If you’re like most people, you’ve spent 51 weeks saving up for that one-week Dream Vacation. You’ve searched Kayak to find the cheapest flight and/or hotel, and you might have even used Frequent Flier Miles for part of your trip.
You’ve been wasting your Time.
This Guide wills how you how the ‘Pros’ utilize Credit Card Rewards to pay for the Flights, Hotels, and sometimes other Transportation for FREE or nearly nothing. The process is entirely legal, easy to use, and often only requires a 650+ Credit Score.
- Apply for a Credit Card with lucrative Reward Points
- Meet the ‘Minimum Spend‘ within 3 months to Earn said Points
- Plan Your Trip, paying for the Flight and Hotel with Points you’ve just Earned
- Repeat until you run out of vacation days
- Cancel cards with recurring annual fees, and Churn through new ones as they become available
It’s not rocket science. Using this simple process, my wife and I have visited Japan, Costa Rica, Europe and various hotspots in the US for just the cost of food and entertainment.
The hidden ‘Step 0’ is to make sure you have a 650 Credit Score or higher. If you have a business, that’s an added bonus- as some Cards are business specific. (If you don’t own a business, don’t worry…)
But you might want to familiarize the process first. The type of Free Vacation you want depends on the planning you put in beforehand. Long distance or Luxury? 5-Star or 5 more days? If you want to see some quick examples – visit our ‘Trips‘ page, which will be continuously updated. Otherwise, consult the Free Travel Guide below and please leave comments if you have any questions!
Guide to Free Traveling
The 1st and easiest step is first deciding where you wish to travel. The more extravagant and distant your destination, the more pre-planning skills you will need to employ. A quick week long trip to Puerto Rico or anywhere in the US can be achieved with just two credit cards, while an international trip to Japan or Europe will be a little more intense. The farther out you can make your plans, the better. Blackout Dates and higher ‘in demand‘ rates are not your friend.
If you’re traveling abroad, I would personally stick with United, as they have one of the easiest frequent flyer programs, and their card bonuses make the number of points required to fly round trip easy to achieve. However, you’ll want to use a site like Pointimize (see phase 2) to see what the best ‘Value‘ options are. There are many airlines who have partnerships with each other that allow you to use points from one to fly in the seat of another.
To compliment that, you will also want to get at least 2-5 days of hotel stay paid for. The IHG Card is ideal for those who don’t mind staying in ‘average‘ accommodations for more days, while the Hyatt or SPG Cards will give you 1-3 nights at more luxurious properties. Of course, every hotel chain varies and the cities will be the biggest factor in how much bang you get for your ‘buck.’
Once you have a rough time frame, and general idea of where you wish to fly, Calculate the number of points/miles required to get there from your airport. Just about every airline website lets you look at a specific date/flight path, OR use ‘Flexible Dates.’ Pointimize and similar sites that will help you, but usually only show the ‘fixed rate‘ routes, so you would have to do manually search SouthWest and Delta to find their rates for your specific airport pairs.
The SouthWest Cost-Based of RapidRewards and Delta differs from the industry standard of ‘Flat Rate with Points‘. What this means is that for SouthWest it pays to compromise your schedule if possible, to ‘save’ points. With AA or United for example,- it will be a standard rate no matter what dates or times you fly… A Benefit to you because those same flights would be $1,500 if purchased directly in some cases. However, that comes at a cost of decreased availability:
For this example going to Japan from Cleveland, ALL the flights are 35,000 EACH Way, meaning its 70,000 to fly one person Round-Trip to Tokyo from the US. Within the US, its only 25,000 points RT to go from coast to coast anywhere. That same flight would be possibly less with Delta or SouthWest, who use a different points system.
Another example below illustrates American Airline’s system for comparison. 30,000 each way from Chicago to Rome. For any FF Program, you’ll ONLY Focus on their most ‘Economic’ option, as the everything else will be outrageous or not worth it.
Just because a flight exists doesnt necessarily mean its ‘good.’ In 2017, United started showing ‘Saver Flights’ that cost the normal 30,000 for an international flight – BUT they would have 2 or 3 stops and your total travel time would be 21 hours! The Flights that kept you in in the sky for only 15 hours would often be TWICE the cost in points – meaning either you trade time or more points to get the flight you want…. OR pick different dates / airlines.
At this point, you should have a vague idea of the cost in points AND the general time frame when you could reasonably expect to successfully book with points on one of these airlines. If possible, give yourself a 6 month buffer so you can enjoy more flexibility in planning your accommodations etc in Phase 2.
The next logical step is to determine which cards are currently offering the best bonuses that would help you meet these goals. United offers a 50,000 sign up for their MilagePlus Explorer Card from time to time… But if this is not the case currently, perhaps AA would be better. Do not try to BOOK these Flights just yet.
Selecting the Hotel. In my humble opinion, IHG is going to be the most cost-effective option here when factoring in ALL costs for a normal person’s vacation. Hyatt comes in a close 2nd. The Chase IHG Card covers many properties (Holiday Inn) located all over the world, and often at a cheaper ‘per day redemption rate’ than say Marriott or Hilton. The current offer of 80,000 IHG Points for only spending $1,000 is phenomenal, as that’s enough to get you 5 Nights @ 15k each nights at the Holiday Inn Express in San Juan, right next to the beach. For comparison, Hilton’s hotels will usually run you 40,000 points, which is typically an ‘airport area’ hotel near a major city. Hyatt is more reasonable and a great option for those who like nice hotels AND crave getting the most VALUE out of their points. All of these cards can also ‘Earn Points‘ and are transfer partners with Chase Ink / or Sapphire cards.
