Dream of Flying for Free? Here’s the Easiest Way to Get Started With Travel Rewards

Photo: Getty Images/Asiseeit
Picture it: You’re on a first-class flight to Hong Kong. The drinks are flowing, the seats are comfy, and the towels are warm. In front of you, there's enough legroom to actually stretch out your knees. And best of all? Your flight was free.

It’s a half-baked fantasy for most of us, but for Brian Kelly, better known as The Points Guy, flying first class for free is a lucrative hobby. Kelly has made an entire business around travel hacking, the act of leveraging credit cards for free travel and other perks. Kelly isn’t the only one, of course—there are a number of blogs dedicated to the fine and calculated art of travel hacking. To reach Kelly’s level, you have to invest a fair amount of time, strategy, and math—he has an entire page dedicated to breaking down the points value of various cards, and it’s updated monthly.

The good news is, you can still get the benefit of free travel even with minimal effort. I asked Kelly for his most basic tips for earning rewards, for those of us who don’t have the time or energy to become professional travel hackers. It comes down to three steps: picking a card, spending enough to get the bonus, and trading in your points.

But first, a quick disclaimer: If you have a history of credit card debt, travel hacking may not be recommended for you. And even if your financial wellness habits are on point, opening a new card isn't a decision to be made on a whim. More on that in a bit.

Keeping reading for the basics on using a travel points credit card.

1. Start planning early

Let's say you know you want to take a magnificent, two-week trip to South America later this year. You've heard stories about travel hacking and people booking flights and hotels for free. What can you do now to reap the rewards? Credit card sign-up bonuses are the way to go, Kelly says. “You sign up for a travel rewards card [and] earn the sign-up bonus for spending X amount, usually in the first three months.” That spending threshold is often in the thousands, meaning you'll need to spend something like $3,000 in three months to get the bonus, but the payoff could be upwards of 50,000 points.

To reach that amount, most travel hackers use their cards for everyday purchases, like groceries, bills, and gas—but it could take some time for these small amounts to add up, so search for a card well in advance.

Another reason to start searching for and comparing cards early? Many credit cards come with perks like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, two programs that can help you zip through the airport faster, but in some cases, you’ll have to book an appointment well in advance to get approved. You can use sites like The Points Guy, NerdWallet, or CreditCards.com to compare different card offers and their perks.

2. Time your spending strategically

Those spending thresholds are expensive, and you don’t want to shell out money you weren’t already planning to spend just to reach them. Again, your financial health is important. But there are a couple of ways to ensure you reach the threshold responsibly. For one, you can sign up for a new card at the right time, like right before a big purchase or a series of frequent purchases. For example, my husband and I put nearly all of our wedding spending on a credit card, and we later used the rewards points to help pay for a honeymoon to Europe.

Another option: Add an authorized user to your card to rack up points faster. When you add an authorized user, you give someone else permission to share your account. They get a card of their own, and their expenses show up on your statement and count toward your spending threshold and the rewards you earn. Ultimately, the main account holder—presumably, you—is responsible for the authorized user’s purchases, so it’s not a move you want to make lightly. If the authorized user ends up spending like crazy and getting into a bunch of debt, you’re now both in a bunch of debt. You’ll want to set up a system so they’ll pay you for their purchases, but remember: Their habits could affect your credit, and you’re ultimately on the hook for making sure that debt is paid.

3. Pick the best redemption option for your needs

Some cards are branded with certain hotels or airline carriers, and the points you earn have to be used through that brand. If you don’t always fly JetBlue or stay at the Westin (for instance), this kind of setup might not be ideal. Other cards let you to transfer the points you earn to the airline of your choice. Once you decide which flight you want to take, you open a frequent flier account with that airline, then transfer your credit card points. The card will also probably have a travel portal—a way to book travel directly through the card via its rewards website.

If this all sounds confusing, Kelly says there’s a simple fix. “Get a credit card that lets you ‘erase’ travel purchases from your statements." In other words, you book your flights and hotels like you normally would, then the card gives you rewards points that allow you to cancel out said purchases. Two that work this way that Kelly recommends are the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard or the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card. "These are good options if you don’t want to learn the ins and outs of different airline and hotel loyalty programs and deal with transferring your rewards to different partners,”  he says.

How to maintain your financial health while you reap travel rewards

It’s easy to see how travel hacking can get you into trouble, so follow a few rules to keep yourself in check. First, don’t go out of your way to spend money you wouldn’t otherwise have spent just to reach the bonus—that makes the rewards points kind of, well, pointless. And if you hit that spending threshold but then aren't able to pay off the balance, interest and late fees could get you into bigger trouble.

Second, take a basic primer on how rewards cards can affect your credit score—Kelly has a good one here. The gist of it is that opening too many credit cards at once can damage your score, as can opening a card and then closing it shortly after. Of course, racking up debt you can’t pay off will also damage your credit.

Also keep in mind that cards with sign-up bonuses often come with annual fees. In some cases, the fees are worth it because of the perks that are included with the card, like TSA PreCheck, rental car insurance, lost baggage insurance, or everyone’s favorite, airport lounge access. Still, you want to compare the costs with the rewards, so make sure to read the card’s fine print.

Looking for more tips for traveling on a budget? Steal these secrets of globetrotting pros

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