How to Travel For Free: The Beginner’s Guide to Rewards Cards
This article may contain references to some of our advertising partners. Should you click on these links, we may be compensated. For more about our advertising policies, read our full disclosure statement here.
No sleeping on couches. No trading work for a bunk. These 5 simple steps can help you (and your family) travel the world for pennies on the dollar.
Do you want to know how to travel for free? You’re in the right place!
And no, I’m not going to suggest that you bunk in some stranger’s house or work your way across the globe to earn free travel. For most people, that simply isn’t practical – especially if you have kids!
There are better ways to travel for free and they’re called travel rewards credit cards. How do I know? My family has been using them to save big money on travel around the world for years.
Using the best travel credit cards, we’ve redeemed points and miles to save thousands of dollars on international and domestic travel. In fact, we’ve redeemed these rewards to step on the floor of the Roman Colosseum, walk in the footsteps of King Henry VIII, and sip frozen drinks on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
They can help you do it, too.
Here’s the best part: Traveling on rewards doesn’t require mega math skills or a super genius intellect. Travel rewards aren’t reserved for the elite few. Anybody can do it.
Seriously, once you understand the key concepts of using travel rewards, you’ll be traveling for less in no time! And, with the end of the COVID-19 travel restrictions hopefully in sight, now is the time to start building points you can use for travel later.
In this “Beginner’s Guide to Credit Card Rewards,” you will learn how to travel for free (or almost free) using our simple five-step process. I’ll cover things like choosing the best rewards card, using online portals, and leveraging the right cards to get maximum value. So, what do you say? Let’s get started!
Step 1: Understanding Rewards Credit Cards
What Are Travel Rewards?
Saving money with travel rewards is part art, part science, and all awesome! But before we get too deep, let’s talk about how these rewards work.
Travel rewards, also called points and miles, are perks and credits you can earn by:
- Being a loyal customer to a brand, or
- Using certain types of credit cards
Once earned, these points can be redeemed for discounts on travel items and experiences.
As you probably know, most airline and hotel brands already have their own loyalty programs. The average person, however, doesn’t travel enough to get much value out of these programs alone.
On the other hand, earning points and miles with credit cards is considerably easier and often more lucrative. This has become our “go to” method for earning free travel, so that is mainly what we’ll focus on in this piece.
How to Travel for Free Using Rewards
In almost all cases, the most valuable way to use points and miles is to redeem them for the most expensive travel items. Redeeming points for airfare and hotel stays usually provides the biggest bang for your buck, often resulting in travel that is free (or almost free).
With that said, travel rewards can be used for almost any travel-related expense. We’ve used them to pay for rental cars, day trips, upgraded seats, and more.
While some people take earning rewards to an extreme, you don’t have to do anything fancy to make a massive impact. Just earn the most valuable rewards and redeem them for free travel! It’s really that simple.
The Holy Trinity of Travel 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 using points and miles to pay for these big-ticket items, you’ll drastically cut the cost of your travel expenses. While traveling is never completely free, you’ll be able to see a lot more for much, much less.
The cost of flying, particularly flying internationally, can be a total budget buster. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be.
Earning free flights may seem like a dream, but it isn’t. It’s totally possible when you learn how to use rewards cards and airline miles.
These days, you don’t even have to be a frequent flyer to earn miles. 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. Hotel accommodations can cost thousands, making it tough to get out and see the world. Like with airfare, however, you can reduce the cost of your stay by using rewards cards and hotel points.
Free hotel stays can be earned if you’re a frequent guest at a particular hotel chain, but that isn’t the only way to grab a free night. Find a credit card that offers a big signup bonus, a free night’s stay, or both. After meeting any minimum spending requirements, you can use those points to book your free stays at select hotels.
We’ve redeemed both points and free night certificates at numerous locations throughout the world. We even turned in a free stay at the $900+/night Park Hyatt Vendome in Paris…and yes, it was awesome!
Even if you’re able to book flights and hotels for free, there are still expenses you’ll need to cover while you’re away. Things like meals, transportation, and entrance fees can destroy your travel budget if you don’t plan ahead.
