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Friends always ask me, “How can you always afford to travel to some amazing destinations with your family?” My husband and I explain to them that while we’re not multi-millionaires, we have another Currency: Travel Rewards. Thanks to awesome sign-up bonuses and using the best credit cards every time you shop, I explain that almost anyone can enjoy a family vacation for free.
My family of four recently traveled to Aruba on a December vacation for a full week of sunshine. Our trip included flying to Aruba on American Airlines, flying home on Delta Air Lines, five nights at the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa and Casino, and a stay at the Renaissance Wind Creek Aruba Two nights at Island Resort. If we paid cash, the seven-night trip would have cost us $7,815. However, thanks to travel awards used for most of our trip, we were able to pay over $200 in travel expenses out of pocket.
So how do we do it? How can you accumulate the travel rewards necessary to relive a similar vacation? Here’s everything you need to know.
While every airline’s policy varies, many airlines open the booking window a full 330 days before travel. If you want to travel during busy times like holidays or spring break, booking as far in advance as possible is the best way to use the fewest points. Since many airlines allow you to cancel award bookings for free, there’s usually no harm in booking a flight even if your plans aren’t concrete yet.
That’s exactly what I do. I booked outbound American Airlines flights when flights were available on the dates we wanted to travel to Aruba. While the flight time wasn’t great, I only spent 11,000 AAdvantage miles plus $15.60 per person. With only 44,000 miles and $62.40 in total, I was able to book a trip for my family of four to Aruba. These one-way flights would have cost us a total of $1,064 if we hadn’t used travel awards, making our American Airlines miles worth just over 2.2 cents per mile—a nice redemption.
If you’re planning to fly American Airlines, you should start accumulating miles in American Airlines’ AAdvantage loyalty program. Thanks to airline credit cards, you can score free flights in no time. Luckily, American Airlines offers a number of credit cards in its program to earn valuable miles.
For example, you can earn anywhere from 10,000 to 65,000 miles on multiple American Airlines-branded cards. With the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, you can earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,500 within the first three months of account opening. Or, consider the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, which offers 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening.
Plus, if you have a Bilt Rewards credit card, you can transfer the points you earn to American Airlines on a 1-to-1 basis. This is one of the few transferable programs that works with American Airlines, and it’s a great option if you’re looking for a flexible credit card. Bilt is also one of the best credit cards for paying rent.
About four weeks before our vacation, the cost of a Delta flight home nonstop from Aruba was slashed: 9,000 Delta SkyMiles plus $73 tax or $160 per passenger. I chose to pay $160 per passenger because I had a $500 Delta credit from a previous flight fiasco. That meant the four of me flew home from Aruba for a total of $140 – a steal, especially during such a busy time.
If I didn’t have the $500 Delta credit, I’d still pay for the ticket because it wouldn’t be a good deal to redeem Delta Skymiles for that particular ticket. Since taxes alone are $73 per passenger, I’d spend 9,000 miles per person and end up saving $87.
Another option is to use the Chase Travel Portal to book flights and redeem Ultimate Rewards points earned from the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Credit Card. With these cards, you can redeem points at a fixed exchange rate, each worth between 1.25 and 1.5 cents, depending on the card.
However, if you find a flight worth redeeming Delta miles for, you’ll find it easy to accumulate Delta miles. With seven Delta-branded credit cards, you can earn Delta SkyMiles in a fraction of the time.
Additionally, Delta is a transit partner for the American Express Membership Rewards program, which provides additional opportunities to earn Delta miles. For example, once you’ve earned 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in your first six months as an Amex Gold member, those points can be transferred directly to your Delta Sky Miles account at a 1-for-1 ratio.
Five nights at the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa and Casino
My family has stayed at the Hyatt in Aruba in the past and we loved it, so there is no doubt that we would like to stay at this hotel again. One of the most luxurious resorts in Palm Beach, it features a three-level pool complex, two levels of waterslides, a swim-up bar, free beach palapa and plenty of activities for the kids. However, pricing can skyrocket and reward availability can be difficult to come by, so you need to be flexible and plan ahead. Luckily, I booked in advance and was able to get a five night reward night at this hotel.
