Lots of people like to travel to new places and try new things. The problem is that travel can be expensive.
I’ve personally managed to take nearly all of my vacations for free thanks to rewards credit cards. All in all, I’ve earned more than 1 million miles and points to fund my trips over the past five years. I’ve used these points to visit U.S. and international destinations I would never have seen otherwise, enriching my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
If you know what you’re doing, you can — like me — save a lot of money by using airline miles and points. If you really take the time to optimize your travel rewards, you can find yourself on a luxury vacation for economy prices.
How to Get the Most of Your Airline Miles and Points
Most airlines and hotels operate loyalty programs that award you with miles and points when you fly or stay with them.
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These points help you save money and earn upgrades when you redeem them for travel. And there’s lots you can do to earn more rewards even before you travel — giving you some much needed budgetary breathing room.
Earning Miles & Points
If you’re looking to go on an exciting vacation on the cheap, you’ll want to earn as many miles and points as possible before you set sail. Use these strategies to boost your earning rate.
Sign Up for Airline & Hotel Loyalty Programs
Even if you haven’t flown with an airline or stayed at a hotel, you should be able to sign up for that company’s loyalty program. This ensures you’ll earn points next time you fly or stay with that company.
It also ensures you’ll receive promotional offers.
Though potentially annoying if you’re not actively planning to travel in the near future, these offers often promise big discounts or exciting opportunities to earn rewards points or miles. For example, members of American Airlines AAdvantage program often receive mailers to sign up for a branded credit card and get a great sign-up bonus.
Choose the Right Credit Card
One of the best ways to earn more airline miles and hotel points is to regularly use a travel credit card.
Most major airlines and hotel chains have a credit card partner and offer one or more branded credit cards. Each time you use their card, you’ll earn points or miles that you can redeem toward future travel.
When evaluating potential travel credit cards, consider the following:
- Whether You’ll Actually Use Your Points. If you won’t use the points or miles a card offers, it’s not worth getting.
- How Much You’ll Earn. Look for cards that have the highest earning rates in the categories you know you’ll spend in.
- Status and Perks. If you’re loyal to a specific airline or hotel, see if there are premium cards that come with status or perks with that chain. For example, certain Hilton credit cards confer automatic status that comes with you automatic room upgrades, a daily food and beverage credit, a free night on longer trips, and more.
- Generic Cards. If you aren’t loyal to a specific brand, choose one that offers generic rewards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the American Express Gold Card. Instead of being tied to a single airline, you can use Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards points toward travel on a number of the card issuers’ partner airlines.
Take Advantage of Welcome Bonuses
One of the best opportunities to rack up points or miles is through welcome bonuses and other credit card offers.
Credit card issuers want you to sign up for their card, so they’ll try to incentivize people to sign up through these offers. Usually, they require you to spend a certain amount of money within a certain time period, often three or four months.
For example, you might see a deal to earn 40,000 miles when you spend $3,000 in your first three months with a new credit card.
These bonuses are often large enough to get you a free round-trip flight or hotel stay right away. If you’re in the market for a travel credit card, pay attention to each contender’s welcome bonus offer — it could well be the card’s defining feature.
However, be careful and make sure that you can meet the spending requirement of any card you sign up for without overspending. If you overspend and carry a balance, the interest you pay will more than offset the value of the rewards you earn.
Take Advantage of Bonus Spending Categories
Some credit cards have flat-rate rewards programs. You earn rewards at the same rate regardless of where you spend your money.
Other rewards programs have bonus categories. For example, a credit card might give you 1 mile per dollar spent on most purchases but offer 2 bonus miles for each dollar you spend at restaurants.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers:
- 5x points on travel through Chase
- 3x points on dining and delivery
- 3x points on groceries
- 3x points on select streaming services
- 2x points on other travel purchases
- 1x points on everything else
Some cards also offer limited-time deals where you can get even higher earning rates at certain merchants, such as 10x points per dollar spent with a particular merchant.
