Beginner’s Guide to Using Rewards Points to Travel

Make your next big family vacation affordable with points.

A lot of people are nervous about using credit cards and trying to earn rewards points, but if you have decent credit and are even a little organized, using points can save you large sums of money and allow you to have wonderful experiences that you may not necessarily be able to afford otherwise, especially if you have a large family.

So how do you do it?  The steps are fairly simple. 

1.) Apply online for a credit card that offers a large rewards bonus.  Here are a few of our favorite rewards cards that we’ve used to travel.

2.) Once you are approved and receive your card, set up your account online so you can easily see your spending and points, and pay your bills on time.

3.) Start using your card for all of your normal expenses. Once you reach the spending threshold that you need to earn your reward point bonus, it will automatically show up in your online account (sometimes it takes a few weeks, but it will get there.)

4.) Start using your rewards points! You can do this through your online account, which will have a link that will show you your options.

5.) If you don’t want to keep the card after spending the rewards points bonus, you can always close the card before the next annual fee hits, or you can downgrade the card to one that has no annual fee.

Here’s an example of how it works:

I’ll use one of my current favorites, Southwest Rapid Rewards, as the example.  This card offers 40,000 bonus points, worth roughly $560 in flights, after you spend $1000 in the first three months.

The spending $1000 part scares a lot of people off, but it shouldn’t!  Most large families are going to spend that much in just food in three months, without spending a dollar more than they normally would.

So, say you are approved for your card and receive it the next week.  You just follow the instructions to set up your account online and immediately start using your new card for everything.

Once you have spent $1000 in the first three months, the points will show up in your account online, and then comes the fun part of getting to use them! The Southwest Rapid Rewards charges $69 annually.  So, you’re paying $69 to get $560 in flights. That’s a pretty good deal!

You’ll be able to see how many points each flight is worth just by going to the Southwest website and checking the little “points” box. Then just purchase the tickets using the points!

Once you’ve used your rewards bonus points you can decide whether or not it’s worth the $69 to keep the card. Because Southwest has a companion pass program, it can be well worth the fee to keep the card if you’re able to earn the pass.

Don’t be Scared off by the Annual Fee

Some cards do not have an annual fee, and some waive their annual fee for the first year. Some do have an immediate annual fee (usually under $100), but it’s usually much less than the money you are saving in rewards points, so it’s well worth it.

I usually try to plan in advance to use my points within the first year of getting them, because of the annual fee. Because many cards waive the annual fee for the first year, you can plan to get the card, meet the spending threshold, use the points, and cancel the card all in the first year, so that you never pay an annual fee.  Or better yet, you can often downgrade your cards to ones without an annual fee rather than cancel them, which can be better for your credit.

It’s Easy to Meet the Spending Threshold

Most spending thresholds for personal rewards cards will be between $1000 and $4000. Think about all of your trips to the grocery store, plus things like medical bills, school supplies, toys, clothing, diapers, etc.  Plus, if you use your card to pay bills, like your cell phones, power bill, cable and internet, you can usually very easily spend the required amount, without spending a dollar more than you normally would. 

If not, you can always prepay a few bills or get a few large gift cards that you will definitely use over the next few months to meet the spending threshold.  You can also add your spouse or other family members as authorized users on the website or by calling, and sometimes credit card companies even offer bonuses for doing so. Then you’re earning points even more quickly.

Ready to give it a go?

Apply for Southwest Rapid Rewards or jump on over to our list of favorite cards.  Have fun!

5 Beautiful State Parks in Northern Delaware

Delaware is known for it’s beautiful beaches – Rehoboth, Bethany and Dewey – and for it’s capital city of Dover, with it’s historic Legislative Hall and green. But the most populated part of Delaware is in the north near the cities of Wilmington and Newark, about two hours away from the beaches. And this area is brimming with beautiful state parks.

Delaware State Park Passes

Delaware State Parks passes can be purchased here, and are $4 for an in-state vehicle and $8 out-of-state (with the exception of the seashore parks, which are $1 and $2 more). They can also be purchased at the park when you go. There are no national parks in Delaware, but the state parks are some of the best in the nation. There is camping as well as Yurts available at Lums Pond, the last park on our list – reservations can be made here.

Our Favorite Northern Delaware State Parks List

Brandywine Creek State Park is a picturesque park of rolling meadows and forested area, and of course the creek. Chipmunks can be spotted near the blue gneiss stone walls (built in the late 1800s and early 1900s to mark property lines), and there are more than 14 miles of trail throughout the park. There is a nice disk golf course and plenty of fishing.

