If you’ve ever wondered how to travel using credit card points, here is a very basic 101 tutorial on how to get started! Note this post includes affiliate links to the cards we have.
An Intro To Travel Hacking
For years and years I used the same Wells Fargo basic credit card that got me 1% cash back on all purchases.
I was proud of the simplicity in my wallet and ignored all marketing related to credit cards. I paid off my balance in full each month, and was happy when I got $250 cash back to my checking account a few times a year.
Fast forward to the last few years when I started listening to financial podcasts that talked about travel hacking. These people were flying around the world for free using credit card points.
I didn’t understand how, so I ignored it for another year or two, until I finally started paying attention. I realized how much money I’d wasted by not getting into this sooner.
We’ve accumulated more than $10k worth of free travel in one year
Since we started using credit card points, Thomas and I have accumulated more than a million points! That’s $10k+ worth of free flights and hotels.
Our trip to Miami was basically free (other than food), and my stay with Mazen at The Quirk Hotel was, too. While we don’t have plans to uproot the fam and become nomads or travel globally in the near future, I am so, so happy to have learned that we can use points for most of our shorter trips. And do more of them too! I hope to never pay cash for a flight again.
Learning about credit card points is like learning a new language
It takes time to figure out what cards to get, dos and don’ts of the game, and how credit card points can save you lots and lots of money.
I am still very much a beginner at this, which is great if you are too because I will speak beginner to you!! Here’s the 101 of getting started learning to travel using credit card points.
How To Travel Using Credit Card Points
Note that to get into travel rewards, it’s very important that you are not carrying a balance month to month or spending more than you otherwise would. Responsible credit card use and solid financial habits are musts.
1% Cash Back Is Not Good
The first thing I had to learn was that credit cards come with different benefits. I literally had no idea that some cards got you perks like trip interruption insurance (never pay for that out of pocket!), Peloton credits (a Chase benefit last year), grocery credits, hotel credits, and 5x to 10x points on certain spending.
With my old card I was getting 1% on every purchase. So for every $25k I spent, I got $250.
Cash back seems great, but you get a lot more bang for your buck if you use a card that gives you more than $1 per point. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred gets you 3x points on all dining out and the Freedom Flex gets you 5x points on a bunch of rotating spending categories.
I was leaving a lot of opportunity cost on the table!
Paying For Travel With Points Is Sort Of Tax Free
I used to pay for all travel out of pocket. If I wanted to fly somewhere, I’d spend $300 on a flight in post-tax dollars.
When you book flights with points, you’re buying the same $300 flight without using post-tax dollars. While this tax loophole might change in the future, it makes sense to pay for travel with points accrued because those dollars are more valuable than cash. It’s kind of like paying for healthcare with your HSA.
On top of that, the Chase premium cards get you $1.25 points per dollar, so there’s an extra layer of value in those dollars.
Get The Most Points In Sign Up Bonuses
As I’m sure you’ve seen in commercials or on flights, credit cards offer great sign-up bonuses to entice people to get cards. The best way to accumulate points is to get a new card and spend the dollar amount to get the bonus, usually between 60,000 up to 150,000 points when you spend a certain amount within the first months of opening the card.
When I first learned about travel hacking, I did not like the idea of signing up for so many cards. It went against the minimalism and simplicity I valued. However, I’ve learned that if I go slowly and use a card tracker it’s not so bad. I’m learning which cards to use when to really maximize points.
A good spreadsheet is all you need, but I also really love the Travel Freely Card Tracker. It’s free to use, and you can put in which cards you have and it will keep track of your application date, annual fees, and when it’s time for a new card. The card genie is also a nice perk to recommend which card to get next. You can also put in personal and business to best stagger those as well.
What about annual fees?
While annual fees are not fun to pay, most of the cards that have them have perks that offset the fee.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred has a $95 annual fee, but it comes with a $50 hotel credit and plenty of other perks.
The Capital One Venture X card has a $395 annual fee, but you get a $300 hotel credit and a $200 rental credit during the year, so in that case you’re +$100 (assuming you use the perks!).
The rewards gained should usually cancel out the fee above and beyond.
Do points expire?
As far as I know, none of the rewards programs expire. The only way to lose your points is if the bank itself shuts down your account for a negative reason. So start accumulating now even if you don’t have any travel in your future!
Why You Should Get Chase Ultimate Reward Cards First
The reason that the pros recommend starting with Chase is two fold:
- Chase Ultimate Reward Points are considered super valuable because Chase has excellent transfer partners, including JetBlue and Hyatt (see below).
- Chase has some of the strictest application rules for a credit card issuer, and you can only apply for 5 cards every 24 months. It’s essentially a way they keep people from applying for 100 cards a year.
So start with Chase cards, and then once you’ve gotten the good ones you can move onto other brands, like AmEx, Capital One, and Citi.
Credit cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Chase Freedom Flex
- Chase Freedom Unlimited
- INK Business Preferred
- INK Business Cash
- INK Business Unlimited
Who are Chase Ultimate Rewards partners?
Transferable points can get you better deals at each of these airline and hotel loyalty programs:
Airline partners: Air France KLM, British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, JetBlue, Singapore, Southwest, United, Emirates and Virgin Atlantic.
Hotel partners: Hyatt, IHG, and Marriott.
Which card should I start with?
Start With The Chase Sapphire Preferred
Almost universally across the travel hacking space, everyone recommends the Chase Sapphire Preferred as one of the best travel rewards credit cards to start with. It has great perks, a small annual fee, and you get more points than one point per dollar when booking travel.
The current bonus was just increased 80,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. That’s equivalent to about $1,000 worth of travel! (It’s normally 60k points, so this is a great time to apply and get 20k more!)
