In order for my family to travel and explore as much as we do, we have to find reasonably priced transportation and lodging. That was a struggle until I started researching and discovered a wealth of information on the internet. Here’s the back story of how I got started with all this, if you’re interested.
The way most people know how to travel inexpensively is by signing up for a specific rewards program and earning points by paying for a flight or hotel room with those companies; however, it can take years before you acquire enough points for even a single flight or one night in a hotel!
That’s where my research started to pay off. The best way to quickly earn enough points for an individual ticket or stay, much less a trip for a family of five, is to spend money like you normally do in daily life but be a bit more strategic about it by using certain credit cards.
Here’s the broad overview of how it works: Some credit cards have large bonuses attached to them after meeting a minimum spend requirement when you first sign up for them. That’s a quick way to earn a couple of round trip tickets right out of the gate, but the other part of the equation is using them for everyday expenses to accumulate even more free travel.
So what cards have we used and which ones do I recommend to others? Before we start looking at those, here are a few pointers you need to know:
- Always, always, always pay your credit cards off in full at the end of each billing cycle or don’t use credit cards at all. I can’t overemphasize this point enough. If you’re paying interest on a credit card right now, this isn’t a system you should implement in your life until you’ve paid them off.
- Check and make sure your credit score is good before applying for credit cards. If you have a decent credit history and have made payments on time, you’re likely in good shape, but it’s always good to check. Credit Sesame is a great place to check it for free and without it impacting your score.
- Charge everything you can with your cards (assuming you pay them off in full each month!). That includes the $1 bottle of water at the gas station as well as the $100 suitcase you need for the first trip you plan with points! 🙂
- It’s perfectly “legal” to use a credit card for awhile and eventually cancel it, then sign up for a new one of a different brand. And no, it won’t hurt your credit score to do so. We cycle through various cards every year or so and both of our credit scores are near the very top of the “excellent” range, if you need more convincing.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to what I recommend for free airfare (and hotel recommendations are coming soon):
Credit Cards We Use for Free Airfare
There are lots of credit cards that acquire points for free air travel. Which one serves you best ultimately depends on where you’d like to travel, which airlines you like to fly, etc. What I recommend is based on what has served our travel needs well. The Chase family of cards has been the most valuable for my family because of their flexibility with how their points can be used. Here’s a broad overview of their rewards program:
- Their reward program is called Ultimate Rewards.
- There are multiple ways to use Ultimate Reward points, but for my family, transferring the points from Ultimate Reward to some of their airline partners has worked out to be the most beneficial for us.
For example, when we went to the U.K., we used them to travel from Asheville to London on United Airlines. We had to pay taxes on the tickets, but that was it! I priced these tickets out before reserving them with points and they would have cost over $1000 each! $5000 for airfare alone just isn’t happening for our family, so these points were invaluable to walking the West Highland Way.
Southwest is far and away our favorite domestic airline, and Ultimate Reward points can be transferred and converted into Rapid Reward points (the Southwest point system’s name). Southwest is not only known for their friendly and often comical employees/flight crews, but they also offer the following perks for any of their customers, whether you pay with points or dollars for a flight:
- Two free checked bags per customer (plus one free carry one and personal item). This is a huge benefit since most other airlines charge for checked luggage. Check out this info from their website regarding other airline’s baggage fees in comparison.
- No fees to change your flight. Another huge perk since it varies wildly with other airlines, but it’s never cheap! If you need to change your travel times or dates, there are no fees associated with doing so.
- In addition to not charging to change your flight, if a lower priced flight is available, you may rebook it at the lower price (when I refer to “price,” it relates to either dollars or points, depending on what you booked your ticket with). Southwest points vary per flight, based on the current price in dollars, so it often pays to look at the price you paid in points (or dollars) before your trip. If they run a sale, which happens frequently, and the price of your fare decreases, you may rebook it at the new and reduced price. Seriously, it still blows my mind that they allow customers to do this! If you book with points, they are refunded back to your account. If you books with cash, it varies depending on the type of ticket you purchase, but at a minimum, you’ll get a full refund in the form of a travel voucher.
- Southwest offer three different types of fares that you can learn more about here, but in short, we use “Wanna Get Away” fares since they require the least amount of points. Wanna Get Away fares offer the perks I’ve already written about, while the two other levels take it up a notch with perks that don’t hold much value to us as a family.
- Southwest has an extensive domestic flight schedule but they also offer flights to various places in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America (and likely Hawaii and Canada in the not-so-distant future). Larry and I took a flight on points to Mexico once for less than the cost of a domestic ticket on points through other airlines!
