Published in: Credit Cards | Jan. 15, 2019

How to Travel for Free With Credit Card Points

By:  Lyle Daly

We are committed to full transparency as part of our mission to make the world smarter, happier, & richer. You should know that offers on The Ascent may be from our partners - it's how we make money. That transparency to you is core to our editorial integrity, which isn’t influenced by compensation.

Who wouldn’t want to travel for free? Anyone can do it -- all you need is the right credit card for the job.

Image source: Getty Images.

smiling older woman and man sightseeing

Image source: Getty Images

As exciting as it is to travel, the experience is that much sweeter when you get to do it for free. You can take your trip without stressing out about how you’re going to pay for it, you’ll be able to do more at your destination since you saved money getting there, and let’s be honest, you’ll be the envy of your friends and family when they hear how little you spent on your vacation.

The big question is how to score free travel opportunities. Assuming you don’t have a rich uncle interested in financing your trips, the best option is getting the right credit card and using points to travel.

How to use points for free travel

Here’s a basic breakdown of how you can travel for free with credit card points:

  1. Apply for a credit card. Make sure you’ll be able to use the points it earns for the travel you want.
  2. Spend enough to earn the card’s sign-up bonus.
  3. Use the bonus to pay for your travel.
  4. Put as much of your usual spending as possible on your credit card to continue earning points.

By using your card regularly, you’ll have more points coming in, which you can then use for more travel opportunities.

Most of that is straightforward enough, but finding the right credit card can be the tricky part.

Finding the right travel rewards card

There are two ways to book travel with credit card points:

  • Purchase award travel, which is when you book in points with an airline or hotel
  • Redeem points at a fixed rate (most often $0.01 per point) for travel purchases, either by booking through a card issuer’s travel portal or applying points as a statement credit to previous travel purchases
Airline and hotel credit cards allow you to do the former, and a few different banks have cards offering the latter. But there are also cards that give you both options, and I’d recommend you start with one of those.

The most versatile travel rewards cards let you either transfer your points to any airline or hotel partnered with your card’s rewards program or redeem your points at a fixed rate. You can do this with cards in the following programs:

Each program has a different lineup of airline and hotel transfer partners, so you should check to see which ones have partners you use regularly.

Once you know what program fits your travel needs, you can pick a credit card in that program. While it’s important to compare the key features of each card, pay special attention to rewards rates. When a card earns bonus points in spending categories where you shop regularly, it’s much easier to build your rewards.

Earning points

Once you have your new credit card, it’s time to earn points. Fortunately, most credit cards now offer lucrative sign-up bonuses, which you get if you spend at least a minimum amount within a specific timeframe. Make sure you spend enough, as this is the fastest way to earn points.

I also recommend putting as many of your normal expenses as you can on your credit card. In doing so, you can maximize the number of points you earn per month.

Redeeming your points

Now we’ve reached the fun part: You have your points and you want to travel somewhere.

First, you need to know what specifically you want to book, such as airfare or a hotel stay. Then, you can look at what booking options you have with your points and choose the one that gets you the most value.

Let’s say that you want to book airfare and you have points you can either transfer or redeem at a fixed rate. Check how much an award ticket would be with any airlines where you can transfer your points, and then search for the same route in your card issuer’s travel portal. Whichever one costs you fewer points is the way to go.

Never pay for travel again

If you have a good travel credit card and spend enough with it, you could end up traveling for free every year. Just make sure that you take your time comparing the best travel cards to find one that fits your needs, and then make it your main payment method. Try to shop for your travel early, too, as this often helps when you plan to pay with points.

Don't pay credit card interest until 2021

The Ascent just released a free credit card guide that could help you pay off credit card debt once and for all. Inside, you'll uncover a simple debt-cutting strategy that could save you $1,863 in interest charges paying off $10,000 of debt. Best yet, you can get started in just three minutes!

Find the right card for you