We are currently wrapping up our stay in Panama City where we’ve been for the last 4 days organizing the logistics for shipping our Land Cruiser to Colombia. When we planned the trip, we figured that most of the time – when we’re outside of major cities – we’ll camp out in our rooftop tent wherever we stop. It’s convenient, part of the adventure, and gives us the most flexibility as we can set up home almost anywhere.
That said, camping becomes less practical when we’re passing through or visiting major cities. Setting up the tent at a gas station or a parking lot isn’t pleasant, plus it’s hard not to draw attention. So, as such, when we’re going through a city – be it to explore, get the car fixed up, apply for visas for ongoing travel, or just to resupply – we end up staying at Airbnbs or hotels.
Our favorite way, though, is to find a way to do it for free. So, in this post, I wanted to share how we managed to finagle around 50-100 free nights at the Hilton hotel chain – which we’ve fully enjoyed here in Panama City, as well as major cities in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and hopefully will continue to utilize in South America over the next few months.
A Hotel Stay is Better When It’s Free.
Given that Susan and I met through a workshop about travel hacking, it would seem only appropriate that we’d want to put our skills to use and figure out how we can get some hotel nights without blowing our budget during the 6 months on the road. A hot shower and a comfortable bed is not to be underestimated!
Our strategy this time around focused primarily on the Hilton chain, as they have pretty good coverage in Central and South America through their Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn and Doubletree properties.
The approach, as usual, is fairly simple and it’s hard to call it travel hacking at all – but here we go:
- In late 2017, Hilton had 2 credit cards available: AMEX Hilton that offered 75,000 Hilton Honors points and AMEX Hilton Surpass card that offered 100,000 Honors points but came with about a $99 annual fee. Between the two cards, you needed to spend ~$5,000 in 3 months to qualify for the bonus. In short, if you opened 2 cards, paid the $99 annual fee and met the minimum spend, you’d have 175,000 Hilton Honors points to start.
- On top of that, AMEX also offers a special referral program where you can get 15,000 points for referring somebody to the regular AMEX Hilton card and 20,000 points for referring someone to the AMEX Hilton Surpass card. So…
- I opened up both cards and referred Susan and she opened up both cards and voila – between us, we had 385,000 Hilton points: 175,000 in new card bonuses each plus 35,000 in referral credits. We had a few friends and family also sign up, so by the time everything was said and done, we had around 500,000 Hilton HHonors points.
- Hilton, of course, has a ton of different properties all over the world and the redemptions rates can vary quite a bit. You can use their search feature to see how many points you’d need for the places you want to stay in or check these links:Properties range between 5,000 points for a Hilton Garden Inn or Hampton Inn in a 2nd tier city to 60,000 points for an all-inclusive resort on the waterfront somewhere.In our case, we choose to only use it for redemptions that cost between 5,000 and 10,000 points, which will yield us anywhere from 50 to 100 nights for a total of $198 (2 annual fees that we had to pay for the cards). When we can’t find a property at that rate, we’ll typically opt in for an Airbnb or another hotel instead through Hotels.com or Booking.com.
Can you get the same deal?
Yes. Although the offers we signed up for have changed slightly, Hilton still has some pretty solid cards available.
- Hilton Honors Ascend Card – get 100,000 points after spending $3,000 in 6 months ($95 annual fee)
- Hilton Honors Regular Card – get 50,000 points after spending $1,000 in 3 months (no annual fee)
- Hilton Honors Ascend Business Card – get 100,000 points after spending $4,000 in 6 months ($95 annual fee)
Using the above, you can get anywhere from 150,000 to 250,000 points per person – depending on your particular situation. Double the amount when you apply with your partner and don’t forget to refer each other as well.
Again, it’s worth highlighting that not every hotel redemption will be 5,000 points. We’re obviously super flexible on this trip and we’re passing through a lot of places along the way, so we have a lot to choose from. But these points don’t expire, so in the long run, we’ll certainly use them all up.
I’d recommend that you check their search feature to see how many points you’d need for the places you want to stay in or check these links:
- List of Hilton Properties at 5,000 Point Redemption Rate
- List of Hilton Properties at 10,000 Point Redemption Rate
- Best Low Level Hilton Awards
As you’ll see, 500,000 Hilton points is not a bad thing to have for anyone – even if you choose higher level redemptions, you can get pretty good mileage out of them.
Also, good to know:
When you open up these cards, you’ll also automatically receive Hilton Gold status. Typically, these statutes don’t provide much, so we rarely pay attention to it, but in this case, there are a few really nice benefits:
- When you book 4 nights with points, you get the 5th night during the same stay for free. That’s crazy! Not only you pay $0 for the first 4 nights, but you also get an extra night on the house – which essentially provides an extra 25% value for the points.
- Free breakfast at some of the chains, such as Hilton Garden Inn. In the grand scheme of things, free breakfast is not a big deal. But, given that we’re doing a 6-month trip and are watching the daily budget, it’s a really nice perk. Others in a similar boat will surely understand 😉
- Free wifi and late checkout. Not a big deal, but nice to have.
Being able to get anywhere from 50 to 100 nights at these hotels on this trip has been really, really nice. It provides a nice balance to camping and is really good on the budget. However, I think that whatever the particular travel situation may be, it can be beneficial to most people to have a couple of hundred thousand hotel points saved up for the next trip. It won’t work for every situation, but when it does, it’ll feel pretty magical.