This past holiday season, Joel and I had officially spent six months on the road. That’s six months of living out of a 26L backpack, sharing dorm rooms with strangers, and eating canned mackerel for dinner.
Not that I’m complaining. Living life as a professional hobo isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. While you might be counting pennies to see if you have enough for a simple cup of coffee, you also get to spend every day exploring the world around you. You eat Top Ramen for dinner tonight so that you can eat real, tonkatsuramen in Osaka tomorrow. You wear the same outfit twelve times in a row so that you can appreciate how different the women of Myanmar dress in comparison. You skip the Uber home, choosing to walk instead, so that you can afford to see the Last Supper in person. It’s a lot of sacrifice for even greater rewards, and I’ve loved every second of it.
But. BUT. I miss home sometimes. Particularly, the comforts of home. And after 176 days of bedbug scares and drunken backpackers wandering into our room at 3 am, we were more than ready for an upgrade. That upgrade was 3 nights at the Ritz-Carlton in Vienna.
We spent the Christmas holidays melting into a cloud of feather pillows, drinking Nespresso shots from our own personal machine, working out in a state-of-the-art-gym with fresh towels rolled-up at every station, and eating free cookies that were personally delivered to our room. We relished every moment of our $2,000 hotel stay. And guess what?
IT WAS ALL FO’ FREE.
So how was this possible?
No, this isn’t a sponsored post, and no, Ritz-Carlton did not offer me a free stay in exchange for giving them a solid thumbs-up on my site (ha, I wish!). I actually secured this reservation long before I even started The Travel Sketch. That’s right—you don’t have to have a travel blog or be an Instagram socialite to score free stuff. You can do it from the confines of your own 9-to-5 job, at home, when you only have two weeks a year to spare on visiting exotic locales
In fact, there are a lot of free travel bonuses you can acquire without ever leaving the comfort of your own living room. And I mean that literally: you can sit on the couch eating Hot Cheetos in your Thanksgiving pants for a straight month (I don’t suggest you actually do this, but hey, you do you) and get free first class flights and hotel stays to whatever places interest you.
But, one thing at a time
What is travel hacking?
Travel hacking. You might have heard of this term already; the essential concept is to put in just a little bit of work to acquire large bonuses and rewards, most of which can be used towards free travel. Some people who have really mastered this area end up taking nearly all their flights for free, staying for free in hotels for multiple weeks a year, and still having spending money left over to spare
Enter: The Ritz-Carlton Card
Chase introduced this card to its lineup back in 2011, and it’s been largely overshadowed by its more mainstream cousins, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the blockbuster Chase Sapphire Reserved. That’s probably because the card is somewhat high-end—if you’re barely hanging by a thread, traveling on a shoestring, and can’t even afford to get by on a trip without resorting to Couchsurfing and hitchhiking, then it’s probably not for you. But the Ritz-Carlton card offers a crazy amount of value for anyone looking to upgrade their travel style for a moderate amount of investment.
Ritz-Carlton Card Benefits
- 3 free nights at any tier 1-4 Ritz-Carlton hotel (recently downgraded to 2 nights, but keep an eye out—these bonuses change almost every year)
- $100 off any round-trip domestic flight ticket for two or more (unlimited uses!)
- Gold membership with Ritz-Carlton hotels (read: free upgrades)
- Earn 5x points at Ritz-Carlton and Marriott properties, 2x points on travel and dining purchases, and 1x points on everything else
- Free upgrades to Club Level, 3x a year on stays of one week or longer (not applicable for free stays)
- $300 travel credit towards flight incidentals
- $100 Global Entry application credit
- Priority Pass membership
- No foreign transaction fees
- Personal concierge (i.e., someone to call in a reservation at a foreign restaurant for you)
The biggest drawback is the high annual fee: $450. And unlike some of Chase’s other products, this can’t be waived for the first year.
The second issue I have with this card is that the travel credit is actually quite limited. If you own the Chase Sapphire Reserved already, don’t be fooled: you won’t have nearly as easy of a time using up your $300 credit if you’re not 1.) a frequent traveler or 2.) travel on a moderate budget
The reason it’s so much more difficult to spend is that the credit is restricted to flight incidentals only. This includes baggage fees, flight upgrades, lounge passes, and onboard meals and drinks. And while it might seem like a wonderful perk when you get to order 12 shots of Jäger for free or can ride in business class for half the price, you have to take into account the real, economic trade-offs. It’s a lot like seeing a half-off sale at Marc Jacobs and buying an $800 pair of boots for $400—sure, you didn’t pay full price, but is it really such a great deal if you weren’t already in the market for a new pair of shoes in the first place?
That’s why it’s important to emphasize that the true value of this card is not in free travel benefits, but in free luxury travel benefits. If you’re not scraping by just to afford your only plane ticket this year, then it can be a really economical and fun way to add a little luxury to your trip.
If you do travel a lot and know that you’ll be using up those travel credits quickly, you can pay off the initial annual fee (and then some). The credit renews every calendar year, so you’re getting twice the price in your first year with the card, for a total of $600 in credit. Add that onto a handful of domestic, roundtrip tickets marked down $100 each, and you could very well save yourself $1,000 before you even think of redeeming your free nights.
Our Free Nights in Vienna
The Ritz we stayed at in Vienna was priced at around $550 a night for a basic room during the holidays (had we stayed through NYE instead of Christmas, it would have been $700). We were upgraded to a premium room on arrival, since the card also comes with gold membership status (this means people are extra nice to you and do cool things like delivering hand-written notes to your room). The premium room was priced at $650 a night over Christmas, which totals to nearly $2,000 for our entire stay; none of which we actually paid for. Since we didn’t use any additional monetary benefits outside of the travel credit, the net costs came out to $150. This worked out to roughly $25 a person a night, which is less than the price of a bunk in a shared dorm room in Vienna!
I hope you found this helpful! If you want to sign-up for the card or read more of the fine print, you can find all of what you need here. And no, this isn’t a commission link, so I don’t get anything in return if you decide to apply. I just wanted to offer up my own experiences and hopefully give you the opportunity to access a little more of what the world has to offer.
As always, let me know what you think in the comments below, and don’t be afraid to ask questions! I’ll try my best to help you in any way I can
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