When my husband and I first started dating, he confessed he hadn't really traveled before. Despite a group trip to Israel and some family ski vacations, his lengthy international bucket list was more a pile of dreams -- until I came along. I also had a bucket list of my own, composed of faraway places that gave my hubby literal heart palpitations. In a bad way.
When the time came to choose a honeymoon spot and I suggested Southeast Asia, my husband was terrified. I had been to Thailand a few years before and wanted to share this place that I loved so much with him. I knew he'd have the time of his life -- he just needed a little encouragement.
About a month later, I successfully convinced my husband to honeymoon in Bali, Thailand and Hong Kong. The rub was that every piece would have to be luxurious -- I'm talking business-class flights, 5-star hotels, car service ... the works.
Yikes. How on earth could we pull this off, especially after paying for the entire wedding ourselves?
I was determined to make it happen, and thus began the planning that gave us three heavenly weeks in what have now become my husband's favorite countries.
Here are six easy ways to plan an over-the-top, luxury honeymoon for less:
Choose a destination where the dollar is strong
Southeast Asia is perfect for this -- meals cost about $2, activities like cooking classes and market tours are between $20-$30 per person, and souvenirs are pretty much always negotiable. Europe is also a great option right now, with a low euro.
Airline miles are everything
We became religious followers of The Points Guy -- a blogger who lays out exactly what you need to do to fly anywhere in the world for free. The site highly recommended opening the Chase Sapphire card, which allows 1:1 point transfers to a variety of frequent flyer programs including United, Singapore Air, Virgin Atlantic, Marriott and more. You receive a 45,000 mile sign-up bonus, and I planned to rack up a healthy amount of points with all of my wedding purchases. With about 80,000 points in tow and 80,000 miles already in my Mileage Plus account, we had enough to fly from Miami to Bali in business. We then each opened a Citi AAdvantage card for 100,000 combined miles and booked Cathay Pacific flights home from Thailand to Miami -- all in business and first class. Free flights: CHECK!
Choose locally owned hotels over international chains
In addition to staying in a place that captures the vibe and culture of the city you're in, prices are often much more affordable. U.S. and European hotel brands tend to have prices that you'd expect in those countries, while locally owned hotels offer prices that are more in line with the local currency.
Nearby hotels are great
We found that luxe hotels in the Phi Phi Islands were way out of our price range. Rather than staying on the island itself, we lodged nearby and opted for a full-day island-hopping tour. This way, we got to experience the magic of the Phi Phi islands without going over budget. Similarly, we decided to stay in Kowloon at the stunning Hotel Madera instead of a hotel in Central Hong Kong. By staying in Kowloon, we got the most bang for our buck -- a gorgeous, apartment-style hotel room with its own private sun deck. The hotel was also home to a rooftop bar with sweeping skyline views that we would never have seen from Central Hong Kong. It was still super easy to get around, with subway stations sprinkled throughout the city.
Try not to get attached to any one hotel or brand -- pick out a few spots that look awesome to you, and then let the price dictate which one to go with. Shameless plug, but our Travelzoo Asia site has some pretty incredible offers throughout a variety of countries - think villas with your own private pool for under $200 per night.
Splurge a little
After you count the thousands of dollars you've saved, see what's left in the budget. Then, take that extra money and treat yourselves. We became obsessed with Rayavadee on Railay Beach -- one of Travel + Leisure's "World's Best" hotels -- but the price was double what we wanted to pay. After finding a little wiggle room in our wallets, we searched for the best rate and then splurged on two nights. The hotel was beyond our wildest expectations -- built amid cascading limestone cliffs surrounded by emerald-green and blue waters, Thai long boats and lush foliage. Use your splurge hotel as the cherry on top of all your hard money-saving work.
So dream big -- no honeymoon dream is off the table. In seven cities and 21 days we learned to cook Thai food, swam with Nemo fish, nurtured rescue elephants, fed bananas to monkeys, hiked through rice fields, toured temples, ate countless plates of fried rice, kayaked through emerald lagoons, tasted the most expensive coffee in the world, got many $5 massages, lived in the lap of luxury in a two-story beach house and most importantly, stayed on budget.
Allison Kobasky is a deal expert at Travelzoo and based in Miami. Travelzoo has 250 deal experts from around the world who rigorously research, evaluate and test thousands of deals to find those with true value.