With dreams of white sand beaches and exotic locales, the honeymoon is often the light at the end of the hectic wedding-planning tunnel. It’s also expensive.
According to a 2015 survey by WeddingWire.com, Americans spend, on average, nearly $4,000 for this once-in-a-lifetime retreat. But credit card experts say soon-to-be newlyweds can drastically reduce those costs by using credit card rewards, points and miles.
“For our honeymoon my wife and I flew first class to the Maldives and spent eight nights in a $1,000-a-night hotel for less than $200 total,” says Jonathan Hayes, founder and CEO of RewardStock.com, a site that helps people manage and take advantage of credit card rewards programs. “We did it all because we used a smart strategy of amassing credit card points.”
If you’re about to start planning your honeymoon—or think an engagement is right around the corner—these tips will help you optimize rewards for the trip.
Plan early and take advantage of rewards transfers
Unless you’ve got a backlog of points and miles waiting in the wings, start planning your rewards strategy at least a year in advance.
“Even if you aren’t currently engaged but see it on the horizon, start making rewards planning a part of your routine now,” says Hayes. “A year sounds like a long time but it’s going to take you six to eight months just to accumulate the points you’ll need.”
What’s more, the closer you get to your travel date the harder it’s going to be to book with points.
“Other travelers are going to be scooping up redemption offers, so the window of availability is always shrinking,” Hayes says.
Starting to plan this early may mean you don’t yet have a specific destination in mind. Not to worry. There are several credit cards that offer a great deal of transfer flexibility once you’re ready to book.
A popular option is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card ($95 annual fee), which allows point transfers into myriad frequent-flyer and hotel-loyalty programs, including Southwest Airlines, British Airways, IHG and Hyatt.
Likewise, American Express Membership Rewards cards come with the benefit of 17 airline and four hotel partners, including British Airways Avios, Delta SkyMiles, Emirates Skywards, Hawaiian Airlines, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer and Hilton HHonors. American Express is a CreditCardForum advertising partner.
“Transferable rewards programs are some of the better ones to start with, especially if you don’t have a specific destination in mind,” says Gilbert Ott, writer for Conde Nast Traveler and founder of God Save the Points, a travel, points and miles blog. “With AmEx you instantly amass miles with a whole bunch of airlines and exponentially open up opportunities for various cabin and flight options. The value here is in the choices you have.”
Decide on a specific destination to maximize value
While transfer flexibility might be important during the earliest stages of honeymoon planning, the sooner you can decide on a precise destination the better.
“Start with a very specific goal and then work backwards,” says Hayes. “Otherwise you might be missing out on the most lucrative options.”
For example, maybe you signed up for a Chase Sapphire Preferred card and used your sign-up bonus for a stay at a Marriot property. Great. But if you knew from the start that you were going to stay at a Marriot you could have signed up for the Marriot Rewards Premier Credit Card instead, which may be running an even bigger sign-up bonus.
“If you start earning points without a destination in mind you might paint yourself into a corner,” says Hayes. “For instance, you might have amassed a bunch of Chase points only to find out your partner wants to stay at a Hilton. Well [Chase Ultimate Rewards] points don’t transfer to Hilton. So now you’ve earned a bunch of points you may not be able to use, which negates the whole reason you signed up for the card in the first place.”
Use wedding expenses to earn more points
According to The Knot’s 2016 survey of U.S. wedding trends, the average cost of a wedding last year was $35,329. Believe it or not, this can work to your advantage.
Credit card sign-up bonuses may require you to spend several thousand dollars in the first few months after account opening. Given the costs of throwing a wedding, this minimum spending requirement probably won’t be a stretch, even for typically thrifty consumers.
“One of the most unique aspects of honeymoon travel is that it typically comes after you’ve already spent a boatload on the wedding itself,” says Michael, a semi-anonymous blogger who goes by “The Honeymoon Guy.” “These sign-up bonus might not otherwise be attainable in day-to-day life situations, but if you’re going to hit those minimum spending requirements anyway, why not put that money to use for the honeymoon?”
For great bonuses on hotel stays Michael recommends the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, which frequently offers elevated sign-up bonuses.
For flights, consider the British Airways Visa Signature Card, which frequently offers sign-up bonuses as well. You can also use Avios other carriers in the oneworld alliance.
“Even if family members offer to cover some of the wedding expenses you can still use this approach,” Michael says. “Just make purchases on your cards to meet the spending requirements and have the family member reimburse you.”
To maximize rewards, both you and your future spouse should sign up for multiple credit cards.
Ott and his wife, for example, each signed up for Hyatt cards – and each collected the two-free-night sign-up bonus.
“Because of that we got four free nights in a Hyatt that would have cost more than $3,000,” Ott says. “Combine that with an airline card and you’ve got a big chunk of your honeymoon travel expenses covered by sign-up bonuses alone.”
Bonus tip: Make each other authorized users on the cards, which can yield additional rewards. For instance, you’ll get an extra 5,000 points each on your Sapphire Preferred cards by doing this.
“Just make sure you are both signing up for the same credit cards so you can have the same points and travel together,” says Hayes.
Michael adds two more precautions: First, make sure you book free hotel stays consecutively, and once you do, call the hotel and ask them to link the reservations.
Second, don’t overburden yourselves with too many simultaneous sign-up bonuses.
“You don’t want to be in situation where you each have to spend $4,000 over three months but then fall short of that,” says The Honeymoon Guy. “If you think that might happen, consider staggering your card applications.”
Consider Caribbean and all-inclusive stays
If you’re considering a tropical honeymoon, look into the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, which regularly offers increased sign-up bonuses. The airline has recently expanded its route destinations to places like Aruba, Jamaica, Cancun, Belize and Costa Rica.
“Southwest has become a more appealing option for honeymooners,” says Ott. “The only downside is that they don’t offer first-class or business cabins.”
You might also consider using points at an all-inclusive resort. Historically this hasn’t been an option because most all-inclusive properties aren’t affiliated with loyalty programs—but Hyatt has recently opened the door.
Hyatt currently offers adults-only Zilara properties in both Cancun and Montego Bay, and family-oriented Ziva resorts in San Jose del Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Montego Bay. The Hyatt credit card sign-up bonus of two free nights applies to all of these properties.
“Not only are you looking at four free nights but you’re also not spending any money on food and drinks,” says Ott. “That’s the start of a pretty stress-free honeymoon if you ask me.”