The Hill Family just got back from the best vacation we’ve ever been on together. Well, it was the only one we’ve ever been on together, but nonetheless, it was incredible.
We spent five nights and six days at the beautiful Paradisus in Los Cabos, Mexico. This all-inclusive resort was a true luxury getaway for our busy young family.
The kids played all day with us in the family-friendly pool and met new friends in the kid’s club. Nicole and I enjoyed exercising in the fitness center in the mornings, laying out in the pool cabanas during the day and eating at a different on-campus restaurant each night. We didn’t even care if the kids ate all of their food because it was all inclusive!
For Mother’s Day, I even booked a couple’s massage and facial at the spa. It was so relaxing that I fell asleep during the treatment (don’t tell Nicole).
It was a memorable week and we’re so glad we did it. The best part of all …
The entire trip only cost us $329.
Yep, all of it … The flights, hotel, food, private transportation and even the freakin’ spa. $329!
Let me tell you how we did it …
The Magical (and Potentially Dangerous) World of Credit Card Travel Rewards
Our Cabo adventure was funded with credit card points and lots of them. Yes, I know credit cards are evil and they will ruin us all, but let me explain.
After interviewing Brad Barrett on my podcast last year, I learned about the magical world of travel rewards. He opened my eyes to how thousands of financially responsible individuals were using credit cards to earn (nearly) free global and national travel every day.
In short, the process is as follows:
- Sign up for a credit card with a big travel bonus (miles, points, etc.)
- Put your typical monthly expenses on that credit card
- Hit the Minimum Spending Requirement (MSR) (ex. $3,000 in 3 months)
- Receive the bonus (ex. 50,000 points which could equate to roughly $500 of free travel)
- Rinse and repeat until you have enough for the free vacation
I was skeptical at first. After going credit-card-free for nearly 5 years of my adult life after reading Dave Ramsey's The Total Money Makeover, I wasn’t sure this was the best move for my family.
I decided to take Brad's free course on travel rewards and I came to understand that this tremendous perk can only really work out if you are extremely diligent and accurately track your spending. If you miss a payment or you overspend just to get the rewards, then the credit card company wins and you lose.
And if you start going into credit card debt, then the credit card companies REALLY win.
Despite the apparent debt-laden dangers, Nicole and I decided to go for it. My wife knew how much of a financial nerd I was and trusted that I wouldn’t let things go out off the rails.
How Travel Rewards Helps Us Get a (Nearly) Free All-Inclusive Family Vacation to Cabo San Lucas
1. Decide the Destination
Our original plan was to go to Disneyland with the kids (for only $220), but we decided against it. We wanted our first family vacation to be relaxing and fun. An all-inclusive resort in Mexico was more our speed.
We looked at Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, but the best option we found was in Cabo San Lucas. Since this was where Nicole and I went for our honeymoon, we were quickly sold on the idea.
2. Calculate the Travel Costs
Vacations can be expensive. When you add two kids into the picture, it gets VERY expensive.
That’s why we were geeked about the possibility of getting this incredible vacation for (nearly) free.
The elements of the trip that we had to cover with points were as follows (rough costs included):
- Roundtrip flights from Detroit to Los Cabos on Delta (4 people) = $3,475
- All inclusive resort (5-nights) = $1,900
- Private transportation (from airport to hotel and back) = $120
- Airport parking = $70
- Food and snacks (on travel days) = $130
- Tips = $115
- Couple’s spa treatment (a Mother’s Day must) = $420
- Credit card annual fee = $95
- Random / misc (sunscreen, gifts, etc) = $30
TOTAL = $6,355
We didn’t have $6,355 saved up for this trip so it was time to start earning some points.
Our points earning adventure started in July 2017. This was a full 10 months before our travel date.
3. Sign up for Travel Rewards Credit Cards for Flights and Hotel
The amount of options out there for credit card rewards is mind-boggling. It makes sense though. With our country in over $1 Trillion of credit card debt, it’s no wonder there are so many lucrative bonus offers. It’s working for the credit card companies!
Okay, rant over. Let’s win this game!
I fly Delta a lot for work because we have a hub in Detroit. It’s a very nice airline with excellent service. Our goal was to fly our whole family on the same plane in comfort and style. Also, Delta has the nice viewing screens on the back of the headrests (which Zoey and Calvin loved).
Both Nicole and I signed up for the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card and collectively received 135,000 SkyMiles and a $100 Statement credit after meeting the minimum spending requirement of $3,000 in 3 months.
This bonus was enough to cover roundtrip flights our family of four.
Chase has an excellent rewards program. Their Ultimate Rewards (UR) Portal allows you to get more value from your points as well. For example, if you earn 50,000 points by signing up for their Chase Sapphire Preferred that would equate to $625 worth of travel when booked inside the UR Portal.
