You don’t have to be a spreadsheet lover, high-roller or points-and-miles nerd to earn rewards on your credit card and easily redeem them for free travel.
I recently booked four round-trip airline tickets for my family to fly from Fort Lauderdale to Salt Lake City in February 2018 for a ski trip.
If I had paid out of pocket for these seats, it would have been about $2,000 — a stiff enough price that we would have searched for a cheaper and less appealing alternative from an airport further away, or considered a connecting flight that would have made a long day even longer.
But we paid nothing for these flights. I bought them using points earned from using my travel rewards credit card. And, with the points I had left over after booking the flights, we booked our rental car, also without any out-of-pocket costs.
Booking a trip for free
It doesn’t have to be a challenge to get free hotel nights, airfare and other perks just for spending the way you normally would. As a full-time working mom of two, I don’t want to spend a ton of time — or money — when I book travel for my family.
Here’s how I did it.
In January, I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve card when the sign-up bonus was still a juicy 100,000 points. (It’s since dropped to a still-generous 50,000 points.)
Since Chase Sapphire Reserve points take on 50 percent more value when used for booking travel through the Chase portal, that 100K bonus was worth $1,500 in travel, as long as I met the minimum spending requirement of $4,000 within 90 days of opening the account.
To do this, my husband and I used the card for everything — groceries, gas, restaurants, haircuts, dentist appointments, you get the idea.
In addition to the sign-up bonus, we were also accruing points on our spending. That’s how I earned enough points to cover the Utah flights. I certainly made sure to use the card in the areas where I would get the highest rewards, as travel and restaurant spending earns 3X points per $1 spent.
Use it or lose it
When it comes time to use credit card rewards, it helps to have a game plan. In this case, I knew exactly when I wanted to go and where.
I used Google Flights to find the price options for a direct flight on the dates I wanted. The service is free and it let me zero in on what I was looking for. This is a huge time saver and can help you pinpoint how to get the most value.
There was a significant difference in price depending on the airline and time — as much as a couple hundred dollars lower if we took a red-eye home (With kids? No thanks!) and up to a few hundred dollars higher if we flew during the middle of the day.
After finding the best combo of price and time for our family, I logged into the Chase website to book. I saw seats on the flight I wanted in economy, which meant no seat assignments and a high probability of being separated from my kids for the flight. Not ideal.
If you choose to redeem your points by booking travel online, you may not see every option available to you. And you may not see the lowest price or best options for your specific needs.
I called the Chase travel concierge and gave her the flight numbers, days and times and said I wanted main cabin fare seats, which come with seat assignments. The travel concierge was able to book exactly what I wanted in about 15 minutes over the phone at the price I saw on Google Flights.
I’ve heard feedback from others that booking their travel over the phone was cumbersome, but a lot of that may come from having a concierge do the research for you. If you come armed knowing exactly what you want your itinerary to be, it will likely expedite the booking process.
Earning and using credit card rewards for travel doesn’t have to be complicated. Even if you only travel once a year, or can’t stomach the idea of paying a few hundred dollars to own a premium rewards card, there are still low-fee and no-fee credit cards that still let you earn valuable rewards just spending the way you normally would.
And there’s no magic formula to unlock those benefits.
Keep in mind that unless you pay your balance on time and in full every month, the value of any accrued earnings is going to be outweighed by the finance charges on the card.
Follow me on Twitter: @robinsaks