How to Use Travel Rewards for Free Travel

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Act Smart and Hop on a Flight For Free

We all love to travel - even the not-so-enthusiastic among us don’t mind an occasional trip. What do we love more than traveling? Traveling for free (or, almost free)! Now, I know what you think - it sounds too good to be true. I tend to approach these things with skepticism as well. But this is possible; in the end, that’s why the market is saturated with credit cards and loyalty programs, which generally offer compelling credit card and travel benefits, as to attract nomads, business people, and, well, all the rest of us mortals, to get into more debt.

If you’re good at strategizing, researching and planning, you should be able to get the most out of travel rewards. It is important to pay attention to the fine print, however, and to direct and redirect your spending so that you get rewarded as much as possible. If you follow the advice below, you’ll be able to travel for free at least once a year.

Get a Travel Rewards Credit Card

This is the first step you can take that will eventually lead you to free or significantly discounted travel. There are generally two types of travel rewards credit cards out there. Brand-specific credit cards, like the Gold Delta Skymiles Credit Card, which pays two miles per dollar on Delta purchases, reward you the most for purchases in that specific brand. If you frequently fly, say, JetBlue, then it makes sense to get the JetBlue Plus Card, which, apart from other benefits, rewards you with 6 TrueBlue points for every dollar spent on JetBlue purchases.

If you are, however, still playing the field and are not a loyal customer of any particular airline or hotel, then you can opt for a general purpose credit card which pays higher rewards on all travel purchases. Think about it, if the last five flights have been all different airlines, then what’s the point in picking an airline branded credit card? You probably won’t get the most out of it. That’s why it’s important to look at your travel history, trends and habits, and really take them into account. Also, it might be tougher to collect enough points and miles for a free flight and hotel stays if you own multiple credit cards and give them divided attention. You could, however, use a combo, such as Chase Sapphire Preferred and Freedom Unlimited - earn points on both, but transfer to one when it’s most profitable.

Improve Your Credit

In order to get travel rewards, you need to get a hold of a good credit card. Unfortunately, a good credit card won’t be available to you if your credit score is not high enough. Before you apply, pull the latest copy of your credit report, just to see where you stand and if you have a chance to qualify for your desired card. If you’re not there yet, work on improving your credit score; start with regular payments, watch your balances, and dispute potential errors on your credit report. Improving an already solid credit score shouldn’t be too difficult of a task. If you need to improve bad credit, however, then consider using a secured credit card for some time, so that you can re-establish your credit history. Otherwise, catch up on those past due balances, and get ready for your new credit endeavors.

Get a New Card

Many benefits are only available to new credit cardholders. If you already have a credit card that you’re stubbornly sticking to, you might pass up on some sweet deals, like a signup bonus or better rewards. If you want to take advantage of an offer, you mustn’t be afraid to sign up for a new credit card. Credit card issuers put out new cards or revamp existing ones regularly, so be on the lookout, do your research, and never miss out on rewards better than you’re already getting. Also consider the value of the credit card and its benefits, since applying for one requires a hard inquiry. Will you be able to meet the spending requirements needed to earn the signup bonus? All of these things play a role in your credit card selection.

Get Into Loyalty Programs

Most airlines and hotels have loyalty programs which let you accumulate miles and points for your flights and stays, even if you don’t have their co-branded credit card. The best way to use your loyalty program membership is in accompaniment of a credit card which offers rewards on your travel purchases. Keep in mind that a loyalty program is almost exclusively good only for loyal customers. If the cheapest price is your end goal, then you probably won’t be sticking to the same hotel or airline, but if you regularly come back to the same brand, you are a loyal customer and should therefore be part of the program made specifically for people like you. The more you come back to the same airline or hotel, the more points you’ll earn and the more perks you’ll be able to enjoy.

Transfer Points to Other Loyalty Programs

It is possible to combine the points that you racked up and exchange them for a trip. You just have to look well enough, read the rules carefully, and try not to lose any points in the transfer. Once you know how it works, you can transfer your travel rewards credit card points to the loyalty program of your choosing. Point transfers do take several days, so it’s important to plan ahead and initiate transfers in advance of booking your travel.

