Getting married is expensive. Not including your honeymoon, the average wedding in the United States cost $25,200, according to The Wedding Report, Inc. An average eight-day honeymoon costs $4,466 according to Real Size Bride. Given the huge costs, it really pays to work your credit cards to save some serious money. In the months leading up to your wedding, there are a few easy steps to earn back the dollars spent on those big wedding purchases you charged to the plastic in your wallet.
1. SELECT A DESTINATION
First step -- pick a location. You need to know where you're going in order to know how to get there. Not all airlines fly to all places, so knowing which airlines fly there is critical to determining the best rewards card to use for your purchases. In addition to selecting an airline, review which hotels and resorts are at your destination. Selecting a location first and comparing the hotel options can drive savings in a big way. Being flexible with the property itself may mean the difference between a free room and no room.
2. GET AN AIRLINE CARD
Now that you've picked a destination, get the credit card for that route that you want to take. For example, if you're headed to South Florida, you could apply for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa Card, which may offer a bonus of 50,000 points -- enough for two free tickets anywhere in the United States. Southwest also has great award availability. If you're headed to Hawaii, get the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard, which comes with 35,000 bonus miles (enough for one ticket), a free checked bag and a 50 percent off companion ticket for round-trip travel between Hawaii and North America.
3. GET A FLEXIBLE AWARDS CARD
Many points-earning cards allow you to transfer points to a partner airline. Matching up these transfer programs is key to getting enough miles in a short time to snag that free or even upgraded free flight. Membership Rewards from American Express transfers to 16 different airlines, including my earlier example of Hawaiian Airlines. When you sign-up for the right American Express card, you might earn 25,000 to 50,000 bonus points and can use those to consolidate miles to one place. If you're headed out on Southwest or other airlines, you can apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which has five transfer partners. Chase Sapphire Preferred was recently recognized as the Best Rewards Card of 2014 in the Wallaby Card Madness tournament with thousands of travel experts voting.
For complete flexibility, get a travel card like Barclaycard Arrival or Capital One Venture Rewards, which let you fly on airline and uses points to reimburse the cost.
4. GET A HOTEL CARD
All the major hotel brands have great cards like Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood and Marriott. Just like airline cards, these hotel cards usually come with some bonus points you can turn into free nights. The Hyatt Credit Card from Chase gives you two free nights at any Hyatt for signing up. The Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express comes with 25,000 bonus points and is the most flexible card with no hotel blackout dates.
5. USE YOUR CARDS CORRECTLY!
Most credit cards require you to spend some minimum amount to earn the bonus miles or points that you can use to make your honeymoon free. If you sign up now and use them for your wedding spend, you will be able to book that honeymoon sooner than you think. Make sure you read the terms and use them right. If you miss the spend minimum by even a little, you'll miss out on those points. If you have to carry the balance, the cost of the interest could easily outweigh the benefit of the points.
GET HELP IF YOU NEED IT!
There are a ton of great sites and guides for finding the right card for each situation, like Hack My Trip, JohnnyJet or The Points Guy. These sites can give you or your fiancée the reading you need to be a travel pro. You can also use an award booking service like Award Magic who will do the hard work of finding free tickets and upgrades for you for a low fee.
Just remember, it may take a few minutes to fill out those applications, but when you're enjoying the beach at a 5-star resort with your new spouse and your hotel bill is zero, you'll be glad you did it.
The most important tip cited by many wedding experts is to create a budget plan before you purchase anything -- and stick to it. Wedding experts Susan Southerland and Samantha Goldberg agreed that couples need to sit down and figure out exactly what their wedding "must-haves" are and how much they want to spend. "If they don't have a level head and they haven't started thinking, 'Here's what I can spend without getting into trouble,' they wind up going with their heart and not sticking to it," Southerland said. And, if you follow your budget, you shouldn't have any problems with overspending. "If they have a blueprint, there won't be a reason to feel like they're going to go over, because they've been on this plan the entire time," Goldberg said (download her wedding budget tracker here).
By cutting the guest list, you can save exponentially on things like flowers, tables, and square footage, said wedding planner Marcy Blum. You'll have a better event if you invite fewer guests, rather than eliminating services like an open bar and proper facilities. "It would be much better to cut the guest list than cut the wait staff. There's no point in doing something halfway," Blum said.
Money-saving expert Kendal Perez offered this little-known tip: buy used gift cards from stores you'd like to purchase wedding items from at GiftCardGranny.com. When shoppers receive a gift card to a store they don't like, they can sell the card on GiftCardGranny.com for less than face value -- meaning you can buy the card and save up to 30 percent. For example, there are cards available from 1-800 Flowers, Tiffany, and wedding dress retailers like J. Crew. "It’s a different way to save money without having to shop sales, but if you can couple that with something on sale then you’re getting even more savings," Perez said.
Matthew Robbins, author of "Matthew Robinns' Inspired Weddings," cautioned couples against renting too many fancy items, and instead recommended mixing in just a few special pieces with items already included in your venue. For example, rent a unique water or champagne glass to add something special to the table, or use a simple cloth from the venue for the tables and rent a beautiful overlay or runner to dress things up. "Choose wisely and consider rental items as a special accent to embellish what your venue provides," Robbins said.
Holidays are more expensive, plain and simple, said wedding planner Yifat Oren. "You might think it's easier for people to get time off work, but they'll be spending more money all around on travel and accommodations, not to mention the challenges with availability during high season times," she said.
Sign up for all your potential vendors' email lists and follow them on social media in order to get the first scoop on deals, contests, and freebies, said Sharon Naylor, wedding expert and author of "The Bride's Guide To Freebies." You'll hear about clearance sales, "Pin It To Win It" contests on Pinterest, trunk shows and more deals you wouldn't have known about otherwise. "If you’re following them and keeping a good eye on them, you can cash in on some great stuff," Naylor said.
Don't feel like you need to spend money on things you don't really need but feel like you have to have, said money-saving expert Kendal Perez. Skip wedding traditions that seem necessary, like programs and favors. "I don’t think I've ever kept a wedding favor. Those things are unnecessary expenses," Perez said. "Make sure you're planning the party you want and you're not including things just because everyone includes them."
Vendors will sometimes give discounts to clients they enjoyed working with and, if you ask, may agree to give you freebies or substitutions, said wedding expert Sharon Naylor. But don't forget to be nice! "You cannot be a steamroller and you can't demand it and you can't say, 'Well, I heard you gave my friend a free [food] station so what am I going to get?'" Naylor said. "When vendors don't like you you're not going to get as many freebies."
There's no rule that you must have a pricey dinner or cocktail hour for all of your guests, said wedding planner Xochtil Gonzalez. As long as you give guests something to eat and drink, that constitutes a party. Hire a food truck or consider holding a brunch on a Sunday afternoon. "If you know you have a fun crowd that’s going to dance no matter what if the music’s good and they’ve had a couple drinks, there’s no reason to force yourself to just have a nighttime party," Gonzalez said.
Instead of registering for kitchen supplies you don't really need, wedding planner Samantha Goldberg said you can actually register for wedding items such as a videographer or upgraded room on your honeymoon. Many vendors will make cards you can put in your invitations explaining your request to your guests. "You'd be surprised -- everyone pitches in here and there and suddenly you now have this money to have something you thought you wanted but weren't able to afford," Goldberg said.
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