My Journey to Financial Independence and Retiring Early

How to Travel Big on a Small Budget

Travel Big on a Small Budget - How to get to Greece and Italy forThis post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission or points if you make a purchase or
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Growing up, my mom always talked about having good credit. You need good credit to do this and that. When I was 18 I got my first credit card, the Citi MTVU credit card that gave points for getting good grades, ha! Then I got a Discover Open Miles credit card. Using these and paying off the monthly balance led me to build a pretty decent credit score while I was in college. The next thing I did with my credit was buying a car with a loan from my credit union. After that….nothing. That is, until I discovered the world of credit card points and how they can afford BIG travel for little money.

What’s the point of having good credit if you don’t use it for anything? I don’t plan on buying a house any time soon, if ever (that’s another story). I don’t plan on financing or leasing another car. So why not use it to travel cheap? Plus, my credit score is better than ever now that I have started opening more credit cards!

Credit Score -

For the record I sign up for about three cards every quarter and never carry a balance.

My first trip with points I took alone and it cost less than $100 thanks to the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card and a Discover mailer that I received. Yes, less than $100 for a 7-day vacation! Flight and hotel (well, hostel) included. That’s when the world really opened up to me. I realized I could go literally anywhere in the world, and still keep my budget. I only wish I had learned about this way of traveling sooner when I had much more free time on my hands and a lot less money. Now I have to fit my travels in with my work schedule and allotted time off, so sometimes I pay a little more for the convenience of things.

Here are the details of my latest trip, where my boyfriend and I spent 10 days in Greece and Italy, with the majority of the flights and hotels paid for with miles and points.

Josh at the Detroit sign in Athens -

Flight from Detroit, MI to Athens, Greece:

  • Cost: 60,000 American Airlines miles, plus $11.20 in taxes and fees (30,000 miles, plus $5.60 each)
  • How Acquired: Thanks to the Citi AAdvantage credit card sign up bonus of 60,000 points.

Icee at the Acropolis in Athens Greece -

2 nights, Intercontinental Athenaeum Athens:

  • Cost: 60,000 IHG points
  • How Acquired: Earlier this year, IHG held a promotion called Priceless Surprises where you could send in a post card and get a “game play” where the minimum prize was 500 points (some were higher). I sent in the maximum of 94 each cards for my boyfriend & myself. I had a hand cramp, but this yielded each of us ~65,000 points for ~$100 in stamps. I’d say it was worth it. We still have a lot left over on his account.

Ferry ride from Athens to Santorini:

  • Cost: 112€ (about $126 or $63 each)

Oia Santorini Greece Panorama -

3 nights, Elite Suites Santorini:

  • Cost: 1564€ or $1749
  • We paid out of pocket for this and it was pricey. We wanted the experience of staying in a luxury hotel directly in Oia, and we didn’t have the points available to do so. I have to say, this hotel was totally worth the price; the staff was amazing and the views were spectacular. Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) has a luxury hotel option in Oia that you can book via points, but it is expensive (even in points terms). However, there are other alternatives, such as AirBnB (referral link) hostels, or other lower cost hotels that you could choose to stay at here.

Private pool at Elite Suites in Oia Santorini Greece -

2 nights, Vedema Resort Megalochori:

  • Cost: 40,000 SPG points
  • How Acquired: Thanks to a sign up bonus of 35,000 points on the SPG credit card from American Express (referral link). Plus, a referral bonus of 5,000 points after a friend signed up.

Within Europe there are a few low cost airlines, sort of like the Spirit Airlines of Europe. We used Ryanair to get from Greece to Rome, Italy fairly cheaply.

Flight from Santorini back to Athens:

  • Cost: 160€ (about $180 or $90 each)

Flight from Athens to Rome:

  • Cost: 64€ (about $72 or $36 each)

Josh and Icee at the Vatican -

2 nights, Hotel Indigo Rome:

  • Cost: 90,000 IHG points, plus 28€ (about $32) local tax
  • How Acquired: IHG Credit Card with an 80,000-point sign up bonus, plus some left over from the Priceless Surprises promotion.

Eating gelato in Rome, Italy -

Flight from Rome, Italy to Detroit, Michigan:

  • 60,000 American Airlines miles, plus $139 in taxes and fees (30,000 miles, plus $69.50 each)
  • How Acquired: Another Citi AAdvantage credit card

So there you have it. Outside of the pricey hotel, our flight/hotel costs were $560 or $280 each. With the pricey hotel, our costs were $2,309 or $1,154 each – still not bad for a 10-day, multi-city vacation, but it could have been better.

I did all credit card sign ups, so if both of us were doing it, it could be even more fruitful! And because we save so much on airfare and hotels, we feel free spend a bit more on fun activities on these trips such as boat tours and scuba diving.

Scuba diving in the Aegean Sea -

How to make your trip cheaper than ours:

  • Don’t stay at a pricey hotel! This was a choice we made that we don’t regret, but it could have been seriously cheaper. Check out this place on AirBnB; about $1000 cheaper for similar accommodations. There are even cheaper places available, too. And if you sign up via my AirBnB referral link, we’ll both receive $35 in travel credit after your first stay.
  • Take a shorter trip. If we had tried to pay for everything using miles/points, our trip would have been 7 days instead of 10 and we would have saved on accommodations, food, transportation, etc.
  • Fly directly to Santorini instead of visiting Athens – it costs the same amount of points. If cities/ruins aren’t your thing and you just want to relax on a beach/explore the island, skip Athens and save $126 on the ferry ride (which made me seasick anyway).
  • Similar to the above, you can skip Rome too. This would save another $252 on the Ryanair flights.
  • Eat street food. Trust me – none of the restaurants compared to the little stands/in & out places we ate at. We ate for at little as 3€ per person for some meals, and those were the tastiest ones.
  • Don’t check bags. While the AAdvantage credit card offers a free checked bag for all passengers on the itinerary, I never use it. I like to travel light, so I only brought a large backpack. Josh, however packed his usual carry on, but by low-cost European airline standards, it’s too big to be a carry on. So we paid to check his bag on the two Ryanair flights. This also could have been avoided since they were checking bags at the gate for free anyway…but I digress. We also don’t like wasting time waiting at a carousel in the airport (we thought we were going to miss our flight to Rome) and sometimes bags get lost (just ask my mom who spent two days in Nairobi with no luggage on our last trip).

What do you think about using points/miles to travel? Have you used them to take a cheap vacation before? Would you like to see more travel posts on The Fire Drill?


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