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Using rewards points for organized group travel – and not hating it

Group travel can be hit or miss; it's all about finding the right people and the right tour company

Summary

Want to use credit card travel rewards for an organized tour? Use your rewards points for flights to and from the trip departure point and charge the tour fees to your cash back or points-earning card.

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The idea of organized group travel frightens me to the core – or perhaps I should I say, it did.

Last year, I had a traveler’s epiphany: All organized travel is not created equal. Group travel can be a great experience – and there are even ways you can subsidize its cost using your credit card rewards.

I’ve always been a very independent traveler. The kind that gets frightened by the thought of boarding a large tour bus or being herded through a crowded attraction by a group leader holding an umbrella in the air so no one gets lost.

Then, last year, some friends from Popski’s Private Expeditions invited me to join a group overlanding trip (a fusion of camping and off-roading) they were leading across the empty quarter of Morocco in open-topped Land Rovers. Despite my fear of organized travel, this particular opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

For nearly three weeks I was one traveler in a small group of four. By day, we worked as a team to drive across the dunes of the Moroccan sand seas. By night, we wild camped under the bright desert stars and contemplated life.

I loved every single minute. It was here in the desert that I had my epiphany that group travel can be amazing.

In today’s travel market there are all kinds of outfitters offering different trips that cater to all different types of travelers. You just have to find what works for you.

See related: Summer road trip rewards for campers

Why group travel can be great

In my new enlightened state, I’ve discovered there are three good reasons why you might consider group travel:

  1. Logistics and itinerary: You want someone else who already knows the destination to manage the details so you can enjoy your vacation.
  2. Companionship: You want to travel with a like-minded group of people.
  3. Access: You want to go to a destination where you can’t travel independently because it’s difficult, dangerous or just not possible.

Logistics and itinerary

There are times when we might really want or need to take a trip, but just don’t have the time, patience or skill to plan it ourselves. Joining an organized trip means someone else handles the details.

My friend Amy, a fellow rewards traveler, is headed to Eastern Europe this spring on a group tour with Intrepid Travel. Though she normally prefers solo travel, she chose a group tour this time around because she didn’t want to waste any of her short holiday time worrying about the details of where she’ll go and how she’ll get there.

She chose Intrepid because their style allows their guests to curate their own in-destination experiences. So while the company arranges itinerary and details, books hotels, coordinates transportation and offers advice, Amy can focus on exploring.

Companionship

There are times when even the most independent travelers want an adventure companion. Finding the right organized group can help fill that need.

Kelly Lewis, founder of the female-focused boutique tour company Damesly, organizes small domestic and international trips. For Damesly, the tour isn’t only about exploring a destination; a big emphasis is bringing together like-minded women for the journey.

Connection is common and encouraged. Often women develop longer-term friendships on the tour, then plan more travel opportunities together in the future.

Access

Some adventures require you to participate as part of an organized group because they are just not possible to do on your own.

Consider an excursion that requires special equipment or knowledge – like a Serengeti safari or a Kilimanjaro summit. Or an off-the-grid destination like North Korea or Bhutan where independent travel isn’t permitted.

Visiting Morocco solo is easy, but you need a group and a Land Rover to 4×4 across a desert. Being part of an organized expedition gave me access to an opportunity I couldn’t otherwise have had.

How to use points on group travel

Now that I’ve talked you into believing that group travel can be great, you’re probably wondering how to fund it with rewards points.

If you’re a baller on cash back rewards cards, it is technically possible to pay for an organized trip with your cash back credit. For most of us, however, the real savings will be using your credit card points to book the plane tickets to the tour meetup point.

Travel to and from your tour destination is seldom included as part of the total fee that you pay the tour operator.

When I paid for my desert expedition, the cost I paid to the expedition company included the trip’s shared costs of food, fuel and fun. I was in charge of getting myself to and from our group’s rendezvous point in Seville, Spain.

My best points option for getting to the meeting point was to use 22,500 AAdvantage points (economy class one way) to fly American Airlines from Portland via Dallas to Madrid, then hop over to Seville on Iberia.

However, an even better option was to purchase a bargain fare to SVQ via London. I saved my points and opted to earn more, paying for my ticket with The Platinum Card® from American Express because I earn 5 points on the dollar on flights booked directly through an airline.

Amy, on the other hand, is using her points to meet her Intrepid Tour. She booked two one-way award tickets (JAX-CLT-LHR-VIE) to meet the group in Austria, and BUD-LHR-PHL-JAX to get home from Hungary where the group trip ends. Combined, the two tickets totaled 45,000 American miles. The miles she used were earned on her Citi / AAdvantage card, redeemed for a value of $1,793.

For the Intrepid tour itself, Amy paid out-of-pocket, charging the expense to her Citi / AAdvantage card to start earning back all the points she spent on the flight. I didn’t ask her what the tour cost, but I can report that Intrepid’s cheapest trip is 8 days in Morocco for $869 and its most expensive adventure is 10 days in Antarctica for $7,000.

On Damesly’s trips, Kelly let me know that not only do many of her guests use points to travel to the meeting point of the tour, some of her amazing women know how to travel in style (and on a budget).

On her most recent tour to Morocco, two of her four guests transferred Ultimate Rewards points from their Chase Sapphire Preferred Card earnings to Flying Blue to upgrade to business class on their long-haul Air France flights to Marrakech.

Whether it’s a bargain fare, a reward ticket or a premium class upgrade, there’s always a way to work your rewards to get to your destination. Choosing how you’ll pay is just like choosing which group trip you’ll take – you have to figure out what works best for you.

Go ahead and book the ticket. You – and the group waiting on the other side – will be glad you did. Hopefully, they won’t pick you up on a tour bus.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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Published: September 27, 2019

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