As much as I love to travel, I’ve had to find ways to make it affordable. We use all kinds of methods such as timeshares (bought cheap resale), visiting unusual destinations that aren’t as expensive (but still plenty fun), weekend getaways as often as possible, and many more! And FREE travel with credit cards is a big part of making it possible.
We can travel more when we make sure at least part of our travel is FREE. Sometimes it’s the flights, sometimes it’s the hotel rooms, sometimes we use gift cards for food and entertainment, and sometimes a combination of all of the above, but most trips we take contain at least one free element.
In the past, I’ve shared a few of my favorite methods for quickly and easily earning gift cards to pay for coffee, food, etc. and I’ve definitely shared plenty of inexpensive and different day trips, but today’s tip will help you get absolutely free travel – mostly airline and hotel.
Why use credit cards to travel for free
What am I talking about? Well, credit cards of course. Specifically, travel-based credit cards with high signup bonuses. If used correctly, these cards can eliminate the cost of flights and/or hotels. With no additional money out of pocket for you.
A few caveats and then I’ll share my current favorite cards.
- Don’t EVER let your balance roll – pay those cards off each and every month. If you can’t do this, don’t get or use the card. As soon as you start paying interest or late fees, you’ve negated any free travel you’ve earned.
- Be careful to follow the signup bonus info correctly. Typically there is some sort of minimum spend within 3 months. Understand what the spend is and the timeframe and be sure you can complete it before the deadline or you’ll miss out on the bonus.
- Don’t purchase things you weren’t going to purchase anyway. We use our cards for daily living expenses and since I don’t open up a bunch of cards at once that seems to be sufficient to meet the signup bonus spend.
- Understand the rules of each card. For example, with Chase you can only open up 5 cards (any cards, not just Chase) within 24 months. So if you open a store card, an airline card, two hotel cards and one Chase Preferred card, you won’t be able to open another Chase card until 24 months after you opened the first card.
- Some cards only allow bonuses once, sometimes you have to wait a few years. Understand if you are eligible.
Why use credit cards for free travel
If you follow my rules above, any points you earn are 100% free. So, if you then use them strategically on hotel rooms and/or flights, your travel is completely free.
Who doesn’t like free? Right?
And, if you can eliminate the cost of your flight and/or accommodations, you can either take more trips or do more fun things on the trips you do take.
It’s a great way to stretch a skimpy travel budget. Without too much work you should be able to get enough points for 3 -5 nights in a hotel and a flight or two. And that’s just simple opening of cards – there are a lot of really strategic things you can do to bump up your points, but even if your goal is only one or two trips a year, there is no reason you can’t take most of them for free.
It’s also kinda fun!
My favorite cards and why I like them
- Southwest Rapid Rewards. Southwest has great direct flights, free baggage checking and if you are savvy it’s pretty easy to earn a companion pass which means one of you gets to fly for free. The sign up bonus is simple to earn and will give you enough points to fly a few places for free.
Insider tip: If you want to learn how to always have a companion pass with Southwest, I highly encourage you to check out Families Fly Free. It’s pricey, but the value you’ll get with always having that companion pass (let alone the rest of the great information in the program) is worth every penny. You’ll earn your money back and then some! Check it out here if that’s something you’d like to pursue.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred. This is my second favorite travel card just because it’s so flexible. It does have an annual fee of $95, but you get points on basically everything you purchase and sometimes 3x points for dining, plus a ton of points at signup. The points are super flexible and can be transferred to many airlines, hotels, etc. I just transferred 20K points to Southwest and it was straightforward and transferred at a 1 to 1 ratio. (one Chase point = 1 Southwest point).
- IHG. My favorite hotel card is the IHG card. We often drive and find ourselves needing just one night on the road and Holiday Inn Express is a favorite brand for those quick stopovers. The card has an $89 annual fee, but you get a free room every year – which I’ve always been able to use at properties where it would cost much more than $89 for a one night stay. AND you get a free TSA pre-check every 4 years ($85 value). Sign up bonuses are high so usually you’ll earn enough points for 3 to 5 nights. Combine that with your annual free room, AND if you book 3 nights in points the 4th is free and you’ve got a week’s vacation at a hotel for that $89 annual fee.
- Hilton American Express. Since we often stay at Hilton’s for soccer tournaments, it makes sense for me to hold the Hilton card. I don’t find it as useful as the IHG card, but the sign on bonus does give you enough points for a few rooms and you’ll automatically get gold status with Hilton. The Amex card does have a few other extras that help negate the annual fee if you take advantage of them.
There are DOZENS of other cards out there, but with just these four you are well covered. I’d highly recommend starting with just one, completing the signup bonus, and then considering another. You could easily get by with just the Southwest card, Chase Preferred, and IHG and be able to cover most of your travel needs for the next year.
Insider tip: if possible, just put one person’s name on the credit card application. This way, next year, your spouse can open their own card and you’ll end up getting the bonuses AGAIN. And, be savvy and refer your spouse so you end up with the referral points.
Real-life examples of free travel with credit cards
I know this sounds too good to be true, so let me share a few examples of trips I took within the last year …
Free hotel nights
This fall we’ve been on a LOT of college tours. Often that means an overnight stay. In September my daughter and I drove up to Ann Arbor to check out the University of Michigan. We stayed at a brand new EVEN hotel just a few miles from campus using my 2020 free IHG night. Total savings = $130.
A week later my son had a soccer game in Fort Wayne and we didn’t want to get up early to drive, so we went up Friday night and used my 2021 free IHG night at a Holiday Inn Express. We also had a gift card for a very nice dinner thanks to MyPoints, free breakfast at the hotel, and another gift card for lunch on the way home. Total savings = $236
I’ve taken my daughter twice this year to Florida using my Southwest Companion Pass. Both times we saved about $250 – $400 on her ticket. Total savings = $750!
Thanks to my Southwest points, I just booked our spring break 2022 flights all on points. None of which I purchased, they were all “earned” by opening credit cards. And, thanks to my companion pass I only had to use points for 3 of us. Total savings = $2,400.
Another fun bonus of holding the IHG card is automatic Platinum Elite status. Early in the year, my daughter and I headed north to Petoskey to spend a long weekend skiing. We decided last minute to extend our trip by an extra night and since our normal accommodations weren’t available for the extra night, we booked a night at the Holiday Inn in Petoskey.
Thanks to having Elite status, if it’s available we get an automatic upgrade AND late checkout. I booked a normal hotel room and we ended up with a one-bedroom suite. Complete with a full kitchen and fireplace. We were able to check out at 3 so we could move directly to our accommodations for the rest of the weekend and after breakfast enjoyed a few hours by the fire getting work and school done. Total savings = $75.
I hope I’ve convinced you that if you can afford it (and pay those balances off each month), it’s well worth having a few travel cards in your wallet. With just the few examples I’ve shared (and I do have many more!), we saved over $3500 last year. Way over the annual fees for the Southwest, IHG, and Chase Preferred card.
So what do you think? Ready to get started traveling for free?
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