My friend has a destination wedding in Roatan, Honduras over the July 4th weekend. He asked me to write a post explaining to his guests how they can get there with miles. This is the specific example I’ll use, but this post is broadly applicable when you need to plan airfare for any destination wedding. Follow the same three steps in this post.

Destination weddings don’t need to break the bank for attendees. Airfare can cost as little as the roundtrip aviation taxes to your destination ($29 to Honduras), and, worst case scenario, you can always get $500 off the cheapest fare to your destination.

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Roatan, from infinitybay.com

There is a simple three-step process I would use to minimize the cost of airfare to a destination wedding.

For Roatan over July 4:

1. Search on united.com for award space from your home airport to Roatan.

2a. If there is space you want, open the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Meet its minimum spending requirement to unlock its bonus. Book the space you found on united.com.
2b. If there is not space you want, open the Arrival Plus.

3. If you open the Arrival Plus, set a Kayak Price Alert and purchase the ticket with your Arrival miles when the cash price dips.

For other destination weddings:

  1. Fill out a free credit card consultation form, and I will tell you what card(s) to open for the destination, time of year, and cabin of service you want.
  2. Meet the minimum spending requirements on those credit cards, and redeem your miles for the flights.

Let me go over these simple steps in detail at a beginners’ level, so anyone can follow along. No excuses for not showing up in Roatan!

Step 1. Search for Award Space on United.com

Ideally you could use 35,000 United miles and about $29 for a roundtrip from anywhere in the United States to Roatan.

I say “ideally” because United or its partners will need to release award space at the Saver level for your award to cost 35,000 miles. Saver award space is capacity controlled, and airlines only release it when they otherwise expect there to be empty seats on the plane.

To search for Saver award space from your home airport to Roatan, go to united.com. Right on the home page is the search box.

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Enter your home airport as the starting point and Roatan (RTB) as the destination. Select your preferred dates, the number of passengers, and select “Award Travel” under “Search By:”. Click “Search.”

Your results will look like this (click to enlarge):

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You’re looking for the blue Select button in the Saver Award column under Economy. I’ve highlighted it in yellow above.

If a desirable itinerary appears with Saver award space in both directions, you are in good shape and will proceed to step 2a, getting a Sapphire Preferred. If no desirable itineraries appear with Saver space, proceed to step 2b, getting an Arrival Plus.

I think many people will find a desirable Saver itinerary. United has a daily flight from Houston to Roatan. The graphic below shows the days with Saver availability for eight travelers. As you can see, July 3, 2015 there are currently 8 Saver award seats in economy from Houston to Roatan.

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That means if there is Saver award space from your home airport to Houston, you should have a good outbound Saver itinerary.

The return has 8 Saver award seats from Roatan to Houston on July 6 and 7.

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Someone coming from Raleigh, for instance, would find this itineray for only 35,000 United miles + $28.70.

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Step 2: Get the Right Credit Card

2a. If there was good space on United.com, get the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

If you found space in the previous section get the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

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The Chase Sapphire Preferred comes with 40,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on the card in the first three months. At the time of application, make sure to add an authorized user for 5,000 bonus points. (Feel free to name anyone. They send you this extra card, which you can destroy if you decide you don’t actually trust your authorized user as much as you thought you might when you applied.)

The card earns 2 points per dollar on travel and dining expenses and 1 point per dollar on everything else.

After spending that $4,000 in the first three months, you will end up with at least 49,000 Ultimate Rewards–more if some of that $4,000 was spent on travel or dining.

Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 instantly to miles with several airlines including United.

Once all your Ultimate Rewards post to your Chase Sapphire Preferred account, you’ll want to go back to united.com and make sure award space still exists on your dates, and if. If it does, transfer the appropriate number of points to United miles and book the trip on united.com.

If space has disappeared, and airline award space is dynamic, all is not lost. These points can be used for 1.25 cents toward the cost of any flight. In this case, skip to step three.

One final note on the Chase Sapphire Preferred: the card has no annual fee for the first 12 months, then it is $95 per year. You can cancel the card any time before that annual fee to avoid it. Before canceling make sure to transfer any points out of the account, or you will lose them. Most people who want a rewards card that earns flexible, easy rewards, though, will want to consider keeping the card and paying the annual fee. It’s a very good all-around card.

2b. If there was good space on United.com, get the Arrival Plus.

