I spent six days in Seattle for $558, thanks to American Express Membership Rewards, and earned plenty of cash back with my credit cards while on it.
Booking travel in 2021 can be an unnerving experience that teaches you to expect the unexpected.
I expected to see My Chemical Romance in Chicago in September. My Chemical Romance decided that would have to wait until 2022.
Suddenly, I found myself with more than $300 in American Airlines credits from a canceled trip, more than 36,000 points burning a hole in my Amex account and an urge to travel as soon as possible. I had to make some plans soon as the summer was fast approaching. So, I took my American Express® Gold Card and booked a trip to the place that had been calling my name for a long, long while.
To the place “in the pines where the sun don’t ever shine,” the place of grunge and good coffee, of owls that aren’t what they seem, sparkly vampires and other pop culture darlings.
I booked a trip to Washington state.
Booking a flight to Seattle
When My Chemical Romance announced they were postponing their reunion tour, I called to see if I could get my flight to Chicago refunded. Since I’d booked it through American Express Travel, I could only get my money back by contacting Amex. A customer service representative let me know that I could indeed get a refund, but only in the form of American Airlines credits.
Those were the very same credits I used to book a flight from Austin, Texas, to Seattle. A roundtrip in economy class cost me $314 – the most affordable option I could find.
I consider myself a frugal traveler. The flight to Seattle was nothing special, with narrow seats in the economy class and barely any legroom even for such a short and overall compact person as me. That didn’t bother me. As my connection flight in Phoenix, Arizona, took off, and music was blasting in my earphones, I was already too busy feeling like a main character.
Booking a hotel with Membership Rewards
I’ve mentioned the 36,000 points sitting in my Amex account. Without them, my trip to Seattle might not have happened – at least not when it did.
I’d earned 30,000 points by referring my friend to the Amex Gold. When she was approved, I received the bonus which funded my hotel stay.
Booking travel with Amex is rather simple. For lodging, you can filter out your options by star rating, price and more to find properties that fit you.
As far as payment goes, you get three options: You can pay with dollars, points (if you have at least 5,000 points) or a combination of both. Now you can also choose to use the “Plan It” option to pay for your booking in installments with a fixed fee.
I booked a stay at Larkspur Landing, an all-suite hotel in Bellevue, Washington. I stayed frugal again and picked it because it offered good value. It was old, and it felt old with outdated furniture and a TV channel dedicated exclusively to advertising a four-CD collection of soft rock hits. But it also was a clean, reasonably priced place that didn’t look like a motel, which was good enough for me.
Doing the math
The total cost for five nights was $499, but I opted to use my points. My hotel stay ended up costing $244 and a bit over 36,500 points.
Note that technically, this isn’t exactly the best use of Amex points. While airfare bookings will get you a 1 cent per point value, the value of your points fluctuates if you book lodging through Amex. For instance, in my case, the point value was 0.7 cents per point, which is rather poor, especially comparing to the value I could get from transferring to Amex’s partners.
For example, if I’d decided to keep my points, I could’ve transferred them to Singapore KrisFlyer at 2.36 cents per point one day. Or I could’ve picked to stay at a Hilton property in Seattle. That way, my points would’ve been worth 1 cent per piece (factoring in the transfer ratio and our estimated Hilton Honors point value), which seems like a much better value.
But the truth is, Singapore KrisFlyer wouldn’t help me book a stay in Seattle, and I’m too frugal for Hilton. The cheapest Hilton property I could find in the area would’ve cost me over $820 for five nights – or $455 if I’d transferred my Amex points and applied them to the purchase.
This was not a sum I was prepared to pay without budgeting for it well in advance.
So, I only paid $244. I didn’t care much about the lost point value, since using my points the way I did keep more money in my pocket.
Using my Amex Gold and other credit cards on the trip
Just in time for my trip, I found a Starbucks promotion in my Amex Offers. Through the end of July, I could get 10% back on eligible Starbucks purchases, up to $5 in cash back.
Since Seattle is the birthplace of Starbucks, I made sure to take full advantage of this offer. The cash back was posted to my account in the form of statement credits.
The Amex Gold also offers $10 in monthly Uber Cash credits, so I used this offer as well and saved $10 on my way to the airport in Austin. That was almost 20% in savings on my ride.
See related: 8 ways I maximize the Amex Gold card
Normally, I use my Amex Gold for dining too, to earn 4 points per dollar on restaurant purchases. I did that on my first day in Seattle out of habit until I remembered that in this quarter, the Discover it® Cash Back earns 5% back at restaurants and on PayPal purchases (up to $1,500 in combined purchases per quarter, after enrollment, then 1% back). It’s my first year with the card too, and all the cash back I earn within the first year will be matched. Essentially, I’m getting 10% back for restaurants and PayPal until I meet the spend cap.
Thanks to the Discover card, I’ll have earned 10% back having lunch with a view at the Athenian Seafood Restaurant in Pike Place Market, snacking on Piroshky Piroshky, trying Seattle’s favorite burgers at Dick’s Drive-In and coffee at Monorail Espresso. I also can’t help mentioning a “damn fine cup of coffee” and cherry pie at Twede’s in North Bend, also known as R&R diner from David Lynch’s cult classic “Twin Peaks.”
Such unforgettable culinary experiences. So much cash back.
Unfortunately, neither Amex nor Discover were accepted at River’s Edge Restaurant in La Push, where I went to feel like Bella Swan from “Twilight.” I was still able to earn 2% cash back with my Affinity Cash Rewards Visa Signature Credit Card on that delicious meal with views of Mora Bay. (If you’re ever there, the fries are to die for, and the local ciders are divine.)
All in all, I spent $558 on my flight and lodging in Seattle, thanks to American Express and Membership Rewards.
I also earned over 800 Amex points on the trip, saved $256 on the hotel and $15 more with my Amex Gold and got almost $20 in cash back with my other cards – or $37 if you factor in Discover’s CashBack Match.
Not bad for six days of an unforgettable trip that wouldn’t have happened if not for Membership Rewards points in my account (and My Chemical Romance’s love for making fans wait).
If you’re a frugal traveler like me, rewards credit cards provide some of the best ways to keep more money in your accounts. If you’re shopping around for a travel credit card, I can share that I’m happy with my Amex Gold, since it makes it easy to earn rewards, and redemption is a breeze.
So far, I used Amex for booking four times, two of which were point redemptions (over $1,000 in total value). I have no complaints.
My final piece of advice for keeping award travel affordable is to always do your research and math. Compare airfare and lodging options to find the sweet spot between quality and price. Keep point values in mind when redeeming rewards, but pick the option that makes the most sense in your current situation. Budget is king.