By Chris Biggs
Imagine it’s December 24th. Snow falls from the sky and cakes the street outside in white powder, while hand-chopped wood logs crackle in the fireplace as they work to keep you and your loved ones warm and toasty. You’re sitting around a Christmas tree lined with presents, drinking eggnog and soaking up the holiday spirit.
Your best friend grabs a present wrapped in bright-red paper. It has your name on it. You tussle with tape and ribbon to pull off the box’s lid, and once it’s open, you peek inside with great anticipation. In your head you think about the possibilities: Is it a new GoPro? A PlayStation 4 Pro? That smart pantsuit you saw Hillary wearing during the first presidential debate?
Instead, you find yourself looking at an empty box. To your friend you say, “What kind of sick joke is this?”
She responds, “There’s no joke...I got you points. Lots and lots of points. Merry Christmas!” You sigh and slump into your seat (and take a extra long sip of that eggnog).
Fortunately, there’s no need to despair. Points - especially those of the airline, hotel, and credit card variety - may not seem exciting to the layperson, but they can be crucial for helping you travel for (nearly) free to the destination of your dreams.
Over the last 10 months, Lori and I have used the two most common methods for accruing points - credit card bonuses and actual, physical travel - to rack up over 1,000,000 points that we’ll be able to apply to our upcoming travel plans. And while those 1,000,000 points are spread across a number of diverse platforms (hotels, airlines, credit cards programs), they all equal one thing: an opportunity to obtain flights, hotel rooms, and other perks at virtually no cost.
A common question we’ve heard from friend and family is, “What exactly does 1,000,000 points get you?” It’s a great question with no precise answer. Our points are spread across programs that include both Marriott and Hilton hotel chains, as well as airlines that include Delta, United, American, and Southwest. Given my job as a management consultant, I traveled almost every week last year for work and earned over 350,000 Marriott points - which can vary significantly in value depending on when and how you choose to use them. If you were, for example, to cash all 350,000 points in for weekend stays at Manhattan hotels, you would be lucky to get nine free nights. However, if you took those same points and used them to stay in a mid-sized city in Southeast Asia, you could redeem them for upwards of 30 free nights - enough to subsidize a long, relaxing vacation, albeit while staying in less flashy digs.
Not everyone can accumulate as many hotel points as I did; it’s one of the few perks of living life out of a suitcase. That said, virtually everyone can use the system to their advantage to travel more - or for less money.
Here’s a real-life example. Lori and I will be starting a roughly five month long Asia trip in January, where we’ll visit as many as 15 countries. We’ll be kicking things off with a trip to southwestern India - specifically the state of Kerala - where we’ll explore lush green backwaters, hang out with elephants, and eat delicious vegetarian food until we burst. Since one-way flights from the U.S. to Asia can easily creep up into the $1,000 range, we decided instead to put to use the points I had earned on American Airlines to cover our transportation cost.
Over the course of the year I had earned about 120,000 points on American - 70,000 through AAdvantage (the American Airlines rewards program) as an incentive for flying with them weekly on long work trips, and an additional 50,000 as a one-time sign-up bonus for getting the American Airlines-branded Citi Mastercard (note: to obtain the 50,000 point bonus, we had to meet a minimum credit card spend of $3,000 in our first three months with the card - something we found to be totally achievable with a little creativity). Long story short: Lori and I recently booked two one-way flights to Kerala through Abu Dhabi on Ethiad Airlines by utilizing the game-changing oneworld partner alliance network, of which American is a member, for 80,000 total points.
The out-of-pocket cost of each ticket? Practically FREE - just a nominal $15.10 airline charge. Yes, you read that right: we’re flying across the world to start an amazing vacation, and the total charge is less than if we went out for dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant in San Francisco.
Here is the moral of this story: everyone can travel more - for less money - by educating themselves on the travel incentives available to them. However, since airlines, credit cards, and hotel chains don’t always make it easy to understand how to best take advantage of their programs and perks, we’ll be writing much more in the coming months to share practical tips you can use to land your next flight or hotel room for free.