So you want to know how to travel for (nearly) free with points and miles? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve spent several years figuring out strategies that I will share with you in this blog.
You might think it’s as simple as picking a credit card and jumping in. That’s what I did. But that would be a mistake. Before you can really get started, you have to do some groundwork.
Here’s what you need to do first:
1. Join All Hotel, Airline, or Rental Car Loyalty Programs to Start Earning Points & Miles Now
If you’re even considering getting in the points and miles game, you must first sign-up for all loyalty programs. Is it time consuming? Yes. Will you get a bunch of annoying emails every day? Yes. Will some of them contain awesome deals? Possibly. Is it essential? Absolutely.
If you are doing any kind of travelling right now, whether for work or for pleasure, make sure you are getting rewards for it. Don’t stay in a hotel, take a flight, or rent a car without being absolutely certain you are earning reward points or miles for your travel. You might not know how you plan on using them, but they can only help you later.
I went to graduate school on the East Coast and frequently flew home to see my family in California. I was also fortunate enough to travel for extracurricular competitions and events. All that travel resulted in tens of thousands of points and miles from flights that I was going to take anyway or from flights for which I was reimbursed. A large portion of those points and miles are still sitting around all these years later waiting for me to use them.
Be aware that some companies won’t give you credit for travel unless you are a member of their rewards program before the travel takes place.
Also, be aware that some reward programs have points and miles that expire, but usually there are simple ways to keep them active by using shopping portals or making a donation.
This is where my next suggestion comes in: make sure to keep track of your points and miles activity to prevent expiration. The best way to do that is with a tracking app.
2. Download an App to Track your Points & Miles (+ Passwords)
Once you’ve joined all the loyalty programs, you need a way to keep track of your balances. I personally use AwardWallet. It’s free and I’ve been very satisfied. You can download it for iPhone here or Android here. You can also visit them at AwardWallet.com. They have a paid version, but I’ve found the free one works just fine. Use this app to store your reward program numbers. From time to time, have AwardWallet refresh your balances. AwardWallet can usually do this with the click of a button. If they cannot obtain your balance automatically, you can enter it manually. AwardWallet will also notify you when your points are set to expire.
Another popular option is Points.com. I’ve used Points.com to transfer points and miles between partners, but I have not explored it’s mileage and expiration tracking abilities.
Finally, you need a place to store all these passwords. I personally use Keeper. It’s free and can be downloaded for iPhone here or Android here. You can also visit them at KeeperSecurity.com. The free version used to make you click two annoying pop-ups every single time you logged in, but that has been significantly reduced. Keeper can generate random passwords for you and allows you to easily copy those passwords for use in other apps or web browsers.
3. Do a Credit Report Check-Up Before You Sign-Up for a Points & Miles Credit Card
When you finally decide to take the plunge and sign up for a travel rewards credit cards, make sure you check your credit report first. You can check your credit report for free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com which will show you all three credit reports or through FreeCreditReport.com which shows your Experian report or CreditKarma.com which shows your TransUnion and Equifax reports. You need to know what your score is, when you last opened your credit card accounts, and whether you have any negative remarks on your account.
Checking your own credit report will not result in an inquiry on your report. Frankly, checking your credit report is something you should already be doing. Every single month. You should also sign-up for alerts so that you get notified when anything changes. A higher credit score increases your chances of approval and will allow you access to better travel rewards credit cards. Many require good (700-749) or excellent (750+) scores.
Limits On The Number of Recent Credit Card Accounts – Chase’s 5/24 Rule
For some travel rewards credit cards, knowing when you last opened you credit card accounts will give you a clue as to whether you’ll be approved. This is mostly important for credit cards issued by Chase bank. Chase is perhaps the largest issuer of travel rewards credit cards. They have a wide variety of cards and I can pretty much guarantee you will want a card from them eventually, if not first. Chase imposes what is called the 5/24 rule for new credit card approvals. This means that if you have opened 5 new credit card accounts within the past 24 months, you will automatically be denied. Any 5 new credit card accounts will stop you. They do not have to be issued by Chase. Chase pulls your credit report and account information from Experian so their account opening dates will be most important.
Authorized user accounts do count against your 5/24. Doctor of Credit has a good list here of how to get these removed from your credit report. Other banks are starting to implement similar rules so it will become even more important to track your account opening dates.
I keep a spreadsheet like the one below so I know when I’m pushing the 5/24 rule which is always. As you can see, it’ll be June of 2018 before I can apply for another Chase card. (AU) means authorized user. The strike-through means I’ve removed myself and the card has, hopefully, fallen off my credit report.
Check Your Credit Report For Accuracy and File Disputes If Needed
When checking your credit report, look carefully for incorrect information. All three major credit bureaus allow you to file disputes online. If you notice any irregularities or inaccuracies in your report, don’t be afraid to file a dispute. I removed myself as the authorized user of Card H above, but it hasn’t been removed from my credit report yet. Since I’m not in a rush to sign up for my next card, I’m waiting for it to fall off on its own. My husband recently filed disputes to have authorized user accounts removed from his credit report so that he could be approved for a new card. The disputes were all resolved quickly, the accounts were removed, and he was approved for a new Chase card.
A final word about credit reports and credit cards. A lot of people believe that your credit score will be low if you have a lot of credit cards. That isn’t true. I have more credit cards than I listed in that table and my credit score is “Excellent”. Your credit score will be low if you have a lot credit cards and you use your entire credit line every month. It will be low if you have a lot of credit cards and you only pay your minimum balance each month. It will be low if you have a lot of credit cards and you are frequently charged late payment fees. You can read more about this here. Although the headline of the article is deceptive, the conclusion is that the way you use your credit cards is more important than the number of credit cards you have.
4. Do a Financial Check-Up Before You Sign-Up for a Points & Miles Credit Card
The most important thing to know about the points and miles game is that you must pay your balance off every month or you negate whatever “free” travel you’ve earned. It’s not free if you’re paying interest fees, late fees, overage fees, etc.
You must be responsible with money to be successful. This means having a budget every month and sticking to it. I am a recent convert to Mint.com. I’ve used Quicken for my personal finances since I went to college at 18 so it was very hard for me to make a switch. Mint is great because it can help you budget and pull all of your transactions from all of your accounts into one easy to read location. I check it every day. Sometimes twice a day. YouNeedABudget.com or “YNAB” is another population option.
Ideally, you should transfer all of your spending to a travel credit card so that you earn points and miles on everything you purchase, but, if you’re not responsible with money, that is not a good place to start. Instead, come up with a list of expenses you pay every month no matter what like your cable bill, wireless bill, utility bills, etc. If those bills add up to enough to meet the minimum spending for a travel credit card sign-up bonus, then go for it. You were going to pay those bills anyway. Also, make sure rack up additional bonus points & miles by completing online shopping through travel credit card shopping portals. You will be hooked when that first big bonus clears.
5. Pick You First Points & Miles Destination
Here’s the fun part: decide where you want to go! I never sign-up for a travel reward credit card unless I know where I’m going beforehand. Every time I break this rule, I regret it. Traveling with a toddler is not conducive to spontaneity anyway so just make a list of places you want to go and figure out how to get there.
To find flights to your dream destination, you can do a quick search on Google Flights or look up the airport at your destination on Wikipedia and see which airlines fly there. To find hotels, do the same thing on Kayak or Expedia.
Once you’ve followed these steps, you’ll be ready to pick your first travel reward credit card! It’s a lot of ground work, but, if you start out the right way, it will pay off in the end. Probably on a beach somewhere, with a cocktail and a view of the sunset.