How card rewards rescued my family's vacation

When our trip to Spain was dashed, we used miles and points to go to South Florida

Matt About Money with Matt Schulz

Matt Schulz has done thousands of interviews about money in his time as Senior Industry Analyst at CreditCards.com. He's been in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today. He has appeared on Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, Fox Business Network and CNBC as well as hundreds of local TV and radio affiliates throughout the nation. Over the years of doing these interviews, he's seen many questions pop up over and over again - questions that impact nearly all Americans.

In this space, Matt will address these questions to help Americans get a better feel for how to find the right credit card, get it and use it the right way every day because he believes – and is living proof – that the right credit card can change your life.

Have you ever used card rewards to make up for last-minute changes in your vacation plans?

It’s often said that experience is the best teacher. Many rewards points experts, including myself, have made many, many mistakes of our own before we figured out our own system. These failings can bring great insights that we can then share with others, such as what happened to my family and me this past spring break.

An unforeseen passport snafu nearly wrecked our vacation plans. Fortunately, we had miles, points – and expertise. Here’s how we used them to save our spring-break vacation plans.

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My wife and I have traveled using miles and points for about 20 years, but we’ve never taken a trip quite like we did this past spring break.

Having been thrown an unforeseen curveball that derailed our previous travel plans, we cobbled together a trip using a patchwork of rewards. We used airline miles. We used two different hotel chains’ miles. We even used credit card travel credits. And we arranged it all at the very last minute – maybe 36 hours before our trip began.

Here’s what happened:

My wife and son and I were set to travel to Spain for 10 days over spring break. We’d drink sangria and look at amazing architecture in Barcelona. We’d see great art and watch world-class soccer in Madrid.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.

To travel to Spain and much of Europe, your passport must be valid for at least 90 days after your departure date. My son’s passport was only good for about 30. Because of that, he wasn’t allowed to board the plane. And since we wouldn’t be able to fix his passport problem that day and rebooking our flight would be too costly, our Spanish dreams were dashed.

We refused to stay home and sulk, though. By God, we were going to go someplace! International travel wasn’t in the cards, but we were determined to take a great spring break trip nonetheless.

Using miles, points for last-minute vacation

First, we figured out what we had to work with.

We were fortunate we had been refunded our American Airlines miles we had used to pay for our Spain trip, so that made the cancellation easier to swallow. But we also have miles with Southwest, American, Delta and others.

For hotels, we had Starwood and Hilton points. We also had points, as well as several hundreds of dollars in unused travel credits, from a couple of different credit cards.

 

Video: Cruising on points

In short, we had options. We just had to figure out where to use them.

It was March, so we knew that we wanted to go someplace warm. A beach would be a plus. And given that we had been so looking forward to exploring new places in Spain, we decided that our replacement destination would best be someplace that was new to us as well.

Since my family has traveled quite a bit throughout the south, a favorite quickly emerged: South Florida.

Then, the real work began.

  • We scoured Google Flights, airline websites, credit card travel portals and more to see flights in and out of the area.
  • We looked at Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West.
  • We looked at different days, times and airlines.
  • We considered the value of using miles versus simply paying cash.

Ultimately, we realized the trip was doable, even at the last minute during spring break, and the rewards cost wouldn’t make us cringe.

Finally, we focused on hotels. Again, we scoured the internet – credit card portals, Hotels.com, hotel chain websites and beyond – to see what was available and where.

We looked for Starwood-affiliated and Hilton-affiliated hotels from Fort Lauderdale to Key West and everywhere in between. Again, it all looked doable. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it could be done.

Tip

Tip: When it comes to travel rewards, the more options the better. Having membership in many rewards programs – whether it’s hotels, airlines, rental cars or airport parking – gives you a wider array choices to cover your travel expenses with points instead of cash.

How our plan for a last-minute vacation with points came together

After about eight hours of exhaustive work – mostly by my amazing wife, who loves travel even more than I do – we had our plan:

We’d fly into Key West using American Airlines miles.

Sunsets are one of the reasons people visit Key West.

Sunsets are one of the reasons people visit Key West.

We’d drive up to Marathon Key and use Starwood points to stay at the Courtyard by Marriott for a few days of snorkeling and beachgoing.

We’d then drive back to Key West and spend one night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Key West before moving down the road to the Sheraton Suites for a few more nights. (We had to split nights because the Sheraton Suites, our preferred stop, wasn’t available for our first night in Key West. Last-minute plans. Sigh.) We’d see Hemingway’s cats, eat Key lime pie and revel in the sunsets.

And we’d pay for much of the rest of the trip with our Chase Sapphire Reserve or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard to take advantage of the travel credits and points that we had through those cards.

Last-minute trip = long-lasting memories

It turned out great. It wasn’t Spain, but it was still a wonderful family trip, and we paid for a huge portion of it using credit card rewards.

It wasn’t easy – and we probably made some travel planning mistakes in our fevered rush – but ultimately, it’s something that anyone can do, with a little patience.

Planning your next trip with miles? I can help

Here are a few tips to help you plan your next trip with miles:

It’s all about options: If we only had miles with one airline or points with one hotel chain, this would have been a completely different story. 

We enjoyed walking along the beach in Key West.

We enjoyed walking along the beach in Key West.

The truth is that membership in many rewards programs – whether they’re about hotels, airlines, rental cars, airport parking, whatever – gives you choices.

General purpose credit cards that give you card-specific points and miles rather than airline- or hotel-specific rewards expand those options even more.

Sign-up bonuses are rocket fuel: For years, my wife and I earned miles and points the old-fashioned way – by taking flights and staying nights at hotels. It served us well, but we could’ve done so much more.

The truth is that sign-up bonuses take your rewards earnings to levels you can’t reach through normal spending. They’re not something to be entered into lightly, of course.

Overspending to get credit card rewards is a terrible idea, regardless of how lucrative those rewards might be. But used wisely, a new credit card and its sign-up bonus can open up a whole new world of travel possibilities.

Teamwork makes the dream work: I’m the credit card expert, but these weren’t just my points.

My wife has collected points as well, and our combined effort has allowed us to travel all over the world. 

Turtles in Marathon Key, Florida.

Turtles in Marathon Key, Florida.

If travel is a passion you share with your partner, make sure both of you share the work of earning all of those miles and points.

Again, don’t overspend just for the sake of earning travel rewards.

It’s probably a good idea to have a conversation with your partner before you apply for that card, just so you’re both comfortable with being able to handle the extra card and the minimum spend required to get the sign-up bonus.

But if you can use them wisely, those two sign-up bonuses can take you much farther than just one.

See related: Last-minute summer travel: Your rewards cards can help score savings, Fly off-peak to maximize airline travel points


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Updated: 11-16-2018