Travel Diaries: How I Paid for a $2,000+ Sports Meet Almost Entirely on Points

Extracurriculars like sports, dance and marching band can be expensive enough given the uniforms, team fees and equipment. Add to that the exorbitant travel costs to meet and perform, and it is easy to feel like you are losing money.

I certainly feel that way. As a competitive athlete in two different barbell sports — weightlifting and powerlifting — I 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 II.

Instead, I spent only $400 cash and redeemed roughly $570 worth of Southwest Rapid Rewards and World of Hyatt points (using NerdWallet’s valuations). This total includes the cost of my competition entry fees (which do not take credit card points), as well as the cost of all our meals, entertainment, hotels, and airfare.

Downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo/Getty

The hotel

Staying extra days to coach athletes as a volunteer could be brutal — especially since the cash rate for our stay at the Hyatt Regency Albuquerque would otherwise have cost about $1,200.

The Hyatt Regency Albuquerque is a Category 1 property, the lowest-priced tier for Hyatt points bookings. A stay costs 5,000 points per night during the standard season. So I converted 25,000 Ultimate Rewards(r) points to the World of Hyatt program to cover our five-night stay.

So how much money are 25,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards(r) points worth? It all depends on who you speak to. Those 25,000 points could be worth:

  • A meager $250 when redeemed for cash.

  • $312. 50 when used to book travel directly through the Chase Ultimate Rewards(r) portal, given the 1. 25x multiplier that Chase offers to Chase Sapphire Preferred(r) Card holders.

For the purposes of this trip, I’ll say that I parted with $312. 50 worth of points — the amount it takes to book the stay through Chase Ultimate Rewards(r). Hyatt points value may vary depending on where you are booking. )

But no matter how you slice it, I parted with way fewer points than the room’s cash value.

Cost: $0 cash plus $312. 50 in Chase Ultimate Rewards(r) points

Coaching and competing at sporting events or other extracurriculars can be rewarding, but expensive. It can be much cheaper and more rewarding if you have the right credit cards. Photo/Sally French

Airfare

Our Southwest flights would have each cost $250 roundtrip, but my boyfriend’s was practically free because of my Southwest Companion Pass. This pass is essentially a buy-one-get-one airfare deal where you only pay taxes and fees ($11. 20 round-trip in this case) on the second ticket. One way to get one of these coveted passes is by earning 125,000 qualifying Southwest Rapid Rewards points in one calendar year.

The welcome offer on my Southwest(r) Rapid Rewards(r) Performance Business Credit Card got me most of the way to owning a Companion Pass. I was able to continue my journey by spending more on the card. Here is the current welcome offer: Earn 80,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.

I used the Rapid Rewards points I’d racked up to cover my own portion of the airfare, which amounted to 18,299 points. NerdWallet values those Rapid Rewards points at roughly $250.

Cost: $11. 20 plus $256. 19 worth of Southwest Rapid Rewards points

The train to Santa Fe took us to the heart of the tourist action. The station was home to a market selling art, music, and food. Photo/Getty

Other transportation

Ride shares: We skipped the rental car and relied on ride shares, given that our hotel was a block from the Albuquerque Convention Center, where I’d be spending most of my time for the weightlifting meet. Plus, parking at our hotel was a hefty $18 per night.

Ride shares were surprisingly cheap, and we used them for the short 4-mile trip between downtown and the airport, as well as to take short trips around town.

The trade-off: The rideshare supply was far too low given the demand, and we often had long waits to get a driver to pick us up — more than 30 minutes on some occasions. Although I wasn’t in a hurry on this trip I found it easier to rent a car than I did with my rideshare.

Train: The best, most reliable and cheapest form of transportation for this trip was the New Mexico Rail Runner Express train, which we took for a daytrip to Santa Fe. It took approximately 1.5 hours to complete the trip and cost $9 per person round trip.

Cost: $77. 02

Our top, cheap meal for huge portion sizes: Frontier. This meal for two came out to just over $16. Photo/Sally French

Food and drinks

Here are my best dining finds and money-saving tips for any trip.

