August 5, 2014
“Easy” and “Frequent Miler” don’t tend to go together in the same sentence. I tend to gravitate to the complicated stuff. After all, why write about a simple deal that takes two sentences to explain when I can, instead, write about a complex 8 part scheme that requires a lot of risk and effort for moderate rewards and will most likely no longer work a week later (like this one)?
Pictured above is the view from our room in Mürren, Switzerland. Staying here at the Hotel Bellevue, for free, was one of many easy wins that my family has taken advantage of. In this case we used Barclaycard Arrival Plus points to pay for our stay.
For those who like my Rube Goldberg approach to earning points & miles, don’t worry, I don’t plan to abandon those noble pursuits. Today, though, I decided to list a few easy opportunities for big rewards. These are the deals that even my mom can take advantage of. Soon, maybe tomorrow, I’ll do a similar roundup of “big wins,” that are a bit more complicated.
A word of caution: Most of the easy wins described below require signing up for a credit card or two. There’s a reason that credit card companies offer huge signup bonuses: many customers use their cards unwisely and end up paying huge interest rates and fees. The bank’s income from those customers is more than enough to justify the expense of paying people to sign up for their cards. Don’t be one of those people! Only sign up for cards if you absolutely know that you have the ability and discipline to pay the balance in full every month. And, never take cash advances (i.e. don’t withdraw cash from an ATM using your credit card and never use those checks they send out!). One more thing: When playing the credit card game its easy to get swept up in a cycle of buying more than you would otherwise. It’s not easy, but unless you’re rich, its wise to keep spend amounts down despite the promise of great rewards from your credit card. See this post for more.
So, without further ado, my favorite easy wins:
Free Hotel Stays
There are a number of hotel branded credit cards that offer two free nights when you signup for the card and meet the minimum spend requirements. These can be used for a weekend getaway, or a couple can each sign up for the same card and book back to back two night stays for a combined four night vacation.
The best of these “two free night” offers, in my opinion, is the Chase Fairmont Visa Signature card. It offers not just two free nights, but free breakfast (for two) as well. And, Fairmont hotels tend to be really nice. The main downside is that they don’t have many properties compared to most other chains. Other good options include the Chase Hyatt Visa Signature card, and the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card (but this Hilton card restricts the free nights to weekend nights and excludes a few properties).
Another path to free hotel nights is to sign up for cards that offer hotel points which can then be used to book free nights. One advantage of this approach is that while free nights generally have to be used within a year (or sooner), points can be kept for long term use. Also, if you tend to stay at less expensive properties, you may be able to stretch each signup bonus far past two nights.
The best of the hotel points offers, in my opinion, are the Chase IHG Club MasterCard and the US Bank Club Carlson Rewards Visa.
The IHG Club card offers 80,000 points, which is enough for 8 nights in a category 1 hotel and almost enough for two nights at top tier properties. It also offers automatic IHG Platinum status and a 10% rebate on all awards. Best of all, each year that you renew the card you’ll get a certificate for one free night at any IHG property worldwide. This includes some very nice and otherwise very expensive Intercontinental Hotels.
The Club Carlson card offers 85,000 points, which is more than enough for 9 nights in a category 1 hotel and almost enough for two nights at a top tier hotel. Plus, the card automatically makes the last night of your multi-night award stay free. So, a two night stay costs the same, in points, as a one night stay! You can read more about this card’s benefits here.
Other excellent hotel point bonuses worth mentioning:
- American Express Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG): 25,000 points
- Chase Marriott Rewards Premier: 70,000 points
- Ritz Carlton Rewards: Up to 140,000 points
Use the free tool AwardMapper to find hotels, by chain, in the places you want to travel. The tool will even show you how many points are required at each hotel for a free night.
Free (and easy) flights
Airline miles can be a great way to save money on flights (especially international business or first class flights), but finding award availability and booking awards (especially with partner airlines) can be anything but easy. There are at least two good alternatives to typical airline miles: Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points, and bank points for booking flights.
