Updated: Apr 27
While I never mind shelling out a few bucks for a quality experience, that doesn’t mean I don’t do my best to economize when I can. Travel, for this Fat Mama, is a slippery slope of financial turmoil when I want to do absolutely everything in style, but don’t have an endless budget (even if I like to pretend that I do).
So, over the years, Fat Papa and I have learned a few tricks and been taught some insights from professionals (I’ve mentioned before we work with an awesome financial planner to make all our travel dreams come true, read about it here: What Are You Waiting For? 5 Reasons to Stop Putting Off Your Next Adventure). This has helped us maximize our travel budget, explore the unique adventures each destination offers, and do it all in our chosen level of luxury.
The best part is, these 5 tips are easy things to do every day or while you travel. Incorporating them into your travel planning tool kit will get you jet setting in luxury before you know it! Just focus on:
Now, I am not saying that any of this comes cheaply. After all, I learned years ago from my Fairy-Mother-In-Law that if you are paying less than $100 a night for your hotel room, be sure to pack your patience. Quality costs money. Good service, well-maintained grounds, and happy employees cost money. But follow these tips and you will be shocked at how much you can save while still traveling in luxury!
Managing Your Credit Score and Travel Credit Card
When I was in college, I took out a student loan and got my first couple of credit cards. I had started my first job in my senior year of high school. So by college, I felt like I had a good handle on budgeting and money management. Ha!
Seven years later, Fat Papa had to help me pay off my debt and I was able to start repairing my credit. Over the last ten years or so, my credit score has gone from the low 600s to the upper 700s. Through the process of repair, and even more so from failing and building up the debt in the first place, I have learned a ton about the ins and outs of credit cards and credit scores.
The higher your credit score, the more rewarding your credit card experience is going to be. What do I mean? With a higher credit score, you will be eligible for credit cards that provide clients with better benefits. Chase, American Express, Barclay, and plenty of other banks offer amazing reward programs to their clients with great credit because those are the people who are making them money.
The best way to increase your credit score and maximize your rewards is to funnel your spending. Choose a single credit card that you are going to use for all your expenditures. Set your bills to autopay with that one credit card. Use that one card for groceries, gas, entertainment, everything. Then make sure you are paying it off every month.
Fat Mama Tip: As you pay off your other credit cards, start looking into any benefits or rewards programs they may have. Since these cards are no longer going to be your primary spending card, see if you can transfer your points or find a fun way to spend them on a luxury upgrade for your next trip.
If the one card you are using as your primary credit card isn’t a travel card, I mean that it doesn’t offer you the kind of travel benefits that you want, then start looking for one that better meets your needs. I highly recommend checking out The Points Guy for advice, reviews, and tips about choosing the right credit card for you. Click here to read about his picks for best travel credit cards for February of 2022. You will note that my favorite card, American Express Platinum, is listed along with the suggested credit score needed when applying for each of the cards The Points Guy reviews.
Why does choosing the right credit card matter? Well, ducky friends, let me tell you. When I was young and destroying my credit, the credit cards I had offered me no rewards. I was spending money and making money for the banks, but they were not rewarding me for it because I was a high-risk client (due to my low credit score).
As my credit improved and I obtained credit cards with benefits, I was able to cash in on all sorts of rewards. During the holidays, I used points for gift cards that I could then use as presents. On months where cash was a tight, I exchanged my points to pay down my balance. But the best rewards were the services. Things like airport lounge access, Gold status with Hilton Honors and Marriott Bonvoy, reimbursed CLEAR airport security identification membership. These services, plus the travel booking services, plus the endless flights, hotels, shops, experiences, and services I could use my points on more than paid for the yearly fee in no time!
Now I know what you are going to say. "Annual fee? You said this wouldn’t cost me anything!” I know what I said, and I stand by that. My Amex card is the highest annual fee around at $695, but it is also the most rewarding. Every year I get a credit of $200 for airfare, $200 for hotels, $240 in digital entertainment and service memberships, plus access to exclusive travel concierge services and upgraded hotel rooms when I book using my credit card. Like I explained above, all that PLUS whatever I choose to spend my points on MORE than covers the cost of the yearly fee. So really, Amex is paying me.