Bellevue State Park, a former DuPont estate, lies a few miles away. (You will find many attractions and landmarks in the area that were property of the DuPont family in this area). William DuPont’s home, Bellevue Hall, stands in the middle of the park, as well as a number of other structures and several playgrounds. There are always lovely horses to be seen, as the park includes horse stables, indoor horse training facilities, and a 1 ⅛ mile long horse track. There is a fishing pond, disk golf course, and a paved part of the Northern Delaware Greenway runs through the park.

Just a few miles away is Auburn Valley State Park, which runs along the Red Clay Creek. It houses the world’s largest operating collection of Stanley Steamer cars (which offer rides on “Steamin’ Days”) as well as a historic paper mill which lies undisturbed in the middle of the park. The hike up the hill (I believe this is called the Oversee Farm Trail) will get your heart rate up, but it is also paved which is nice for strollers and scooters.

White Clay Creek State Park encompasses a very large area that runs into Pennsylvania, providing ample opportunity to get lost if you’re not careful! (Yes, we know from experience.) It is named for the clay that was once mined in the area, and of course the creek that runs through it, with many tributaries along the way. It’s mostly woodland, with plenty of opportunities for glimpsing birds and catching fish. And squirrels, so many squirrels. There are also some ruins of old buildings you might encounter (which is always exciting), like the 1790s Judge Morris Estate.

Lums Pond, near the city of Newark, is Delaware’s largest freshwater pond, and is a State Park with lots to do. There are 17 miles of trails around the pond, a boathouse offering a variety of boats with which to explore, camping, pavilions, a dog park, and a nature center with a few live animal exhibits. Our personal favorite activity is the Go-Ape Treetop Ropes course where you can get a workout and some awesome zipline rides across the pond.

Ready for your Summer Trip to the Southern Jersey Shore?

It’s no secret that the Jersey Shore is a popular and happening destination, but we have found everything from quiet, picturesque beaches to coastal education centers, peaceful little towns to bustling boardwalks and everything in between along the southern coast of New Jersey. We return there year after year and always find new, fun things to do, beyond the always-glorious experience of spending a day on the shore. Here are a few of our favorite destinations.

Cape May – The town of Cape May can get crowded during peek season, so if that bothers you, a better time to explore and till enjoy good weather is late May/early June, or even better (with warmer water) the month of September. It is filled with neat rows of Victorian homes that look like lacy, colorful gingerbread houses. The surf can get rough so stay near a lifeguard and keep an eye on the kids at all times. We have enjoyed staying at The Grand Hotel, right on the beach. It has an indoor and outdoor pool, with a nice little baby pool right next to the regular outdoor pool, so you can easily keep all the kids in view at the same time. If you need a break from the beach, you can visit the Aviation Museum at the Cape May Airport if you have a plane-lover. Or, take a day to visit the the Cape May County Zoo. Just note that we have seen giant tortoises mating (or as we like to tell the kids, “wrestling”) here every. single. summer.

Avalon/Stone Harbor – Our favorite beaches to visit are these, because they are almost never crowded. You won’t find a lot of hotels or fast food restaurants in the area, but if you rent a house you will enjoy a tranquil vacation. There are also nearby campgrounds. A large part of Avalon is a bird sanctuary, so you need to follow a path for a half a mile or so between shrub and cactus covered sand dunes to reach the ocean, and at times parts of the shore are roped off for bird nesting. If you like nature, this is really fun to see, but beware of flies! They are occasionally intolerable.

Stone Harbor has a tiny “boardwalk” with an ice cream shop and a small arcade, and they show movies on certain weekend evenings right on the beach. Another fun place to visit in the area is the Wetland Institute, which is a nature center with boardwalks through the salt marsh. You can see ospreys nesting on camera, the kids can climb into a life sized (enormous) osprey nest, you can climb overlooks to see over the sea of rippling green rushes and jewel blue salt water, and sometimes you will find the marsh absolutely teeming with crabs. (Again, the bugs can be an issue – bring your bug spray).

Ocean City – If you’re looking for a bit more excitement, the Ocean City boardwalk is definitely worth a visit, for the fries, the custard, the cotton candy, the games, the rides, and the beach as well.

