How We Travel For Free
How We Travel for Free
One of the main reasons that we are able to travel so much is because a lot of it is done on points or miles (to keep things simple, we will refer to both as points in this post). This post provides the basics of what airline and hotel points are and how we use them – a basic guide to how we travel for free. How you should earn and redeem points is very much a personal question. We hope that this post provides you with a few starting tips.
What Are Points?
For us, points are a thing that you earn that can later be redeemed for something else. In the simplest context, let’s say that I have a credit card. With this credit card, I earn one point for every dollar that I spend on that credit card. When I earn enough points, I can redeem those points for a free night at a hotel or a free flight.
The real world gets more complicated than this example because there are many different kinds of points. The three basic categories are hotel points, airline points, and transferable points. Even within these categories, all points are not created equal. There are also different ways to earn points. And last but not least, there are differences in the way that points can be redeemed.
For now, the main thing to know is that earning points translates into free stuff. For us, this free stuff is free travel.
How to Earn Points
There are two primary ways to earn points. One is a loyalty rewards program. This method is typically free and does not require signing up for a credit card. The second method is earning points through a specific credit card offer and purchases made on that credit card.
Signing up for a loyalty program is typically free and easy. Pretty much any time that you fly or stay in a hotel, you should be earning points towards a future stay. Sadly, one exception to the hotel rewards program is Disney hotels.
For example, any individual may sign up for a Southwest Rapid Rewards account. You simply go to Southwest.com and create an account. Then anytime you login to your account, book a flight with your Rapid Rewards number, and you travel with Southwest you earn Southwest points. When you have enough points, you can redeem the points to have a free flight on Southwest. To learn more about Southwest Rapid Rewards and Flying for Free on Southwest, see our post here.
Opening A Credit Card
Opening a credit card is one of the fastest ways to earn points. How? The sign-up bonus. For most credit cards, when you open a new card, you will be eligible to earn a sign-up bonus. The credit card companies offer sign-up bonuses as an incentive for opening the credit card. However, you typically do not get the points at the same time that you get the credit card. Normally there is a set spending requirement in order to obtain the sign-up bonus. For example, some credit cards may require you to spend $3,000 within 3 months to earn the sign-up bonus. As soon as you spend the $3,000 you have met the requirement and the points will be put in your account (note it can sometimes take an additional pay period for the points to post to your account).
Do Not Miss The Sign-Up Bonus
Earning a sign-up bonus from a credit card is one of the main reasons to open a credit card. Therefore, meeting the required spend within the set timeframe is very important. Before you open a credit card, you want to be 100% sure you will be able to meet the required spend to earn the sign up bonus.
The spend amount and time frame varies with each credit card, so be sure to check these details before signing up for the credit card. If you are ever not sure if you met the spend amount, you can call the number on the back of your credit card to confirm.
As we discuss in more details below, not all points are the same. Similarly sign-up bonuses change over time. Depending on how much “homework” you are willing to do, you can research the credit card you are interested in to ensure that the sign-up offer is a good one whenever you open a new credit card. We have posts specifically related to credit card sign-up bonuses for Marriott and Southwest because that is what we use the most for Disney travel.
Spending On The Credit Card
When you make purchases using a credit card, you will typically be earning points. How many points you get per dollar spent depends on the credit cards and the rules associated with the card. Earning points with credit cards has resulted in two important habits for us. First, we make sure to use a credit card for our everyday purchases that earns the points we want (unless we are trying to meet a sign-up bonus). Secondly, we rarely use cash. Since cash doesn’t earn points for us, we try to avoid it at all times.
Not All Points are the Same
One of the things that can be a bit tricky is that not all points are the same. For example 20,000 United points may not get you the same thing as 20,000 Jet Blue points. This is especially important to be aware of when signing up for a credit card to earn the signup bonus. Be sure to do your research to see how many points it takes for a flight and what a “good” credit card sign up bonus is for that airline or hotel.
These are points that you would earn and use towards a free hotel stay. While there are hundreds of different brands of hotels, many hotels fall under the same family. For example, if you have Marriott hotel points, these points can be used at any Marriott family hotel. Just to name a few, this includes: The Ritz-Carlton, W Hotels, Sheraton, Residence Inn, Gaylord Hotels, Courtyard by Marriott, SpringHill Suites, and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott.
Our most commonly used hotel points are Marriott points and Hilton points. To read about how we earn and use Marriott points for free stays at Disney World, click here. We are currently working on a post about Hilton rewards and using them for a free Disney stay, so please check back soon for that post.
There are three general types of points for airline travel. The type of point redemption depends on the policy implemented by the airline. Similar to the hotels, many airlines have partnerships with other airlines, so in many cases airline points may be used across several airlines. For example, the Star Alliance includes airlines such as Air Canada, Air China, ANA (how we fly to Disney Tokyo in First Class), Singapore Air, SWISS, and United Airlines to name a few.
