Here’s exactly how I used credit card points to take 3 incredible trips I never would have been able to afford otherwise

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Andaz costa rica papagayo pool
The infinity pools at the Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo, where the author (not pictured) stayed for free. Facebook / Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo

I love to travel, so I only go for rewards credit cards offering points that can be exchanged for travel.

These come in a variety of forms, from airline credit cards offering miles you can exchange for flights and hotel credit cards offering points you can exchange for a free stay to generic travel credit cards offering flexible points that can be exchanged for a variety of different travel experiences. Some travel credit cards even reward you with points that you can transfer to dozens of airline and hotel loyalty programs free of charge.

The key is selecting rewards credit cards that match your spending habits and travel goals. I tend to skip over the budget airlines and low-end hotels, though, and instead aim for earning travel experiences I wouldn’t normally be able to afford.

Here are my top three favourite vacations I’ve been on and how I paid for them all with credit card points.

Park hyatt new york
The pool on the 25th floor of the Park Hyatt New York. Facebook / Park Hyatt New York

Living in luxury while overlooking NYC’s Central Park

The Big Apple is infamously impossible to do on a budget, but thanks to my credit card points, I barely spent money on anything outside of food and drinks on a five-day trip to NYC with my sister. That being said, our trip felt anything but budget.

We stayed at the Park Hyatt New York, a five-star hotel that’s been ranked as one of the best hotels in New York by Conde Nast, US News & World Report, and Harper’s Bazaar.

To give you an idea of what you can expect from this luxury hotel: Upon entering your room, you’ll be greeted with complimentary Asian pears and floor-to-ceiling views of Central Park. The bathroom, my favourite part of the room, includes heated floors, a walk-in rainfall shower, and a television screen embedded into the bathroom mirror, perfect for watching while you soak in the massive claw foot tub.

The pool area is this hotel’s crown jewel. Up on the 25th floor, the lap pool, Jacuzzi, and sauna overlook the Manhattan skyline – and if you stick your head underwater, you’ll hear classical music playing from the pool’s underwater speakers.

How to pay for this trip with points

A standard room here usually goes for over $US1,000 a night, and I paid $US0 using the sign-up bonus from my Hyatt Credit Card. The sign-up bonus that comes with the new World of Hyatt Credit Card is almost enough for two free nights at this hotel.

If you pair it up with any of Chase’s Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to your Hyatt account at a 1:1 ratio to make up the difference. You can also just put some spending on your World of Hyatt credit card to earn the extra points.

We spent half the trip at the Park Hyatt New York. For the other half, I used the sign-up bonus from my IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card to book the Holiday Inn Lower East Side, which gave us a chance to explore the other side of Manhattan.

As for flights, I purchased two round-trip flights from Portland, Oregon to New York using 50,000 Delta SkyMiles that I’d earned through a limited-time welcome bonus for the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card (the offer is no longer available).

Andaz costa rica papagayo
The Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo. Facebook/Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo

Tropical getaway at a secluded boutique resort in Costa Rica

For my partner’s birthday, I decided to book a four-night stay at the Andaz Papagayo, a quiet boutique resort on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

The property was stunning, from the moment we rolled into the open-air reception overlooking the ocean. Everything is constructed to flow with the surrounding environment. After eating breakfast on our balcony surrounded by lush green jungle and howler monkeys, I never wanted to leave.

This isn’t an all-inclusive, but the property offers several different restaurants and bars, all of which were excellent. We also took some fun classes while we were there, like salsa dancing lessons and a barista course with fresh Costa Rican coffee.

The multiple infinity pools are some of the most beautiful hotel pools I’ve experienced. Although it’s easy to get to, the surrounding area is pretty remote, so this is a great spot if you’re looking for a peaceful, quiet getaway.

The beach directly at the property does leave a lot to be desired, but luckily, they have a free beach club you can access with their complimentary shuttles, and we really enjoyed it there. The beach club has plenty of lounge chairs and hanging beds, good food and drinks, recreational equipment, and we even got to meet a few more monkeys and the raccoon-like coati while we were there.

How to pay for this trip with points

I used an annual free night from my Hyatt Credit Card (no longer open to new applicants, but the World of Hyatt Credit Card is similar) to cover one night at the Andaz Papagayo. For the other three, I used Ultimate Rewards points I’d earned from the sign-up bonus and my regular spending on the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which I transferred to my Hyatt account at a 1:1 ratio.

My two round-trip flights from Portland, Oregon to Liberia, Costa Rica – the airport closest to the Andaz Papagayo – were purchased with 64,000 Delta SkyMiles, which I earned from a limited-time sign-up bonus on the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card (the offer is no longer available).

Hyatt zilara cancun
The Hyatt Zilara Cancun. Facebook / Hyatt Zilara Cancun

Cenote diving and pyramid climbing at an all-inclusive in Cancun

Finally, for my 30th birthday this year I booked an all-inclusive trip for two to Cancun. I spent a few nights at The Pyramid at Grand Oasis in Cancun, known for its nightlife, and then a couple relaxing nights at the Hyatt Zilara all-inclusive, adults-only resort.

The Hyatt Zilara exceeded all of my expectations. The service was friendly and impeccable, especially in the restaurants – somehow, every bartender and waiter seemed to know exactly what we were looking for and gave us spot-on recommendations the whole time. All the dining options were delicious, but the five-course, reservation-only meal at Chef’s Plate was the most memorable.

Our room included a balcony with our own private hammock overlooking the most dazzling turquoise waters. But we spent most of our time enjoying the beautiful Cancun sea from our private cabana bed on the beach, where they delivered us tamarind margaritas and piña coladas to my heart’s content. The pool was also massive and included a swim-up bar and plenty of lounging areas.

Finally, we booked a few excursions using my points as well, including a trip to Chichén Itzá, a magnificent Mayan pyramid known as one of the new seven wonders of the world, and a diving excursion to one of the area’s famed cenotes, a sinkhole filled with water and limestone formations.

How to pay for this trip with points

I used a combination of points accumulated with my World of Hyatt Credit Card and Ultimate Rewards points that I earned with the Chase Ink Business Preferred and transferred to my Hyatt account to pay for the Hyatt Zilara. To book the other resort we stayed in, I went through the Ultimate Rewards portal, which allows you to book nearly any major hotel in the world using your Ultimate Rewards points.

I booked our tours and excursions through the Ultimate Rewards portal as well. Because I’m also a Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder, I can redeem my points for 1.5 cents each in this travel portal. If you don’t have the Chase Sapphire Reserve but do have either the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Chase Ink Business Preferred, you can redeem our points for 1.25 cents each.

Finally, I booked two round-trip flights to Cancun on American Airlines using points I’d earned from a sign-up bonus on the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.

Playing the travel rewards game isn’t effortless – at least not if you want to maximise your rewards. I’m sure I spent hours combing through credit card offers and looking up redemption options in order to book these trips. But for me, getting to go on these once-in-a-lifetime vacations for next to nothing is absolutely worth it.

Learn more about the cards she used from our partner The Points Guy: