What if you could travel for free whenever you want to get away? It seems far-fetched, but some people do it and it may not be as difficult as you think.
Free travel, sometimes called travel hacking or travel rewards, is all about collecting points or miles and redeeming them for free airline tickets, hotel rooms, gift cards or cash.
The truth is, card issuers and loyalty programs love to entice you with points and miles but offer almost no help in making the process easy to navigate. And you have to be careful. Banks are good at what they do. They know that most people will spend more and pay more interest than what they earn in rewards so unless you’re financially disciplined, be very careful.
Airline Travel Is Best
The top prize is almost always an airline ticket. Redeeming points or miles for free lodging, gift cards or cash should usually be a last resort when points are about to expire and/or you don’t have time to travel.
While airline travel is the best way to use miles and points, it is also the most complicated. Sites like RewardExpert can untangle the complex web of rules and regulations and help you plan for the least expensive flight with the lowest fees – and do it all in the shortest time frame.
Have A Travel Goal
Where do you want to go? Having some idea of where you would like to travel will provide incentive to stay organized and stick to the strategy. Your travel goal can be as simple as “Go to Hawaii,” or “Visit Alaska.” Pick something and write it down.
You should start this process long before you actually want to go – a year in advance is not too extreme. The goal also gives you incentive to save money and work the free travel game system.
Sign Up For Programs
Sign up for frequent flyer and loyalty programs for airlines and hotels. (Don’t worry. Signup is free.) When just starting out most experts suggest signing up for only a few programs – based on airlines you would fly anyway or hotel chains you prefer.
Credit Card Travel Rewards
Some people go no further than signing up for frequent flyer club memberships and loyalty programs. They collect points and miles when they travel and eventually accumulate enough for a free trip or night in a hotel.
If you want to supercharge your efforts, consider getting a travel rewards credit card. If you have a credit score of 700 or higher, you will likely have access to some very good to excellent travel reward credit card deals.
If your credit score is below 700 or you have a significant amount of credit card debt, it might be best to get rid of the debt and raise your credit score before going this route. (There are cards available for those with less than excellent credit ratings but caution is advised.)
Finding The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards
Start by checking any credit cards you already have and use to see what rewards they offer. Chances are you’ll have to apply for a new credit card to get the best rewards.
Fortunately, that’s easy to do and also makes you eligible for any available sign-up bonus that could have you flying (almost) free in no time at all.
RewardExpert guides you to specific programs and credit cards to reach your travel goal.
Sign-Up Bonuses, Minimum Spends And Annual Fees
The 3 most important factors when choosing a card are sign-up bonus, minimum spend and annual fee.
The sign-up bonus consists of free points or miles added to your card when you sign up and the minimum spend is the amount you must put on the card within a specific time frame (typically 3 months) in order to get the bonus.
The best cards offer a bonus of 40,000 to 50,000 points or miles. The minimum spend varies but often ranges from a low of about $1,000 to a high of $5,000 or more.
According to one study, the average annual credit card fee in 2015 was $58. Many cards waive the fee the first year but you can often negotiate the fee away or just get rid of the card after the first year.
Credit Card Cautions
Getting travel rewards from a credit card, including canceling an old card and getting a new one to take advantage of the sign-up bonus, is a great way to up your game, but does require hardcore discipline.
First, you absolutely cannot hold a balance month-to-month. No exceptions. Maintaining a balance means you will pay interest – often higher with travel rewards credit cards. Interest will wipe out your rewards before you can say “free travel.”
In addition, you have to meet the minimum spend requirements for your new card. Using the card to pay bills or make a large purchase are only a couple of effective topics. Search online for ways to meet minimum spend requirements for more information.
An important part of free travel strategy is organization and the best way to organize your various frequent flyer, loyalty programs and credit cards is to register them. RewardExpert has an online wallet you can use to register your programs and cards.
The whole point of loyalty programs is to “be loyal.” In other words, keep staying at your favorite hotel chain and keep flying your favorite airline (or one that is affiliated and lets you transfer miles and points to your primary program).
Airlines and hotel chains do have affiliates or belong to affiliate organizations that give you more flexibility in your travel choices than you might think.
Information provided here is just to get you started. Taking advantage of the free travel game is a fun hobby and an excellent way to save money while seeing the world, but it involves continuing education.
Check out RewardExpert to help you navigate the free travel game. Our site takes you all the way from picking a travel destination to redeeming your points or miles for that all-important airline ticket.