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How to Pay for a Luxury Vacation with Credit Card Points | Frommer's Maridav / Shutterstock

How to Pay for a Luxury Vacation with Credit Card Points

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Don't let the people in your Instagram feed have all the fun! Learn how to turn credit card bonuses and everyday spending into first-class plane tickets and stays at luxury resorts. 

I know you’ve seen it. A certain kind of travel post seems to proliferate on Instagram and other social media platforms. I’m referring to the posts showing couples clinking champagne flutes while ensconced in gigantic first-class airplane pods. Or digging into five-course gourmet meals at 30,000 feet. Or stretching out in lie-flat beds in plane cabins where no one has ever had to worry about reclining into the knees of the passenger behind. 

Keep scrolling and you’ll likely see the same lucky travelers arriving somewhere faraway and glamorous like the Maldives or Bora Bora. Inevitably, they’ll be staying in an overwater villa.

Then comes the kicker in the caption: “We used points to book everything and paid almost nothing out of pocket!”

Oh sure, you think. There’s gotta be a scam in there somewhere

Only here’s the thing: It’s not a scam. 

Those vacationers aren’t pulling a con or benefiting from good luck. They’ve simply taken advantage of credit card rewards points using a solid strategy, earning boatloads of points for purchases they were going to make anyway. 

If you have a partner, you can even work in two-player mode. The pair of you can not only get twice as many cards but you’ll also earn additional points by referring your Player 2 to the same cards you have, doubling up on bonus points and extra rewards for the referral. 

Some people—like yours truly, for instance—get so into this we can take international trips in premium cabins and at luxury resorts more than once per year. 

But even if you aren’t interested in making a hobby out of transforming points into luxury travel, it’s not difficult to plan out at least one killer trip. 

Let’s take a look at how we could plan a trip from New York to the Maldives, flying in business class and staying at a luxury hotel—and using nothing but credit card bonus offers and everyday spending to get us there. 

One important note before we get started: You’ll need flexibility in your travel dates to make this work. Airlines make premium cabin awards available for the lowest-priced awards when the carriers don’t expect to sell all the seats. That means you won’t be able to use this strategy to fly at busy times such as during spring break or the end-of-year holidays.

That still leaves a lot of days on the calendar to make your dream trip happen. Let’s work out a plan. 

The Plan

We’ll fly from New York to the Maldives with a connection in Doha on Qatar Airways in the carrier’s famous QSuite Business Class seats (as close to first class as business class gets).

Then we’ll stay 5 nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa in a beach villa—yes, a whole villa to ourselves, right on the beach.

After our time in paradise, we’ll plan to fly home in business class on Etihad Airways. (We’d have gone for the airline’s first class “Apartments,” but availability hasn’t resumed yet on flights from Abu Dhabi to New York.)

Getting There in Premium Cabin Seats 

For almost all award flights, there are multiple ways to book the same flight. For example, we can book Qatar Airways using miles from any Oneworld carrier, including Qatar’s own program (Avios) or other airlines in the alliance such as American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and many more. 

For our dream trip, we’ll use American Airlines AAdvantage miles since the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite MasterCard is currently offering 75,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after cardholders make $3,500 in purchases within the first 4 months of opening an account.

As it happens, American Airlines AAdvantage currently charges 70,000 miles for a one-way business class flight from the U.S. to the Maldives and is a partner with Qatar Airways. If you’re traveling in a pair, obviously both of you will need to get the same card and each earn the bonus.

After you hit that $3,500 in spending and the statement closes, you’ll have 78,500 miles, more than enough to cover the 70,000 needed.  

The flight to the Maldives is all settled. 

(Qatar Airways Qsuite | Credit: Qatar Airways)

Staying at a Luxury Resort on Points

Now, how will we stay at the Park Hyatt in the Maldives, which sells for over $1,000 a night, without paying for the room? 

Free nights at the Park Hyatt range from 25,000–35,000 points a night (depending on peak, off-peak, and standard occupancy rates). If we want 5 nights at the standard rate of 30,000 points a night, we need 150,000 points. (Note that Hyatt waives resort fees on award nights, but we’ll still be on the hook for the cost of the seaplane from the airport in Malé to the hotel—a cost of over $500 per person—and all of our food on the island.)

Currently, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is offering 80,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $4,000 within 3 months. Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer 1:1 into the World of Hyatt rewards program. 

If both halves of a couple get that card and spend enough for the bonus, they’ll net a total of 168,000 points after counting the minimum spend requirement to earn the bonus. 

That’ll cover the 150,000 points required for 5 standard nights, and gives us some cushion in case any of the nights are priced at the peak rate of 35,000 points per night, or if we need a few spare Ultimate Rewards points for our flight home. 

Getting Back Home

Finally, we need a flight back home. We could approach this in a few different ways. 

Etihad is not part of an alliance, but you can book flights with the airline using both American Airlines AAdvantage miles and Air Canada’s Aeroplan miles. Air Canada charges 85,000 miles for the flight vs. American’s 70,000 miles.

One option would be to go all in on AAdvantage miles, with both travelers getting an AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® (American is the only North American airline with two co-brand bank issuers). However, the bonus is pretty low right now, so we’d have to do a bunch of spending on top of the bonuses to get there.

Instead, both members of the couple could get a Capital One Venture X credit card, which earns 2 miles per dollar on purchases and offers 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 within 3 months. Once we’ve met the minimum spend on these, we’ve earned 83,000 miles each.

Since Air Canada’s Aeroplan will cost 85,000 miles each, it’s a stroke of luck we have some Chase points left over from the hotel because—and here’s the beauty of transferable points programs—both Chase and Capital One transfer to Air Canada’s Aeroplan. 

If you kept track of our Ultimate Rewards balance from the Sapphire Preferred bonuses mentioned above, each member of our hypothetical duo had 12,000 points more than needed for the hotel. If each person transfers 2,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points apiece and uses all the Capital One Miles, there’s now enough for the flight home. 

Taxes and fees on these flights are extremely small—and that’s not always the case (something to be mindful of in general). So we’ve put together a solid plan. 

Of course, it might make sense to switch some things around—flying Etihad to the Maldives and Qatar back, say—based on what’s available. And you certainly don’t have to stick with Hyatt. All the major chains have resorts in the Maldives. As I keep stressing, flexibility is key. 

Another important thing to keep in mind: You don’t have to open all these cards at once. In fact, you should never open cards when you’ll be forced to overspend your budget to earn the bonus. That’s no way to come out ahead. 

Space your enrollments out over as much time as you need. That could be a year or more. A dream trip is worth waiting for. 

[Bonus offers do change, however, varying from “standard” to “elevated” offers. In this article, both the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite MasterCard and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card come with higher-than-normal bonuses at the time of writing; certain offers may not be available later on.]