Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.
In this week’s episode, a Travel Nerd shares her story about going to New Mexico for a weightlifting meet and how she saved money along the way.
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To participate in your favorite hobbies, you probably have to spend money sometimes. Whether your extracurriculars include sports, chess club or video games, you’re likely shelling out for things such as uniforms, fees and equipment. Tack on the cost of expensive travel for competitions, tournaments or performances and it can quickly put a strain on your finances.
As Nerds, we feel the pinch too. One Nerd, Sally French, is a competitive athlete in Olympic weightlifting. She could have easily spent more than $2,100 on a five-day, five-night trip for two to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the USA Weightlifting North American Open Series 2.
Instead, she spent only $400 cash and redeemed roughly $570 worth of points for the trip, which included food, entertainment, rideshares, hotels and airfare.
She did it through a combination of spending bonuses, credit card introductory offers, and understanding when to book with cash versus points. While travel costs for events like this meet can be aggravating, they can be a lot less painful when you use credit card rewards to cover some of them.
- Use points to pay for travel that you are obligated to take on fixed dates: Hobby- or extracurricular-related trips where you don’t get to pick the destination or the timing always seem to be the most annoyingly expensive types of travel. Paying for them with points reduces that burden.
- Seek hotel and general travel cards with sign-up bonus offers: The points offered by a credit card’s sign-up bonus can often be enough to cover a multi-night hotel stay.
- Don’t fear annual fee credit cards: The savings their benefits provide typically far outweigh their fees.
Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast, where we usually answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I’m Sean Pyles. We have a special episode in store for you this time around. We’re kicking off our Travel Diary series, where we will hear stories from our Travel Nerds about the trips they’ve taken and the money they’ve saved along the way. This episode’s story comes from NerdWallet travel writer Sally French, who’s here to share the details of her weightlifting travel adventures. Sally, thank you for taking time off of your very intense training to talk with me on the podcast.
Sally French: Sean, for you, I can sacrifice some time at the squat rack to share my stories about weightlifting and money saving.
Sean: I so appreciate it. You are a competitive weightlifter, and the virtual watercooler gossip at NerdWallet is that you had quite a day at the American Open Series in New Mexico.
Sally: Yeah, so the American Open Series is a twice-a-year, national-level weightlifting meet. Weightlifting is not just doing bicep curls. It’s a sport of Olympic weightlifting — two lifts, the snatch, and the clean and jerk, which is the same sport you see in the Olympics.
Sally: I was actually a pretty serious competitor for a spot on the podium.
Sean: That is very cool. The clean and jerk sounds like something I shouldn’t even be allowed to say on this podcast. What is that?
Sally: You’re not a jerk, don’t worry. The clean and jerk — it’s where you pick up the bar like a deadlift, and then you jump into a front squat, so you catch it in front of you, then you stand it up, and then you throw the bar overhead.
Sally: If anyone is actually an Olympic weightlifter out there, I apologize for that botched description. But, I feel like for everyone else, it should make perfect sense.
Sean: Yeah, that’s the classic weightlifting move.
Sean: How much can you lift?
Sally: Throwing it up over your head, you can’t quite do as much as you can deadlift, so separately you would also train a deadlift. My best deadlift is three times body weight.
Sally: Which, I’m really small, so that was 313 pounds. But as far as the clean and jerk, spoiler alert, I got gold at this meet. That was 63 kilograms, 138.6 pounds.
Sally: Weightlifting is a weight class-based sport. I’m in the lightest weight class, so that was 1.4 times body weight over my head.
Sean: Well, that is hugely impressive. Congrats, Sally.
Sally: Thank you.
Sean: Now, I want to hear about the trip that you took to New Mexico — because you are from the Bay Area originally — and how you saved money on this trip.
Sally: Yes. The real wild number here is not how much weight I lifted, but how much I saved. I think anyone who does any sort of sport or marching band or dance, or something like that, always has to travel for whatever it is that they do, and paying for it is so annoying. You love this sport, but it’s like, ugh, I have to pay for this trip to a state that you might not have even been there, and all these expenses add up. You’re already probably paying a fee to enter the meet, you’re paying for the outfit, the costume, whatever it is, and then you’ve got to pay for these flights, hotels and other expenses.
