Our European Honeymoon & How We Got It 85% OFF: Part I

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When I started telling people that Derek and I were going to Rome, Italy and Paris, France for our honeymoon, most reactions were a mixture of "so-happy-for-you" and "how????".... 

And understandably so.  An eight-day, eight-night vacation to two of the world's most popular destinations would be expensive.  Especially for a couple that spent roughly $2,500 to get married!

If you know me, you know I would never spend $10,000 on any vacation.  You probably also know that I'm a planner...

I've been anticipating taking a major vacation for over a year.  I'm thankful that major vacation turned out to be my honeymoon! :)  But before I was even engaged, I began learning about these little miracles called "travel hacks".


HOW exactly did we get our vacation for 85% off???

Credit Cards.  Before you freak out, I didn't just charge the whole trip to a credit card and forget about it.  I used credit cards to earn sign up bonuses that gave me lots of travel points at once.  Honestly, sign up bonuses exist because credit card companies hope they'll get you to pay more interest.  In exchange for you putting a high balance on your card in a short amount of time, they give you lots of points.  In order to "win" using travel hacks, you've got to follow these rules:

 

TRAVEL HACK RULE #1:  Only charge what you can pay in cash at the end of the month.   Lots of points are NOT worth paying lots of interest. 

In order to follow Rule #1, I opened a low fee investment account.  I began saving my cash for anticipated expenses.  And when they came, I paid them off.  

TRAVEL HACK RULE #2:  Only use normal expenses.  Buying things you don't need just to get points is a wash.  You could have just used that money for your trip.

This is where it comes in handy to have a major expense in your future... aka a wedding.  It also helps to have major work expenses... aka my two months of work travel.  I was able to fit these large expenses into the required time frame for the sign up bonuses. 

TRAVEL HACK RULE #3:  Know your credit score and how it works.  

Applying for credit cards can hurt your credit score, especially if you are declined.  Use a site like Credit Karma to know your chances of approval before you apply.  If your score is not good enough now, work on it and use these tips for an amazing vacay later!

TRAVEL HACK RULE #4:  Do your homework.  

Research what hotels and airlines have reward systems that will work for you.  Learn what destinations will work with those hotels and airlines. After months of deliberation, I chose these four credit cards:

1)  Barclay Arrival Plus  

  • Sign Up Bonus:  40,000 points when you spend  $3,000 in the first 3 months
  • Regular Points:  2 pts for every $1 spent
  • Annual Fee:   $89, waived for first year

2)  Chase Sapphire  (This is my favorite card and the one Derek and I use most! Click on the name of the card to apply using my referral link.)

  • Sign Up Bonus:  50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months
  • Regular Points:  2 pts for every $1 spent on travel and restaurants, 1 pt for every other $1 spent
  • Annual Fee:  $95, waived for first year
  • Other Features:  You can transfer these points to your United Airlines and Hyatt accounts.

3)  United Airlines MileagePlus Explorer (Click for referral link.)

  • Sign Up Bonus:  50,000 points when you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months
  • Regular Points:  2 miles for every $1 spent on United Tickets, 1 mile for every other $1 spent
  • Annual Fee:   $95, waived for first year
  • Annual Award:  2 United Club One-Time Passes for your card anniversary 
  • Other Features :  Free checked bag for you and a guest, priority boarding, and extra 10,000 miles if you spend $25,000 in a calendar year

4)  The Hyatt Credit Card  (Click for referral link.)

  • Sign Up Bonus: 2 Free Nights at any hotel world-wide when you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months
  • Regular Points:  3 pts for every $1 spent at Hyatt, 2 pts for every $1 spent on restaurants and travel, 1 pt for every $1 spent elsewhere 
  • Annual Fee:   $75, waived for first year
  • Annual Reward:  One free night for your card anniversary 

  (Bonus offers change frequently so check them carefully.)

