By and large, Americans crave adventure — or, at the very least — want to get away from work or regular life for some rest and relaxation. Some of us will bring our kids along while others will not, but one thing is guaranteed —travel isn’t cheap.
According to a 2018 Travel Trends study from AARP, boomers anticipated taking 4-5 leisure trips in 2018 at a total cost of $6,300. The Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe are some of the most popular destinations considered by this demographic, although nearly half of those polled (49 percent) said they will focus on domestic travel only this year.
Millennials and Gen Xers, on the other hand, were much more likely to travel both domestically and internationally (64 percent and 59 percent, respectively) in 2018, with comparable budgets of $6,802 for millennials and $5,434 for Gen Xers.
Covering a vacation with credit card rewards
Vacations don’t need to consume a bigger slice of our budgets every year. For individuals, families, and couples with stellar credit, with the right combination of rewards credit cards, most families can piece together a trip — or perhaps several journeys — that cost less than one might think.
Hatching a rewards-fueled vacation plan may also be easier than it looks thanks to the credit card advice you can access online. If you’re angling for an epic adventure that costs pennies on the dollar, here are the strategies you’ll want to consider:
Start with some destinations and travel goals in mind
The first step you’ll want to take is a simple one: Sit down to create a list of destinations you want to visit. Beyond just where you want to go, you’ll also want to consider the type of lodging you prefer and the airline you like to travel with. This can dictate what type of travel rewards card you should get.
It’s all about the signup bonuses
Making the best use of credit card sign up bonuses and welcome offers is the fastest way to earn points for any trip. As an example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® card offers 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within three months of account opening. You can use those points to book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, but you can also transfer those points 1:1 to popular airline and hotel transfer partners like World of Hyatt, United MileagePlus, Southwest Airlines, and British Airways.
You could have enough time before your trip to earn a few signup bonuses that could help you pay for airfare, hotels, and more. Since most travel credit cards give 1 to 3 points per dollar you spend, it would take longer to earn enough points for an epic trip through regular spending alone.
Don’t forget to get your spouse or partner in the game
Of course, your point-earning opportunities multiply if your spouse or partner gets in the game. If you and your partner both signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® card, for example, within the span of a few months, you’d have 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points in signup bonuses alone. Potentially this means more sign-up bonuses and more spending to accrue travel rewards.
Focus on airline miles first
As someone who travels with my family of four frequently, I can vouch for the fact that airline miles tend to offer the most “bang for your buck.” There are myriad ways to save on hotels with or without points (e.g. staying in inexpensive hotels, hostels, or rental condos), but there are few ways to reduce the cost of airfare without airline miles.
Case in point: We typically go to Europe during peak summer season each year when round-trip economy flights from our home airport of Indianapolis can cost upwards of $1,500 each. For the last few years, we have racked up 200,000 points (50,000 points each) to transfer to the Air France/Flying Blue program to cover four round-trip flights. So, instead of paying $6,000 in cash for our flights, we wind up paying 200,000 Flying Blue points and around $600 in airline taxes and fees. That’s 90% off what is often the biggest travel expense most people face — airfare.
Still, where you want to travel will make a big difference in the miles you should focus on. If you want to visit the Caribbean, you may want to focus on Southwest Rapid Rewards or JetBlue. If you want to visit Europe, Air France/Flying Blue, American AAdvantage, or United MileagePlus can work well depending on which airport you fly out of.
Make sure to consider where you want to travel before you go all in with an airline program. Once you have a few destinations in mind, you can figure out which program works best from your home airport.
Consider rewards cards with points you can transfer
While many airlines offer their own co-branded airline credit cards, there are plenty of flexible travel cards and programs that let you transfer points to multiple airlines. Rewards cards within the Citi ThankYou® Rewards program, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and American Express Membership Rewards programs are the most popular options since they all let you transfer points to multiple airline partners, often at a 1:1 ratio.
If you know where you want to travel but want maximum flexibility, it can make sense to pick up rewards cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, Chase Sapphire Preferred®, Citi Premier℠ Card, or the Platinum Card® from American Express for this reason. Each of these cards lets you earn points upfront and decide where to transfer them later on.
Consider the best pairings
You can earn more points and miles by pairing specific cards together. If you are leaning toward flights to the Caribbean, for example, you could pick up the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier credit card to earn 40,000 points after you use your card for $1,000 in purchases within three months and the Chase Sapphire Preferred with its bonus offer (50,000 points after you spend $4,000 within three months). Considering you can often find flights to the Caribbean from many U.S. cities for 25,000 Southwest points or fewer, you could have almost enough points for four round-trip flights with those two signup bonuses alone.
Get your lodging covered with rewards
When it comes to covering lodging with rewards, you have another big decision to make. Do you prefer to stay with large hotel brands, in smaller properties, or in rental condos and Airbnbs?
If you prefer large hotel brands, you should consider picking up hotel credit card (or two) that will work with where you want to travel. Some hotel credit cards also offer additional perks that can make travel more comfortable and rewarding.
Take the newer Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express, for example. While this card comes with a $450 annual fee, you’ll receive 150,000 Hilton Honors points after you use your card for $3,000 in purchases within three months of account opening, automatic Hilton Diamond status, a free weekend night your first year and each year thereafter, a $250 resort credit each year, and a $250 annual airline credit. You also get a Priority Pass Select membership which grants you access to over 1,000 airport lounges worldwide. Since Hilton makes it easy to pool your points with a partner or family members, it’s even easier to rack up the points you need.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to tie yourself down to a specific hotel brand. Flexible travel credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® or Citi Premier℠ Card can also be valuable for hotels since each program has its own travel portal that lets you redeem points for hotels among all brands worldwide. Nearly all travel brands are represented, and you can use your points to book these properties directly.
Programs such as World of Hyatt, IHG Rewards, and Wyndham Rewards let you book all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean with points. If you’re angling for a beach vacation with all your food and entertainment included, this strategy can be a good one. As an example, you can book a free night at the adults-only Hyatt Zilara in Rose Hall, Jamaica with food, drinks (yes, free alcohol), and plenty of beach activities and nightly shows included for just 25,000 points per night (with double occupancy).
Finally, you can consider a card like the Barclaycard Arrival® Plus World Elite Mastercard® or the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card if you are more inclined to book rental condos or off-brand hotels. Both cards offer large signup bonuses plus 2x points for each dollar you spend. Each program also allows you to redeem your miles for any travel expense you want at a rate of one cent per point, although redemptions with the Barclaycard Arrival® Plus World Elite Mastercard® do start at 10,000 points or $100.
Top tips for using credit cards to fund your vacation:
As you plot out your vacation with credit card rewards, these simple tips can help you stretch your points further:
- Plan early. It can take months of regular spending to earn a signup bonus (e.g. $4,000 within three months) and you may need to earn multiple signup bonuses to pay for the bulk of your trip. Planning early — at least 12 months out — can give you the best chance at racking up the points you need in time.
- Consider off-peak travel. While most airline and hotel programs offer awards during peak travel times, options can sometimes be limited. Consider traveling during off-peak dates (when most kids are in school) to find better availability and potentially lower prices.
- Be flexible. If you’re flexible on where you travel — or when — you may find that a world of possibilities at your fingertips. Consider award flights into or out of different cities as well as alternate dates.
- Look for ways to earn more points. In addition to signup bonus, you can also rack up more points and miles through regular credit card spending, shopping portals, dining programs, and booking rental cars and hotels. Make sure to explore all the different ways you can earn miles if you hope to maximize your rewards.