Here’s how I did it:
Amtrak roomette. We both love train travel, and the points I earn using my Starwood American Express card transfer directly to my Amtrak Guest Rewards program. Fifteen thousand points buys us a roomette, or double-bunk room, and all our meals for the 30-hour trip. Paying cash would have cost $411. (NerdWallet has a review of the Starwood card here.) I did have to buy a few extra points from Amtrak to make the purchase, since I recently depleted our Starwood points to book a hotel room for five nights in Hawaii. The good news is that Amtrak is offering a 30% bonus when you buy points, so I got 1,300 points for $27.50.
Hotel rooms. I’m a Hilton HHonors member, so I checked online for affordable hotels in Portland. Fortunately, the Hilton chain includes options from inexpensive (Hampton Inn, a great value) to astronomical (Waldorf-Astoria). I could have used 30,000 points to get us a free room, but that wouldn’t have been a great exchange rate, since rooms with two queen beds were available for less than $100 a night at the Doubletree. Here’s the beauty part: I’ll get 15 points per dollar spent for this stay, but it won’t actually cost me anything. That’s because the room is charged to our Capital One Venture card, which reimburses us for travel. We earn two points for every dollar we spend with the card, and we can use those points to offset the cost of travel. We book any flight, hotel or rental car we want, click on a button at the Capital One website to request a travel credit, and the rebate quickly appears on our account. Easy peasy. (CreditCardForum.com has a review of the Capital One Venture cards here.)
Flight home. We didn’t have a lot of flexibility on our return date, and I wanted to fly Alaska Airlines, where I’m (usually) an elite flier. I had enough Alaska miles to do a miles-and-cash deal—20,000 miles and $190 got us our flights home. And once again, Capital One will reimburse us for the cost of the flight.
I’ll still be shelling out for meals and museum admissions; Dear Daughter will pay for her own souvenirs and treats from her allowance and savings. All in all though, it promises to be a pretty cheap getaway.
Travel rewards programs don’t make sense for everyone. If you don’t pay off your credit card balances in full every month, for example, you should look for cards with low interest rates and skip the rewards versions, which tend to have higher rates. But if you spend a fair amount and travel a fair amount, as we do, you can wrest quite a bit of value out of your rewards programs.