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How I spent $0 using points and miles on an epic Highway 1 road trip

August 18 2022
14 min read
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The Pacific Coast Highway is arguably one of the most iconic and popular road trip routes in the United States. But it's often synonymous with a hefty price tag. Even before this summer of travel chaos, rental car prices were spiking, and nightly hotel rates up and down California’s scenic coastline have never been cheap.

If only there were a way to offset my travel expenses on what has long been my dream road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

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Let me rewind a bit to give you some context. Yes, I work at TPG, but I am far from the Maldives-overwater-bungalow-on-American-Express-points type of traveler. I just applied for my first credit card when I started here exactly a year ago.

Since then, I have learned many, many points and miles lessons from my colleagues and collected three premium and midrange credit cards along the way: the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card and the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express.

I've come to think of these cards as three of my favorite hats. Each is an essential part of my travel wardrobe, but I wear them at different times, for different reasons.

My Chase Sapphire Preferred is my classic baseball cap. It's versatile and works great as a starting point for any points and miles journey. It earns 5 points per dollar on travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, 3 points per dollar on dining and online groceries, 3 points per dollar on select streaming services, 2 points per dollar on other travel and 1 point per dollar on other purchases. When I applied for it last year, I earned 100,000 points after making $4,000 in purchases in the first three months, which can be worth $1,250 when redeemed toward travel directly with Chase, but which TPG estimates to be worth $2,000 based on our points valuations.

Related: The ultimate California road trip on the cheap with points

My Capital One Venture X is my pink cowboy hat. It’s a premium travel card that's super easy to use but makes me feel like a points and miles expert. The Venture X earns 10 miles per dollar on hotels and rental cars booked through the Capital One travel portal, 5 miles per dollar on flights booked through Capital One, and 2 miles per dollar on all other purchases.

The card's current welcome offer is 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 within the first three months from account opening , but when I applied, I was able to earn 100,000 bonus miles after spending $10,000 on purchases in the first six months. Those miles are worth $1,000 for travel — potentially more if you take advantage of Capital One's airline and hotel transfer partners.

And my Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express is my tie-dye bucket hat, suitable for all those offbeat, non-travel occasions where my other cards might not come in handy. It’s a great cash-back card for gas and groceries that rounds out the benefits of my beginner portfolio. With this card, I earn 6% cash back on up to $6,000 of purchases per year at U.S. supermarkets, and 3% back at U.S. gas stations and on transit. With my application, the annual fee was $0 for the first year, before it goes up to $95 (see rates and fees).

Nearly a year into my points and miles card journey, I wondered: Could the welcome offers and combined perks of these cards be enough to cover a five-day adventure on the Pacific Coast Highway? You'll have to read on (or watch the video below) to find out.

Preparation

The first step was getting from New York City to the West Coast. Rather than trying to take advantage of Chase’s airline transfer partners and search for award availability, I simply booked my flights to and from California through the Chase travel portal, redeeming points for 1.25 cents apiece. I ended up using 28,928 points for a round-trip ticket on JetBlue, which saved me $362 out of pocket. My partner, Nate, and my best friend, Dedrick, joined in the fun as well, but for the purpose of this points and miles budget exercise, they paid their own way for flights, meals and activities.

We landed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on a swelteringly hot April morning. But before our adventure could begin, we needed to secure the chief ingredient of any classic road trip: the car.

Ours came to us courtesy of Dollar. I used the Venture X to rent our Chevrolet Tahoe for the week for $380 through the Capital One Travel portal since the card offers up to $300 in annual statement credits toward travel booked through the portal. Then I used my Capital One miles to cover the remaining $80 at a rate of 1 cent per mile, redeeming a mere 8,000 miles for the extra cost of the rental. What's more, the Venture X is one of the few travel credit cards that offer primary insurance on rental cars, so I knew I'd be protected against any dents or dings we encountered along the way.

Related: Cheeseburgers and planespotting: Why I made the trek to the famous LAX In-N-Out

Our first order of business was a California classic, In-N-Out Burger. And this particular location, just a mile away from the entrance of the airport, is a prime location for planespotting. The small park across from the restaurant is situated at the end of a runway, so over burgers and fries, I incorrectly identified airplanes as they passed overhead, impressing my aviation-clueless travel companions.

