How to Travel for Free with Credit Card Points (in 2023)
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👉 Jump to: Why Points Work | How to Get Points (3 Steps) | Summary | FAQ
Quick Summary: How to Travel for Free With Credit Cards
- Step 1: Go to the latest Card Ratings travel card list and find the best credit card bonus offer you can meet the minimum spend requirements for (note: manage credit responsibly!).
- Step 2: Apply, meet the minimum spend, wait for the bonus points to post.
- Step 3: Book a flight or hotel with your points.
This summer I flew to Istanbul all the way from Buenos Aires – and I did it in business class in a comfortable lie-flat seat.
$132.77 in taxes + 60,000 credit card points (which I got via a single credit card sign up bonus).
And here’s the thing:
I actually do this a lot. Most years, I redeem between 10 and 20 award flights, many of them in business class. I also often stay in incredible luxury hotels using points.
I earn most of those points through credit card welcome bonuses. And I’m about to show you exactly how you can start traveling on points too – the easy way.
Let me say something upfront: this guide is intended to help beginners find the quickest and easiest way to earn that first free travel redemption with a single credit card sign up bonus. It’s not meant for points and miles experts looking to nerd out with a ton of cards while maximizing every single cumbersome detail of the process.
If you just want to get started as simply and quickly as possible, stick around for 10 minutes and let me change the way you travel forever …
Why Can You Earn Free Travel With Credit Card Points, Anyway?
Before I show you how to get free travel with credit card points, let’s quickly explain why this is even possible. I know what you might be thinking. And, no, it’s definitely not a scam.
Financial services is a big and profitable industry. When you use a credit or debit card to pay at the supermarket or an online retailer, there’s a fee that goes to whatever bank has that customer. Banks compete with each other to get customers, and thus those fees.
One way banks compete with each other is by offering points and miles as an incentive. And since they are especially interested in new accounts, the incentives when you first sign up can be huge (if you know how to maximize them … which, again, I’ll teach you in a minute).
Now, of course, banks also make money by charging customers interest when they carry a balance from month to month. If you charge more to your card each month than you can afford to pay off, you’ll quickly lose in interest whatever value you earned via points.
But as long as you always pay your credit card bill in full each month, you won’t have to pay interest. I’ve been using credit cards for more than 15 years, and I’ve never even once paid a dime of credit card interest!
Successfully earning travel with points and miles really just comes down to 3 things:
- Making sure you never spend money you don’t have
- Paying off your balance each month in full
- Maximizing your sign up bonuses
The first two require some financial responsibility on your part. I’m going to be honest with you – if you’re not ready to responsibly manage credit, you should find other ways to travel for cheap instead.
But if you can manage credit wisely, stick around for 8 more minutes and I’ll walk you through exactly how to earn free travel …
How to Earn Free Travel With Credit Card Points
Step 1: Find the Juiciest Welcome Bonus You Can Qualify For
Most credit cards will give you points for every dollar you spend. Sure, that can add up over time. But by far the quickest way to jump start your points and miles portfolio is by earning a big fat, juicy welcome bonus. These can often mean earning 50,000 points (or more) in one go!
The banks are constantly changing their deals, but CardRatings.com is a great place to find the latest travel offers in a handy list.
The first thing you’ll notice is it’s a lot to sort through. Points and miles nerds like me love to geek out on all the details.
If you’re just starting out, I suggest pulling up the latest Card Ratings travel list and honing in on these three numbers:
- The intro offer
- The minimum spend requirement (how much you have to spend, over how many months, to qualify for the intro offer)
- The annual fee
Go for the highest intro offer that you know you can meet the spend requirement for. And make sure the value of the intro offer is more than the annual fee.
Although the value of a point varies by bank, as a very rough rule of thumb, expect that 1 point is going to be worth at least 1 cent. So a 50,000 point intro offer roughly translates to $500 in free travel.
As an example, let’s take a look at those 3 numbers for the current offer on one of my absolute favorite beginner cards – the card_name.
You can currently earn 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months. And it has an annual fee of $95.
I love Chase points because they are super easy to redeem. You can book most flights or hotels directly through Chase’s portal, and it’s just as easy and seamless as booking through Kayak or Skyscanner or similar online portals.
Best, yet, with the card_name you can actually redeem each point for 1.25 cents in travel.
That means the current 60,000 sign up bonus is worth a whopping $750 in travel!
That’s almost 8x the annual fee, so it’s a pretty good deal if you ask me.
The thing is, you just gotta make sure you meet that minimum spend requirement. So let’s talk about how to do that …
Step 2: Meet the Minimum Spend Requirement
After you find a card and apply for it, you want to make sure you meet that minimum spend requirement as quickly as you can.
The best way to meet the minimum spend requirement is to review what you are already spending each month – and move as much of that spend over to the credit card as possible (again, remember, only spend money you have and always pay it off immediately!).
Here are some common expenses you might already be spending and could easily move to the card:
- Subscriptions (Netflix, Hulu, etc)
- Cell phone bills
- Internet bills
- Electricity & water bills
- Online purchases
- Restaurants & fast food
- Gym memberships
Essentially, you’re looking for anything you were going to spend anyway and that you can put on a card (side note: this exercise is also a great opportunity to review your household budget and trim unnecessary expenses).
In our example above, we need to spend $4,000 points over 3 months to earn the card_name juicy bonus.
That breaks down to at least $1,334 per month.
So take another look at the list above. Do you already spend at least $1,334 each month on those items in total? I mean, I bet some of you spend that just on gas each month right now 😂
Of course, if you don’t already spend that much, you’ll want to find a card with a lower minimum spend requirement before you apply.
