How to Travel for free with credit cards and airlines points

How to Travel for free with credit cards and airlines points

By 10A editors

It would have been fun if the world had emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic into a place where travel was within reach for everyone. Since 2020 – and really if feels like the pandemic happened so much earlier than that – people around the world have been itching to get back to adventure traveling, back to seeing new places and experiencing new cultures. That wanderlust didn’t just grow slightly during the lost years. Instead it amplified to whole new levels

Then we emerged to a travel landscape that had totally changed. Everything in life is more expensive as demand vastly outpaces supply. Life has become more about experiences and less about necessities. Travelers are taking to trekking through Asia or camping in the Rockies, knowing that those life experiences will forever change their perspective as they seek new and more adventurous ways to travel.

If adventure travel is in your blood, then using credit card miles to find the coolest and most bucket list worthy spots on earth should be part of your travel plans.

Travel Credit Cards

Potential travelers from all over the world can take advantage of credit card offers that significantly reduce the price of travel to the point where it might be free with these three links being especially valuable to people from Canada, the US, and the UK.

Through smart use of credit card opening, meeting bonuses, spending, and closing, adventure travelers have been crossing the world for free for decades. There are so many exciting adventures out there waiting to be explored, be that trekking through Nicaragua to see hummingbirds and toucans in their natural habitat or strolling through the streets of Lithuania on a walking tour to soak up the culture of one of Europe’s hidden gems.

The basic breakdown is as follows:

  • Credit card application – The first step is to apply for a credit card that meets your travel goals. These will differ depending on if you are looking for airline miles, hotel stays, or a card that offers options and experiences within the travel sphere.
  • Hitting the bonus – When your new card arrives make sure you know the requirements to get the bonus points/miles that were part of your sign up offer. These bonus are the bread and butter of accumulating cheap travel and failing to hit the required spend in the required length of time is the biggest mistake that travelers new to the credit card game can make.
  • Use the points – This is the fun part, though it can be overwhelming. When you have hit your spend – and after the points have been posted to your account – it is time to arrange your travel. Booking flights is easy, so combine that free travel with once in a lifetime adventures like discovering Java and Bali for a truly unforgettable, life altering experience.
  • Keep spending – This is now the option phase of the process. One option is to keep your credit card and keep earning points. Doing this is a good option with key credit cards – the Chase Sapphire and Freedom are good examples – that offer bonus for spending in certain categories. Putting as much of your spending as possible across multiple cards to maximizes 3x and 5x bonus categories is the most efficient way to rack up miles when not working on the bonus spend for a new card.
  • Cancel and churn – The other option at this point is to cancel and churn. Cancelling is generally recommended for those cards with a great introductory bonus but a sizeable annual fee. Read the fine print during the sign-up process to see how long you will have to wait to reapply and earn the welcome bonus again (it is usually at least three years).

How to Choose Your Travel Credit Card

The first step on your free travel journey – after deciding you want to work your way towards a trip – is to pick which credit card to go with. There are three basic ways that different credit card companies and their travel partners allow card holders to redeem their points. Websites like 10adventures.com really give you a perspective on what exactly there is to do out there in nature. Ideal if you are in a travel rut and want inspiration on your next credit card redeemed trip.

The first of these is that some cards allow points with an airline or hotel partner to be redeemed directly towards travel. This is most often the case with cards branded to a specific travel company – for example American Airlines or Hyatt Hotels – where the points go directly into an account with the airline/hotel and don’t stay attached to the card. A traveller simply goes to the website of the travel company, logs into their account, and their accumulated miles/points are loaded and ready to be redeemed.

The second way is to transfer points to a partner airline or hotel and spend from there. The Chase Ultimate Rewards portal is a great example of this. While you can book directly though the Ultimate Rewards booking engine, it is often better to transfer the points directly to a hotel group or airline for a better deal. Flexibility is key when backpacking or booking trips on the fly. This ability to change plans on a whim, - often the most exciting part of travel – is important if you are looking for an adventure tour within your specific areas of interest.

