Whether you're traveling solo or with a big family, the price to visit other countries can be excessively high. From airfare to hotel rates, your dream vacation can quickly turn into a nightmare when you check your credit card statement. But, there's a way you can avoid falling into credit card debt — and still travel the world.
Keep your costs down by taking advantage of the best travel rewards credit cards, as well as hotel and airline loyalty programs. Your goal should be to get most — if not all — of your travel expenses paid for, which is the case for Holly Johnson. Johnson blogs about travel and saving money at Club Thrifty and takes seven to eight trips a year with her husband or her entire family of four. And she pays next to nothing.
Johnson does it by maximizing credit card rewards and racking up points through loyalty programs. Follow these tips if you want to save money and start traveling for (almost) free.
Step 1: Join Loyalty Programs
Many major hotel chains and airlines have loyalty programs that let members earn points for booking hotel rooms and flights. Once you have enough points, you can redeem them for free flights or hotel stays.
"I'm a member of Southwest Airlines' Rapid Rewards loyalty program. I fly about three times a year and typically earn enough points to score at least one free flight. Rapid Rewards — and other airline loyalty programs — also allow members to earn points when booking rental cars and hotel rooms with their partners and by making purchases from retail partners on their online shopping malls," said Johnson.
Johnson added that she belongs to almost all of the hotel and loyalty programs available because they are free and offer perks beyond points, such as free WiFi and room upgrades.
You likely won't earn points as quickly through loyalty programs as you can through rewards credit cards, though. But if you're worried about racking up debt with credit cards, the loyalty programs might be better for you. You can accumulate points much faster if you simultaneously use rewards cards and join the best loyalty programs.
Step 2: Get Rewards Cards That Offer Flexibility
With so many airline-branded, hotel-branded and general travel rewards credit cards out there to choose from, which one should you get?
Johnson recommended getting a rewards card that isn't tied to a particular airline or hotel because you'll have more flexibility with how you use your points. For example, if you don't end up traveling much, you can redeem your points for gift cards or cash.
Her favorite, by far, is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which lets you earn two points for travel and dining purchases and one point per $1 spent elsewhere. Points can be transferred at full value — 1 point for every $1 — to participating frequent travel programs such as British Airways Executive Club, Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus, Hyatt Gold Passport and Marriott Rewards.
If you're loyal to a particular hotel chain or airline, however, you shouldn't ignore the hotel- and airline-branded rewards cards. Look up card offers, or use an online tool that compares cards to help you find the best travel rewards card for you.
Step 3: Take Advantage of Sign-Up Offers
Many rewards cards offer bonus points for signing up and spending a certain amount of money within a specified period of time, typically the first 90 days of having the card. Fulfilling this requirement is the fastest way to earn enough points for free travel — especially if you take advantage of several offers during the year, said Johnson.
The bonus from just one card can be enough to net you free flights for you and your entire family. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is currently offering 50,000 bonus points — worth $625 in travel rewards — for new cardholders who spend $4,000 in three months after opening an account.
Johnson said she can sign up for more cards in a year than most people because she owns two businesses and can take advantage of bonus offers for both personal and business credit cards. Couples can rack up points quickly if both spouses sign up for cards with bonus-point offers, she added.
If you plan to sign up for more than one card, Johnson said you should do so every three months rather than all at once. That way, it will be easier to meet the spending requirements to earn the bonus points. This strategy is also a good idea because you might improve your chances of being approved for cards if you spread out your applications. Opening new lines of credit can affect your credit score, but Johnson said she's seen little impact on hers, which is above 800.
Step 4: Charge Everything to Your Rewards Cards — Then Pay Them Off
Perhaps you're reluctant to use your card for everyday purchases because you don't want to rack up credit card debt. But if your goal is to travel for free, you need to get over that reluctance. If you don't charge enough to your travel credit card, you won't earn enough points to get all of your hotel stays or plane tickets for free.
Johnson said she uses her credit cards for gas, groceries, business expenses and all of her regular bills, including car, health and homeowners insurance. "We dig really deep to find things to pay with our credit card," she said.
The number of points you can earn per purchase varies from card to card. So when Johnson makes purchases, she uses the card that will give her the most points for that purchase. If you have several cards, the free Wallaby app can help you identify which card to use for which purchase to get the most rewards points.
Johnson also pays off her cards once a week so interest doesn't accrue. "I never get a bill because I always pay it [off]," she said.
If you're charging cards to rack up points and aren't paying off what you owe each month, you're also racking up interest — which can wipe out any savings you're getting with free accommodations or flights. "It's not very rewarding to end up in debt," said Johnson.
Step 5: Book Trips Far in Advance
Not only is there a strategy for earning points, but there's also a method for redeeming them. Johnson said that you need to plan trips well in advance to maximize your rewards points.
It can take a few months to earn points and then another month for them to be credited to your account. Additionally, some airlines and hotels have a limited number of rooms and seats that can be redeemed for points. So if you don't book far enough in advance, you'll miss out and be left with points you can't use, said Johnson.
"At times when I've waited until the last minute to book a hotel room for a weekend getaway, I haven't been able to find rewards rooms that suited my needs. For example, my family needs a suite because we have three kids. But by the time I booked a trip, the only rooms left had just one king-size bed," Johnson said.
Johnson once went to Cancun in December by redeeming sign-up bonus points from Marriott Rewards Premier credit cards for a package that included flights on Southwest and a seven-night stay at a JW Marriott. The rewards availability in December is limited because it's a peak travel season, but she was able to redeem her points because she booked her trip nine months in advance.
Step 6: Be Flexible With Travel Plans
Being flexible with your travel plans can also help you get more out of your rewards points, said Johnson. In fact, she once stayed at a Westin hotel on Grand Cayman Island during the offseason because it required fewer points. And when Johnson flies overseas, she typically departs on a Wednesday because there are more rewards seats available on midweek flights.
Just as you would compare prices for hotels and flights at various times to find the best deal, also compare the number of points you'll need for hotel and flight options. You might find that you can use fewer points by booking your trip during the offseason.
Step 7: Stay Organized
If you have more than one rewards card, you need a system to keep track of them. Johnson said she uses a spreadsheet to record the following details so she can stay organized:
- Date she signed up for a card
- Date by which she needs to spend a certain amount to earn the sign-up bonus
- Date of the 12-month point if and when an annual fee is charged
It might sound tedious to keep track of all of this just to travel for free, but Johnson said it isn't. If it was, she wouldn't do it.
"I like to earn stuff free," she said. "But I also don't want my life to be complicated."