As a full-time travel coach, I highly recommend getting a credit card that gets you points toward travel with every purchase. This is one of the ways I afford to travel so much myself. In the past four years, I’ve been to 27 countries on six continents. Points are an integral part of my strategy to keep traveling. The points you accrue with daily expenses add up quickly, and reward travel isn’t just gratifying, it can also help you build your status with an airline or hotel chain, getting you upgrades and status that pay off even more.
Pro Tip: this strategy is best used if you pay off your credit card balances on time and have no credit card debt.
I love The Points Guy as a resource to pick the best rewards cards. They update their site frequently so you can feel confident that you’re getting the best deals currently available. For points toward flights, I use my American Express Gold Skymiles and American Express Platinum Skymiles cards. For hotel points, I use a Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Visa card by Chase.
Here are some of the wonderful deals I’ve gotten over the years with rewards points:
- A one-way ticket from New York to Christchurch, New Zealand, for 40,000 points and $26
- A one-way ticket from New York to Paris for 35,000 points and $5.60
- Upgrades to beautiful hotel suites in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Johannesburg, South Africa, for 7,000 Marriott points per night
- Ongoing upgrades to Delta Comfort when available
While it’s simple to apply for one of these cards, there’s a lot to consider before choosing which cards to apply for. Here’s what I’ve learned from my own experience using points to travel, and some of the nuances you can expect when you use them.
1. Consider Your Desired Destinations
While the rewards, themselves, such as new customer bonuses and what it takes to earn them, should be part of your decision process, make sure you think about where you intend to travel, especially if it’s international. Points can be used around the world. However, they can’t be used everywhere in the world.
For airlines, the key is to find out which partner airlines your preferred airline works with. You can simply Google “XXX partner airlines” where “XXX” is the name of your preferred airline. Here are examples of Delta, American Airlines, and United Airlines’ partners.
In this stage, you’re researching which airline has partners in most of the places you believe you want to go. It can take a while to build up your mileage, and you can’t transfer it between airlines, so I recommend making sure you choose the carrier that offers you the most potential.
When I went to Vietnam, I was able to fly within Asia on partner airlines for 12,000 to 15,000 points per flight. In Europe, I got a business class seat from Portugal to Scotland for 25,000 points. I flew with points from Cape Town, South Africa, to Portugal and from Cartagena, Colombia, to El Calafate, Argentina. Using points can, literally, help you see the world.
2. Know Where Your Card Is Accepted
Outside of America, I’ve noticed that, oftentimes, Visa is more widely accepted than American Express. It’s disappointing because American Express offers excellent customer service and protection. Unfortunately, they charge merchants a higher fee because of all they offer. This higher fee often discourages merchants from accepting American Express in their establishment.
Pro Tip: Because of the high likelihood that you’ll travel to places where American Express is not accepted, make sure that at least one of your rewards cards is a Visa or Mastercard. If you intend to travel internationally, it goes without saying that you should also seek out a card with 0 international transaction fees.
3. Discover What Rewards You Get On Top Of Free Travel
Ongoing rewards are what make these cards even more valuable. Between my points and flying Delta or partner airlines whenever I travel, I’m a Medallion member. That grants me two free checked bags. These days, that’s liquid gold. Not only is my flight next to nothing — I’m relieved that I don’t have to add on expensive bag fees. Often, two checked bags on an international flight can be over $100, so this is a huge asset for me. I also get a free companion ticket every year, and sometimes get a $100 eCredit toward the purchase of a future flight.
My Marriott points get me free rooms, and using my credit card for purchases gets me free stay rewards. And, as a loyal member, I often get room upgrades. As a full-time traveler who often stays in low-budget places, when I use my Marriott rewards points, it’s like hitting the jackpot for part of my stay.
I just used some of my Marriott rewards to stay in Singapore at the Duxton Reserve, a fabulous property. Extremely luxurious, quiet, great location, and free. Singapore is outrageously expensive, so having the free nights saved me a ton of money for my time there. Rather than staying in a youth hostel, I was able to stay in a beautiful hotel and relax.
4. Research The Value Of Points
Every airline and hotel has its own reward system. You should look into how many points you need for a free flight or free hotel stay. Also, do you get one point per dollar, or more? How quickly you can expect a free flight or hotel stay is important to think about.
In other words, if you need 20,000 points for a free hotel stay, and you get 1 point per dollar, you’ll need to spend $20,000 to get the reward. If, however, you get 3 points for every dollar, that spend drops to just under $7,000. There are normally promotions throughout the year, not just for new members, that will allow you can rack up points more quickly. Look out for those. They usually offer extra points for grocery shopping and gas refueling. Sign up for the promotions you use the most often to rapidly build up your miles/points base.
Another benefit can be how you’re treated by partner airlines. Above, I suggested that you find out who they are. I have found, repeatedly, that when I use my Delta points on a partner airline, I not only get the free checked bags, but I’m also allowed to book a preferred seat, which is normally something you pay extra for.
5. Compare Required Points By Booking In Advance
The more flexible you can be with your travel, the more likely you’ll use fewer points to do it. For example, my trip to France used 35,000 points, booked 3 months ahead of time. If I booked last minute, I might have paid 100,000 or 150,000 points for the same economy seat.
Look into blackout dates as well. Each airline handles this differently, but Delta, for example, might raise the required points for a destination if it’s on a holiday or a weekend. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often less expensive in both dollars and points for domestic and international routes. Other airlines might not have any seats with points over a holiday.
When searching for flights, the best thing you can do is choose “flexible dates” if you have that option, and then look at the airline pricing calendar, which will show you a roughly 30-day layout of all the fares, allowing you to choose the least expensive.
That flight from Cartagena to El Calafate, Argentina, I mentioned, taught me another lesson. Some routes have limited weekly, or even monthly, flights. I found out that the flight I wanted was only available three times a month. By using the monthly calendar to search for my flight, I was able to see those three options.
If I had stuck to researching only specific days, I would have thought it was impossible to book this route with points. So, part of using points is making sure you look up your desired route in a number of different ways (weekly, monthly, direct, stop-overs, et cetera) to understand all your options.
6. Member Rewards Or Travel Rewards
A final consideration is whether you prefer to accrue points with, say, American Express, and then put them toward a specific airline or hotel at the time of travel. The advantage of this strategy is, in theory, that you can then benefit from any airline and any hotel, and increase the likelihood of getting a great travel deal just about everywhere you travel. In other words, you have more airline and hotel options than you would if you put all your points into one airline or one hotel chain. You can also use member rewards for gift cards, and sometimes cash can be just as useful as points.
However, when you factor in how long it takes to transfer points, which could mean losing out on an available flight or hotel reward, and whether or not this strategy gets you customer loyalty rewards (upgrades, free bags, et cetera), it might be less appealing.
On the flip side, when you put all your points into a specific airline or hotel chain, you’re more likely to get those loyalty rewards. However, as I mentioned, you will be limited to their partner networks. Also, if you ever decide you’re unhappy with an airline or hotel chain, you can’t transfer your points with them to another carrier.
Rewards and Member points should absolutely be part of your strategy to save money on travel. Picking which strategy and cards to use requires research, good credit, considering long-term goals with points, and an idea of where you want to go.
Want more on rewards travel? Read My Husband And I Have 21 Separate Airline And Hotel Credit Cards Between Us, Here’s Why.