How to Earn a Free Vacation

7 Tricks to Traveling on Credit Card Rewards

By Miriam B. Weiner, Staff WriterApril 12, 2013
By Miriam B. Weiner, Staff WriterApril 12, 2013, at 10:55 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

How to Earn a Free Vacation

Everyone from Morgan Freeman to Alec Baldwin blasts the airwaves, touting the "best" travel rewards programs. No hidden fees, no blackout dates, thousands of free points just for signing up, and more. But sometimes taking advantage of these perks can cost you more than you were led to believe. Fly anytime? Only if you can secure one of the few seats reserved for rewards redeemers. Cash in your rewards points quickly? Only if you're willing to rack up credit card debt to do so.

But making the most out of travel rewards programs doesn't have to be arduous. In fact, there are many jet-setters who never spend a dime on travel (aside from the required taxes and fees). These handy tips can help you fly the friendly skies for free.

Globetrotters often find themselves so enchanted by the prospect of travel rewards that they forget to evaluate whether the credit card is actually a good fit. Sure, the benefits may seem fantastic, but don't apply for a card with the intent to alter the way you vacation. The key is choosing a program that suits the life you have, not the life you want. If you generally travel by car or train, acquiring a credit card with an airline rewards program won't benefit you all that much. Instead, you'll end up watching those hard-earned points expire. Opt for a card that comes with perks you already use rather than the perks you'd like to use more frequently.

Now that you've found the perfect credit card, it's time to rack up rewards. Just keep in mind that your points do come with an expiration date. This is especially true for frequent flyer miles; because they must account for unspent miles, airlines do not like to let customers sit on rewards for too long. The conundrum: How do you hold onto your rewards until you have enough to travel? The best way to keep your points active without actually spending them is to shop. Many airlines will deem your rewards unusable if your card remains inactive for a certain amount of time, which can vary depending on the airline.

Most travel rewards cards offer miles for every purchase, but airline card holders can speed up the collection process by being wise about where they shop. According to MyBankTracker.com, a website that helps consumers make informed banking decisions, airlines reward card holders with bonus miles for shopping at their online malls. "Consumers overlook millions of miles every year because they just don't think [to shop there]," George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. "It really adds up." Delta Airlines and American Airlines both tender five miles per every dollar spent in their online retail centers, which feature everything from clothes and accessories to electronics and pet products.

Book online through the airline or hotel's website to maximize your travel rewards. Although you may feel more relaxed having a customer representative help you book with points, you could be billed for the service. Also, if you're looking to cash in frequent flyer miles, you should plan to book your spot far in advance. Airlines reserve a very limited number of seats for rewards users, and when they're gone, they're gone.

When it comes to redeeming your miles, it's best to go big or go home. Using your points on domestic flights that cost less than $300 is a waste of your rewards, as you're not getting a very high dollar value per point. According to Erik Larson, president of the product research site NextAdvisor.com, you'll get more for your miles if you put them toward international flights or upgrades. "If you are planning an international vacation, it usually makes sense to save your miles for those tickets and pay cash for your domestic travels," he says. If you don't have enough points racked up for an international flight, consider purchasing more; many airlines will reward you by doubling the number of miles you buy.

Because the credit card market is so competitive, you can earn anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 points just by signing up for a travel rewards card. For example, 100,000 points is enough for a round-trip business class flight between the United States and Europe. But the buck doesn't stop there. If you have a good credit score, you can join a very savvy group of voyagers, known as "churners," who have perfected the art of free travel. Credit card churners routinely apply for new rewards cards to obtain massive sign-on bonuses. Then, they charge the minimum amount required to keep the card active (and collect points), cancel the card in a year or so, and repeat the process.

If you fear for your credit score, James Clear, founder of The Credit Card Fly, insists that anyone with a 720 or higher score shouldn't worry. "New credit inquiries usually drop your score by a few points, but new inquiries only make up about 10 percent of your overall credit score, which means the drop is small," says Clear, who has traveled to more than 17 countries on credit card rewards alone. "At the same time, a new credit card can increase your credit score because it will likely help your credit utilization ratio."

While churning may sound like a tedious way to spend your time, it won't take you long to realize that the benefits make this task worth the trouble. Clear says churners who are consistent in their efforts can earn more than one million points each year. However, he insists that this tactic will only work if you're able to pay your monthly balance in full. "If you are a responsible spender, then there isn't a better way to fly for free."

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