Atlantic City – The grownups in our family have enjoyed playing and seeing concerts at the Casinos here. The kids have enjoyed the Atlantic City Aquarium, which is small and perfect for the younger set, and includes touch tanks, the opportunity to feed baby rays from your hand, and talks and demonstrations with the animals by the staff.

Cowtown – Ok, this one is not actually on the Jersey Shore. But if you’re there and heading south, this is a great stop to make. The rodeo happens every Saturday evening during the summer months, rain or shine.  Barrel riding, calf-roping, bull riding, the ever-present possibility that someone will get seriously injured – it’s a blast!  There’s also an outdoor flea market open daytime hours on Tuesdays and Saturdays where you can get all kinds of junk for a few dollars, and some tasty food.

Highlights from the Hudson Valley

When we hear the words “New York,” most of us think immediately of NYC, but the state of New York is beautiful and has much to offer outside of the city as well. The Hudson Valley area is one of our favorites, and there are many natural wonders as well as noteworthy landmarks in art and history as well, just an hour or two north of the city. Here are a few of our favorites, from south moving north along the Hudson River.

Bear Mountain State Park – Just an hour or so north of the city, Bear Mountain State Park is big enough to spread out, and has attractions to interest family members of any age. There is a small zoo, a Merry-go-round, a Playground, and even an antique but functional Merry-go-Round (check to see if it’s open before you visit if this is on your list of things to do.) All of this can be reached easily from the main entrance and parking lot at the lodge. You can also hike or drive to the mountain top at Perkin’s Peek. We drove there in April and found it snowing with a wicked wind. It was invigorating for us to run to the viewing tower and the views at the top were, of course, worth the climb.

The Walkway Over the Hudson – this was a fun way to appreciate the view from the middle of the Hudson River. We started in Highland, NY, at the start of the “rail train” and made our way across the pedestrian bridge to the other side of the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY. Dogs (on a 6 foot leash) are welcome. The wind really whips in the middle!

Minnewaska State Park – this is about 45 minutes west of the Hudson, but had to be included as it is our favorite park in NY. Minnewaska is full of natural wonders. $10 per vehicle gives you access to the park. Awosting Falls are a short hike from the lower lot, perfect for young families. However, you can go right up to the edge of the falls at the top (terrifying!) so keep dogs and small children tightly leashed. You can also make your way down to the bottom, to get a better view and dip your toes in the water. There are several beautiful mountain lakes. If you go to the visitor’s center you will find the jewel blue Lake Minnewaska right in back of it, surrounded by rock ledges and foliage. It is breathtaking. Also worth visiting on the western side of the park are Verkeerder Falls (higher than Niagara!), Sam’s Point overlook, and several interesting ice caves.

Springwood and the museum and library of FDR – the grounds, mansion, library and museum are all worth visiting, and you can easily spend half a day here, depending on the attention spans of your youngest family members. The resting place of the Roosevelts sits beneath a simple white headstone in the middle of a large flower garden behind the library. The stables with the names of his horses can also be visited – you’ll see the stable formerly belonging to “New Deal.”

The Vanderbilt Estate – again, the grounds are just as impressive as the mansion, with space and views that make it worth a visit, even if the mansion is closed. Tours of the mansion are $10 per person, and the grounds are free. There is an Italian Garden complete with fountains and benches to sit and take in the Hudson in from the mansion’s back yard. The estate is just across the street from Springwood in Hyde Park, so both visits can be done easily in a day.

Washington DC

If you’re in the mid-Atlantic region, visiting our nation’s capital should be high on your list. It’s a small place with a lot to see and do.

Our recommendations? If your kids are into trains, and you’re into a little bit of stress, ride the metro, just for fun. Also, if you get a chance to go in the early spring when the cherry trees are in bloom (usually at the very end of March/beginning of April), everything will look that much more beautiful.

Visit the capital building and the white house, and just walk the mall to admire the many beautiful monuments, which also happen to be rich with meaning. For many families, some will be especially important or interesting, such as the Lincoln and MLK memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the WW2 Memorial, or the Pentagon Memorial. Wait till your children are a bit older to visit the Holocaust Museum or the Arlington Cemetery. These are rich experiences that young children do not have the tact or wisdom to appreciate quite yet.

The National Zoo as well as the Smithsonian Museum are free and fabulous for your little ones (and you) to enjoy. Both are BIG and you could easily spend an entire day exploring each one. Walking through all of these attractions will tire you and your little ones out, and give you all an opportunity to learn and have fun at the same time.