But, there are TONS of travel cards, plenty with MUCH less expensive yearly fees. The important thing is to find the card that offers the rewards that meet your travel needs. For me that was Amex. For someone else that is going to be Chase, for others it will be Capital One. As long as you are benefiting from the rewards and maximizing those benefits then you are winning at the travel credit card game.
Funneling all of Fat Papa’s and my spending through two credit cards ensures that we are maximizing the points we earn while being able to be fully rewarded for our spending. Spending that we would be doing no matter what. After all, since you have to buy groceries, gas, and pay your bills every month, why not get rewarded for your efforts?
Get more info about my favorite travel credit card, the American Express Platinum HERE. When you apply and are approved for a card using my link we both get bonus points!
Fat Mama Tip: If you are like I used to be and are not good at managing your expenses or have trouble paying off your credit cards at the end of each month, this method might not work for you. However, you can always look into consolidating your debt to a single card that provides rewards and benefits. BUT, I’m not a financial guru, talk to an accountant, financial planner, or tax expert before making any major decisions.
Loyalty Programs That Really Pay
If you like earning free room upgrades, seat upgrades on flights, free nights when booking travel, or even free dining, gift cards or experiences, then your loyalty can pay BIG dividends. When it comes to travel, everyone wants to reward you for repeat business, and those rewards can really add up. If you are loyal.
When Fat Papa and I travel, we almost exclusively stay at Hilton properties. Why? Because we have been Hilton Honors members for nearly six years now. If we are traveling somewhere that isn’t serviced by a Hilton property, then Marriott is our second choice because through my Amex I am a Bonvoy member. Due to our loyalty to Hilton, we are only a few nights away from earning our Diamond status, which I am VERY excited about.
But what does that mean? The benefits of loyalty club membership (which are free to sign up for) vary by membership level and property. However, in general, the more often you stay, the more freebies you get. For example, at Hilton properties, we get member desk check-in and check-out, free bottled water at check in, are eligible for free upgrades to our room when available, free late check out upon request, and receive discounted rates when booking directly with Hilton.
Additionally, we are the first to find out about new properties, promotions, and offers. This can be hugely beneficial when you are on the lookout for luxury accommodations at bargain prices. For example, when Hilton first acquired the Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas and converted it to the Waldorf Astoria, Las Vegas, I took advantage of the announcement and debut pricing. I booked a king-bedroom Las Vegas strip view room that now goes for $400 or more a night for only $150! Thank you loyalty!
But the same is true for nearly every service and accommodation in the travel industry. From booking services, to dining, to flights, to rental cars, to accommodations … everyone wants you to sign up for their loyalty program and everyone will spam your inbox, and reward you for it. The only thing you have to do is decide who you want to be loyal to, then really and truly be loyal to them.
The good thing is, a loyalty program isn’t marriage. You can always sign up for one, try it out for a few trips, then switch to a different brand. If one airline doesn’t reward you adequately or provides bad service, then switch to another. The important thing is, when you find one you like, stick to them like glue.
Fat Mama Tip: To get even more out of your loyalty programs, double up with your credit card rewards. For example, Amex is partnered with Hilton and Marriott as well as United and American Airlines. It is easy for me to be loyal to these brands because not only am I getting rewarded through my frequent flyer program with the airlines and my memberships with the hotels, but I’m earning EXTRA points when I use my Amex to pay for it all.
Don't get discouraged if you need to shop around for a while to find the credit card that meets your needs. Gigi, for instance, strongly prefers to fly Delta based on multiple experiences with Delta, United, and American. Additionally, different airlines may be better for you depending on where you live and what hubs each airline uses.
Because I am loyal to brands that are partnered with my travel credit card, I earn MORE points then if I booked travel with brands NOT partnered with my credit card. This means I earn rewards with my credit card AND the loyalty brands faster than if I was going it alone. This is another way to get to luxury upgrades fast without paying a cent.
