Back in 2006—after years of spending a lot of money on plane tickets—I was tired of feeling ripped off. So I turned to blogs and online forums, ultimately learning that not only could I start racking up points and miles for free travel, but I could often fly in business or first class.
Eleven years later, I rarely pay for travel, despite taking at least one trip a month—whether it’s a couple days away for business, a Hawaiian vacation with my wife and kids or visiting family in Argentina or Israel.
Always wanted to try it yourself? While it takes time and practice to make your points really pay off, following these basic rules can help get you started—and potentially score your next vacation for (nearly) nothing.
A credit card is the most valuable tool for earning points and miles. Look for one with a generous bonus—in the 50,000 to 100,000 range—just for opening an account and completing the minimum spending requirement.
Round-trip domestic flights in economy typically start at 25,000 miles per person, and award flights to Mexico or the Caribbean are around 35,000 miles on United and American. (To search, select “search for award travel” on the airline’s website.) So it’s possible to take care of airfare just by applying for one or two cards. Airline-affiliated cards will also reimburse you for checked bag fees, typically, and provide discounts on in-air food and other purchases.
Don’t forget to research flexible travel cards, too (as opposed to airline- and hotel-specific), where rewards are redeemed as statement credits toward any travel purchase—potentially reducing your costs to zero when used for car rentals or your flight’s taxes and fees.
Keep growing your rewards by using your card for everyday spending. Some offer special category bonuses—say, 3x points for groceries or gas—so make sure you’re swiping the right card at the right time.
One note of caution: This strategy only works if you pay off the card each month. Paying interest on a revolving balance can quickly erase any benefits.
While you’re working toward a free trip, maximize your rewards on paid vacations. For example, some airlines and hotel chains offer double or triple rewards for booking within a particular timeframe, or for travel to featured destinations. Check their sites and Twitter pages often, as these offers come and go quickly.
Every loyalty program features great ways to redeem rewards and terrible ones—so do some quick math.
For example, with United’s MileagePlus program, it’s possible to snag a 120,000-mile business class flight to Europe. This ticket could easily cost $6,000, meaning you’re getting 5 cents in value per mile redeemed. On the other hand, you’ll only get 1 cent per mile (or less) by redeeming United miles for hotel stays, rental cars and cruises.
It can be tedious, but the more time you’re willing to spend researching options and doing the math (and the more flexible you can be with dates), the more likely you are to get a good deal.
In general, aim for at least 1.5 cents per reward. That means redeeming for things like merchandise or gift cards—typically at a rate of 1 cent per point—is usually a bad deal.