Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Willis, who used rewards to help cover a family trip to Italy:
Before I started reading TPG, I had a simple 1% cashback card, and I was happy to get some money back every once in a while. Once I learned about other options, I convinced my wife to drop it for a Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, figuring the 40,000-mile bonus (at the time) would be a nice start, and the 2% return would be worth the annual fee. With six kids, we don’t do a lot of travel by airplane, so airline miles are harder to use and I thought the flexibility of Capital One miles would be more valuable. We racked up miles pretty quickly with normal spending (like groceries, dining and clothes).
With my oldest being a high school senior, I wanted to do a senior trip to celebrate with her and my wife. I travel a lot for work, so I had a stash of AAdvantage miles that I could use for flights. After talking with my daughter about different destinations, we chose Italy and decided to book the trip with points and miles as much as possible.
Her school schedule cooperated so we could go in February, and I found round-trip tickets for 45,000 miles each. I knew from TPG that two one-way flights would cost the same as one round-trip, so we flew into Milan and out of Rome to maximize our sightseeing. As an AAdvantage Platinum member, I was able to book all three of us into Main Cabin Extra seats at no extra cost, and that extra legroom was nice for those longer trans-Atlantic flights. Cash fares from the small airport near us were well over $1,000, but booking award tickets meant we could avoid the two-hour drive to a larger international airport, along with the parking fees and longer security lines.
I had a bunch of Marriott points, but found many of the hotels in Italy were in the higher categories costing 35,000 points or more a night. We didn’t plan to spend much time in our rooms anyway, so I saved those Marriott points for another time and relied on Capital One miles. I was able to book hotels for around 10,000 miles per night, always centrally located to the sightseeing we wanted to do. I also used the purchase eraser for many other travel expenses, such as the award fees on our tickets, hotel occupancy fees and train tickets between cities.
All we covered out of pocket was our food and tickets for attractions that we wanted to see. In the end we got a fantastic 10-day trip for three to Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome, costing much less than I would have expected. It was a big win for us, and now the other kids can’t wait to take their own senior trips, so it’s time to start saving up more points and miles!
I often get asked whether it makes sense to pay an annual fee for a rewards credit card, and while the answer depends on individual circumstances, it’s more often yes than no. There are plenty of useful cards that don’t charge an annual fee, but just because a card costs less up front doesn’t necessarily mean it offers greater value. Paying to be a cardholder is justified if you’re getting more valuable rewards and benefits in return — for example, you won’t find perks like Global Entry application credits or companion fares on no-fee cards. The key is to do what Willie did and assess how much those perks are worth to you.
The Venture Rewards card carries a $95 annual fee, which is waived for the first year. For that price (and after meeting the spending requirements), Willie earned a sign-up bonus worth at least $400 in statement credits toward travel purchases, or potentially more if he takes advantage of Capital One’s recently added airline transfer partners. That’s a much better deal than what he would have gotten from a no-fee card that earns at a similar rate but doesn’t offer a sign-up bonus (like the Citi Double Cash Card). His old 1% card was even less competitive, as many cash back cards offer either a higher flat rate or bonus categories that boost the average return. Ditching it was the right choice.
I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Willis a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to firstname.lastname@example.org; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes, or to contribute to our new award redemption series. If your story is published, we’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected.
Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!
Featured photo by Keegan Houser / Unsplash.