By the time you read this we’ll be in Seattle, enjoying a trip mostly financed with travel rewards. So it’s only appropriate that I tell you about our plans for next year’s rewards trip.
I want to take Tim to Washington D.C. next year. He’s never been there, and I haven’t visited in 15 years. Even when I did, I was an intern (go ahead and make the necessary jokes), so I didn’t go sightseeing a ton.
To me, the best thing about D.C. is that so many of the attractions are free. Oh, and history and the foundation of our country and stuff. But, like, I can go look at the Smithsonian’s dinosaur bones for free!
So the question was which card we’d use to get us there.
The obvious choice?
I was tempted to run right for another card like our Chase Sapphire or Barclay Arrival Plus. That is, one that lets you use rewards points on whatever part of the travel you want: flight, hotel, rental car, tour, etc.
It seemed like a no-brainer.
I love the freedom of being able to choose where the points go and which airlines or hotels I want to use. I love that the Barclay setup means I can book travel through cash back sites. (We’ll pay $735 for the Seattle hotel, apply $725 credit and get a $68 rebate through Mr. Rebates.)
In short, I’m addicted to the flexibility that the more general travel rewards cards offer. How could the freedom to choose not be the best choice?
Yes, yes, there’s the wisdom that you should go to cheaper areas for more affordable vacations. Go in the off-season, go (as one reader recently mentioned) to exotic places that haven’t become popular or have fallen out of favor.
Those are, of course, great ways to save money on your vacation. But only if you don’t have a destination in mind.
Because if you’ve always wanted to see the Art Institute of Chicago, it doesn’t matter how much cheaper it’d be to visit Minneapolis instead.
So if you have a fixed destination, then you have two important questions:
- What’s my biggest expense going to be?
- What’s the best way to cover it?
For D.C. in May, the biggest expense is going to be a hotel. Even the cheap ones run in the low $200s. Halfway decent ones are $250-300 (or more). Even staying a bit outside the city — not too far away because, between my fatigue and Tim’s pain, we need to be close to the hotel — a six-night stay could easily run $1,500.
That rules out a generic travel rewards card. Even with a 40,000 point bonus and two points per dollar, spent, we’d have to spend about $55,000 in the next year.
Uh… No. Clearly, we needed a hotel card.
But which one?
A blogger friend recommended the Starwood Hotels card. But of course I have to over-research everything, so I went and compared hotel cards.
At first glance, the Starwood card looked pretty unimpressive compared to the others. It only offered 25,000 bonus points, compared to Hilton’s 80,000 and IHG’s 60,000.
But my friend always does her homework, so I kept Starwood in the running. I figured there must be a reason she chose it over other brands. And I was right.
The other cards’ bonuses are so much bigger because their free nights cost significantly more points. Significantly.
Even if we stayed out in Arlington, IHG would want 35,000 points for a free night. Hilton’s rate is 50,000. Starwood, on the other hand, has properties for 5,600 to 8,000 points a night.
You have to spend $3,000 to get each card’s bonus. So once you did that, you’d have… Less than two nights at Hilton and IHG hotels or three to five free nights at Starwood.
Not to mention that I already have about 9,000 points on my Starwood account and FinCon 2017 is also at a Sheraton (4,000 more points if I pay with the Starwood card).
The choice was clear. Heck, at this rate I might splurge on a nice place in Georgetown that only wants 9,600 a night. It depends how much we spend this year.
So yes, the answer was obvious. But for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to fill out the application.
Well, not “some” reason. For two reasons:
- After the freedom that came with the Sapphire and Barclay cards I was paranoid about locking myself into a single chain.
- I wasn’t sleeping enough, making me more anxious and less rational
I knew this. I did. But that didn’t help the argument between my rational and irrational selves. The following, for lack of a better word, conversation went through my head on a loop.
“What if, once you finally have enough points, all the free nights are booked up at the hotel you want?”
“Then I’ll take the next rung down.”
“What if they’re all booked up.”
“They won’t be.”
“But what if they are?”
“There are six hotels in a reasonable points range. They won’t be.”
“Fine! Then I’ll adjust the dates. It doesn’t have to be exactly on our anniversary.”
“But what if they’re all full then, too?”
“They won’t be.”
[Pause for five to 30 minutes]
“Hey, but what if, when you finally get the points…”
This happened for days.
I tried to calm down. I tried to reason with myself. I even used Excel, which tends to make things very clear. I compared three different cards: IHG, Starwood and, just for argument’s sake, the Venture card, which is a general travel rewards card. I projected general spending, replacing the windows, existing points, etc.
Starwood was the clear winner every time. But I still couldn’t start the application.
All’s well that ends well
Four days into this ridiculous cycle, I finally applied. We were approved and have been happily using the card for a couple of weeks now. Thanks to the fact that we put all of our purchases on the card (which I’m sure the companies love), we should hit our bonus threshold by the end of the month. But of course we’ll still have a bunch of spending to do before we have enough for our trip.
Because our other two cards are still open, the approved limit is a little low. Well, “low” in that I’d like to put the full cost of the replacement windows on it so as to really rack up the points. My plan is wait a couple of months, then request a limit increase. By then, we’ll have shown American Express that we spend enough to be worth its while.
Worst case scenario, I have to split the cost over two cards. No matter what, I feel certain that we’ll have plenty of points — and that some Starwood hotels will be available, dammit!
Are you guys planning any trips or considering any new rewards cards? Which one is your favorite?