Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea & Spa hotel in a standard room for $256.22. I could not find it for less. I had a Sofitel Accor account with 2,000 points that were about to expire. I traded them in for a certificate for 40 euros (about $45), ultimately reducing my dinner, airport transfer, and breakfast expenditures to $85.48.

There was no charge to visit Bahrain’s forts, mosque, the world’s first oil well, camel farm, and impressive skyline. To maximize my time in Bahrain, I took an 8:40 p.m. return flight to Abu Dhabi. I decided to stay overnight at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr rather than drive two hours at night to the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.


A new friend at the Royal Camel Farm in Bahrain

My taxi to the hotel was $16.87. My Fairmont credit card had one remaining free night certificate with a suite upgrade and buffet breakfast. My suite was bigger than my first apartment. It even had a majestic view of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center.

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The hotel graciously sent a fruit platter with Arabic treats to my room. My cost for this was zero. This was the lap of luxury. I really didn’t want to leave, but I had a tight schedule to maintain. It was now onward to Qasr. I could’ve taken the expensive hotel transfer, but I elected for a taxi since the vehicles are immaculate and the drive was along a highway. It cost $89.84.


A sunrise camel trek

Qasr Al Sarab is literally an oasis in the middle of the desert. It is nestled among magnificent, breathtaking sand dunes. The most recent Star Wars movie was filmed there. I booked the reservation through Virtuoso, a luxury travel site, since its rates included a buffet breakfast, a $100 resort credit, as well as late checkout and an upgrade. Since the hotel wasn’t busy, I was given early check-in and a room with a panoramic view of the sand dunes. I ended up with two full days despite paying for only one night.

The credit came in handy for all the activities at the hotel, including a camel trek, a falcon and saluki show, and sand dune “bashing.” Driving and swerving down the drifts is a surreal blast. My $559.35 room was charged to my Barclays card. That card’s sign-up bonus covered $475 in hotel fees. My stay, including my activities, meals, and resort credit, came out to $374.86.

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The Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas on Saadiyat Island was my next stop. The drive was a bit farther, so my taxi cost $100.73. But, my Hyatt charge card’s sign-up bonus of a complimentary two-night stay more than made up for the additional taxi fare. My meals there cost $74.74. My splurge was $245 for a private guide/driver to see Abu Dhabi’s sights and $46.28 to visit the Falcon Hospital.

The hospital was fascinating, having just seen the falcon show. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the leading medical facility in the world to provide comprehensive medical care for falcons. Falconry in the Middle East is a very serious and costly sport, and practitioners are willing to pay good money to make sure their falcons are cared for.


Meeting the falcons

My entire trip, including all my hotel stays, transfers, flights, and meals, cost less than $1,500. There is a caveat: I don’t eat lunch when I travel since I really enjoy the hotels’ lavish breakfasts. The cost might have been a bit higher for a “normal” person with a healthier midday appetite.

Etihad’s error and its decision to honor the low fare was the best Christmas present ever for a Jewish girl from New York City.

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