UPDATE 1/14/2016: The Ritz credit card signup bonuses now offer free nights rather than points, so this post is no longer relevant.
UPDATE 9/26/2014: Unfortunately, the Ritz Carlton credit card signup offers described in this post have expired.
One of the biggest and best opportunities for free travel is the Southwest Companion Pass. Earn 110,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points in one calendar year and you get a companion pass good for an unlimited number of flights for the rest of that year and all the next year. Think about that. If you manage to earn the companion pass early in the year, you can bring along a designated companion, for free, for any and every Southwest flight you book (with points or with cash) for nearly two years.
For those who fly Southwest with a companion often, this represents an amazing value. And, now that Southwest has begun flying internationally (Costa Rica, Aruba, Mexico, etc.), the deal is even more spectacular.
In my recent Big Wins post, I showed how to get the needed points quickly by signing up for two credit cards. There is, though, another way. This option includes not just the points needed for the Southwest Companion Pass, but a 7 night hotel stay as well.
The key to this alternate approach is Marriott’s Air and Hotel packages (also called “travel packages”). With enough Marriott Rewards points, one can book a 7 night hotel stay and get up to 120,000 airline miles. When booking a package like this there are many options for what type of miles you want to earn (American Airlines, Delta, United, etc.), but the key to this plan is to choose Southwest Rapid Rewards points. Marriott has a chart dedicated just to that option:
As you can see in the chart above, one can exchange 270,000 Marriott Rewards points for 120,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points and a seven night stay in a Category 5 Marriott. In other words, if you had 270,000 Marriott points to spend, you could get enough Southwest points for a companion pass (and for a lot of travel) and you’ll also get a seven night stay to boot.
That’s great, but where do those 270,000 Marriott Rewards points come from? Enter Ritz Carlton.
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Even though the Ritz Carlton chain is owned by Marriott, and even though the Ritz rewards program is identical to Marriott’s, they’ve kept the two separate, in name. In reality, they are one and the same. Ritz points can be used to book Marriott properties and Marriott points can be used to book Ritz properties. You can call to switch your Marriott account to a Ritz account or vice versa.
There are currently two big Ritz credit card signup offers (found here). With one offer you get 70,000 points and the first year annual fee is waived. With the second offer, you get 140,000 points, but the first year fee is not waived. Choosing the 140K offer is like buying the extra 70,000 points for $395 (the annual fee amount). Normally I’d say that’s not a great bet to make. In this case, though, it’s a great deal.
Here’s the trick:
1) You and your spouse or domestic partner both sign up for the 140K Ritz Carlton credit card offer. Within a month or two after you’ve met the required $2,000 minimum spend on each card, you’ll each have at least 142,000 points.
2) Wait until January 1. Then call Marriott (or Ritz) to book an air and hotel travel package. According to Marriott’s website, you can transfer points to your spouse or domestic partner when booking awards (terms & conditions can be found here). Pick a package that gives you enough Southwest points for the Companion Pass (or gets you close enough to where you can earn the final points another way). For example, 270,000 points is enough for 120,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points and 7 nights in a Category 5 hotel. Alternatively, you can choose to get a Category 6 hotel and 100,000 Southwest points for 280,000 Marriott/Ritz points. Or, if you already have a stash of Marriott points, consider a more expensive package such as the one that gives you 7 nights in a Category 7 hotel and 100,000 Southwest points in exchange for 310,000 Marriott/Ritz points.
- Costa Rica Marriott Hotel San Jose: Category 5. With Southwest now flying to Costa Rica, you can use the Southwest points and the companion pass to fly to Costa Rica, and then use the 7 night certificate for a free stay.
- Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center: Category 6. In recent years, Marriott has moved many desirable properties up in category so that it is now difficult to find appealing category 6 properties in the United States. This one looks pretty good though.
- Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino: Category 7. With Southwest now flying to Aruba, you can use the Southwest points and the companion pass to fly to Aruba, and then use the 7 night certificate for a free stay at this resort.
Pictured below: The Inn at Bay Harbor in northern Michigan. When I last visited this was a category 5 property, but it has been bumped up (twice) since then to category 7:
Additional value from the Ritz credit card
While you have the Ritz credit card, you might as well get full value from your $395 annual fee. Here are some ideas:
- Use the card for airline fees and call to get those fees reimbursed, up to $300 per calendar year. This means that it is possible to get up to $600 in fees reimbursed in your first cardmember year! See “How to increase credit card signup bonuses” for more.
- Get free access to Lounge Club airport lounges
- Enjoy Gold elite status, which guarantees free internet and breakfast or hotel club lounge access at many Marriott properties worldwide.
- Loyalty Lobby offers much more in depth information about Marriott travel packages including valuable information about upgrading or downgrading packages, as well as how to deal with situations where award nights are not available on seven consecutive days.
- Frugal Travel Lawyer details how she used a Marriott travel package to get the Southwest Companion pass.
- The Miles Professor details the same Ritz 140K solution as I’ve described here. She offers additional details and hotel suggestions. Note: I found the Miles Professor post as I was wrapping up this one. I could have saved a lot of trouble by simply directing readers there!