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Learning to Travel for Free — TPG Reader Success Story

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One of the things I love most about being The Points Guy is getting to hear stories from readers about how award travel has affected their lives — the exotic vacations they’ve planned, the trips they’ve made to be with family and friends, the premium seats and suites they’ve experienced and so much more, all made possible by points and miles. I love to travel and explore, and it’s an honor to be able to help so many of you get where you want to go.

I want to share these success stories with all of you more often, to help inspire you the way you inspire me! So every other week or so I select a story that catches my eye and post it here for everyone to enjoy. Two weeks ago I posted a story from TPG reader Casey, who took advantage of extended warranty benefits on one of his travel rewards cards to save money on a repair.

Today I want to share a story from TPG Reader Rachel, who recently got into the points and miles game, and is headed to Europe with her husband for their first taste of (mostly) free travel. Here’s what she had to say:

Rachel and her husband will visit Dubrovnik, among several other destinations. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

I really enjoy all the stories on TPG about people flying first class for next to nothing, but my husband and I are content to travel in whatever manner, as long as it’s free!

This past winter, we both received targeted offers for 50,000 bonus miles on the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card from Amex. I had seen it pop up a few times before, but since Delta got rid of its award charts, I worried that we wouldn’t be able to spend enough to earn the rest of the miles we’d need to travel somewhere more far flung. However, after reading about online shopping portals on TPG, we bit the bullet and applied. When we earned a few thousand miles just placing our annual contact lens orders through the SkyMiles portal, I kicked myself for not having known about this before!

Our apartment building allows us to pay our rent online with a credit card as well, so knowing that we could meet the spending requirements without too much difficulty, we signed up for a few more cards along the way. We both got the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard (before the devaluation was announced) and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, as well as one Marriott Rewards Premier Card, racking up all the bonuses effortlessly.

We put many plans on hold in the last year because our dog was diagnosed with cancer, but she’s back to herself, and last month we finally felt we could leave her with a sitter and take a vacation. Two months in advance didn’t seem like enough time to book award travel, but I think we still did pretty well:

Next month we fly into Amsterdam, where we’ll be spending a couple nights right in the middle of town at the Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel. We generally prefer mom-and-pop type B&Bs to upscale hotels, but Amsterdam in August is nuts, and it seemed like terrible value to drop a few hundred dollars on even the least expensive (noisy, ill-located) hostels, so our Marriott points came to the rescue.

From Amsterdam, we’ll take $54 flights to Dubrovnik on EasyJet and spend about a week in Croatia before taking the overnight ferry to Italy. During our week in Italy, we hope to have pizza in Naples, see Pompeii, taste a lot of olive oil, and maybe catch a glimpse of the Pope before we fly home from Rome.

Our flights to Amsterdam and returning from Rome on Delta came to 75,000 miles each (plus a piddly $11.90) — amazing compared to the cash rate at the time of $1,980 for the same itinerary! The bonuses from the Barclay and Capital One cards give us a total of $1,680 to travel our way ($440 and $400 for each card, respectively), and should more than cover the costs of our EasyJet flights, the private cabin on our overnight ferry, and our other 11 hotel nights, giving us the flexibility to stay wherever we like.

While some more experienced folks could probably make something more impressive happen with 3-4 credit card bonuses each, this is our first attempt at reward travel and traveling for free is good enough for us!

One of the things I love most about award travel is that it helps me have experiences that might otherwise be unattainable, like flying Singapore Suites on the A380 or an extended stay at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme. However, maximizing your travel means different things to different people; while my goal is to help you get the most value out of your points and miles, ultimately what matters is getting where you want to go at a price that makes sense. Rachel and her husband probably could have redeemed points more efficiently (especially by planning further in advance), but I’d say they did great for their first time!

This story also underscores the value of cash-back rewards — or in the case of the Arrival and Venture cards, miles that function more or less like cash back. You can use these rewards to cover a wide range of travel expenses (including flights, hotels, trains and more) that might otherwise not be covered. That gives you greater flexibility to travel outside the lines of traditional loyalty programs.

Finally, Rachel showed some savvy by taking advantage of the option to pay rent with a credit card. While these types of payments often incur fees, using a credit card can still be worthwhile if you’re working toward earning a lucrative sign-up bonus (like the ones in my monthly list of top credit card offers). Rachel didn’t specify whether she and her husband had to pay extra, but even if they did, the $1,680 in statement credits they’ll get from the Arrival Plus and Venture Rewards cards will easily offset any added cost.

Marriott Rewards points made Rachel’s stay in Amsterdam affordable.

I love this story, and I want to hear more like it! To thank Rachel for sharing her experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending her a $200 Visa gift card to enjoy on her travels, and I’d like to do the same for you.

If the tips and strategies you’ve learned here have helped you fly in first class, score an amazing suite, reach a far-flung destination or even just save a few dollars, please indulge me (and the whole TPG team) with your own award travel success stories by emailing and putting “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. If we publish it, you’ll have our utmost appreciation, and a gift card to jump-start your next adventure (purchased from Office Depot with my Chase Ink Plus, of course).

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!

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