For me, there is nothing more inspiring then traveling for nearly free. Over the years I have learned a number of techniques that when combined, help me travel for pennies on the dollar. The whole reason I started this site, was share that knowledge with others.
Here is a breakdown of the costs for our 10 day father/son road-trip. Including food & other expenses, we spent $219 out of pocket. Let’s take a look.
Our first night was spent in Southern California. Originally I had planned to use our Hyatt free night certificate from the Hyatt Credit Card at their property in Santa Barbara, but after reading mixed reviews, we opted to stay closer to where our train departed in Camarillo. For our time, we spent the whole day in Santa Barbara and just slipped over to the Holiday Inn Express when it was time for bed.
As for the rest of the trip, we spent three nights on the train, one night in a hotel using Hotel Tonight credits and four nights in Chicago at two separate Club Carlson properties. Here is a breakdown.
Holiday Inn Express Camarillo – 15,000 points – We were given a “King Suite” which included a sofa bed for Shawn Reece and a king sized bed for Jasmine and I. This was a great property and the complimentary breakfast was excellent. I received most of my IHG Rewards points from “The Big Win” promotion earlier this year. Including tax, this room was going for $135.
Amtrak – 35,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points – These points were transferred from Ultimate Rewards points for our journey. In total, we spent three nights on a train and all of our meals were included as well. Our tickets cost a retail value of $1,311.
Belltown Inn Seattle – $71 in Hotel Tonight Credit – The rack rate of this room was about double what I paid. I watched them lower the price throughout the day on Hotel Tonight and finally booked when there was only one room left. $71 including tax for a room in the middle of Downtown Seattle is a steal. I was able to use my Hotel Tonight credit to pay for the whole thing.
Country Inn & Suites Gurnee – 15,000 Club Carlson points for two nights – One of our hobbies is riding roller coasters, so we opted to stay at this property which is located across the street from Six Flags Great America in the outskirts of Chicago. It is a very nice category 2 property, which means that it costs 15,000 points per night. I was able to use my “free bonus night” from my Club Carlson card to get the second night free. Including taxes this hotel was $132 per night.
Radisson O’hare Airport – 28,000 Club Carlson points for two nights using a “Bonus Award Night” – Originally I had wanted to stay at the Radisson Blu in downtown Chicago, but no award space became available. Even though it was a pain to get to/from O’hare, we were only spending one day in the city, so we opted to stay out by the airport. This made it really easy to be there for our early morning flight home. Total cost for two nights was $267.
My wife was already going to Southern California for a graduation, so we caught a ride with her. Alternatively, we could have booked the Amtrak ticket for the same cost from Las Vegas, it just would have meant time on a bus.
Seattle – We walked everywhere and didn’t pay any transport.
Chicago – $40 including train tickets to/from Gurnee and a one day unlimited pass for the “L” train system.
While I won’t break down every meal, we spent around $125 total on food. All of our meals were included on the train and we were frugal the rest of the time. Some of my meal strategies included:
Using Grubhub to get deep dish pizza delivery near our hotel. I had a coupon from Grubhub that brought down the cost. The large pizza cost $21 delivered and was enough for two meals. (Not the healthiest thing I know.)
We shared nachos for $6 at the Lincoln Park Zoo. They were large and plenty of food for the both of us. We also shared a footlong “Comiskey Dog” at the White Sox game! (It was the same size as two regular hot dogs, but about 33% less money.)
Prior to getting on the train, we walked around Santa Barbara and enjoyed the beach. Cost: $0
In Seattle, we visited the Seattle Art Museum which is normally around $20. It happened to be a Bank Of America “Museum’s On Us” weekend, so we both got in for free with my old Bank Of America Hawaiian Airlines credit card.
We also did other free things in Seattle like walk to the Space Needle, spent some time people watching at Pike Place Market, visited the world famous gum wall and generally bummed around. We only had about 5 hours, so we didn’t have any trouble filling our time.
As for Six Flags, I already had a season pass and we utilized their bring a “friend” for free program, so the cost was nothing. Since we stayed within walking distance of the park, we didn’t need to have a car. (Just to disclose, our awesome friend’s saved us the 5 mile bus ride from the train station to the hotel by picking us up! Thanks JoAnna & Patricia!)
Our day in Chicago was cheap as well. We spent some time hanging around Navy Pier, walked a few miles north to the Lincoln Park Zoo and then spent some time bumming around the outside of Wrigley Field. None of these things costs any money and we had a fantastic time. I still cannot believe that the Lincoln Park Zoo is free.
The final thing we did in Chicago was attend a White Sox game. The nosebleed tickets were only $7 each and we had a great time. Since the stadium was quite empty, we were able to move to better seats, but we did stay on the upper level.
Since our trip was originally supposed to go a little longer, I had to book the flight home at the last minute. We paid 12,500 miles plus $5 each for flights on American Airlines. While this isn’t the best use of miles, I have an abundance of AAdvantage miles and my Platinum status meant that I avoided the close-in booking fee.
We were originally routing from ORD-DFW and then DFW-LAS, but our flight to Dallas was cancelled and they rebooked us on a direct flight to Las Vegas.
- Hotels – Retail Cost $737 – My Cost 58,000 points plus $71 in Hotel Tonight Credit
- Transport (Including Amtrak) – Retail Cost $1351 – My Cost $70 ($40 for Chicago transport & $30 for gratuities on the train.)
- Food – Retail Cost – $135 – My Cost – $125 (Grubhub Coupon)
- Activities – Retail Cost $79 ($45 Six Flags, $20 SAM, $14 White Sox) – My Cost $14 (White Sox)
- Flights – Retail Cost $735 (Since we booked last minute) – My Cost 25,000 miles plus $10
Total Retail Value: $3037
Total Spent: $219
The points used for these particular bookings came to me mostly for free. There may have been a slight cost of the IHG Rewards Points depending on how you look at my “Big Win”, but the Club Carlson points and Ultimate Rewards points came at no cost.
All of the planning and booking for this trip was done at the last minute. This gave us the most flexibility. All of our hotels were booked the same day and the train ticket was booked on the day before departure. Using miles & points meant that we could be flexible and that we didn’t have to pay exorbitant last minute rates.
One final note, almost all of our travels & many more photos were shared in real time on our Facebook & Instagram pages. We love interacting with everyone on social media and sharing our travels with you.
I hope this wasn’t too hard to follow, but the truth is that it is possible to take trips like this all of the time. If you want to eat in fancy restaurants or participate in expensive activities, the price could go up, but that doesn’t matter. Often times we do more expensive activities, but on this particular trip, we were on a budget and went with the “flow”.
If you take the pure travel costs (Train, Air & Hotel), we spent $50 out of pocket for $2,823 worth of travel. That is pretty amazing. If you have any questions about this or anything else, please let me know. Thanks!