Our Three Best Travel Hacks in Three Years of the Miles and Points Game

Enjoying a beautiful cycling descent on the Croatian island of Brac!

Enjoying a beautiful cycling descent on the Croatian island of Brac!

The Croatia Trip

I've already written about this one, but let me just say that my wife and I got a lot of value out of 120,000 United miles, which we earned through 3 credit-card signups. We booked two roundtrip tickets from Los Angeles to Croatia in high season, which by itself would be worth close to $4,000. However, we used two great travel hacks to up the value considerably.

Free One-Way: Roundtrip United flights allow for the opportunity to ticket a "free one-way," which basically means your home airport becomes your allotted stopover and you get a free flight from somewhere else domestic before your big trip. In this case, we were going to be in Washington D.C. for spring break, so we tacked on a flight from DC to LAX on our award flight to Croatia. One-way from DC for two on a busy weekend is pricey, so we probably got between $500-$1000 value out of that simple trick.

23-Hour Layover: We've been putting off vacationing in Western Europe until we have more disposable income, but I saw a huge opportunity to get a taste of a major capital without the price-tag of a longer visit. To get to Split, Croatia, we were going to be connecting through Rome anyway, so I intentionally booked us the longest allowable layover there.

On international flights, any connecting flight under 24 hours is considered a "layover" instead of a "stopover." This is an important distinction, because we had already used our stopover for DC, so this stop in Rome would have cost us more miles. Since we arrived at 6:50pm and were departing at 6pm the next day, we got to spend 23 hours in Rome for free! Flights on the Rome to Split route were going for $300 one-way, so we saved about $600 with the long layover trick.

Piazza Navonna in the heart of Rome

Piazza Navonna in the heart of Rome

Tons of Free Domestic Travel

Southwest Companion Pass: If you don't know about the Southwest Companion Pass and you travel domestically with a spouse or friend, you are probably missing out on the most high-reward travel hack out there. With this pass, you essentially double your Southwest miles, because your designated companion travels free every time you fly.

To get this pass, most people sign up for two Chase Southwest cards (there are two personal and one business to choose from) when the bonus offer is 50,000 miles each and then spend their way to the 110,000-mile threshold that triggers the pass. Once 110,000 miles are reached in a single calendar year, the pass is valid through that year and the entirety of the next. We earned ours in January of 2014, giving us the maximum two full years to take advantage of it.

We took a different approach to earning this companion pass than most, in that we only signed up for one Southwest credit card. We combined this travel hack with another to achieve both goals at once.

Marriott Hotel + Air Package: One of the best Marriott redemptions is called a Hotel and Air Package. You redeem a large number of points for a combination of a week-long stay at a hotel within the Marriott collection and airline miles to get there. In this case, we redeemed 250,000 Marriott points (how we got those is for another post, but it was only two card signups) for 7 nights at the AC Hotel in New Orleans + 70,000 Southwest miles, which put us well over the 110,000-point threshold.

The AC was going for over $200 per night, so that's $1,400 in value (read more about this redemption). I value Southwest miles at 1.67 cents each, which means about $2,000 in value (120,000x1.67), but that's before the companion pass. That pass essentially doubles the value of those miles, making them worth approximately $4,000. In total, we signed up for 3 cards to earn about $5,400 in value.

We used our Companion Pass for the flights on this summer's bicycle tour, including Montreal!

We used our Companion Pass for the flights on this summer's bicycle tour, including Montreal!