Vamos a España! (Or, how I booked a trip to Spain for FREE)

Almost 5 years ago, when I finished grad school and reclaimed my free time and my sanity, I had an honest conversation with myself. It went like this:

Me: Rachel, now that you have all this free time, what do you want to do with your life?

Myself: TRAVEL!

Me: But Rachel, traveling costs money, and you don’t have any.

Myself: Good point. But, I keep hearing about these awesome credit cards with rewards that let you travel, plus racking up loyalty points with hotels and airlines. I think there MIGHT be a way to travel for free.

Me: I like what you’re saying to me. Let’s research the hell out of this and make it happen.

save all the points!

And that is how I became a points junkie. I researched online, starting with (the birthplace of point junkies), canceled all my credit cards and applied for new ones, and set up a semi-elaborate system of in-person and online spending habits that I find perfectly logical but which drives Keith a little nuts. (I am known to randomly test him when we are at a store, restaurant, or gas station – “So, babe, which card do we use for THIS transaction?”)

If all that sounds like too much work, what if I told that since starting this odyssey in August 2012, I have booked:

  • A partial trip to San Diego, May 2014 (2 nights hotel, 2 days rental car, and 1 round-trip flight)
  • Round-trip train Philly to Providence, February 2016
  • A partial trip to Morocco, March 2016 (10 nights hotel, cash-back that covered a 3-day desert trip)
  • Round-trip flight Boston to Philly, September 2016
  • And finally, achievement unlocked: an entire 12-day trip to Spain for 2 people, March 2017 (2 round-trip flights, 2 in-country flights, 12 nights of hotels, 1 monument tour in Barcelona, and enough cash-back to cover in-country trains, a cooking class, a tour of the Alhambra in Granada, and still have some left over for food.)

Oh, and I still have oodles of airline miles and points I didn’t even touch and am banking for a future vacation.

Now, does it sound like too much work for all that?


“But Rachel,” you’re thinking, “This is easy for you because you travel so much for work. That’s where all your points and rewards are coming from.” Not so! Aside from the hotel nights, most of this is coming from my credit card spending through my 4 (yes 4!) Chase cards, and the cash-back I earn through AmEx and Every purchase I make earns me 2-6% back in the form of points or cash. I bank the points (which I used to book our flights, 5 hotel nights, and a Barcelona tour), and put aside the cash-back in my bank account for use for the trip. And finally, this year I was able to fully achieve that goal I set for myself back in 2012: to travel internationally for FREE!

The choice for Spain was made for us when airfares went on sale in November 2016 – round-trip flights from the US to Spain in March for $400? Guess we’re going to Spain then! The trip began to take shape, starting in Barcelona, then to Granada and Seville, and ending in Madrid. In Barcelona, I’ll see my host parents from Grenoble who are driving out to meet up with us, as well as some former students and colleagues. In Granada I will see still more colleagues, and then we are on our own for the final leg of our trip in Seville and Madrid. To prepare for the trip, I’ve read 2 travel memoirs (Only in Spain and Driving Over Lemons), brushed up on my Spanish through Duo Lingo, and read numerous blog posts and personal recommendations for what to do and, most importantly, what to eat! Oh, and I made this insane Google map condensing all of these recommendations for each location.


My goals for this trip:

  1. Use my Spanish! 2 semesters of college Spanish + Duo Lingo and my continued fluency in French should allow me to order food, ask basic questions, and be generally polite.
  2. Adopt the Spanish custom of the afternoon siesta. Everything shuts down from 1-5pm anyway, so I’ll use this time to relax, update this blog, and MAYBE nap (although I am not a napper by nature. But I’ll need the sleep to accomplish my next goal of….)
  3. Eat dinner after 9pm and stay out late! This is the Spanish way of life, and even though it goes against my homebody tendencies, I really want to make this happen. Perhaps the jetlag will work in my favor in this regard.
  4. Try seafood that I normally wouldn’t eat. It makes me nauseous just to think about eating shellfish, but they are supposed to be AMAZING in Spain. Maybe eating the best shrimp/mussel/oyster/clam ever will finally make me like these slimy squishy things!
  5. Embrace the Spanish philosophy of “toma que toma,” which basically means (I think) to take life as it comes, go with the flow, don’t be so hell-bent on planning out every last second of your day (ahem). As you can see from my Google maps above, I have obviously not taken this philosophy to heart during the trip planning, but my hope is that on the ground, full of jamon and sangria and basking in the Spanish sunshine, toma que toma will become second nature.


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