Again, Nicole and I both signed up for this card giving us 100,000 points or $1,250 worth of travel. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to book the nicer Paradisus Resort.
To get to the level we needed, Nicole also signed up for the Chase Ink Business Card and received an additional 80,000 points. With the large bonus here, Chase requires a $95 annual fee upfront. Unfortunately, that cost was unavoidable. It's all good. For $1,000 of free travel, I’ll pay $95 all day long.
This 180,000 points and the subsequent points we received for our typical spending on the card allowed us to get our 5-night all-inclusive dream resort for (nearly) free.
(Another great card to consider if you're a Marriott person is the Marriott Bonvoy Business Card. The current promotion is 75,000 Marriott Bonvoy points. You'll only need enough to book 4 nights and you'll get your 5th night free!)
4. Don’t Forget the Smaller Travel Costs
With the flights and hotel nights now covered, it was time for us to put our focus on the smaller travel costs.
There are some credit cards out there that offer “Miles” that are essentially a statement credit on your card. For example, when I bought our $420 spa package from the hotel this was fully reimbursable because I signed up for the Barclay Arrival Plus. Unfortunately, this awesome card is no longer taking applications as of June 2019.
We also used the Capital One Venture card to pay our airline taxes, fees, and charges that occur when you book international flights. These charges totaled $275, but they were all taken care of by the “miles” earned through the Venture card.
The Venture Card also took care of our …
- Private transportation from the airport and back in Cabo
- Airport parking
- Snacks on the Delta flight
- Even our sunscreen that we bought at the hotel
5. Have Your Spouse Join in on the Travel Rewards Fun
As I mentioned earlier, our key to earning some of the big points bonuses was having both me and Nicole sign up for the cards. This helped us to double our earnings. Instead of 50,000 points worth $625 with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, we earned 100,000 points worth $1,250.
Marriage definitely has its perks when it comes to travel rewards! (Oh, and the lifelong partnership and love stuff too.)
6. Track Your Spending
From the very beginning of this journey, Nicole and I promised ourselves that we’d be very diligent about tracking the Minimum Spending Requirements (MSR), the fees, and our overall card use. I’m positive that our travel rewards plans would have been a disaster if we weren’t tracking things closely.
Nicole and I use Mint to track our monthly spending. Mint’s handy (and free) application has helped us to stay on top of our finances and accomplish some incredible things like paying off the mortgage on our $400,000 home in less than 4 years.
(If you’re more into spreadsheets, check out Tiller. Their Google Sheets-based program is a dream for spreadsheet-savvy peeps.)
All of our transactions were easily tracked through Mint and this ensured we did not overspend or miss a payment.
7. Sign Up for Automatic Credit Card Payments
As soon as we got a new credit card, we immediately signed up for automatic bill payment. This simple and quick action helped us to never miss a payment.
And we would pay off the entire balance (not the minimum payments!) each pay period. That is the only way we could do this process.
Let me repeat …
PAY OFF THE CREDIT CARD BILL IN FULL EACH MONTH OR DON’T DO THIS AT ALL. It is dangerous and not worth it.
8. Allow Time For Applying for New Cards
One major lesson learned was that as we were drawing closer to hitting our MSR is that we should have applied for our next card immediately. Sometimes the process of applying and receiving our next card would take a few weeks. This was precious points earning time that we were missing out on!
We started to get better at this as we got closer to earning all of the miles and points we needed to book the trip to Cabo.
9. Track Your Credit
During this process, surprisingly my credit score went up. I had signed up for my free credit score and monitoring through Credit Sesame to keep a close watch on my activity. I didn’t want things to get out of hand, but for some reason, this activity improved my score.
Depending on your credit situation, the amount of debt you have, your payment history and the variety of debt that you have, your credit score could go up or down with this travel rewards activity.
Since we were debt free when we started this travel rewards journey, I’m assuming our credit went up because we were borrowers once again. FICO likes borrowers!
10. Book Your Trip
When we finally had enough points and miles, it was time to book our trip!
As described above, we went with our plan to utilize the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to the maximum benefit possible and Delta was our airline of choice.
A major part of using travel rewards is that you have to be flexible with your travel days. Doing this over Christmas break just isn’t going to work. We chose to travel to Cabo in mid-May so we could avoid the Spring Break crowd and prices. Conveniently, mid-May allowed us to celebrate Mother’s Day, our 8th Anniversary and my son Calvin’s 4th birthday.
All of our points saving worked! The trip was booked safely, securely and (nearly) free!
Our only true expenses were as follows:
- Tips = $125
- Credit Card Fee (from Chase Ink) = $95
- Food (on travel days) = $109
TOTAL = $329
Was the Travel Rewards work worth it?
Speaking from someone who is a complete money nerd … yes!
We received around $6,000 in free travel. That’s tax-free by the way. Oh yeah … tax-free.
