We’re using credit card rewards to save thousands on our honeymoon

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My fiancé and I share some major financial mantras, and the one we chant before making any big purchases is this: We like a good deal and we don’t like to waste our hard-earned money.

We held many strategic planning sessions to figure out how to pay for a wedding using credit card rewards and interest earned from our savings accounts, hunted for deals, and cut costs in ways our guests would never be able to see. 

When our 2020 wedding was postponed because of the pandemic, we decided to use that extra time to set a game plan for our honeymoon to St. Maarten. Would we be able to plan the vacation of our dreams using mostly our credit card rewards to pay for it? 

We sat down and plotted exactly how we’d make that happen. Here are our thought process and game plan for planning a honeymoon paid for with credit card rewards. 

We’re focused here on the rewards and perks that come with each card. These cards won’t be worth it if you’re paying interest or late fees. When using a credit card, it’s important to pay your balance in full each month, make payments on time, and only spend what you can afford to pay.

Take inventory of your points 

We first sat down and accounted for all of our credit card rewards. We looked at not only the rewards we each have now but also how many points we’re likely to accumulate in the coming months (based on spending projections from 2020). We talked through whether we wanted to put all our points into planning the honeymoon or if we wanted to save some.

In the end, we decided not to spend them all on this honeymoon. Since I have more credit card rewards than my fiancé (he used most of his in early 2020 on a trip for us), we’d save at least 20% of my points and 30% of his points to keep in case of an emergency when we needed to cash them in for a flight or to put toward paying off a credit card balance.

Before you start booking a trip with your points, be sure that this is how you want to spend your rewards. Look at your year to come — will you need these points for any major occasions? Do you want to set aside a percent of these points so they can factor into your emergency fund? Either way, make that decision before you start planning your trip so you don’t have any regrets. 

Make a travel must-have list 

After the inventory, we sat down and researched all of our credit cards to confirm what each card offered and to strategize how to maximize our rewards. To stay realistic about booking a trip we’re excited about and not get frustrated over what we can and can’t afford, we set priorities on what we cared about the most. 

We decided we wanted to stay at a nice hotel and have fun excursions while we were there. We don’t care much about fancy restaurants or flying first class, so paying for those items would be where we’d compromise and try to use the fewer points. 

It can get overwhelming to start the process of paying for a trip with your rewards. So instead of looking at how many rewards you have and how many you need, start first by determining what you care about the most. That way, you can start allocating points to the list of things you really want. It will help you get going on this process.

Budget for the plane tickets 

Since we agreed that we didn’t care about flying first class or picking a specific time for the flight (we were prepared to do a red-eye flight or 6 a.m. flight since those are usually the least expensive) we decided to cash in points from my JetBlue Card for the ticket. 

JetBlue doesn’t offer a robust variety of options for using points (you can use your points mostly to book flights or to apply to the balance of one of their JetBlue Getaway travel packages) and since I have quite a lot of idle points with them, we decided to allocate these specifically for the flights. 

It will cost around 32,000 points for each ticket (priced at around $500 per person) and I almost have enough. We decided to make an effort over the next few months to increase my points so we can cover the tickets and to do so, we’ll make sure we book any upcoming flights on this credit card (to get 3x points) and put all grocery store bills on this card (for 2x points). Based on our usual spending and upcoming trips over the next few months, we expect to earn enough points to cover the price of the flight completely. 

Since we’re not in a rush to book the flight and open to a couple of different potential dates, we plan to look for upcoming JetBlue sales, discount offers, or drops in the price so we can snag the tickets for the lowest number of points, even if that means booking one ticket at a time (if we don’t have enough points to cover both). 

When you’re planning travel with your rewards, you’ll be able to maximize your points even more if you’re not set on a specific travel date. Set alerts and watch for sales so that when you see the ticket price drop, you can grab a ticket for fewer points than you expected or planned.

Select your accommodations 

Staying in a nice resort was at the top of the priority list. We want to make our honeymoon feel like a luxury vacation and we agreed that the place we stayed would make it feel like that, above anything else. 

