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Can I get a free honeymoon with hotel rewards?

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

January 27, 2014

QDear Eva,

Is it realistic to get three nights free at a hotel in Hawaii using a hotel rewards credit card? My honeymoon will be in November of this year, and I figure I need to plan ahead. How can I make it happen? – Miranda

AHi Miranda,

Congratulations on your upcoming marriage! November is the perfect time to escape on a honeymoon in Hawaii.

While it is possible to get a free hotel stay in Hawaii courtesy of a hotel rewards card, you will need plenty of lead time. It takes time to apply for and receive the rewards card, accumulate rewards earnings and book the room early enough to get the rewards package you want, at the time you want. Starting a year ahead would be preferable, but you should still be able to swing it if you get started now.Ask Eva

These tips will help you get you started.

1. Compare sign-up bonuses. The key to jump-starting your honeymoon rewards cache is a sign-up bonus. Many hotel rewards cards offer them for new customers, either in the form of a free night or bonus points.

To make your life easier, select a card that gives the sign-up bonus in free nights and not points, as it can be tricky to find out what you're actually getting with points. Keep in mind, though, that the free-night bonus may be limited to the lower tiers the hotel chain offers. For example, although the Marriott Rewards Premier card gives you a free night upon account approval, it's only good at a hotel in category 1 to 4. You won't find any Marriott hotels in Hawaii below a category 5.


2. Look for cards with a small spending requirement. Most sign-up bonuses come with a minimum spending requirement, which can run from $1,000 to as high as $5,000. Pick a card with a relatively low spending requirement so you're not tempted to spend money that you wouldn't otherwise.

For example, the Hyatt Gold Passport from Chase will give you two free bonus nights at Hyatt properties worldwide if you spend $1,000 within the first three months after account opening.  There's an annual fee of $75, waived the first year.

3. Check hotel availability. Once you've narrowed your choices, make sure the hotel chain affiliated with the rewards card has a good assortment of hotels available in Hawaii. Not all do.

4. Mix and match. Whichever hotel rewards card you pick, the sign-up bonus will likely give you two free nights at most. How do you get the extra night? You could try to accumulate enough points for it in the next 10 months. That could be tricky, though, considering hotels in Hawaii don't come cheap.

If you went with the Hyatt card, for example, you'd need 20,000 points for a category 5 hotel (the lowest tier the chain offers in Hawaii). Although you'll earn 3 points per dollar at Hyatt properties and 2 points per dollar spent on air travel and at restaurants, most spending earns you just 1 point per dollar. That means you'll need to figure out a way to spend about $20,000 on your card between now and November.

To get around that, you and your fiance could each apply for a hotel rewards card and combine your free nights. Another option: Look for a generic travel rewards card to get the extra earnings you need.

For example, the Capital One Venture card ($59 annual fee, waived the first year), comes with a sign-up bonus of 20,000 miles after you spend $2,000 within the first three months. You earn 2 miles per dollar spent, so you'll have 24,000 miles on the card after three months, worth $240 in travel redemptions (if you meet the $2,000 spending requirement). After that, if you spend $5,000 on the card before your honeymoon, that gives you 34,000 miles, worth $340 in travel expenses. Based on a quick online search, that may be enough for free standard room in a hotel in Hawaii. Consider putting some of your wedding expenses (but only the ones you've already budgeted for) on the card to maximize your points.

The benefit of general-purpose travel cards such as the Venture is that they give you greater flexibility in redemption. Simply use the card to get a refund after you charge any travel-related purchase on the card — such as an extra hotel night in Hawaii, or car rentals and flight down the road.

As you see, with a bit of juggling, you can swing those three free nights. Before you apply for a card, though, consider the risks. First make sure the credit line and the incentive to spend to get more rewards won't lead you to charge more than you can pay back in full each month. Interest charges will cancel out the worth of your rewards, meaning you won't really be getting those hotel nights “for free.”

Second, consider the effect on your credit score. If you apply for several credit cards, it will lower your credit score. The effect is usually fairly small and short-lived , but it's something to take into account, especially if you're shopping for a mortgage or car loan. Also, carrying high credit card balances on those cards will affect your credit utilization(the amount of credit you're using, compared to how much you have), which makes up 30 percent of your FICO score. That can be easy to lose track of when you're racking up rewards — and paying for a wedding.

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