If you have Southwest Airlines points, booking a flight with points is incredibly easy. Simply browse to Southwest.com, search for a flight, and select “show fares in points”. To get the best deal, try to pick a flight that has availability in the rightmost column labeled “Wanna Get Away”.
If you don’t have Southwest points, look for Chase to offer 50,000 point signup bonuses on their Southwest cards (they tend to alternate between 25,000 and 50,000 point offers every few months). Alternatively, look for the best Chase Ultimate Rewards offers such as the Sapphire Preferred card, Ink Bold, or Ink Plus which each offer bonuses of 40,000 points or more. Once you receive the Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you can sign into your account (or call Chase) and transfer points to Southwest Airlines, as needed.
Another solution for free and easy flights is to collect bank points which allow you to pay with points for airfare. One example is to sign up for the Citi ThankYou Premier card which offers up to 50,000 bonus ThankYou points (in two years). With the Premier card, ThankYou points are worth 1.25 cents per point towards airfare. For example, a flight that costs $400 would require 32000 points. All it takes to book a flight is to log into thankyou.com, search for flights and book with points right from their web site. The ThankYou Premier card is just one example, though. Almost all bank point programs offer some way to buy airfare with points. The advantage to booking airfare this way is that there are usually no restrictions on what flight you take or which airline you fly on. And, when you book airfare this way, you typically earn miles for the flight if you are signed up with the airline’s frequent flyer program.
Free (and easy) train travel
If you have one of the premium Chase Ultimate Rewards cards (Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, or Ink Bold), then you have the ability to transfer points to Amtrak. Amtrak does have a handful of blackout dates for which you cannot redeem points for travel (view blackout dates here), but aside from that you can redeem points for train travel any time a seat is available for purchase. Even better, Amtrak has very reasonable rates for many routes (view rates here). A couple of sweet spots are their “Special Routes” for only 1500 points each way, and their two person bedrooms (which include all meals) for as little as 20,000 points one way. One popular route is the Coast Starlight which travels between Los Angeles and Seattle. Since this route is entirely within one Amtrak “zone”, two people can ride one-way in a bedroom with all meals for only 25,000 points. Considering this includes overnight accommodations and all meals for two people, this is an amazing bargain.
B&Bs, taxis, and more
Some points programs will let you pay for any travel with points. My favorite of these is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card which offers a signup bonus of 40,000 points, earns 2 points per dollar on all spend, and has no foreign transaction fees. The 40,000 points earned from the signup bonus can be used to pay for up to $400 worth of travel related charges of $25 or more on your Arrival credit card. Even better, 10% of those points are immediately rebated to you so that you can redeem points for $40 more in travel. In my recent trip to Switzerland, I used the Arrival card to pay for train travel, a cab ride or two, and two nights at a B&B in the Alps, then I used points when we got home to pay the statement charges.
If you have upcoming plans to fly more than usual or to stay in hotels quite a bit, you may be able to make your upcoming and future travel more comfortable and rewarding by enrolling in a status challenge. Many airline and hotel programs offer challenges that make it possible to get high level status quickly by meeting certain requirements. With high level airline status you’ll generally get free economy plus/comfort seating, the chance of a free upgrade to first class, reduced or eliminated fees, etc. With high level hotel status you may get free breakfast, room upgrades, welcome gifts, etc. If you have plans for a lot of upcoming travel, it is well worth it to call the airline or hotel chain in question to see if they’re willing to offer you a status challenge.
My favorite status challenge is Hyatt’s Diamond Trial. With the Diamond Trial, you get automatic top tier Diamond status for a limited time. You then have 60 days to complete 12 paid nights in order to secure Diamond status for the rest of the year and potentially all of the following year (depending upon when you started the challenge). For details about the challenge and my fantastic recent experience with it, please see: Chasing Diamond Success!
More big wins
I plan to follow up this post with another in which I’ll discuss my favorite big but sometimes complicated wins. In the meantime, let me know what you think. Did I miss any of your favorites? Keep in mind that I limited the above list to reproducible ongoing offers. People who have been playing this game for years no doubt have countless favorite, but no longer available deals. We’ll keep those for another time.