Travel rewards have changed our lives. Over the last several years, we’ve taken dozens of international and domestic trips, usually for pennies on the dollar. We’ve stepped inside the Roman Colosseum, walked in the footsteps of King Henry VIII, and sipped frozen drinks on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. If it wasn’t for travel rewards, we may never have gotten started.

Becoming a travel rewards superstar doesn’t require mega math skillz or a super genius intellect. It isn’t reserved for just a few. Earning free travel takes time, but once you understand the key concepts of using travel rewards, you’ll be off jet setting in no time. You can check out our Complete Guide to Cheap Vacations as well for me info! So, let’s get started!

What are Travel Rewards?

Saving with travel rewards is part art, part science, and all awesome! While you can use rewards to save on all types of travel, the term is most commonly used when referring to pleasure travel.

The most lucrative travel savings practices generally focus on obtaining discounts on the most expensive items. However, travel rewards can be used for anything dealing with travel. We’ve used it to pay for rental cars, day trips, and upgraded seats. And, while some people take using travel rewards to an extreme, you don’t have to do anything fancy to make a huge impact. Just chase the important rewards and redeem them for free travel! Check out our review on the Discover Miles Card for some great info on rewards!

To get the biggest bang for your buck, you’ll want to focus your efforts on the really big items. I like to call these the “Holy Trinity of Travel Rewards.” They are:

  • Free Flights
  • Free Hotels, and
  • Free Incidentals

By finding ways to pay for these big ticket items, you can drastically cut the cost of your travel plans, allowing you to see more of the world than you ever dreamed of…for much, much less.

The Holy Trinity of Travel Rewards

Free Flights

The cost of flying, particularly flying internationally, can be a total budget buster. The cost of flights alone makes people think travel is too expensive. They delay their dream trip for far longer than they should, believing that there’s just no way around the cost. They’re wrong.

Earning free flights isn’t a dream. It’s real, and it can happen for you when you use airline miles. You don’t even have to be a frequent flier to earn miles anymore. Simply sign up for the right credit card, and – within a few months – you could earn free flights to Europe, the Caribbean, or anywhere else in the world. Just meet the minimum spending requirements, claim the signup bonus, and redeem your points for free flights!

Free Hotel Stays

If flying isn’t your biggest travel expense, staying in a hotel almost certainly is. You may want to get out and see the world, but how can you afford to do that when you’re spending thousands on accommodations? As with airfare, you can reduce the cost of your stay by using hotel points.

While you can certainly earn points for being a frequent traveler, you don’t need to spend three weeks a month on the road to earn free hotel stays. Find a credit card that offers a big signup bonus, a free night’s stay, or both. Then, meet the spending requirements. Once you do, use those points to book your free night’s in select hotels. We’ve redeemed points and free hotel stays at numerous locations throughout the world. We even turned in a free stay at the $900+ per night Park Hyatt Vendome in Paris…and yes, it was awesome!

Free Incidentals

Even if you’re able to book your flights and hotel rooms for free, you’ll still need to spend money while you’re away. Things like meals, transportation, and entrance fees can really hammer your budget if you don’t plan ahead. But, if you know what you’re doing, you can take care of those items too.

Travel rewards help you get discounts on all the other stuff, too. Again, certain credit cards help you earn free rewards and cash back to spend so you can keep your costs down. You can even use your cards shopping portals to pay for travel experiences with points or cash at a steep discount.

Best Types of Credit Cards for Travel

There are plenty of ways to travel for free with travel rewards, but you want to start by picking the low-hanging fruit first. Try getting as many points as you can in the shortest amount of time possible. You’ll save thousands by using the best travel rewards cards.

