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Take a vacation on your credit card rewards

A few years ago, Rene DeLambert and his wife, Lisa, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary by spending two weeks on Grand Cayman Island. A big bulk of this trip was on their airline and credit card issuers' dime.

Sunset on the beach © Ozerov Alexander/

"I did the suite overlooking the water, the car, the air, the scuba diving virtually all on points," DeLambert recalls. "It was a $6,000 vacation," but when all was said and tallied, the couple had only paid about $2,000 out of pocket, mostly on food. (Their credit cards' annual fees are also included in what they paid.)

DeLambert, who runs the blog Delta Points, is an extreme mileager -- someone who has made a full-time hobby out of gaming the travel rewards system. Some of his tactics aren't likely to appeal to the average consumer. For instance, DeLambert takes "mileage runs," trips taken solely for the purpose of scoring more miles and, more importantly, maintaining his elite status. That's how you increase your chances of being upgraded to business class, he says.

Still, there are some strategies less-frequent fliers can utilize if they want to take a trip primarily on points or miles.

Devising a game plan

First and foremost, "you need to plan in advance," says Scott Mackenzie, founder of Hack My Trip, because traveling for free requires a certain amount of strategizing. Here's why:

Frequent fliers generally use travel loyalty and credit card rewards programs in tandem to minimize the cost of travel. Travel loyalty programs generally award customers points or miles every time they fly a particular airline or stay at a sponsoring hotel. Credit card rewards programs, of course, generate points on purchases.

Figuring cost per mile

Flight from Los Angeles to New York round trip
Miles flown:5,000
Cost for flight:$300
Cost per mile:6 cents
Using miles
Cost for flight:$300
Miles needed for "free" flight:25,000
Cost per mile:1.2 cents

Savvy travelers can score a free vacation by using, for example, airline loyalty miles to fund a flight and credit card rewards points to pay for hotel rooms. But that's not the only redemption option out there.

To bolster offerings, credit card issuers, hotels and airlines often partner with one another. This creates opportunities to pool points or miles. For example, airlines generally offer high redemption rates of around "1 to 3 cents per mile" when you book an award ticket through their loyalty program, says Ed Perkins, contributing editor for Smarter Travel. But their inventory is limited and it takes time to accumulate miles -- especially when you don't travel often -- so it may be a good idea to transfer your credit card rewards to a partnering airline rewards program to snag a deal on a plane ticket.

It takes time, however, to figure out your preferred program's often-complex terms and conditions and to calculate what redemption options are most worthwhile. (Points can be worth more or less depending on where you are looking to apply them.)

The travel loyalty game "is as simple or as complicated as you want to make it," says Tim Winship, editor and publisher of "If you are willing to invest a significant amount of time and energy in keeping up with what the programs are doing and how they interrelate … you can certainly squeeze more value out (of them)."

Mackenzie estimates the average consumer needs "ideally a year" to target an airline or hotel chain, sign up for the right affinity programs, identify applicable partnerships and scour for deals that maximize earnings potential. This time frame also allows you to work on the other big component of scoring free travel: building up ample reward reserves.


Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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