Using Credit Card Points for a Free Week in Rome
How To Luxury Travel for Free
As I've mentioned previously on this site, the world of "travel hacking" has exploded. Since the points and miles game was popularized in the early 2010's with blog's like "The Points Guy," to the explosion of YouTube channels dedicated to luxury travel (shoutout to Trek Trendy and Nonstop Dan), aspirational travel has been the name of the game for going on a decade now.
Well, my family is no different. After two years of being largely shut into our homes, it was time to go abroad. To do that, we wanted to seek out the best way to maximize our spending, and our value, in order to spend as little of "our own money" as possible. Here's exactly how we did it.
Picking a Credit Card for Free Travel
For this trip, I did some digging on a card that would allow us to leverage the maximum amount of points, as well as perks, for a blowout travel session. After scanning through the myriad options out there, we needed a card that satisfied a few requirements:
Points could transfer to a travel partner we could actually use
Perks that would provide discounts on booking hotels or experiences
Maximum points earning on our spending, including the sign-up bonus
Identifying Travel Partners for Points Use
We are Atlanta dwellers, which means we're Delta Airlines people. For better or worse, we can go anywhere in the world at a moment's notice thanks to the incredibly extensive network of Delta and their SkyTeam partners around the world. There is, however, a downside: Delta's transfer partners are limited to basically American Express.
I'm already an avid user of the American Express Delta Platinum card thanks to the points multipliers on my major categories (2x points at restaurants and grocery stores, as well as 3x points on Delta travel and hotels), but my standard earnings rates weren't going to get us to a free trip anytime soon. This meant that I had to look to a new card in order to take advantage of the vaunted "sign up bonus."
Finding Sign Up Bonuses on New Cards
The new name of the game in credit cards is the art of the "churn." Credit card issuers offer huge hauls of points or statement credits in order to dangle these incentives in front of possible new customers. It's a marketing tool, but one that is incredibly advantageous to people who want to travel or getting remarkable cash back on purchases they were going to make anyway.
The pandemic saw American credit card usage rates plummet, as non-essential businesses were closed for much of 2020 and travel was basically shut down until late 2021. This means that credit card companies are eager to get new customers through the door, leading to currently inflated sign up bonuses for the cards. This is in addition to the extra card perks that issuers have had to institute in order to attract these new customers.
Leveraging Perks on a Card
To quote the great Michael Scott, "it's not all about the salary. It's about the perks." This is true when it comes to the credit card game. If a card has an annual fee of $250, but you get $20 per month in credits, then the actual effective annual fee is $10, assuming you can take advantage of those credits.
For the purposes of this trip, I didn't need cash back on dining or Uber credits. I needed something tangible that would give me discounts on travel, specifically flights or hotels.
Picking the Right Credit Card
After pouring over blogs, issuer sites and Reddit forums, I was weighing my options between a couple of different cards:
American Express Delta Reserve Card
American Express Gold Card
American Express Marriot Bonvoy Card
American Express Platinum Card
Despite all of these being from the same issuer, they offered wildly different perks, sign up bonuses and spending multipliers. Here's my thought process:
I already have the Delta Platinum Card, so the Delta Reserve was a little duplicative on the spending categories. The competitiveness of this card came from the bonus companion certificate for domestic Delta flights (so my wife can fly for free once per year), as well as the priority upgrade status with Delta (my preferred airline) and the competitive 110,000 Delta Sky Miles sign up bonus (that's no longer available as of time of writing this piece).
The Amex Gold Card was my leader in the clubhouse prior to my research thanks to a sign up bonus of 90,000 Amex points if I spent $3,000 in the first 3 months (offer no longer available). It also has a ridiculous 4x points multiplier on restaurants and grocery shopping, my biggest spending categories.
The Marriott Card was a take it or leave it. I'm not a hotel loyalist, so the sign up bonus of 75,000 Bonvoy points didn't matter much to me.
The American Express Platinum Card made a lot of sense to me. It offered a huge 100,000 Amex points sign up bonus for $6,000 of spending in the first 6 months, and also offered a ton of credits to offset the big annual fee including things like monthly Walmart+ credits, $14 per month refunded on Hulu/Disney+ and $15 to Uber.
Really, the fight was between the American Express Gold and Platinum cards thanks to their big sign up bonuses and relative value of the Amex points ecosystem. But I'd also uncovered one specific perk and a secret that made my decision for me.
Why I Picked The American Express Platinum Card
I landed on opening an account with the American Express Platinum Card. Even with it's earth-shattering $695 annual fee, there were some key advantages to this card that made it more than worth my time.
Fine Hotels + Resorts
I don't usually love making travel arrangements with an online travel agency (OTA) like Expedia, Orbitz, Booking.com, etc. However, American Express Travel is a top-tier solution with pretty good reviews and good value. If you're an American Express Platinum Card or Centurion Card member, however, then there's a bonus perk: the Fine Hotels + Resorts (FHR) program.
FHR is an exclusive hotel booking site through American Express that unlocks carefully curated luxury hotels for discounted prices. It also has the added benefit of awarding 5 Amex points per $1 spent on the platform, as well as a suite of perks that add an incredible amount of value to an FHR booking:
Complimentary room upgrade (when available)
Free breakfast for two each day
Early check-in and late check-out
An "experience credit" which is usually a $100 credit towards food or an on-site spa service
Critically, the Platinum Card also offers a $200 statement credit once a year on FHR or Hotel Collection (the inbred little brother of FHR) once a year.
