Spring Break 2023: Ecuador (mostly) for free!

Ecuador on Points and Miles

If you hear me talk about travel, one thing you’ll hear me repeat over and over is that leveraging points, miles, and rewards are a key part of my strategy. Paying for everything out of pocket at its cash value is one reason why people think travel is so expensive.

In 2019, my husband and I decided that we wanted travel to be one of our family’s core values, setting a goal to visit at least one new country every year. Like most of you, we have a limited travel budget. We resolved to explore how we could stretch that budget as far as possible to make sure we still got to spread out our travel throughout the year. This led us to utilizing travel-based credit cards to earn miles and points that we could turn in to free (or very low-cost) airfare and lodging.

There seems to be a lot of skepticism and mystery around this topic, so I thought I would share one example of how we used our miles and points to our advantage to travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands for spring break. This was such an incredible trip, and being able to do it for nearly free was pretty amazing!

FIRST – since we’re talking about credit cards and personal finance: we pay off our credit cards in full every month. I would not recommend this strategy if you are not paying off your credit cards in full each month.

Tools in Our Toolkit

We use a few key tools, websites, and credit cards to help us make sure we’re maximizing the value and minimizing the cost of our travels:

  • The Points Guy: I love this website and their daily emails, which have great news, tips, and guides on how to get the most out of your points and credit cards
  • Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights): this is probably the best travel investment we’ve made. Their annual membership pays for itself with one great flight deal (here’s my referral link if you want to sign up), and as long as I know when we want to take a trip, I can easily say “yes” when an awesome deal comes up!
  • Budget: we create an annual travel budget spreadsheet so we can track where we want to go and how much we estimate that each trip is going to cost
  • Rewards Tracker: I keep a simple spreadsheet of the different kinds of points we have, as well as account numbers for each, so that it’s easy to add/remove/transfer points when we’re ready to use them. Doing this work ahead of time will save you a lot of effort when a great deal comes up, and avoid missing out due to timing!

My Favorite Travel Credit Cards

I’m a big fan of transferrable points that can be used for any hotel chain or airline, and have multiple ways you can use points. Most cards also have a host of other perks and benefits that save us time and money each year, essentially paying for themselves (and then some!). My top three favorite travel credit cards are:

  1. Capital One Venture X (annual fee $395)
  2. Chase Sapphire Preferred (annual fee $95)
  3. American Express Platinum (annual fee $695)

Other than that, if you have status or preference with a certain airline or hotel chain, it also makes sense to have their co-branded credit card. When I traveled for a previous job, we typically stayed in Marriott hotels and flew Delta, so I have both of their credit cards.

Credit Card Fact vs. Fiction

There are a lot of myths out there about credit cards, but most of them are just that. Here are a few of the top ones I’ve heard and what my own experience has been:

If you open too many credit cards, your credit score will go down.

I have found the opposite to be true. Now, you don’t want to open a bunch at once, and you certainly want to make sure you pay them off, but in general, my credit score has dropped a few points when I open a card (5-10 points) and then bounced right back up. Any time you apply for a card, they run a credit check, which will lower your score temporarily, but if you pay your card off and wait 4-5 months before opening another one, you’ll generally be just fine. Real talk – my credit score is 812, and I’ve been opening 2-3 cards/year since 2019.

Having too many credit cards will affect your credit score.

Again, I haven’t found that to be true. My husband and I each have 9 credit cards, and both of us have credit scores over 810. An important note here is that we only use a small percentage of our total credit each month (credit utilization), so only 1-2 cards ever have a balance at one time. Those cards are then paid off in full each month.

Are there others you’ve heard? I’d love to share my experience with others, and can also point you to resources if you’d be interested in learning more.

Ecuador: The Breakdown

So, how did we make this trip of a lifetime happen? It all started with an email from Going.com on Memorial Day weekend 2022 (yes, almost a year ago!). Flight deals can sometimes come up a year in advance, so I’m always thinking ahead.

I got an email with flights to Quito from Chicago O’Hare for $350 over our school’s spring break. In the email, they referenced that from Quito it’s only a two hour flight on Avianca airlines to the Galapagos Islands.

