The Ultimate California Road Trip on the Cheap With Points
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California’s Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is as famous as it is expensive. A must-do road trip for its incredibly scenic vistas and seaside towns, it comes at a price. Hotels in cities like Malibu and Monterey charge as much as $500 a night, and many hotel chains also charge top-tier point redemptions for middle-of-the-road properties.
So when one of my good friends from the UK decided to visit and he wanted to take a trip up the PCH, I set about finding the best, most affordable hotels to book on points.
Day 1: San Diego
I know that the PCH doesn’t start until about 60 miles north of San Diego in the city of Dana Point, but it’s a great jumping-off point for a drive up the coast, and two of my favorite possibilities for using a free-night certificate from The World of Hyatt Credit Card are here. Earlier this year, both the Andaz San Diego and the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego dropped from Category 5 to 4, which spikes these to the top of the best-value list for Hyatt free-night certificates.
Snagging a room that would ordinarily go for $500 or more per night simply by holding a credit card with a $95 annual fee is an outstanding value.
If you don’t currently have The World of Hyatt Credit Card, now’s a great time to add it to your wallet. In addition to the annual free night certificate each year on your account anniversary, you’ll also take home a sign-up bonus of up to 50,000 points. You’ll earn 25,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening and an additional 25,000 points after you spend $6,000 total on purchases within the first six months of account opening.
For more details on this card, check out our full review.
Day 2: Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is a scant 80 miles from San Diego and it’s one of the prettiest beaches in Southern California. Hotels right on the beach cost an arm and a leg. Even the Holiday Inn was clocking in at $300+ for a night in July.
You can redeem 35,000 points for one night, giving you value of 0.87 cents per point, well above TPG’s valuation of 0.5 cents.
Now, 35,000 IHG points for a single night isn’t very cheap, but we’re in Southern California, and gems are hard to find.
Day 3: Ventura Beach
Next stop up the coast was Ventura Beach, where I had a phenomenal stay at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach. It’s a beachfront hotel with a fire pit and a pool overlooking the ocean, and it only cost me 25,000 IHG points.
As a Platinum Elite (courtesy of my IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card), I was upgraded on arrival from a standard room to one with an ocean view. Then I headed down to the bar to redeem my coupons for two free drinks. (Thanks, Platinum status.)
My goal for this trip was to stay as close to the major sights as possible while avoiding exorbitant hotel prices. Case in point, our hotel in Ventura Beach was a mere 30-minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara, where point redemptions are double or even close to triple what I paid.
Day 4: San Luis Obispo/Pismo Beach
There are a lot of options available in this area, but some of the best in terms of value are Wyndham Rewards, a lesser-known program that offers some really nice hotels for really cheap. While the program did recently double the award rates of roughly 200 top-tier properties, there are still some fantastic values in the middle of the award chart.
A night at the La Quinta in downtown San Luis Obispo is only 15,000 points, the same price as the Super 8 two doors down but much nicer. With taxes, the total comes to $262, meaning you’re redeeming your points at a value of 1.75 each, more than a half cent greater than TPG’s 1.1 cent valuation.
If you have more time, there are even better choices through Wyndham such as the San Luis Bay Inn, a resort-like property that requires a two-night stay but has beach access, full kitchens and killer views. It’s not as new as the La Quinta, but rooms are going for $329 a night. That comes to a total of $737 after taxes or just 30,000 points for your entire stay, netting you a value of 2.4 cents per point.
However, if you don’t have Wyndham Rewards points on hand — or are faithful to the loyalty programs you have joined — you can do like I did and stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Pismo Beach, where my Diamond status (from holding the Hilton Honors Aspire Credit Card from American Express) netted me an upgrade to their best two-bed guest room.
It still cost me 33,000 points on what would have been a $190 hotel stay (which isn’t the best), but the free breakfast was good and the late checkout made for a relaxing day.
Day 5: San Simeon
San Simeon is home to Hearst Castle, one of the most famous mansions in the US and former residence of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who built it and stocked it with zoo animals. No, seriously.
This was my first visit to Hearst Castle, despite having lived a few hours away from it nearly all my life. It lived up to the hype.
There aren’t many choices for hotel chains around, but there’s a Quality Inn a mere four miles away, which will let you book a suite that sleeps seven people for only 12,000 Choice points a night.
Considering Choice Privileges points are currently valued at 0.6 cents each, you’re getting great value here (3.07 cents apiece) while spending frugally.
Remember that you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to Choice Privileges at a 1:1 ratio, a great option to get maximum value from earnings on cards like the American Express® Gold Card or The Platinum Card® from American Express.
Day 6: Monterey
I used to live in Monterey, so coming here was a must for me. Unfortunately, the city is notoriously expensive, with nearby Pebble Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea driving prices up.
Fortunately, Hyatt has a wonderful Category 4 hotel, whose best feature (in my opinion) is the s’mores kit they give to each guest at check-in.
If you’ve already used your free-night certificate in San Diego, you can easily move Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt to cover the cost of this stay, which transfer instantly. This is a great option for points earned on cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Even better, if you’re a Hyatt credit cardholder, you can currently get 10% of your redeemed points back on stays through September 2, 2019, bringing the total cost of this redemption down to just 13,500 points.