The Secret Sign Up Bonus with Resy
You know how OpenTable is easy to use but kind of annoying? Imagine if it was much harder to use, had a terrible user interface and a much more limited number of restaurants. That's Resy, and it's owned by American Express. In an attempt to market this donkey-headed circus child of a product, American Express has taken a very interesting tactic: offer exclusive credit card terms via the program.
The weird part? They don't advertise this. Like, at all. It genuinely took me hours of browsing Reddit forums in order to find event a whiff of this, but I'm glad I did!
In a typical sign up bonus for the Amex Platinum, you might find an offer of anywhere from 100,000-125,000 points if you spent $6,000 in the first 6 months. That's a pretty good offer! However, if you go through Resy, you can get 125,000 points after spending the same $6,000 in 6 months, but you also get a truly unbelievable 10x points on restaurant spend (including meal delivery services) for that first 6 month period.
That's fucking crazy. If you use The Points Guy's valuation chart of one Amex point being worth two cents, then a 10x return on restaurants is 20 cents per dollar. You are getting a 20% discount on every meal for 6 months. WHAT.
Planning for the Trip
For the last few years, my wife and I, like everyone else on planet Earth, have been stuck in our general regions thanks to the pandemic. We've taken little domestic trips here and there, but it was time to blow it out and go international. But to where?
Eventually, after some serious research, we landed on Italy, specifically Rome. It's somewhere I've never been, and somewhere my wife visited in high school, so she didn't get to experience the *Italian* lifestyle, if you know what I mean.
Planning on this trip also took place in March, shortly after I had changed jobs and been fortunate enough to secure a massive pay increase (for more on that, check out my piece on how I doubled my income in one year).
Related: How I Doubled My Income In One Year
This timing and planning gave us plenty of time to weigh our options when it came to flights, calculate the points needed and meet the minimum spend to capture the sign up bonus on the new credit card. And sure enough, after 6 months of spending at restaurants and general living (and a fuck load of inflation making everything way more expensive), we were able to land on 75,000 Delta Sky Miles and 175,000 Amex points. Time to get to work.
Booking the Trip
Flying During Staffing Shortages and Inflation
First, we had to decide on when we'd actually take the trip. We did some more digging around and found that November in Rome is the cheapest, quietest time of year to travel, so we'd found our date range. We also know that Mondays and Tuesdays are the cheapest days of the week to travel, so we keyed in on a Monday-Monday trip to Italy to maximize our value.
Thanks to the aforementioned inflation issue, airline prices are out of control at the moment. A combination of unprecedented pent-up demand, along with sky high oil prices, mean that flying to Europe with cash right now will run you close to $1,500 per ticket, depending on your departure city. While points values didn't quite reflect this massive jump, they've certainly increased to a previously unseen level.
There's also the current issues of labor shortages in airports across Europe. London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol airports are essentially unusable at the moment due to a lack of baggage handlers, leading Amsterdam to refuse check-in luggage, including flights that are only connecting via AMS, leading to thousands of travelers making it to destinations that their bags will never see.
Wanting to avoid this disaster, we ponied up a little extra for the direct flight, costing us a little more than we bargained for. Regardless, we spent 99,000 Delta Sky Miles per ticket, plus $67 in taxes (which were immediately refunded by the Amex Platinum's airline credit annual stipend), giving us a total spend of 199,000 miles and $0 out of pocket costs so far.
Finding a Hotel
Next up: finding the hotel! This is where my section on Amex FHR from earlier comes into play. I know I wanted to get bang-for-buck, which means leveraging my remaining Amex points, the FHR statement credit and the complimentary room upgrade. Well, after playing with dates, pricing, points and reviews, I found the perfect hotel at the perfect price.
Surrounded by the $1,100 per night St. Regis Rome and the $600 per night W Rome, I found the $350 per night, 5-star accommodation of the Baglioni Hotel Regina. A boutique Roman hotel with an aggressively purple motif, this hotel qualified for all of the FHR perks for half the price of the other hotels, all while being centrally located in Rome.
Excitedly, I snagged the last Superior Room at this price point, which was a slightly upgraded room with a king bed (I'm 6'7" so that was a requirement), but there's a reason I upgraded one step: the complimentary FHR upgrade.
If there's a chance that I do get that upgrade from Amex, they only upgrade one hotel room class, meaning they would go from "base" to "slight upgrade." If I paid outright for the "slight upgrade," the complimentary upgrade would be applied to put us in the "significant upgrade" category, and you get to brag to your friends about your big brain.
The cost for all of this? I snagged 6 nights at the hotel for $350 per night all-in, giving me a total of $2,100. However, I was also able to apply the $200 statement credit and the remainder of my points to this booking, saving me $700 on the booking. This gives me a grand total of $1,400 for 6 nights in a five-star hotel with upgrades. Fuck yeah.
My Total Cost for a Week In Italy
OK, that was a lot. Believe me, if you think reading all of that was a lot, doing the research was above and beyond. However, it was also definitely worth it. Here is my total out of pocket cost for this trip......
That's it! That's all for two round-trip direct flights to Italy and 6 nights in a 5-star hotel. Turns out that this whole credit card game can be incredibly worth it! If you're interested in learning the tips and the tricks to traveling in luxury for free, use my Contact form to reach out for a consultation!