That would have required me to earn around $8,000 at my job to pay for this trip.
I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, we are already.
We’re headed to Los Angeles in the fall to go to a friend’s wedding. Our flights, hotel (at the freakin’ Beverly Hills W) and our rental car are all covered.
The following spring we’re planning a vacation to Ft. Lauderdale for some more fun in the sun with the kids.
Can I Use Travel Rewards Forever?
Unfortunately not … I’m already getting denied from both Chase and Capital One because I have too many credit cards. They have some rules in place that deters some of this “activity”.
Wah, wah … I suppose it was worth it while it lasted.
Hey, maybe I’ll just do another credit card dry spell like we did a few years ago. Then we can do it all over again.
Honestly, I have no clue. I’m a novice with this stuff.
You know who isn’t a novice? These guys:
Check them out. Learn from them. If you feel like they’ve helped you, use their credit cards rewards pages to support them.
Should I Use Travel Rewards for (Nearly) Free Vacations?
If all of this seems overwhelming and sounds too difficult, that’s good. Don’t do it. The last thing you want to do is get trapped in a pile of credit cards and go into debt.
On the other hand, if you are reading this saying, “I’m on top of my finances and I see this as a fun challenge! I would never pass up $6,000 in (nearly) free travel!” … then check out Brad Barrett’s free course. I learned from him and he has a proven system that will help guide you through the right steps.
Please don’t do this if you’re irresponsible with money or in debt already. It would be a very bad idea.
Best of luck. Be safe. Bon voyage!
What do you think of using credit cards for (nearly) free award travel?
Please let me know in the comments below!
Approximately how much did you spend on your credit cards to be able to earn enough rewards for that vacation trip?
Great question …
Approximately $25,000 over 10 months.
This is awesome!
My wife and I enjoy travel hacking as well.
Credit cards when used responsibly can benefit you in so many ways.
Thanks, Chris! It’s a fun game, but, as you say, enjoying it “responsibly” is how you really win!
After you earned the points/money, did you keep the card open? Is that the only way to ensure you don’t “lose” the points/money while you continue to earn on other cards?
We would usually keep the cards open for a year depending on if they had an annual fee and then cancel before the fee. If we liked the card and it’s perks, we would keep it. Canceling your credit cards does affect your credit score slightly as “average credit account age” counts for 15% of your credit score. When you’ve been borrowing for a shorter period of time, then that portion of your score will be lower.
It’s not THAT much of your credit score so it’s not that bad really.
For example, we Pay our Bills on Time (35%) and we Keep Our Credit Utilization Low (30%), but our average account age is garbage (15%) … since we are stellar in the top two areas that account for 65% of your score, it really doesn’t matter for us. Also, we’re debt-free and don’t plan on borrowing anymore so our credit score isn’t that important to us.
Please let me know if you have any other questions. Credit cards are tricky and A LOT of the time, the “house” wins so be diligent and track your yourself. TravelMiles101.com is a great resource.
Hi, I like your post with cost breakdown. much easier to understand. Do you close credit card after the trip? If both of us (me and husband) open the same credit cards and try to book flight or hotels, can I move points from one card to the other so I can book using points from both cards?
There will come a time soon when we feel we have too many cards and we’ll start to cancel them. We’ll keep the ones that we enjoy using and provide us the most value.
Your question about moving points from your husband’s account to yours is a bit advanced for me. I’d recommend checking out the Travel Miles 101 Facebook group – there is a wealth of knowledge there. Good luck!
You had me at “oh yeah… tax free!”. I’ve done a little bit of credit card hacking, but reading this about your amazing family trip is encouraging me to look up my next card (probably a hotel one because I’ve been through the Chase ones).
My tax free friend! Starwood AMEX has been a good friend to us. We’re headed to the Beverly Hills W in the fall for … FREE!
Sounds like an awesome trip! I really need to give travel hacking a try. I have saved up a decent amount of Southwest and Marriott points that should help us with a fall vacation, but I’ve never gone the more extreme route. Thanks for the tips.
Southwest has a couple of cards through Chase that could help amplify your earnings. Marriott does as well. If you’re spending the money anyway, you might as well be rewarded!
We don’t have as many opportunities to travel hack in Canada, credit card options are minimum! And I don’t think I would be comfortable applying for so many cards!
I just booked a flight to Mexico for four of us using points and still had to pay for all taxes…$700!!! I don’t think you have the same taxes in the US.
Anyway great job on the travel hack!
Those taxes get you every time!! If we didn’t get the Capital One Venture, then we would have had to pay for the taxes and fees as well.
How long did it take to get enough points for your vacation
The process took us about 1 year, Lupe. We’ve now gotten to a point where we’re unable to sign up for any more cards so … there is evidently an end to this wild free vacation party. But it was a great ride for two years!