How to Travel for Free: Credit Cards, Travel Rewards and Cashback Portals
There are plenty of ways to travel on a tight budget if you’re young and single. We’ve all heard those tips: hitchhiking, couch surfing, staying in hostels or bartending at night while you surf during the day. And they’re great tips if they fit your lifestyle. But I’m not young anymore. I’m married with a child who needs 3 square meals a day and a quiet place to sleep.
So instead of trimming our budget I use travel rewards to go where we want but for less money. If I’m extremely diligent then one vacation can pay for the next. In most cases, though, it’s a “Buy 3 Vacations, Get 1 Free” deal.
This three-part series includes a variety of ways you can save enough money and/or rewards to travel for free. The final post will also include a few scenarios of how you can get a vacation for next to nothing.
Credit cards that offer travel rewards are by far the easiest way to vacation for free. Well-timed sign up bonuses can earn you a free round trip ticket or a few nights at a beach resort. Credit cards are also an essential part of my travels because they’re my preferred method of payment.
The secret to maximizing reward earnings is to use credit cards to pay your monthly bills and everyday spending. You have to pay these bills anyway so why not earn rewards at the same time? Just make sure you pay the cards off every month. If you can’t pay off your credit card every month then you shouldn’t sign up for one, at least until you’re able to control your spending.
We use our credit cards to pay all of our monthly bills except our mortgage. The monthly expenses that we charge add up to about $1,400, making it easy to sign up for credit cards that require a $3,000 spend to earn their sign up bonus.
If you have a hard time finding $1,000 per month in regular expenses then consider timing large purchases around a new credit card application. Car and home maintenance, medical bills, taxes and insurance are hefty expenses that we all face. If you know you’ll need new tires for your car then start shopping for a credit card now and use that purchase to reach the sign up bonus more easily.
Frequently signing up for credit cards in order to reap the benefits of a sign up bonus is known as credit card churning. Some experienced travelers churn credit cards every 3 months, even signing up for multiple cards at a time. Brandon and I only sign up for 1 card per year, cancelling one old card to balance it out.
The Citi Premier and the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express are our newest credit card additions. The Citi Premier offers 50,000 ThankYou points when we spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. Those ThankYou points can convert to miles with Citi’s travel partners such as Air France and Virgin Atlantic. The SPG card offers 30,000 points for spending $3,000 in the first 3 months, enough for 8 nights in their Category 2 hotels. Or you can transfer those points into miles with KLM and earn 5,000 bonus miles for every 20,000 miles you transfer.
Travel Reward Programs
Travel reward programs are another excellent way to travel for free and I’m not just talking about frequent flier miles. There are reward programs for almost every type of travel: hotels, airlines, third party booking sites like Expedia, airport parking, etc. I flew out of the Boston Logan Airport a dozen times before realizing that many of the offsite airport parking companies offer reward programs. During our recent trip to Europe I earned 500 American AAdvantage miles as well as one free night of parking with PreFlight Airport Parking. Their daily rates were considerably cheaper than parking at the airport, further increasing my savings. Park ‘N Fly has a similar rewards program that will get you free airport parking.
You should always sign up for a rewards program before booking a flight or hotel, even if you don’t plan to use that brand again. We each earned 7,800 miles through IcelandAir for our flight to Europe. I had no plans to fly with them again so before the miles expired I exchanged them for $60 in Amazon.com giftcards through a website called Points.com. It wasn’t a great exchange rate but it was better than letting them go to waste…or not having earned them at all!
Points.com also lets you exchange points and miles in different programs. For example, you can convert your IHG hotel points into Amtrak Rewards. Just be sure your rewards program doesn’t already have a partnership with the company you’re looking to transfer to.
To make things easier to track I keep an Excel spreadsheet of all my reward programs and their current balances. AwardWallet is a website that does the same thing automatically but I prefer doing it myself with my little spreadsheet. To each his own!
Cashback portals are one of my favorite ways to earn free money. A cashback portal is a special link you use to make an online purchase. For example, say you want to purchase a $50 shirt at Kohls.com. Instead of typing “kohls.com” directly into your browser you would visit a website such as Ebates. A quick search shows that Kohl’s is offering 3% cashback. Use the Ebates link which will take you to the Kohls.com website and then make your purchase. Now your $50 shirt will earn you $1.50 in cash back.
A great website I use to compare various portal offers is Cashback Monitor. It shows all known cashback offers for a particular store so you can compare the best ones. Beware, however, that not all of the cashback websites are that great. Some are bad at tracking your purchases or take months to credit your money. I read reviews on each cashback website before signing up for a new account and usually stick with using the same 3-4 websites, even if there’s a better offer out there. BeFrugal is one of the cashback portals that has the best offers but can take a while to credit. I made a purchase on Amazon.com that won’t get credited to my account for 3 months. Ebates, on the other hand, credits immediately but only pays out its Big Fat Checks once a quarter. I’ve been finding more and more, however, that BeFrugal offers better cashback rates that Ebates so I’ve slowly begun switching to them.
Good to Know: Most cashback portals won’t award credit if you use a promo code that isn’t listed on their own site. Ebates is one of the few exceptions.
Many airline rewards programs have shopping portals too. Instead of getting cash back, however, you’ll receive airline miles when you shop online. This is great for earning those last few hundred miles for an award ticket and often they will also have special offers on top of the miles you’ll earn. Last month I took advantage of a great back-to-school offer from American Airlines and earned an extra 1,250 miles. Delta, United and Southwest ran similar promotions. If you need to make large purchases then I recommend waiting for a promotion like this to earn extra miles.
Using a combination of credit cards, rewards programs, cashback portals and coupon codes is known as travel hacking. I personally hate the term. It implies some sort of illegal activity, cheating the system to pay less than what is owed. Really it’s just smart shopping. When I wrote this post about saving over $200 on my Disney resort hotel I was travel hacking, but on a small scale.
There’s a fine moral line with travel hacking though. Sometimes airlines make mistakes and it’s an opportunity for travel hackers to capitalize on that, gaming the system to get a flight that they shouldn’t have access to. In February 2015 United posted an error fare for first-class flights leaving the UK. However, in order to get the incredibly low $50 flight you had to set your profile location to Denmark. Many Americans tricked the system, purchased these tickets and then complained when United refused to honor the fares. If you choose to take advantage of error fares keep in mind that some airlines won’t ultimately honor the rates. Wait a few weeks after booking an error fare before you start making other plans, like non-refundable hotel rooms!
Click here for Part Two where I discuss the lesser used ways of traveling for free such as surveys and sweepstakes. Click here for Part Three where I list 5 different vacations you can take for free using just travel rewards and miles!
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