How to Take a 10-Night Vacation for Free
This is Part Three of a three-part series in how to travel for free or cheap using rewards programs and other savvy methods of saving money. Click here and here for Parts One and Two. Or if you want to visit somewhere like Prague and find out all that the Czech Republic has to offer – see more at PragueHere.com.
Now that you’ve learned the basics of earning travel rewards it’s time to get down to the fun part: using your rewards for a free vacation! The scenario we’re going to work with today involves someone with good credit who has the ability to put $1,000 in monthly bills on a credit card, paying it off every month to avoid interest charges.
Step One: Sign up for Credit Card #1
In our scenario Credit Card #1 is the Citi Premier Mastercard. This card offer currently comes with 50,000 bonus ThankYou points when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. When you use this credit card for purchases you earn additional ThankYou points in the following manner:
- 3 points per dollar spent on all travel including gas. This is a great card to use for travel expenses that most other travel cards don’t offer bonus points for such as rail transportation, airport parking and tolls.
- 2 points per dollar spent on dining and entertainment
- 1 point per dollar spent on everything else
Assuming you only spend your first $3,000 on bills with no bonus points you would have 53,000 points after just 3 months.
Step Two: Sign up for Credit Card #2
Credit Card #2 can be one of two choices: the Starwood Preferred Guest card by American Express or a targeted offer from Marriott. We signed up for the SPG card about 6 months ago when there was an offer of 30,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. That offer is currently at just 25,000 points but if you’re interested in this card then I recommend holding out until the 30K offer comes back around (I hear it happens a few times a year). But for the purposes of this scenario we’ll go with the lower card offer.
With the SPG card you’ll earn 5 points per dollar spent at participating Starwood hotels and 1 point per dollar on everything else. There’s no foreign transaction fees and the $95 annual fee is waived the first year but the biggest downside I’ve noticed is that many places don’t accept American Express cards for payment. Be sure that your bills or other spending will accept American Express before signing up for this card, just to be sure you can hit that $3,000 spending to receive your bonus.
Assuming you spend just $3,000 on bills for the SPG card you should have 28,000 points after just 3 months.
The targeted offer from Marriott was something we received a few weeks ago in the mail. The offer is 80,000 Marriott rewards points when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. You’ll also earn 7,500 bonus points when you add an additional card user and they make a purchase in those first 3 months. The $85 annual fee isn’t waived for the first year but each year on the anniversary of your sign-up you’ll received a certificate for a free night at any of their Category 1-5 hotels which more than makes up for the annual fee. With this card you’ll earn the following points:
- 5 points per dollar spent at Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels
- 2 points per dollar spent on airline tickets purchased directly through the airline, car rentals and restaurants
- 1 point per dollar spent on everything else
The Marriott target offer is excellent because the current online offer is only for 50,000 points with just a 5,000 point bonus for adding an additional cardholder. We signed up for this targeted offer but if you’re unable to get it then I wouldn’t recommend signing up for the regular 50K offer. Grab the SPG card instead or hold out until you get a better offer from Marriott.
Assuming you sign up for the targeted offer and spend $3,000 on bills with no bonus points you should have 83,000 points after 3 months, or 90,500 points if you take advantage of the additional cardholder offer. We’ll go with the lower amount for this scenario.
Note: On November 16, 2015 Marriott hotels announced that they are acquiring Starwood hotels, creating the largest hotel company in the world. The two companies will remain separate until at least mid-2016 by which time we should find out what changes will be made to their reward programs.
Step Three: Pick a Vacation!
So now it’s 6 months later and you’ve earned all your bonus points from your new credit cards. It’s time to take a vacation! What do you do next? First let’s go over what we can do with our points.
The ThankYou points earned from the Citi Premier card are extremely versatile but they’re most valuable when used as airline miles. Our 50,000 bonus miles can be transferred to KLM/Air France where we can get a roundtrip ticket to almost anywhere in Europe or those points can remain as ThankYou points where we can book a flight through Citi’s own travel portal to anywhere in the world.
28,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points will earn you anything from 7 nights in a Category 1 hotel to 2 nights in a Category 5 hotel. SPG offers a free 5th night when you book 4 consecutive nights in a Category 3-7 hotel.
83,000 Marriott points are an even greater deal. You can get 11 nights at a Category 1 hotel, 13 if you’re savvy and book a hotel that’s offering a PointSavers Reward. Like Starwood, Marriott also has a 5th night free offer which can even be used on longer stays. That means an 11-night stay turns into a 13-night stay with the 5th and 10th nights being free!
Below are five different vacations we can use with our rewards points.
The Family Road Trip
Don’t have a passport? Lacking enough points for multiple airline tickets? Sounds like a road trip is in your future and what better place than Orlando, Florida? Spend 7 nights with your SPG points or 9 nights with your Marriott points and use your Citi ThankYou points for free activities in the area.
Starwood: 7 nights at the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista, a Category 2 hotel. Amenities include a spa and 2 large outdoor pools but this hotel does charge a daily resort fee of $21.95. Note: Category 2 hotels at SPG are 4,000 points on the weekdays but only 3,000 points on the weekends. Save up an extra 1,000 points and stay over 2 weekends and you’ll stretch your vacation to 8 nights. Points left over: up to 2,000.
Marriott: 10 nights (8 rewards nights plus 2 nights free) at the Springhill Suites Orlando Altamonte Springs/Maitland, a Category 2 hotel. More basic than the Sheraton but has an indoor pool and free breakfast. Points left over: 3,000.
