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Credit Cards Are Giving Me a Free Vacation

Seattle, here we come!

Seattle, here we come!

One spectacular advantage of having no credit card debt is that you can use your credit cards as a tool to earn money and rewards for your family. If done correctly, using credit cards to pay your regular and necessary expenses can net you hundreds of dollars in free money. While you can use free money for anything, we’ve earmarked ours for travel. I’ve learned over the years that many things we purchased during our spending frenzy were not really meaningful. As we’ve changed our habits, I realize that vacations and sharing experiences is a very valuable commodity to our household. Now that we are walking the financial straight and narrow, we are going to let credit cards pay for our upcoming vacation. No, we aren’t charging the vacation on credit, but the credit companies are going to pay us to travel. Here’s how.

Disclaimer

If you currently carry a balance on your credit cards or are not able to use credit within your means, you first need to find out how to break the debt cycle. Once you make your way out of consumer debt, I totally get the need to use cash for everything if you don’t want to be tempted with high credit limits. If you are able to pay your balance in full every month and don’t buy things you don’t need just because you can, then read on.

Trip Costs

We are planning a ten day trip in July to the Pacific Northwest. My family loves the outdoors and the beach, and this is one area of the US we haven’t really visited. We are flying into Seattle and leaving through Portland. We decided to fly out of our local, podunk airport, which is expensive, but driving four hours to get to a major airport is not fun.  Although originally we considered camping, I am old and on vacation. We’ve decided to raise our standards. Besides, who wants to carry bedding through the airport? How much is all this luxury going to set us back?

Airfare: Two sets of one way tickets. $1062.90

Lodging in Seattle: We want to stay downtown so we can walk or take the free bus route to attractions. I’m going to say $200 per night, so $600 total.

Train from Seattle to Portland for 3: $60

Lodging in Portland: Ballparking $150 per night, $450 total.

Rental Car to drive from Portland to the coast. $179

Beach Cottage from VRBO: $469.80

Two nights lodging TBD: We have two days left that we want to leave unplanned: $300

Total cost for transportation and lodging: $3121.70 (Wow)

How Are We Paying?

If you think I’m forking over more then three grand for this trip, think again. Here is how we are paying, or rather how some big corporations are paying for us. With my business, we rack up tons of points annually. This year, I have also done a bit of churning to get some bonus points.

Frontier Airlines Vouchers: As you might recall, we had a bit of trouble on our last visit to see my parents. It seemed frustrating at the time, but the $600 in vouchers we received sure look sweet now. With a combination of those plus frequent flier and rewards points on the Frontier Airlines Visa, that knocked our airfare down to $462.90.

Chase Sapphire: I applied for this card last fall, and started putting business expenses on it to reach the $5000 required to get a $400 bonus. Since then, I’ve added more points. We are up to almost 90,000 which equates to $900 in cash.

Chase Ink: This is a splendid card if you have a business. You have to have a Tax ID and provide business info to get one, but the rewards are terrific. With $5000 spent in the first three months, you receive 50,000 bonus points. I got this in January, and my office now puts all business expenses on it. You get double points for gas and 5x points for office supplies, cell phones, internet, and cable. I fully expect to have 100,000 points by the time my business finally sells, which is looking like June or July at this point. That gives me another $1000 cash.

Bank of America Visa: This was my old business card before Chase came along. I have $250 in rewards just waiting for me.

American Express Business Gold:This was another old business card. I have enough points for a $100 Amex gift card.

Essilor Edge: Essilor is our optical lab of choice at work. They offer rewards similar to credit card points for buying optical lenses.  By this summer, I should have enough Essilor points for $200 in Amex gift cards.

Total Rewards: $3196. More than enough to pay for the balance on airfare and lodging. Sweet!

Food and Other Expenses

You’d think I would be happy with this score already, and I truly am, but why not go all the way to a completely free vacation? We have made about $200 so far this year from Ebay and consignment shop sales. I suspect we may be able to milk another $100 or so from these methods. It isn’t really free, but if there is stuff just sitting around, why not think of selling?

