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I have taken countless trips worldwide using credit card points and miles since stumbling across this hobby eleven years ago. There was my first award redemption, where I bit off more than I could chew, but I still managed to fly my family to the Middle East during peak travel season. I booked an all-inclusive resort in Cabo during spring break, where my flight cost $117 in taxes and my hotel bill at check-out came to $0. Then there was that 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 true value of these trips was in the experiences I took away. However, none of these trips 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, here’s everything you need to know about leveraging credit card points for travel:
How I did it (and you can too)
Over the last decade, I’ve saved thousands of dollars and had priceless experiences by leveraging the right programs. If those trips sound too good to be true, rest assured they’re entirely possible—especially now. Credit card companies are offering bigger welcome bonuses now than ever before. Here’s a look at my favorite trips on points and how you can replicate them:
Business-class to the Middle East
My first ever trip on points was deeply gratifying. 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 either 65,000 All Nippon Airways (ANA) miles for a round-trip economy class ticket or 104,000 miles for business class. One Amex card currently offers enough points for one round-trip ticket. You can then transfer Membership Rewards to ANA at a 1:1 ratio.
The Platinum Card® from American Express: 100,000 points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new card in your first six months
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 is a bargain at 20,000 points per night. 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 cover a 4-night stay and airfare for four to Los Cabos:
Two World of Hyatt Business Credit Cards: 60,000 Bonus Points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card: Earn 80,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months.
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 miles for the outbound flights since the program allows a free stopover on one-way awards. 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.
Most of these award rates haven’t changed, except for American’s first-class awards to/from Asia. These have increased to 110,000 miles, so I recommend sticking to business class for 70,000 miles.
Americans can’t currently travel to Hong Kong. When it reopens, the following welcome bonuses can get you there:
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card: Limited Time Online Offer – 50,000 Bonus Miles.
Get 50,000 bonus miles plus Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare(TM) from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22). To qualify, make $2,000 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 7, 2022.
CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®: 65,000 bonus miles after spending $4,000 within the first four months of account opening
How to get started with points and miles
Points and miles can open up a world of travel possibilities that may be unattainable otherwise. If you’re ready to start traveling the world with credit card points, here are steps you can take to get started (and avoid some of the pitfalls newbies encounter):
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.
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 before the opportunity presents itself. 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. Not all loyalty programs are the same. 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 Southwest hub and plan to use points for domestic travel, you probably don’t need a United Airlines card. You may even want to skip transferable rewards and opt for a co-branded credit card. You’ll get travel perks and a chance to earn the coveted Companion Pass.
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, at 15,000 miles round-trip in economy class. That’s 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 towards 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. It offers some of the cheapest business class awards to Europe (88,000 miles round-trip) and Japan (from 75,000 miles).
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 16 transfer partners, 15 of which you can transfer miles to at a 1:1 ratio. 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 Card and Venture 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 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 generally 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 won’t work in this scenario.
Book your award ticket with these timeframes in mind and 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. In order 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.