Citi ThankYou: Spend 14,500 points on 4 tickets to the Kennedy Space Center or 11,000 points for tickets to Gatorland. Using Citi ThankYou points for activities aren’t as valuable as spending on airfare but they’re still useful when planning a vacation on a budget. Another option is to use your credit card for the activities, earn 2 points per dollar and save all your points for airfare on a later trip. Points left over: varies.
A Weekend in Paris
Ever want to spend a weekend in the City of Lights? It’s complete affordable with your credit card points! Spend 2 nights in a hotel with either your SPG or Marriott card and use your Citi ThankYou points for a roundtrip flight.
Starwood: 2 nights at Le Méridien Etoile, a Category 5 hotel located in the 17th arrondissement within walking distance of the Arc de Triomphe. This category ranges in points from 12,000 to 16,000 but all dates that I searched for this hotel were for 12,000 points. Points left over: 4,000.
Marriott: 2 nights at Paris Marriott Opera Ambassador, a Category 8 hotel only 2 blocks from the historic Opera Garnier. Points left over: 3,000.
Citi ThankYou: Transfer 50,000 points to KLM/Air France for a free roundtrip ticket to Paris from anywhere in the US. With the 3,000 points you’ll have left over you can get a shuttle to/from the airport and a ticket for a Seine River Cruise. Points left over: varies.
A Week in the Rainforest of Central America
Costa Rica is a country with everything from rugged rainforests to pristine beaches and it’s a hot destination due to it accessibility from many major cities in the US. In the capitol of San José you can spend 10 nights in a hotel with your SPG card or 5 nights with your Marriott card.
Starwood: 10 nights at Aloft San José, a Category 1 hotel near the airport. This is a no-frills hotel located in a quiet business park and while San José isn’t close to the beaches there is still plenty to do in the area. SPG points for a Category 1 hotel are 3,000 points per night on weekdays, 2,000 points on the weekends. Points left over: up to 2,000.
Marriott: 10 nights (8 rewards nights plus 2 nights free) at Courtyard San José in the nearby neighborhood of Escazu. This is also a no-frills hotel and compared to Aloft San José they’re pretty much the same. If you’re looking for a more luxurious stay you could spend 3 nights at the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel San José which has a full-service spa. Points left over: 3,000.
Citi ThankYou: There aren’t any frequent flier programs to transfer your ThankYou points to for a flight to San José so you’re stuck using Citi’s own travel booking portal. Flights range in price from about 32K to 42K points. That leaves enough points leftover for plenty of activities. Use 3,200 points for an airport shuttle and depending on the cost of your flight you could book anything from a coffee tour and chocolate tasting (5,300 points) to a whitewater rafting trip (9,100 points) to a cruise to Tortuga Island (12,700 points). Points left over: varies.
History and Culture in Prague
Prague is chock full of unique architecture including its beautiful Gothic churches. Because the Czech Republic is not on the Euro it’s also a great budget-friendly city to visit in Europe. In Prague you can enjoy 5 nights at a hotel with either your SPG or Marriott credit card. It’s also a very popular destination for stag dos. Check out https://stagmadness.com/prague for some inspiration.
Starwood: 5 nights (4 rewards nights plus 1 night free) at the Sheraton Prague, a centrally located Category 3 hotel. Points left over: 0.
Marriott: 5 nights (4 rewards nights plus 1 night free) at the Courtyard Prague City, a Category 4 hotel. It’s not as centrally located as the Sheraton Prague but it’s next to a cemetery so at least the neighbors are quiet 🙂
Citi ThankYou: As with the weekend Paris trip you can transfer 50,000 points to KLM for a roundtrip ticket to Prague from anywhere in the US. With your remaining 3,000 points you could book an airport shuttle for around 1,300 points and a sightseeing cruise along the Vltava River for 1,100 points. Points left over: varies.
A Beach Holiday on the Canary Islands
The Canary Islands are an archipelago off the coast of northwest Africa but are the territory of Spain. This means that you’re still paying the European rate for KLM airline miles (50,000) instead of the African rate (80,000). With nearly perfect temperatures year-round it’s a popular vacation destination for many Europeans. Spend 7 nights at an SPG hotel on the island of Fuerteventura or 6 nights at a Marriott hotel on the island of Gran Canaria.
Starwood: 7 nights at the Sheraton Fuerteventura Beach Golf & Spa Resort, a Category 2 hotel. With tons of amenities such as indoor and outdoor pools (including a children’s pool), a full service spa and barber shop it’s hard to believe that this hotel is only a Category 2. Points left over: 0.
Marriott: 6 nights (5 rewards nights plus 1 night free) at the AC Hotel Gran Canaria, a Category 3 hotel. The rooftop pool has excellent views of the surrounding area and your stay includes a free airport shuttle. Points left over: 8,000.
Citi ThankYou: Transfer 50,000 points to KLM for a free roundtrip ticket to Fuerteventura from anywhere in the US. This is an excellent use of points as a ticket to the Canary Islands can easily surpass $1,000. A ticket from Anchorage to Fuerteventura in mid June 2016 is currently over $2,400! Points left over: varies.
As some of you may have noticed there are no Asian vacations listed in this post. While there are plenty of great hotels in that part of the world finding a roundtrip airline ticket for 50,000 miles is almost impossible and that’s why none of those destinations made it on the list. It’s possible to find a great airfare deal through Citi’s booking portal but those deals would be limited to certain travel dates and/or US airports. If you’re interested in a vacation to anywhere in Asia or Australia/New Zealand then you will probably need to save twice as many rewards points as the vacations listed here.
So now that I’ve covered 5 various vacations you can take for free the big question is: Where are you going to go?
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