Day 7: Santa Cruz
The city of Santa Cruz is just across the bay from Monterey, and on a good day you can spot the boardwalk from Monterey’s foggy shores.
At last we finally see a decent use of Marriott points with the Hotel Paradox, a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection.
This is a Category 5 hotel, which makes it a great use of the free-night certificate that comes with many Bonvoy credit cards. The following credit cards each offer a free-night certificate worth up to 35,000 points upon account renewal:
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card
- Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card
- Marriott Bonvoy Premier Plus Business Credit Card (closed to new applicants)
- Marriott Bonvoy Card from American Express (closed to new applicants)
This hotel routinely sells rooms in the high 200s, with taxes and fees bringing the cost to over $300 a night.
Day 8: San Francisco
Ah, San Francisco, the city as famous for its bridge as for its shoebox-sized apartments and outrageous parking fees. Hotels in San Francisco are equally exorbitant, and finding a room in San Francisco for under $200 a night (in a safe hotel) is difficult, let alone managing to redeem points for anything less than a high rate.
Have I mentioned Hyatt recently? In late 2018, the program acquired Two Roads Hospitality and has already integrated Thompson, Joie de Vivre and Alila into its award chart. As a result, it’s now possible to book the Hotel Del Sol — a Joie de Vivre property located conveniently in San Francisco’s Marina district — for only 15,000 points a night.
That makes it yet another high-priced location eligible for use of the free-night certificate on a Hyatt credit card, or you can redeem just 13,500 Hyatt points (with the current 10% rebate promotion) for a redemption value of 3.3 cents per point, nearly double TPG’s 1.7 cent valuation.
Alternatively, you can stay at the Holiday Inn San Francisco-Fishermans Wharf hotel for 45,000 IHG points. The hotel has a nearly unparalleled location and it shows in the rate, with prices as high as $568 for a single night in their cheapest room.
If you’re paying out-of-pocket, consider staying at one of the other IHG-branded properties in town.
Day 9: Napa
We’re veering off the highway here in order to dip into one of the most famous wine regions in the world: Napa Valley. There are tons of hotels here, from uber-expensive resorts to ramshackle motels, but one particularly good deal comes in the form of a Category 3 Marriott hotel, which costs a measly 17,500 points:
It doesn’t get much cheaper for California hotels on points.
Alternatively, The Vino Bello Resort is a Wyndham associate, and you can redeem 15,000 points/night there for a one-bedroom condo (minimum 2-night stay) in lieu of the $725 it would otherwise cost you.
There’s also the relatively-new Andaz Napa, situated smack in the heart of downtown, though it’ll run you a pricey 25,000 points for a free night.
Day 10: Fort Bragg
North of San Francisco it starts getting pretty difficult to find hotels — especially with major programs — as cities give way to small coastal towns. Seaside inns abound, so if you’re not averse to using flexible currency points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards or Citi ThankYou points, you could book through their respective portals and redeem points at a fixed value for a boutique hotel. Or, if you’ve been using your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to book at hotels.com/venture (which earns you 10x miles through Jan. 31, 2020), you probably have a free night or two stacked up on the website to burn.
Otherwise, stick with me as we journey farther up the coast, all the way to the city of Fort Bragg, population 7,312.
IHG has exactly one hotel in Fort Bragg, a Holiday Inn Express with summer rates that hover in the mid 200’s after taxes.
A redemption here is only 25,000 IHG points/night, making this a really good value.
Day 11: Klamath
This is our final stop. We’ve reached (and surpassed) the end of the Pacific Coast Highway, but no trip to the West Coast is complete without a visit to the Redwood National Park, where the tallest trees on earth tower unbelievably overhead.
Unless you’re interested in roughing it, your only options for hotels are outside the park itself. Fortunately, the nearby town of Klamath features a Holiday Inn Express just four miles from the park itself, with a redemption rate of 30,000 points/night.
So, what’s the damage here for an 11-night journey up the coast of California? Let’s take a look:
|Day 1||San Diego||Hyatt||13,500 points (with current promotion), or free-night certificate|
|Day 2||Laguna Beach||IHG||35,000 points|
|Day 3||Ventura Beach||IHG||25,000 points|
|Day 4||San Luis Obispo||Wyndham||15,000 points|
|Day 5||San Simeon||Choice||12,000 points|
|Day 6||Monterey||Hyatt||13,500 points (with current promotion), or free-night certificate|
|Day 7||Santa Cruz||Marriott||35,000 points, or free-night certificate|
|Day 8||San Francisco||Hyatt||13,500 points (with current promotion), or free-night certificate|
|Day 9||Napa||Marriott||17,500 points|
|Day 10||Fort Bragg||IHG||25,000 points|
|Day 11||Klamath||IHG||30,000 points|
All told, it cost 235,000 points across multiple loyalty programs for an unforgettable, 11-day trip in one of the most expensive places in the world.
Yeah, I’d call that a win.
Featured image by Carissa Rawson / The Points Guy
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