Gap Year Planning: Travel Hacking A Year Of Hotel Stays

In less than a month, we will be embarking on our Gap Year road trip that will take us across a majority of the USA.  For the past couple of years, we’ve been able to cover the majority of our hotel stays using points earned from credit card signup bonuses.  This worked great when we were signing up for cards year-round and only staying a couple dozen nights in hotels each year, but that entire equation is being flipped on its head for the upcoming year.

Our pace of opening new cards will probably slow as we stay busy traveling and the number of nights we spend in hotels this year will potentially be in the hundreds!  That means we need to take a step back and reevaluate our priorities for how we earn and spend points going forward.  In addition, earning top tier hotel status the old fashioned way (as opposed to getting it from a credit card) will become a real possibility for us, including all of the free point and night opportunities that come along with doing so.

The intention of this post is to be a reference point for where we’re starting the year, how we might be able to earn more points, and how we’ll look to optimize stays at several of the major hotel brands.  I plan to reference this page frequently during our travels when deciding between hotels.

Overview

It obviously won’t be possible to cover hundreds of hotel nights entirely with points, but maximizing the points we currently have and earning more points strategically throughout the year has the potential to significantly reduce our lodging expenses.  In addition to hotel stays, we will also be doing a bit of camping, staying with family and friends, and possibly using Airbnb in places where the price makes sense versus hotels.  Despite these other options, I still anticipate staying a couple hundred nights in hotels with a mix of points and/or cash nights.

When we are looking to book the next place to stay on our adventure, I plan to look at all of the chain hotels in the surrounding areas that can potentially be booked with points and compare those rates against the cost of hotels and Airbnbs within the same area.  As I’ll often be doing this in the days and weeks leading up to the actual stay (rather than months out), I have no idea which option will be more cost effective on average.

If the value we’re getting per point is good for that particular currency (versus the best cash price), we’ll book with points (or points+cash), otherwise we’ll choose the best cash option (potentially earning more points).

As we anticipate a good number of paid stays, it will be important to stay registered for all of the hotel promotions going on at the major brands.  Sometimes different ones can overlap and add up to a significant number of points earned, but there’s no reason not to take advantage of them regardless of how valuable they are if we’re going to be staying there anyway.  The Free-quent Flyer has a good resource with the current hotel promotions at any given time: Current Hotel Promotions Page.

Let’s get into the highlights on my mind for each major hotel brand:

Hilton (Hilton Honors)

  • Current Points: 240,000 (worth 3-48 nights)
  • Current Status: Gold (thanks to the Amex Platinum and/or Hilton Ascend card)

Bonuses for reaching a certain number of nights

  • 40 nights = 10k bonus
  • 50 nights = 10k bonus
  • 60 nights = 40k bonus + Diamond Status
  • 70/80/90/100/etc nights = 10k bonus each

Earning on Paid Nights

  • 18 per $1 with Gold Status
  • 20 per $1 with Diamond Status
  • +12-14 per $1 spent on a Hilton credit card
  • +Any current promotions

Potential Moves

  • Open new Hilton Aspire credit card for 100k bonus, free night, and instant Diamond status
  • Open new Hilton Business Amex for 100k bonus
  • Determine eligibility for Hilton Ascend credit card with 100k bonus (having previously opened and closed a Surpass card)
  • Transfer points from Amex MR (typically a very poor value)

Notes:

  • Goal redemption of 0.7cpp or greater (meaning paid stays get 21%+ back in points)
  • 5th night free on award bookings (use to maximize point value)
  • Free breakfast at many properties thanks to Gold status
  • Reward nights count towards elite status

Hyatt (World of Hyatt)

  • Current Points: 96,000 (worth 3-19 nights)
  • Current Free Nights: 2 (from Hyatt credit card annual bonuses)
  • Current Status: Discoverist (thanks to the Hyatt credit card)

Bonuses for reaching a certain number of nights

  • 30 nights = Explorist status + free night
  • 60 nights = Globalist status + free night
  • 70/80/90/100 nights = 10k bonus

Earning on Paid Nights

  • 5.5 per $1 for Discoverist Status
  • 6 per $1 for Explorist Status
  • 6.5 per $1 for Globalist Status
  • +3 per $1 with Hyatt credit card (CSR would be better for flexibility at 3x UR)
  • +Any current promotions

Potential Moves

  • Transfer points from Chase UR

Notes:

  • Goal redemption of 2cpp or greater (meaning paid stays get 17%+ back in points)
  • Stay at 5 different Hyatt brands for a free night
  • Reward nights count towards elite status

IHG (IHG Rewards Club)

  • Current Points: 86,000 (worth 2-17 nights)
  • Current Free Nights: 2 (from IHG credit card annual bonuses)
  • Current Status: Platinum Elite (thanks to the IHG credit card)

Bonuses for reaching a certain number of nights

  • 75 nights – Spire Elite Status + 25k bonus

Earning on Paid Nights

  • 15 per $1 for Platinum Elite Status (half for Staybridge/Candlewood)
  • 20 per $1 for Spire Elite Status (half for Staybridge/Candlewood)
  • +5 per $1 with IHG credit card (CSR at 3x UR would be better)
  • +Any current promotions