This was the first card I started with, and Thomas got it right after I hit the bonus. We both earned the sign-up bonuses, Peloton credits that they had last year ($120 in credits between the two of us), free DoorDash upgrades, and tons of spending points this year. It’s our primary card for dining out because it gets 3x on restaurants.
The card earns 5x points on travel purchased through the Chase portal, 3x points on dining, 2x points on all other travel purchases. New this year is a $50 annual hotel statement credit on hotels booked through the portal.
There are also other benefits such as travel insurance coverage, including car rental insurance. This trip cancellation insurance has been a huge peace of mind for me during the pandemic knowing that if we had to cancel a trip for Covid reasons we would get a full refund.
Lastly, as a premium card, all points redeemed from the Chase Sapphire get 1.25 points per dollar. So if you have 80,000 points, you can redeem that for $1,000 in travel in the Chase portal. This is why you always want to have one premium card with an annual fee in your wallet.
How To Incorporate Business Cards
If you have a business, and the word business is very loosely defined, you can earn even more points. Thomas and I are both business owners, so we have both gotten two Chase INK business cards and tons of points that way. You don’t need to have a storefront or need a EIN to be considered a business. If you drive for Uber or make jewelry, you have a business.
The business cards usually have higher spending requirements to get the sign up bonus, but the bonuses are usually much higher too.
Business cards also don’t count toward your 5/24, so you can open them without taking a spot in the queue.
The bottom line is you can really rack up points if you mix business cards into your strategy.
Check out the Chase Chase INK business cards and start with those. The two gray ones are no annual fees with lower spends, and the blue one is the premium with a $15k spend.
Not every business can handle that high of a spend (mine couldn’t), but Thomas’s company had no problem with it since they buy a ton of materials for projects each month.
Which Credit Cards Should I Get Next?
Chase Freedom Flex
The Chase Freedom Flex is a no-annual-fee card that earns those valuable Ultimate Rewards points. While the 20,000 point sign-up bonus doesn’t seem like a large one, this card has some of the best point categories to earn 3-5x points for everyday purchases, like gas. In the offer that we signed up for, we’re getting 5x on groceries all year up to $12k. That means 60,000 points if we max it out.
Capital One Venture X
I also just got the Capital One Venture X – my first non-Chase card! This card was described to me as being one of the best travel cards out there, and we got 100k points with the sign up – that’s like 4 round trip flights.
You also get into all the priority lounges in airports, and get $100 credit towards TSA PreCheck. It also comes with trip cancellation insurance, perks for rental cars, and 10x points on travel booked in their portal.
I already got a $200 credit for rentals from our trip to Primland. The Purchase Eraser is also key if you love staying at AirBnB since it allows you to use points for any purchase coded as travel after your stay. See below for more details on how to use it.
Of the airline credit cards, check out Southwest cards to earn the Southwest Companion Pass. It’s a BOGO pass where every time you buy one flight you get to bring a companion for free.
You earn it in a year that you accumulate over 125k Southwest Rapid Reward points and you get it for the entire following year too. If you’re going for it, you must listen to this episode of the ChooseFI podcast to get all the details: Families Fly Free.
Best Starting Cards Summary of Points
Note these might change from time of publish! Check each offer before applying.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred – Best for dining out and travel. Temporary upgraded bonus of 80k points with $4k spend in first 3 months. (Normally 60k). Great travel partners. $95 fee.
- Chase Freedom Flex – Best for everyday use. 20k points with $500 spend in first 3 months. Great travel partners. No fee.
- Capital One Venture X – Best travel credit card. 75k points with $4k spend in first 3 months. Lots of travel perks. $395 fee.
- INK Business Cards – Best for businesses. 75k points with $7.5k spend in first 3 months. Great for getting Chase points if you have a biz. No fees on two of the cards.
- Southwest Cards – Best for families flying together to get companion pass. 40k points with $1k spend in first 3 months.
How To Use Points For Booking Travel
Even once I figured out how to accumulate points and which cards to get first, I still felt a little intimidated about how to get the best deal!!!
Those who are pros at travel hacking know all the ins and outs of transfer to this and do this to get the very best bang for your buck. I finally had to just let go of that and do it the simple way: book with points right in the card portals.
Good: Shop through the portal and use points. This is really easy and simple! Search for hotels and flights and redeem your points right then and there. Should you have to cancel, points go right back into your rewards account.
Better: Transfer points to airlines and hotels (using a Chase premium card) and you’ll usually get a better points per flight/night rate.
An example of this is transfering 25k Chase points to the World of Hyatt program and then booking a Hyatt hotel on the Hyatt site. The one risk is that once you transfer points out, you can’t transfer them back in. So don’t transfer until you’re ready to go!
I was thrilled to find out that there are actually a ton of boutique hotels in the portals. It’s not all chains. We tend to like smaller, independent hotels, and I’ve been pleased with what I’ve been able to find to pay with points.
Venture X Purchase Eraser
The Venture X has a purchase eraser that lets you book right on a hotel/airline website and then erase the purchase from your statement with points. That’s ultimate flexibility! This means you can think about travel hacking after you travel!!
Anything coded as travel counts – from AirB&B to Uber rides to the Bald Head Ferry. Anything coded as travel. This is a HUGE perk of the Venture X if you love AirB&B and VRBO! I was even able to erase one night of our Primland stay with points I had gotten so far. Here’s an article on how to use the travel eraser.
More Great Credit Card Point Resources
I first learned about travel hacking from Brad and Jonathan at Choose FI. They have a free course to learn more and several podcasts on the topic. There’s also a Frequently Asked Questions post if you have questions about how this works with your credit score or annual fees.