Pack food from home, or visit a local grocery store: Weightlifting is one of those sports where many competitive athletes cut weight, so I packed protein bars and unsalted nuts from home for the first couple days ahead of my competition. I also purchased perishable items like yogurt at a grocery shop.

While most travelers aren’t trying to fit into a weight class mid-trip, it’s not a bad idea to plan ahead. You can either pack snacks at home or buy groceries to avoid the high price of a yogurt parfait at the hotel cafe.

Scout out cheap eats: Every city has them. To explore the area, we headed towards the University of New Mexico. Frontier was our destination for New Mexican-meets -dinner food. The location was right next to a college campus. Although the prices were low, the portions were large.

Food halls are great for groups: Group dinners can quickly get expensive. The Sawmill Market was an enormous food hall that allowed everyone to order their food and sit together.

Cost: $140

The view from the top of Sandia Peak was excellent — and cost us $65 to see. Photo/Sally French

Other spending

On the airplane: I purchased Wi-Fi during my Southwest flights for $8 per device. My Southwest(r) Rapid Rewards(r) Performance Business Credit Card offers 365 $8 credits per year (rather than one per day per account), so my boyfriend got Wi-Fi, too ($32 value round-trip).

Competition entry fee: USA Weightlifting doesn’t accept credit card points. Cash-back credit cards can come in clutch to cover expenses like this, but I opted to just pay the $125 meet fee in cash.

Sandia Peak Tramway. Photo/Getty

Entertainment: Most of my time was spent coaching or lifting, so I didn’t spend much money on other entertainment beyond the $125 meet entrance fee.

My boyfriend and I took in stellar views via the Sandia Peak Tramway during a free afternoon, which was well worth it. I could have hiked up to the top and paid just $18 for the one-way fare down, but most weightlifters famously avoid cardio. Alas, these two weightlifters spent about $65 combined on round-trip fares.

We had another entirely free day where we took that day trip to Santa Fe. The majority of the galleries are open to all. You can combine that with shopping at the farmers market, window shopping, and touring the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisii. It was enough to last us a whole day, without spending a penny.

Cost: $190

With tons of galleries, shops and historical sites, there are loads of free things to do on a daytrip to Santa Fe. Photo/Getty

Credit cards used

  • Southwest(r) Rapid Rewards(r) Performance Business Credit Card: $199 annual fee.

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred(r) Card: $95 annual fee.

How much we spent: A breakdown

In total, we spent just under $1,000 in combined cash and points on a trip that otherwise would have cost over $2,000. This is how it broke down by expense category for two people.

Thanks to points, I saved about 55% off the actual trip value, thanks in large part to the relatively few points required to fund my hotel room versus the cash fare, as well as the Southwest Companion Pass, which took about half off the cost of our airfare.

How we calculated expenses

Even though we only spent $400 in cash, it’s not fair to say that’s all the trip cost.

After all, points and miles have value too, as every point spent on this trip is a point that could have been spent somewhere else. I did part with points that NerdWallet deems worth about $570 in value.

Expenses we included or excluded: All of the costs cited here account for any time we plunked down money during the trip, or for costs we spent ahead of time for this trip. We included the meet entry fee in our costs. However, we did not include the cost of any other items required for entry to a meet (like the singlet), as I would use it for other meets.

I placed gold in the clean and jerk, bronze in snatch, and bronze overall. My budgeting skills were first. Photo/Sally French

The bottom line

Traveling to events like meets, band trips and weddings brings joy, as it unites you with friends and family for the purpose of doing the things you love. It can also be a pain to pay for a trip that isn’t on your bucket list.

It can be a lot less painful when you use credit card rewards to cover the cost. Even better, you can use points to pay less than cash. Had I funded my trip entirely in cash, it would have cost over $2,100. Instead, it “cost” me just over $980 in combined cash and points value. ($420 was actual cash and $570 was the approximate points value. )

These savings far outweighed the annual fees I pay to hold the cards that made it happen, and they made a trip I wasn’t looking forward to paying for much more manageable. I finished third at the North American Open Series II. If this was a budget competition, then I feel like I won the gold medal.

How to maximize your rewards

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Sally French, https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/travel/travel-diaries-how-i-paid-for-2000-sports-meet-on-points
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