Guys. I have been SO excited to write this post since we booked our trip to Hawaii earlier this year – on one hand because it’s so fun for me to look back and see how much all of this has changed our financial life, and on the other hand because I want you guys to see just how MUCH you can do with this game if you want. Remember though – Mary and I are on the obsessed end of the spectrum with this stuff and get lots of cards to spend literally $0, but most people should focus on a few cards to get just flights or just hotels free.
You do NOT have to get as many cards as us, and I certainly don’t advocate that. If you want to stay with friends and don’t need fancy hotels? Don’t get hotel points. If your dad is a pilot and you get free flights? Don’t get flight miles. If you are a frugal-obsessed-maniac like me and don’t want to spend a dime, get ’em all. I don’t post this to brag by any means, but to show how even if you have NO money, that shouldn’t stop you from traveling and seeing cool things in the world. Hopefully this inspires some young people like us who are time-rich and cash-poor to dive in and get some free trips! If this is your first time here, please check out the Beginner’s Guide and FAQ before you dive in to applying for anything.
We spent 7 nights on the beautiful island of Maui, and then 4 nights on Oahu. We had an absolute blast, and we never would have been able to afford this otherwise. Especially since this was a babymoon for us (AHH!), we were keen on not spending a dime of baby’s future college fund.
So….$7515? Really? Obviously we wouldn’t ever pay for places this nice if we were paying cash, but still – that’s the value! Here’s the cost breakdown, and then I’ll go into more detail for each section about what cards/bonuses we used to get this all for free.
- Flights: ~$1300 (~650 each), free with Amex MR and Chase UR points.
- Hotel Maui: ~$2800 (~400/night), free with SPG/Marriott points. The Marriott Wailea is GORGEOUS and we can’t wait to go back next year.
- Hotel Oahu: ~$920 (~230/night), free with Hyatt points/free night certificates.
- Rental Cars: $506, free with Barclay Arrival+ miles.
- Food: $693.64, free with bank account bonuses.
- Excursions: $562.88, free with bank account bonuses.
- Inter-island flights, a change fee and bag fees: $274.57, free with bank account bonuses.
- Hotel Resort/Parking Fees: $314.75, free with bank account bonuses.
- Gas: $82.59, free with bank account bonuses.
- Lyft/Uber: $79.3, free with bank account bonuses.
So, $3720 of hotels was covered with points, $1300 of flights was with points, $506 of rental cars with points, and then $2000 worth of “miscellaneous” things were covered with bank account bonuses…which might sound a little insane/difficult. Keep reading, and you’ll see that this actually wasn’t that hard at all. Mary is going to do a full post of our itinerary later (thanks to so many of you for your suggestions!) so this will just be focused on points redemptions.
- We flew Las Vegas – San Jose using 5k SW points and our Companion Pass, then stayed the night at a friend’s house (thanks Dallin and Ashlyn! We owe you guys!).
- The next morning, we flew Oakland – Maui on Alaska Airlines using 12.5k British Airways points each. You can get British Airways points from their card, from Chase Ultimate Rewards, and from Amex Membership Rewards points. We transferred Amex –> British Airways last year when they had a transfer bonus, so it was about 10k MR points each.
- We stayed at the Marriott Wailea Beach Resort using a Marriott Nights and Flights package, which cost us 120k SPG points/360k Marriott points since it was a Category 8. Since the package gets you 7 nights and airline miles, we also got 120k Southwest points (which before March of this year qualified us for 2017/2018 companion pass, but this loophole no longer works). If you don’t want the Nights and Flights package, but just the 7 nights, this stay would cost 240k Marriott or 80k SPG points.
- We rented a car through USAA and Enterprise to ensure that we got the young driver fee waived (honestly it’s an abomination that they charge that still). $230 for 7 days in Maui was such a good price, with no extra fees/charges. We redeemed this with our Barclay Arrival Plus miles (23.7k miles).
- We flew to Oahu with cash since it was $59/ticket. Paid for by bank account bonuses!
- We chilled on the beach, did the Road to Hana, and tons of other activities that are free, but did spend money on the Trilogy Snorkeling Tour. We saw 8 turtles on this, so I consider that money well spent! Paid for by bank account bonuses ($270).
- We stayed 4 nights at the Hyatt Place Waikiki, a 4-star hotel that was really good for our trip. The hotel costs 12k Hyatt points a night, so we transferred 24k Chase UR points to Hyatt for 2 nights and then used “anniversary nights” for the other two from our Hyatt cards. Every year the Hyatt card gives you a free night (technically $75 night since the annual fee on the card is $75). Since the hotel was going for ~$250, it was a steal.
