Photo courtesy of Jake, my son.
Frugal as we may be, our family loves to vacation.
How do we do it? We cut expenses drastically in other areas in order to save, but don’t sacrifice our love of travel.
Each year, we take at least two vacations (though we’ve been known to take up to four). And, though we typically travel on a budget, our most recent trip was our most expensive yet.
Our typical vacation schedule includes one “normal” vacation, where we stay in hotels or rental homes through vrbo or Airbnb, and one or two “camping” vacations, where we tow our camper to places near and far.
The “normal” vacation this year was unique. Our 13 year old daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan, desperate to visit Universal Studios in Orlando to check out Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Now, we’ve never, ever done a theme park vacation – it’s not really my idea of a “vacation”. Our entire family is somewhere on the introvert spectrum, so I knew we couldn’t handle too much time at a theme park, considering the crowds. But our daughter really wanted to go and, I admit it, I was curious as to what all the hype was about.
The compromise was to spend 2 days at Universal Studios in Orlando and 5 days in the Florida Keys. This schedule worked well, so well in fact, that my daughter actually thanked me on Day 2 for limiting our time at Universal (I didn’t say, “I told you so”, but the temptation was there).
We started planning over a year ago for the trip so we could do a little travel hacking, something we’d dabbled in before, but not to this extent. Admittedly, we could have scored even more travel rewards on this trip, but $2100 isn’t bad savings, in my opinion.
In the process of planning the trip, I turned to Richmond Savers for advice on where to begin. This site offers a wealth of information for using credit card rewards to travel for free, including specific information on traveling to Disney.
Since we didn’t go to Disney and we didn’t want to open too many credit cards, we didn’t follow their plan exactly, but the advice and suggestions they provide guided our methods for getting round-trip airfare and 5 nights in hotels free.
$2100 Free Travel: How we did it
1. We opened two Chase Sapphire cards. First, my husband opened a card, we spent the required amount ($4000 right now) in the first 3 months, and received 50,000 points toward travel, with a bonus of 5,000 points for adding an additional card to his account (for me). After we received his rewards, I opened a card and repeated the process.
We received a total of 110,000 Chase Sapphire points and converted them to Southwest Airlines points on the Southwest site. We easily covered roundtrip airfare for all four of us, with points to spare. (We did have to pay a small fee for each ticket, totalling $44 for all of us).
Total value = approximately $1300.00
2. I opened one Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. I spent the required $3000 in the first 3 months to receive 25,000 SPG points to use at Starwood hotels. (We decided to just use the one card because we were considering refinancing our mortgage and the banks don’t like it when you open several new credit cards.)
We stayed a total of five free nights in Sheraton hotels (4 nights = 3,000 points/each and 1 night = 12,000 points). Hotel fees are not included in the free nights, so we paid $83 total in resort fees for these five nights.
Total value = $630 for five hotel nights
3. We banked cash rewards on other cards, mainly on our American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card, which ended up giving us another $150 in statement credits for the trip (plus a $40 credit on our Discover card).
Total value = $190
Timeshare? No thanks, but I’ll take the discount
Believe me, we were on the fence on this one, but we saved even more on a 7 day Universal Studios ticket by agreeing with the hotel representative to sit through a 90 minute presentation* on buying a timeshare (we only used 2 days, plus the evening before we flew home, but it still saved us money). They worked around our schedule and saved us another $250 off of our Universal tickets, plus we got Early Park Admission (which is a joke).
What we paid for
Total park-to-park admission for two days (and one evening before we left) at Universal was $1060, plus food and drinks (though we took some water and snacks). This includes $360 for Express Limited passes on the second day to save ourselves a ton of waiting time. We were already exhausted and it was HOT, plus we went with the intention of buying the express passes for both days, and only ended up buying one day. Worth it? I guess so. It’s not something I want to do every year, but I’m glad we did it once.
We also paid for three nights at a resort in Key Largo, plus all other food and activities for the trip, bringing our grand total (out of pocket) to $3750 (our most expensive to date).
I admit, we could have saved even more on this trip if we hadn’t gone out to eat so much or paid for several activities, such as parasailing and snorkeling. And if we hadn’t gotten the free airfare and hotels, I’m certain we couldn’t afford to take this trip this year.
I gotta say, even though this trip cost us a pretty penny, I’m so glad we did this. Our son is graduating high school in two years and our daughter will be there before we know it. We created some unforgettable memories on this trip and were able to spend uninterrupted time talking to, and having adventures with, our kids who will be out on their own before we know it.
Are you taking a vacation this year? How do you save on travel?