With the hotel cards, you will perform the same research as you did for the flights in Phase 1. If you have a ‘Free Weekend Certificate’ from Hyatt, Hilton or others- you will first have to call them or check online to see if a given weekend in your itinerary is available. For all the other Hotel Programs, there’s an Amazing website someone created to make the process much easier.
Using Award Mapper or other Hotel Reward Search Engines , you can get a general idea of what it would cost in points to stay at ‘Hotel X‘ in your destination of choice. Armed with that information, you can then browse the available credit cards that align with that hotel chain.
You will more than likely NOT be able to pay for ALL of your Lodging with Hotel Points, but its a great start.
I personally like to mix up hotels and AirBnB’s on our trips. The hotel gives you the convenience factor, and its a great way to start your vacation in another country. ‘Take me to the Hyatt’ is easier for a cabbie than ‘Take me to Kero’s House.’
AirBnB is a great filler option because not only are the dates and prices infinitely more flexible since you’re staying at people’s rental properties or houses, but as a bonus – it shows up as a ‘Travel’ charge in most credit cards. This means you can use the $300 Travel Credit from the Chase Sapphire Reserve, OR a Barclay’s / Capital One Venture Card to ‘cancel’ the charges.
Why is This Awesome?
The Barclay Arrival Card and Capital One Venture is your ‘fill the gaps‘ solution here. They both will ‘reimburse you for travel‘ after you spend $3K in 3 months. With ‘Credits‘ that you simply Apply to a ‘Travel Charge.’ Barclay gives you $450 worth of these ‘Credits’, which can easily be leveraged for 3-7 days of lodging in more unique places in bigger cities. Use this card to pay for cab rides, trains, and subway passes as well if possible, as they are all ‘Travel Expenses‘ that can be credited with your signup bonus.
Once you have a rough outline of which days you’ll use for Fancy hotel stays, which days you’ll do AirBnB (or pay for a hotel), and which flight options are possible… its time to pull the trigger.
At this point you’ve narrowed down which cards you’ll be using to ‘Finance‘ your Trip. Apply for 2 of those cards right off the bat. Depending on your finances, and how much $ you can comfortably charge on a CC each month, you might want to plan for your potential ‘long term’ Churning goals at this point. This chart is very helpful for beginners. –
Note: Try to ONLY Get new cards when their Sign Up Bonus is at its highest. This would mean 50,000 for most airline cards, tho SouthWest even has 60K offers here and there. Your Trips will probably benefit from one of the various Chase ‘Catch All’ cards like the Sapphire or Ink – as those options let you transfer points to your other airline/hotel card to ‘top them off’ which can be very helpful if you’re looking for an international flight or an expensive (with points) hotel.
Day 1 – Complete one or two Credit Card Applications. Either as a couple, one person doing a card each, OR as an individual, getting one ‘easy to meet’ and one more difficult card with a higher minimum spend requirement. Hopefully you will get approved, then wait for cards to be delivered.
Day 3-30 – Use Cards for ALL your possible expenses. You should be able to meet the Minimum Spends on both these cards within 90 days. There are various tricks that one can employ to do this, in some cases without actually ‘spending’ money.
Day 31-90 – Wait for your statement to come, and in most cases, you’ll be ‘Rewarded’ for your spending. Sometimes the points won’t post until a week to a month later, some cases they’re immediately when you hit the Min Spend #.
Day 32-91 – NOW is the time to Book Your FREE Travel! Using the same sites you utilized in Phase 1, book your flight and hotel using rewards points. Make sure your hotels and airline availability options jive with each other before confirming everything.
Day 62-120 – If necessary, check the availability of your ‘Dream AirBnB‘ stays. You’ll want to BOOK these on your Barclay or Capital One card, as they will reimburse you for this travel. Apply for your card of choice, and then using the same ‘Manufactured Spending‘ strategy as before, and meet their spending requirements – which will include these AirBnB stays. At this time you may also book your ‘Rail Pass‘ or Car Rental.
Day 120 and on – Detail your destinations and preferred places of interest you’ll be visiting on a spreadsheet. I like to include the name, exact address, website, type of attraction and associated costs on a Google Drive DOC. This way its always accessible for you, and can be saved to your phone. If you’re frugal, plan on visiting certain museums on their ‘Free’ or discounted days, or at least not on the weekends when they’ll be busiest.
I like to plan out the possible transportation to and from each place as well, as that’s a real time-suck if you don’t prepare in advance. This includes airport parking, to and from the hotel/airline, and general ‘Gettin Around City.’ TripAdvisor is the best resource for just about every destination, as its essentially a ‘Yelp!’ for travel enthusiasts. It includes both free activities and and businesses with detailed reviews from travelers across the globe.
Finally, once your departure date arrives, make sure you have all the documentation you’ll need, plenty of snacks and a back up of your itinerary and Adventure On!
Once you get the basics down, you can decide if Traveling for FREE Everywhere is right for you. There are ways to optimize which cards you get in what time frames, but that topic is more advanced for most people. I recommend you start out with the Chase Sapphire Card, the Ink Preferred Card, and either SouthWest or United for your flights… if you have certain hotel goals, the IHG, SPG, and Hyatt options are my personal favorites.
Feel free to leave questions down below!
Do you have questions!? I’m sure you do. Feel Free to Post them in the COMMENTS Section Below!