The third way a card could let you redeem points is via a fixed rate. This rate is standard at $0.01 per point (in the US) and is generally seen as the worst way to get the most out of your miles. It is, however, often the easiest. The miles are used to book through a travel portal branded by the credit card or used after booking travel as a statement credit to be used against travel (and potentially other) purchases.

I suggest a card that allows two of the above methods. This way booking a flight to the start of a tour destination can be done easily and with the cheapest carrier. Finding the best cycle route or winter sport area can be as random as talking to a local for inside information. Be sure your credit card points are flexible to take advantage of whatever adventure you talk yourself into.

A quick wrap up of things other than rewards redemption options to consider when picking a travel credit card:

  • Bonus on offer and how long you have to meet the spend
  • Which airlines/hotel partners a card has and how often you use them
  • Where your adventure travel is likely to take you
  • Rewards rates for spending in certain categories
  • Perks (such as no fees) when used internationally

Bonuses and Earning Points

Redemption options remain the biggest key when choosing a credit card to open, but the signup bonus isn’t far behind. This is where you can really put in the work to unlock the dream climbing trip, skiing adventure, or scuba experience.

When it does come to getting a bonus, the general idea is that bigger is indeed better. I would very much suggest you do a little research if a bonus catches your eye to see what the expiration date of the offer is AND what other offers have been seen on that card in the past.

Things to consider when working towards a bonus:

  • Above all else MAKE SURE YOU MEET THE MINIMUM SPEND IN TIME. This simply cannot be stated enough given how valuable bonus offers are. Keep this in mind if you are in the middle of a hiking trip or backwoods camping adventure. Two weeks on the road in a country where living is cheap is exciting, but it also kills your spending ability.
  • Put as many normal expenses as possible on a card to work towards the minimum spend without even thinking about it. Utilities such as cell phones, cable, internet, trash, and water can easily top $500 a month. If your spend is $3,000 in three months then that is half of your money right there. Add on groceries and you will suddenly be almost at the limit without doing any extra spending at all.
  • Use an online shopping portal if your credit card of choice has one. This won’t increase your spend, but the point bonuses are often large and a 60,000 point offer can end up with you hitting 70,000 points or more just by maximizing purchases with more points attached to them.
  • If it is late in the bonus period and you are running short then get creative. When going out for dinner with friends pay for the whole group and get people to pay you back via Venmo or PayPal immediately. This increases your spending in one moment drastically without costing you one extra cent. Your server will also appreciate not having to split tabs for once.
  • Always be on the lookout for new cards without overstretching your bonus spend ability. It is also worth keeping an eye on the card you are currently working towards and if a better offer comes up while you are working towards yours then call the company’s customer service and see if you can get moved to the new offer. The worst they can say is no and more often than not – per forums – they seem to say yes.

Redeeming points

This is the best step. Your account is loaded with points and it is time to travel. The initial decision comes on how best to use your points. The options are usually flight, hotel stay, or car rental. Car rental tends not to be worth it, while the type of trip you are taking – plus the card that your points are on – will dictate if air fare or hotel stay is the best option.

The best advice is to spend plenty of time shopping around through various booking options. This is another step where travel forums can be your friend. There are many experts in the field of points redemption ready to show off their knowledge by giving the best advice about how to make your points go further and your trip be as close to free as possible.

Booking through portals is one strategy, but shop around. Look at flight prices direct on airline websites too. Miles travel is all about stretching the value of what you have so you can travel more. If you want to sail in Croatia then look for flights to Dubrovnik on various airlines to find the best value. If spending time in the Irish wilderness is more your style, then perhaps look to use points at the end of your trip for a hotel stay in the heart of Dublin where you will be able to throw down Guinness with reckless abandon while regaling the locals with stories of your epic adventures on their wildest frontier.

Be smart. Don’t overextend your bonuses and never run into credit card debt by opening too many cards. Most successful churners pay off their card in full at the end of each month so they can see exactly how their income is working for them as the points pile up. Travelling for free really is attainable for anyone who spends a little time researching cards, meeting the minimum spend, and planning out their rewards.

Some people want their adventure travel in vans and tents. Others like to adventure during the day and spend the nights in more luxurious surroundings. By playing the credit card game right, the world becomes much smaller and opportunities for adventure multiply, whatever your personal trip style.