I am also contemplating applying for a Hilton Honors American Express. With the Hilton points I already have, it should be good for two free nights in either Seattle or Portland, which frees up at  least another $300 to use for food and expenses. That should cover us unless we decide to go overboard on souvenirs or ship home a bunch of fish from Pike Place.

If you can play by the rules, which, again, are paying off the balance in full and not buying things you don’t need, using credit cards for normal expenses are a great way to get a free vacation. I’d like to thank Holly at Club Thrifty and Jake at I Heart Budgets who inspired me to churn like crazy to get this free vacation.

Responsible credit users, what have you gotten for free with credit rewards?

Also, if you love me, check out my guest post about health savings accounts at Budgeting in the Fun Stuff from yesterday and my guest post about first rental properties at Work Save Live today. 


About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.

66 comments

  1. Nice! I had been eager to try churning this year, but sadly our scare with identity theft has everything on lock-down for the time being. I’ll just have to live vicariously through you here =)

  2. That’s awesome! If I had a small business I would definitely be taking advantage of those rewards. I have a friend who used to have to buy a lot of supplies at Target and then expense them to the company, which sounds like a burden but he got all the credit card rewards since it was on his own account.

    • I will not have near this many points next year, but I will probably always try to get as many as possible. I also like having all my bills on one credit card statement. I only have to keep up with one thing then.

  3. Oh man, Kim, this one is tough for me. I am not in the place yet where I can trust myself to use credit wisely enough. I promise that I will revisit in…maybe 6 months!

    • I understand that completely and if you never want to use another card, that’s fine. If you do and can handle it, there’s money to be made.

  4. You know that I totally approve of this!
    Right now I am working on our Starwood AMEX in order to score 5 nights in London. I am also going to churn the Hyatt Visa so that we can get two nights in Paris in the same trip. It’s going to take a while to get the points but it will be soooooooooo worth it!

  5. That is awesome Kim! I’ve not totally dived into churning…but I AM tempted. We just got two Amex cards that have travel rewards that we’ll be using to go on a trip next year for my birthday. I just need to get over whatever it is that’s holding me back to get some good rewards.

    • It does feel a little evil and I get nervous every time I apply for a card, but honestly if you aren’t going to be applying for a loan anytime soon, I don’t see that it hurts anything. I think if your income is high enough and you have a mid 700’s credit score at least, you can get as many as you want. That is a huge problem if you are using them to rack up debt that you don’t pay, but smart people should take advantage. Credit cards certainly try to take advantage of enough people.

  6. I was waiting for Holly’s comment! Funny. On the airport situation…I’m with you. We live three hours from a good airport, so I love traveling from our local place. Often the costs associated with driving three hours are more than offset by the slight difference in ticket price. As an additional bonus, I get to go through security in a place where there’s only a few other people instead of a gigantic line.

    • No kidding. On our last trip, my husband tried to take a knife through security. Not really, but he forgot that he had his little Swiss army thing on his key chain, and the TSA guy let him go back and put it in the car. At DIA, it would have taken an hour just to get to the car. It is also fun to see your luggage getting pulled around by the lawn mower instead of one of those fancy luggage puller deals. Small town airports can certainly multitask.

  7. i started doing the ‘chase ink bold’ bonus game about a month ago, needing to get to a $5000 spend in the first three months in order to get a massive points bonus, which should nicely cover a family vacation.. so far, i believe we are on target!

    • So far the INK card is my favorite. I hope they let me keep it when I sell my business. I have my own personal Tax ID for incorporating myself, so I hope I can still use that card.

  8. We use cash back reward cards, and stick all the money into an account, and so far we have replaced three flat screen TVs in our house with the money from the credit cards. A 19″, a 32″, and most recently a 50″ were all purchased compliments of the checks we get from the cash back. And, since we pay them off every month, there was no back end costs.

  9. Seattle is a great city. We head down there often for weekend getaways from Vancouver. I’m glad you’re planning to stay downtown, we always do and enjoy being able to walk to most things!

    Let us know if you need any tips!

    • I’ve only been there once for an optometry convention. It was in December and very gloomy, but I was downtown and really enjoyed walking around. I will have more time to be a tourist on this trip.