- We rented again through USAA and Enterprise to ensure that we got the young driver fee waived. $280 for 4 days in Oahu, with no extra fees/charges. We redeemed this with our Barclay Arrival Plus miles (28k miles).
- We flew home using the same method mentioned above, using 12.5k British Airways miles each to fly on an Alaska Airlines plane. We flew into San Diego from Honolulu, stayed with family for a few days, then flew to Vegas using Southwest (4k points + Companion Pass).
So what cards and bonuses did we use?
- 120k SPG Points: We signed up for the Amex SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) personal and business cards in March ’16 when the bonus was at 35k SPG points. After I was approved for both, I referred Mary so that I would get the extra referral points. We ended up with ~170k SPG points combined. I also stayed at SPG hotels for my internship last summer, so I got quite a few more points that way as well.
- How would you get this now? You can find a 30k point bonus offer using Incognito browsers most of the time, so start there. After hitting spend on Personal + Business, you’ll be around ~70k SPG points. Refer a spouse for their card; even though their bonus will be 25k, the referral bonus of 7.5k SPG points means the total takeaway is 32.5k SPG. Referring them to both cards will leave you at ~141k SPG. Read more about the nights and flights packages here.
- 50k British Airways: We happened to transfer Amex MR points to British Airways during a transfer bonus last year, but the normal transfer rate isn’t favorable (requires 62.5k Amex points at the current transfer rate). I signed up for the Amex Premier Rewards Gold credit card, which has a 50k Amex point sign up, $100 in airline credits, and a waived fee first year.
- How would you get this now? I would recommend getting this via Chase points instead, since Chase transfers 1:1 to British Airways. The Chase Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, or Ink Preferred are all good options. Read more about this in our How To: Hawaii guide.
- 50k Barclay Arrival Miles: I applied for the Barclay Arrival Plus card about 4 months ago when the bonus increased to 50k instead of 40k. Great for random travel purchases and expenses. Read more about them in our monthly Best Credit Cards post.
- How would you get this now? Same way I did! Apply for the card right now with its current 50k point offer, and use it for random purchases that other points can’t cover.
- Hyatt Free Nights and Hyatt points: We applied for the Hyatt card in May of 2016 and used the sign-up bonus to do 2 nights in Paris and 2 nights in New York. We used the “anniversary night” for the Hyatt Place in Waikiki, since it’s a category 3 (the anniversary free night only covers 1-4). The annual fee costs $75, so I saw it as a $250 hotel with free breakfast for 2…for $75. I’ll take it. Chase points were from the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Preferred bonuses, transferred to Hyatt.
- How would you get this now? Get the Hyatt cards now, use the big bonus for a trip at a fancy Hyatt (where the free night at ANY category hotel has higher value), and then plan your Hawaii trip over a year from now so that you can use your Hyatt anniversary free nights there.
- $2000 worth of “bank bonuses”: If you haven’t read our bank account bonuses post, start there. I transfer all bank bonuses to one lumped travel account, so I don’t know exactly where each specific dollar came from. But here’s some of the ones we did that total a little over $2000 after taxes (and mind you this is always x2 since we EACH do our own account to double up on the bonuses): Chase Total Checking ($300 each), HSBC Checking ($350 each), Capital One Money Market ($200 each), and Keybank ($300 each).
- How would you get this now? Well, start sooner rather than later. We don’t ALWAYS do this many, we tried to build up this “travel account” for about a year before we started redeeming it. The bonuses always come and go every few months, so just start checking Doctor of Credit to see what the current best bonuses are. I know friends who have already done $3000+ ALONE this year, so it’s very, very feasible.
Do you see what I mean about how this can literally change your life? Maybe you don’t want to take the time to get EVERY last cent of your trip free, but it’s liberating to know that you could. If you have the time right now (i.e. are in school or recently graduated) but have no money, then you’re like us. I never, ever dreamed that I could take my beautiful wife to a 5-star resort for a week at age 23, and before I even start a full-time job! Yet here we are – a lot more tan (Mary) and red (me), full of pineapple, and NOT $7515.73 poorer.
This Hawaii trip is only an example – but I honestly promise you that you can make any dream trip come true, completely free, if you work a little bit at it. With a bit of time, and a bit of planning, you can totally do this. And, as always – please, please email us if you have questions that this post didn’t answer. I try to put as many resources as possible in the post itself, but it’s inevitable I missed things. We feel so blessed to have started this when we did and taken so many fun trips, and want to help others get the same benefits too!