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How To Travel For Free With Credit Card Reward Points

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My fiance and I are traveling to Tanzania for free.

Yes, you read that right.

In one month, my fiance and I will by flying from Boston to Amsterdam for a day long excursion before hopping on another flight to Tanzania. We didn't spend a dime on our flights.

How? Travel credit cards.

We have been using our rewards credit cards for anything that we need to charge for quite some time now. Why not, when you get 2 points for every dollar spent on food and travel, and 1 point for every other dollar spent? Why not, when you live 1,700 miles from home and spend a good deal of time on a plane throughout the year?

We love to travel and daydream about all of the places we want to go, things we want to see and food we want to eat. But, time is limited and we are both very busy people. So while we daydream, why not build up some reward points to use when we are ready? That's what we have been doing for the past year and a half or so, knowing that we had a trip to Africa in the foreseeable future. Flying to Tanzania ain't cheap, but it will be for us!

Many people want to travel but get discouraged by the overpriced cost of flight. Fortunately, it is possible to build up enough credit card reward points to use toward travel miles!

What Does A Good Travel Credit Card Offer?

No Foreign Transaction Fees: I got the Barclaycard Arrival credit card when I first moved to Grand Cayman, knowing that there weren't any foreign transaction fees. I did NOT want to get dinged with a fee every single time I used my credit card, especially since it wasn't just a vacation. 3% may not sound like much, but it adds up when tacked on to every transaction. Why waste money when you don't have to?

No Foreign Transaction Fee Cards: Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Capital One VentureOne Rewards, American Airlines Advantage, Chase Sapphire, and more.

Sign-up Bonuses: I was offered 50,000 points for spending a certain dollar amount within the first 3 months of opening my credit card. I knew I would have some pretty sizable expenses in that time-frame so this was pretty attractive to me.

50,000 points = $500

$500! That's a free flight! Don't register for a travel credit card that doesn't offer up-front points because I guarantee you that there are plenty of others that will.

Minimum Spend For Rewards: As mentioned in #2, I had to spend a certain amount of money in order to receive my sign-on points. $3,500 to be exact. Before signing the dotted line, find out how much you need to spend. If it isn't something you can realistically see yourself coughing up in the required period of time, you may want to consider another credit card. Don't forget that you don't only have to use the card for travel. I use it for everything; groceries, entertainment, household necessities, travel, gas, etc. Minimum spend is typically $1,000-$5,000, so it may not be difficult to reach the requirement, especially if you have any big costs ahead of you, such as a family vacation or a household appliance.

Rewards Rate: One of seemingly small but very important things to consider is what you typically spend your money on. This is because rewards rates vary. As mentioned, my Barclaycard gives me 2 miles for every $1 I spend on food and travel, and 1 mile for every other dollar spent. I travel a lot and I eat a lot, so this made sense. Most travel cards give miles while others may give cash back by the percentage (1.5% is common).

En-Route Benefits: Some travel cards offer real-time travel benefits, such as early boarding, and upgrade options. If you travel domestic frequently for example, chances are you are racking up some serious dough on checked luggage ($25/bag on average). You've already spent enough on the flight… why should you have to pay for your bag too?

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How To Do It

Use Your Card… wisely. If you have the cash to pay off your credit card each month… just use it. Many people don't feel comfortable charging everything but there isn't any harm if you stay on top of your accounts and spending, and pay off what you owe in a timely manner. If you don't feel comfortable charging on most transactions, use it when you travel and spend on food, as that is where you will get the most miles anyway.

Do NOT overspend just to earn points.

Flight Stalk. There is truly an art in flight buying. I've learned that the same flight can cost $100-150 less if purchased earlier in the week than if it is purchased closer to the weekend. I've learned that patience is key, as costs will fluctuate in an insane way. Many opt to purchase flights far in advance to secure their spot and spend less, but in a lot of cases, they can be hundreds cheaper if you buy 2-4 months out. I get that it can be nerve-wracking to wait that long… but this is key for the budget traveler! Buying two one-way tickets can also be slightly cheaper, but not always. Download a flight alert app and keep a very close eye on your options.

Use & Save or Buy & Redeem: There are a couple of ways you can book with points. We used Barclay to purchase tickets for our upcoming trip and will redeem our miles by choosing which travel expense to pay off on the rewards dashboard. Another option would have been to use our Chase Sapphire Preferred card. With that, we would have had two ways to purchase our flight. We could log into our account, go to the travel section, search for and buy our flight using our points. Doing so saves 25% on the flight. Or, we could buy the flight directly from an airline or vendor like Expedia, go into the travel section of our credit card account and choose which travel expense to pay off using the points (similar to Barclay).

Don't Forget

Rewards do come with a caveat. If you don't use your points toward an eligible purchase in a certain amount of time, you may have to wait until you make another qualified purchase. So, how can you reap the benefits if you don't have a trip coming up?

Many think that “travel points” means that you have to fly. It doesn't. You can redeem them for any kind of travel. I can currently redeem a flight, a NYC Uber ride, a brunch at the Marriott, a vacation home rental and some random purchase made at a hotel. Do you expect to pay for a ride from the airport to your hotel? That's redeemable. Did you put said hotel on a credit card? That's redeemable. Did you order dinner and drinks at the hotel restaurant? That's redeemable.

Sure this article is about traveling for free (or cheap), but say you aren't going anywhere any time soon but have a good amount of points accumulated. I am on the go enough that I haven't done this, but many cards have shopping and gift card options.

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My Barclaycard Travel Credit Dashboard

Take advantage! Otherwise, hold onto those points until you can use them for a big trip!

It IS possible to be a traveler on a budget. You just have to do your research, have some patience and make a long-term plan!

This information is not to suggest that you should go out and register for a rewards card just so you can spend, spend, spend until you have loads of travel points. It's all contingent on your personal financial situation, because, of course… you have to spend money in order to be rewarded.

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9 Comments

  1. Great post. My wife and I use a travel credit card for all of our monthly purchase and pay off the balance at the end of the month. You can really add up the travel miles this way.

  2. Great article….very informative! Wish I had done something like this years ago……guess it’s not too late to start!

  3. This is a great read and exactly what my fiance and I have been doing! We’ve been using our Southwest Airlines card for EVERYTHING because the points add up so fast that it’s worth it!

    -Clarissa

  4. I love using reward points to fund our vacations. Many people don’t see the benefits, but you have to wise when you use credit cards. Glad you pointed that out.

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