If you have multiple rewards credit cards, try to optimize your spending to take advantage of bonus spending categories and earn more miles or points.
Refer a Friend
Many credit card issuers offer refer-a-friend bonuses to cardholders who get someone else to sign up for a travel card. Often, these programs are win-win situations: You get a bonus for making a successful referral and the referred person gets a lucrative sign-up bonus.
If you know someone who wants a travel credit card, refer them to your favorite card. You could both end up closer to a free flight or hotel stay.
Pay for Group Travel
If your friends aren’t up for signing up for new cards but still want to travel with you, you can accelerate your earnings by offering to book everyone’s flights and hotels. Put the cost of the trip on your card and have everyone else pay you back.
As long as they do pay you back, you earn miles or points on the entire trip value while still only paying your portion of the costs.
This can be especially lucrative if your credit card offers bonus points for spending on flights or hotels. You could find yourself racking up tens of thousands of points if you put all of the flights or hotel rooms on your card. It’s also a good way to hit spending requirements for welcome bonuses.
Just make sure you get paid back after you book the trip.
Many credit card issuers, airlines, and hotel chains offer shopping portals that sell merchandise and travel. If you shop through these portals, you could earn additional frequent flyer miles or rewards points, often at better rates than those offered by the card’s regular rewards program.
Depending on the portal, you might even earn points when you shop with a debit card. That’s great news if your credit score isn’t where you’d like it to be and you’re having trouble qualifying for a travel credit card as a result.
Earn Elite Status
Many airlines’ and hotels’ loyalty programs offer elite status if you earn enough miles or points or spend enough money on their branded credit cards. If you travel a lot, elite status is well worth the effort to achieve, as it promises perks like room or fare upgrades, food credits, bonus point earnings, free nights, and more.
For example, if you earn at least 125,000 Rapid Rewards points with Southwest Airlines, you qualify for a companion pass. That gives one companion of your choice a free ticket on any flight you take, less taxes and fees. The pass lasts through the end of the following year, giving you more than 12 months to enjoy this benefit.
Redeeming Miles & Points
Earning your miles and points is just one piece of the puzzle. You’ll want to use points in the most efficient way possible to make sure you get the best value.
Be Flexible About Travel Dates
Whether you’re paying for your airline ticket with cash or miles, being flexible about your travel dates is one of the best ways to save money while traveling.
Certain times of the year, like Thanksgiving weekend and the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day, have huge demand for travel. Other times, not so much.
For example, a recent round-trip flight between Boston and Orlando cost me about $220 in early June. Not bad. During Thanksgiving week the same year, the same route cost more than double that. Ouch.
Certain days of the week are busier and therefore more expensive too. Expect to pay more to fly on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
Bottom line: If you can be flexible and travel during less busy times, you can redeem your points for award flights at a much cheaper rate.
Treat Yourself to Upgrades
If you’re looking for a luxury vacation, fare class or room upgrades offer fantastic value for your points. You can often upgrade to a first-class or business class seat for a relatively low number of miles compared to the difference in the two fares’ cash prices.
Hotels are similar. More luxurious rooms often cost fewer points than you’d expect based on the cash price.
If your goal is to travel as much as possible, don’t waste your points on upgrades. But if you’re craving a once-in-a-while splurge, this is a cost-effective strategy.
Think Beyond Airfare and Hotels
Airfare and lodging are big travel expenses, but they’re not the only ones you’ll encounter on your journey. Once you get where you’re going, you have to think about what you’re going to do and how you’ll get around.
Some hotels and airlines have partnerships with rental car companies or vacation companies that offer activities or excursions. You might be able to redeem your rewards for exciting activities or a free rental car so you can drive around your destination.
Travel cards with generic rewards are often the best way to get these redemptions. For example, Chase’s Sapphire line of cards let you redeem your points not only for flights and hotels but also for cruises, rental cars, and sightseeing tours.
