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How I saved nearly $1,400 on a last-minute summer trip with a rental car

July 19, 2021
7 min read
Sunset over Maroon Bells, Colorado, USA
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As a self-proclaimed travel expert, I’m the go-to person when my friends and family need help navigating the often-confusing world of points and miles. I’m usually asked what their next travel rewards card should be or which loyalty programs are best for getting maximum value.

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This time around, my mom and brother asked me to help them plan a last-minute trip to Colorado. But there’s a challenge. Thanks to unprecedented levels of domestic leisure travel (that have even exceeded pre-pandemic numbers), it’s more expensive than ever to book a last-minute summer trip -- especially if you need a rental car.

While I’ve helped them open a few travel cards over the past few years, they’re still confused on the redemption side and how these newly acquired points and miles can unlock free travel. Let’s dig deeper into how I helped my mom and brother book their spontaneous end-of-summer trip, saving them nearly $1,400.

Consider vacation packages

It’s been over a year since most of us have traveled. If you’re feeling rusty, you’re not alone. One solution I’ve recently rediscovered is airline vacation packages. Offered by most domestic airlines, you can “package” flights and hotels (or rental cars) together at a considerable discount.

Not every trip will benefit from vacation packages, and it is always worth checking the price to book separately to see if you’re getting the best value possible. However, I found that a vacation package worked well in the case of my mom and brother, as they needed flights, hotels and rental cars, but individual prices were soaring through the roof.

My mom and brother live near Raleigh, North Carolina, so they currently have three options for flying nonstop to Denver from Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU): Frontier, Southwest and United. Ultimately, I decided that Southwest was the best option, since they’ll each get two free checked bags — perfect for bringing their hiking gear — and the flight times were favorable.

Related: Battle of the airlines: Why I think Southwest Airlines is the best

(Screenshot courtesy of Southwest Vacations)

The Southwest Vacations website lets you package either a flight and hotel or a flight and rental car together. Since they’ll be driving through Colorado and are visiting multiple landmarks, I searched for their trip with the “Flight + Car” option — making a note to book hotels separately.

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If booking the flight separately, I found the cheapest “Wanna Get Away” fare would be $238 per person, for a total of $476.

(Screenshot courtesy of Southwest)

On the rental car side, I conducted a quick search on Budget’s website, inputting the exact date and the desired car — an intermediate SUV. It cost about $1,000 with taxes and fees.

(Screenshot courtesy of Budget)

The rental car shortage is very real, and many travelers have struggled to find affordable options. Some travelers in Hawaii have even been reported to be using U-Haul trucks and vans as rental cars.

Related: How to never pay full price for a rental car

Meanwhile, I found that leveraging the Southwest Vacations package saved tons of money and time. If I had booked the flights and rental car separately, my mom and brother would have coughed up $1,477.74. Meanwhile, the Southwest Vacations package offered a total price of $1,163.87, saving them more than $300.

(Screenshot courtesy of Southwest Vacations)

Plus, my mom and brother will each earn 1,893 Rapid Rewards points and more than 2,300 Ultimate Rewards points (2x on travel by paying with the Chase Sapphire Preferred). According to TPG valuations, all of these points are worth $74.95. While this isn’t a significant return on investment, it’s not bad, since it’ll help them with their next redemption and help my mom reach her minimum spending requirement on her Sapphire Preferred.

Book hotels at Hyatt for maximum value

My mom and brother have ambitious goals during their five-night trip through the Rocky Mountains. Based on their itinerary, they want to stay in two different hotels in the Boulder and Montrose regions of Colorado.

Just like rental cars, hotel prices can be astronomical. But with points and miles, they snagged a great deal on rates without paying a fortune.

Related: Long lines, reduced amenities, higher prices: What staffing shortages mean for your summer vacation

My mom opened a Chase Freedom Flex in September 2020 and the Chase Sapphire Preferred recently, with a current welcome bonus of 60,000 bonus points (after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening). While she hasn’t reached the spending minimum for the Sapphire Preferred’s sign-up bonus quite yet, she still had 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points to burn from her Freedom Flex.

As a new (and proud) owner of the Sapphire Preferred, she’s able to get even more value by transferring her points from the Freedom Flex. That way, she can access Chase’s 11 airline and three hotel partners, including World of Hyatt, considered one of the most valuable programs out there.

For the first three nights, I booked the Hyatt Place Boulder/Pearl Street. Cash prices are through the roof — $564 per night for her desired travel dates. Meanwhile, I transferred 36,000 Chase points to her World of Hyatt loyalty account to get a terrific 4.7 cents of value. That’s almost triple TPG’s current valuation of Hyatt points at 1.7 cents each.

(Screenshot courtesy of Hyatt)

Booking the final nights with cash

The following two nights, they wanted to stay in Montrose. I found a solid property — the Hampton Inn Montrose.

(Screenshot courtesy of Hilton)

The cash price for two nights is $313.70, which isn’t terrible given it includes complimentary breakfast. I used her new Chase Sapphire Preferred to book the final two nights, which got her 2x on travel and that much closer to reaching the $4,000 spending minimum for the sign-up bonus.

How much did I help them save?

The chart below details the price of the flights, rental car and hotel nights if I had booked separately and how I actually ended up booking everything.

TravelIndividual priceHow I did it Price
Flights for two people$475.92Southwest Vacations package: Flights for two people and rental car (intermediate SUV)$1,163.87
Rental car (intermediate SUV)$1,001.82Southwest Vacations package: Flights for two people and rental car (intermediate SUV)$1,163.87
Three nights at the Hyatt Place Boulder/Pearl Street$1,692Transferred 36,000 Ultimate Rewards points to World of Hyatt$612 (according to TPG valuations)
Two nights at the Hampton Inn Montrose$313.70Booked using the Chase Sapphire Preferred$313.70
Total $3,483.44$2,089.57

In sum, a combination of leveraging a Southwest Vacations package, Ultimate Rewards points and cash helped my mom and brother save nearly $1,400 on a last-minute summer vacation — a staggering amount, given the heightened demand in domestic travel.

Bottom line

As you can see, there are still ways to snag some great deals this summer, especially if you’re booking last minute. It will certainly take more time (and patience) to examine all your options, but I highly recommend checking out airline vacation packages and point transfer opportunities for starters.

You may be able to save hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on your flight, rental car and hotel, which are getting more expensive than ever as people are itching to travel again.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.