The morning after our wedding, my better half and I bid our guests farewell over brunch and left for our honeymoon in Hawaii. When we arrived at the Fairmount Kea Lani hotel in Maui, seven hours later, we found we had been upgraded to the luxury suite with a deluxe ocean view. My spouse and I exchanged a look of conspiratorial glee as I whispered: I can’t believe this is all free!
Had we won the lottery? No, I had booked $6,000 worth of luxury hotel stays for $635, all by using credit reward cards.
As I fantasized about our honeymoon months earlier, I dreamt of warm beaches, beautiful hotels and a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that wouldn’t break the bank. The drawback? We didn’t have a luxury-sized budget, and Hawaii isn’t a cheap destination. To make it work, I tried my hand at “travel hacking.”
I was familiar with the concept of travel hacking — using the best credit cards for travel rewards and sign-up bonuses to travel for free — but I had never tried it. With little flexibility on our departure date, which happened to be in August in peak travel season, we weren’t likely to book free flights, let alone a whole trip.
So for our honeymoon in Maui, I bypassed free flights to zero in on one goal: Book as many free nights in luxury hotels as possible.
Many hotel credit cards offer free nights or a large point bonus upon signup. So I decided to apply for the fewest number of cards for the most complimentary stays. Over the span of six months, I applied for The Ritz Carlton Reward Card, The Hyatt Credit Card, The Marriott Rewards Credit Card and The Fairmont Credit Card (now discontinued). Between October and February, I was approved for the four new cards — and a total of 10 free nights.
You might wonder if a hotel might treat you differently if you’re staying there for free. But from the moment we stepped into the Fairmont hotel in Maui, we were made to feel gloriously welcome. As soon as we arrived, the valet greeted us with fresh leis and a warm smile. The woman at the front desk handed us cold glasses of Passion Orange Guava juice and congratulated us on our marriage.
Even though my decision to travel hack was financial, the benefits of using credit card rewards to book our honeymoon went beyond the money we saved: we were treated like royalty at each hotel we visited. When you open credit cards with rewards points, you are often granted a year’s worth of Elite, Platinum or President’s status.
In other words, you’re given the most privileges, the best service and the craziest freebies—upgraded hotel suites with oversized balconies that overlook the Pacific Ocean, free bottles of champagne, hundred-dollar resort credits and VIP service from the moment you arrive.
But the perks of travel hacking can even extend beyond your actual stay. Thanks to the Ritz Carlton Credit Card, we had complimentary glasses of wine in the airport lounge during a three-hour delay. In the plane, we were able to upgrade our seats courtesy of a $300 travel credit from the same card.
If you feel the yen to do some travel hacking with rewards cards – honeymoon or not – here are a few tips:
Keep a close eye on your credit score
Long before I ever submitted my first credit application, I made sure to check my credit score and continued to monitor it throughout the entire process. My score dropped a point or two throughout the six months of applying for cards, but it never went below 730. In addition to monitoring my credit score, I also tracked the balances on each credit card using a free credit monitoring app.
Plan your ‘minimum spend’ around a big event
When looking for the best rewards credit cards, keep in mind you may have to do some spending up front. Even though the credit card rewards bonuses are free, you have to meet certain requirements in order to reap the benefits. To get the rewards, you typically have to spend a large amount within three months of opening the card. The credit cards that I opened had minimum spends that ranged from $1,000 to $5,000. Because of that, planning a wedding, anniversary, reunion or other big event is the perfect time to travel hack because you’re spending more money than usual.
Pay the card balances in full
With interest rates that range from 15 to 20 percent, credit cards are not useful for travel hacking if you are unable to pay the balance in full each month. The reason? The high interest would soon eat up any money saved through rewards. To keep the process simple and organized, I made sure that we had the cash in our checking accounts before we charged things like our wedding photographer and venue to our credit cards. And I only opened a new card after meeting the minimum spend on the previous one.
Prepare for some hefty annual fees
Some credit card companies waive the fees for the first year, but most of the cards that I opened for our trip to Maui did not. The fees for our cards ranged from $75 to $400. Even though the $400 fee for the Ritz Carlton Credit Card was initially shocking, I quickly realized that the benefits of the card—three free nights, $300 travel credit, $100 airline credit, one-year Priority Pass membership and more—were worth more than $2,000. Even with the fee, the card made financial sense. If, after a year, you’re not doing much traveling, you can cancel the card.
Be aware that resort fees and parking aren’t free
Our stays at the hotel were completely free (we didn’t even have to pay taxes!). However, we were responsible for resort fees and parking costs. During our time in Maui, those costs ranged from $35-$70 per night. Because I knew we would be charged, I made sure to save a few hundred dollars in a separate savings account before we left for the trip.
On our last day in Maui, we bid farewell to our upgraded ocean view room in the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and headed down to our buffet breakfast. When the valet brought us our car an hour later, we noticed that there was a note and fresh flower on the dashboard: “You came as guests but you leave as family.” It’s a family we would love to see again – and with some careful planning and travel hacking, we probably will.