How to Use Rewards Cards to Travel for Free

I love to travel. Wanderlust embedded itself inside me early in life, and I spend a little too much time reading up on different countries to visit and what to see and eat when I get there. There’s a big difference between myself and most of the travel writers whose glamorous blogs and Instagram accounts I follow, however: I am not a quit-your-job-and-travel-the-world-type. I have a full-time job, a husband, a dog, and plenty of other responsibilities I gladly allow to tie me to one city. 

Even so, I usually get to take one big, international trip every year in addition to several smaller trips over long weekends.

How do I do it? Here’s a secret: I haven’t paid out-of-pocket for any of my international flights in years — all thanks to travel credit cards. 

The high cost of air travel keeps many people from taking the plunge and getting out to see the world. Luckily, there are ways to strategically leverage rewards from travel credit cards to earn miles, so that you can put your travel budget toward once-in-a-lifetime activities in your dream destination — or toward other luxuries, like rent and food. 

Here’s what you need to know about picking out a credit card that’s right for you: 

Factors to consider when picking a card:

Source: Away Travel

Sign-up bonuses: Any travel card that doesn’t offer you a points bonus for signing up is not worth having. Typical bonuses will range between 25,000 to 50,000 points, but if you’re willing to wait for a promotion you can find some for as many as 100,000. Oftentimes, these bonuses can already equal a free flight. 

Minimum spending: Some credit cards require you to spend a minimum amount of money — usually somewhere between $1,000 and $5,000 —  within a period of time in order to unlock your signing bonus. No matter what, check what this requirement is before applying for the card. In many cases, the spending requirements can be met easily just by using the card for regular purchases, like groceries or gas, but you’ll want to be sure that’s the case before opening an account. 

Foreign transaction fees: Nobody needs 3% foreign transaction fees in their life while traveling! Fee-free cards include: Chase Ink, Starwood American Express, American Airlines Advantage Card, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. There are others, so be sure to check before you sign up. 

Annual fees: Most branded travel cards have annual fees between $50 and $100. If this is a problem, look for cards that waive the annual fee for the first year. If you’re using the card correctly, you’ll save far more than $100 on flights each year, which makes the annual fee not such a big deal. 

Category spending bonuses: Before looking at a card, think about what you spend the most on in your regular life. If you’re eating out regularly, consider a card that gives you double points on dining (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred card). If you’re a business owner, Chase Ink give you 5x points on office spending. 

How I do it:

Source: Margo and Me

Disclaimer: I highly encourage you to do your research and consider your own financial situation before opening any accounts. The following is just what works for me personally. 

For international flights: A combination of an airline card and a third-party card can be very effective here. For example, I have a Delta Skymiles card (which offers me the benefit of free checked bags, early boarding, etc) that earned me a 60,000 sign-up bonus, as well as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (which I use specifically because I get double points while dining out, which I do a lot) that earned me a 50,000 sign-up bonus. After meeting my spending requirements, on stuff I would have bought anyway, I started off with 110,000 points to use on Delta flights. 

For domestic flights: My favorite way to make quick weekend trips with my husband is by using the little-known Southwest Companion Pass. With the pass, my husband flies free on any flights I book with points. Yes, FREE. The airline issues the companion pass after earning 110,000 Southwest points in a year. That would seem impossible to achieve if it weren’t for the fact that Southwest offers 50,000 points for each of their credit cards. If you sign up for both the RapidRewards and Business credit cards, you’re already at 100,000 points, which puts the finish line in sight. 

After reaching the goal and earning the pass, you can use those 110,000 points to fly to any Southwest destination along with your companion — two for the price of one! 

Important notes about the companion pass: You need to pick your “companion” at the beginning and can only change companions a small number of times.  Additionally, you need to reach your spending requirements for both cards in the SAME CALENDAR YEAR in order to earn the pass. That means, if you hit your spending requirement on Dec. 31, you’re out of luck. 

 

So you picked your card. Now what?

Source: Paris in Four Months

DO:  

Stay organized. Make a list of your accounts and the spending requirements for each. Stay on track of your balances. This will help you know when to use which card.

Put everything on the card. Using it for all of your normal spending (and then paying it off weekly, preferably) is the most reliable way to rack up points. 

Be frugal with your miles. Keep your eyes out for promotions and sales and use flight price aggregators like Google Flights or Skyscanner to see what dates will cost you the fewest miles. 

DON’T: 

Use earning mileage points as an excuse to spend more. Travel credit cards are all about better leveraging dollars you ALREADY spend, but saving a few thousand on flights each year won’t matter if you’re going into debt for it. 

Spend money you don’t have. Like any other credit card, travel cards should be used like debit cards. If you don’t have the money in your bank account, you don’t have money to spend. Period. 

Sign up for too many cards at once. Take a hard look at your goals and make sure you can easily meet minimum spending requirements before opening any accounts. 

 

Do you use travel credit cards? If you have any questions, be sure to ask in the comments and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction.

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