6 Ways My Family Scores Free Travel With Credit Cards

By Jason Steele. Last updated 4 May 2017. 21 comments

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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 flyer program partners. Reward travel enthusiasts like me quickly figured out that a certain product 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.

See also: 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 miles as sign up bonus during a promotion that lasted a few months. Travel credit cards often offer sign up bonuses worth $500 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.

See also: How to Get a Free Vacation with Credit Card Bonuses

3. Utilize Credit Card Spending

For those whose credit card is simply a method of payment, not a means of financing, each dollar spent equals more miles. We always use our credit cards when they are accepted. Just by paying for our usual expenses on our credit cards (and paying them off in full each period), we rack up points quickly and consistently. Again, this strategy is not for anyone who ever carries a balance as interest payments will far exceed the value of the miles earned.

See also: How I Save Over $1,000 a Year Using These 4 Credit Cards for Day-to-Day Expenses

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 flyer 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 airline 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.

See also: Travel Cards With the Best Redemption Values

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Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Guest's picture

Thanks! Great article with some tips I haven't heard a million times before. Excited to read your future columns!

Will Chen's picture

Welcome to Wise Bread Jason! You have a beautiful family. I love that photo of you and your daughter. You with your Super Hero Dad walk and her with her little girl skip. =)

Guest's picture

I'm generally a pretty smart credit card user. Always paid monthly debt in full, never use it as an excuse to buy things I can't afford. Have focused mostly on cash back because they seem like the best bang for the buck. But now that I want to travel more these articles might come in handy. Like Smarcus said, I'm excited to see more great tips in the future.

Guest's picture

Agree with other commenters that your family looks adorable. Noticed in the last pic you had to get up from breakfast to take that picture.

Ah dads. Always taking pictures and never fully enjoying the vacation. lol

Guest's picture

Great post. One thing worth mentioning is to book awards travel plenty of time in advance, particularly if you are going first class. I use AA miles (through partner Hawaiian) every year to fly first class for early December travel to the Big Island. I literally have to book my flights in early January to get the following December first class seats on the Hawaiian flights. Seems like the airlines are allocating fewer seats for air mile travel (in my experience).

Lynn Truong's picture

I always thought that the travel credit cards had so many limits and miles expired so quickly that unless you're jetsetting every where, you'll never be able to utilize them. Glad to hear that they actually work through normal use.

Guest's picture

My family is scattered all across the US so I make really good use of my travel reward credit cards, especially around the end of the year for all the get togethers!

Ashley Jacobs's picture

Welcome Jason! Awesome article! Some really useful tips I'll have to start implementing!

Guest's picture

Great article with awesome tips! And your daughter is adorable!

Guest's picture

I never know what to put in my complaint letters. I start off being too mad to write anything coherent. But when I cool down I forget to write it at all.

Do you have some kind of template that always works for you?

Meg Favreau's picture

Welcome, Jason!

Buying certain products for the large number of airline miles always makes me think Adam Sandler piling his cart full of pudding in Punch Drunk Love. You seem a bit more down to earth. =)

Guest's picture

How often do you find you're able to get bumped? I've tried a few times, but it's never worked out for me.

Amy Lu's picture
Amy Lu

Thanks for the tips, Jason! I don't travel much myself, but a friend is planning to surprise her parents with a trip to Europe to celebrate their anniversary next year. I'm definitely sending her here. =)

Alex Lam's picture
Alex Lam

Welcome to Wise Bread! Like everyone else, I'm looking forward to maximizing the bonuses on my credit cards.

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

That breakfast looks delicious! Welcome to Wise Bread, Jason. I have a ton of questions for you... like "is it worth the effort?" and "how many credit cards do you have to carry?" Looking forward to more posts from you!

Jason Steele's picture

Thanks for all the great feedback. A few thoughts:

First, booking awards early is preferred, but don't count out the possibility of booking late. Many airlines open up awards space over time or even at the last minute. Case in point, we will be visiting my parents over Thanksgiving on award tickets, just booked in the last few weeks, so nothing is impossible.

Re: Sarah As for complaint letters, the content is almost irrelevant, as many airlines (especially Delta) don't even read the letters. They just shoot off a generic response and give you miles. Just mention you were unsatisfied for any reason, even if the letter is just two sentences. In fact, if I had the job of reading complaint letters all day, I might be thrilled to read only the shortest ones, and reward them for their brevity alone as some people write pages and pages.

Re: Meg. The sub-plot about miles in Punch Drunk Love is actually based on TRUE STORY! Google "Pudding Guy" and you will learn about David Phillips. I actually met him last weekend and heard his story. I am sure stories like his will be something that I will be writing about here in the future.

As for bumping, that might be the tip I use least these last few years, as I was always traveling on a tight schedule to maximize limited vacation time. Now, my time is less limited, and I might try it again. When I used to travel on business, I would pick an airline with many flights to my destination, and then book the first of several flights that would get me there on time. On some occasions, they would overbook each flight, and I would get bumped multiple times before I went anywhere. There is a lot of luck involved, but like a game of poker, it is what you do when you have good cards that matters.

Re: Greg. Finally, the last picture is actually just an appetizer before dinner at an "Agritourismo" in Italy near Parma. These are farm houses that you stay in and eat locally grown foods. That is prosciutto de Parma, melon, eggplant, tomatoes, Ricotta, and of course, Parmesan cheese. The melon, eggplant, and tomatoes were grown a few feet from where we were eating, and later, we later visited the farms where the others were produced. As for "Is it worth it?". You tell me. I once boarded a 12 hour flight, and sat in a lie flat seat in business class. In this aircraft, the economy class passengers passed my seat on the way to theirs, just as I was reclining and looking at the menu. The stares were piercing and the jealousy was palpable. Several asked "How did you get to be so lucky?" Or, "Why do you get that seat?" Embarrassed, I could only respond, "Collect miles". We had three business class seats to Israel and Italy on this last trip, and it cost us far less than coach, so yes, it was worth it. As for the number of cards I carry. I use only about 4-6, although I occasionally have more that I got just for the bonus.

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

That meal sounds awesome! The appetizer alone looks/sounds heavenly.

BTW, thanks for the pudding guy mention. Interesting story. :) http://www.snopes.com/business/deals/pudding.asp

Guest's picture

Thanks for the tips, Jason! (You had me at "free travel".)

Guest's picture

Great post, I would like to know exactly what you use your credit to get points. Do you buy groceries, pay bills ,pay house payment, etc.

Guest's picture

Thank you so much for the tip. I like that idea for using these tips for airline miles. I would be interested of getting their credit card. I’m specially would like to use for Star Alliance carriers like Lufthansa for example. However, it seems like a daunting task to earn 100,000 miles to transfer. I know you earn the most points by staying in their hotels, what is the average amount of time to earn these kind of miles? Is there a method you use? Mattress Run you may take part in? Staying at their cheaper locations?

Guest's picture

Just came back from the UK using American Airlines miles. I grew up there so I try to go as often as I can using credit card sign on bonus miles. We visited Paris and I used American Airmiles and IHG points for our hotel stays. Hope to visit Iceland and Florida next year. I've been doing the credit cards rewards game for years now. I can't begin to tally up the miles and points we've accumulated and spent. I can tell you that the UK is not so generous with their rewards programs so we are lucky here.