6 Ways My Family Scores Free Travel With Credit Cards
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I travel a lot, but I don't pay for most of it. In fact, my family and I often fly in business or first class. I used to look for coupons for 50 cents off of this or a couple of dollars off of that — but today it takes a few hundred dollars worth of travel savings to get me to raise an eyebrow. This is the lifestyle of a travel rewards aficionado. (See also: 5 Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)
What You Need to Know About Earning Free Travel
Earning free travel with rewards credit cards is legitimate, ethical, and profitable for all of the parties involved. Like many, my passion for reward travel was born of necessity. At first, I was just addicted to traveling in a style beyond my budget. Later, I married into a family that lives, in large part, on the other side of the globe. It didn't take a calculator to realize that the three of us weren't going to be able to visit my wife's family every year or two at a cost of about $5,000 in airfare. Moreover, after enduring coach seating for 30 hours in the air, round trip, we felt like the airlines should be paying us.
Contrast that scenario with our most recent trip this September. We traveled on award tickets business class to see family in Tel Aviv and enjoyed a week long stopover in Italy on the return. In Milan, we used hotel awards to stay for free in a suite that normally costs over $400 a night. After touring Lake Como and the Italian countryside, we returned home to Denver satisfied that we had not just visited family, but actually had a vacation as well. Other reward trips we have taken in the last year include Brazil, the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, and more domestic excursions than I can count.
How do we do it?
1. Take Advantage of Frequent Flyer Mile Promotions
US Airways offered a 250% bonus, at one point, for certain purchases made through their frequent flier program partners. Reward travel enthusiasts like me quickly figured out that a certain product (the TrackItBack recovery system) that normally returns 40 miles per dollar spent would now earn an additional 120 miles per dollar during this promotion, for a total of 160 miles per dollar spent. In fact, the miles were worth far more than the product itself!
I spent $3,000, and earned nearly 500,000 US Airways miles without stepping foot on an airplane. It was those miles that were redeemed for the three business class, partner award seats to the Middle East with a stopover in Europe. At 120,000 per ticket, we even had over 100,000 miles left over. Finally, the product itself was donated to charity for the tax deduction. Other recent promotions have included opportunities to buy and transfer miles at discount rates and offers that require earning miles from a selection of partners.
Related: Best Co-Branded Airline Credit Cards
2. Find Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses
We are all incredibly lucky to live in a country where credit card issuers compete so hard to earn your business that they are tripping over themselves to offer the most valuable sign up bonuses. This year, my wife and I each earned 100,000 British Airways miles as sign up bonus during a promotion that lasted a few months. We also received serious bonuses from Southwest and American Airlines, as well as Capital One. Travel credit cards often offer sign up bonuses worth $400 or more. It's an easy way to jump start your collection.
Does this hurt our credit score? Not at all. In fact, we always qualify for the most favorable mortgage rates. Our scores may suffer a few points at any given time due to too many recent inquiries, but we also have a large amount of available credit, reducing our utilization ratio. Keep in mind that this strategy is only wise for those who normally maintain excellent credit and who don't view these cards as an invitation to spend more or incur debt.
The best sign-up offer available now is $625 worth of free travel from the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (review). It's also my all-time favorite card to use.
3. Utilize Credit Card Spending
For those whose credit card is simply a method of payment, not a means of finance, each dollar spent equals more miles. We always use our credit cards when they are accepted. There are even some tricks to spend money on items that can immediately be redeemed for cash. In the past, reward travel experts have had traveler's checks, coins from the mint, and other liquid able assets charged to their credit cards as purchases. As these loopholes were publicized, they were eventually closed, but new ones are inevitably discovered. Again, this strategy is not for anyone who ever carries a balance as interest payments will far exceed the value of the miles earned.
4. Get Bumped
Being bumped is the lingo for earning voluntary denied boarding compensation. When an aircraft is oversold, some travelers will volunteer to take a later flight in order to receive hundreds of dollars of compensation. The key to being bumped is to book flights that you know are oversold, don't check luggage, and to be the first on the list of volunteers when the gate agents arrive.
5. Know How and When to Complain
When companies experience service failures, customers can earn valuable compensation if they play their cards right. Although poor customer service is more common in the airline industry, it does happen at hotels from time to time. Those who take the time to write a brief, polite, email to their travel provider will frequently receive vouchers and/or frequent flier miles for their troubles.
6. Use Miles and Points Creatively
When trying to use frequent flier mile programs, most people focus on the earning side of the equation. This is important, but no less so than finding the most strategic redemption opportunities. Finding the most valuable awards is an incredibly complex game, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be "Partners."
Remember my 500,000 US Airways miles? The only way I was able to redeem them for our most recent trip was through their partners. In this case, we flew Star Alliance partners Continental and Lufthansa, without taking any US Airways flights. In an extreme example, I once transferred points from a credit card to miles with Japan's ANA airlines, to redeem an award on one of their partners, South African Airlines.
It took me years of trial and error to find the best ways to maximize all the credit card rewards. I'll be sharing my best tips in my new weekly column on Wise Bread. As you can see from the happy faces in these recent vacation photos — your family will love these free travel tips!
Here are more of my picks of the best travel cards:
- My Favorite Travel Rewards Credit Cards
- Best Cards That Transfer Points to Airline Miles
- Best Cards That Transfer Points to Hotels
- Best Cards With Hotel Sign-Up Bonuses
- Best for Travel Purchases
- Cards That Offer TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry
What is your favorite travel rewards card tip?