Find out how you can turn that wish-list vacation into reality
That seemingly unaffordable dream trip at the top of your wish list? You can make it a reality by funding most, if not all, of it on credit card rewards.
That’s exactly what these five travelers did, though they all say traveling on rewards requires a lot of extra planning. One big lesson: give yourself enough time on the front end. These travelers say it took them a year or two to turn their dream trips into reality.
Here’s how they took a once-in-a-lifetime vacation on rewards, with their best tips on how you can do the same:
New York marketing professionals Alex and Kelly Bryant role elephants in Thailand, ate wine and cheese in the Netherlands and slept under the stars in Australia.
THE TRAVELERS: New York marketing professionals Alex and Kelly Bryant quit their jobs to travel and blogged about their trip at PracticallyEverywhere.com.
The dream trip: A trip around the world that began in January 2016 in Singapore and ended in August in Spain.
How they used rewards: A year before the trip, Kelly signed up for a Citi ThankYou credit card. The card offered a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points for spending $3,000 in three months, so the couple used that card for almost all their purchases. After they snagged that bonus, Alex got approved for a Capital One Venture Card, which had a sign-up bonus of 40,000 points. Opening the card accounts in a staggered way helped them easily meet the minimum spending requirements for each bonus, he says. “The clock didn’t start on mine until she already had her bonus,” he says.
After getting the bonuses, they split spending evenly between the two cards. Each used the rewards accrued on their own card to buy a flight from New York to Singapore, their starting point. They used additional points they racked up on her card to cover their flights from Indonesia to Amsterdam, along with hotel stays in Australia and Vietnam. And they used his rewards to pay for car rentals and train tickets along the way.
Best rewards tips: Learn the ins and outs of how your particular cards work so you can strategize spending and redemption. For example, Kelly’s Citi card offers 3 points per dollar spent on travel purchases and allows for redemption of rewards in the Citi online store or via transfer to a partner program. The Capital One card offers only 2 miles per dollar spent, but has a feature called Purchase Eraser, that allows you to “erase” all or part of a travel purchase. To use the feature, you charge a travel purchase on your card, then use points you’ve accrued to cancel out all or part of the purchase. So, the couple focused on building up points on her card to get bigger rewards like flights. They bought less expensive items with his card, then used his points and the Purchase Eraser option to knock down the balance they owed.
Why it was a dream trip: Both Alex and Kelly were working hard, but not getting ahead financially due to the high cost of city living, so the trip was a “chance to hit the reset button,” Alex says. Both had made life decisions around their careers, so quitting their jobs to travel was a bold move. The couple rode elephants in Thailand in a humane and eco-friendly way, feeding the animals treats of coconut husks and sugarcane, and riding them bareback into a river to help them cool down. They also hiked into mountains to a local village where they unexpectedly got invited to a funeral, ate local food and slept on mats under mosquito nets. “It was essentially a big slumber party,” Kelly wrote. In the Netherlands, they saw amazing architecture and ate wine and cheese. In Australia, they camped. “Sleeping under the stars for several nights in the Australian outback was amazing,” Alex says. He says Kelly had to convince him to commit to the trip, but eventually he embraced the adventure. “It definitely changed our life path,” he says.
Susan Robertson treated her extended family to Italy in 2014, using rewards to pay for all their hotel stays as well as four coach and two first-class airline tickets.
THE TRAVELER: Susan Robertson, an independent consultant from Orlando, Florida.
The dream trip: A family trip for six to Italy in the summer of 2014.
How she used rewards: A rewards veteran and frequent traveler, Robertson took her brother, her sister-in-law and her niece and two nephews to China on rewards in 2010 for less than $1,500. By 2014, she had plenty of points to cover another big trip, this time to Italy. She bought two first-class tickets and four coach tickets to Italy, and the family rotated seats throughout the flight. She also used rewards to pay for all hotel stays.
Best rewards tips: “For me, the key is to stay with one brand,” Robertson says. “I never fly anything other than Delta even if it means I have to take a connection because I know the value of those points to me.” For hotels, she sticks with Marriott. In her former job, one colleague would take whatever flight was most convenient, Robertson remembers. “She split her points amongst lots of airlines and never had very many points on any of them,” Robertson says. Once you choose your airline, “get their associated credit card and use it for everything.”
Why it was a dream trip: “Everyone refers to it as the best vacation they ever had,” says Robertson, who says the trip was a major family bonding experience. In Florence, the family rented bicycles, got a map and rode around the countryside. They bought ripe tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella and made perfect Caprese salads. They tracked down her sister-in-law’s long-lost relatives in the mountainous town of Gerace, in the Calabria region of Southern Italy, and set up a family reunion. The Italian relatives invited other family members from Germany and served linguine with mushroom sauce, local cheeses and soppressata, a cured Italian sausage, to the group of 50. They laughed and talked despite the language barrier. In Rome, the family got on bicycles again and rode down an ancient highway, past gardens, museums and ruins. At dinnertime, they rode past a herd of bell-wearing goats that were headed home to eat. “All the goats were running and the bells were ringing,” she remembers. “It was kind of magical.”
Alexander and Olena Dymo and their daughter on the beach in Bora Bora. The couple racked up more than 600,000 points needed for a two-week stay at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, which typically costs over $1,000 per night.
THE TRAVELERS: Alexander Dymo, an entrepreneur and software developer based in Chicago, his wife, Olena, and their 2-year-old daughter.
The dream trip: A two-week tropical island vacation to Bora Bora in June 2016.