Then I used every grocery bill, utility bill, gas fill up, dinner out, Christmas present, wedding expense, and work expense Derek and I had to meet the spending requirements.  I systematically put EVERY NORMAL expense I had on my cards, then I PAID THEM OFF EVERY MONTH.  It was like paying cash, but I ran the expense through my credit card account first.  By the time I had attained all the sign up bonuses and it was time to make our honeymoon reservations, I had accumulated: 

  • 55,000 Barclay Points, redeemable for $550 worth of travel expenses 
  • 80,000 Chase Sapphire Points
  • 57,000 United Airlines Miles
  • 3 Free Nights at a Hyatt hotel

Now... how to turn these points into an amazing vacation!

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  • To begin with you need to make the most of your airline miles.  To accomplish this for us, I used an awesome tool United Airlines calls a "stopover".  A stopover is simply a volunteer, multi-day layover.  This is a good thing because you can include an extra destination in your trip without costing you any extra miles.  This will seem complex until it clicks... bear with me. 

In our case, Rome, Italy was our "destination".  It costs us 30,000 miles/person to fly to Rome.  We stayed for 4 days.  Our return flight home technically began the day we left Rome... but I requested a 3 day lay over in Paris, France.  So United Airlines flew us from Rome to Paris, dropped us off, and picked us up again 3 days later to complete our return flight.  Our return flight from Rome to home cost us another 30,000 miles/person, and the detour/stopover in Paris cost us 0 miles.  So we got to see two amazing cities for the price of one!  Altogether our flight cost us 120,000 miles + 281 cash.   And thanks to our United Airlines Mileage Explorer Card perks, our checked bags were free, we got to hang out in the United Club lounge for free, and we got priority boarding for free.  

Total Flight Savings:  $6,025

(You can also add a third destination for free with the same amount of miles using an open-end flight.  We didn't want to spent more money on extra nights in another city so we stuck with two cities... sorry Barcelona...)

  • When choosing your flight destination and stopover city, you should also be aware of the available hotels.  As you can see this is a multi-layer, complex set of decisions that have to be made simultaneously... this is were it pays to be a super nerd.  But every average nerd can do it! ;)
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For us, I wanted to get the most luxurious two nights possible with our 2 Free Hyatt Award Nights.  These bonus nights can be spent at ANY hotel world-wide!  So I chose the Park Hyatt Vendome.  For a minimum of $690/night, this was a treat that Derek and I would only get once, so what better time than on our honeymoon!  Be aware that these nights can only be booked one at a time so you won't qualify for any of the hotel's promotions.  And the award nights will only qualify you for a standard room, but still the nights are FREE! Hyatt hotels also offer a point+cash combination, so for the third night we used 15,000 points + $288.

The Hyatt Card Anniversary Night will only qualify for Category 1-4 hotels so we used ours for a free stay in Nashville the day before we left.  Award flights can sometimes be red-eye flights and sometimes they have long layovers, but they are mostly free.  In my mind, totally worth it!

In Rome, I used Trip Advisor to find the Maison Althea Rome, a bed and breakfast with over 500 five star ratings and an early-booking rate of just $89/night.  Alessandro fed us authentic Italian breakfast and also happily helped us find our way around the city.  Best of all, I could charge these nights to my Barclay Arrival Plus Card and use travel points to reimburse this cost in full.  Lodging and breakfast in Rome... free again. 

Total Hotel Savings:  $2,217

  • Once you have your flights and hotels booked, all that's left is to research your destination and stopover cities and pack your bags!  When in Rome and Paris, we continued to charge expenses to my travel cards.  Thanks to another perk of all these cards, we paid $0 in foreign transaction fees.  Additionally, the local travel and some of the tourist locations were considered "travel expenses" and could be reimbursed with my Barclay Arrival Plus points when I charged them to that card.  

At this point I have to say that all of my planning was just that... planning.  Admittedly I was nervous about how everything would actually go.  But the title of this post does say that we got our honeymoon 85% off because we did! :)  Here's how the trip actually went...

Our European Honeymoon & How We Got It 85%:  Part II

 

To the next post!

M

 

Disclaimer:  This content has not been commissioned, endorsed, or guaranteed by any of the entities involved.  The sign up bonuses and reward systems discussed in this article are subject to change.  Opinions expressed here are the author's alone.  This article is meant only to inform, not to recommend.  All readers are responsible for their own decisions.  The author cannot be held liable for any decisions made as a result of reading this article.