- If you book a flight with points, you may cancel it up to 10 minutes before the flight leaves, and the points are deposited back into your account! If you book with cash, you may still obtain a refund in the form of a travel voucher that can be used over the next year (assuming you purchased the ticket as a “Wanna Get Away” fare like I mention above–the more expensive tiered tickets can be refunded with the original payment method).
There is a specific Southwest branded credit card that Chase offers, and it is definitely one we apply for every couple of years to help us obtain their Companion Pass status, which allows someone to fly with you at no charge (other than a 9/11 Security Fee of $5.60 per ticket) as long as you have this status, for up to two years. It’s a bit more involved to get the Companion Pass, so I won’t focus on that specific card here, since it’s not necessarily my first pick for everyday use. But look for future info about it soon in a different post!
So let’s get to it–what do we use on a regular basis and why? First in the line up is one of our favorites, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card:
Chase Sapphire Preferred
This card offers the following perks:
- A generous sign up bonus with minimum spend. Currently, it offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards if you spend $4000 within 3 months of opening the card
- The annual fee ($95) is waived the first year. In other words, you don’t necessarily ever have to pay an annual fee, if you cancel it before the first year ends. However, and this is really important, if you cancel the card and haven’t used or transferred your Ultimate Rewards points, they disappear like bad magic! Don’t ask me how I know that…rookie mistake back when I started doing all this.
- 2 Ultimate Reward points per dollar spent on travel and dining purchases.
- No foreign transaction fees (which is great if you’re traveling internationally)
- Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver
- Trip Cancellation / Trip Interruption Insurance
- Travel and Emergency Assistance Service
- Extended Warranty Protection
- Purchase Protection
Chase Freedom Credit Card
The Chase Freedom card works a little differently but is a great one for people dipping their toes in the water of reduced cost travel, but not quite ready to take the full plunge yet! Here’s what you get with it:
- While you receive Ultimate Reward points for spending money with this card, they cannot be transferred to Chase airline partners unless you have another Chase card like the Sapphire Preferred that you can transfer them to first (which is what we do since we get far more value out of our points that way). If you don’t have another Chase card, you can redeem the Ultimate Rewards earned for cash, gift cards, and even travel through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal. But for my family, we always transfer the Ultimate Rewards earned on this card to our Sapphire account, since it provides a better value for us, usually.
- 1% cash back bonus for each dollar spent (or 1 point/dollar if you convert them to points, assuming you have an Ultimate Rewards earning card).
- Chase offers a quarterly 5% bonus on certain categories of spending of up to $1500 in combined purchases of these specific categories. The categories range from grocery stores to gas to restaurants to Amazon. In other words, it’s usually stuff you’re spending money on anyway.
- $150 sign up bonus after you spend $500 in the first 3 months of opening the card, so it’s not as generous as the Chase Sapphire sign up bonus, but it’s still pretty darn good, especially if you’d rather have cash rewards instead of points.
- No annual fee, so I keep it year after year, versus cancelling it and reapplying for it in the future.
Chase Ink Business Preferred
One other card to mention is the Chase Ink Business Preferred. I have owned this card for several years and I use it for my baking business purchases. If you own a business and want to put another card in your wallet for that purpose (and more points to boot!), this is a great one. The perks are slightly different from the other two cards I’ve mentioned:
- 80,000 point sign up bonus after spending $5000 within 3 months of opening the account.
- Earn 3 points per $1 on the first $150,000 spent in combined purchases on travel, shipping purchases, Internet, cable and phone services, and on advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines each account anniversary year.
- Earn unlimited 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
- Points are worth 25% more when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal;however, I usually find it to be a better value to redeem these points with their partner airlines directly, after transferring them to their program.
- $95 annual fee, but I keep it year after year, since I use it for my business, versus cancelling it and reapplying for it in the future (which is perfectly acceptable and legal, by the way, once you wait the required interval per the Chase or whatever company you’re reapplying to).
Feel free to reach out to me if you have specific questions, as I’m happy to help!
**In the interest of full disclosure, I do receive a small points bonus for referring you to certain cards I post. That being said, I’ll only recommend what we’ve used (or plan to use soon). Also, I will only post the best offer currently available for a specific card, even if it means it’s through a different link than what I would earn a few points on. The primary focus of my blog is to help people, so it would be disingenuous for me to lead you to an inferior product or something that I wouldn’t use personally. That’s just not the way I roll. 🙂