Sally: These expenses are so unavoidable, for one, and annoying.
Sean: Yeah, and the dates aren’t flexible. You just have to go there because that’s where your passion, your hobby is taking you.
Sally: Right. I feel like I read so many travel tips that are like, just travel during the offseason, or travel midweek. It’s like, well, I can’t really choose the date of the American Open Series.
Sean: Right, you’re kind of on their schedule. Well, let’s dig into some of these specifics and see what we can learn from your travel strategy.
Sally: OK, let’s do it.
Sean: Let’s start by setting up the trip. You mentioned that this was an annoying expense, but you really did want to go. Can you tell us why this was so important for you to attend?
Sally: Yeah. The American Open Series is a huge event in weightlifting. It had been about a year and a half of COVID lockdowns. Typically you would compete, I would say, four times a year at least is normal for competitive lifters, but I hadn’t competed at all. When the American Open Series came along, this was a national-level event, and it was something that I was just angsty to compete in general.
Sally: I realized that I was a contender for a medal because I’d been training this time, and I think a lot of other people were wary about traveling, that it was like, OK, let’s go, let’s get a medal, and let’s finally go on a trip.
Sean: Get of your apartment for the first time in a long time.
Sean: Cool. Tell me about what you needed in a hotel room, because I’m imagining that you have to bring a lot of specific gear with you for this. Right?
Sally: Yes, definitely. You’re pretty picky about where you’re going to stay. You probably want to cook your own food, so you want some sort of kitchenette, definitely at least a microwave and a refrigerator. That already rules out some places. I was staying for five nights, because you do want to get there early to get adjusted. It was in Albuquerque, so you want to get adjusted to the altitude.
Sally: Then, also I wasn’t actually just lifting myself. I was coaching a couple other people just as a volunteer, so I actually ended up having to stay five nights to stay for them lifting as well.
Sean: Five nights in a hotel can get pretty expensive.
Sean: Let’s hear about how much this hotel stay would’ve cost typically for folks just booking standard, and then how much you ended up paying.
Sally: Yeah. Another thing that was really important to me was just being close to the venue. It was the Albuquerque Convention Center. I don’t want to be to driving back and forth. I don’t want to be looking for parking and being stressed that I’m going to be late for my lifting because of parking, so I really wanted to be in walking distance, so already my options were limited. I know a lot of people who travel feel that way, that you’re constrained to a certain area. I did find the Hyatt Regency Albuquerque was located right across the street from the convention center. Here’s the kicker, Sean, is five nights would have in cash cost about $1,200. Yikes, I know, for a weightlifting meet.
Sally: $1,200 is not appealing.
Sean: No, no, no.
Sally: The good news is I did not pay $1,200. In fact, I paid $0. But, I did part with some credit card points. The Hyatt Regency is obviously a Hyatt, and it’s a Category 1 Hyatt property. So Hyatt divides their properties through Category 1 through 8 — 1 is the cheapest. This was 5,000 points per night, so 25,000 points total.
Sally: I don’t actually have any Hyatt points, so I booked with 25,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards® points. I have a Chase credit card that allows me to transfer my points 1 to 1. With 25,000 Chase points, I can convert those to 25,000 World of Hyatt points.
Sean: OK, that’s pretty handy. One quick disclaimer: Chase is a NerdWallet partner, but that doesn’t affect the way that we talk about them.
OK, so you saved a lot of money using these points, and it covered the cost of your stay entirely.
Sally: Yes, and so it’s really important to understand that points have this wide-ranging value. As I said, if I had just paid for the trip in cash, the hotel would’ve cost $1,200. I used 25,000 Chase points. But the issue a lot of people who have Chase points make is some of them just redeem them for cash back. 25,000 Chase points, when redeemed for cash back, is only $250. That would’ve basically covered one night in my hotel. Not great. I got five nights. Chase does let you book travel directly through them through their Ultimate Rewards® portal, and they give you sort of a points multiplier. They can give you between a 1.25 to 1.5x multiplier depending on the card, if you book through their travel portal directly.
