How I spent 5 nights at club level for FREE at the Ritz Carlton in Istanbul, Turkey

Nov 30, 2022

It’s a tale as old as time- I’ve got champagne taste on a beer budget. So I’m constantly on the hunt for creative ways to make my travel budget go further!

And because only thing better than travel is free travel, I HAD to figure out how so many people are doing it. It’s simple: they have travel rewards programs figured out (and you can do it too)!

From free hotel and airline loyalty programs to travel rewards credit cards, there are so many affordable travel hacks both newbie and frequent travelers can take advantage of.

If you’re a beginner or seasoned traveler and want to get free travel bonuses (or travel and get rewarded for doing it), my best advice is to learn about and take advantage of these 3 things:

  1. 1-3 credit cards with travel rewards

  2. Airline loyalty programs

  3. Hotel loyalty programs

Quick note- I’m not recommending that you open up every credit card with a great bonus offer that sends you a marketing email. But what I DO recommend is looking at each offer and strategically picking a couple that will work for you. This is easily my best travel hack and it kickstarted my solo travel journey!

What are points and miles for travel?

Points and miles are reward “currencies” that you can redeem for flights and hotels. It’s pretty straightforward: you spend money staying at hotels or flying to destinations and receive points every time you do. If you’re starting to travel, this is how you can multiply your travel resources with 0 effort on your end. Sign-on bonuses are the best big points perk, but other perks are more along the lines of “buy 10 coffees, get a coffee free.” You were going to buy those 10 coffees eventually anyway, so why not get rewarded for it?

I personally use the Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless and Delta Skymiles Amex Platinum cards. These are just regular credit cards that I use for my everyday expenses. The Amex sign-on bonus got me a free round-trip flight to Maui and the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless got me a free 5 night stay at the Ritz Carlton in Istanbul. 

Pro tip: not all hotel brands offer this kind of loyalty rewards program, and that’s okay! I frequently stay at local and boutique hotels, B&Bs, ecohotels, and unique family owned hotels (like this literal CAVE hotel I stayed at in Cappadocia, Turkey for less than $100 a night!!). Most airlines offer some kind of miles building program, but if I’m looking for the cheapest flight possible regardless of miles, using Google Flights is the BEST way to find the cheapest fares.

How I snagged a club level 5 night stay at the Ritz Carlton in Istanbul for $0

  1. I created a free Marriott Bonvoy account. It’s Mariott’s rewards loyalty program and all you have to do is enter an email, create a password, and viola- you have a loyalty number to start building points! I signed up a few years ago but wasn’t traveling much before 2022.

  2. I got the Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card. After getting an email with a great sign on bonus offer for this specific card, I decided it was the right time to get in! (More on how to choose the best card and offer for you below)

  3. I browsed the Marriott Bonvoy app for hotels where I could maximize the points from the bonus offer. I had a few destinations in mind and I couldn’t believe the variety in what my points could get me! 30k points for 1 night at the Ritz in Istanbul vs. 30k points for 1 night at a Marriott Courtyard in downtown Atlanta.

  4. I booked the hotel in the Marriott Bonvoy app using the points.

Points and loyalty programs are free in the sense that it doesn’t cost you a cent to sign up for loyalty programs or open a credit card (but always read the fine print- you already know that some credit cards have annual fees). It’s a positive feedback loop: the more you use the card or the loyalty programs, the more rewards you get. 

You get points and build status over time, and how long it takes to get the rewards depends on how much you’re traveling. Some perks will be immediate, but others take time- it depends on the card, the loyalty program, or the offer. 

For example, you may see an offer like “spend $2000 in 3 months on the card to get 70,000 points.” If you spend $2,000 in 3 months, you’ll get the 70,000 miles as soon as you meet the requirements. But the key is not to spend in excess of what you’d normally spend just hit the bonus for the rewards. When I got my first travel credit card, I switched all of my normal bills- like insurance, car payment, groceries, etc- onto that card. I wasn’t spending any more than I normally would, but it was all going to this card so it would earn the points. Like investing, you’re just putting your money to work for you.

Other perks are less immediate. For example, I’ve been upgraded to better suites and gifted complimentary breakfasts (at the very least) for every stay I’ve had at a Marriott brand hotel this year. But, I’ve been building up loyalty points and status over time to get here. At this point, most of my stays have even had desserts waiting for me in the room or I’ve been upgraded to club level access (food and alcohol free all day)! 

If this sounds tempting but overwhelming, The Points Guy is your BEST resource to learn more and weigh your options. Go to the site and check out the Points + Miles tab. There’s a great Beginner’s Guide to Points and Miles that I highly recommend.

How get the most out of your points, miles, and bonuses

Be smart about how you use your points to squeeze the most value out of them

First, only get the cards that make sense for you. If you don’t live by an airport with a large Delta hub, the Delta Skymiles card may not be as useful for you as a United or Capital One card.

Second, don’t stretch yourself to spend more than you normally would just so that you hit the spend required for a credit card sign on bonus. If you see a tempting offer that requires you to spend, for example, $6000 in 2 months, but you know you don’t spend that much, that card isn’t a good fit. Wait for another offer or explore other cards.

Third, maximize the value from your points. For example, I got incredible value for my Marriott Bonvoy rewards points by staying at the Ritz Carlton in Istanbul. My rewards status got me free club access every day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, alcohol, etc) that I would otherwise have had to spend money on. 

Turkey is an inexpensive country and the value for my points there was a club level suite at the Ritz, vs. the same amount of points at a midrange Sheraton in Atlanta, GA (no shade @ Atlanta, but the comparison is good perspective).

One great hack to easily see how to best use your points is to use The Points Guy’s Awards vs. Cash Value Calculator.

Looking for more? Don’t miss the best-of-the-best!

Are you new here? Let’s be friends! I’m Sarah— a solo female traveler (& world’s okayest travel blogger) helping you travel the world, discover surprising destinations, & have a laugh getting off the beaten path. Scroll to the bottom of this page to sign up to stay in touch (I promise not to spam you- just to share the best travel hacks, guides, itineraries, embarrassing stories, and unmissable experiences)!

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