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As I promised in my last post, I’m now going to outline how I booked a FREE vacation to Hawaii, including two round-trip tickets on American Airlines and a 6 night stay at Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa on Kona (the Big Island). If you, too, have always dreamed of going to Hawaii, but couldn’t afford the $2-3K price tag,  then this post is for you.

Having a hard time deciding which island to visit? Need some inspiration before you pull the trigger and start filling out credit card applications? Go check out the Hawaii Live web cams on the Starwood website to get a preview of the beachfront view from each of the hotels.

Tony and I chose the Big Island (Kona) for our Hawaii destination, because we’re a couple of nature lovers looking for a more rugged, outdoors experience.  I’m especially looking forward to seeing Volcanoes National Park! For more of the “classical” Hawaii scenery, you would probably want to visit Honolulu or Kauai.

Helpful Information Before You Start

Here’s the necessary background information you need to know to pull this off:

  1. Starwood American Express – First off, let me introduce the star player of this whole scheme, the credit card that made all my frugal vacation dreams a reality — the Starwood American Express credit card.  Read my initial post on the Starwood American Express to get better aquainted with Starpoints.  Basically, you get 1 Starpoint for every $1 that you spend on your credit card, and you can cash in your Starpoints for frequent flyer miles and hotel stays.  Right now, American Express is offering a sign-up bonus through July 31st, whereby you earn 30,000 bonus Starpoints when you spend $1,000 within 3 months.  You can sign up for both the personal and business Starwood cards, and receive the 30,000 bonus for both. There is an annual fee of $45 per card, but it is waived the first year. Update: The current offer is 25,000 bonus points when you spend a minimum  of $15,000 in 6 months. The annual fee rose to $65 starting October 14th, 2010, but is still waived the first year. (Contact me and I can refer you via email! Thanks!)
  2. Buying $1 Coins From the US Mint — I know it may be difficult for everyone to reach the minimum spend on their credit cards, especially if you apply for multiple cards at once.  There is actually a way to rack up thousands of points on your credit card without spending any money out of pocket!!  Right now, you can go to the US Mint website and buy $1 coins with your credit card. If you choose standard shipping, the shipping cost will disappear.  When you receive the coins, deposit them in your bank account and pay off your credit card.  Currently, there is a 4-box limit for every 10-day period per household (4 boxes of $250 = $1,000 every 10 days). If you order beyond that, your credit card will not get authorized.
  3. US Mint, cont’d —  Please note: There is a notice on the US Mint website stating “The immediate bank deposit of $1 coins ordered through this program does not result in their introduction into circulation and, therefore, does not comply with the intended purpose of the program.” It is *not* illegal, just “against the intended use” to deposit the coins directly in the bank. If they wanted to, the US Mint could shut down the $1 direct ship coin program at any point. Or start charging for shipping. But they haven’t. Yet. My suggestion is to spread out your deposits among different banks if you can, and try not to bring attention to yourself. There are other ways to get the coins in circulation besides just depositing them in your bank, like using them in vending machines or car washes, paying your taxes, etc. The limits on the US Mint website change all the time, so pay attention. (There used to be no limit on the Native American coins, until Mr. Pickles exploited the program and publically bragged about it!) Also, some banks are more willing to accept the coins than others. Smaller banks have limited space in their vaults, so ask before you lug in several boxes of coins. You might want to follow this thread at FlyerTalk to stay up to date on the US Mint $1 coin program.
  4. Combining Household Starwood Accounts - One of the beautiful things about the Starwood Preferred Guest Program is that you can transfer Starpoints between accounts with members of the same household. This means that so long as you live at the same address, you and your partner/roommate/significant other/etc  can pool your points and book your dream vacation together. In order to do this, you just need:
    1. The Starwood Preferred Guest account number Starpoints are be taken out of.
    2. The Starwood Preferred Guest account number Starpoints are to be put into.
    3. The total number of Starpoints you wish to transfer.
    4. The passwords for both Starwood Preferred Guest accounts.
  5. Transferring Starpoints to Airline Miles – You can redeem Starpoints for frequent flyer miles on a 1:1 ratio for most airlines. Plus, you receive a 5,000 Starpoint bonus each time you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to miles.
  6. American Airlines AAdvantage Miles – When you transfer your Starpoints to frequent flyer miles, you can choose any airlines you want. The best redemption value that I could find for award flights to Hawaii is through American Airlines. From the AA award chart, you can see that it  costs only 17.5K AA miles each way to fly coach during off-peak season. If you’re not an AAdvantage member, you’ll want to sign up here. You can look up available reward flights here.  Just enter the place/dates of your travel and it will tell you how many miles it will cost.
  7. Last-Minute or Peak Season Flights: If you want to fly during peak season, convert your Starpoints to British Airways miles for a 10K miles savings! From this post: American Airlines is now charging 22.5k miles for one-way “peak season” travel to & from Hawaii , which ends in late August. But British Airways charges 17.5k miles each way in economy all year. You can find availability on aa.com for each direction at the 22.5k level {Heather’s note: has to be Booking Code “T”}, then logon to your BA account at the BA.com Executive Club homepage to book with BA miles by typing departure and destination airports. When a message comes up saying “British Airways does not fly all or part of this route”, click on the “Include Partners” button, and partner flight information for AA flights should appear. There are no additional fees (above what AA would charge online) for doing this, and unlike American, there is no 1-21 days out booking fee per ticket. (7-21 days: $50 for 1st ticket, $25 for add’l on same res.; 1-6 days: $100 for 1st ticket, $25 for add’l. on same res.).  See this thread for more details on booking partner award tickets on BA.
  8. Nights & Flights — Starwood has a Nights & Flights option, which is the best value for your Starpoints.  With the Nights & Flights option, you can redeem 70,000 Starpoints and receive 50,000 airline miles and five free nights at a Category 4 hotel or resort. Normally, you would have to redeem 80,000 Starpoints to get this same deal if you booked the miles and hotels separately, so this is a 10,000 Starpoints savings.  You can choose from 3 different Category 4 hotels in Hawaii (Honolulu, Kona on the Big Island or Poipu Bay on Kauai).

