I still remember the first time I signed up for a credit card that doled out cash back or rewards. It was 2011, and I had just received a direct mailer to sign up for the Chase Freedom card. Although I was confused about how rewards cards worked at first, I quickly learned that some credit cards offer a “bonus” if you spend a certain amount of money within the first few months.
The fine print made the process sound easy. The signup bonus on the Chase Freedom card was $100 at the time (it’s currently at $150), and all I had to do was spend $500 within 90 days.
“Just $500?” I thought. If I charged just our groceries and nothing else, I knew that type of spending requirement would be a breeze.
After mulling it over, I couldn’t find a single reason not to go through with it. With one small child and another bun in the oven, one hundred dollars could have easily meant a few trips to the doctor, a months’ worth of formula, ten packages of diapers, or whatever else I could dream up. I wasn’t 100% sure the deal would really work, but I didn’t think I had much to lose, either.
Fortunately, there were no caveats or “gotchas” at all. Once I charged groceries on my card for a few months, the sweet $100 bonus posted to my account without almost no effort on my part. All I had to do to steer clear of trouble was to pay my bill in full every month (or even more often), avoid credit card interest like the plague, and not let my penchant for rewards trick me into spending more than I planned.
From Cash Back to Travel Rewards
I was hooked, but my hobby continued to evolve from there. And now that our income and the amount of time we can take off work has increased considerably, I’m literally traveling the world on credit card rewards, and that’s not even an exaggeration.
We still have to make a living, but we easily take anywhere from 8-9 trips per year, some with and some without the kids. In the last two years alone, we’ve seen and done so many amazing things – for example, we took a canal ride in Venice, explored Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, snorkeled with sea turtles in St. Maarten, saw the amazing landscape in Capri, and enjoyed Spring Break with the kids in Jamaica.
We’ve dined on stone-heated pizza in Rome, stayed in one of the finest hotels in Paris, zip-lined the highest zip line in the world in Puerto Rico, and basked in the mystery and wonder of Stonehenge. Over the last few years, we have learned to enjoy and embrace life in ways we never thought possible – and in ways we could never afford otherwise.
In this article, I hope to offer an introduction to travel hacking – a term used to describe the process of earning points and miles and redeeming them to see the world. If you’ve been interested in the past but were afraid to jump in, consider this a personal invitation.
Getting Free Travel with Credit Card Rewards: How to Get Started
For the most part, the key to figuring out which card is best for your needs is deciding where you want to go. What does your ideal trip look like? Do you want to stay in a hotel or condo?
Do you want to fly all over the world or mostly stick to train travel?
Would you rather sink into a white sand beach with a cold drink, or go hiking through the Swiss Alps?
When it comes to rewards, the sky is truly the limit. You can truly go almost anywhere, but your first step is figuring out a way to narrow your selection of destinations down.
Aside from deciding where you want to go and when, here’s what you’ll need to get started:
- A credit score over 700, but ideally over 720. The best travel credit cards are geared to individuals with good or excellent credit, which usually means a score over 720. Lower scores are occasionally acceptable if other employment and income conditions are met.
- A debt-free lifestyle. If you are paying down credit card debt, you need credit card rewards like you need a hole in the head. Pay down your consumer debts and get on solid financial footing before you even consider travel hacking or pursuing rewards.
- A plan to stay organized. While it’s easy to keep track of a single rewards card, having two, three or four can easily cause you to forget some of the important details. To stay on top of it all, you’ll want to keep a simple spreadsheet or list with details such as when you sign up, when you earned the signup bonus, and when (or if) an annual fee will be charged.
Top Travel Credit Cards to Consider in 2016
Once you decide where you want to go, figuring out the right card or combination of cards is your next step. Since it would be impossible to cover every rewards credit card on the market in one article, I decided to highlight most of my favorites in this post instead. If you want to score free travel – whether that means finding the best airmiles credit card, or one that offers points for hotel stays, here are some of the top cards you should consider no matter what:
Flexible Rewards Credit Cards:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- Ink Plus® Business Credit Card
- Chase Freedom®
- Citi ThankYou® Premier Card
- Citi Prestige®
Airline Credit Cards:
- Citi®/ AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®
- British Airways Visa Signature® Card
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Hotel Credit Cards:
- Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
- Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Cards that Offer Travel Credit:
- Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®
- BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card
This is just a small sample of cards you could sign up for, but believe me, there are plenty of other awesome rewards cards to browse through. If you want to explore all of your options, Good Financial Cents highlights the rest in these comprehensive guides:
- Best Travel Credit Cards
- Best Business Credit Cards
- Best Cash Back Credit Cards
- Best 0% APR and Balance Transfer Cards
An Introduction to Chase Ultimate Rewards
If you’re looking for a good place to start, Chase Ultimate Rewards is easily the top rewards program for travel. With either the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Ink Plus® Business Credit Card, you’ll earn points that are redeemable for any type of travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal at a 20 percent discount, good for cash back or gift cards, or transferable to the top loyalty programs out there including Southwest Airline, British Airways, United MileagePlus Explorer, Korean Air, Hyatt, Marriott, IHG Rewards, Ritz Carlton, and more.