Sally: In my case, my points could have been worth $312.50 if I had just booked the cash rate through their travel portal. A lot of my friends I see actually do that, and they say, “Oh, I saved a free night with this.” But here’s the thing, is you really, really need to be actually looking into transferring your points to the hotels or airlines directly, because you can transfer at a 1:1 ratio.
Here’s where the math gets a little, dare I say, nerdy, is that NerdWallet values their World of Hyatt points at 1.9 cents each, so my points when redeemed through that valuation would actually be worth $475. Now, Sean, you’re looking at me and you’re like, how did you book a $1,200 room for points worth $475? The other thing to remember is that NerdWallet’s valuation of points is based on what we consider a good redemption. If you can redeem your points at $475, that’s a good redemption. I got a great redemption.
Sean: I see, OK.
Sally: I think the reason why my redemption was so great is because I had booked a place that had a really artificially high cash rate coming off of COVID. It was just a Category 1 hotel, because not a lot of people are going to Albuquerque, but all of a sudden for this weightlifting meet, you have this influx of thousands of people coming into this city, so hotels see this and they say, oh my gosh, we need to raise our room rates.
Sean: Making up for the past two years of not really having many visitors.
Sally: Exactly. Maybe for the past two years, five nights would’ve cost you $500 in cash. But all of a sudden, this weightlifting meet comes into town, the hotel raises their rates to $1,200 for five nights, and suddenly I’m only paying the points rate, which is an incredible deal.
Sean: As you’ve laid out, you are very astute at understanding the value of points and how to use different points in different ways to get the greatest value out of them for your travel purpose. But for a lot of people, this can be pretty confusing to navigate. For folks who are looking to make the most of their credit card points for travel, how do you think they should sort out the value, and whether they should use these points for cash back or for booking a hotel or a flight? It can all be pretty complicated.
Sally: The first thing I would say is it’s almost never a good idea to redeem your points for cash back. Travel credit cards are designed to be redeemed for travel. One thing I would recommend that you do is — shameless plug for the NerdWallet points calculator — but whatever you’re looking at, whether it’s Hyatt like I was, or Hilton, or Marriott, or an airline, United, whatever it is, go and search the NerdWallet calculators. And you can actually input the number of points it’ll cost you, and it’ll tell you what those points are worth. If the cash fare is better, then definitely pay cash. But then you can also see, oh, actually these points are worth more or less, then you can decide if it’s a better idea to actually pay for them in points.
Sean: Got it. Basically, allow us to do the math for you.
Sally: Allow NerdWallet to do the math for you.
Sally: Some travel brands do make it easier. In the Hyatt situation, it’s kind of luck of the draw that I could’ve had to spend all these points, and maybe the room rate was only $50 a night for whatever reason. Then that’s not a good use of points. But because the room rate was so high, it was a good use of points. There are travel brands that actually just peg the points to a dollar amount. One of the brands that does this is Southwest. We say that their points are worth 1.4 cents each, and that’s truly always the case. If you look on Southwest and you look at the cash rate, it’s always going to be similar to the points rate being 1.4 cents. You always know when booking with a brand like Southwest the exact value of booking on points.
Sean: OK, and this is why we rely on people like you to dig into all of these various point values and do the Nerdy research. But that brings me to my next question. When it came time to book your flights, what was your thought process like there? I assume you relied on points again.
Sally: Yes, and you can tell Southwest was on my mind, Sean, because I flew Southwest to get there. I do like Southwest because they make it really easy. And I’m sure you’re sitting there listening to me, talking about all these dollar values, and you’re like, “Yo, this is stressful. I don’t want to think about $475 and $1,250.” But the nice thing about Southwest is their points are just so straightforward and easy. However, there are other reasons why I love Southwest. One, they have a super easy change and cancellation policy, especially now with COVID where if there’s a surge, there’s not a surge, there’s a mandate, there’s not — I want to be able to change my flights and not worry about it.
