I just returned from a two week trip where we flew to San Francisco and then rode a train across the country back to Boston.

Back in January I was reading some blogs like and spent a few weeks going back and forth between forums, articles and blogs that cover using rewards points for travel. It’s a little confusing at first, and reading the lengths some people will go to for a free plane ticket can turn you off of the whole thing. But I decided that using credit card sign up bonuses to cover some potential travel costs might be worth my time.

So I signed up for a new credit card and went about booking a trip last January. So two weeks ago me and the BF hopped a cheap plane ride to San Francisco for a quick two week vacation. We stayed in the bay area for a week, visiting a couple of old friends and seeing some sights. I had a great deal on a rental of a little econo-box for 4 days for about $60 bucks, and when the rental agent offered to give me a red Camaro for the weekend, if I’d just throw in another forty bucks, I figured why not?

Then we had a few deluxe sleeper rooms on some Amtrak trains to get us back home. Each room had a couch, a chair, two beds that folded out for sleeping, a private toilet and shower, and they came with three meals a day. The ticket would have cost us over $3k but it was free using the rewards points. We brought a case of California wine onto the train with us and eventually deboarded in Boston with one bottle left, and that one only survived because a friend requested that we bring a bottle home for her.

Sleeper cars on trains are my favorite way to travel long distance. I’ve done it a few times before. The rooms come with a huge picture window to sit by as you watch the changing scenery lumber by. It’s slow, relaxing and methodical. There’s lots of time for conversation and thought. And you’re pretty much surrounded by a bunch of wealthy, bored people who like to drink and mingle to pass the time. On the leg of our trip from Portland, OR to Chicago we were neighbors with an Australian couple in their early sixties who took a liking to us (how much of their affinity was due to the abundance of wine in our room, I’m not sure). I was pleasantly surprised when I asked Trevor how long he had been retired and he responded, “25 years now.” So he and his wife retired at 35! Well, well! So we had plenty to talk about as far as investing, our dislike of regular jobs, and frugality.

From what I could surmise he and his wife retired with a little under a million dollar net worth. Still plenty even today, I think, for a frugal couple who can plan well. And they told me they didn’t spend too much in their first decade of retirement. Opting to travel, but cheaply, and spend time on free and low-cost hobbies like hiking, cycling, gardening and home brewing, and continuing their frugal ways that got them into their retirement. And because of that, rather than simply maintaining their portfolio, it was compounding on itself and once they hit their 50′s they actually switched gears and decided to make a few changes, even though it was going to cost them a bit more. That’s when they got themselves a beach house, and a few years later a 40′ motor-yacht, and started loosening the purse strings a bit more when they traveled.

When I gave them the details of my situation there was a sort of instant friendship. I’ve noticed whenever I meet anyone who has retired at a young age it feels like I’m meeting a fellow member of a secret club only we know about.

I won’t write a tutorial on using rewards points because I’m really not qualified, nor interested enough in it, and if you go looking you’ll find that others have already done a fine job explaining everything. I will say that I’ve found that learning the ropes of the rewards programs and applying for credit cards and taking advantage of sign up bonuses is worthwhile for me because it can cut the cost of a trip down to a fraction of what it would normally be while allowing me to enjoy things I probably wouldn’t be willing to pay for if I had to use cash (like first class seats, deluxe sleeper cars, and 4 & 5 star hotels).

I’m not that big into travel, I don’t mind it, but it’s not a big thing for me. I enjoy being at home, puttering around the gardens and visiting friends. The BF, however, still has a bit of wander lust in him and has yet to explore a whole lot. So the rewards points make booking a trip a little more palatable for me. In the end we paid cash for the one-way plane tickets ($300 for the pair), 4 nights in a decent, clean hotel outside SF ($45/night), and 4 days with the sports car ($100). And we got two nights in a 4 star hotel in SF for free (Saving about $350), and the cross country train ride in a sleeper car from SF to Boston (Saving about $3,500). So we paid about $300 each for a trip that should have cost us almost $4,500 all together.

In the future we plan on doing some 1 month-or-so trips to some low-cost international destinations and I’m planning on using points to get us some free (or nearly free) plane tickets and hotel rooms.

While I’m a little skeptical of the value of going places and seeing things, I do enjoy the feeling of escape. It’s not so much going places that I look forward to, it’s the leaving that I like. It’s nice to abandon the everyday if only for long enough so I can remind myself why I’ve chosen to make it the everyday. It’s like getting immersed in a long-term project and then taking a moment to step back and look at what you’ve done and see the whole breadth of what you’ve been working on. It adds a freshness to things upon your return to them.


Click to enlarge the photo below that I took out of our window somewhere in Montana.

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  1. Posted August 28, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    a cross country train trip is high on our list, but we were thinking over Canada.

    Hope we run into some generous young guys with a case of wine on board…..

  2. Posted August 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know it never occurred to me to look around for train reward points. It’s definitely my (and my wife’s) favorite way to travel, but it’s expensive!

    So, thanks for the tip. I’ll be checking out

  3. Posted August 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Boy, I would have loved to hear the gentleman’s story you met on the train.

    In regards to visa cards and the points thing, it all leaves a bad taste. But even though I don’t like the game, doesn’t mean I can’t take advantage of it.

    Thanks again for your posts, I love reading your ideas.

  4. Posted August 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Is it safe to assume that if you took that photo in Montana, you were on board the Empire Builder? My wife and I took that trip between Chicago and Seattle and thoroughly enjoyed it — I would definitely go again. I’ve heard it is the premiere long-distance train on Amtrak’s roster due to the dining car.

    Do you mind describing your itinerary?

  5. Freedom_2018
    Posted August 28, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Glad to hear you got to come out west.

    Had I known, would have been happy to meet up for a drink and talk about FI/motorcycles etc..maybe even set you guys up for a complimentary wine tasting at some of our wineries (while I am still employed for the next couple of months).

    My Dad always wanted to do a cross country train ride but kept putting it at 72 he has developed Parkinson’s and little chance of him coming to this country to visit me and do the train ride.

    Ah..time..we think we have a lot of it till we don’t.

  6. Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    @executioner That’s a safe assumption! I had a terrific cut of steak on board. The trip was basically: boarded in the bay area around 10pm on Tuesday, switched trains in Portland, OR around 4pm Wednesday to the Empire Builder, arrived in Chicago around 5pm Friday and boarded the Lake Shore Limited at 9pm to arrive in Boston Saturday around 9pm.

    We’re talking about maybe doing some kind of LA to New Orleans or Miami route next time across the southern tier.

    @freedom Damn, looks like we missed out. The BF left his heart there though, so it looks like we’ll be going back at some point.

  7. lurker
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    love trains too. sounds like a great trip. thanks for the idea…

  8. Dragline
    Posted August 31, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a great trip. I train a lot up and down the northeast corridor and the amtrak miles really do add up. Going to try out the Auto Train with the kids from Virginia to Florida this fall. It really is the most fun way to travel.

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