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I haven’t stayed in a hotel in over a year — here’s how I’m using all the credit card points and free night certificates I’ve saved up

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  • I didn’t travel during the pandemic but I earned hundreds of thousands of points with credit cards.
  • I’ll use these rewards for nice hotel stays in the US and abroad now that I’m fully vaccinated.
  • I’ll stay for free in California, Yellowstone, and Mexico in rooms that go for $1,000 per night or more. 
  • Read Insider’s guide to the best rewards credit cards.

I’m a hotel person, through and through. While some people are all about using their credit card points for business- and first-class flights to ease the transit experience, for me, it’s all about where I’m staying once I reach my destination. I love studying the differences in the way hotels design their interiors, curate their menus, and fashion their customer experiences, and you’ll constantly find me researching new properties, even though my “to-stay” list is already a mile long.

But while many of my friends and family members stayed at hotels throughout 2020, I knew I wanted to wait — not just until things were safer from a COVID perspective, but also until I felt I could get the full experience from a property without pandemic-related closures and restrictions.

Read more: I haven’t paid for a hotel room in 10 years — here’s how I stay for free

Now that those restrictions are beginning to relax and I’m fully vaccinated, though, I’m making up for lost time. My hotel credit cards each come with free night certificates that I’m excited to finally put to good use, and the points I’ve saved up during the pandemic are burning a hole in my pocket.

Here’s a look at my latest redemptions and how I earned the points to make them happen.

Bay Area and Napa

Regular APR

15.74% to 24.74% variable APR

Credit Score

Good to Excellent

Featured Reward

Earn 75,000 Marriott Bonvoy bonus points after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months, plus up to $200 in Statement Credits for eligible purchases at U.S. Restaurants within the first 6 months of Card Membership

Chevron iconIt indicates an expandable section or menu, or sometimes previous / next navigation options.

  • Pros & Cons
  • Details

  • Pros
    • Annual statement credits can save you money on Marriott stays
    • You get a free reward night each year after your account anniversary
    Cons
    • High annual fee
    • Other cards are more rewarding for earning points on your spending
    • Earn 75,000 Marriott Bonvoy bonus points after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. Plus, earn up to $200 in Statement Credits for eligible purchases at U.S. Restaurants within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
    • Enjoy up to $300 in statement credits each year of Card Membership for eligible purchases at participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels.
    • Earn 6 Marriott Bonvoy points for each dollar of eligible purchases at participating Marriott Bonvoy Hotels. 3 points at U.S. restaurants and on flights booked directly with airlines. 2 points on all other eligible purchases.
    • Receive 1 free Night Award every year after your Card account anniversary. Award can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy Points) at a participating hotel. Certain hotels have resort fees.
    • Enjoy unlimited airport lounge visits when you enroll in Priority Pass™ Select membership.
    • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
    • $450 Annual Fee.
    • Terms Apply.


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    One of my first travel objectives post-vaccination was finding a place I could get my family together after way too much time apart. We settled on the Bay Area and Napa — particularly, the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay, part of Marriott Bonvoy’s portfolio, and Alila Napa, which is bookable with World of Hyatt points.

    For the Ritz stay, I used 70,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night, which I earned with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card. Though I normally only use the card on Marriott stays and on-property charges, Marriott offered some temporary incentives during the pandemic that pushed the card to the front of my wallet —particularly, a 6x points per dollar bonus on Amazon purchases (no longer available).

    Read more: The best Marriott credit cards

    The result? Savings of about $1,200 per night.

    World of Hyatt, meanwhile, is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, of which I racked up close to 200,000 during my time at home. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® got a workout thanks to its 3x points per dollar on dining, including takeout and delivery. And I spent heavily on my Chase Freedom Unlimited®, which earns at least 1.5x points per dollar on all purchases, making it a great card for retail purchases that don’t usually earn a category bonus.

    Read more: How to earn, redeem, and maximize Chase Ultimate Rewards points

    World of Hyatt’s top-tier awards currently top out at 30,000 points per night, so even though the Alila Napa would have cost about $1,000 per night in cash, we were able to lock in a three-night stay for a super reasonable points tally.

    Yellowstone and Grand Teton

    I’ve had my eye on the just-opened Cloudveil, a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection in Jackson, Wyoming, for nearly a year now, so I was quick to book it as part of a national parks trip this summer. With cash rates sky-high, I again turned to my rewards stash for 70,000 points per night, which saved about $1,000 per night.