Thankfully, travel rewards can help you save on all the other stuff, too. Again, certain credit cards help you earn free rewards and cash back that you can use to help keep your costs down. You can even use a card’s shopping portal to pay for travel experiences with points. If you use cash, these portals typically give you a steep discount too.
Other Travel Rewards Benefits
The biggest benefit to using travel rewards is obviously earning free travel. However, travel rewards credit cards can also provide a number of other great benefits.
Many cards offer some basic travel insurance perks – including free primary auto insurance on rental cars, trip cancellation coverage, and more. We have personally used several of these insurance perks, and they actually do work. You can protect your travel dollars even more when you use them in combination with a good travel insurance policy.
Additionally, travel rewards (and certain credit cards) can help you achieve special “status” with hotel and airline chains. You’ll get perks like room upgrades, free Wi-Fi, and more. Some premium cards even include access to some super sweet airport lounges, which totally beats waiting at the gate!
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.
Step 2: Choosing the Best Rewards Cards
There are plenty of ways to travel for free with rewards, but you should start by picking the low-hanging fruit first. Try getting as many points as you can in the shortest amount of time possible. Just by using the best travel rewards cards, you can save thousands!
Personally, we like to gather our points first, then we decide how to use them. If you’ve already got a destination in mind, however, that may change the type of points you should try to earn.
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. They’re also a key piece of the travel rewards puzzle.
The points you earn on these cards 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 specific types of travel expenses. Others earn points that are redeemable for a statement credit – which means you can use your card to book travel through any hotel or airline, then apply the points to your bill for credit.
Here are some of our favorites:
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Our favorite rewards card for beginners is the card_name.
With this card, you earn a signup bonus of 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. Those points are good for $750 in travel when booked through the Chase portal. You can also transfer the points to more than a dozen awesome loyalty programs at a 1:1 ratio. (Think brands like Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and more.) This card does charge an annual fee of only $95.
We don’t have enough room to list all of the Sapphire Preferred Card’s benefits, but trust us, they’re awesome. If you’ve never had a rewards card before, this is the first card we recommend.
Learn how to apply | Read the review
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
The card_name is another excellent option for flexible rewards.
With this card’s welcome offer, you’ll earn 75,000 miles after spending $4,000 in the first three months. These miles can be redeemed for $750 in travel expenses. Simply use your card to book with any brand and redeem your points as a statement credit.
You’ll also earn 2x miles on all purchases, plus you’ll receive up to $100 in credit toward TSA Precheck or Global Entry. Your miles never expire as long as your account stays open, and the card also comes with no foreign transaction fees. There is a $95 annual fee.
Learn how to apply | Read the review
Co-Branded Credit Cards
Co-branded credit cards are another great way to earn free travel. These cards help you earn loyalty points toward specific travel brands. Then, you can redeem these points through those 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 while airline cards do the same for airlines.
When it comes to hotel cards, pretty much all of the major hotel chains have them. Of course, each of them offer various points and benefits.
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card
One co-branded hotel card to consider is the card_name. This card offers a limited-time welcome bonus of 100,000 points when you make at least $3,000 in purchases during the first 3 months you have the card. You also get one “Free Night Award” (up to 35,000 point value) every year on your account anniversary.
The card also has solid earning potential. Every year, you’ll earn 3x points on the first $6,000 in combined spending at gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores. Purchases at participating Marriott Bonvoy properties always earns up to 17x points. The card earns 2x points on all other purchases.
You’ll automatically receive Silver Status each year on your account anniversary, plus you’ll get 15 Elite Night Credits each calendar year.
There is an annual fee of $95, but that is far less than the $450+ annual fee charged by some premium card offering. So, if you’re new to credit card rewards and want to avoid a huge annual fee, this hotel card may be for you.
When it comes to getting free flights, airline cards are a wonderful way to do it. They’re also easy to use, and different cards seem to be running promotions all the time.
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
The Southwest Visa credit card comes in a few different options, but our current favorite is the card_name.
