Travel for cheap: How to get a free honeymoon with credit card points
If you and your partner can survive a year of hands-on wedding planning with your sanity intact, you deserve 100 years of matrimonial happiness. But first, you deserve a honeymoon — ideally one that won’t further blow your budget.
In fact, free flights and hotels on your newlywed trip are not only possible, they’re easily obtainable if you plan far enough in advance. Banks are constantly tempting new customers to sign up for credit cards with large points bonuses — perhaps hoping people will be too confused and intimidated to try to cash them in. But points are easy enough to figure out and cash in: It is possible to fly to Europe or Hawaii, stay in a four-star hotel and then fly home, all without spending a penny on travel and lodging (well, maybe a few bucks on flight taxes).
This is how to use credit card points to your advantage — and do so responsibly.
1. Pick the right cards and spend thoughtfully
Keyes advised I forget about frequent flyer miles and focus on credit card points. “Contrary to popular belief, the majority of frequent flyer miles these days aren’t generated from actually flying — they’re generated from credit cards,” he explained in a recent email. “As such, free flights are absolutely attainable even if you rarely fly and/or don’t have any frequent flyer miles currently.” He recommended a few cards to open and how to use their point bonuses most effectively. I opened one before buying plane tickets to Europe in 2016, engagement ring (secretly) in tow.
The idea is to open a credit card before you know you’re about to spend $3,000 to $4,000 in a three-month period. This planned spending will help you hit the minimums required to earn signup bonus points on your card. Then, if you’re spending in the right categories (usually travel or dining), you’ll earn double or triple points on what you spend.
Fortunately for the soon-to-be-married, wedding expenses tend to include lots of travel and dining. If your reception is at a hotel or restaurant, or even if you’re traveling a lot to see venues, you’ll rack up points faster than Mario leaping through a canyon of coins — then you’ll exchange those points for flights and hotels. The whole process is completely legit, even though it feels like like ordering the nicest bottle of champagne at the bar and then skipping out on the bill.
Here’s how that could break down for a hypothetical wedding, using Chase credit cards — which use the Ultimate Rewards points system — as examples.
Engagement trip + Chase Sapphire Reserve (50,000 bonus points)
I chose the Chase lineup mainly for its network of travel partners, and I recommend starting with the Sapphire Reserve (named the best travel rewards credit card by Wirecutter) because your points will accrue more quickly.
With the CSR, you get three points for every dollar you spend on travel and dining, plus a 50,000-point bonus if you spend $4,000 in three months. Get it early and use it for all your food, groceries, lodging and transportation. The $450 yearly fee sounds intimidating, but the $300 yearly travel credit, applied instantly to flights and things like Uber rides, offsets most of that sum. The CSR also allows you to exchange points at a 1.5x value on Chase’s travel portal (more on that in section 3).
Open it before a trip with your partner — and add them as an authorized user for a bonus point sum. The extra user costs $75 annually, but it can be worth it to double the card’s usage and add up points twice as fast. If you use that card for all your travel costs, you’ll likely have no trouble meeting the spending minimum. Best of all, you’ll earn triple points for the flights, hotels, taxis and meals.
Wedding venue deposit + Chase United Explorer Card (40,000 bonus miles)
According to ValuePenguin, couples spend between $12,343 and $14,006 on their wedding venue on average. $12,000, spread out over three payments, is more than enough to let you meet the spending minimum on multiple new credit cards.
United Airlines, one of Chase’s airline partners, has a new product called the United MileagePlus Explorer Card. Its rewards include 2x miles on restaurants and hotels, plus 40,000 bonus miles for spending $2,000 in the first three months.
Notably, this card’s perks are miles, not points. The 40,000-mile bonus can only be used on flights. You can’t exchange miles for flexible points, but you can exchange miles for flights on one of its many partner airlines in the Star Alliance — a method Keyes endorses. “You can use United miles to redeem a free flight on Lufthansa because Lufthansa is a United partner,” he said.
Those miles may not be enough for a roundtrip ticket, but you can transfer your Chase points into miles at a 1:1 rate until you do have enough for a flight.
“Of the big three U.S. airlines, United’s miles are widely considered the most valuable, followed by American Airlines and then Delta,” Keyes said. “Two main determinants of value: one, how easy it to redeem the miles for a free flight, and two, how many miles does a given route cost.”
Don’t want a United card? Chase also has the Ink Business Preferred, which offers a whopping 80,000 points after spending $5,000 in three months. It’s meant for businesses, but Chase takes a wide stance on what constitutes a business — if you have a freelance gig, put work expenses on a personal card or travel often for work, you’re likely to qualify.
Rehearsal dinner payment + Chase Sapphire Preferred (50,000 bonus points)
Think of the Preferred as the Reserve’s sensible little brother. You get the same 50,000-point bonus after spending $4,000 in three months, plus two points, not three, for every dollar you spend on travel and dining. But the Preferred’s yearly fee is lower at $95, and the first year is free.
I recommend signing up for the card, spending until you earn the bonus and then, before a year is up, downgrading it to the Chase Freedom Unlimited. The CFU earns 1.5 points per dollar spent on anything — it’ll be your go-to card for non-travel or non-dining expenses. Another trick, Keyes wrote in How to Fly for Free, is to call the bank and ask them to waive the fee for you before you get charged the fee in the second year. If Chase refuses, downgrade the Preferred like you planned to.
2. Pay your cards off — on time and in full
This is nonnegotiable. The continent-sized caveat to all of the advice in this article is that the points are worth less than nothing if you’re accruing credit card debt. It’s worth repeating a trillion times: Don’t use credit unless you have the money to pay it off. And when you pay it off, pay it all off, every month. Do not carry a balance on your card. No, it does not help your credit score.