Got all that? Okay! Now let’s get down to business.

Here’s How to Get a FREE Trip to Hawaii:

1. Apply for the Amex Starwood Preferred Guest personal credit card from this link. Fulfill the minimum spend requirement of $1000 in three months and earn 30,000 Starpoints. If you need to, buy $1 coins at the US Mint to achieve the minimum spend requirement (see helpful hints# 2 & 3 above). Update: The current offer is 25,000 bonus points when you spend a minimum  of $15,000 in 6 months. (Contact me and I can refer you via email! Thanks!)

2.  Apply for the Amex Starwood Preferred Guest business credit card from this link.  You will want to read The Frugal Travel Guy’s extremely helpful post that discusses business credit cards. Fulfill the minimum spend requirement of $1000 in the first three months and earn 30,000 Starpoints. Yes, you can get both the personal and business cards and get the bonus for both. Update: At present, the Starwood Business card gives you a sign-up bonus of only 10,000 Starpoints. You can apply for the business card here.

3a. If you’re going by yourself – you’ll need to spend another $10K on your card to reach 70,000 Starwood points so you can redeem them for the nights &  flights option. Order 10 different orders of $1,000 worth of $1 Native American coins from the US Mint (you’ll have to wait 10 days between each order of $1,000, unless you can ship to multiple addresses). Deposit your $1 coins back in the bank, and pay off your credit card. Tip your UPS man for lugging all those boxes to your house every 10 days :)

3b. If you’re going with someone else, then have your partner apply for both the personal and business card as well. Then call Starwood to combine your accounts  (see helpful hint#4 above). After all is said and done, you should have a combined total of 120K Starpoints. Now it’s time to cash in those points!! (This is the most exciting part!!)

4. Figure out what dates you are going to travel, which hotel you want to stay at, & which airlines you are going to fly.  (I chose American Airlines, see helpful hints #5-7 above).  Make sure there is a MileSaaver award flight available for your arrival and departure dates, if you go with American Airlines.