With this card, you’ll earn 60,000 bonus points and a 30% off promo code after spending $3,000 in the first three months. To put that in perspective, 60,000 points are often enough for a round-trip ticket within the U.S. or the Caribbean! Plus, a Companion Pass allows a companion to travel with you for free to anywhere Southwest flies.
There is a $69 annual fee, but the bonus more than makes up for it during your first year.
We think this is the best card for earning points toward flights throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean. In fact, it’s often the first airline card we recommend for beginners.
Learn how to apply | Read the review
Cash Back Cards
Earning points toward flights and hotels knocks out some of your biggest expenses, but that 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. The best cash back credit cards, especially those that provide a signup bonus, are a fantastic option for earning cash back that can be used to pay for incidentals.
Chase Freedom FlexSM
With the card_name, you’ll get a $200 cash back bonus for spending just $500 the first three months you have the card. You’ll also earn an impressive 5% cash back on travel purchased through the Chase portal, 3% on dining, and 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases.
This card also offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases in categories that rotate on a quarterly basis. Past categories have included things like groceries, streaming services, and more. Keep in mind that you must activate these categories to receive the bonus cash back amount.
That’s practically free money just waiting for you to use it! Don’t forget, though, this card does charge foreign transaction fees, so you don’t want to use it while traveling abroad.
Learn how to apply | Read the review
Step 3: Leveraging Your Cards for Maximum Value
As we mentioned above, different cards offer different rewards based on the type of spending you do. You can also redeem those points and miles in varying ways.
Earning a signup bonus is the first thing beginners should focus on. It is the fastest, most lucrative, and most effective way to build up a lot of points quickly. It’s also the easiest to understand.
In most cases, simply enroll in a new card program, complete a minimum spending requirement, and you’ll earn a huge amount of points or cash back. It’s that easy.
Also, keep in mind how spending in different categories can affect the amount of points and miles you earn. While some cards offer a flat percentage on every dollar you spend, others may provide bonus rewards for spending in certain categories.
For instance, a card may offer 2x points on travel and dining but only 1x point on everything else. A different card might offer a limited time bonus of 5% cash back on spending at grocery stores. If you have more than one card, be sure to stay current on any offerings and deals so you can use them strategically to maximize your rewards.
Pairing cards with each other is another effective way to earn more points and miles. For instance, if a credit card company allows you to transfer points between cards, you may want to carry both a premium travel card and a cash back card. Then, you can use each card for spending in the categories that will earn the most points.
For more discussions on advanced strategies like these, join our frugal travel Facebook community.
Step 4: Using Online Portals
Online portals are a great way to find discounts on everything from shopping to travel experiences. In many cases, they can also stretch your points significantly further.
Most credit card issuers have shopping and/or travel portals available to their card members. These portals can be used to book airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, day trips, and more. However, perks and other options may be limited based on the specific card you have.
For instance, compared to Chase Freedom Unlimited cardmembers, those who have the Chase Sapphire Preferred get 25% more value on airfare, hotels, car rentals, and cruises through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. CSP cardmembers may also transfer their points to partner loyalty programs, while Freedom Unlimited Card holders can’t.
American Express offers 5x Membership Rewards points to Platinum Card holders when they book travel through their portal.
Learning to use these portals can save you big money and help get the maximum value out of your hard-earned points.
Step 5: Transferring Points to Loyalty Programs
Depending on the type of credit card you have, you may be able to save thousands on travel by transferring your points to partner loyalty programs.
Several credit cards offer this option, and it can be a great way to earn free travel perks. In many cases, these transfers provide the most valuable point redemptions. Just be sure you know how much your points are worth and that you’re getting maximum value for the transfer.
Here’s how to do it:
- Choose a travel brand you love using.
- Join that brand’s loyalty program.
- Find a credit card that partners with your selected loyalty program. (Remember, co-branded cards are not always the best fit.)
- Sign up for the credit card.
- Meet the minimum spending requirement to earn any welcome offer or bonus.
- Use the card’s portal to transfer your points to your preferred loyalty program.
This is super simple to do and it can help you save thousands in travel costs!
