How I’m using points to fund a (mostly) free vacation to Croatia this summer

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When my best friend and I moved to different cities last year, we made a promise to take a girls trip each year.

Ever since, we’ve been brainstorming (and occasionally arguing) about the best destination for our inaugural trip. After many months of research, bugging friends for advice and scouring the internet (mainly Pinterest and Reddit) for inspiration, we decided on taking a week and a half trip to Croatia this summer.

Why Croatia? We were both drawn in by the prospect of great architecture, spectacular beaches and wonderful food and wine all in one place. I also happen to be a huge Game of Thrones fan, so I am excited to see some of the iconic filming destinations from the HBO show.

We are both budget travelers, and this could potentially be a more expensive trip than we’re used to taking. Some people plan a year-or-more ahead for a vacation they intend to fund with points, but it doesn’t always have to be the case. Playing the points and miles game is the only way we can really afford this trip, and this is our step-by-step process for making it happen.

Choosing the right destination for your budget

It’s important to set realistic goals about where you can travel, especially if you’re trying to fund it with points and miles in a short amount of time.

Croatia is expensive to get to, but it offers a lot of budget-friendly activities and cheap accommodations. Plus, this absolutely beautiful Mediterranean getaway spot continues to grow in popularity (and price). Going now could be cheaper than trying to go in a few years.

I’ve also been racking up points on my travel credit card – the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card – for almost a full year. Between the sign-up bonus and 2x points on travel and dining (easily two of my largest spending categories), I’ve accrued a wealth of points that put a destination like Croatia within reach.

Tips for your own trip:

When looking for destinations, don’t always think in terms of top tourist destinations. My advice is to decide what kind of vacation you want to take and look at budget-friendly locations from there.

Hoping to spend time relaxing on the beach? Hawaii or the Maldives may be your first instinct, but Costa Rica and Thailand are also home to breathtaking beaches without quite the same tourist price tag.

It also helps to be a little flexible. If you aren’t the type who needs to have every detail planned out (unlike myself), you could find a great deal by setting up deal alerts from sites like The Points Guy or Expedia to help you keep an eye on potential cheap flights to great destinations.

Racking up points and miles

As someone just digging into the travel rewards game, I’m a fan of simple and straightforward rewards. That’s why I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card last summer. I use it for the vast majority of my purchases because it’s earning structure easily fits into my lifestyle. Aside from bills, my biggest spending categories are dining and travel — the CSP offers 2x points on both. After hitting the $4,000 minimum spend requirement in the first three months, I also got 50,000 bonus points.

Now, I have over 75,000 points saved up to use on this trip. Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned with my Chase Sapphire Preferred are worth 1.25 cents a pop when I book through Chase’s travel portal, so those points are worth over $930.

For this trip, it makes the most sense for me to use these points to book award flights to Croatia. The most expensive aspect of this trip is going to be getting to Europe and back, and I can use my points to almost fully pay for that round-trip ticket.

Tips for your own trip:

If you’re looking to rack up a lot of points in a short amount of time, a travel credit card with a stellar sign-up bonus might be your best bet. Many top cards offer between 35,000 and 100,000 points or miles to those who hit the minimum spend requirements (typically $3,000 to $5,000 in purchases within the first three months). For cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, that sign-up bonus alone could fund an international round-trip ticket.

Many top travel credit cards also allow you to transfer points and miles over to airline or hotel loyalty programs, and many frequent flyers use this method to fund flight upgrades. Peter Lombard, CEO and Founder of Globe Guides, says you can get more bang for your buck this way.

“My favorite way to use miles (granted I accumulate more than average) is to upgrade using miles,” Lombard explains. “I can buy [an economy] ticket to New Zealand or Asia for as little as $600 and then upgrade using miles for a ticket that would be $8,000.”

Booking your accommodations: Hotels vs Airbnb

I like Airbnb-type accommodation services when I plan to stay longer than a couple of days — partly because I enjoy the privacy of staying in a home/apartment over a hotel, and partly because I love to cook (and hotel suites don’t typically come with a full kitchen).

For this Croatia trip, my friend and I are staying in Airbnbs for those reasons and the simple fact that it’s cheaper. We were able to find beautiful villas and apartments in all of the cities we want to visit at a great price.

Screenshot of Croatia Airbnb search results

While I won’t be able to use points to directly book and pay for our Airbnb rentals, it’s still a better deal. I’ll still earn 2x points on the stay by paying with my CSP, which I can use on other trips in the future. However, this strategy might not be the best for someone with elite status with a certain hotel brand or for someone whose credit card doesn’t include Airbnb rentals as part of their travel category.

Tips for your own trip:

Staying in Airbnbs or similar accommodations isn’t necessarily for everyone. If you’re traveling alone or to a risky destination, you might like the security of a hotel. If you’re only staying for one or two nights, you might not meet minimum night stay requirements for the Airbnb you want.

Plus, depending on where you’re traveling, it could be better for your budget to book a hotel — especially if you are a member of a hotel’s loyalty program like Marriott Bonvoy or World of Hyatt. The Chase Sapphire Preferred allows you to transfer points to both of these programs at a 1:1 ratio, which is a great value. If you are an active member of either hotel loyalty program, you might find a better deal staying at one of their properties.

Which type of accommodation you should book really boils down to what type of traveler you are. Lombard, for example, would rather stay at a hotel when he travels while his sister enjoys staying in Airbnb-type setups.

“I like a hotel because it has breakfast prepared,” he says. “I don’t have to arrive between 5:37 and 5:52 in the afternoon in order to get my keys, and there is a concierge that can tell me all the best places to eat. My sister prefers the others.”

Is trip insurance worth it?

The short answer? Absolutely.

Flights get delayed, emergencies come up, life happens. While most vacations might go off without a hitch, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

This is another area where choosing the right credit card is essential. My Chase Sapphire Preferred comes with trip cancellation insurance, trip interruption insurance, trip delay insurance, baggage delay insurance, lost luggage insurance and primary auto rental insurance. Other popular travel cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Capital One Venture have similar coverage options.

I’ve yet to use these trip insurances, but I can’t even count how many friends, family members and colleagues have saved hundreds and even thousands of dollars because of the trip insurances that their credit cards offer.

The bottom line

Traveling is expensive, but points and miles can make amazing trips doable. With a little extra research (and a lot of patience), you can book a great vacation without having to shell out thousands of dollars on flights and accommodations.

Soon, we will be booking our flights, accommodations and planning out our itinerary. Stay updated on exactly how I use my CSP to book flights and plan out the specifics of our trip by following Bankrate on Twitter!

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