The best way to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points depends a lot on your travel goals. As a Southwest Airlines enthusiast, my family commonly transfers our points to the discount airline for free domestic flights or flights to the Caribbean. Or, if we plan to take a short haul flight within the United States, a transfer to British Airways is another easy option.
Transfers to Marriott, IHG Rewards, and Hyatt can be equally lucrative if you have a specific hotel in mind. For example, my family once used Hyatt points to stay at the Park Hyatt Vendome in Paris at a time when rooms cost more than $1,000 per night. To say we felt out of place was an understatement, but the experience is one I will never forget.
And don’t get me started on IHG Rewards. For the second year in a row, my family is heading to the Holiday Inn All-Inclusive Resort in Montego Bay for Spring Break. We paid for almost the entire trip with points, and the fact that it’s all-inclusive means we don’t have to pay for meals, drinks, or entertainment. Best of all, we booked our flights on Southwest Airlines after transferring them from Chase Ultimate Rewards, which means we only had to pay for airline taxes and fees.
Best Ways to Use Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Redeem them for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal at a 1:1 discount
- Transfer them to top hotel and airline loyalty programs at a 1:1 ratio
- Redeem them for cash back or gift cards at a rate of one cent per point
- Pair all three cards for maximum exposure and potential in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program
Top Chase Ultimate Rewards Credit Cards
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card– Earn 50,000 points worth $625 in travel through the Chase portal after spending $4,000 on your card within the first 90 days, plus free primary auto rental coverage, free trip cancellation/interruption insurance, and a slew of other perks. The $95 annual fee on this card is waived the first year. Read here to learn more about the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.
Ink Plus® Business Credit Card – Geared to small business owners, the Ink Plus® Business Credit Card lets you earn 5X points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each year, 2X points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent at gas stations and on rooms booked directly with a hotel, and 1X points on everything else. The current signup bonus is 60,000 points after you spend just $5,000 on your card within 90 days. The $95 annual fee is not waived the first year, but the signup bonus alone pays for your first six years!. Read here to learn more about the Ink Plus® Business Credit Card.
Chase Freedom® – While this card doesn’t offer Chase Ultimate Rewards points on its own, pairing it with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card allows you to pool your points for use in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. The current signup bonus on this card is both lucrative and easy to earn. After spending just $500 within 90 days, you’ll score 15,000 points worth $150 in cash back or considerably more if transferred to Chase Ultimate Rewards. Read here to learn more about the Chase Freedom® card.
Scoring Free Travel with Citi ThankYou® Rewards
Thanks to the increased signup bonuses on Citi cards last year, the Citi ThankYou® program is once again luring in new customers. This program works similarly to the Chase Ultimate Rewards program in the fact that you can transfer points to a slew of top airline programs and one hotel program, or use them to book travel through the Citi travel portal at a discount. As a last resort, you can also redeem your points for gift cards at one cent per point.
Since I focus so much of my efforts on Chase Ultimate Rewards, I just got into the Citi Game full force last year. My husband and I both signed up and earned the signup bonus on the Citi Prestige® card and I signed up for the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card. Due to some regular spending on our cards and their collective signup bonuses, we now have around 170,000 Citi points to spend.
As we speak, I’m about to pull the trigger on six round-trip flights to the St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, for my children’s fall break from school. Not only are we going to take our two children, but we’re taking my parents as well.
This is only possible because of the unique way you can redeem points from the Citi Prestige® card for flights on American Airlines. With this card, you get 1.6 cents value for every point you redeem with American Airlines, which makes my family’s round-trip flights out of Chicago cost only 25,000 Citi points each.
I have always wanted to take my parents somewhere really exotic, and now I am able to thanks to this combination of cards. I can’t wait to see my entire family’s faces when they see just how beautiful the mountainous Caribbean can be.
