This post is for miles and points newbies and people who are curious about travel hacking. If you are an experienced miles and points hobbyist, please pass this info along to your friends and family who are curious about how you travel for “free” using miles and points.
At least once a month, a friend or acquaintance asks me how my family manages to take big vacations several times a year. The truth is, I owe it all to travel hacking and planning ahead.
Ok, so what exactly is travel hacking? Travel hacking is taking advantage of all the ways to get travel for free or at extremely reduced prices. And the biggest component of travel hacking is applying for credit cards that have lucrative miles and points travel bonuses.
This time of year is actually the best time to get into this travel hacking hobby. So if you are serious about wanting to save money on trips or even just start taking trips, this post is for you.
How Credit Card Bonuses Work for Travel
Credit card rewards are a real boon for free travel IF AND ONLY IF you can pay off your balance in full every month. Travel reward credit cards typically do not have low interest rates, but if you pay off your balance in full each month that doesn’t matter.
A typical travel rewards credit card offers a large amount of points to entice you to sign up for the card. You have to do something in return to get the bonus—usually charge a certain dollar amount in the first three months. The most common requirement is to spend $3000 in the first three months to earn around 50,000 miles or points.
The clock starts ticking from the day the bank approves you for the card, not the day you receive the card. I recommend you complete the minimum spending at least a week prior to your deadline, as some charges take a few days to process.
Use your new card to pay for some or all of your typical monthly bills like the grocery store, restaurants, cable/internet, kids’ activities, etc. After you have met the minimum spending, bonus points typically show up in your account after your next statement closes. Then, you are free to spend them!
Why Get a New Credit Card Now?
It’s easier and faster to meet the minimum spending required for a credit card bonus during the last few months of the year. Why? Most people simply have more expenses right now.
There are travel expenses for visiting family (or vacationing!) over the holidays, holiday gifts and parties, teacher gifts, property taxes, seasonal clothing…the list goes on and on.
Also, many airline, hotel and credit card shopping portals offer miles and points bonuses on spending through their portals. If you are already spending money at online stores this time of year, why not get even more points? You can earn points on the credit card you use and extra points for shopping through the portal. (Check out Doctor of Credit for the latest portal bonuses).
Best Card Offers
For newbies, I recommend cards with either no annual fee or cards that have the annual fee waived the first year. Here are some of the best offers right now:
Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa: This card offers 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4000 in the first three months. If you add an authorized user who makes one purchase within the first three months, you get an additional 5000 points. The annual fee is waived the first year.
Ultimate Rewards points are very useful because you can transfer them to other programs including Southwest, Hyatt and United. You can also spend the points in Chase’s travel portal or use them for cash back. See this post for more details.
I currently have the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa in my wallet, and my husband has had this card in the past. We have gotten a lot of use from these points, including flights on Southwest and free stays at Hyatt hotels.
Capital One Venture Rewards Card: This card currently has a bonus of 50,000 points after spending $3000 within the first three months. The bonus is worth $500 in travel spending or $500 in gift cards! These points are so easy to use because you can use them to erase anything coded as travel from your credit card statement. Want a getaway at a Disney resort hotel or Great Wolf Lodge? Just charge it, and use the points to erase the charge.
I currently have this card in my wallet, and my husband is going to apply for it soon. I used my bonus points to pay for one of our tickets from Honolulu to Dallas on our upcoming trip to Hawaii. The card earns 2X points on everything! For more information, see this post.
Citi ThankYou Premier Mastercard: This card currently offers 50,000 bonus points after spending $4000 in the first three months if you apply through this link. This offer is not in our affiliate network, but we always try to let our readers know of the highest offers available.
ThankYou points from the Premier card are worth 1.25 cents each in the ThankYou travel portal. So, the bonus points are worth $625 in free travel. My husband and I used points from this card to pay for an all-inclusive resort in Mexico last year.
Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard: Earn 60,000 American Airlines miles after spending $3000 in the first three months. The annual fee is waived the first year.
If you live near an AA hub, these miles can be very useful. I live near DFW, and my family successfully used AA miles to fly to Vancouver, B.C. for our cruise to Alaska. If you can’t find SAAver award availability, AA still has some decent AAnytime awards. Plus, you can use the miles towards hotels and car rentals! See this post for more details.
Leana and I are both happy to answer questions about travel hacking and finding the right credit card for your goals. Please ask questions on this post, or email us at email@example.com.
Nancy lives near Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three kids. Her favorite vacations include the beach, cruising and everything Disney.