Key takeways

  • Leveraging credit card points and miles can help you score discounted (or even free) travel across the world
  • Choosing the right loyalty program and credit card rewards for your travel habits and spending can help you maximize your rewards
  • When you’re ready to book your award trip, do research ahead of time and stay flexible to get the best redemption value

I have taken countless trips worldwide using credit card points and miles since stumbling across this hobby several years ago.

There was my first award redemption, where I bit off more than I could chew, but still managed to fly my family to the Middle East during peak travel season. I also booked an all-inclusive resort in Cabo during spring break, where my flight cost just $117 in taxes, and my hotel bill at check-out came to $0. Then there was the epic family vacation to Asia that set me back just $1,500 out of pocket for five of us — along with so many other incredible adventures.

The experiences I took away were the true value I got from each one of these trips. However, none of them would have been possible without travel credit cards.

While these trips were far from “free,” they were substantially cheaper thanks to points. If you’re ready to dive in and start earning toward your dream vacation, here’s everything you need to know about leveraging credit card points for travel.

How I did it (and you can too)

I’ve saved thousands of dollars while enjoying priceless experiences by leveraging the right rewards programs. If those trips sound too good to be true, rest assured they’re entirely possible. Here’s a look at my favorite trips using points and how you can replicate them:

Business-class to the Middle East

For my first-ever trip booked with points, I used AAdvantage miles to cover three, one-way business class tickets to Dubai and then economy class on the return home.

Replicating this trip today, I would opt to redeem All Nippon Airways (ANA) miles for a round-trip economy class or business class ticket. ANA is an American Express transfer partner, so you can transfer Membership Rewards to ANA at a 1:1 ratio.

The Platinum Card® from American Express is currently offering 80,000 points after you spend $8,000 on purchases in the first six months, which can go a long way toward your ticket purchase.

All-inclusive family vacation to Cabo

My all-inclusive trip to Cabo in 2016 was the easiest and cheapest I’ve ever booked on points. I secured two flights for under 39,000 Southwest points and $117 in taxes. I booked two other tickets using a travel voucher I earned from being bumped on a different trip.

The Hyatt Ziva was a bargain at 20,000 points per night at the time. I booked two rooms for four nights, which cost 160,000 points. Meals were included, which made the trip that much more enjoyable. The $0 bill at check-out was icing on the (free) cake.

If you were to replicate this trip today, the following cards could help you cover a four-night stay and airfare to Los Cabos:

Family vacation to Asia

My 2015 family trip to Hong Kong, Bali and Singapore was, hands down, my favorite vacation booked with points. We flew Cathay Pacific first and business class and stayed at incredible hotels.

I used Alaska Airlines miles for the outbound flights, since the program allows a free stopover on one-way awards. A stopover is like a layover, but can last for a few days — so you have a chance to explore the in-between city. For just 50,000 miles per person, I booked one-way business class seats to Singapore and Bali. I booked cheap connecting flights to Hong Kong and then redeemed 70,000 AAdvantage miles per person to fly Cathay Pacific first-class home.

At the time, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®* offered a 100,000-mile welcome bonus, though that offer is no longer available. Currently, the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard®* is offering 65,000 bonus miles after spending $4,000 within the first four months of account opening.

You might also consider the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card Its current welcome offer is a Limited Time Online Offer – Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ + 60,000 Bonus Miles. So you Get 60,000 bonus miles with this offer. To qualify, make $3,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card information was last updated on September 27, 2023.

How to get started with points and miles

Points and miles can open up a world of travel possibilities that may be unattainable otherwise. Here are steps you can take to get started (and how to avoid some common mistakes):

Set a goal

The first step in your travel rewards journey should be setting a goal. Where and how you want to travel will determine which loyalty program you should be focusing on and which credit cards to get. Our travel toolkit can help with this process, with guides spanning from how to choose the right travel card to various airline and hotel rewards program roundups.

Earning points without a goal can set you up for failure. Loyalty programs can devalue their points at any time without advance notice. The last thing you want is to end up with a ton of airline miles that devalue before you get a chance to use them.

