A luxury Adriatic vacation for 3 for under $2000: Hacked!

Cruise breakdown

The results are in!

After more than a year of racking up points and miles as I worked towards hacking an Adriatic cruise for my parents and me, I’ve totaled the results and have finalized the remaining balances. What an adventure it’s been! In hindsight, I probably should have started out with a more modest trip for my first big travel hacking adventure, but in the end, it worked out pretty well and I learned a ton along the way. I didn’t quite meet my goal of keeping the total under $1,500, but I came pretty darn close. I’m going to break it all down for you today so you can see how the trip was paid for and how the points were earned. I’ll be following up another day with some helpful lessons I learned and tips to make your first hacking adventures go a little more smoothly.

With no further ado, here’s how I hacked an Adriatic Cuise for under $2000:


An overview of the trip

Although I’m writing up the ins and outs of the trip in more details through a series of posts, I wanted to include a brief overview here to give you an idea of our itinerary.

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We spent just shy of two weeks exploring Italy and cruising the Adriatic. We flew Delta out of Rochester in first class and lie-flat business seats into Venice. The first night in Italy was spent at the 5-star JW Marriott Venice which is located on its own private island just a short boat ride away from St. Mark’s Square in Venice. From there, we took a train down to Rome to meet up with my brother and explore the ancient city. Two nights there were spent at the Marriott Courtyard Central Park, located just outside the city. Another train took our family back up to Venice for one more night, this time staying at the 5-star Boscolo Venezia, a gorgeous old property that we absolutely loved. We then boarded the Norwegian Jade for 7 nights of cruising the Adriatic. During that time, we had port stops in Croatia, Greece, and Turkey, with the cruise finishing up back in Venice for our flight home. In economy. Wah, wah.

Cruise itinerary

A breakdown of the costs

Flights: $798.80


Using 187,500 Delta miles, I was able to book my parents and I on flights from our home airport of Rochester, NY to Venice with a connection in Atlanta. We flew first class from Rochester to Atlanta and business class from Atlanta to Rochester. Taxes and fees came to $5.60 each for these flights. These same exact flights would have cost $7,011 each had we paid cash.


I had originally planned to use United miles to fly us home, but I stumbled on some great one-way fares through AirTransat and decided to save my miles for other expenses. Toronto is about a three hour drive from my home, but can be well worth the commute for savings on flights. The return flights cost $256 a piece and, although we didn’t fly business class, we were able to sit in exit rows. Had I not gotten creative and researched flying into Toronto, one-way economy flights on the same date from Venice to Rochester would have cost at least $1183 each. 


I booked a one-way car rental to get us back home to Rochester for an amazing $14 with Avis using a corporate discount code.


Hotels: $222

Pulling into the JW Marriott's interior dock in Venice

Pulling into the JW Marriott’s interior dock in Venice


We stayed at the brand spanking new JW Marriott on a private island next to Venice for our first night. This was paid for using 40,000 Marriott Reward points.


We spent two nights in Rome at the Courtyard Central Park and needed two rooms for our family of four. One room was paid for using 33,550 United Miles through the United shopping site, offsetting the entire cost of the room. The second room we paid for in cash, but I used gift cards purchased at a 20% discount from Daily Getaways’ annual sale to save a few bucks. With the gift cards, the second room ended up costing a total of $222 for both nights.


For the night before the cruise, we booked two rooms at the Boscolo Venezia, a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel, using a total of 57,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points through the online travel booking site. I had originally planned to transfer the points to Marriott, but at 50,000 points/night, we would have needed 100,000 Marriott Rewards points to book the rooms. The same rooms were able to be booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards for only 57,000 points – a much better value.


Trains: $0

We took a high speed train from Venice to Rome and back. The outbound tickets cost us $127 total and the inbound tickets were $95 total. I paid for all of these tickets using the Barclaycard Arrival Plus and then offset the charges using 222,000 miles.


Cruise: $827

Setting sail from Venice

Setting sail from Venice

This was the tricky part. The total cost to book the three of us (my parents and me) on this cruise came to $3,357. Since it’s next to impossible to book cruises on rewards points, I had to rely on my points that could be redeemed for travel credits from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Bank of America Travel Rewards, and the Capital One Venture. I used a combined 243,091 points and miles to offset $2,530 of the cruise costs, bringing my out-of-pocket total down to $827.


How I put it all together

Credit card sign ups: 185,000 miles

Signing up for credit cards is the quickest and easiest way to rack up lots of miles. In preparation for this trip, I opened 8 credit cards (and believe it or not, my credit score is better than ever). Below are the cards I opened and the sign-up bonuses that came along with each.

  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus: 40,000 miles
  • Bank of America Travel Rewards: 10,000 miles
  • American Express SPG: 25,000 points
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred: 40,000 points
  • Chase United Visa: 30,000 miles
  • Capital One Venture: 40,000 miles
  • US Bank Club Carlson: 85,000 points (ended up not using on this trip)
  • Citi Hilton: 60,000 points (ended up not using on this trip)

Credit card spending: 217,886 miles

To help increase spending, I added my dad as an authorized user on two of the cards. By having him include his household expenses and some business expenses on the cards, we were able to rack up a much larger number of points than I would have been able to do alone. I also did a little gift card churning and just a tiny bit of reselling on Amazon to up these amounts.

Travel: 60,300 miles

Earning miles the old fashioned way! From flights and hotel stays, I was able to accrue 60,300 miles to put towards the trip. From a flight to Brussels alone, I was able to rack up 16,928 miles. And what an enjoyable flight it was…

klm leg room business

Endless legroom in KLM’s business class

Shopping portals: 12,342 miles

Using the Chase Ultimate Rewards, Barclay Rewards Boost, and Delta shopping portals, I pulled in over 12,000 miles. Some of this was for regular shopping I would have been doing otherwise and some was for the purchase of gift cards or other items for reselling.

E-rewards/e-miles: 13,450 miles

Even though I started slacking on my survey-taking toward the end of this adventure, I was able to pull in just under 13,500 miles from the two sites. They add up!

Barclaycard Travel Community and Fan Zone: 17,470 miles

From posting stories on the Barclaycard Travel community, I earned 16,480 miles. I brought in another 990 from the Barclaycard Fan Zone.

A little help from dad: 65,000 points

My dad used 40,000 of his Marriott Rewards to book us in the JW Marriott the first night in Venice. He also transferred 25,000 of his Delta miles into my account to top me off for the flight purchases.

Odds and Ends: 11,893 points

Dining rewards programs: 1,754 (sign up bonuses and spending)

Points transfers: 5,139 (5,000 bonus for transferring SPG to Delta and 139 for unused Frontier miles)

Adding authorized user: 5,000 on Chase Sapphire Preferred


In sum

To get a better idea of how this all worked out, I kept track of my spending and the points that were used to offset the cost. This chart breaks down each of my expenses and how they were paid for.

Trip totals

Trip cost if I had paid cash: $30,406.00

Final out of pocket cost: $1,847.80

Savings: $28,452.20


Although I came in about $350 short of my goal, I’d consider this adventure a success! I learned so much along the way, but my biggest takeaway was how possible it can be to make travel, even luxury travel, happen with even the most meager of budgets. What an amazing trip for under $2,000!