  10. I love credit card rewards. I feel so stupid for not getting one until last year! UGH. I spend all of my rewards pretty quickly though, I need to start saving them!

  11. Wow, that is a ton of points/cash! Congrats on working the system so well; I wonder what the total return % is compared to the amount of money you had to spend on the cards. Did you spend a total of $30k to get $3,000 in rewards or was it closer to $100k?

    • We usually put between $5000-$10,000 on the business card each month, depending on how busy we are. That’s for contacts, glasses lenses, frames, supplies, postage, gas, and I just added the phone bill for 5x bonus points. For both Chase cards, the bonus points came within the first few months, so 90,000 points for spending $10,000. The rest is pretty accurately a dollar per point, except those ones that double or better on certain categories.

  12. You will love Portland! It’s beautiful and there is so much to see and do 🙂

  13. I usually use my frequent flier miles to fly overseas (first or business class). I started using a hotel (Hilton) card to accumulate points for hotel stays. The are tripling my points for now. I received a bonus when I signed up of 2 weekend nights.

    • I signed up for the Hilton card last night. We tend to stay at either Homewood or Embassy Suites if we can because of the kitchen and free breakfast. It works great with a small child. Might as well get triple points.

  14. Heck yes! So happy to see this happening right now! 🙂

    My wife and I just found out that our Starwood card is good at “The Nines” in DT Portland. She has been DREAMING of staying there, but at $250+ a night, was never worth it. Now we’re planning two nights there for her bday after tax season, and because we’re “preferred” members, we get a free room upgrade and 4pm late checkout! WOOHOO! We plan on heading to Oregon wine coutry during the days, and Portland at night. Should be a blast, and on the super cheap!

    And Holly’s rockin’ it right, looking at international. I’m hoping for a Hilton churn soon to get me a week + in Italy in a few years. Thank you credit card bonuses!

    Also (so many also’s), if you’d like, you should look into booking the hotels through Chase Ultimate Rewards with your UR points, because you can usually get 2 – 3 cpm (cents per mile [or “point]) instead of the cash out rate of 1 cent. Just something to think about.

    Also (AGAIN!), you should email me and we can chat about upcoming churns, BECAUSE I LOVE THIS STUFF!

    Also, you’ll love Seattle in July!

    Congrats again!

    • I will certainly look at the Chase site first to see if the hotel deals are better. I haven’t booked anything yet except the beach cottage which will still be cheaper than any similar quality hotel. I did apply for the Hilton Amex, so that should get me two free nights and then I’ll go from there. We’ll all have to keep sharing our churning secrets.

  15. That should be 5x (or did you mean 4x extra) for Chase Ink on office supplies, internet, cable, and cell phone.

    I’ve had my own experience with this one: first class trip for two to Kauai during Christmas and 2 nights at St Regis Princeville and 3 nights at Grand Hyatt Poipu. All thanks to credit card churn. Estimated retail for flights and lodging alone were $16k.

    You only mention getting cash back, but have you tried actually transferring the points to the partner airline or hotel you intend to use? Quick math: 50k points = $500 cash back, while a roundtrip to Europe is more like $700 and higher for 60k points.

    • You are absolutely right. It is 5x rewards, even better than I listed. Thanks for pointing that out. I have changed it in the post.

      I had to book that airfare directly through Frontier, as we had vouchers and frequent miles, but I will certainly check the Chase website when we book the hotels. I know you get more points that way, so it will depend on where the better deal is.

  16. That’s fantastic Kim! We use our credit cards regularly to build up reward points too. Seattle is beautiful and you will have a great time. And I appreciate you putting a disclaimer in your post too. I absolutely have no problem with people using credit cards to earn rewards as long as they’re paying their bills off every month (and I know you are). But some people who are still in debt or so fresh out of debt – it’s like waving a cigarette in front of someone who just quit smoking. Using credit cards to your advantage is great (and little bit fun since it seems like we’re the ones often being taken advantage of by them) but you got to be in the right place emotionally and financially to “churn” without putting yourself back in debt. Looking forward to hearing about your trip and I wouldn’t camp either. 🙂

    • My husband doesn’t like credit cards at all and falls into that camp of the former smoker, but I have no problem at all. I will never go back into credit card debt, so I am fine with putting as much as possible on cards, as long as it’s things we need and would have bought anyway.

