Success Story: How a Family of 4 Spent $377 on a Trip to Hawaii
Plenty of people are planning free (or nearly free) vacations these days and the big question is: HOW?
The short answer — it’s probably credit card rewards.
Credit card rewards (or travel rewards) have been around for quite some time, but in the last few years, we’ve heard more stories than ever before about how travelers just like us are planning incredible trips for little to no money using points and miles earned with credit cards.
It’s a common topic of discussion in FinanceBuzz’s Elite Facebook Group, where readers come to learn more about credit cards and maximizing rewards from each other. One member shared the details of a 9 day trip she recently took to Hawaii with her family and instead of giving us a quick recap, she was generous enough to break down each aspect of the trip for us.
We love having the opportunity to share these stories with you, not only because our readers are amazing, but also because the strategies she used are great examples of how anyone can do this with the right knowledge and planning.
Alright, let’s get on with it — take it away, Mona!
My family and I recently took a 9 day trip to Hawaii (5 nights in Maui, 3 nights in Kauai) for a grand total of $377.20.
This is the first time we have ever taken a big vacation using points and miles and my husband was so excited when I told him how much we had spent on the trip after all the credits were redeemed.
Here’s the breakdown of our trip expenses.
We needed 4 tickets for each leg of the trip - one for me, my husband, and our two young children.
After searching award availability on several airlines, we ended up booking these flights:
- San Francisco to Maui on United Airlines: 67,500 United points + $16.80 (taxes and fees)
- United points earned with my United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
- Maui to San Francisco on Delta Airlines: 67,500 Delta points + $16.80 (taxes and fees)
- Delta points earned with my Delta Gold SkyMiles® Card
- Maui to Kauai Roundtrip: 45,000 American Airline points + $33.60 (taxes and fees)
- American Airline points earned from the Citigold Checking Package I signed up for (more on that later)
For baggage, I used my Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Card to check our luggage in 4 separate times, for a total of $100. Luckily, the card offers a $300 travel credit every year, so I’ll get the full amount back for checking in our luggage.
We also got to check out the Centurion Lounge for 3 hours in San Francisco for FREE using my Amex Ameriprise Platinum. The grilled chicken and pumpkin soup we had was so delicious! I highly recommend both!
(Editor’s Note: Centurion Lounges are one of the world’s best airport lounges with award-winning gourmet food, drinks, and spa services.)
Just the flights alone could have cost us $2,254, but we ended up spending a total of $67.20!
Maui for 5 nights
We originally planned to stay at the Ritz the entire time, but changed our minds and spent 4 nights at the Andaz Maui and 1 night at the Ritz instead. Here’s what it cost:
1 night at the Ritz Carlton Kapalua
Would have cost us $622 but we used 60,000 Marriott points +$37, charged to my husband’s Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ and redeemed as a credit. It's so cool that Marriott points can be redeemed for stays at Ritz-Carlton properties!
Net cost: FREE
4 nights at the Andaz Maui
Would have cost us $2,362 but we used 37,500 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and one free night from our Chase Hyatt Visa (you get two free nights when you sign-up for the card and Andaz Hotels are part of the Hyatt's portfolio of hotels).
After redeeming the points, we were charged $707. I put $407 on my Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ (again, redeemed as a credit) and then $300 on my husband’s Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, which offers a $300 annual travel credit.
Net cost: FREE
Kauai for 3 nights
We stayed at the Grand Hyatt Kauai when we island hopped from Maui.
It would have cost us $1,200, but we had 3 free nights to use — 1 night from my Chase Hyatt Visa and 2 nights from my husband’s Chase Hyatt Visa.
The taxes and fees came out to $20.12, which I charged to my Bank of America Travel Rewards® Card and redeemed as a travel credit.
Net cost: FREE
The total cost of the hotels could have been $4,184, but we ended up spending a total of $0!
Once we arrived, we needed a way to get around, so we rented cars from Hertz. Here’s the cost breakdown:
Maui - 5 days
$421 charged to my husband’s Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ ($400 redeemed as a credit) + $35.16 to refill the gas
Net cost: $56.16
Kauai - 3 days
$157 charged to our SPG® Business Card to meeting the spend requirement (our newest credit card, more on that below!)
Back to Maui for 1 day
$97 charged to our SPG® Business Card to meet the spend requirement
The total cost for our rental cars could have been $675, but we ended up spending $310.
All in all, this vacation could have cost us $7,113, but we spent just $377.20 after using points, miles, and travel credits — for a 95% savings!! I still can’t believe it!!
With all the money we saved sorting out our flights, hotels, and rental cars, we splurged on food!
We enjoyed the Andaz Maui so much and are definitely going back. It’s a smaller resort (compared to the Ritz and Grand Hyatt Kauai), so walking around to the different facilities wasn’t too far. The poolside food was very delicious (I recommend the sesame roll and pork belly tacos!).
If you still have 2 free nights from the Chase Hyatt Visa, use it at the Andaz Maui. You won’t regret it!
How We Did It
By learning how to maximize our points and miles, we used 9 credit cards and 1 special offer from Citi® to make this amazing trip possible. Here’s a list of them and how we earned our travel credits, points, and miles.
My husband and I both signed up for this card; I received a $400 travel credit and my husband had a $500 travel credit which we could use towards nearly any travel-related expense. Here’s how:
Me - I earned a sign-up bonus of 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days of opening my account = $400 travel credit
Husband - He earned a slightly better sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in the same amount of time as me = $500 travel credit
This is arguably the best travel rewards card available right now and one of the perks is a $300 annual travel credit. For this trip, we applied the credit towards our hotel stay at the Andaz Maui.
