This past winter we went to San Antonio to avoid the cold weather for a few days. It’s a wonderful city with so much going on that it deserves its own post – something to look forward to. Today, our intent is to explain how to travel for free to San Antonio for four days. You read that right. We got our airfare and hotels for FREE!
It’s not cheap to travel by air over a long weekend. Airfare, hotels, and transportation can add up to some serious coin. We’ve managed to cut out these big expenses using some basic travel hacks. So let’s get started.
Travel for Free – Airfare
Airfare tends to be our single biggest expense on most short trips. With the cost of airfare dropping recently, it is now essentially tied with lodging as our biggest expense. Keep in mind that since we are a traveling couple, we share a hotel room which makes lodging cheaper on a per person basis. For the solo traveler, lodging will almost always be the biggest expense.
Since we were flying domestic out of St. Louis, one of Southwest Airline’s focus cities, it made sense to book on them. While the free checked bags are a huge perk, we rarely use this benefit domestically, opting instead to carry everything in our backpacks that we bring as a carry-on. Check out our post, Best Travel Tips for Packing Light, Tight, & Saving Money, for great tips on how to accomplish that. What we like the most about Southwest is how flexible they are. Things like rebooking to an earlier flight would easily cost almost $100 in rebooking fees per person on pretty much every other airline. On Southwest, there are no rebooking fees. We also appreciate that after we started flying on them regularly, they began sending us free drink coupons in the mail. We’re not talking about sodas and coffee, but rather alcoholic beverages! So we got free drinks. Big deal. You want to know how we got the flight for free.
Southwest currently offers Southwest Rapid Rewards Credit Cards with signup bonuses of 50,000 points each. Angela had signed up for two of the cards (one personal, one business) the year prior, which gave us 100,000 points. We then used those same cards to earn an additional 10,000 points, bringing her total points to 110,000. Why 110,000?
Southwest offers a companion pass for people who accumulate 110,000 points. This pass is good in the year it’s earned and the whole following year. So what does the companion pass do for us? When we purchase a ticket with cash OR points, we get a second ticket for the designated companion with the exact same routing for free. So essentially, we got 100,000 points by signing up for 2 credit cards, and then used those same credit cards to get us the final 10,000 points that brought us to the 110,000 needed for the companion pass. What’s the best way to get those remaining 10,000 points?
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Credit Card requires that you spend $2,000 in a 3 month period to earn the 50,000 bonus points. Since Angela opened two of these cards at the same time, we had to spend $4,000 in 3 months to get all 100,000 bonus points. The credit cards earn 1 point per dollar, or 2 points per dollar on purchases made on Southwest’s website. Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program already gives you 6 points per dollar (Anytime and Business Select fares earn even more) when you buy tickets on their website, and you get 2 additional points per dollar when you use their branded credit card to pay, so that’s 8 points per dollar when spending with Southwest.
We eventually earned 4,000 points, meeting the spending requirements, using the cards on everyday expenses. This left us just 6,000 points short of the 10,000 we needed to qualify for the companion pass. We could have spent $6,000 more on everyday expenses using the credit cards, getting 1 point per dollar, but instead we opted to spend $750 on Southwest tickets using those same credit cards to pay, and getting 8 points per dollar. Either option would give us the remaining 6,000 points that we needed to get to 110,000 points and ultimately, the companion pass. So how many free flights does 110,000 points get you in addition to the companion pass?
Each Rapid Rewards point is worth 1.67 cents, which means those points will get you $1,837 worth of free southwest flights. The real magic is that when combined with the companion pass, which gives you an additional ticket free, you are really getting $3,674 worth of Southwest tickets JUST ON POINTS! Even after you’ve burned through that pile of points and have to pay cash for your tickets again, you will still continue to get your companion’s ticket for free. At that point it’s like buying tickets for half price. Sweet deal, eh? I should point out that each credit card has an annual fee of $99, and you have to pay the first year’s fee up front. We cancelled the cards before the second year since you still get to keep the points and the companion pass even when cancelling the credit cards.
So there’s the secret to the free flights. We simply used a fraction of the points that we had accumulated qualifying for the companion pass the previous year to get our airfare to San Antonio for free.
Travel for Free – Hotel
If you’ve read previous posts on this website, you probably think we’re going to suggest truck camping in a parking lot to get free lodging. Maybe if we were on a road trip! Seriously though, we stayed in a Holiday Inn for free. Again, we managed this through the use of points and credit cards. We are currently fans of the IHG (Intercontinental Hotel Group) loyalty program, which has Intercontinental, Hualuxe, Crown Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Even Hotels, Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites in its portfolio of properties. IHG offers frequent, generous promotions for points and we’ve enjoyed using them as our first hotel loyalty program.
The IHG Rewards Club credit card gives 60,000 points, waives the $49 annual fee for the first year and, if you keep the card after that first year, offers a free night at ANY of their properties every year on your membership anniversary. This even includes their Bora Bora Intercontinental property. The free room annually is easily worth the $49 annual fee, so this is one card we intend to keep. This card requires that you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months to qualify for the 60,000 bonus points. There are other perks to this card, such as no foreign transaction fees, 5 additional IHG points per dollar when using the card to stay at IHG properties and automatic Platinum status with IHG, which provides the possibility of free room upgrades (depends on availability, but we’ve been upgraded almost every stay).
The Holiday Inn we chose was close to the Riverwalk and was 15,000 points per night. We stayed 4 nights and used all of the promotion points from one of the cards. IHG gives you 10% of the points you redeem back as a perk, so we received 6,000 points after using the 60,000 points for the hotel stay. They’ve had many different promotions going on throughout the year, so it’s been pretty easy to build up a significant amount of points simply by booking some stays at their properties during these promotion periods. These are hotel stays we would have booked anyhow, although the promotions motivated us to book them through IHG instead of using our default booking websites: VRBO, Hotels.com, Booking.com and Airbnb (this link gives our friends $25 towards their first Airbnb stay after signing up).
We didn’t get transportation for free, but we were close! Since we just had our backpacks, it was an easy decision to use the city bus for $1.20 per person each way, which went directly from the airport to downtown and within walking distance of our hotel. We walked all over the city on foot and used the San Antonio Bicycle service to have breakfast at the Guenther House, a drink at the Blue Star Brewing Company and to get to the many Missions along the bike path on the San Antonio River. The 24 hour bicycle service was $10 a day per bike. For those keeping track, this put our total transportation costs at $24.80 during the 4 days that we were in San Antonio.
A Word of Caution Concerning Credit Cards
While we say that we received our airfare and hotels for free, please keep in mind that we had to spend money on our credit cards to get the points required for the free flights and hotel stays. These are expenses that we would have had whether we paid by cash or credit card, which is why we consider these perks to be free. We do not change our spending habits to meet the qualifying spend for points of any kind. We also pay our credit card balance in full each month, as the cost of interest would negate any benefit the points provide. Please keep this in mind when considering whether any of these credit card strategies could be a good fit for you.