How I used points for an epic birthday getaway to Aruba

With my 40th birthday coming up in January of 2019, I knew I wanted to plan an insanely special trip. Most of all, I wanted to spend a week relaxing on a beautiful beach with a tropical cocktail and a good book in hand. On top of that, I wanted to bring some friends and I did not want to ask them to spend thousands of dollars to celebrate my birthday. 

That’s why, sometime last year, I started hatching a plan to pay for a Caribbean getaway for myself, my husband and our best friends. Like always, I wanted to make sure I paid as little out of pocket as I can possibly get away with.

How I paid for six nights in Caribbean resort with rewards

The first step in the process was figuring out where to go, and this step was easy since I had begun amassing a boatload of Hilton Honors points. My husband has had a Hilton business credit card for a few years, and we have earned points through paid stays at Hilton resorts as well.

When the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card came out last year, we also jumped on it right away. At the time, this card was offering a welcome bonus worth 150,000 points if we signed up and spent $4,000 in purchases within three months of account opening. A $450 annual fee applied, but we qualified for a free weekend night each year, a $250 airline credit, a $250 Hilton resort credit, Priority Pass Select airport lounge access and other perks.

Over the course of around two years, my husband and I racked up over 800,000 Hilton Honors points. For my upcoming birthday trip, we decided to redeem them for six nights at the Hilton Aruba Resort in two rooms. Each room set us back 80,000 points per night, but since Hilton offers your fifth night free on award bookings, both reservations cost only 400,000 points.

While I’ve never stayed at the Hilton Aruba Resort before, I have stayed down the street on Palm Beach. This stretch of sand is easily one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire Caribbean with soft white powder and crystal-clear waters, plus it’s within close walking distance to restaurants, nightlife and more. The best part is, the Hilton Aruba is a resort so both my husband and I can use our $250 resort credits from our credit cards toward on-site food and drinks. That’s $500 for us to spend once we get there, although it probably won’t go too far since food and drink in Aruba is notoriously pricey.

Covering our flights to Aruba with points

Once our hotel was covered, I started looking for the best way to pay for our round-trip flights from Indianapolis to Aruba. While flights to the Caribbean are one of the best ways to use Chase points since Southwest is a transfer partner, I wound up cashing in Citi ThankYou Rewards points for flights through the Citi portal instead.

My husband and I had both signed up for the Citi Premier Card earlier last year, so we each had over 60,000 Citi ThankYou points in our accounts anyway. While I perused Citi transfer partners to see if any better options were available, I ultimately found an option I could live with and cashed in 127,289 Citi points for our flights, plus a $761 cash co-pay. That seems like a lot, but we’re traveling over the holidays when prices are extremely high anyway. Overall, I’m happy to get four round-trip flights to Aruba on American Airlines for some points and less than $200 in cash per person.

Tips to help you plan a birthday party with rewards

I’ve already spent $761 toward our flights for this trip, but I’m sure we’ll spend a lot more. Our $250 resort credits to spend at the Hilton Aruba will help us save some money, but I will absolutely want to go out in Aruba for dinner and to celebrate my birthday. Heck, I may even book a day trip of some kind. Fortunately, another one of the best ways to use Chase points is for excursions, so I have the option to cash in Chase Ultimate Rewards for an array of snorkeling trips, boat trips, four-wheeler rides and more around the island.

For me, the key to using rewards to celebrate my birthday is looking at my points as a supplement to my travel budget. Covering our hotel stay with rewards was huge since rooms at the Hilton Aruba start at $619 per night for our travel dates. That means six nights in two rooms at the hotel would have cost $7,428! Of course, having some Citi ThankYou points to reduce the cost of our flights was helpful, too.

If your goal is paying for an epic birthday trip with rewards, my best advice is to start planning and accruing points early. That way, you can keep your options open and have more time to earn more rewards.

Credit card signup bonuses can also be enormously helpful since they will allow you to earn a huge rush of points within a short span of time. If you can get your partner or friends to earn their own signup bonuses with their own cards, that’s even better.

Finally, don’t forget that credit card and travel rewards are only helpful if you never keep a balance on your credit card. If earning rewards for a birthday trip has the potential to leave you in debt, you’re better off forgoing credit cards and celebrating your birthday at home.

Holly Johnson

Personal finance writer

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer who focuses on credit cards and credit, early retirement and travel. Johnson blogs at ClubThrifty.com and is also the co-author of Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love, which is available on Amazon.com.