Similarly, some points and miles have expiration dates. If you’re saving up a bunch of points without a plan to use them, you may end up losing them. Think ahead and start collecting points that align with your travel goals.

Choose the right loyalty program and credit card

I’ve seen way too many people apply for credit cards on a whim because the sign-up bonus seemed high or a friend recommended the card.

But not all loyalty programs are the same — and they won’t all suit your specific needs. In fact, they’re all valued differently based on various factors. Tailor your credit card applications around your travel goals, not what others are doing.

For example, if you live in a Delta hub city and plan to use points for domestic travel, you probably don’t need a United Airlines credit card. The right co-branded credit card can help you maximize your specific home location and travel plans.

If you’re looking to book a trip to Europe, the Star Alliance has a robust route network in the region. Programs like United MileagePlus, Avianca LifeMiles and ANA Mileage Club have historically released plenty of award space, most of which you can book online.

Headed to Hawaii? Turkish Airlines offers some of the cheapest award flights, which I’ve found to be about half the cost of what some other programs require for a ticket to Hawaii. Doing a bit of research on the best programs for your trip definitely pays off.

Diversify your rewards

After choosing a primary loyalty program to earn points with, it’s time to diversify. You might find yourself in need of a backup currency if award space is unavailable or your first choice program devalues.

One of the best ways to diversify your rewards portfolio is with transferable rewards. This type of currency provides ultimate flexibility. You can redeem them toward statement credits on travel purchases or transfer them to dozens of airline and hotel programs. Once you have enough points to book, you can transfer them to your program of choice and book your ticket. Just keep in mind that transfers are almost always irreversible, so don’t transfer them until you’ve confirmed award space and are ready to book.

Examples of transferable rewards programs include Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou points and Capital One miles. Membership Rewards is my favorite at the moment, thanks to its transfer partnership with ANA Mileage Club, which I’ve found offers some of the cheapest business class awards to Europe and Japan.

Both Amex and Citi ThankYou occasionally offer bonuses on transfers to certain travel partners. These promotions can make your points go much further.

Capital One has also stepped up its game recently with 18 transfer partners. This is a program I find myself increasingly recommending to newbies who want a simple earning structure with the flexibility to convert points to airlines at a favorable ratio. Both Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card earn 2 points per $1 on all purchases, making these great for maximizing earnings on everyday spending. While Venture X offers additional travel bonuses, 2X on everyday spending is solid on its own.

Learn the rules

The first time I booked a trip with points, I nearly pulled my hair out. That’s because I hadn’t bothered to familiarize myself with any of the award booking rules. I had never heard of backtracking, nor was I aware that partner availability isn’t always online. You may have to use third-party sites to search inventory and then call your loyalty program’s customer service line to book your ticket. It caused a lot of unnecessary stress that could have been avoided with a bit of advance research.

If you’re in the process of planning your first trip on points, learning award program rules will save you a lot of hassle. Loyalty programs have rules that can make or break your ability to book that dream vacation. Some programs don’t allow one-way awards. Others don’t list all inventory online, impacting your ability to redeem points. A few programs only allow you to book round-trip tickets and allow multiple stopovers and open-jaws that can help you creatively open up award availability.

Knowing the ins and outs of airline frequent flyer programs can make traveling with credit card points that much easier.

Know when to book

Your travel window matters as much as your booking timeline. Many loyalty programs have blackout dates, which make securing award inventory tricky. Most airlines release award space 180 days out. Others do it closer to departure.

Lufthansa is one of those airlines that will typically release first-class award space to partner carriers two weeks before departure. So, if you’re logging on six months before your travel date to book your ticket, that may not work in this scenario.

Book your award ticket with these timeframes in mind, and stay flexible; you’ll be more likely to find a ticket on your desired date.

The bottom line

Traveling around the world on rewards points is definitely possible. I’ve been doing it for years.

But be forewarned: Loyalty programs are tricky, and that’s by design. These programs are hugely profitable for airlines and hotel chains. To improve their bottom line, they count on members not using their points. Those who do their research and take a strategic approach to earning points can come out ahead of the system.

*All information about the World of Hyatt Business Credit Card, Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® and CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® has been collected independently by Bankrate and has not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.