Look for the Signup Bonus

Some credit cards offer huge signup bonuses, which might give you enough points for a free flight, hotel stay, or both. How does a signup bonus work? In order to get it, the card holder must charge a certain amount on their credit card within the first few months of opening the account. Additional bonus is a possibility if you add an authorized user to your account - they don’t even have to make any purchases for you to earn the bonus. Keep in mind that it’s not the easiest task out there to meet the spending minimum required for the signup bonus. Charge any purchase on it, big or small, as soon as you get your credit card in the mail. Chase Sapphire Preferred rewards 50,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 within the first three months and another 5,000 if you add an authorized user and use your credit card. The Citi ThankYou Premier Card pays 40,000 bonus points if you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months. If you’re able to meet these requirements, you’ll be rewarded and credited a couple of weeks after you earn the bonus. Don’t try to earn bonuses on multiple cards at the same time - that’s splitting attention and, honestly, only makes sense if you’re making a great deal of money and charging your cards left and right.

Pick Credit Cards According to Your Purchasing Habits

If you try to force purchasing habits by getting a credit card which doesn’t align with your spending history, you won’t get much out of it. It’s important to choose credit cards that reward you in categories in which you already spend. You’ll be much more likely to earn rewards then, because the card rewards will align with how you organically spend your money. It also takes unnecessary planning and stress off of your shoulders: you won’t have to change anything except the card you use.

Look for Free Hotel Nights

Some hotel credit cards offer a complementary night or two each year, some even without a spending requirement. Also consider hotel credit cards which offer free nights as a signup bonus. Such card would be, for example, the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, which rewards two weekend night certificates if you spend $2,500 in the first four months. Combine the free hotel stay with travel rewards that you can use toward a free flight and voilà - you got yourself a free trip!

Don’t Let Your Points Expire

If you’ve already done everything above, it’s a shame to let it all go to waste. So, make sure to make a list of all your loyalty programs, the points you’ve accumulated, and the rewards expiration date. Rewards can be used in many ways, but travel redemption rewards are the ones which hold the most value. Even though points don’t expire in some programs, a number of them require you to use the card at least once in 12 or 24 months. In some programs, points do expire after a certain period of time, so pay close attention.

Pay off Your Balance in Full

If you’re committed to racking up travel reward points, you will be spending quite a lot of money. This is why it’s important to pay your card balance in full each month, as you don’t want to pay interest on such a high amount of money. Don’t let interest undo all your hard work of accumulating reward points. Plus, you can free up your available credit by paying off your balance, and then continue on your reward earning endeavor. Use your credit card like you would use your debit card - only purchase what you can afford with the money you have in your checking account. And refrain from using your debit card, you have to be dedicated and stick to charging your credit card if you want those rewards to keep coming in!

Be Prepared to Pay Annual Fees

Good travel credit cards usually come with an annual fee. Don’t shy away of it; most cards waive the fee in the first year, so you can enjoy the travel perks during that year without having to worry about paying for the card itself. Signup bonuses can also offset the annual fee for a few years. Lastly, if you use your card wisely, if you strategize and maximize your free travel, the credit card will pay for itself.

You Won’t Always Get What You Want

You must be prepared to use airlines and hotels which are not your favorite. It’s okay to have a preference, but unfortunately, sometimes our preferences are not the cheapest or smartest choices. It’s also okay to aim to take your business to your favorite brand whenever possible, but be open to other companies as well, because those might be the ones with most rewards. Also, flexibility will bring about wat more deals - if your travel dates are set, you might not be able to get the best deal out there. Be willing to travel off peak days, make connecting flights, or bring less luggage.

It’s not easy learning and navigating all the tricks which can bring you free travel. However, it is worth putting some work into finding your perfect travel reward credit card, reading up on loyalty programs and cashback options. Nothing is more rewarding than investing into a free opportunity to treat yourself and travel!