Best Ways to Use Citi Points for Travel
- Book flights on American Airlines while getting 1.6 cents per point with the Prestige card
- Pair both cards and transfer your points to your Prestige account to get more value when you redeem on American Airlines
- Transfer your points to a lucrative Citi airline travel partner
- Use your points to book travel through the Citi travel portal, or redeem them for gift cards at a rate of one cent per point
Top Citi Travel Credit Cards
Citi ThankYou® Premier Card – The current signup bonus on this card is 40,000 points after you spend $3,000 in 90 days. Plus, you’ll earn 3x points on travel including gas, 2x points on dining and entertainment, and 1x points on everything else. This card offers no foreign transaction fees and your points never expire. Best of all, the $95 annual fee is waived the first year.
Citi Prestige® – The Citi Prestige® card is one of my favorite cards right now, and for good reason. Not only does it offer 50,000 points after you spend $3,000 in 90 days, but it also comes with a $250 annual air credit, airline lounge membership, $100 credit towards Global Entry, and myriad other benefits. Once you sign up, you’ll earn 3x points on air and hotel travel, 2x points on dining and entertainment, and 1x points on everything else. This card does come with a $450 annual fee, but the $250 air travel credit, Global Entry fee, and lounge membership more than make up for it – let alone the huge signup bonus!
Getting the Most Out of Airline Credit Cards
While flexible cards that dole out Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi points are easy to use and understand, airline miles are an entirely different animal. Beyond keeping track of award charts that change at the drop of a hat, using airline miles can mean struggling to find award availability or to find more than one seat on a single flight. I really, really hate that.
That’s the main reason I stick to cards that tend to offer availability for the flights I want, or at least have miles that aren’t impossible to use. For domestic flights and trips to the Caribbean, my favorite airline is Southwest Airlines. Not only give you your first two checked bags free, but they have no blackout dates or capacity controls. If there is a seat available on a flight, it’s yours. This is crucial when you’re flying with a family of four or five and need all of your seats on the same airplane. And remember, Southwest flies to a bunch of awesome destinations in the Caribbean in addition to its domestic routes; currently, that list includes Punta Cana, Aruba, Cancun, Mexico City, Los Cabos, Nassau, Costa Rica, San Juan, Montego Bay, Belize, and others.
British Airways is my second favorite airline for domestic flights due to its generous awards on fairly short flights within the U.S. Even after a devaluation earlier this year, you can still fly less than 1,150 miles for only 7,500 British Airways Avios per leg.
When it comes to travel to Europe, the American AAdvantage program is my go-to. Based on the fact that it has decent availability and fairly low fuel surcharges on international flights, we have used this airline to fly overseas several times. The last time was this past fall when we visited Italy for the first time. To fly into Rome and home from Venice, we paid a total of 80,000 American AAdvantage miles and $109!
Best Ways to Use Airline Miles
- Be flexible. If you’re hoping to use airline miles for an award fare, you need to be extremely flexible on your flight date and time. Remember, you have to pick flights based on what is available.
- Watch out for fuel surcharges and taxes. Some airline charge higher than average fuel surcharges on international flights. Make sure to shop around before you commit to a specific airline program or flight.
- Pair your airline credit card with a flexible card that lets you build up more points. If you’re obsessed with a specific airline, getting a flexible rewards card that lets you transfer points can be an extremely smart move.
Top Airline Credit Cards
Citi®/ AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® – This card is a no-brainer for anyone who hopes to use airline miles to travel to Europe, the Caribbean or within the United States especially. Currently, you’ll earn 30,000 American AAdvantage miles after spending just $1,000 on your card within 90 days. You and up to four travel companions will also get a free checked bag on domestic itineraries, and the $95 annual fee is waived the first year.
British Airways Visa Signature® Card – The British Airways Visa Signature® Card offers a tiered signup bonus. Currently, you’ll earn 50,000 Avios after you spend $2,000 on your card within 90 days, an additional 25,000 Avios after you spend $10,000 on your card, and an additional 25,000 Avios after you spend $20,000 on your card within the first year. To keep things in perspective, 100,000 Avios is enough for two round-trip flights to Europe! This card comes with no foreign transaction fees, but it does have a $95 annual fee. Read here to learn more about the British Airways Visa Signature® Card.
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card – Limited Time offer: Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on your card within 90 days. If you’ve been waiting to sign up for this card, the time is now! This card lets you earn points for the Southwest Rapid Rewards program, which is the best program for domestic flights and trips to the Caribbean. The current signup bonus is 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on your card with 90 days. Read here to learn more about the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card.
Scoring Free Nights with Hotel Credit Cards
Depending on what type of travel you enjoy most, hotel credit cards can be extremely useful. Not only can you book “destination travel” with hotel points, but you can book staging rooms for flights as well.