Bellies full, we returned to the car and officially anointed the Chevrolet Tahoe the “Pointsmobile” by slapping a TPG decal on its side. And just like that, the $0 road trip was officially a go.

Day 1: Los Angeles

Where to stay: Book a room at the Tommie Hollywood, a chic World of Hyatt Category 4 property. Normally, it would cost around $300 a night, but instead, I spent 15,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points by transferring them to my Hyatt account at a 1:1 ratio. The Tommie screams “millennial”: The furnishings blend bohemian and midcentury modern aesthetics, and the rooftop pool frequently appears in my Instagram feed.

What to do: Swing by the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a literacy nonprofit that operates a kitschy storefront selling books, trinkets and ironic snacks (doughnuts from 1985, anyone?). Enjoy your prehistoric goodies on a 45-minute hike to the back of the Hollywood sign, which also confers views of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Ana Mountains and downtown Los Angeles (on a clear day, at least). When it's time for a meal to impress those L.A. friends you see every two years, check out Bar Moruno, a Spanish tapas restaurant in Silver Lake that opened earlier this year. Make sure you try the oven-roasted marinated feta, setas con huevos (a skillet of mushrooms with a fried egg on top) and the Lucky Louie cocktail, a tropical concoction with rum, sherry, lime, kumquat and star anise.

Before you head out of town, drop by Beverly Hills for a piece of almost-aviation history. Originally built for LAX, Jack Colker’s 76 Station is the most futuristic gas station you'll ever see that still pumps fossil fuels. Our gas budget for this trip came from the $300 cash-back welcome offer from the Amex Blue Cash Preferred. So, while I’d consider the gas to be free thanks to that cash back, the card also earns 3% back at U.S. gas stations as well as on transit and ride-sharing, so I was earning even more cash back toward future purchases.

Related: 23 fun things to do in Los Angeles for every type of traveler

Day 2: Buellton

Where to stay: Drive 140 miles up the coast of California to Flying Flags, an RV resort and campground that also offers tiny cabins and vintage Airstreams and classic camping tents. For our stay, we chose the safari glamping tent, which had a patio, television, minifridge and, most importantly, heat and air conditioning. We used my Venture X to book our stay at this quirky property directly through the website. You can redeem Capital One miles at 1 cent apiece for travel purchases made within the past 90 days, so I used 19,200 miles to cover the $192 nightly rate.

Flying Flags will make you believe in bipartisanship again. All kinds of people gather here for a dose of Americana (think: bocce balls arcing through the air, barbecue sizzling on the grill, new friends chatting over shared drinks). Make sure you save one of your Buellton meals for Feather & Fire, the restaurant at Flying Flags that, no joke, serves the best pizza I’ve had on the West Coast.

What to do: Take a detour to Solvang, California, a little town a few miles inland that you'll swear served as the real-life inspiration for the "it's a small world" attraction at Disneyland. On your way into town, stop at OstrichLand USA, where you can pay $7 to not only feed ostriches and emus but also gawk at how much they resemble dinosaurs. Grab a table at Paula’s Pancake House to eat your weight in fluffy Danish pancakes and syrup-soaked Belgian waffles. Just down the street, Renaissance Antiques has an expansive collection of clocks, phonographs and music boxes, as well as a bespectacled attendant standing by to answer all your most absurd questions.

Day 3: San Luis Obispo

Where to stay: In San Luis Obispo, about a 90-minute drive up the highway from Buellton, check in for a night at the Madonna Inn. Undoubtedly one of the campiest hotels in the country, this SoCal classic is known for its elaborately decorated rooms with themes ranging from “Jungle Rock” to “Cloud Nine.” For our stay, we redeemed 18,000 points through the Chase travel portal to book the “Pony Room,” a bright red double-queen suite with a carousel pony in the center that would’ve been $210 for the night otherwise.