Potential Moves

  • Cancel and re-open IHG credit card(s) for 60k+ signup bonus

Notes:

  • Goal redemption of 0.7cpp (meaning paid stays get 14%+ back in points)
  • Reward nights count towards elite status
  • Utilize quarterly Pointsbreaks hotels at 5k/night

SPG* (Starwood Preferred Guest)

  • Current Points: 29,000 (worth 1-14 nights)
  • Current Status: Gold (thanks to the Amex Platinum card)

Bonuses for reaching a certain number of nights

  • 50 nights – Platinum Status + 1 free night
  • 75 nights – 4 points per $1 spent instead of 3
  • 100 nights – Ambassador service?

Earning on Paid Nights

  • 3 per $1 for Gold Status
  • 4 per $1 for Platinum Status with 75+ nights
  • +2 per $1 with the SPG credit card (CSR may be better at 3x UR)
  • +Any current promotions

 

Potential Moves

  • Transfer from Amex MR (may be valuable for out-sized redemptions)

Notes:

  • Goal redemption of 2.5cpp (meaning paid stays get 12.5%+ back in points)
  • 5th night free on most award stays (use to maximize point value)
  • Reward nights count towards elite status

*This section pretty much applies to Marriott as well, but some specific details vary

Everything Else

I didn’t break down other lesser known chains such as Choice or Wyndham because I don’t anticipate spending many nights there, but maybe I’ll be surprised!  It is worth noting that we recently opened a Wyndham credit card for 3 free nights, so we’ll at least redeem those over the next year.

More tricks we will use to save money on our Gap Year lodging:

  • Buying discounted gift cards for Hotels.com, Airbnb, and more
  • Booking paid stays through shopping portals like Ebates and TopCashBack to get 1-10% additional cash back

Overall, we’re already set up with dozens of free hotel nights thanks to our current point and free night stash, but I imagine we’ll be earning several more along the way.  I’m not sure if we’ll try to focus on a specific brand or two to max out the elite status and bonus night benefits or we’ll bounce around across all of them equally.  Should be an interesting optimization problem either way and I plan to share our specific spending during the trip regularly here on Money Metagame.

Did I miss any big opportunities to save money on our trip?  How much do you think we’ll end up spending on lodging as we make our way across the country over the course of a year?

Let me know in the comments below!


30 thoughts on “Gap Year Planning: Travel Hacking A Year Of Hotel Stays

    1. A mystery indeed! I imagine which ones we choose will be very region dependent, but the nature of our slow travel means we’ll have a lot of flexibility on where to stay and for how long.

      Stay tuned for monthly updates!

    1. I’ve attempted that in the past, but they only seem to match SPG Platinum to Hilton Diamond these days, IHG Platinum is just too easy to get.

      I think there’s a good chance we pick up the new Aspire card soon, so that will cover Diamond status for us to start the trip.

    1. That’s a great idea! Even though neither of us is eligible for the signup bonus right now, the 4th night free benefit could more than make up for the annual fee. I’ll be looking further into this soon, thanks for the suggestion.

      1. In addition to the 4th Night Free, the annual airline credit (x2, since it can be used each calendar year) pays for the AF itself. If you ever got the Citigold checking account, the AF is only $350 – I had/canceled the Citigold 2 years ago and they still only charge me 350 each year for the Prestige!

        1. I had the Citi Prestige a couple years ago and did the same Citigold account bonus, so it was $350 for me as well, but I ended up canceling it because we never used the benefit(s). Even without the signup bonus, we should get WELL more than $450 of hotel credits (plus the airline credit you mentioned).

          Needless to say, I applied and was instantly approved for the card! I predict we’ll be staying 4 nights at a lot of locations on our trip.

  1. If you’re going to have a lot of stays at SPG hotels, I’d consider doing a status challenge for Platinum.

    I’ve really been enjoying your Gap Year Planning posts. My wife and I have been considering taking a similar sabbatical when she finishes grad school. I appreciate you sharing your journey. Look forward to you reading your future posts!

    1. Nice idea! I found the page here and it’s looks like we’re eligible:
      https://www.spgpromos.com/statuschallenge/

      18 nights in 3 months should be simple enough, so I’ll probably register right before our first SPG stay. Gold to Diamond doesn’t seem like a big benefit jump, but I’m sure upgrades are easier. We already have club access at Sheraton’s thanks to the SPG Biz card, but expanding that to other properties could be nice.

      Thanks for the suggestion!

      1. I think you mean SPG Gold to Platinum. It is a pretty big jump in benefits in my opinion since you can get suite upgrades and free breakfast at every SPG hotel, which can save quite a bit of money.

        1. I missed the free breakfast perk which definitely adds some value, but I just don’t put any weight on the suite upgrades. They’re awesome when they happen, but I’d never pay money to upgrade to a suite (at least while it’s just the 2 of us) so it’s hard to put a “value” on it.

          (And yes, I did mean Platinum!)

  2. I don’t know if your blog posts have gone into much detail regarding where you will be traveling, or do you even know!? But depending on where you spend time, you will find some pretty nice hotels at cheap cash rates, as well as low point redemption amounts. Especially if you are going to spend a while in Asia, Africa or other developing countries. That is to stay you can certainly stretch your points, and qualify for specific quarterly hotel promotions.
    Drew from travelisfree has a great tool that can help you get a general idea of where in the world some of the cheaper hotels are, though it hasn’t been updated in a little over a year. http://travelisfree.com/complete-maps/#complete-maps

    Would love to hear more about where you guys are planning on going!

    1. We’ll mostly be road-tripping around the US, but might make it overseas for at least part of the adventure later on (TBD). I’ll certainly be referencing Travel is Free’s great resources as we travel around in addition to my usual points check using AwardMapper.

      Within the US, we’ll start down the coast through California, hit some national parks and big cities, then make our way over to Texas for a wedding we’ll be attending in March. After that is totally open!

  3. I don’t travel in the U.S. much, but when I do I get a lot of value out of the Hyatt House/Place hotels and the lower-level Hilton properties (http://travelisfree.com/2014/08/01/best-hilton-category-1-2-hotels/). With your stash of points you could string together an extensive list of mid-level stays while still splurging (e.g. using your free night certs) at some of the upper-tier locations.

    Will you be getting any of the new Amex Hilton cards?

    1. We’ve also gotten a lot of value out of Hyatt Place/House in the past and will be looking out for them on our trips. Same thing for Holiday Inn’s that also typically have free breakfast which will save us some money on food as well.

      Using the free nights in the bigger cities will probably be the way to go while we stretch out points out (or just pay cash) in the smaller towns.

      I already applied for the Hilton Aspire card soon after publishing this post and there’s a good chance that I’ll get the Business Hilton card as well in the next couple of months. I think 100k Hilton points can stretch pretty far if we’re smart.

  4. Hyatt Place hotels are typically in the category 1 or 2 tiers and come with an amazing hot breakfast. Great way to fill up before the next journey! Maybe consider couch surfing??? Never done that personally, I’d imagine it’s still a thing!

    1. Agreed that Hyatt places the breakfast can be nice.

      Regarding couch surfing, I think this would be a little more difficult as a couple. Though I’ve often strategically traveled where I’ve had friends to be the beneficiary of having a local guide and maybe having a free place to stay.

      1. Agreed! We love the free breakfasts you can get the Hyatt Place/House propertites and we’ve also had good luck at most Holiday Inn Expresses as well. Depending on the hours of breakfast, we can often have a big free meal to start off our day and be good until dinner.

        Couch surfing is still going strong across the globe, but I don’t think we’re going to try it out on this trip. We will have the benefit of knowing friends and family at several cities across the country to show us around (and possibly offer a place to stay), so we’ll see how that goes.

  5. Have you registered for the IHG’s Accelerate promotion? You could earn bonus points with paid stays that could be used for future stays. Last quarter, I got about 90,000 points after 22 nights. This quarter, they’re giving me 50,000 points after 11 nights.

    1. We have! Both of us were targeted for ~45k points after just 5 nights, so assuming we spend 10 nights in IHG properties before the end of April they should be very lucrative visits.

      Thanks for the idea

    1. Thanks for the reminder Emilie. For the most part we’ll probably book through the hotel’s website directly for the chains mentioned above because the elite benefits/earning should be worth 12-20% back for us versus the ~10% offered by hotels.com.

      For non-chain brands, we’ll certainly check the different OTAs including hotels.com to get the best deal.

  6. As someone who is only now dipping a toe into travel rewards (and has only ever redeemed points for airline travel) this was a fascinating breakdown. Do you plan to calculate the cost of having a kitchen (most Airbnb options) into this analysis as well? I know that having the ability to cook full meals (and have a full size fridge) has saved us considerable money when traveling.

    1. Hey Angela,

      The food question is an interesting one that we’re really not sure on yet. We’ll probably do a decent amount of eating out and packing food that doesn’t require heating up for the road and wherever we might be, but I’m not sure we’ll be in any place long enough to justify having a full sized fridge full of stuff.

      We will be bringing a single burner camping stove with us plus a pot/pan and the necessary utensils to do a little cooking on the road, so we might be able to get away without a kitchen at all and still benefit from cooking ourselves!

      I do plan to check out Airbnb’s on the road and compare them to hotel prices, but in the past it hasn’t made sense for just the 2 of us to book a place. This equation of course flips as the family or group gets bigger.

      Stay tuned to find out what we end up doing! Even we only have a rough idea at this point 🙂

  7. If you have an AMEX Schwab Platinum, you can buy Airbnb GCs from United MPX and earn 5x MR + 2 United miles. For $100 Airbnb, 500 MR will convert to $6.25 deposit to your Schwab brokerage account. 200 United miles are worth about $3. That’s equivalent of 9% discount on Airbnb.

    1. Thanks for the heads up, that’s a decent stack if we aren’t able to find any discounted gift cards directly (don’t 20% off Airbnb cards pop up occasionally?).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *