I’ve Taken a Dozen Free Trips This Year Just Using Credit Card Rewards

Here's how I did it.

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I have a hard time saying no to travel. When I’m invited to speak at a conference, visit a client or feel like taking a great family vacation, I usually just go. It’s not even a tough decision for me because I never actually pay for my travel, at least not with dollars. Instead I use the points and miles that I earn from credit cards to pay for it all. Here’s how I did it.

5 Steps to Earning Enough Points to Travel For Free

As someone who’s been studying the credit card industry for a living since 2008, there’s one fact that always amazes me. The credit card industry is both incredibly competitive, but also consistently profitable. This enables card issuers to constantly out-do each other in terms of offering credit card users the most generous rewards. That is especially true when it comes to points and miles that can be redeemed for travel.

>>REWARDS: Earn Free Travel With the Chase Sapphire Reserve

When you maximize both the rewards you earn and the value you receive for spending them, it’s possible to travel for free nearly all the time. And while there are many ins and outs when it comes to awards travel, there are a few basic steps to follow as you get started.

1. Sign up for the best credit cards available. 

man sits on the couch and looks at laptop
Credit: Twenty20

The best credit card offers give you points and miles worth at least $1,000 in travel rewards, just for opening a new account and meeting a minimum spending requirement. You can also earn bonus points for certain types of purchases such as travel, dining and groceries.

Every year, my wife and I each sign up for about three or four new credit cards for both personal and small business use. We choose the cards based on a combination of the card’s welcome bonus and the long-term value that we expect to receive from rewards and benefits.

As long as you manage your credit cards responsibly by paying your bills on-time and not carrying any debt, having several credit cards will add positive information to your credit history and can improve your credit score. After trying the card out for a year, we then decide if the card meets our needs before renewing the account and paying the annual fee.

2. Use the credit card that offers you the most points or miles for particular purchases. 

a cardholder researching credit cards

Most people tend to use the same credit card all of the time, but that strategy won’t earn you the most points. Instead, I like to use whichever credit card offers me the most points within a specific category. For example, I use my American Express® Gold Card card for all dining and grocery purchases where I can earn four points per dollar spent.

Alternatively, I use my Chase Sapphire Reserve® card to earn 3x Ultimate Rewards points for travel expenses, such as parking, tolls, rental cars, ride shares and transit. Just about everything else I buy goes on my Chase Freedom Unlimited®, which earns 1.5x Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on all purchases.

3. Charge everything you can to your credit cards. 

There’s no doubt that credit cards are my preferred method of payment, and I will always ask about using a credit card before writing a check or paying cash. For example, I recently used my credit card to purchase a used car from a dealer. They initially refused to accept my card, as it incurred additional costs, but I got them to reluctantly agree after I made it a condition of the sale.

I also pay my mobile phone, electricity and water bills with my credit card, along with all of my retail purchases. This allows me to rack up points on spending that I would be doing anyway.

4. Get the maximum value from your rewards. 

a traveling man pays for coffee

All reward options aren’t created equal, and it’s important to redeem your points and miles for the best possible value. In general, avoid redeeming travel points for gift cards, merchandise or cash back. You’re unlikely to ever get the highest value with those options.

Instead, the best value often comes when you transfer your points to another program. I often receive several cents in value when I transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt, versus the 1 to 1.5 cents per point value I’d get otherwise. I’ve also received several cents in value from my American Express Membership Rewards points transferred to airlines for business class flights. In fact, I sometimes receive great value from United MileagePlus, even for economy class flights to destinations like Hawaii and Costa Rica.

5. Always look for promotions. 

man looks at the screen of a macbook
Credit: Twenty20

Airlines, hotels and credit card issuers are always offering you creative ways to earn bonus rewards. American Express, for example, will occasionally offer bonus points for referring friends or enrolling in “Pay Over Time” (which I never actually use). I also register for dining and shopping rewards programs that give me extra points and miles for the purchases I make anyways. And I always ask card issuers if they’re willing to give me a “retention bonus” before I renew my card every year.

Bottom Line: Why You Need a Rewards Credit Card

If you’re not using a decent rewards credit card, you’re likely missing out on valuable travel benefits. These cards basically earn you money with the spending you’re already doing. By leveraging your credit cards to earn points and miles, and then maximizing those rewards, you can find yourself traveling for free even sooner than you might have thought.

My Favorite Credit Cards for Earning Free Travel

These are three of my go-to rewards credit cards for free and discounted travel.

American Express® Gold Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Chase Freedom Unlimited®

How to Compare Rewards Credit Cards

Still not sure about which rewards cards are right for you? We get it. Choosing a credit card that meets your needs is important, which is why Slickdeals’ Credit Card Hub helps you compare the benefits of different cards, search credit cards by rewards categories, and explore cards by their issuers — all to find the best fit for your wallet.

>>NEXT: Here’s How I Get Free Meals at Airports Every Time I Travel

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Jason Steele

Jason Steele is a journalist who specializes in covering credit cards, award travel and other areas of personal finance. As one of the nation’s leading experts in the credit card industry, Jason’s work has been featured at mainstream outlets such as Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money and Business Insider.

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