Aside from the travel credit, we also earn points quickly with this card. Just for signing up and meeting the $4,000 spend requirement in 3 months, I earned 100,000 points! Then, you earn 3x points on travel and dining and 1 point per $1 on everything else.
I earned a sign-up bonus of 50,000 United points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months of opening my account.
Another cool benefit is that you and a travel companion can each check a bag for free, each way. I made the mistake of not using my United Mileage Plus Card to pay for the taxes and fees, so I didn’t qualify for the free checked bags. I was bummed, but sometimes mistakes happen and you just have to suck it up and find another way (and we did!).
We ended up using a similar feature with our Ritz-Carlton Card and saved $100 roundtrip!
I earned a sign-up bonus of 50,000 Delta points after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months of opening my account.
I really like that you can get a $50 statement credit if you make a Delta purchase with the card anytime in the first 3 months — super useful for traveling soon after the card arrives!
My husband and I both signed up for this card as well and earned 2 free nights each after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of opening our accounts.
What’s cool is we also earn 1 free night every year (redeemable worldwide), as well as 3 points per $1 spent at Hyatt Properties, 2 points per $1 at restaurants, airline tickets purchased directly from the airline, and at car rental agencies (also,1 point per $1 on all other purchases). All in all, a fantastic card to use for traveling!
This is one of my favorite go-to cards. For this trip, I used it to check our luggage (using the annual $300 travel credit) but it also offers a ton of other benefits like 3 free nights at a Tier 1-4 property after spending $5,000 within the first 3 months of opening an account, access to swanky airport lounges, $100 credit for Global Entry, and some Visa Infinite benefits as well.
I mainly used this card to access the Centurion Lounge at the SF Airport this time around, but it has other good perks too, such as a $200 airline credit, Global Entry for the primary cardholder AND all authorized users, and access to three types of airport lounges: Centurion, Priority Pass Select, and Delta Sky Club.
I earned a sign-up bonus of 20,000 points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days of opening my account. This translated into a $200 travel credit that I used towards our stay in Kauai.
I like that I can earn rewards pretty easily with this card and redeem them wherever I want (there isn’t a specific website you have to use or blackout dates). The points are unlimited and never expire, and I earn 1.5 points for every $1 I spend.
I had just gotten this card when we went on our trip, so I used it to pay for our rental cars to help meet the minimum spend, which is $5,000 within the first 3 months of opening my account.
After meeting the minimum, I'll earn 25,000 Starpoints (which are highly valuable!) that I can redeem for free nights at one of their 1,300 hotels or a free flight on over 150 airlines - with no blackout dates! It really is an incredible card and I'm sure we'll get a lot of use out of it.
You also get unlimited Boingo wifi around the world, which is really useful at airports.
10. Citigold Checking, got 50k AA points
This last one isn’t a credit card, but still made a huge difference in our trip. During a limited-time promotion, I opened up a Citibank Checking Citigold Account Package and earned 50,000 American Airline miles which I used towards our flight from Maui to Kauai.
Earning the points for this package was slightly different, but the AAdvantage bonus miles made it worth it! After opening the account, I had to set up a bill payment for 2 consecutive months and then spend at least $1,000 in debit card purchases to earn the 50,000 miles bonus.
(Editor's note: this promotion has ended, but Citibank is currently offering a $300 cash bonus when you open a Citibank Account Package by December 31, 2016.)
Tips On How I Became Successful With This Hobby
1. Pay off your debt first: The rewards I’ve earned are only worth it because I paid down my debts first. If you have debt and are paying a high amount of interest each month, the rewards aren’t worth it.
2. Don’t buy random things just to meet the minimum spend: If you’re buying all sorts of items you wouldn’t normally purchase to meet a spending requirement, please stop — there are better ways!
I like to pre-pay upcoming bills that we would need to pay off anyway to help me reach minimum spending requirements. For example, I paid our water bill, power bill, and phone bills 6 months in advance to meet the spend requirement on a card. I also used Plastiq to make mortgage payments and other bills that don’t accept credit cards as a payment method.
The cool thing about rewards is once you have the points, it’s completely up to you on how you want to spend them.
For example, when I signed up for the Chase Hyatt Visa, I used Plastiq to pay $2,000 towards our mortgage in order to meet the $2,000 minimum spend for the sign-up bonus, which was two free nights. Plastiq charged me $50 in transaction fees, but since I applied those two free nights from the Chase Hyatt Visa towards our stay at the Andaz Maui - which typically charges $500+ per night - the $50 transaction fee was well worth it to me.
3. Always pay your statement balance in full! Referring back to my first point, the rewards aren’t worth it if you’re paying high interest charges.
4. Don’t stress too much about getting the maximum point redemption: The whole point of rewards is to redeem them on experiences that fit your lifestyle (not others). People might say you should’ve redeemed your points on certain locations or trips, but what’s really important is that you’re able to have fun and enjoy the experience!
5. Be positive! Upgraded rooms, upgraded seats, etc, are just a bonus! Don’t necessarily expect that you’ll get them even if you have the status. I’ve learned that just staying positive for the opportunity to travel around the world with my family using points and miles is plenty to be grateful for.
These tips have really helped me find success with earning tons of points and miles, which I talk more about on my site and Facebook group, Hip2Earn.
Would I Do It Again?
YES! We all loved experiencing a full week of the “beach life” and doing nothing but sleep, eat, and swim!
Knowing that we were able to take such an incredible trip for just a fraction of what it could have cost makes me want to jump right in and plan another one. It opens up so many possibilities of where we can go and what we can do as a family on a budget.
Our next target getaway is Cancun or Bora Bora!
Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Mona! It’s incredible what can be done with credit card rewards and the fact that there are so many ways to earn them makes it easier to build them up quickly.
Hearing stories like this never gets old — we love them! If you have a success story to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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