If you want to learn how to travel for free (or almost free), you’re in the right place. Welcome to our “Beginner’s Guide to Rewards Cards.” We hope you’re as excited to get started as we are!
Quite simply, travel rewards have changed our lives.
Over the last several years, we’ve used the best rewards cards to take dozens of international and domestic trips for pennies on the dollar. 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.
Getting started with rewards cards doesn’t require mega math skills or a super genius intellect. They aren’t reserved for just the elite few. Once you understand the key concepts of using travel rewards, you’ll be jet setting in no time at all.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to travel for free (or almost free) using our simple 5 step process for getting started with credit card rewards. We’re going to talk about:
- Step 1: Understanding Rewards 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!
We believe honesty is the best policy, so please note that this piece contains affiliate links. Should you be approved for a card after using one of our links, we will receive a fee for the referral. Also note that the opinions expressed are our own and have not been provided, reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by the companies mentioned. Thanks for reading and enjoy!
Step 1: Understanding Rewards Cards
What are Travel Rewards?
Saving money with travel rewards is part art, part science, and all awesome! But, before we get in too deep, let’s first understand how these rewards work.
Travel rewards, also called points and miles, are perks and credits that you can earn from A) being a loyal customer to a brand or B) using certain types of credit cards. These rewards points can then be redeemed for discounts on travel items and experiences.
Although many brands have their own loyalty programs, the average person typically doesn’t travel enough to earn the amount of points that will really make a savings dent. On the other hand, points and miles obtained through credit cards are much easier to earn and are a great way to build rewards quickly. Therefore, we’ll spend most of our time focusing on these rewards in this piece.
How to Travel for Free Using Rewards
In most cases, points and miles are most valuable when used for discounts on the most expensive travel items. Redeeming your 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 it 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 huge impact. Just chase the most important rewards and redeem them for free travel!
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 finding ways to pay for these big-ticket items, you can practically travel for free – drastically cutting the cost of your travel plans and seeing more of the world than you ever dreamed of 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 isn’t a dream. It’s real, and it can happen for you when you learn how to use rewards cards and 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. Hotel accommodations can cost thousands, making it tough to get out and see the world. However, like with airfare, 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 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!
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 really 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 to spend so you can 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 travel rewards is obviously earning free travel. However, travel rewards can also help you earn a number of other great benefits.
Many 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 perks before, and by golly they work!
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.
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. However, if you’ve already got a destination in mind, 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 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 #1 favorite rewards card for beginners 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 more than a dozen awesome loyalty programs at a 1:1 ratio. (Think brands 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.
If you’ve never had a rewards card before, this is the card I would recommend getting. It’s got a huge signup bonus and earns points that are super valuable.
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.
One option to consider is the Hilton Honors Ascend Card from American Express. With this card, you can earn a welcome bonus of up to 100,000 points – 75,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months and an additional 25,000 points when you spend another $1,000 within the first 6 months. 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/grocery stores 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. Compare this card with other hotel cards here.
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.
Our current favorite is the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Plus 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 $69 annual fee, but the points more than make 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 to 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. Using cash back cards, especially those that provide a signup bonus, is a fantastic option for earning cash back that can be used 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! (Don’t forget, 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. You can then use each card for spending in the categories that will earn the most points. You’ll find discussions of more advanced strategies like this throughout our blog.
Step 4: Using Online Portals
Online shopping 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, Chase Sapphire Preferred® holders get 25% more value through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal than those who only have the Chase Freedom® Card. (They can also transfer their points to partner loyalty programs, while Freedom® Card holders cannot.) 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 redemptions of your points. 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.
There’s practically no end to the amount of ways you can save through travel rewards. 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!
Welcome to the wonderful world of rewards travel! Happy traveling!