Doesn't everybody dream of something? Maybe it's a new car or a bigger house. Or maybe you're an animal lover and want a luxurious two-story condo for your pet armadillo, Sherman. Whatever the goal, if you can dream it, you can find a creative way to acquire it on the cheap.
What's the brass ring here in the Beyers household? To paraphrase a pugnacious feline now making his big screen debut thanks to 20th Century Fox studios: Big, fat, hairy vacations.
Perhaps you wouldn't put vacations in the same class as upgrading your house or buying a car. But why not? A recent survey from Roper Reports said Americans are going farther and spending more this year than in 2003.
So if you're among the 11% Roper says is considering Hawaii, then AAA estimates that you'll need $497 a day for you, your spouse, and two children to bunk up and grab a bite at McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) . That's $3,500 a week before you get to Hilo Hattie's for chocolate-covered macadamias and a few printed silk shirts.
Maybe you're one of the few Americans with $3,500 lying around. Great. Stop reading and immediately sign up for one of our investing newsletters to put that excess moola to work. Conversely, if you're deep in debt, check out our Credit Cards discussion board and consider pitching a tent in your backyard for your summer getaway.
But if you're like me, an average Fool with some disposable income, practically no debts, and big vacation ideas, then follow along. The five steps to vacationing Foolishly follow.
TIP #1: Treat miles and points as income
Just as dividends allow you to get paid to invest, credit cards and special vendor deals allow you to get paid to spend. So if vacations are your preference, your credit cards can help you pay for them by giving you points or cash back -- so long as you pay your cards off each month, that is.
Take our latest trip, a 12-day adventure to Africa and Europe, for example. When we first started planning last spring, we knew that we'd spend roughly five days of our trip on trans-Atlantic flights. While the LBYMer in me said spending that time in coach would be fine, my back, and my wife, argued for first class. (Guess who won.)
This was a complex trip, and United miles wouldn't work. So we used Membership Rewards points, which we pile up monthly through our American Express (NYSE: AXP ) card, which we pay off each month. We participate in Membership Rewards because, like Citigroup's (NYSE: C ) Diner's Club or MBNA's (NYSE: KRB ) Motley Fool Visa card, it features a huge number of airline and hotel options. That would become crucial as we booked the trip for what I estimate to be at least one-fifth of the full fare.
TIP #2: Learn the transfer game
The best way to get the most from your miles is to learn to benefit from transfers. For example, nearly all of the major hotel programs, from Hilton (NYSE: HLT ) to Marriott (NYSE: MAR ) to Starwood (NYSE: HOT ) , allow you to move points earned through them to airline or rental car partners. Let's return to our most recent trip example.
With nowhere near enough United miles to get from the U.S. to Europe, we had to go shopping for other airlines to haul us overseas. Thankfully, both Hilton and Membership Rewards have transfer deals with Virgin Atlantic Airways. A combination of points dumped into a newly minted Virgin account got us a first-class ride to Africa and back to the States, even though we hadn't stepped foot on a Virgin airliner before. Ever.
Of course, we'd have to spend some moola to get to Europe, but here United was helpful. We booked lower fare seats on Lufthansa from Africa to the Continent and then upgraded them using United miles, due to Lufthansa's participation in United's Star Alliance. Mix in a pair of affordable one-way short-hop plane rides and some time on the train, and we were well on our way. Now if only we could find a place to stay.
TIP #3: Book and pay in advance
Can you get free first-class accommodations overseas? Absolutely. Sometimes a cash-driven card like our Fool Visa can help here: You book the hotel and use your WorldPoints to get a break on the bill. For us, Hilton's HHonors program proved key, allowing us to use points to bunk up free of charge overnight in London. Where we couldn't get a free room, we found paying in advance to provide big savings. Not only did we beat the dollar's crash against the euro by booking early last year, but we also got rooms at the best available rate.
TIP #4: Track everything
If you're going to be serious about bulking up on points to fund vacations, then you need to track your miles like you track your cash. There are two ways to do this. You could set up a spreadsheet and keep your program statements in a folder and update your totals every six months or so. Or, if you're a committed couch potato, there are online services that can track every program you're in and sniff the Web for deals. I prefer the former because it's free. If you want help, MileageManager is $14.95 per year, and MaxMiles is $29.95 per year. Both appear to be good services.
TIP #5: Start early
Although it may appear so, we didn't accumulate a couple hundred thousand points in a matter of months. In fact, we only take big trips once every five years or so, and with small children, there's no telling when we'll do it again. That lag time allows us to treat big-vacation planning the way Fools often suggest you treat retirement planning: We envision what we want, create a price tag, and save up the points needed by piling the majority of our expenses into the cards that pay us best. The savings we've experienced on some amazing trips over the years has made for ample rewards.
Now that we're parents, we've opened frequent-flier accounts for our kids to go with their 529 plans. Why? Simple: I'd prefer to have United or some other airline fund the European backpacking trips my children will want to take 15 years from now.
Where are the deals?
Convinced? Ready to start treating miles like cash and dig for deals? Great! Your favorite airline's website is probably the place to start, followed closely by a site called WebFlyer, which records bonus-mile deals for just about everything under the sun. Of course, there's always Priceline.com (Nasdaq: PCLN ) and InterActiveCorp's (Nasdaq: IACI ) Hotwire, offering travel deals to even the procrastinator.
As we close, it may be time for a final warning: Using credit cards to boost your mileage-earning efforts is risky and not for everyone. Credit has a sharp edge to it, and interest payments can cut deep. A big vacation that plunges you into debt is anything but Foolish.