Fixed Redemption Rate Flights
The first type of airline points are those with a fixed redemption rate. With this system, I fly from A to B, A to C, or C to D (assuming all within the US) and my flight costs the same number of airline miles. This is how American Airlines, Delta, and United (among others) set up their frequent flier programs. This is a nice method if your flight is expensive, but can be a negative on inexpensive flights. The other downside is that this type of redemption typically offers a fixed number of seats per flight. Once those seats are reserved, award travel is no longer available.
Fixed Value Flights
The second type is a fixed value – I fly from A to B, A to C, or C to D and the number of miles I must redeem for travel changes based on the cost of my ticket. This is a nice system because all seats are typically available for purchase by points (Southwest and JetBlue use this system). The benefit is that if a seat is available, it can be redeemed with points. The downside is that expensive seats cost a lot of points.
Distance Traveled Flights
The third type is based on distances traveled. It is a hybrid of the fixed redemption rate and fixed value systems. The cost of redeemed miles for a flight increase as the distance you travel increases, but does not change based on the cost of the ticket. This system can provide some excellent value for short flights and is the system used by British Airways.
The above discussion ignores Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, ThankYou points, and Capital One Miles which are all transferable programs. We briefly discuss transferable points in the section below.
What We Do With Flights
Domestically, we primarily fly Southwest. One of the benefits about Southwest points is that the number of points that it takes for a trip is correlated with the dollar-value cost of the trip. So if we can find cheap Southwest flights, they will only take up a little bit of the points we have earned. To learn more about Southwest and their Rapid Rewards Program, click here.
When it comes to international travel, we will often book our travel 11 months in advance. The reason for this is that international travel often has fixed redemption rate or distance traveled flights, so there is limited seat availability. Being able to plan these types of flights well in advance, or having a flexible schedule when booking, makes utilizing these types of points much easier.
Be aware of what airlines operate out of your home airport. Also, know which airlines offer the most convenient flights to and from your most frequented destinations. Lastly, research which type of mileage system works best for your personal circumstance.
Transferable points usually allow for two methods of redemption. First, you could use transferable points to book travel directly with the credit card company, trading in your points for travel. An example of this is booking your travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel portal allows you to use your Ultimate Rewards points as a replacement for cash when booking a trip.
The second method of redemption with transferable points is to transfer the points to a partner airline or hotel. This is why transferable points are so attractive. By allowing you to transfer them between many different partners, you are never locked into using a one specific airline or hotel when looking for your travel. Our personal favorite type of transferable points are Marriott Bonvoy points and Citi ThankYou points. Other useful transferable point options include Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Capital One Miles to name a of the larger programs.
Which Points Are The Best?
Sadly, there is not a good answer to this questions. The best we can do is “it depends.” It depends on where you want to travel and what you prefer. The best points for someone who wants points towards domestic economy flight is very different from someone who wants a first class flight to Tokyo Disney. We recommend looking at what travel you want to do in the future. Which airlines would you use and what hotels you would stay in, and go from there. Or if you want flexibility, start with a card that offers transferable points.
Things to be aware of
If you are not organized or if you do not pay off your balances on time, trying to earn points through a credit card can be a very dangerous venture. We would not recommend earning points through a credit card if you feel you will not be able to pay off your balances regularly. The interest that you will be changed on your balances will offset the benefits that you would earn from the points.
If your travel schedule is not very flexible, it can make traveling on points much more costly (it takes more points to get where you want to go). Relatedly, if you often travel last minute, it can make using points a lot more difficult. Last minute trips have less availability and if there is availability it can be very expensive (use a lot of your points).
Finally, we often receive a question “will opening a new credit card hurt my credit score?” The answer is it will usually impact your score negatively for a very short time because you are adding a credit inquiry to your credit report (a negative) and you are decreasing the average age of your accounts (your new account is age 0). However, you are also increasing your available credit (a positive) and if you keep the new card paid off you are decreasing the amount of your available credit being used. If you keep your card paid off, any negative impact on your credit score will usually be reversed within a short time.
Do Your Homework
This post is just a very basic overview of airline, hotel, and transferable points. We have been researching and learning about them for several years. With that being said, we have many friends that have recently gotten into earning points and have started using points for free travel.
Signing up for a free rewards account to earn points is a no-brainer. However, deciding which credit card to open to earn points should take a bit more thought. Be sure to consider which card will best help you meet your travel goals. Do you want to travel domestically or internationally? Would you rather earn hotel or airline points? Is your travel flexible and you can search for the best deal or do you want points that are easier to work with?
If you have any questions about points or reward programs, please let us know in a comment below!
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