To borrow from the opening line of Restaurant at the End of the Universe and the amazing Douglas Adams, “the story so far:”

We have talked about what points and miles are.

We have discussed basic ways to earn them.

We have gone over credit card sign-up bonuses as the most efficient way to earn loads quickly.

So now let’s figure out how to strategize our earning to take our dream vacation for free (or close to free). After all, that’s the fun part, right?

Goal setting is incredibly important when it comes to having a points and miles strategy. After all, if you need 50,000 American AAdvantage miles for a flight, it doesn’t help you to have 30,000 each of those and Delta SkyMiles, even though 60,000 is more than 50,000. (Another strategy, and one I have employed, is just to get as many large bonuses as I can regardless of the points/miles “currency” and to figure out travel later. But as most people plan their travel ahead of time and have a dream destination in mind, working specifically toward that goal is probably better.)

Let’s say that your dream is to spend a week in Paris with your partner. Looking first at flights, we find that on American Airlines it will cost 45,000 miles per round trip ticket during the off-peak, or 60,000 miles round trip during peak season. (Delta and United no longer publish award charts, so for those, we will have to put in dates online and see what comes up.) I make a note of this in a spreadsheet, assuming the higher value of 60,000 AAdvantage miles needed per person.

Now let’s examine hotels. I go to Award Mapper to see what hotels are available on points in Paris, and sort it by my favorite brands: IHG and Hilton. (You can pick any you like.) Two IHG properties jump out at me: the Intercontinental Paris – Avenue Marceau for 60,000 points per night, and the Holiday Inn Paris – Elysées for 40,000. I know that IHG gives us a fourth night for free when we book with points (Hilton is a fifth night) as an IHG Premier credit card holder (more on that later), so 8 nights would be 360,000 at the Intercontinental, or 240,000 at the Holiday Inn. (We would be making two separate four night reservations to have two free nights.) I add those numbers into my spreadsheet as well.

Ok, so now we need 120,000 American AAdvantage miles (60,000 per person) and between 240,000 and 360,000 IHG points. Let’s start with the airline miles. A quick internet search tells me that the Barclay AAdvantage Aviator Red credit card is offering 60,000 AAdvantage miles (one full round trip ticket in our case) as a signup bonus, for making a single charge and paying the $99 annual fee. How good of a deal is it? Choosing random dates in April of 2021 to look at flights, the cash price would be a bit over $800 per person. With this signup, a ticket would cost us the $99 annual fee, $92 in taxes on the award ticket, and perhaps a $4 cup of coffee, for a total of $195. Plus by being a card holder, we would get priority boarding and free checked luggage.

So both of us could take out this card after first creating American AAdvantage accounts to link, and we would be set on miles. (Note that sign-up bonuses tend to take about 90 days to hit your account, so this would need to be done a ways in advance to make sure flights are available at lesser rates.)

Perusing IHG credit cards next, I find that the Chase IHG Premier credit card is offering 140,000 points after making $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of opening the card. If both my partner and I take that card out – we might need to stagger them depending on how much we normally spend in a month on credit cards – that would give us 280,000 IHG points, more than enough for our eight nights at the Holiday Inn. (IHG doesn’t allow free combining of points, so we would actually each have to book a separate reservation, 120,000 for three nights plus a fourth free thanks to this card, for each of us out of our 140,000.)

Let’s again examine how good of a deal this is: by charging $6,000 of expenses we would be purchasing anyway, and paying two $89 annual fees ($178 total), we would be getting eight nights at a hotel that in April of 2021 is showing rates of $487 per night!

Furthermore, the Chase IHG Premier credit card gives me Platinum status (along with some nice upgrades) with IHG, and a free night each year (beginning in year two) at any IHG property up to 40,000 points in value! Seeing what 40,000 points can do in Paris, that’s like getting nearly $500 in value for my $89 annual fee. That’s why this card stays with me permanently. Value like that is huge in the game of cheap or free travel. (My free nights have averaged about $250 in value, still pretty great for the $89 fee.)

So let’s recap. By each of my partner and me taking out two credit cards (the Chase IHG Premier and the Barclay AAdvantage Aviator Red), we can take this dream trip that would normally have cost more than $5,000 for less than $600 in credit card fees and taxes on American Airlines. And all we needed to do was to plan out our goals!

This same method can work for basically any trip you would want to take as long as it involves points and miles. Some destinations or dream resorts might make us have to plan further ahead to save up larger points balances, but all are possible by doing nothing more than spending the money we usually spend.

So what is your dream vacation? Let’s make it happen!

Note: I only recommend credit cards I personally have and trust. I get no commissions from anyone taking any of these out. Before taking out a new credit card, please make sure you are able to pay off all of your balances in full every month, or the rewards will pale in comparison to the interest charges you’ll accrue. I also cannot guarantee that anyone will be accepted for any given credit card.

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