5. Call Starwood’s Customer Contact Center and redeem 70,000 Starpoints for the Nights & Flights option (see helpful hint#8 above).  Make sure you have your frequent flyer account # handy, and that the name on your frequent flyer account is the same as the name on your Starpoints account.  I actually had extra SPG points, so I used another 10K Starpoints to book a 6th night in Hawaii while I was on the phone.

6.  If you’re booking a vacation for two: Transfer 20,000 Starpoints to 25,000 frequent flier miles in the program of your choice. You can do this transfer online, just click on the “Transfer Now” button. Make sure you have your frequent flyer account # handy, and that the name on your frequent flyer account is the same as the name on your Starpoints account.

7. It will take up to two weeks for your miles to post into your frequent flyer account. Once they post, book your economy class ticket on the AA award booking site. For a single person during non-peak: You need 35,000 AA miles to fly to Hawaii, so you’ll end up with 15,000 extra frequent flyer miles in your account.  For two people during non-peak: You need a total of 70,000 AA miles, so 50,000 from Step 5 plus 25,000 from Step 6 = 75,000 frequent flyer miles. You’ll end up with 5,000 extra frequent flyer miles leftover in your account.

Note: If traveling in a twosome, and you apply for all four credit cards, you will have 30,000 extra Starpoints left in your account at the end of all these steps. You can choose to have a longer vacation (add on some extra hotel nights), or save them for future getaways!

***

The Proof

As always, seeing is believing! Click on the following picture to enlarge.

You can see each of the following transactions made in my Starwood account:

Hawaii Redemptions:
6/26: -25,000 AAdvantage Flyer Miles
6/26: +5,000 Airline Transfer Bonus
6/30: -30,000 Travel Award (Nts & Flts); 5 nights at Sheraton Keauhou
6/30: -50,000 AAdvantage Flyer Miles
6/30: +10,000 Airline Transfer Bonus
7/19: -10,000 1 Free Nights at Sheraton Keauhou
Grand Total Cost of Hawaii Trip: 100,000 Starwood Points

***

Some Final Notes

Remember, the new SPG bonus ends July 31, after that you have to spend $15K per card to get 25,000 bonus points. It’s still feasible to earn a free trip this way(I did it!), but it’s not as easy.

Also, you have some flexibility in the above strategy.  I just outlined the quickest, easiest way to accumulate the most Starpoints. It’s really up to you how you earn enough Starpoints for a vacation for two to Hawaii.  You could always apply for fewer cards and just accumulate more Starpoints through normal spending habits. If you want to accumulate more points without any money out of your pocket, you could just order $1 Presidential coins from the US Mint, in $1,000 increments – for example, it would take you 30 weeks to reach $30,000 in spend on your card.  It took me almost a year to accumulate enough free Starpoints for my Hawaii vacation, which makes me appreciate it EVEN MORE!

As I always caution, be careful with your credit. Each credit card application may affect your credit score by 2-5 points. Inquiries will fall permanently off your credit report after 2 years.

Note: You can use this same strategy to go to pretty much ANY destination of your choosing (within the US), not just Hawaii. The Starpoints required will just vary and you’ll have to do your own homework.

Disclaimer: I get absolutely nothing for your sign-up and I am in no way affiliated with American Express – I’m just passing on a really good deal utilizing the best credit card I’ve ever had in my wallet.

I’d LOVE to hear any positive reader success stories!! Please leave me a comment or shoot me an email letting me know what kind of dream vacation you’re going on!!

12 Responses to “How I Got a FREE Trip to Hawaii ($2,130 value)”

  1. kc says:

    Thanks Heather, love the details on the post. I love Flyertalk too! I haven’t been over there in awhile, but they always have the goods on travel information. I am tempted to pick up the 2 cards for the bonus points, but I am a little nervous about the buying of $1 coins. I know people have been doing it for a long time, but still… it does give me a little courage to hear you have tried it though!

    Anyway, enjoy Hawaii!

  2. Andrea says:

    Very impressive! It’s still a bit overwhelming but much more manageable now that you’ve broken down every step. Thanks for sharing and thanks for doing all the hard work!

  3. Heather says:

    Hi kc! Thanks, it actually took me a while to put together. I was hoping it wouldn’t be too wordy to scare people away — but I wanted to include enough details so that everyone could do it! FlyerTalk is the best, I only wish I had more time to actually scour the forums for those really good deals (I think it’s a full time job for some!)

