It’s February break, so we are enjoying a week off from school. We headed to Washington, D.C. to check out some colleges last weekend and then flew out of Baltimore to enjoy a few days at our vacation condo near Siesta Key, Florida. (For those of you who might think going out-of-state for college is a waste of money – my son’s best offers are from out-of-state schools. Those colleges are cheaper than our in-state public universities! Don’t make assumptions…)
I’d consider us to be amateur travel hackers, so I thought I’d share more about how we saved money on this trip. We made the decision to drive the six-hours from our home in New York to Washington because it was difficult to find reasonable flights. We put this trip together less than two weeks ago, which limited some options. Driving worked out great because we were able to do a lot of touring around Washington on a Sunday afternoon. Monday was a federal holiday and traffic was pretty light too! We didn’t really plan for that – but it was definitely helpful (and the sunny 70 degree days were TOTALLY a bonus too!)
We aren’t really tied to any specific hotel chain because of credit card rewards or points, so we stick to two simple goals – a safe area and clean rooms. We found a room at a hotel in a nice neighborhood with really good reviews and a decent price on Hotels.com ($125/night and $23.50 for parking). I checked prices on a number of different sites and we couldn’t find anything cheaper that met our requirements.
Before I booked the room, I went to Raise.com and ordered a $100 e-gift card for Hotels.com and paid $92.94 ($7.06 in savings). The gift card was e-mailed immediately and was ready for use. Raise is an online gift card marketplace where you can sell gift cards for cash or buy discount gift cards to all your favorite brands. They also offer a one-year money back guarantee. I have saved $25.54 on three Hotels.com gift card purchases since December. I get emails from Raise about once a week offering bigger discounts too. (For example, there is a four-hour flash sale this afternoon that saves $4 off a $40 purchase). This may sound complicated at first – but with a few extra clicks, it’s easy to save money!
I then logged in to BeFrugal.com because it was offering 12% cash back on Hotels.com. I used the $100 e-gift card and put the remaining $25 charge on one of our new Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards. My husband and I just got the Reserve cards (in-branch) in early February. They come with a huge sign-up bonus of 100,000 Ultimate Reward points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. The $25 charge was credited as an “adjustment” toward the large annual fee for the credit card within a few days. (You get $300 in travel credit back on the $450 annual fee and it was great to see it credit so fast!) Even though we will pay a fee, we plan on using the Reserve cards to pay almost $7,000 in federal and state taxes in April – so that $4,000 spend per credit card will be easy to do! The fees for paying taxes with a credit card are easily off-set by all of UR sign-up bonus points and we will pay off the cards at the end of April to avoid any interest charge.
The terms and conditions on BeFrugal say that gift card purchases are not included in the cash back program, but I did this in December and I was still credited the cash back for the full amount – including the gift card. Just keep in mind YMMV – your “mileage/cash back” may vary. We are hoping this will credit for $15 – well worth one extra click for another 12% cash back!
The original $7.06 savings from Raise.com and the extra $15 from BeFrugal are almost enough to cover the hotel parking fee! We’ll have to wait and see if the credit comes through (it takes a few weeks for it to show up) but there is one more bonus for using Hotels.com. Hotels.com has a rewards program where you earn a free night after collecting 10 nights of hotel stays in a year. The free night is valued at the average of the 10 stays. We normally don’t stay in hotels that many nights in a year, but this year will be different with both kids off to college and with more travel tentatively planned for this fall. If we average $100/night for the 10 nights – we can consider it another $10 off this stay. That would be $32.06 ($7.06, $15, and $10) off the $125 price/night. A 26% savings for less than 5 minutes of extra work.
We flew non-stop from Baltimore to Tampa on Southwest. We booked the flights on 2/11 and flew out 9 days later. The round-trip flights were 21,095 points per person. But we also have a Southwest Companion pass, so I fly for no points as my husband’s companion! The total points for three of us to fly was 42,190. (If we paid cash, our tickets would have cost about $635 – an average of about $212 each.)
Transferring Chase Ultimate Reward (UR) points to Southwest allows us to pay for flights. We earn tens of thousands of UR points each year from everyday purchases. We use our no annual fee Chase Freedom cards and earn 5X points on select categories each quarter of the year. This quarter includes gas purchases and April-June is grocery stores (see this link for specifics on which stores/purchases are included). We will even buy gas and grocery gift cards for a few months ahead to help maximize points. BUT we also pay all of our credit cards off each month because otherwise the points wouldn’t be worth paying credit card interest! We also get a lot of points from well-planned credit card applications that pay huge bonuses (like the Sapphire Reserve) and from 5X business purchases using our Chase Ink card at office supply stores.
A mandatory airport security fee of $11.20 each was our only out of pocket cost. We paid the $33.60 in fees with our new Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card too and the charges were coded as “adjustments” toward our $300 travel credit (part of the annual fee).
We love Southwest because of the non-stop flights and the flexibility to cancel/change our plans up to 24 hours before we fly. And earning the Southwest Companion pass from Southwest credit cards (and some extra spend) has been our biggest travel hack so far. We’ve earned the Companion Pass twice and had the perk of one of us flying for free (except for the fee) for the last four years! Our current pass ends at the end of December so we’ll try to earn another one early in 2018!
When we decided to fly to Florida, we knew we would need a rental car. I usually check a few different sites to see what the price range is for our dates. I usually check Cheaptickets first and then go to Southwest.com to check their prices and possible bonuses. The price range for rental cars (economy/compact cars) was just over $300 for 5 days. It’s “spring break” pricing and people heading south will pay those prices!
The Ultimate Rewards portal on Chase is usually my last stop – and often, it has similar prices to the other sites. When I searched, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I found the same cars at the same on-airport rental agencies for $154. I double checked my dates and then booked a car. This is an even better deal than I found at Thanksgiving!
We had enough Ultimate Reward points to pay for the car, but the cost was low enough that we chose to pay instead of use points. Using our new Chase Sapphire Reserve – the cost of the car was “adjusted” and included in the $300 travel credit too! We’ve already spent enough in travel since we got the cards to have over $200 of the $300 credited back to us in this trip alone.
So those were our travel hacks for this week! How did we do? And what questions do you have? For those of you who are more “advanced” than us, where could we have saved more money? Is there a hotel credit card that we should be considering? Is travel hacking not worth all the hassle to you? Does it just seem too complicated? I’d love to hear your thoughts and any suggestions you might have to help us and other readers make smarter travel decisions!