How he used rewards: The challenges included racking up the 600,000-plus points he needed, as well as finding availability at his dream property: an overwater villa at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, which can cost more than $1,000 per night. He started with a Chase InterContinental Hotels Group credit card with an 80,000-point sign-up bonus, and he participated in IHG special promotions, such as Accelerate, which allows you to earn extra rewards for hotel stays. He purchased some points and used a points-plus-cash option to purchase some nights. He bought IHG Ambassador Status for $200 to get two weekend nights for the price of one. And, he managed to snag seven nights at the hot property. “You have to book exactly 330 days in advance, sitting at midnight refreshing the booking page and waiting for the room to be released,” he says. The family paid for their flights with rewards, too, and took a trip that would have cost $16,000 for about $4,000, Dymo says. “It took me two years of careful planning and execution to make it happen,” he says.
Best rewards tips: Stay on top of what’s happening in the world of rewards, Dymo recommends. “It all changes so frequently,” he says of rewards offers and point values. For example, two years ago, he was collecting IHG points, but those decreased in value. “Right now, I go for Wyndham points,” he says. He recommends following sites like ThePointsGuy.com and FlyerTalk.com to get the inside scoop on rewards changes from day to day.
Why it was a dream trip: Dymo and his wife love tropical islands, and spent their honeymoon in the Maldives. They had always imagined a trip to Bora Bora, a South Pacific island with coconut trees, brilliant blue waters and an extinct volcano, but the trip seemed out of reach financially. When they finally arrived, they enjoyed the scenery and basked in the sunshine. In addition to the week at their dream resort, they also stayed at InterContinental LeMoana, near a turquoise lagoon sheltered by a coral reef. The calm, shallow waters are perfect for snorkeling, Dymo says. “It’s really beautiful. Snorkeling is the No. 1 reason to be there, and you see beautiful coral, fish and several kinds of rays,” he says. “It’s a different world.”
Chris and Alina Post spent three months backpacking in South America. They racked up extra points by charging his sister’s wedding costs on his card (and was reimbursed, of course) and ended up saving about $10,000 using rewards.
THE TRAVELERS: Chris Post, owner of Post Modern Marketing in Sacramento, California, and his wife, Alina.
The dream trip: A three-month backpacking trip to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Peru in 2013.
How he used rewards: He got a Chase United MileagePlus Card with a 50,000-point sign-up bonus just for the trip. The couple put everything they could on that card to rack up as many points as possible. They used rewards points to pay for their plane tickets to and from South America, as well as several flights between countries. They saved about $10,000 by using rewards, Post says.
Best rewards tips: Look for creative ways to amass extra points. For example, Post’s sister was getting married, and his dad was footing a chunk of the bill. So, Post asked if he could put some of the wedding expenses, such as table rentals, on his card. His dad would then write him a check to pay the bill. When Post and his wife went out to eat with groups of friends, they asked to pay with their own card and get cash from everyone else, Post says. If the restaurant was a participating restaurant for United MileagePlus Dining, they got triple points for using their card to pay.
Why it was a dream trip: The couple wanted to take a big trip before having kids. Alina took a leave of absence from her state job. And Chris, who is self-employed, took his laptop along and ran his marketing company from the road. On the trip, the couple learned from a Peruvian chef how to make ceviche, ate steaks at a Buenos Aires parilla and hiked the wild Patagonia region of southern Argentina. Another highlight: the pair spent an amazing four days in Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, near the top of the Andes Mountains in Bolivia. By day, they saw otherworldly scenery such as lakes colored fluorescent blue or green or yellow by the minerals in the water, which was dotted with pink flamingos. “All of a sudden, there’d be like 24,000 flamingos,” Post says. At night, they’d stargaze. “It was insane being that close to the stars and the planets,” he says. “It was like being on Mars on earth.”
Keith and Robin Sproule, with four of their five children, spent five weeks in an off-the-beaten path trip through Indonesia,Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. Sproule says it took about two years of dedicated effort to rack up enough rewards points to save the family about $25,000 in trip costs.
THE TRAVELERS: Keith Sproule, an economist from Boulder, Colorado, his wife, Robin, and four of their five children.
The dream trip: A five-week trip to Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand in June and July of 2014 .
How he used rewards: Using rewards saved the big family $25,000, Sproule says. “When you have five kids, a trip like this doesn’t happen without rewards,” he says. Sproule got three cards that had sign-up bonuses so he could strategically use the card that offered the most rewards in whatever category of item he was purchasing. He used rewards to buy six international flights to and from Asia, along with a stay in a nice hotel every three or four nights. “It took about two years of pretty dedicated effort,” he says of earning and cashing in the rewards.
Best rewards tips: Get a card that has a good sign-up bonus that will give you a good start toward your goal right away, he says. “Strategically, the sign-up bonus is your most important decision,” he says. When you go to book your award flights, if you can’t find the seats you want, keep checking with the airline because availability changes, he says. And if you’re traveling internationally, especially with small children, look for a card that offers airport lounge access as a perk.
Why it was a dream trip: Before the trip, the Sproule family lived in Namibia for Sproule’s former job with the World Wildlife Fund, so his kids knew travel as going to “high-end safari lodges.” He wanted his offspring to experience an off-the-beaten-path trip that included street food, stays in hostels and long bus rides, he says. The Sproules let each kid do research and pick a country to visit. The family swam with sea turtles in the Gili Islands of Indonesia, which is their now-9-year-old daughter’s favorite memory. They also ate pad Thai, curried rice and vegetable stir-fry from street vendors in Thailand, they took a memorable 12-hour journey in a crowded bus, which elicited some complaints from their teenaged son. They also saw the “magnificent” temples of Bagan in Myanmar, Sproule says. “These kinds of trips create the memories of a lifetime,” he says.