The Madonna Inn feels a bit like a Wes Anderson-designed hotel off the New Jersey Turnpike. (But in a great way, I promise!) The property has amenities galore, including a pink-and-blue tennis and basketball court, a scenic pool with a waterfall feature and live music and dancing nightly in the main dining room. The Madonna Inn fever dream was only interrupted by the shockingly bad yet woefully overpriced dinner menu at its Gold Rush Steak House.

What to do: Head to California Polytechnic State University to check out Poly Canyon, a playground for construction experimentation accessed by a 2-mile out-and-back hike. Over the years, university students have come here to put their engineering, architecture and design degrees into practice, erecting dozens of unconventional structures ranging from Hobbit holes to jungle gyms for an alien species. These days, graffiti covers most of these marvelous constructions, adding to the dystopic effect.

Day 4: Big Sur

Where to stay: Now for one of the more scenic stretches of Highway 1, between San Luis Obispo and Big Sur, passing by Hearst Castle along the way.

After a night living like a Royal Tenenbaum, we felt like getting back to basics at Ripplewood Resort, a wholesome community of cabins. Our abode, No. 10, sat nestled just in the tree line and close to Big Sur River on the side of Highway 1. We used my Venture X to book our night at this remote oasis. You can redeem Capital One miles at 1 cent apiece for travel purchases, so I used 25,000 of them to cover the $250 nightly rate.

Since our cabin was equipped with a full kitchen and an outdoor fire pit, we feasted on a well-balanced meal of hot dogs and s’mores, with ingredients purchased from a supermarket using my Amex Blue Cash Preferred (which I consider the ultimate grocery card thanks to that 6% earning rate).

What to do: On your way up Highway 1, stop for lunch at Harbor Hut, an unpretentious seafood joint on Morro Bay. Request a table by the back windows and chow down on a shrimp-and-fries basket while watching for otters and seals. Farther up is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where you can visit the eponymous beach famous for its purple sand. (If you’re expecting dunes of violet, you'll likely be a little disappointed — the name is rather hyperbolic, but the setting is still superb.) Later, drop by the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which is equal parts bookstore, creative showcase and monument to the late "Tropic of Cancer" author. Here, thousands of books hang from the walls and ceiling in clear plastic bags.

Related: Driving 1 of America’s best road trips: 3 days in Big Sur

Day 5: Monterey

Where to stay: There's only one proper stop left on this itinerary — Monterey, the setting of both "Big Little Lies" and "Finding Dory." (Now that’s a crossover episode I’d love to see.) For this stop, we opted for an Airbnb, using another perk from the Venture X: an up to $200 statement credit for vacation rentals I earned as part of the card’s welcome bonus (this is no longer available to new cardholders, unfortunately). All I had to do was book the Airbnb using my Venture X within the first year of having the card, and a few days later, the credit posted to my account.

Atop a mountain in the town of Aptos, our solar-powered tiny home was the perfect place to reflect on the 25 years I wasted only using cash to pay for my vacations. The Verizon dead zone forced us to unplug and do things we’d otherwise never take the time to do, like lie in a hammock and point out the three constellations I can name on a clear night, or read the entirety of the instructions for the composting toilet.

What to do: Price tag aside ($49.95 for adults), the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the best aquarium I’ve ever been to in the U.S. The sheer scale of the exhibits alone is impressive — not to mention the transfixing beauty of the jellyfish, sea turtles and fluorescent schools of fish. After your quick trip under the sea, head to Dust Bowl Brewing Co., a train station-turned-brewery that specializes in craft beer. Pick one of the 24 selections on tap and grab a table out back, where there are also a few food trucks. Just maybe skip the fish tacos if you're still mulling over your aquarium visit.

Bottom line

My $0 road trip ended up being a smash hit. Not only did I successfully avoid spending even a single dollar out of pocket for my flights, car rental, gas, accommodations and activities, but I also learned a massive amount about points and miles along the way.

This experience has taken me from a points and miles infant to, well, a points and miles toddler. I still have plenty of questions about the world of loyalty programs and credit cards but, if this experience has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes the best way to learn a new hobby is just giving it a try and reaping the rewards.

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred, click here.

Featured photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
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.

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Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
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  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
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Apply for Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 points
    75,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $125
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees