How to travel for free with credit card points

Use this credit card hack to travel for free around the world

With the cost of air travel, hotels, Airbnbs, and other travel-related expenses on the rise, credit card points provide an alternative way to travel, and you can accumulate points through your daily spending. Credit card points can be an economical way to travel free and in style if used responsibly.

I have traveled to 84 countries as an adult. I’ve done over a thousand trips and stayed in hundreds of hotels and Airbnbs. In September of 2021 I sold everything to travel full time as a digital nomad.

I have collected and used over 1 million credit card points to reduce my personal expenses. I don’t keep balances on my credit cards; I pay them every month. Using credit card points allowed me to see the world without accumulating debt.

Talking about credit cards tends to evoke mixed feelings. It can be easy to get into serious debts that affect your financial future. This article aims to show you how to use credit card points in a healthy financial way. If you know you can’t afford what you charge, it’s probably not a good idea to use the ideas discussed in this article.

If you’re curious about how to use credit card points for free travel, here’s what you need to know with some tips from frequent flyers traveling by hacking credit card points.

How do credit card points work?

Some companies offer rewards for using their credit cards. These rewards come in the form of points. These points can be used with the credit card travel gateway or directly with airlines and hotels. You can also redeem points on shopping portals or retailers (Amazon, Nike, Target, Walmart, etc.).

Credit cards that earn points will give you a certain number of points for the types of spending you make. Some categories provide more points, and some credit cards focus on certain categories.

I come back to the US often to visit my kids. While I’m in the States, I drive cars and buy groceries. For this reason, one of my primary credit cards is the Citi Premier Mastercard. This credit card earns three points for every dollar spent on gas, groceries, restaurants, and travel—all categories I use daily.

I use the American Express Green Card as my primary travel card because I earn 3x points on travel, transit and dining categories.

I use my American Express Business Platinum Card to cover my business expenses because I can accumulate points and get access to the lounge. With American Express Platinum credit cards (personal or business), you get access to Centurion and Priority Pass lounges. Useful when traveling to have good Wifi, drinks, food and a place to relax at the airport.

There are hundreds of Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express credit card options. There are credit card options from banks and stores that offer co-branded credit cards. Each credit card can earn points on specific categories that make sense for your life and help you earn points for free travel.

How to redeem credit card points

It is relatively easy to redeem credit card points. The key is to make sure that you redeem points to their maximum value.

Credit cards and banks have travel or shopping portals to redeem points. You log in, see your points balance, and are given an option to redeem points for car rentals, flights, and hotel stays. However, the points rates at travel portals may be higher, which means that you will use more points and receive fewer benefits.

The other way to redeem credit card points is to transfer them from the credit card company or bank directly to the airlines or hotels. Some airlines and hotels have partnerships with credit cards and banks.

For example, American Express’s transportation partners include 17 airlines and three hotel chains. You can try to redeem your points on Amex Travel, but you may get a better deal for transferring your points to an Amex partner.

The best thing you can do to maximize your points is to shop around:

  • Check your credit card travel gate

  • The travel portal will withdraw the airlines, hotels and points required to book the flight

  • Once you find the option you want to book, go to the website of the airline or hotel

  • If you are not already a member of their loyalty program, register for free

  • As a member, you can search for flights or hotels booked with points only

  • Compare the offered prices and choose the best one

  • You can also use services like Google Flights to find the most cost-effective options and then check the airline’s website and travel portal to see which offers the best deal.

Passing through the travel portals of credit cards and banks is easier but may not be the best value for money.

Be strategic with the credit cards you subscribe to

When you check out at a retailer, you have most likely been offered an opportunity to apply for that retailer’s credit card. You are offered a bonus or discount if you do this.

The thing to understand is that applying for a credit card leads to a “difficult inquiry” about your credit report. Each difficult inquiry lowers your credit score slightly. You’ll want to be strategic with the credit cards you apply for to reduce difficult inquiries.

Related: What is a good credit score?

The goal is to find the best all-in-one option that matches your daily spending and collects the most points for future travel goals. If all your store credit card offers are retailer points, it won’t help you with free travel.

Pro tips for using credit card points

Now that you understand how credit card points work, here are some tips from frequent travelers who use credit card points for free travel and promotions.

Choose your experience

“If you are just starting out, you have to decide what is most important to you,” says Armond Davis, founder and managing partner of Paragon Group.

Davis travels the country to meet with investors and company founders and collects about 1 million hotel points and 500,000 airline miles annually.

The three most important credit cards:

“My experience is that it is more difficult to accumulate airline miles from hotel points, but that does not mean that they are more valuable. If you are particularly loyal to one airline or live in a central city, a mileage credit card may make sense. But a hotel points card Essential if you care about where you put your head when you travel. At the end of the day, there is no wrong answer. You have to choose the program that best fits your travel style,” Davis.

Match your credit card to your lifestyle

“Be strategic when choosing your travel rewards card. You want to make sure the benefits of the card fit your lifestyle,” says Uno, owner of Hair By Uno Studio Salon. UNO collects 800,000 to 1 million points each year.

Related: Best Lifestyle Credit Cards

The three most important credit cards:

  • American Express Platinum, because it earns 5 times the points when booking through AMEX Travel and directly with airlines.

  • American Express Blue Cash Business, because it has no annual fee and 0% introductory APR.

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards, because the Companion Pass allows you to choose one person to fly with you, no airline fee, each time you purchase or redeem points.

Take advantage of promotions to get extra points or cash back. If using your card at Starbucks gives you extra points, use them! Make sure you read the fine print. Make sure you understand how card points redemption works and any specific criteria required for purchases made during the promotional period .Manage your money. Earning points for travel is great, but never spend more than you can pay off quickly,” Uno suggests.

Be strategic in booking travel with points

“Choose a card that fits your current lifestyle, spending, and goals,” says Arne Giske, entrepreneur and co-founder of the Insider Investors Club. Jessica Traveler says it collects more than 1 million points annually.

The three most important credit cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve, because you get 3x points for travel expenses and 1.5x points when redeemed, which equates to 4.5% back on all travel purchases.

  • Chase Business Preferred Ink, because you earn 100,000 bonus points when you sign up and reach your spending limit and 3X in major business categories.

  • Amex Business Platinum.

“Some cards have different advantages over other expenses, so you should shop. When you redeem points, always do your shopping too. Sometimes I’ll find a ride on my points platform for a much larger amount than if I bought it directly,” Jeske says.

Use points, don’t store them

“Jump on the reward offers for new credit cards,” says Jesse Panama, author, business coach, and founder of UltimateVida. Panama is a frequent traveler and collects half a million points annually.

The three most important credit cards:

  • American Express Platinum, due to lounge access and hotel upgrades.

  • Capital One Venture X, for daily spend categories (2x on everything).

  • Bilt Mastercard, because you earn points on your rental.

“If you are just starting out, I would advise choosing a specific flight, researching the points needed, and using these details to inform your strategic decisions about cards. You will have more success (and fun) doing it this way than trying to emulate anyone else. Points always over time, not increment. Consider it cash, not investment, and use it to create unforgettable experiences,” says Panama.

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