    Don’t be scared about US Mint :) You’ll become REALLY friendly with your UPS man if you start ordering the coins. Mine is really funny, he’ll put “You know” on the yellow slip saying who the delivery is from if I’m not home to catch him on his first trip (you have to sign for the package). Those boxes are heavy, so you do get a few quizzical looks at first :) My most embarrassing moment is definitely taking all the coins into the bank for the first few times — I had to find friendly bankers who wouldn’t give me the third degree (sort of like with couponing – cranky cashiers are a pain!!) I’ve taken in well over $20,000 to the bank though (over time), which is peanuts compared to some of those FT guys.

    Anyway, good luck, and let me know if you jump in!

  4. Heather says:

    Hi Andrea – yes, yes, it can be very overwhelming (especially if you have to extract all the information from different sources!). It took me months of explaining before my bf was willingly on board, and even then it was like pulling teeth ;) I hope I broke it down enough for ya! You’re welcome!

  5. Tom says:

    You really should consider showing this to a local phoenix newspaper or newspaper along with your other analyzes you have performed for the purpose of selling this valuable information. I doubt most people have the aptitude, interest and patience to create this on their own and would like some help. You would bring in new readers for a magazine or paper and i am sure they would be interested in your skills. Just a thought…wouldn’t it be nice to get paid for all this hard work? Good job.

  6. […] last but not least, my blog had a record number of visits on my birthday, thanks in part to my Hawaii post!  It really isn’t hard to break records around here, since the bar is set so low But still, […]

  7. mrpickles says:

    Thanks for the reference but I am not to blame for the US Mint changing their shipping policies. Another Flyertalker is the one who blabbed to the “press” and directed the WSJ to the FT thread and to me personally. The information that you have published on your blog about ordering coins is more than I ever gave out. My posts were directed to the people on the thread who were basically afraid of their own shadow and unwilling to order even two boxes of coins thinking that they would get in trouble or have a visit from the FBI. My intent was to show them that even a $70k order in a single day would not result in a visit from the FBI or a logistical nightmare. Many people sent me PMs doubting that I was ordering in the volumes that I had described, photos were the proof.

    The US Mint has frequently changed the rules for ordering and the fact that they changed them again last December can not be directly attributed to mrpickles.

  8. […] year for credit card sign up offers. I’ve loved the Chase 50K United miles sign up bonus, and the 30K Starpoints from the Starwood American Express business and personal cards. These were GREAT offers! I’m going to Hawaii for free because of the Starwood sign up offers, […]

  9. […] been following my blog, then you know that I recently scored my all-time favorite deal — a FREE trip to Hawaii.  Now, I want to hear about YOUR all-time favorite […]

  10. FactCheckeR says:

    Although not illegal, the US treasury has taken steps including sending letters to buyers about what they have done with large quantities of coins and some card companies are treating purchases as cash advances which you do not get any reward points or miles and are charged 20% interest. Some buyers have reported having their accounts closed, so be careful.

    My question to you is what is the percentage of what you buy, are you getting a 2% or 3% return on your miles, for instance if you spend $10,000 , you get a $200 air ticket at a 2 miles per purchase.

    Amex is charging more for starwood, and some folks at chase have had their accounts canceled and not have gotten the BA miles. I think you should use the coins in circulation as the US MINT advises, you don’t have to deposit coins right away later on is probably a better idea. Small purchases such as coffee, a drink, service cleaning, vending machines, tickets, amusement parks, or sports plays, even bowling with friends and families are situations where 10-20 coins is not bad and keeping it in circulation.

  11. […] in the past that the SPG is my all-time favorite rewards credit card in my wallet.  It helped me get to Hawaii for free!  Tony and I have accumulated enough Starpoints for another free trip (airfare and hotel), but […]

  12. […] Starwood Personal & Business Credit Card Sign Up Offers (Jul) – We both added the SPG Business Credit card to our arsenal, getting 30,000 SPG points a piece. We had already signed up for the personal SPG card {which gave us a 25,000 SPG sign-up bonus}. […]

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