Either way, once you’ve spent enough – wait until your next bill and you should see the bonus points show up in your account (you can call your bank to confirm you made it if you’re close to the edge of the requirement).
Now let’s talk about the fun part: how to spend those points on a free trip!
Step 3: Use Your Points to Book Free Travel (2 Ways)
There are two primary ways I use points to book travel: the first is super quick and easy, and also the one I personally use most often. The second is a little more complicated, but can sometimes squeeze more value out of a redemption. Let’s break them down:
Easiest Way: Redeem Points for Travel Via the Bank’s Portal
The first way – and by far easiest – is to just book directly through the bank’s program. This is why I love Chase Ultimate Rewards so much. They make it really easy to redeem your points in a few minutes.
You just sign into your account, click “book travel,” and you’ll see a very-intuitive booking engine where you can search flights, hotels, cruises, and rental cars – all of which you can book directly with your points with a few clicks.
Let’s say I wanted a roundtrip flight to Cancun. Here’s how I’d book that:
The next part works just like any other flight booking engine. You just search the flights and select one that you like:
Then on the payment screen, you just select the option to pay with points instead of cash. You can use a mix of points and cash if you prefer. In this example, paying for the entire flight with points would require roughly 20,000 points (remember, the card_name gives you 1.25 cents per point!):
After that, you just check out and book your free flight redemption like normal (except for the part involving paying money!).
For less than 20,000 points, I could get a roundtrip from Denver to Cancun this way. That means I could use the Sapphire Preferred’s current bonus of 60,000 points for 3 round trip tickets to Mexico!
What’s great about this method is how simple it is. You can easily find and book a flight with points in under 5 minutes. And, to me, a free trip to Mexico for a family of three (or 3 separate trips for a solo traveler) is a pretty awesome deal too!
If you’re just looking for the quickest and easiest way to redeem points you can stop reading here. Booking directly through the bank portals is an easy and “can’t-go-wrong” option for redeeming points. I’m a busy man with a business to run, so most of the time this is the route I take just for simplicity’s sake.
However, there is another way if you want to squeeze just a little more value out of your points …
The 2nd Way: Transferring Points to Airlines
Ok, so you want to stick around for 5 more minutes to learn how to really maximize your points like a pro? Let’s dive in:
The second way I redeem points is a little more complicated, but can sometimes lead to incredible redemption values (especially for business class or first class redemptions). This involves transferring the points to an airline or hotel partner and booking with that airline or hotel’s reward program.
For example, Chase points can be transferred to several airline and hotel rewards programs – including Marriott, Hyatt, Jet Blue, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, and a bunch of others. They make it super easy to link your accounts with a few clicks.
Here is what that looks like when you go to actually transfer the points within Chase’s portal:
Personally, the one I use the most is the United Mileage Plus program, which is how I found that sweet business class flight to Istanbul for 60,000 points.
What I like about United’s program is that it’s super easy to search for available awards – and you can easily do this before you transfer any points over from Chase.
You just go to their homepage and perform a normal search – except you check the box that says “Book with Miles” (note: you need to be signed in for this to work, but it’s easy and free to create an account).
As I’m writing this post, I’m actually also currently looking for a one-way flight from Argentina to Thailand to meet a friend for the holidays. It’s a long flight, so I’m hoping to fly business and stretch out my legs.
What I love about United’s website is that if you check “Flexible Dates” you get this nice little calendar view:
As you can see, I’ve found pretty sweet business class deals from Argentina to Thailand for just $78.40 in taxes and 60,500 points (which is essentially one sign up bonus worth)!
To book a flight, it’s as simple as going into Chase’s portal, linking your United account with a couple of clicks, transferring the points to United, and then booking via United. Point transfers can sometimes take a couple of days for other programs, but with United my experience has been that it’s usually instantaneous.
Of course, that’s just an example – each bank has their own hotel and airline transfer partners, and each one of those partner programs has their own sweet spots.
With so many banks and programs, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of possible transfer partner combinations. You can see why some of us like to really geek out on this stuff.
But also I’m a big believer in the Pareto principle – also known as the 80/20 rule – which basically says that 80% of the rewards can come from 20% of the effort.
If you’re just starting out, the above guide should be more than enough to get you started (you can nerd out later when you’re ready).
Quick Summary: How to Use Credit Card Points for Travel
Want a quick recap of the process? Here it is:
- Go to the Card Ratings travel page and find the best welcome offer you can qualify for (I personally like the offer for the card_name
- Meet the minimum spend requirements
- Redeem your points through the bank’s portal or by transferring to an airline partner
That’s it! You’re now well on your way to becoming a points and miles pro.
FAQs About Travel Points
Ok, so maybe you still have a few questions after reading all of the above? Here are some commons FAQs and answers:
Does opening credit cards hurt my credit score?
It is a common myth that opening credit cards necessarily hurts your credit score. If you pay off the card balance each month, it should actually help your credit score by showing you are creditworthy. I have personally opened dozens of credit cards and I have a credit score of over 800. The key is to manage credit responsibly and always pay off your balance on time.
Do you have to travel to earn points and miles?
You do not have to travel to earn points and miles. The best way to earn points and miles is through credit card sign up bonuses. I travel the world full time, but most of my points do not come from travel. They come from credit card sign up bonuses and points earned for regular spend on those credit cards.
Do you have to sign up for a lot of credit cards to earn free travel?
Just a single credit card sign up bonus is usually more than enough to earn at least one free flight, and often several. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred currently has a welcome offer which rewards you with 60,000 points – enough for $750 in free travel.
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I hope I’ve helped demystify the process of earning free travel with credit card points. If I have, be sure to bookmark this guide for later!
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