How to Use Travel Rewards Cards to Get Free Trips

By Amanda Bellucco. Last updated 11 April 2017. 1 comment

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A bite from the travel bug can be a pricey itch to scratch. One of the easiest ways to travel the world for less, is to take advantage of credit cards that offer travel rewards. Millions of people are able to fly and stay at hotels free (or pretty close to it) thanks to the wonder of rewards miles. Here's what you need to know to get started. (See also: 6 Ways My Family Scores Free Travel With Credit Cards)

How Credit Card Points Work

Travel credit cards come in many forms. Some are generic bank cards, while others are branded with specific hotel chains or airlines and their affiliates. Despite what logo is printed on the plastic, the concept is the same; every time you (responsibly) swipe the card, you rack up rewards points to use toward a much-needed getaway. There is a seemingly endless variety of cards to choose from, all with their own benefits and features. With a little research, you're sure to find the perfect fit for you and your travel needs. Here are the tried and true tips to getting your free vacation with credit card rewards. (See also: How Travel Rewards Credit Cards Really Work)

How to Evaluate Card Options

There are a few basic options to weigh for just about every travel credit card on the market. One of the first things to consider is bonus points. A hefty sign-up bonus may be a marketing tool to reel you in, but they're often worth it — many will even cover the costs of a domestic flight in and of themselves. Keep in mind though that in order to qualify for the bonus, there will be a minimum spend requirement within a limited time period.

See also: Best Current Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses for Miles

The other thing to consider in a travel rewards credit card is their bonus categories. Bonus categories give you extra points for spending on specific things. For example, a co-branded airline card will offer bonus points for purchases made with the airline. If you often fly with a particular airline, you can quickly rack up points with their credit card. Other popular bonus categories include restaurants, supermarkets, and gas. If you spend a lot in these categories, you should look for a credit card that offers bonus points for making those purchases.

See also: Best Credit Cards for Supermarkets

Finally, consider how you want to redeem your travel rewards. Co-branded airline and hotel credit cards will allow you to use your points through their loyalty program. Some loyalty programs restrict the use of points to designated seats and nights allotted for rewards. Others will offer no restrictions, and allow you to use your points for any seat or night as long as it hasn’t been purchased.

Other cards will have a travel portal that you have to use in order to redeem your points. Finally, the most flexible travel rewards cards will allow you to book any travel reservation you want, and redeem the points as statement credit toward those purchases.

The less flexibility you require, the higher the value of each point you’ll be able to get. (See also: Which Credit Cards Have the Best Travel Redemption Value)

How to Use the Card

Earning points is not a set-it-and-forget-it type of deal. As long as you're vigilant about paying your credit card bill on time — and you should be — forego the cash and pay with plastic. Take advantage of bonus categories and opportunities. For example, some travel credit cards even have their own shopping portal, letting you rack up additional rewards while making purchases through hundreds of partnering online retailers. Set all your monthly subscriptions and payments to your rewards earning credit card. Then watch your points add up.

See also: 7 Reasons I use Credit Cards for Everything

How to Plan Out Your Trip

Once you’ve started using your card and your points balance begins to grow, start getting an idea of when you’ll be able to redeem your points visiting your credit card’s travel portal or the travel loyalty program for flights, stays, or packages that you’re interested in. Determine the points cost and estimate how long it would take for you to earn enough points based on your regular purchases and expenses. Once you’ve got a ballpark figure, you’ll know when you can redeem your points for travel.

Don’t forget that each airline and hotel have partners that either allow you to book through the same loyalty program or transfer points to other programs to book awards as well. Each credit card issuer also have a variety of travel partners.

Finally, if you’ve chosen a credit card that offers a statement credit on travel purchases, you can just browse any travel booking site to figure the cost of your trip, and use a 1 cent to 1 point calculation to figure out when you’ll have enough points to pay for it.

When to Consider Cash Back

Some forms of travel don't lend themselves to rewards points. Maybe you prefer long road trips. Maybe you're planning a cruise. If this is the case, look into a cash back card. Cash back cards will convert the points you earn into credits to spend as cash. This is also a good way to cover incidental expenses and other small costs while traveling. Not to mention you can always use cash for non-travel expenses as well.

While cash back cards don’t offer the same potential value of travel rewards points (each travel rewards point can be worth a few cents, depending on the type of travel you redeem them for, whereas cash back points are almost always worth 1 cent per point), you won’t risk losing out since you can always use cash, whereas you might end up with leftover travel points.

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Carey @ wiserdollar.com

Good points. I've also found some apps helpful in saving money when traveling, such as trip advisor and gas buddy. Also checking out the city's visitors' center may lead to coupons and special promotions as well.