Editor's note:This trip was taken in the past, so the numbers listed below reflect the rewards and bonuses available at the time. Some offers have since changed, and others are no longer available. View the best available credit card offers here.
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 the FBZ Elite Travel & Points 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 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!
How a Family of 4 Spent $377 on a Trip to Hawaii
My family and I took a nine-day trip to Hawaii (five nights in Maui, three 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 four tickets for each leg of the trip – two adults and two young children.
After searching for award availability on several airlines, we ended up booking these flights:
1. San Francisco to Maui on United Airlines: 67,500 United points + $16.80 taxes and fees. United points earned with my United℠ Explorer Card.
2. Maui to San Francisco on Delta Airlines: 67,500 Delta points + $16.80 taxes and fees. Delta points earned with my Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card.
3. Maui to Kauai Roundtrip: 45,000 American Airline points + $33.60 taxes and fees. AA 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 four 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 three hours in San Francisco for free using my Platinum Card from American Express for Ameriprise Financial card. The grilled chicken and pumpkin soup we had was so delicious! I highly recommend both.
For anyone who doesn't know, Centurion Lounges are one of the world's best airport lounges with award-winning gourmet food, drinks, and spa services. Our experience certainly lived up to the hype!
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 four nights at the Andaz Maui and one night at the Ritz instead. Here’s what it cost us:
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® World Elite Mastercard® and redeemed as a credit (I'll explain more about what I mean by redeeming "credits" further down).
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 Hyatt Credit Card (we got two free nights when we signed 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® World Elite Mastercard® (again, redeemed as a credit) and then $300 on my husband’s Chase Sapphire Reserve® card, which has 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 three free nights to use — one night from my The World of Hyatt Credit Card and two nights from my husband’s Hyatt Card. The taxes and fees came out to $20.12, which I charged to my Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit 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:
5 days in Maui: $421 charged to my husband’s Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® ($400 redeemed as a credit) + $35.16 to refill the gas
Net cost: $56.16
3 days in Kauai: $157 charged to our SPG® Business Card to meet the spend requirement (our newest credit card, more on that below)
Back to Maui for 1 day: $97 also 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.
|Expense Category||Could have paid||Actually paid|
Yes, you read that right: 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 on our flights, hotels, and rental cars, we decided to splurge 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 two free nights from The World of Hyatt Credit Card, 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 nine credit cards and one checking account offer to make this amazing trip possible. Here’s a list of them and how we earned our travel credits, points, and miles for this trip.
Editor's note: This card is not currently available. We recommend you use the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card instead.
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 which is the equivalent of a $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 that was equivalent to a $500 travel credit
Editor's note: The Chase Sapphire Reserve Card's current bonus offer lets you earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
This is arguably the best travel credit 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 meeting the $4,000 spend requirement in 3 months, I earned 100,000 points!
And we also earn 5X points on flights and 10X points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually; 3X points on other travel and dining & 1X points per dollar on all other purchases.
Editor's note: The current sign-up bonus for the United Explorer Card lets you earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
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!
Editor's note: The current welcome offer lets you earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in purchases in the first 6 months.
I earned a welcome 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!
Editor's note: The current sign-up bonus lets you earn up to 60,000 bonus points: 30,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening, plus up to 30,000 more bonus points by earning 2 points total per $1 spent in the first 6 months from account opening on purchases that normally earn 1 bonus point, on up to $15,000 spent.
My husband and I were both approved for this card as well and each 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 up to 9X points on stays at Hyatt hotels (4 bonus points plus 5 base points as a World of Hyatt member); 2X points on restaurants, airline tickets purchased directly from the airlines, local transit and commuting and on fitness club and gym memberships; and 1X points on all other purchases.
All in all, a fantastic card to use for traveling!
6. Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card
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.
Editor's note: This card is no longer available. We recommend you use the The Platinum Card® from American Express instead.
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.
Editor's note: The offer above was the one available at the time the author booked this trip. With the current bonus offer, you can earn 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases.
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.
9. Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express
Editor's note: This card is no longer available. We recommend you use the American Express® Business Gold Card instead.
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. It's one of the best checking accounts our family has opened to date!
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 earn a signup bonus, please stop — there are better ways to meet minimum spend!
I like to prepay 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 how you want to spend them.
For example, when I signed up for The World of Hyatt Credit Card, 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 $58 in transaction fees, but since I applied those two free nights from the Hyatt Card towards our stay at the Andaz Maui - which typically charges $500+ per night - the $58 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 in earning tons of points and miles.
Would I do it again?
Yes! We 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 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.
Easy-to-Earn Unlimited Rewards
- Earn 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases
- Earn 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases
- Longer intro APR on qualifying purchases and balance transfers
- No foreign transaction fees
- Apply Now
- Earn unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees and your points don't expire.
- 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases.
- Use your card to book your trip how and where you want - you're not limited to specific websites with blackout dates or restrictions.
- Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for travel or dining purchases, such as flights, hotel stays, car and vacation rentals, baggage fees, and also at restaurants including takeout.
- 0% Introductory APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases, and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days. After the intro APR offer ends, 18.24% - 28.24% Variable APR will apply. A 3% fee applies to all balance transfers.
- If you're a Preferred Rewards member, you can earn 25%-75% more points on every purchase. That means instead of earning an unlimited 1.5 points for every $1, you could earn 1.87-2.62 points for every $1 you spend on purchases.
- Contactless Cards - The security of a chip card, with the convenience of a tap.
- This online only offer may not be available if you leave this page or if you visit a Bank of America financial center. You can take advantage of this offer when you apply now.
Earn 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases
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