Sean: Got it.
Sally: But even COVID aside, especially with something like a weightlifting meet or whatever your sports meets are, sometimes they don’t release the schedule for when you’re competing until a couple days out, so you might need to change your flight just because of the schedule. I love how flexible they are.
Sally: The other thing is that Southwest has this awesome thing that you can earn called a Southwest Companion Pass, which is essentially a buy one, get one free airfare deal. If you have it, then you book one trip like normal, and then your companion only has to pay taxes and fees, which in this case was just $11.20.
Sally: We actually earned this through earning points through a Southwest credit card, either through a sign-up bonus or by spending. If you spend enough points, you can actually get a Companion Pass. That was awesome, because flights between Oakland, where we flew out of, and Albuquerque would’ve cost $250 round trip each.
Sean: But you got them covered.
Sally: Exactly. My boyfriend went with me, he paid the taxes and fees, and then I paid $250. Basically, we got the flights for about $260 for each of us to get out there.
Sean: The folks who weren’t using points, it would’ve basically been $500 because it was you and your boyfriend traveling together.
Sally: Right, right, exactly.
Sean: OK, interesting.
Sally: Basically, a half-price deal.
Sean: How long did it take you to rack up all of the points that you ended up using to travel?
Sally: What’s nice is these kinds of points don’t necessarily require you to just spend a ton. Think about the people who have 5 million points, and you’re like, do they just spend money all the time?
Sally: I hope this is relieving, but I’m super frugal and don’t spend a ton of money. The trick is to take advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses.
Sally: A lot of credit cards will say, “Get this many points if you spend this amount of money in a certain amount of months.” Often, the threshold is really high. It’ll be like, “You need to spend $5,000 in three months,” which is not something that I would usually do, so it’s important to time your credit card applications around two things:
One, when you’re going to be doing a lot of spending. If you are going on a trip and that’s a big expense, or maybe you have to pay tuition for something and you can spend on your credit card, then I would definitely charge it to that. The other thing you want to time is when credit cards offer extra-special sign-up bonus offers. Normally the sign-up bonus might be, say, 50,000 points, and for this month it’s 80,000 points. Try to time your application around that, and that’s a great way to earn a windfall of points super quickly.
Sean: I have a question around different types of travel credit cards, because when I moved from the Bay Area up to the Pacific Northwest, Southwest became a lot less reliable to use because it’s just not a hotspot the way that the Bay Area is. PDX, the airport nearby, is much better for flying Alaska. My partner had a Southwest card for a long time, ended up switching over to Alaska. I ended up actually doing a product transfer for my travel credit card in 2020, and now I don’t have a travel credit card. I’m beginning to look around and think, OK, do I want to get one that’s just through a bank, or do I want to get one through an airline? You have both, so how do you think about that?
Sally: That’s such a good point, is if you live in a place that Southwest doesn’t fly out of, then you probably don’t want to have a Southwest credit card.
Sally: NerdWallet rates the best travel credit cards and we rate the best travel loyalty programs. Right now, Alaska is our No. 1-rated travel loyalty program, so you’re in luck if you live in the Pacific Northwest.
Sally: That’s awesome. But it doesn’t do you a whole lot of good to sign up for an Alaska credit card if you live in, say, St. Louis, Missouri. In that case, it’s OK. Sign up for the credit card or apply for the credit card that is relevant to the airport you live in. If you live in a Delta hub, then that’s probably going to be good for you.
Sean: All right.
Sally: The brand-specific credit cards can give you a lot better benefits. The Southwest credit card that I have gives me free in-flight Wi-Fi, which is just nice to have. Then again, you can have just a general travel credit card, and these are just issued by a big bank. These can often be great because they’re more flexible. They allow you to transfer your points to a number of loyalty partners, and it makes it just so much more flexible.
