Credit card points, airline miles make for free vacation

November 4, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
How would you like to take a trip to Europe for free? Turns out you can do it without having to enter and win a contest. A good friend of mine calls our time the 'Golden Age of Frequent Flier Miles,' and I agree. So why aren't you getting in on it?

Recently my wife Brenda and I celebrated our 20th anniversary with a romantic vacation to Paris. And it was all for free! The city is wonderful. And let me tell you, it looks even better when it doesn't cost you anything!

So how did I pull this all off? Let's run the numbers. This time it didn't come down to dollars and cents, but down to miles and points.

Our flights were paid for with frequent flier miles I gathered by flying on American Airlines and by using their credit card. A British Airways card gave me 100,000 miles just for signing up. My wife signed up too, and that's how we were able to stay in a five star hotel, along with a three star place, for a few days.

Sidewalk cafes are great, and even better when it's free! The tab there was paid with the proceeds from an AARP card, which gave me five percent back on every purchase we made for six months. Then my wife got a card and we did it again for another six months. Three cards and two years of planning made for one very nice trip.

"It is really about being savvy," said Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy. "You don't have to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. I go into Starbucks every day and I want to pull my hair out at the amount of people paying cash. What those people don't know is if they were even using a mileage earning debit card you should always be earning back something for when you spend."

That attention to detail made some of these trips possible.

Leigh Rowan is playing the game as good as anyone. He and his wife have been around the world, in part, thanks to frequent flier miles, "For instance there is an airline sale available, maybe right now, where people can fly from the Bay Area to Hawaii and a lot of my friends are flying to Oakland, Salt Lake, Seattle, Hawaii," Rowan said. "There is a direct flight from Oakland to Honolulu but they are going to take the roundabout way, get a few more miles in. Same price, but more miles."

They call that a mileage run. So, how do these two experts rate my efforts?

"You got to go on a great trip with your wife on your 20th anniversary for zero out of pocket expense, that is pretty incredible," Kelly said.

Rowan added, "You used the points for a great, wonderful experience; your 20 anniversary in Europe, how romantic is that, right?

It was almost romantic enough to get me off the hook for making my wife carry an AARP card for a year. And by the way, it doesn't stop there! I actually bought souvenirs using frequent dining points, built up at places like the Hard Rock Caf?.

The key is to hop on every really good deal and carry three or four credit cards, without running up the debt.

Finney's Quick Start Guide to Getting a Free Vacation:

1) Sign up for several frequent flier programs
2) Shop for a credit card that will give you miles/points just for signing up. These offers come and go. Don't sign up right away. Look them over for a couple of weeks and you'll start to get a good feel for what you can get for free. Start your search here: http://www.creditcards.com/, http://www.bankrate.com/credit-cards.aspx, http://www.aarpcreditcard.com/Default (The 5 percent deal was not being advertised when I got the deal the 2nd time. I had to call and ask for it.)
3) Never use cash again, ever. Always use credit or debit cards that give you points for your purchases.
4) When shopping online never go directly to a retailer, instead click through a points/miles mall. Some retailers will give you as much as 10 points per dollar spent. This holiday season alone you can rack up thousands of points this way.
5) Pay off your credit cards every month. If you don't this is not a good deal!

Leigh, the frequent flier, had a lot of great advice. Top on his list is not to just hang on to the points but to use them. He says some people become so hung up on gathering points that they stop using them. Remember a free vacation to Las Vegas that you actually take is better than a free vacation to Europe that you don't take. Leigh also suggests you sign up for a few hotel and rental car points programs as well. BTW, Leigh and his wife actually met on an airplane so he is the big winner in this game.

Brian, The Points Guy, has put together a beginner's guide that is easy to understand and follow: http://thepointsguy.com/beginners-guide/


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