There are three main types of credit cards that we use for travel. They are:

  • Flexible Rewards Credit Cards
  • Co-Branded Credit Cards, and
  • Cash Back Credit Cards

Flexible Rewards Cards

Flexible rewards cards are our favorite type to use, and they’re a key piece of the travel rewards puzzle. The points you earn are flexible, meaning you can use them for a variety of different travel costs. Some cards offer points that can be transferred to specific travel partners or redeemed for featured travel expenses. Others provide points you redeem for a statement credit. Therefore, you can use your card to book travel through any hotel or carrier, then apply the points to your bill for credit.

Our favorite rewards card of all-time is the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. With this card, you earn a signup bonus of 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards® points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. Those points are good for $500 in gift cards or $625 in travel when booked through the Chase portal. You can also transfer the points to 11 awesome loyalty programs (like Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and more). There is an annual fee of $95, but it’s waived for the first year.

Discover it MilesIf you don’t want to deal with transferring points and prefer a simple statement credit instead, the Discover it® Miles Card is a great choice. There’s no gigantic signup bonus, but you’ll earn an unlimited 1.5X points on every dollar spent. Better yet, Discover will double your points at the end of your fist year. So, if you earn $500 in travel credit, Discover will make that $1,000 at the end of the year! There are no blackout dates or annual fees to worry about, so your points are all gravy, baby! Read Here to Get Yours.

Co-Branded Credit Cards

Co-branded credit cards are another great way to earn free travel. These cards help you to earn loyalty points toward specific travel brands. Then, redeem these points through particular brands to receive free and discounted travel.

When it comes to travel rewards, the two most important types of co-branded cards are hotel cards and airline cards. Hotel cards help you earn points at your favorite hotel brands. Pretty much all of the major hotel chains have them, and they all offer various points and benefits. One of our favorites is the IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card. You earn 60,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first 3 months. Even more importantly, you earn one free night stay each year on your cardmember anniversary. Redeem it at any of IHG’s 4,900 worldwide properties! We’ve used this several times, and it really does work!

Airline cards are a wonderful way to get free flights, and the different cards continue to run promotions all the time. Our current favorite is the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Card. Right now, you’ll earn 50,000 bonus points after signing up and spending $2,000 in the first 3 months. That’s enough for two round-trip tickets to the Caribbean! There is a $99 annual fee, but the points more than make up for it during your first year.

Cash Back Cards

Earning points toward flights and hotels knocks out some of your biggest expenses, but they can only do so much. If you really want to travel for free, you need to find ways to pay for everything else too! Things like meals, tickets, and transportation all cost money, and travel rewards gurus know how to find deals there too!

Cash back cards, especially those that provide a signup bonus, are a fantastic option for earning cash back to pay for incidentals. Take a card like the Chase Freedom® Unlimited Card. The unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases is a great deal, but the signup bonus is an even better way to earn some quick cash. You’ll earn $150 just for opening a new account and spending only $500 in the first 90 days. That’s practically free money just waiting for you to use it!

Discover it cashback matchAnother great option is the Discover it® Cashback Match™. With this card, you’ll earn 1% cash back on most purchases and up to 5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories. Because Discover doubles your cash back at the end of your first year, you’ll effectively earn 10% cash back on those rotating categories the first year you use the card. Read Here to Get Yours.

Other Travel Rewards Benefits

The biggest benefit to travel rewards are obviously earning free travel. However, travel rewards can also help you earn a number of other rad benefits. Many of these cards offer free primary auto insurance on rental cars, trip cancellation coverage, and access to some super sweet airport lounges. We’ve actually used all of these before, and by golly they work! Additionally, travel rewards (and certain credit cards) can help you achieve special “statuses” with hotel and airline chains. You’ll get perks like room upgrades, free Wi-Fi and more. Finally, you can find discounts on travel and other shopping items through the various shopping portals. These are some of the most underutilized tools, but provide some of the biggest savings.

There’s practically no end to the amount of ways you can save through travel rewards. We hope this primer gives you a new appreciation for this hobby we love. Better yet, we hope we’ve inspired you to try it out for yourself. If you’d like a little extra help, just ask! Check out our free rewards advice page and get your FREE personalized rewards plan today!