In the World of Hyatt rewards chart, point redemption is fixed by category, but there are peak and off-peak pricing, depending on the time of year you intend to travel. Peak pricing is in full effect during our winter break, so it costs 29,000 World of Hyatt points per night. While we spent a total of 145,000 points during our stay, that was far better than the eye-watering $4,907 we paid out of pocket – a terrific redemption.
To take it to the next level, we were able to apply a Hyatt Suite Upgrade Award to our reservation, which allowed us to stay in a 2 bedroom suite – one room with a king bed and the other room with bunk beds. This award is attributed to our top Hyatt Globalist status, which we achieved with the help of the World of Hyatt credit card. With this card, you’ll earn free Discoverist Elite status and then earn two elite-qualifying nights for every $5,000 you spend. Not only did the benefits of this credit card help us earn and redeem suite upgrades at this hotel through Globalist status, but it also gave us free breakfast, access to the club lounge, and two free floats per day.
In addition to the World of Hyatt credit card, you can also earn Hyatt points with one of the many Chase Ultimate Rewards credit cards because the points transfer 1-to-1 to 14 different travel partners, including Hyatt. This includes the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve and Ink Business Preferred® credit cards. Or, if you own a non-annual card, such as the Chase Freedom Flex℠ or Chase Freedom Unlimited®, and pair it with the Senior Chase Ultimate Rewards earning card, you can simultaneously transfer points to Hyatt 1-for-1.
This means that if you apply for Chase Sapphire Preferred and earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months, those points can be converted to 60,000 World of Hyatt points. As a category 6 hotel, the Hyatt Regency Aruba offers anywhere from 21,000 to 29,000 points per night, and you can redeem 60,000 points for two to three nights at an incredible Caribbean getaway. Hyatt also waives all resort fees when you redeem points, which means you really don’t have to pay any out-of-pocket expenses—another benefit of using points versus paying cash rates.
We split our Aruba vacation for two reasons: Hyatt Aruba only had five nights of award availability, and we wanted to try something new. Which brings us directly to the Renaissance Wind Creek Aruba Resort – a property in a completely different area with its own private island. Since Renaissance is part of Marriott, it’s easy to use Marriott Bonvoy points for free nights.
Located in Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital, the resort offers two different types of accommodation: adults-only accommodation and family-friendly accommodation, about 5 minutes’ walk from each other. The family friendly location offers a large pool, sandy beach and lagoon for swimming. Despite being right in the capital, the hotel offers a true resort feel, with a poolside bar, restaurant and plenty of loungers (by the pool and beach). Located directly on the marina, this adults-only hotel offers its own swimming pool with access to a family-friendly pool and beach. From both the family-friendly and adults-only resorts, take a ferry to the resort’s 40-acre private island, Renaissance Island, where you can feed flamingos and iguanas, snorkel and truly relax.
During our stay, the hotel charged 60,000 points per night, but for the suite (which was the only option when traveling with the family), there was a surcharge of 15,000 points or $80 per night. I chose to pay the full amount with points, which cost a total of 150,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for a two night stay. The cash rate for our two night stay cost us a total of $1,204. However, since Marriott offers a fifth-night free redemption award, you may find even more value when redeeming five-night stays at hotels like the Renaissance Wind Creek Aruba.
Marriott’s own co-branded credit card offers you a great opportunity to increase your account balance. With five different credit cards to choose from, find the one that best suits your needs—and earn Marriott points at the same time. For example, with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card, you’ll receive a free night bonus on your cardholder’s anniversary, valid at hotels with a maximum of 85,000 points per night. Plus, the card offers an enticing welcome bonus of 95,000 Marriott Bonvoy points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months.
In the end, my family had a fantastic vacation, with out-of-pocket airfare and hotel costs totaling just $202.40. Thanks to travel awards and flight vouchers, we saved nearly $8,000 on the price tag of this vacation. While we’ve been racking up travel rewards for over a decade, it’s never too late to start. With the right credit card and some strategic planning, you can also take an incredible trip for little to no cost in the near future.
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