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You can use credit cards for free travel super easily. It all comes down the POINTS! Credit card rewards points are THE easiest way to do MORE travel for LESS money. The ultimate win!
Using credit card rewards for things like flights and hotels is essentially having your regular grocery spending end up paying for your travel expenses. You can accumulate points with one card over time, or you can chase point bonuses by opening different cards as they offer new bonuses.
Now, a major caveat: chasing credit card rewards should not be done by anyone who cannot pay off their credit card IN FULL each month. These rewards points are NOT worth carrying debt y’all, for real.
I spoke with a credit card expert, Julia of Geobreeze Travel, to break down using credit cards for free travel. Below is her guide to traveling better on the cheap.
How to Find the “Best” Credit Card
I always recommend working backwards, rather than getting “shiny card syndrome” when choosing your next card. Pick a trip that you’d like to do on points — there’s plenty of inspo on the Geobreeze Travel podcast — and work backwards from there.
Check flightconnections.com to plan a route from your home airport to that destination, then figure out what types of points (and how many) you’ll need in order to cover those flights. Do the same process for hotels. Once you know how many of each type of points you’ll need, then you can apply for credit cards that will get you those specific types of points.
It’s also best to go for flexible points that can transfer to many different partners. I generally recommend Chase points for beginners because of the 5/24 rule that says Chase will deny your application if you have opened 5 or more cards (with any bank) in the last 24 months. You can grab 5 Chase cards and then move on to American Express, Citi, etc., but not vice versa.
Additionally, once you’ve picked out your next card, never ever ever apply for it directly through Google or mail. As long as the offer is the same, always try to use a friend or content creator’s referral links to help them earn points. If you apply directly through Google, the banks get to pocket that extra commission money.
Take Advantage of Changing Credit Card Bonuses
I like to Google “[type of points] sweet spots” to get ideas for how to spend points. This search term works for Chase points, American Express, Hilton, Hyatt, and nearly any other currency. It’s best to have an idea about how you will spend your points BEFORE signing up for cards, rather than getting the bonus and then saying, “I will spend these points some day.”
Points are worth less and less as time goes on, and they don’t earn interest by sitting in your account. A hotel might charge 15k points per night this year but then charge 20k points for the exact same room next year. Therefore, it’s important to earn and redeem your points quickly to get the most value out of the different bonuses.
How to Meet Card Minimum Purchases
The smartest ways to meet credit card minimum spends are the ones that do not involve increasing your budget just to meet the minimum spend. Learn how to budget for big expenses, like long term travel, right here.
Many people open cards right before a large planned purchase like:
a kitchen remodel
or wedding in order to earn points for money they already planned on spending.
Alternatively, expenses that are reimbursable are a great way to meet minimum spends — this could be for work-related expenses or even for group outings where you offer to put the bill on your credit card and have everyone Venmo you back their share of dinner.
*Kara note: when Tbone and I decided to spend two months traveling, we used Chase Freedom Unlimited credit cards for free travel! And we meet the spending minimums by using the cards to pay for: Airbnb’s, travel luggage and clothing purchases, car repairs and weekly groceries!
Credit Cards For Free Travel
Kara here again- If you want to skip doing the homework on your own, here are three cards that have good rewards programs AND are good options to keep in your wallet for long term use. Keeping cards open for a long time (like YEARS) is a great way to boost your credit score!
Chase Freedom Unlimited– I have used this car personally for travel rewards points and I dig it! I LOVE that there is no annual fee and the reward structure is awesome. You get 5% points for ANY travel related purchase through Chase Rewards, 3% on ANY dining or drug store purchases, and 1.5% on EVERYTHING ELSE.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited worked really well for me because Tbone and I eat most of our meals at home. So the 1.5% on groceries was awesome! We also basically used the 3% on eating out to pay for our flights to Costa Rica- we would pay for a group dinner on the card and then have friends Venmo us! We racked up the points in just 3 months doing this.
Chase Freedom Flex– Another great card with NO annual fee! (See why both of these are good for long term cards?!?) This card also has a $200 cashback bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months. A really easy to meet spending minimum with a nice reward!
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card– Ok this one does have a $95 annual fee but let me tell you about the REWARDS! Baby- you get 60,000 points if you spend $4,000 in the first three months. THAT IS SO MANY POINTS. I would use this card if you have a long or expensive trip planned because those points go a long way.
PLUS you get 3X points on restaurants, streaming services, and online groceries (excluding Target, Walmart, and wholesale clubs). Shopping at Aldi (or HEB in my case) just got so much more valuable! This is what makes the card so super valuable in my opinion- these rewards ALONE (because there are more!) make it easy to hit your spending minimum.
But you ALSO get 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases- that means in person grocery shopping, clothing, back to school supplies, gas- it’s all earning you points!
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