Since we often drive three hours to stay in Chicago, I frequently use starpoints to book a room at a Chicago airport hotel. However, I’ve been known to use hotel points for specific trips as well. For example, we’re spending five nights at the Westin Resort & Spa in Grand Cayman this May for just 12,000 starpoints per night. And just this past December, my family and I spent seven nights at the JW Marriott Resort & Spa without paying a single cent, even though rooms were going for more than $800 per night!
Another awesome way we have used starpoints in the past was at the Park Lane Sheraton Hotel in London. For just 12,000 points per night during the off-season, we stayed at a top tier property that was just minutes from the London Underground and right across the street from Buckingham Palace.
Best Way to Use Hotel Points
- Use your points for airport stays
- Rack up a ton of points to earn enough for a week-long vacation stay
- Get your spouse involved in the game so you can earn double the points – and stay twice as long!
Top Hotel Credit Cards
Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express – While there are several hotel credit cards that offer a lot of value for both domestic and international stays, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express is at the top of this class. With this card, you’ll earn 25,000 starpoints after you spend just $3,000 on the card within 90 days, plus additional perks like upgraded in-room wifi, and free BOING internet access at 1,000,000 destinations worldwide. Since weekday rooms at Starwood properties start at just 3,000 points per night, your starpoints can go extremely far if you plan ahead. Whether you want to stay in London, Mexico, or all over the United States, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express is the perfect card for your wallet. You can even transfer your points to more than 30 airlines, or book a Nights & Flights package that includes both airline miles and free hotel nights.
Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card – For a limited time, the Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card is offering 80,000 bonus points after you spend just $3,000 on the card within 90 days. That’s enough points for two nights at one of their higher tier properties, or several nights at one of their lower tier resorts or hotels. You’ll also get a free stay at a Category 1-5 property on your account anniversary, which is the perfect reason to keep this card past the first year. Read here to learn more about the Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card.
Maximizing Cards that Offer Travel Credit
While hotel credit cards, airline credit cards, and flexible travel cards offer plenty of ways to score free travel, there is an entirely different type of travel card to consider – cards that offer” travel credit.” These cards don’t let you earn miles for a specific airline or points for a specific hotel, but instead dole out points you can redeem for any type of travel.
Most of the time, you use your card for the travel expenses you want to cover, then simply redeem your points as a statement credit to cover those purchases. This strategy can be extremely helpful when you want to stay in a hotel or property that isn’t part of one of the big chains, or when you want to book a flight but can’t find availability using airline miles.
You can also use travel credit to cover the many incidentals you will incur during your trips – things like taxis, train tickets, and entry fees to attractions. At the end of the day, this type of card offers one more way to save money on any number of travel expenses we’ll need to pay.
Best Ways to Use Points for Travel Credit
- Since your redemption is based on the amount of money you spend, you can (and should) shop around for the best deal before you book.
- Get your spouse to sign up for a travel credit card to earn twice the rewards.
- Use your travel credit to cover expenses that are hard to pay for with airline miles or hotel points.
Top Credit Cards that Offer Travel Credit
Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® – With the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®, you’ll earn 40,000 “miles” worth $400 in travel credit after spending just $3,000 on your card within 90 days. Add that to the 2x points you earn on every dollar you spend, and you’ll see why this is a top rewards card for anyone who travels. This card comes with no foreign transaction fees, making it the perfect companion for international travel – plus the annual fee is waived the first year..
BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card – Like other cards that offer “travel credit,” the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card lets you earn points that are redeemable for any type of travel. Earn 1.5x points for every dollar you spend, plus 20,000 bonus points after you spend just $1,000 on your card within 90 days. Since you can redeem your points for any type of travel, you won’t have to worry about blackout dates, capacity controls, or award availability. Best of all, this card never charges an annual fee! The main reason this card is on my list is due to its low spending requirement to earn the signup bonus. Even if you aren’t a huge spender, most people can put $1,000 in groceries or regular bills on their card.
If you’ve been trying to save for the perfect getaway but can’t seem to set aside the funds, it might make sense to look into airline miles, hotel points, and other types of rewards to see what kind of savings you can find. With the right strategy, you could even fly around the world, visit places you have never dreamed of seeing, or take your children or parents on a trip that will cause envy among even your closest friends.
With the right combination of cards, good or excellent credit, and some self-discipline, any trip you can dream up can be within your reach.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask away in the comments.
Get the Money Dominating Toolkit
- 6 Tools to Get Your Money Back on Track
- The Ultimate Goal Achiever Workbook
- 2 Free Chapters to my Best Selling Book
- 21 Days to Destroy Your Bad Habits Worksheet