If you’ve made it all the way to the end, thanks so much for reading!
We hope this beginner’s guide to rewards cards gives you a new appreciation for the hobby we love. More importantly, we hope we’ve inspired you to try it out for yourself.
Welcome to the wonderful world of rewards travel! Until next time, happy traveling!
Let’s be friends! Join our totally awesome Facebook group here and chat with thousands of other travelers about travel tips, tricks, and super sweet deals.
Disclaimer: Comments, responses, and other user-generated content is not provided or commissioned by this site or our advertisers. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by this website or our advertisers. It is not the responsibility of our advertisers or this website to ensure that all comments and/or questions are answered. Club Thrifty has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Club Thrifty and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.
This is a great primer on travel rewards! I travel a ton for work, and have earned more than a million air miles that way, along with quite a few hotel points, and the best tip I’d offer is: be loyal to one airline alliance and one hotel megachain. In my case, I do United/Star Alliance and Marriott brands. So many of my colleagues just look for the cheapest airfare or hotel, and don’t realize that if they change the times around, they can likely get their chosen airline fare as low as whatever other airline has the best price, and then keep their miles with one carrier. The biggest benefit of this approach is then you can potentially qualify for elite status, which lets you earn the miles a lot faster — general United members earn 5 miles for every dollar spent, but as a 1K I earn 11 miles per dollar… huge difference! Same deal with hotels — I have platinum status with Marriott, so get a 50% bonus over what a general stay would earn. That stuff adds up, so be loyal if you can!
Thanks for stopping by and for the thoughtful comment 🙂 You can definitely find cheaper flights by switching times and days. Its always best to play around with those and see how it can affect your bottom line. I think whether or not loyalty helps really depends on how much you travel and how often you are paying for flights. As you said, if you travel a ton and pay for all of those flights, it definitely pays to be loyal. Because I generally travel on credit card rewards and don’t earn points for flying or staying, it pays for me to shop around and find the best deals across all companies.
Awesome breakdown, Greg! I agree with the tip from Our Next Life. I racked up endless miles on Southwest (plus multiple years of Companion Passes) from being loyal and using their credit card. My boyfriend could travel for free with me whenever he wanted. It definitely made the crazy amount of travel a lot more tolerable!
Definitely. If you are paying for flights or hotel stays with real money, it can pay to be loyal…especially if you travel a lot.
Great primer Greg! We’ve been using travel rewards for a few years and have been spoiled by some of the travel as there’s no way we’d pay full price for most, if not all, of the trips. We get goofy looks from friends/family, but if we can get someone else to foot the bill for our trips – then why not?
Absolutely! We get goofy looks all the time. But, it’s what we love to do…and we get to do it for pennies on the dollar!
Pinning this right now! I know my readers will love it – and I do, too! Great tips.
Love this! I haven’t gotten a new credit card in a few months. I need to find one ASAP 🙂
You know where to find us when you’re ready 😉
This is great! I just posted how we saved $2100 on our last vacation using these methods and it’s motivated me to continue to do more with rewards travel. Thinking of signing up for the Southwest card next. Thanks!
That’s fantastic! Now is a great time to sign up for the Southwest card since the 50K bonus is still going on.
I’m in the middle of trying to plan a family vacation to Hawaii. As a newbie to rewards, this is extremely helpful – thanks! Airline tickets and a week of hotel nights is expensive for my family of 6 – anything I can shave off will be awesome!
Awesome! Let us know if we can help you out with any suggestions. https://clubthrifty.com/travel-coaching/
Just got the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Love that you can transfer the miles to both United and Southwest
It’s awesome right! I love that card so much!
I’m still new to the travel credit card rewards. I got a United Explorer card that I like and use! I keep hearing about the benefits of the Chase Sapphire, everyone seems to love it!
We’ve been using rewards about 2 1/2 years, I’d say. The first time we got the Southwest card, we actually redeemed the points for gift cards. Ugh. We realized our mistake and have been redeeming points for travel ever since.