Consider the Point Transfer Ratio
Many airlines and hotels have partner companies and let their customers transfer points or miles to their partners. This has two clear benefits.
First, it gives you more options. For example, the OneWorld Alliance is a group of airlines that includes American Airlines, British Airways, Japan Airlines, and Qantas, among others.
If you have American Airlines AAdvantage miles, you can often use them to book flights with another member of the OneWorld Alliance.
Second, if you’re willing to put in some work, you can sometimes get even more value for your points by transferring them. Favorable transfer ratios often boost your points’ value — sometimes by an order of magnitude — after you’ve moved them to another airline.
Find the Award Chart Sweet Spots
Some hotels and airlines have standardized redemption options, letting you turn a set number of miles into a specific flight or hotel stay.
For example, JetBlue offers one-way flights to and from Hawaii and any U.S. East Coast location for 30,000 miles, making a round-trip vacation 60,000 miles.
Depending on where you live on the East Coast, that deal could be a great value over redeeming points for other flights. For example, despite the much shorter distance and (usually) lower dollar cost, a flight between Boston and Los Angeles can cost as much as 33,000 points.
Be on the lookout for sweet spots where you can get a far greater value for your points or miles than other redemptions.
Redeem Via the Rewards Portal
If you’re using a travel credit card with generic rewards instead of a branded airline card, you can often get better value for your points by using the card issuer’s rewards portal.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card boosts your points’ value by 50% when you use them to book travel through Chase’s travel portal. If you book your tickets outside the portal, you lose that value.
Pool Points With Friends & Family
If you’re going on a family vacation with members of the same airline or hotel loyalty program, look into pooling your points as a group. Many airlines and hotels allow this at no cost.
If you each have just a few thousand points, you may not be able to get any useful redemptions on your own. But together, you might be able to get a free ticket or room and split the savings between everyone.
Watch for Limited-Time Deals
Some airlines or hotels will run deals where you can redeem your points for great deals. If you’re paying attention, you might see a chance to get a flight or hotel stay for half the normal price.
These deals can also come on the earning side, such as a higher earning rate on the purchase of a flight or hotel stay. This can accelerate your progress toward a free flight or stay.
Don’t Forget Partner Awards
Just like the various travel alliances often let you transfer points between airlines or hotels, you can often redeem your miles directly for flights on other airlines without having to transfer them first.
Partner bookings can be a bit complicated when it comes to finding the best value for your miles. But if you’re lucky, you can get a great redemption for very cheap.
Familiarize yourself with the different airline alliances to see which airlines are partners to see if you can find good opportunities. If you have a specific trip in mind, you can do some research online — using resources like travel subreddits — to see if other travelers have found exciting deals.
Keep an Eye on Expiration Dates
Some loyalty programs make their miles or points expire after a period of time. For example, American Airlines miles expire after two years of no activity.
Fortunately, if you earn a single mile during any two-year period, you reset the timer for your entire balance. Time your purchases accordingly.
Cash Out Miles You Won’t Use
Between sign up bonuses, referring friends, and not having time to travel much, you might find yourself with way more miles and points than you can imagine yourself using.
If you find yourself with miles that are about to expire or that you won’t otherwise use, try to redeem them for something so that you don’t completely miss out on the value.
You can do this even if you don’t plan to travel in the near future. Many airlines let you cash out your miles for non-travel rewards, such as gift cards or merchandise. While these redemptions are generally a worse value than redeeming miles for an award ticket they’re better than letting your miles languish and never get used.
If you like to travel, airline and hotel rewards programs are a great way to save money on trips or to take a luxury vacation.
Signing up for the right credit card, finding opportunities to maximize mile and point earnings, looking for lesser-known ways to boost points’ redemption value — these strategies and more have significantly reduced my travel costs over the years. They can do the same for you.
But maximizing travel rewards is just one way to save money on the road. Even as you work to make the most of your points, look for other opportunities to take exciting trips on the cheap too.