We’ve just returned from three weeks in Turkey, Israel, and Jordan, and we will have lots of posts and pictures to share. But first we wanted to discuss our itinerary, and how we were able to go on a nearly $6,000 trip for less than $600. The short answer is, of course, credit card reward points. You are probably familiar with the concept of being able to pay for travel with points earned from credit cards, but maybe you thought it’s not something that would work for you. We wrote this post to tell you it absolutely can!
For us, we had already taken two trips this year, to Cuba and Peru, which pretty much wiped out our vacation budget for the year. But we still had some time to use, so we began to look at what would be financially possible for us. We always use points to some degree on our trips, covering the cost of a positioning flight or a night or two in a hotel, but this represents our first attempt to essentially pay for an entire trip with points.
It’s actually quite simple: there are dozens of credit cards that offer lucrative sign up bonuses that can then be redeemed for travel rewards. You simply sign up for the card, and then upon approval complete the minimum spend requirement. Simply use the card for your normal spending to hit the requirement then reap the rewards.
But there is one fundamental rule to follow when playing the credit card rewards game: Don’t carry a balance. Any value you get from points gained is wiped out by interest charges. This isn’t always the case with the large sign up bonuses, but still, it’s best to avoid carrying a balance and potentially getting trapped in a interest fee spiral. You’ll end up paying more on interest than you would have for the vacation!
So with that in mind, here’s a breakdown of our trip and the card bonuses we used to pay for it.
how we paid for the trip
We booked our flights through the United MileagePlus program for 145,000 miles. We were able to book our outbound flight from our hometown of Lubbock to Istanbul connecting in Houston and Frankfurt. Our return flight departed Amman, connecting in Vienna, London, and Houston before we landed back in Lubbock. We earned the points by each signing up for a Chase United MileagePlus Visa card which gave us a total of 116,000 points after completing the spend requirements. The rest we got from using shopping portals that earned miles for us, as well as a few MileagePlus miles we already had in our accounts.
The taxes were $415, which ended up being our single largest cost of the entire trip. Taxes aren’t always this high; it just depends on which airports you fly in and out of and which partner airlines you’re ticketed. Because we flew United partner Austrian Airlines out of Amman, the taxes were $172 per person, higher than the taxes flying into Istanbul at only $35 per person. The cost to book this flight would have been $2585, a savings of $2171.
Conrad Hilton, Istanbul
We stayed three nights in Istanbul, one of our favorite cities, celebrating my birthday, seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and taking in a few sights we missed on previous trips. The Conrad Hilton is a very nice property, with a great location, perfect for the spots we were visiting. It cost 30,000 HHonors points a night, for a total of 90,000 points. Most came from the sign up bonus of the Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature card, which was 75,000 when I signed up for it. The rest of the points came from a work trip. I don’t travel for work often, but even a little can go a long way toward redeeming free nights for your vacation. And because the card fast-tracked us to Hilton Gold status, we were also able to enjoy free breakfast at their amazing buffet and got upgraded to an Executive Room. Cost savings = $543.
Flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv
We were familiar with budget carrier Pegasus Airlines from our previous trips to Turkey and found a flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv for $67 per person for a total of $134. The sign up bonus for the Bank of America Travel Rewards card gave us $219 to use toward travel costs, more than enough to cover the flight.
Ramada Hotel, Jerusalem
The Wyndham Rewards Visa card had a signup bonus of 45,000 points, enough for three nights at the Ramada in Jerusalem. We saved $418 by using points for this stay. I’ve written before on how valuable and flexible Wyndham Rewards can be, so the credit card sign up bonus offers a lot of value.
Crowne Plaza Hotel, Jerusalem
We didn’t have enough Wyndham Rewards points to stretch for a six night stay, so Iylana signed up for the IHG Rewards Club MasterCard, which gave us 60,000 points, good enough for a three night stay at the Crowne Plaza Jerusalem, saving us $552. The card automatically grants the holder IHG Platinum Status so we received a room upgrade and other perks. In total, using points covered nearly $1000 in hotel costs in Jerusalem alone.
Ararat Hotel, Bethlehem
We celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem by attending the Midnight Mass celebration in Manger Square. Since it was so late, we didn’t want to bother with crossing through security checkpoints to re-enter Jerusalem, so we booked a room at Ararat Hotel. I was able to wipe out most of the $90 cost with the remaining points on the Bank of America Travel Rewards card, only spending $5 out of pocket.
Doubletree Hotel, Aqaba
After celebrating Christmas in Israel, we crossed over to Jordan. We spent one night in Aqaba at the Doubletree Hotel, which is a Hilton property. I still had enough HHonors points to cover the 10,000 point cost, saving us $114. Hilton Gold status got us upgraded to a huge suite with Red Sea views.
Seven Wonders Camp, Petra
This was the only stay on the trip that we couldn’t eliminate with points, since they required payment in cash. There was a Marriott in Petra we could have stayed at for free using points from the Marriott Rewards Chase Visa, but we really wanted to experience staying in a Bedouin camp. Two nights was $113, representing the only other significant cost of the trip besides the airline taxes.
Wadi Rum Luxury Camp
We couldn’t decide between a “traditional” Bedouin camp like Seven Wonders or this luxurious one in the Wadi Rum desert, so we said “Why not both?” Unlike many of the other camps in Wadi Rum, this one accepted credit cards, allowing me to use the sign up bonus from the Capital One Venture card to eliminate the costs. We were even able to include our 4×4 excursion and camel ride, saving us a total of $352 on this part of the trip.
Crowne Plaza Resort, Dead Sea
As we worked out way through Jordan, we carved out some time to stay at a Dead Sea resort and experience the lowest and saltiest place on earth. Two nights at the Crowne Plaza resort, an IHG property, cost us 40,000 points, which I got from signing up for the IHG Rewards Club MasterCard under my name, for a savings of $362. Platinum status granted us a room upgrade to a suite and spa access for the duration of our stay.
Intercontinental Hotel, Amman
Our last stop before heading home was in Amman, to take in its cultural attractions. We spent two nights at the Intercontinental Hotel, a very nice property, for 50,000 IHG points. I still had some left from the signup bonus on the IHG Rewards Club MasterCard and made up the rest by taking surveys and transferring 4,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to my IHG Rewards Club account. I love the flexibility the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers in travel rewards, so it’s our primary card for day-to-day spending (and right now the sign up bonus is 50,000 points!). In total our savings here was $370.
Hotel NH, Vienna Airport
We had a stopover in Vienna on the way back with an early departure in the morning. We found a room located at the airport using Expedia for $110. I had some Expedia points allowing me to deduct $50 from the cost of the room, dropping it to only $60, which I was able to cover using the rest of the sign up bonus from the Capital One Venture Card. Not bad for the convenience it offered us. This Expedia reward isn’t tied to any specific credit card program, but if there’s a chance to earn some kind of points, I always go for it!
All told, the total cost of the trip would have been $5,744, and we were able to reduce the costs by more than $5,000 using the sign up bonuses from credit cards. In the end, the trip only cost us $532 / $266 per person allowing us to afford a trip we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. And the best part is there are still a plethora of cards we can sign up for to fund future travels.
how to get startedIs there a dream trip you want to take that points could help make a reality? Stop dreaming about it and start planning! Credit cards rewards don’t have to be intimidating. Just understand the ground rules and you’ll be at your dream destination before you know it. The best card to start with is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. It offers a ton of flexibility, and the current sign up bonus is 50,000 points, almost enough for a roundtrip ticket to Europe on United Airlines!
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