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.
So, you want to know how to travel for free? You’re in the right place!
Sure, you could bunk in some stranger’s house or work your way across the globe to earn free travel, but who the heck wants to do that – especially if you have kids?
Thankfully, there’s a better way to travel for free! They’re called travel rewards credit cards, and our family has been using them to travel the world for years.
By utilizing the best travel credit cards, our family has redeemed points and miles to save thousands of dollars on international and domestic travel. Programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards have helped us step inside 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 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. We’ll cover things like:
- Step 1: Understanding Rewards Credit Cards
- Step 2: Choosing the Best Rewards Cards
- Step 3: Leveraging Your Cards for Maximum Value
- Step 4: Using Online Portals
- Step 5: Transferring Points to Loyalty Programs
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
These points can then 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 by themselves.
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, and upgraded seats.
And, 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. This alone is often enough to make people think travel is too expensive. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be.
Earning free flights may seem like a dream, but it isn’t….and it can happen for you 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 dollar 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 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 Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
With this card, you earn a signup bonus of 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. Those points are good for $1,000 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.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is another excellent option for flexible rewards.
With this card’s welcome offer, you’ll earn 100,000 miles after spending $20,000 in the first twelve months. These miles can be redeemed for $1,000 in travel expenses. (Alternatively, you can still earn 50,000 miles by spending $3,000 in the first three months.) 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.
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.
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card
One option to consider is the Hilton Honors Surpass Card from American Express. With this card, you can earn a welcome bonus of 130,000 points when you make at least $2,000 in purchases during the first 3 months you have the card! You’ll also earn a free weekend night stay each calendar year you spend at least $15,000 on your card.
Purchases at participating Hilton properties earns 12x points. Restaurants/gas stations/supermarkets in the U.S. earn 6x points, and all other purchases earn 3x Hilton Honors points. There is an annual fee of $95, but that is far less than the $450 annual fee charged by their 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 Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus
The Southwest Visa credit card comes in a few different options, but our current favorite is the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card.
Right now, you’ll earn 40,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first three months. To put that in perspective, that’s often enough for two round-trip tickets within the U.S. or the Caribbean!
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.
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 Unlimited Card
With the Chase Freedom Unlimited Card, 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 1.5% unlimited cash back on all other purchases.
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.
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.