You are not winning one over on Chase Bank if you go in the red, are forced to pay hefty monthly interest and tank your credit score with late payments. Your partner will not appreciate merging their finances with yours if they find out you irresponsibly racked up credit debt to be able to brag to your friends about your travel points. You should never open more cards than you can handle and put yourself in the position where you feel forced to spend money you don’t have.
And keep this in mind: If you are able to responsibly open three cards in 18 months and pay off each one, you are already profoundly privileged. Read about how many American families are drowning in debt to the point of financial ruin, and bless your luck.
3. Redeem your points for travel — and get the most value for your money
So, all that said, let’s get to the fun part. Let’s say, hypothetically, it’s three months before your wedding, you’ve opened three cards in the past 18 months and you’re looking at a balance of about 240,000 points sitting in your Chase account. It’s time to redeem it. How?
First thing to do is consolidate all your points onto one card, ideally the Sapphire Reserve. Chase makes it easy. Here’s a guide.
Now it’s time to exchange those points for travel. This is usually a much better value than exchanging for cash. With Chase, there are two main ways to do it: the first is to use Chase’s Ultimate Rewards travel portal to book flights and hotels directly on the site; the second, by transferring points to travel partners like Hyatt and United and then booking on those pages. (To find qualifying flights on United, for example, check the box that says “Search for award travel.”)
The Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal is a tempting option. You get a 50% bonus on your points when you redeem points on this page. Personally, though, I found the portal to be a frustrating experience when purchasing flights. You get logged out after just a few minutes and have to start from scratch, and the flight “deals” it brings up are often much more expensive than what you can find on the airline websites.
Keyes agreed: You’ll generally find better deals by transferring your points to a partner airline. “You don’t need to use Chase points to book directly through the Chase portal,” he said. “In fact, that method is often one of the least valuable uses of their points.”
Here’s what to do instead, he said:
Let’s say you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card and 120,000 Chase points. You can redeem those points for 1.25 cents apiece towards airfare, or $1,500. Alternatively, those 120,000 Chase points can be transferred 1:1 to United and redeemed for a roundtrip business-class ticket to Europe. The cash price on roundtrip business-class tickets to Europe is typically over $2,500, so you’d still be stuck paying more than $1,000 if you were to redeem those points through the Chase travel portal.
For hotels, I did find the Chase Sapphire travel portal useful when browsing locations where a Hyatt wasn’t available or in a good location. But the best deals I found were on the Hyatt site after transferring points to World of Hyatt’s loyalty program directly.
It might not always make sense to get a free hotel. In some places, Airbnbs are so affordable and so high-quality that you’re better off holding your Chase points for a future trip. You’ll save more money in the long run.
So what can 240,000 points get you?
In short, an amazing trip for two.
There are a lot of helpful suggestions out there for redeeming Ultimate Rewards points. Here’s a very simple hotel-and-flight combo for a sample trip to Amsterdam in October 2018.
Two round-trip tickets from NYC to Amsterdam: 30,000 points per person per flight on United, for a total of $120,000.
Seven nights at the Grand Hotel Amrath Amsterdam, booked through the Chase Sapphire travel portal: 17,463 points per night, for a total of 122,240 points.
That’s just one location. Play around on the travel portal once your card is activated and check out award offers on Chase’s travel partners: Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, United, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, Korean Air and many more.
Does opening credit cards hurt your credit?
Is it true your credit score will go down if you open too many cards in a short time? Yes, but not in the long run. Opening a new card may drop your score about five points, according to Magnify Money, due to multiple credit inquiries that indicate you’re a risky borrower. But keeping those cards open for years, paying them on time and raising your credit limit actually helps your score. Most people will gain back those points within six months, according to NerdWallet. Keyes says that after opening all his cards and maintaining the credit line on each, his score has only increased.
How? An important metric you need to remember is the credit utilization ratio, or debt-to-credit-limit ratio. Basically, having more open credit cards raises your credit limit, and you’re rewarded for using a lower percentage of that limit.
I’d suggest spacing out your new card applications once every six months or so, unless you’re comfortable being a lot more aggressive in your points strategy. This way the credit inquiries don’t look too frequent. The Points Guy suggests one personal and one business card application every 90 days as a “general rule of thumb,” but says some people have been approved for two cards in the same month.
If there’s one thing I learned in the past two years, it’s that there’s no shame at moving at your own pace. Do what’s reasonable for you, even if you’re making the most of just one card per year; you’ll still have a blast watching those accrued points earn you a new trip.
The other big thing I learned? Patience. Our honeymoon will be two years to the day since that first trip to Europe, and it’s been agonizing watching those points mount up without touching them. Yes, it would have been fun to exchange them for quick cash. But having a goal in mind keeps you on track. When wedding spending gets stressful, the points will give you something to look forward to when it’s all done and you’re blissfully wed. As an extension of the wedding, the honeymoon could be part of the most memorable week or two of your life, and you’re going to feel incredibly pleased knowing you ventured off without the sticker shock of a vacation bought with cash. There’s something incredibly liberating about travel without the guilt.
Ultimately, it’s not about the points. It’s easy to get caught up in cranking that total number higher and higher. But remember that the goal isn’t a mountain of miles. Think of this strategy as a long-term financial plan that lets you budget, save money and travel responsibly, then return home with plenty of savings left for a future purchase or a bigger savings goal. Or why not put it all toward an anniversary trip?