We tapped into the rewards from my Capital One® Spark® Miles Select for Business because we wanted to use Capital One miles to pay for a four-night stay at a four- or five-star hotel. We found a variety of options (mostly four-star) that would cost between 70,000 and 120,000 miles (or $700 to $1,200 total). We had budgeted 80,000 miles from my Capital One card to pay for our stay. 

When we picked a hotel we liked, we decided to splurge for an oceanfront suite and a package that came with free breakfast. This would cost us 87,144 miles. Even though it’s a bit over what we budgeted, this is the category we agreed we’d splurge on. This is also the card I put most of my purchases on monthly (racking up around 2,000 to 3,000 miles a month) so I’ll be able to make up for the extra miles we are using in no time. 

When using travel rewards to pay for accommodations, search your card’s travel portal to see if there are any current sales and offerings. When we searched, we noticed a few hotels that were featured for 50% fewer points than usual. We also searched for options that included free perks (like Wi-Fi or breakfast). Even though it cost more points, we factored in that it was a better deal including it than paying for those items separately once we got there. 

Reserve a rental car or other transportation

In order to have even more freedom when we travel and avoid charging our credit cards to cover the cost of transportation, we wanted to budget some rewards points to cover the cost of a rental car.

Since this was a small expense point-wise, my fiancé used around 12,000 Ultimate Rewards points from his Chase Sapphire Reserve® card for a four-day rental car that we can pick up and drop off at the airport. 

Since transportation is something we rarely plan for until we arrive at a destination, check to see what options your credit card rewards offer. Some cards will give you credits back if you use ride-sharing services like Uber, and others will offer great deals on rental cars if you book through the bank’s travel portal. 

Strategize fun

A big thing we cared about when planning this honeymoon was the adventures we wanted to experience. Since we picked a sunny island, we wanted to do a boat tour, go snorkeling, and tap into other local excursions. We hoped to pick three or four activities throughout our stay. 

Since I used my rewards to cover the hotel and flights, my fiance planned to use Ultimate Rewards points from his Chase Sapphire Reserve® card. The excursions we wanted to sign up for cost from 2,000 to 12,000 points (per activity) and we budgeted 40,000 points for at least four activities. 

Check to see what additional travel perks your credit card offers, in addition to hotel stays and flights. Some credit cards offer you the opportunity to book activities with your points when you book through their portal. 

Tap into credit card welcome bonuses 

My fiance and I agreed that we didn’t want to go overboard with opening new credit cards for the sign-up bonuses. We wanted to use what we had and only open one credit card to help us pay for the honeymoon.

It made the most sense to apply for a card that provided cash-back rewards so we could use that money to help pay for purchases on the honeymoon (such as dining, shopping, and miscellaneous things along the way).

We decided to go with the no-annual-fee Chase Freedom Unlimited®, which offers a welcome bonus of $200 after spending $500 in the first three months from account opening. To meet this minimum spending requirement, we plan to put immediate upcoming wedding expenses on the card (paying for the photographer’s deposit and ordering new invitations).

The Chase Freedom Unlimited® offers 5% cash back (5x points) on travel booked through Chase, 3% cash back (3x points) on drugstore and restaurant purchases, and 1.5% cash back (1.5x points) on everything else. Overall, it was the best card for us to earn cash back now — and to use in the future after the wedding and honeymoon ends. 

While it can be tempting to play the “open up credit cards for their sign-up bonus” game, have a strategy in mind for what kind of cards you want to open and use even after you spend the bonus. That way, you won’t find yourself opening and closing credit cards after a year because you have no use for the card after the rewards are spent. 

Don’t forget about taxes and fees 

I’ve made the travel mistake of booking my trip with reward points only to realize there are still a couple of hundred dollars worth of charges that I have to pay with cash because of taxes and additional hotel or travel fees. 

We decided to take note of those costs (like taxes and fees of $87 per ticket with JetBlue, the $91 fee from the hotel, and more) and note these as fees we’ll use credit card points to pay for once they hit the bill. We hope to use the rewards we earn from our new Chase Freedom Unlimited® to cover these purchases. 

When you’re budgeting and planning for your trip, take note of sneaky fees that will be charged when you book or once your stay is over. Since you might have time to pay these off later on, perhaps plan to apply rewards you earned from spending during your travel time to cover those costs.