  17. The problem for me with rewards cards is simply that most of our spending is on bills and rent that can’t be paid with a credit card. I figure, at best, we could charge $400 per month without buying things unnecessarily.
    Since getting the card, we’ve gotten 2 $20 giftcards, which we then spent on stuff that we wouldn’t have bough otherwise.

    • This is a common misconception. You can pay pretty much any bill with a credit card, it just requires more work and. in general, a few extra fees. This may or may not be worth it to you. We decided these options were not worth it to us because it was simply too much hassle.

    • I don’t think rent could ever be paid on a credit card, but we pay our electric, gas, cell phone, internet, and satellite TV with a credit card. Most of my points, though, came from work. When I don’t have the business anymore, it will be hard to get that many points or it will just take longer. Even if it is only $20 gift cards, that is better than the nothing you would have gotten otherwise.

  18. Congrats. I know someone who travels a lot on business so gets lots of free airfares and hotel stays as a result. I have managed to get a few points along the way, but don’t make a deliberate effort as I am trying to decrease debt.

    • When you get out of debt, you can certainly start using the cards for rewards. We never got to take much advantage when we had so much debt. It doesn’t make sense to get new cards when you have balances on all of your old ones.

  19. Wow, you have it all planned out good for you mate. We use our credit cards on anything anyone will let us charge if we are buying it from them. We love the rewards and although doing this can put someone in the hole if they don’t have the fund to pay it every month for others it’s free money. I never pass that up.. not this guy!

    • Getting free money is almost addictive. I kind of get those extreme couponers who get 200 packs of cat treats for free when they don’t have a cat. It’s a rush, but I think my free stuff is more fun.

  20. Oh wow that’s awesome! I know I don’t use my credit cards enough to really get anything out of them except maybe $30 cash back a year, but maybe one year that will change.

  21. Have fun in Seattle! I used to live there so if you have any questions let me know! I use my cc for miles on SW. And I’ve used another one for gift cards, but I’m afraid I’m still not disciplined enough to use it more often.

  22. That is pretty amazing. I’m not sure that I have the willpower or free time to keep track of that many programs on that many cards. But if I could just teach the cat to blog in my place, or maybe do my day job…

    • It’s really sad, but it’s almost like a hobby bordering on obsession. I don’t want to pay for anything before seeing if I can get points for it.

  23. This is some great information! My girlfriend and I are in the final stages of planning our honeymoon and we plan on using all of the points we have accumulated to pay for the majority of it. I really enjoy reading similar stories.

  24. Amazing! The northwest is a perfect destination for outdoorsy people like you. You may want to check vrbo or airbnb for a central apartment in Seattle too, pretty sure you can find something under $200. I never good CC rewards, mine as no withdrawal fees abroad so it is pretty good for my needs.

    • I did a search in Seattle and most things were either out of the area we want or too expensive on Vrbo, but I’ll check the other one for sure. I really want to stay on one of those houseboats on Lake Union, but the only ones for rental were month long leases only. The idea of that is really cool, but maybe the location is not as good as downtown.

  25. This is definitely a plus for having a business. I have frequently traveled international destination in business class due to points I get on my delta American Express card.

  26. Kim, this is awesome! We are just starting on this path of CC churning, as we want to do some traveling too this year. Have a wonderful time. I’m sure your vaca will be all the more enjoyable knowing someone else paid for it!

  27. Last year, I used credit card reward points to cover most of my plane ticket to FinCon. I’ve been really happy with our Citi Thank You card, points wise- much better than our BofA Elite Rewards card was. We also have an Amazon card through Chase, which earns us points to use on Amazon.com- which is our favorite place to shop.

    You should let me know when you’re going to be in Seattle. We could meet for coffee. (Or I can just give you some tips for where to go.) Sadly, we lost the Free Ride area downtown last September (and Seattle Center- with the Space Needle was outside of it, anyway). You might want to look at King County Metro’s website for day passes. Or, if you’re going to Seattle Center, just pay for the monorail.

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