Taking a Family Road Trip (Or, How I Became A Hotel Points Hacker)

As you might imagine from the “Wanderer” portion of this blog’s name, I enjoy travelling and was fortunate to fit four domestic and one international trip into 2020 before COVID-19 became a concern for the eastern coast of the U.S. However, since returning home from Mexico in March 2020 I have partaken in significantly less travel – two overnight trips, to be exact. The first was a much-needed week off in nature to go hiking, the second an overdue trip to visit my family in the northeast. I didn’t write about my week-long trip to the Middle of Nature, Virginia, but I figured I would fill you all in on my trip to the northeast, as I can now lay claim to the fact that I am a hotel points hacker!

But let’s back up a bit. It had been 10 months since we had seen my family, and with the holidays coming up the thought of waiting another year or two to see anyone in person was becoming more and more of a sad reality. My partner, B, and I talked it over with my family and found a middle ground that worked for all of us. We decided to rent a car and drive to see my family in outdoor-only settings while booking lodging in a hotel. While I know some people have been tested for COVID-19 immediately before returning home to stay indoors with loved ones, I didn’t feel comfortable with this because, as an essential healthcare worker, I wasn’t able to stay home for two weeks prior to the trip in order to allow for quarantining. I went into work two days before we left on our trip, so getting tested the day prior to the trip likely would not have shown an accurate test result if I had, indeed, been exposed the day prior. Since my family contains a two-time cancer survivor and others with chronic illnesses, I didn’t feel comfortable putting anyone else’s health in danger by being in close indoor quarters.

B and I had originally planned to drive straight to our hotel, but made a last-minute (and requested) pit stop by my parents’ home prior to the hotel. At that juncture the outdoors-only and always-masking policy we all had agreed on prior to the trip fell apart almost immediately. My parents have mostly stayed at their rural-esque home since March and therefore aren’t as used to masking up as B and I, so my dad instantly became frustrated with his mask fogging up his glasses and ripped it off his face in annoyance. Although we were in their garage with both garage doors open and B and I were wearing masks, we politely asked my dad to put his back on for his own protection. He fiddled around with it for a bit but eventually went back inside in protest for the rest the evening.

Hoping things would improve the next day, B and I drove to our hotel and were generally pleasantly surprised. We had opted for a hotel room with a full kitchen since we didn’t plan on eating in any restaurants and figured that we could cook most of our meals in the hotel room. The room, which was larger than our studio apartment in Washington, DC (#sad), was located inside of a new Marriott facility that had only been built in the last few years. B and I entered with masks on and opened the two windows, which unfortunately only opened about an inch each, and left the room for about an hour or so to go grocery shopping. B had called the hotel prior to us booking the room to ensure that the HVAC systems were set up so there wouldn’t be air exchanged with other hotel rooms. When we returned with our groceries, we unpacked the food and our bags and took off our masks, although we did keep the windows open for most of our stay.

As I mentioned, we booked with Marriott and had the opportunity to hotel travel hack for the first time ever. Since B and I usually travel frugally we typically stay in hostels or Airbnbs and take public transit. Both public transit and hostels are now out of the question for us during the pandemic (plus the city in which we were staying was not big enough to have a hostel). Ultimately we chose a hotel over an Airbnb since the hotel was much closer to my sister’s house than any Airbnb and about the same price as anything we were looking at. Back in July I had signed up for Marriott’s Bonvoy Bold credit card when I saw they were offering 6 points per dollar on grocery purchases and was able receive just shy of 33,000 points with the sign-up bonus and other spending. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough points to cover our five hotel nights, but I was able to transfer 3,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points from my Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card to Marriott (1:1 point transfer) to bump my total above the needed 35,000 points to cover the two most expensive nights of the trip, at 17,500 Marriott Bonvoy points each. This meant paying outright for the other three nights in cash. However, Marriott’s website would not allow for paying for the reservation with a mixture of points and cash. After several calls to very helpful Marriott customer service and hotel staff, I confirmed I would have to make three separate bookings:

Wednesday-Thursday night => $296.39 cash

Friday-Saturday night => 35,000 points

Sunday night => $148.19 cash

Together the five nights cost $444.58. However, my American Express Blue Cash Everyday card had an offer I could add onto my account where if I spent $200 at Marriott I would get a $75 credit. This dropped the price to $369.58 total, or $184.79 per person. Just goes to show you – always check to see if your credit cards have any deals running on them!

Since I was forced to make three separate hotel bookings, I wound up charging booking #1 to my AmEx. Booking #2 was covered by points, and booking #3 I charged to my Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) card. If I was trying to max out my Marriott points I would have instead paid booking #3 with my Marriott Bonvoy Bold card, as CSP offers 2x points on travel for 296 Chase Ultimate Rewards points vs. Marriott Bonvoy Bold offering 3x points on Marriott stays for 444 Marriott Bonvoy points. Despite this, B and I don’t stay in hotels much and are not married to the Marriott brand by any means, so I figured we could benefit more from the Chase Ultimate Rewards points which are then transferable to 13 different travel companies and therefore might better serve us.

After spending five nights with Marriott, we have generally positive, albeit somewhat mixed feeling about our stay during the pandemic. While I received several emails beforehand touting Marriott’s safety protocols, I was disappointed to see several front desk Marriott staff wearing their masks below their noses the whole day. While Marriott did have increased cleaning in common areas, eliminated continental breakfast take-away breakfast, placed up plastic shields, and took other safety measures, I also saw several hotel guests sit across from staff chin strapping it, and even one woman who walked in with no mask whatsoever and carried on an at-least 5 minute conversation with the front desk staff where the staff member did not once mention her lack of mask.

Not going to lie – we were creeped out to find the TV on and greeting us by name when we walked into the room.

While we noticed mixed adherence to wearing masks and socially distancing from my family members, B and I did our part to put at least 6 feet of distance between us and them and always wore our masks unless eating (outdoors, at least 6 feet apart). We ate each meal outdoors and engaged in activities such as apple picking, hiking, and going to the dog park that made spending time with loved ones much safer.

Beautiful river view on one of our family hikes.

B and I had plans to visit his family in the southeast in a similar manner this December, but we will be playing that by ear based on COVID-19 community transmission numbers and my boss approving the required two-week post-travel quarantine from the southeast. How do you chose to see your family safely during the pandemic?

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