If your search in Step 1 turned up empty, get the Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard® with 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3k in the first 90 days.

This card earns 2 Arrival miles per dollar on all purchases.

These are not true airline miles. They are just bank points–like those ones that Capital One is always advertising–that can be used to book any flight on any airline like cash.

The miles are worth 1.14 cents each in my estimation.

After meeting the minimum spending requirement, you’d have 46,000 Arrival miles, which are worth over $500 in free travel.

One cool thing about Arrival miles is how they are redeemed. You put any travel expense on the credit card including airfare, hotels, car rentals, and much more, and then you have 120 days to go online and redeem Arrival miles for a full or partial credit to offset that travel expense. (Redeeming is super easy. Here’s how.)

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That means if you get this card, you can immediately look to purchase your ticket to Roatan with the card. Then whenever your bonus miles post, you can go in and use your 46,000 miles for $450 off the cost of your flight, which leave you with over $50 left in Arrival miles that you can use to offset your hotel, car rental, or any other future travel expense.

One final note on the Arrival Plus: the card has no annual fee for the first 12 months, then it is $89 per year. You can cancel the card any time before that annual fee to avoid it. Before canceling make sure to redeem any points, or you will lose them. Most people who want a rewards card that earns flexible, easy-to-use rewards for domestic or near-international travel will want to keep this card.

Application Link: Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard®

Step 3: Set a Kayak Price Alert to Stretch Your Arrival Miles Farther

When using Arrival miles, your miles go farther if you find the cheapest possible cash ticket.

(The same thing applies if you got the Sapphire Preferred, but United award space disappeared, so now you are here looking to use your points to book paid flights at a rate of 1.25 cents per point.)

The way I consistently get the best deals on paid tickets is to set Kayak price alerts.

Basically you set up an alert for a certain route on certain dates with a few clicks, then you get an email every morning with the price of those flights. When the price dips, you buy!

Go to kayak.com, and perform a search for your cities and dates. I like to start with a multi-city search when I am flexible to see how day of the week affects price. To perform a multi-city search, select “+/- 3 days” and then select your flexibility from the dropdown.

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Results of a flexible search look like this with a matrix of prices depending on departure and return dates.

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From that info, narrow down your desired dates to one or two dates in each direction. Go back to the home search screen.

Search each possible pair of departure and return dates one at a time.

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Your results should be covered by a pop-up offering to set a free price alert. Set that price alert.

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Repeat for each possible pair of departure and return dates.

You will start to get emails every morning from Kayak with all your price alerts. At the top of the email, you’ll see your dates and any change in price from the previous day. This is an email I used to get when I had three price alerts set.

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Down below is a graph with how the price has behaved over time.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 3.28.53 PMIn ten seconds per day, you’ll quickly see how the price of the flights is moving. You’ll be surprised how often the price moves. At some point, when the price dips, BUY!

There is no science to this. For me, when to buy has always been obvious. One day I’ll see a multi-hundred dollar drop. Or it will be stable for so long that the trip is now only three weeks away, at which point I would expect the price to rise.

Right now I am seeing a lot of fares in the $700 range from many US cities to Roatan. I would expect someone who monitored a price alert for several weeks or months to shave a few hundred dollars off that price. Add in the $500 in free travel from the Arrival Plus, and the airfare can be practically free.

If you have the Arrival Plus, you can purchase the flights through the cheapest website with your Arrival Plus at any point, even before you earn its sign up bonus. Then sign into your Arrival Plus account and redeem miles to offset all or part of the ticket price.

If you have the Sapphire Preferred and made it to this step, you need to sign into your Sapphire Preferred account when the price drops and enter the Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal to book your tickets through there.

Not Going to Roatan?

Combine Steps 1 and 2 into this: Fill out a free credit card consultation form, and I will tell you what card(s) to open for the destination, time of year, and cabin of service you want.

That consultation will also include basic instructions on how to redeem the miles I suggest getting. If those aren’t enough, you can hire my Award Booking Service to book your ticket for $125 per person.

Recap for Roatan

1. Search on united.com for award space from your home airport to Roatan.

2a. If there is space you want, open the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Meet its minimum spending requirement to unlock its bonus. Book the space you found on united.com.
2b. If there is not space you want, open the Arrival Plus.

3. If you open the Arrival Plus, set a Kayak Price Alert and purchase the ticket with your Arrival miles when the cash price dips.

Questions? Leave them in the comments.

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