How I use credit cards to travel nearly full-time

Dec 17, 2019

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In March 2014, I quit my 9-to-5 job and started traveling almost full-time as a freelance writer. There’s no way I would have been able to do this without learning the value of miles and points, and I’m constantly looking for new ways to use credit card rewards to make my travels possible. Here are eight strategies that help me save thousands of dollars a year while I travel:

(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy.)

1. Credit cards with flexible rewards points

(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy.)

Cards with flexible rewards – such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve – are a major part of my travel strategy. Flexible rewards let me transfer points from programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, American Express Membership Rewards and Capital One Miles to a wide variety of airline partners so I’m never restricted to a single airline or alliance. 

In addition to offering maximum flexibility in choosing a flight, having multiple airline partners to work with can save a bunch of points because different airline programs often charge different prices for the same flight. For example, an economy ticket from New York to London on United would cost 30,000 United MileagePlus miles, 27,500 Singapore Airlines Krisflyer miles, or 20,000 Avianca LifeMiles. Or I could fly from New York to Dublin on Aer Lingus for just 13,000 British Airways Avios and then use cash to buy a cheap one-way ticket to London. Having access to multiple frequent flyer programs means I can shop around and choose the best combination of price and convenience.

And truly my favorite thing about airline miles is that I can redeem them for experiences I would never spend money on, like flying in first class.

2. Airline credit cards for checked bags, priority boarding and other perks

(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy)

Credit cards which earn flexible rewards offer the best opportunity to maximize my points, but I also rely on airline-specific credit cards such as the United Explorer Card, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard and the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card. These cards earn valuable airline miles and perks including priority boarding, free checked bags and inflight discounts. Free checked bags and priority boarding come in handy when I’m flying economy. The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.   

I’m a big fan of the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, which comes with an annual Companion Fare that allows me to bring someone along for $121 ($99 fare, plus $22 in taxes and fees). 

Related: The best airline credit cards

3. Stacking deals for cheap stays in Airbnbs and hostels

When I’m traveling, I spend most of my time in Airbnbs and hostels because it costs less than hotels and it gives me the opportunity to meet new people, enjoy more authentic travel experiences, and cook for myself occasionally instead of eating out all the time. I maximize my savings by buying discounted Airbnb gift cards, using cash-back portals and paying with a credit card that earns bonus points for travel purchases.

READ MORE: How to earn points or cash back at Airbnbs, hostels, campgrounds and more

4. Booking free hotel nights with points

(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy.)

There are times when a hotel makes sense – either because it’s more convenient, or because I really need my own shower for a day or two. Most of my hotel nights are paid for with welcome bonuses from credit cards such as the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, the World of Hyatt Credit Card and the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card, or with points transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards. I especially love sharing some of the benefits of points and miles with my friends. 

5. Free-night certificates

In addition to the points earned from new card bonuses, each of these hotel cards – and many others – come with an annual free-night certificate. That means I get a free hotel night every year just for keeping the card and paying the annual fee. Even though these free nights come with restrictions, it’s not hard to get more value from the annual free-night certificate than the card’s annual fee.

6. Annual credits from premium hotel cards

(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy.)

In addition to free-night certificates, two premium hotel cards also come with annual hotel credits that allow me to stretch my travel dollars.

The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card comes with up to $300 in statement credits for Marriott purchases charged to the card, including room rates and incidentals charged to the room. It also provides a $100 property credit for eligible stays of two nights or more at participating Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis hotels and resorts. Combined with an annual free-night certificate valid at hotels costing up to 50,000 points per night and other perks like complimentary Gold Elite status, it’s easy to get more value from this card than its $450 annual fee (see rates and fees).

I’m also a big fan of the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and consider it to be one of the best premium credit cards on the market. It more than makes up for its $450 annual fee (see rates and fees) by offering a $250 annual Hilton resort statement credit, a $100 property credit on eligible stays of two nights or more at Conrad and Waldorf Astoria properties, a $250 annual statement credit for airline incidental fees, automatic top-tier Hilton Diamond elite status and 14x points per dollar on eligible Hilton purchases.

7. Free Global Entry membership

With the amount of flying I do, having Global Entry and TSA PreCheck has probably saved me from dozens of hours of standing in line. This membership is so valuable that I’d pay for the $100 enrollment fee in a second, but fortunately, I can enroll for free with many of the top travel credit cards.

8. Priority Pass lounges and restaurants

(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Caroline Lupini/The Points Guy.)

With Priority Pass from my Chase Sapphire Reserve, I get access to more than 1,200 airport lounges around the world (and some, like in Punta Cana, even have a pool), as well as a growing number of airport restaurants. In addition to providing a more comfortable airport experience, I’m able to save hundreds of dollars every year that I’d otherwise spend on airport food and beverages. Nothing feels better after a long flight across an ocean than taking a shower before hopping on a connecting flight.

READ MORE: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

Bottom line

Whether you’re a full-time traveler or just take a couple of trips a year, having the right credit cards – and knowing how to use their benefits – puts unforgettable experiences within reach.

For rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Amex card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors Aspire Amex card, click here.

Featured photo courtesy of Priority Pass.

2019 TPG Award Winner: Premium Card of the Year
Chase Sapphire Reserve®

SIGN-UP BONUS: 50,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,000

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 3X points on all travel and dining, $300 annual travel credit, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • 3X points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit. 3X points on dining at restaurants & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. $0 foreign transaction fees.
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,000+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select
  • Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®
  • One Year Complimentary Lyft Pink ($199 minimum value). Complimentary DashPass subscription from DoorDash after activating by 12/31/21.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
16.99%-23.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$550
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each balance transfer, whichever is greater
Recommended Credit
Excellent Credit

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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