Whether your dream vacation involves trekking through ancient ruins or sunbathing on foreign shores, odds are it doesn’t come cheap. In fact, pricey hotel room rates, coupled with sky-high airfare and other fees, cause many people to put their travel dreams on permanent hold. However, there are ways to see the world without spending a bundle.
The creator of the site Club Thrifty, Holly Johnson, blogs about saving money while traveling. In fact, she regularly takes several annual trips with her husband or her entire family. And, she pays next to nothing for these vacations, largely thanks to points earned through her credit card rewards.
Here are some tips for choosing the right rewards programs so you can see the world and travel for free.
Join Airline 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,” said Johnson. “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.”
Join Hotel Loyalty Programs, Too
Johnson belongs to almost all of the hotel and loyalty programs available because they are free to join 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, however. 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.
Get a Credit Card With Flexible Rewards
With so many airline-branded, hotel-branded and general travel rewards credit cards out there to choose from, you might be wondering where to start.
Johnson recommends 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 times the points for travel and dining purchases and one point per dollar spent elsewhere.
Branded Rewards Credit Cards Can Work, Too
If you’re loyal to a particular hotel chain or airline, you shouldn’t ignore the airline- or hotel-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.
Take Advantage of Sign-Up Offers
Many rewards cards offer bonuses 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 60,000 bonus points — worth $750 in travel rewards — for new cardholders who spend $4,000 in three months after opening an account.
Maximize Your Sign-Ups
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 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.
Maximize Your Rewards
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 on 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 homeowner’s 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 buys items, 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 and net more free travel.
Don't Carry a Balance
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. Learn foolproof strategies to avoid credit card debt.
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.
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.
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.
Be Mindful of Rewards Limitations
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,” said Johnson. “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.”
Travel During Off-Peak Days and Seasons
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 during the off-season because it required fewer points. And when Johnson flies overseas, she typically departs on a Wednesday because there are more rewards seats available on mid-week flights. There are lots of perks when traveling during shoulder season.
Just as you would compare prices for hotels and flights at various times to find the best travel deal, you should 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 off-season.
Johnson said she uses a spreadsheet to record the following details so she can stay organized. If you have more than one rewards card, you’re going need a system to keep track of them all. Make sure to include:
- Date you signed up for the card
- Date by which you need to spend a certain amount to earn the sign-up bonus
- Date of the 12-month point for 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 that isn’t so.
“I like to earn stuff free,” she said. “But I also don’t want my life to be complicated.”
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About the Author
Cameron Huddleston is an award-winning journalist with more than 18 years of experience writing about personal finance. Her work has appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, Fortune, MSN, USA Today and many more print and online publications. She also is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances.
U.S. News & World Report named her one of the top personal finance experts to follow on Twitter, and AOL Daily Finance named her one of the top 20 personal finance influencers to follow on Twitter. She has appeared on CNBC, CNN, MSNBC and “Fox & Friends” and has been a guest on ABC News Radio, Wall Street Journal Radio, NPR, WTOP in Washington, D.C., KGO in San Francisco and other personal finance radio shows nationwide. She also has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch and more.
She has an MA in economic journalism from American University and BA in journalism and Russian studies from Washington & Lee University.