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Banks love to sell their products with the offer of a free flight or even a entire vacation. But so many people have tried to take them up on these offers, only to find the awards they wanted were unavailable. But traveling on credit card rewards is not impossible. Let’s take a look at how I was able to plan a family vacation to Argentina over the holidays, and how you can get started planning your dream trip.

Step one, get the points and miles first

When friends ask me how they can earn enough points and miles for an vacation they want to take in the next few months, they are always disappointed by my answer. The truth is that it takes more than just a few months to earn the credit cards rewards necessary for a great trip, and the best awards need to be redeemed at least six months in advance. So it is never too early to start looking to earn points and miles with your credit card.

For this trip, my wife and I both signed up for the British Airways credit card from Chase last year. At the time, it offered 100,000 miles as a sign up bonus. So between us, we had over 200,000 miles with British Airways. Fortunately, Chase is now featuring the same offer once more. I also had some points with Chase’s Ultimate Rewards and the Starwood hotels Preferred Guest programs.

Other offers that we took advantage of in the past two years were for the Southwest Airlines credit cards from Chase, and the American Airlines AAdvantage credit cards from Citi. These cards offered as many as 50,000 points and miles as a sign up bonus. Both of these cards come in several different versions, and a sign-up bonus can be received once for each version. In fact, almost all of our mileage was earned from sign-up bonuses and spending, with a small fraction being earned from paid travel.

Step two, find the available airline awards

Traveling over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays is a challenge, but we had a few tricks up our sleeves. First, we were willing to travel on Christmas day, which is a day when airline awards are very easy to find. Next, we had points and miles in several different programs. And finally, we booked this trip back in May before most families were even thinking about holiday travel.

First, we found three seats in business class on LAN airlines from Miami to Buenos Aires. And since LAN and British Airways are both members of the OneWorld alliance, we could redeem 150,000 British Airway miles for the three seats. We were also able to redeem another 45,000 British Airways points for us all to fly on LAN from Buenos Aires to the city Salta in northern Argentina.

Unfortunately, there were not enough award seats on American Airlines for connecting flights from our home in Denver to Miami, at least at the lowest award levels. That is where our Southwest points came in handy. Southwest offers any available seat for award redemptions, capacity controls were not an issue. We decided to fly into nearby Fort Lauderdale Florida for a few days before continuing to Argentina from Miami.

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But our entire plan almost came unraveled when we failed to find three awards seats from Buenos Aires to Denver at the lowest mileage levels, on any airline. So here is where we bit the bullet and chose American Airlines “Standard” awards which require twice the miles of their “Saver” awards. Although we spent 100,000 per person for business class seats, we were able to soften the blow in three ways. First, as holders of an American Airlines credit card, we were entitled to a 10% mileage rebate. Secondly, we also enjoyed a $100 statement credit from our first purchase from American Airlines. Simply paying the taxes with our American Airlines cards qualified us for that credit. And finally, by choosing “Standard” awards, we got to choose from any available seat on any flight. This allowed us to book the best flights with the short connection through Dallas, which is the most direct route between Buenos Aires and Denver.

Step three, arranging accommodations

As with the airlines, the key to using credit card rewards for hotel stays is to keep balances in several programs. Thankfully, the major hotel programs require less points and have far fewer restrictions on awards than the airlines do. For example, we redeemed 10,000 Starwood points for three nights at a Sheraton Suites hotel in Fort Lauderdale. I was also able to transfer 81,000 of my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt for three nights in a suite at the Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires. Thankfully, we will be staying with family for a week in Salta, Argentina. I was even able to rent a car in Florida using my Ultimate Rewards points.


As you can see, a big trip like this can require more than a half a million points and miles. And keep in mind that we found three seats in business class and are staying in fine hotels; a couple traveling in coach would need less than half as many points and miles. But by earning as many points and miles as possible from credit card sign-up bonuses and spending, you will need very few dollars for a dream vacation.

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Image: Antonio Castagna, via Flickr

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