    Read more: How to earn, redeem, and maximize Marriott Bonvoy points

    Unfortunately, for our first night, there was no award availability, and for a Friday night at a brand new hotel during what’s projected to be the busiest summer ever for the US National Parks Service, I can understand why. But luckily, I’ll be able to lop $300 off the room rate by paying with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, which offers up a $300 credit annually for purchases at Marriott properties.

    We’ll spend the second portion of the trip in Bozeman, Montana, where I’ve booked two nights at the Kimpton Armory, a hotel that sits under IHG Rewards Club’s umbrella. While I don’t currently have IHG points, I’m considering taking out the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, which is currently offering the opportunity to earn 150,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.

    I’ll be driving from Bozeman home to Portland, Oregon, and that’s where a free night certificate earned through the Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card will come in handy. It’s good for rooms costing 35,000 points for less, which will be enough to secure a night in Spokane, Washington at one of Marriott’s Autograph Collection properties. 

    Read more: The best ways to use a Marriott Bonvoy 35,000-point free night certificate — from upscale beach destinations to luxury international hotels

    Annual Fee

    $89 (waived the first year)

    Regular APR

    15.99% – 22.99% Variable

    Credit Score

    Good to Excellent

    Featured Reward

    150,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening

    Chevron iconIt indicates an expandable section or menu, or sometimes previous / next navigation options.

  • Pros & Cons
  • Details

  • Pros
    • Anniversary reward night can be worth more than the annual fee
    Cons
    • Could offer better rewards on non-IHG purchases
    • Earn 150,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening
    • Enjoy a Reward Night after each account anniversary year at eligible IHG hotels worldwide. Plus, enjoy a reward night when you redeem points for any stay of 4 or more nights
    • Earn up to 25 points total per $1 spent when you stay at an IHG hotel
    • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on purchases at gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants. Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
    • Platinum Elite status as long as you remain a Premier card member
    • Global Entry or TSA Pre✓® Fee Credit of up to $100 every 4 years as reimbursement for the application fee charged to your card
    • IHG Rewards Club Bonus points are redeemable at hotels such as InterContinental®, Crowne Plaza®, Kimpton®, EVEN® Hotels, Indigo® Hotels & Holiday Inn®


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    Mexico

    Until 2020, my tradition over the holidays was to head to Mexico, which is an ultra-pricey time to visit. I nearly always end up redeeming points for five nights at a Hilton property since Hilton Honors members get the fifth night free, and I pair those nights with the free weekend night certificate that comes annually with the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card
    .

    Read more: 5 luxury resorts where you can get great value from the Amex Hilton Aspire free night certificate — plus use up to $250 in credits

    While I didn’t accrue many Hilton points throughout the pandemic — I really only use my Aspire card for Hilton spending, unless a really good deal comes along through Amex Offers — I was already sitting on 383,000 Honors points, which is just a shade more than what I needed to book five nights at the Conrad Punta de Mita at 95,000 apiece (again, with that fifth night free).

    I’ll tack on two Hilton weekend night certificates — one from my card, one from my fiancé’s card —to turn it into a free week-long stay during a time when rooms go for about $1,200 per night.

    Carly Helfand is a points and miles blogger and coach who’s been using points to travel to 52 cities in every calendar year since 2011. She’s also a full-time financial journalist who got her start in the business reporting world while earning her master’s at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. 

    Regular APR

    15.74% to 24.74% variable APR on purchases

    Credit Score

    Good to Excellent

    Featured Reward

    150,000 points after you spend at least $4,000 in your first 3 months of account opening

    Chevron iconIt indicates an expandable section or menu, or sometimes previous / next navigation options.

  • Pros & Cons
  • Details

  • Pros
    • Complimentary top-tier Hilton elite status
    • Get a weekend night reward each year after you renew your card
    • High welcome bonus
    • Valuable annual statement credit for eligible Hilton purchases
    Cons

    • The information related to the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card has been collected by Business Insider and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer.
    • Earn 150,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases on the card within your first 3 months of card membership
    • 14X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases charged on your card directly with a hotel or resort within the Hilton portfolio
    • 7X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases on your Card on flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com, and on car rentals booked directly from select car rental companies
    • 7X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases on your card at U.S. restaurants
    • 3X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for all other eligible purchases on your card


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