Sean: Now we’ve covered that you have flown to New Mexico for free, you are staying there for free, essentially. Now I want to hear about your actual experience being in Albuquerque, your time there. How did you approach saving money over the five days that you were in the city?
Sally: Traveling always comes with all these little nitty-gritty expenses that you didn’t anticipate. There’s going to be rideshares, getting between the airport and the venue and the hotel, and all that. You got to pay for food. Food is always a big one. Luckily for me, weightlifting is a weight class-based sport, and so I like to pack my own food. At least for the first couple days, I was able to save money by packing my own food. But the reality is I would recommend anyone at least pack food in some capacity.
Sally: Certainly enjoy the food of the place that you’re visiting. If you’re in New Mexico, get the New Mexican food, get those green chiles. Definitely eating out is almost always a huge part of travel. But there’s so many times where I find myself just running to a cafe to get a mediocre sandwich that’s sitting in the case for a day.
Sally: You really don’t want to do that. I always recommend packing jerky, so that way you have a good protein option, a protein bar, something like that, so you don’t end up paying $15 for the sandwich that’s been sitting under a heat lamp for a while.
Sean: Yeah, it doesn’t sound very appetizing. I mean, I’m a big fan of going to a grocery store nearby the hotel I’m staying in and stocking up on snacks there. Because that way, when I do want a little snack, I don’t have to run out and pay 15 bucks for a bad sandwich. I can just grab what I have in my hotel room.
Sally: Such a good idea. I always see people spending $6 on a yogurt in the hotel cafe. I’m like, ugh, there’s a grocery store two blocks away that has yogurt for $1.
Sally: If you’re walking by, it’s almost always worth it to just pick up something like that to have it in your room, so in a rage of hunger you’re not spending $6 on hotel yogurt.
Sean: Yeah. You’re not going to be making your best financial decisions when you are very hungry. That’s just a universal truth right there.
Sally: If anyone takes away anything from this podcast, that’s it.
Sean: Yeah. Don’t make big financial decisions while hungry. You will probably regret it afterward.
We’ve heard about how you got there, where you stayed, how you saved some money throughout your trip. Now I need to hear about the meet. I need to hear about the weight you lifted. Tell me about how it went.
Sally: The meet was great. I was well fed, I was well rested. Because of all of that, I ended up getting third in snatch, which is one of the lifts. I ended up getting first in clean and jerk, and then I ended up getting third place overall. It was actually my first time medaling on the national level, so that was super exciting. I’m really happy with how it went.
Sean: Congrats. How cool.
Sally: Thank you.
Sean: Well, Sally, I would love to hear your takeaway tips for your travel.
Sally: My No. 1 is pay for [fixed date and destination, hobby-related] obligatory travel with points. It always seems so wanderlust-y to want to pay for these big glamorous trips with points. But I think these extracurricular-related trips are the ones that are unavoidable and annoyingly expensive. If you pay for them with points, it completely removes that burden.
Sally: No. 2 is I would definitely recommend seeking hotel and general travel credit cards that have those sign-up bonuses. You don’t have to necessarily do a ton of spending to earn rewards, you just have to earn those sign-up bonuses, and they can often be enough to cover a multi-night stay. My third piece of advice would be don’t fear annual fee credit cards. The savings via their benefits typically far outweighs the fee.
Sean: Sally, thank you for sharing your Travel Diary with us.
Sally: Sean, thanks for having me. Next time we’re together, we definitely should go work out together.
Sean: I would love to do that, but let’s not arm wrestle. I think you might pulverize me.
Sally: Yes, I’m into it. Challenge, I guess, not accepted.
Sean: All right.
Sally: That’s all we have for this episode. Do you have travel or money questions of your own? Turn to the Nerds, and call or text us your questions at (901) 730-6373, that’s (901) 730-NERD. You can also email us at email@example.com. Also, visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode, and remember to subscribe, rate and review us for wherever you’re getting this podcast.
Sean: Here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet’s legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and may not apply to your specific circumstances.
Sally: With that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.