For anybody who is eligible, we almost always recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card first. The bonus is huge, the points are super flexible (and valuable), and it comes with a whole host of benefits and coverages that we’ve actually had to use. Honestly, we can’t recommend that card enough. Just be sure that you haven’t applied for more than 5 cards in the last 24 months. Chase implemented a new rule, so you will almost certainly be denied if that is the case.
Awesome info! Almost everyone should pursue some basic travel rewards – it’s a lot better than none. It’s one of those things that are easy to start but difficult to master. But this post makes it really easy to start.
Using your advice about the Southwest cards, we finally (Finally!) got the Companion Pass. Now we have a boatload of Southwest points and a Companion Pass to boot. Appreciate all the great advice.
FANTASTIC! I love that you got the Companion Pass. It is such a great perk, and we’ve used it several times. I don’t think we’ll have it next year, which is a little sad 🙂
Like you said, any little bit you can do to save money helps. It’s not all or nothing! Do a little, save some money, and see the world!
I can’t wait to get started with rewards cards. Our first rodeo with it will definitely be Disney so I can hush my daughter up. If I get confused at least I know where to come for pointers;)
We actually went to Disney in June, so shoot us a message and we can give you some tips 😉
When I used to travel a lot for work, I chalked up a lot of airmiles, card spend and hotel points. This paid for over 5 years of free holidays. Unfortunately, we don\’t seem to have such generous miles deals on cards like in the US. We just have to come up with other sneaky ways to get those points.
It’s definitely easier to earn points from CCs if you are living in the States. Our Canadian friends are always jealous 🙂
I’ve just started getting into rewards cards the last few months and actually just got the Chase sapphire card. I’ll agree it definitely provides the most value. With so many large sign-up bonuses at our disposable these days building up a nice reserve of points which will of course lead to free travel has become pretty easy.
Yep, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is easily our favorite card. The minimum spending requirement is a little steep, but the rewards are fantastic!
I started this year and have already purchased 2 flights thanks to the sign on bonus. I\’m working on getting one more flight this year (hopefully before September). Thanks for such a thorough post.
No problem! Hopefully we’ve provided some useful info.
I have never done a cash back card before. I guess I don’t quite see how exactly I building up enough money or how they really work. Do you have any more detailed guides on how they work or examples of when you used them? Looking to find a way to get between $600-$800 cash back for next summer. Is that possible?
We’ll shoot you a private email for this one, so check your inbox!
Always useful info! In fact, I’ve taken Holly’s advice a couple times now for good travel rewards cards. They helped us take a one-week trip to Seattle for about $300. And we used Barclay’s card points to erase the cost of one of the hotels we stayed at — but we booked through Mr. Rebates and got $40 back. So we got paid to stay at a hotel!
I started following your blog posts this year and the information you provide is so useful! I recently read your book and started to zero down our debt, which will take us about 18 months from now. Would you recommend waiting until our debt is gone to start earning travel rewards with rewards card or could we start now?
Thanks so much for your kind words, and congrats on making the commitment to become debt free! That is so awesome and it will pay HUGE dividends!
As far as earning rewards goes, I generally say wait until you are debt free to do it. I’d throw most of your energy and extra funds into that. Not only will it help you have more money to spend once you’re ready to travel, it will also help you build good money habits you can use down the road. Once you’ve cleared that hurdle, then I’d focus on what you can do with rewards cards.
Really great info, thank you! The only pending question I have is whether you have to keep opening cards in order to be able to receive the perks? Otherwise, do you use the cards for recurring expenses? I try not to live on credit, so I’m trying to figure out how to apply it. I’m also curious how a sign up bonus of $750 in travel can actually cover international travel? We live in Seattle but our family is back in Europe and any time we try to visit it’s closer to $1,000/each for a family of four, so this would barely make a dent. Any advice?
Love the Blog!
We’ve been using travel rewards for a few years and have been spoiled by some of the travel as there’s no way we’d pay full price for most, if not all, of the trips
Online programs require self-discipline and strong time management skills. Without a structured classroom environment, students must be proactive in managing their study schedules and staying motivated. It’s important to create a study routine, set goals, and stay organized to succeed in an online program. Online surgical tech program