I had recently read an article on The Points Guy about a hotel that was going to be transitioning to a Hilton hotel on Santa Cruz, the main island in the Galapagos, so it would soon be bookable with points. Wheels started turning:

  • Avianca Airlines uses LifeMiles – which I could transfer from my stash of Capital One rewards points
  • Doug stays at Hiltons now most often when he travels, so he opened a Hilton credit card that gave him 100,000 points upon earning the sign-up bonus
  • Quito has a JW Marriott hotel where we could use our Marriott points AND annual free night certificates for being credit card holders

So, I jumped on it. I booked us four tickets from Chicago to Quito for a total of $1,455 with taxes. Then, I booked our Marriott hotel nights, which cost 60,000 points + two free night certificates. In a more expensive city, this likely wouldn’t have covered our hotel, but it worked in our favor this time.

Then, I transferred 43,000 Capital One points to Avianca and used those miles to buy four tickets to the Galapagos. I only paid the taxes, which totaled $270.

Finally, I had to book our hotel in the Galapagos. The hotel was so new that it hadn’t yet shown up on the Hilton site, but it was showing up on Chase’s Travel Portal for 96,000 points for a four night stay. I used those points to reserve our hotel, again paying only $58 in taxes.

So far, our nine day trip to the Galapagos and Quito had cost us $1,783.

Activity Budget

Now, this doesn’t account for activities or food, which are a key part of any trip. By saving money on flights and hotels, it allowed us to stay within our travel budget and book two excursions on the Galapagos with a company that I really admire. Uniquely Galapagos focuses on ecologically and ethically sustainable travel experiences that support the local community. His communication and understanding of our interests and values were second to none, and he went above and beyond to help us find places to eat, shop, and look around in the town of Puerto Ayora after his work day. He even hosts several social justice projects in town and connected us with ways to participate and support their efforts.

Our first experience was a private tour of the El Chato Tortoise Reserve, and an afternoon hike through Tortuga Bay and Beach with a certified naturalist guide, Steph. She is a native Galapageña and was so kind, friendly, and knowledgeable, and it felt great to have an experience where our kids could ask her as many questions as they wanted! As parents and travel advocates, knowing that our funds were staying in the local community made us feel great, too.

On day two, Brett connected us with another local partner, Guiding Galapagos, on a day trip to Isabela Island. We spent the entire day hiking, boating, snorkeling, and touring a giant tortoise breeding center with only two other couples, and had a fantastic private lunch at a beachside restaurant.

When I think about the quality of those experiences and the long-term impact it made going right in to the hands of local citizens, I felt great about how we spent our money.

We also booked several activities in Quito, and while I won’t share the exact costs for each, they were very affordable and well worth it at even twice the cost.

We spent a day with Elizabeth and Gustavo with Tours Around Quito to the Mindo Valley, where we had probably the best experience ever – feeding and interacting with tons of hummingbirds that live in the valley. We also went to a butterfly sanctuary, hiked to waterfalls, tasted chocolate, ate more local delicacies, and conquered our fears by riding over the valley in a tiny cable car (or maybe that was just me). In spending a day with them, we got to know a real Ecuadorian family and build relationships – which was very meaningful for us. Porter and Doug got to practice their Spanish as well!

We enjoyed a food tour through a town just outside Quito with Michelle Fried, who took us all over town introducing us to local vendors and shop owners while we tasted local fruits and native cuisine. Then, we went back and cooked some of it in her garden! It was magical.

We ended our trip with an eight course tasting menu at Somos, one of the 50 best restaurants in the world, and ranked at the top of the list of best restaurants in South America.


All in all, points and miles allowed our family to spend less than $4,000 (including food, activities, and round trip bus tickets to Chicago) on the trip of a lifetime.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the price of Galapagos and Ecuador trips via cruise ship or tour company, and they ranged from $4-9,000 per person!

So, when people ask me if it’s a lot of work to track and use points and miles, I say yes. But it is 100% worth it.

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