Well, it’s on the books. In August 2016, my wife and I are visiting Dublin for eight days. It’s a real vacation, our first since our oldest daughter was born in 2013. I’m so excited that I’m reading through guidebooks eight months in advance; I’ve already started and quit trying to read Ulysses (again).
We’ve got non-stop flights booked, and we’re staying at a decent mid-level Hilton property. But what’s most exciting about our trip, and the reason I’m telling you about it, is the cost. What’s the total bill for this international extravagance?
$230. Total. $115 per person.
Of course that’s just a starting point. We’re going to pay for food and drinks while we’re there. And we want to get out of the city for at least one day to see a castle. All told, we’ll probably spend around $1,000.
But still: not bad, right? The last time I flew internationally, $1,000 didn’t even cover one of the flights, let alone the hotel.
So how did I get this deal? As you might’ve guessed, I used airline miles and hotel points. The $230 is the tax on the flights. I’ve gone on family vacations where we spent more than that on luggage.
I’m not a business traveler. I do onsite work occasionally, but I’m not someone who racks up travel perks. But I have good credit now, and with it the siren song of the credit card companies. It turns out that when you have good credit, companies actually fight for your business with some pretty lucrative signing bonuses. I knew that we had some home maintenance coming up, so instead of using one of our existing cards, I started researching travel cards to see if I could get us a free vacation.
For example, a British Airways Visa card offered 50,000 Avios (their airline miles) for opening a card and spending $1,000 in the first three months. And my research told me that British Airways calculates the cost of their reward flights based on distance, not popularity. By that logic, a flight from Boston to Dublin is only 25,000 avios round trip, because it’s just below the distance threshold for their cheapest rewards.
I did have some Hilton Points saved up from previous work trips. On top of that, I added a Hilton rewards card that gave me 60,000 points, or about 2.5 nights at a clean hotel walking distance from the city center.
If a free vacation doesn’t move the needle for you, how about cash? You can find cards that pay up to 2% cash back, and some that pay a one-time bonus of hundreds of dollars for opening a card.
Like anything that sounds too good to be true, there are some catches. Some cards have annual fees, so if you don’t cancel the card before 12 months is up fees will eat into whatever perks you’ve gotten. If you don’t pay your bill in full each month, your interest and penalties will similarly eat away your benefits. And figuring out airline miles can be tricky; their value is always changing, and most use a more complicated scheme than British Airways does. At its worst, using airlines miles is like redeeming tickets at an arcade in an amusement park. The Rasta banana costs how many fun-bucks?
But none of these drawbacks are really deal breakers; more like ‘fine print to be aware of’. When you have good credit and you’re willing to do some research, a big expense can be an opportunity.
There are myriad benefits to having your financial house in order. This has been one of the more unexpected and enjoyable ones. Expenses that used to be hardship are now an opportunity. By having good credit, planning ahead for purchases and doing some research, a broken refrigerator can turn into a free international flight. It still feels like magic to me.
Now when my wife comes to me with an expense over $1,000, I’m not secretly annoyed. Instead, a big red siren goes off in my mind. I slide down a fireman’s pole and hop on my laptop while sirens wail around me. I am on reward credit card red-alert.
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