Everyday Expenses That Support Travel Goals
Not all car insurance companies are created equal. Nor are all wholesalers. Since we all need to have insurance to drive a car and food for our tables, why not make choices about these purchases that support our travel goals? After all, when was the last time your insurance company took you on vacation or your yearly grocery bill sent you a check you could put toward airfare?
AAA Insurance and Costco membership are two fantastic ways to travel in luxury while meeting your other life needs. Again, I can already hear you quaking at me. “But Fat Mama, you said these tips wouldn’t cost me a cent!” That is true, and I stand by that statement.
If you own a car, then you have to have car insurance. If you own a stomach, then you have to eat. Yes, AAA and Costco are both expenses. But they also both have benefits that (in Costco’s case literally) pay you back.
Why do I like AAA and Costco so much? Because the BEST way to travel in luxury without the luxury price tag is to plan, book, and pay in advance. Both AAA and Costco are AMAZING tools for vacation planning, especially if you are wanting to create a package deal with flights, hotel, and car rentals.
Additionally, each service has its strengths and target audience. This is why I like having BOTH in my vacation planning tool kit. For example, AAA being that it originated as an Auto Club and continues to focus on car insurance, is an AMAZING resource for road trips and guided tours. They also publish the most incredible Travel Guides and provide trip planning resources online. Costco Travel, on the other hand, is my go-to for resorts and travel packages. Through Costco, I can find fantastic accommodations in exotic destinations. Plus, many of their bookings come with a Costco Cash card.
The other reason I particularly enjoy AAA and Costco is because if you travel loyally with them, you can cover the cost of membership or insurance (at least nearly so with AAA). Have you noticed when booking most hotels there is a AAA rate and it is usually the best price? Even some restaurants provide AAA discounts. Museums, amusement parks, and tourist attractions do too. There is a whole list of places that provide discounts to AAA members.
With Costco you earn a 2% annual reward from every purchase in store and online, including travel. Since becoming members, Fat Papa and I have ALWAYS earned more than the cost of our membership. Our savings really added up because this is our second credit card. All Costco and Cost Travel purchases go on the Costco Visa card while EVERYTHIGN else goes on the Amex. Thus far, it has been quite rewarding.
So, if you travel smart and loyal, your services can pay for themselves … and your travel too.
Concierge at Your Service
Often times, big hotel chains compete with one another by offering tickets to local attractions, activity bundles, or specialized concierge services. Even if you are not planning to stay in a luxury hotel that provides these services, you can still take advantage of some of the benefits. No lying or shady business required, I promise.
Before booking your accommodations, call around to a few of the luxury accommodations in the heart of the tourist district of where you are going. For example, if you are going to New York, try calling the New York Ritz Carlton Central Park or the Chatwal Hotel in Times Square. If you are going to Disneyland, try Tropicana Inn and Suites on Harbor Blvd. or the Westin on Katella Ave. These places know the local market extremely well and know exactly how to help you get tickets for local excursions.
All you have to do is call, let the front desk or operator know you are thinking about booking but have questions about local attractions. They will put you through to the concierge or ticket desk and then you are in like a duck in a pond. Just float along and ask your questions. What are the must-see attractions? How can I get the best prices but the best quality experiences? Can you help me book activities or purchase tickets at a discount? Do you offer AAA membership discounts for that excursion?
Even if the concierge isn’t able to help you directly, they will be able to point you toward local services or service providers who can. Additionally, they may be able to provide you insights to local events, celebrations, and promotions. Remember, the people who work at hotel concierge and front desks are locals themselves. Their advice is golden, free, and worth a fortune in life experiences and potential lifelong memories.
A Smile Goes a Long Way
Fat Papa is an introvert … until you get to know him, then he is super outgoing and an absolute people pleaser. I on the other hand am a true extrovert through and through. I always have been, my whole life. Gigi and Pappy have tons of stories from when I was a kid and had no problem striking up conversations with strangers or speaking my mind.
It’s kind of funny how opposites can attract because my outgoing, say anything, ask every question attitude is one of the things Fat Papa loves about me. And you know what, ducky friends? When you are traveling, it is the BEST superpower for luxury upgrades.
How did we get that amazing waterside table? What did I have to