On a recent first class Emirates flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong, Gilbert Ott showered and enjoyed a multi-course meal with unlimited vintage Dom Perignon champagne in his private suite.
“It was awesome,” he said. “Totally free, even the taxes.”
Current economic conditions — low oil prices, the strong dollar — support wanderlust. In the second quarter of 2016, real spending on travel and tourism surged 4.7% — outpacing the 1.1% growth in gross domestic product, according to the government.
But much of this traffic is funded through reward travel earned with credit cards point programs. Ott alone has used the strategy to visitRio de Janeiro, London, Pisa, Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Mexico City, Puerto Rico and San Francisco.
Every travel card offers a different mix of benefits and costs, but with the right collection, you too can jet set on the cheap.
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Step 1: Know thy travel credit card types
If you’re faithful to a particular airline, hotel or cruise firm, your best bet is an affiliated card. Spending translates into points with the company’s loyalty or frequent flyer program. Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa holders get certificates for two weekend Hilton hotel stays after reaching a minimum spend threshold and then continue accruing toward more rewards with the company. Co-branded card users can also access perks such as room and cabin upgrades, WiFi, lounge membership and more. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card with Chase features bookings with no blackout dates, two free checked bags and non-expiring points.
Travelers who value flexibility above luxury like these cards. Accrued rewards go toward paying off any travel charge on the card statement, such as flights, hotels, even Uber rides. And Capital One’s VentureOne card and the BarclayCard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard both offer hundreds of dollars of travel credit for users who hit a minimum spend.
Bank cards with transferable points
This hybrid option offers points redemption through a group of partner travel companies and, often, the chance to accrue extra points by spending within rotating categories. Travel blogger Lee Abbamonte recently went to Mauritius using airline points earned through his Starwood Preferred American Express card, which allows transfers to more than 30 frequent flyer programs. He also stayed at the St. Regis resort for free.
Ott uses a mix of six co-branded and bank cards. “I don’t overdo it,” he said. “I like my bank cards for long-time earning and exceptional travel benefits, but I rotate my co-branded cards to take on large stockpiles of airline miles or hotel points each year.”
Step 2: Find the right rewards program for your lifestyle
Many rewards programs use “points,” “miles” or “cash back” systems as an arbitrary gauge for calculating rewards..
Ideally, find a card that offers a ratio greater than 1:1 of dollars spent to points or miles earned. The Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card coughs up five points for every dollar spent at a Marriott location, with a smaller yield elsewhere.
And remember that a card’s value also rests in non-point benefits, such as trip cancellation insurance and concierge services.
Step 3: Don’t forget to consider signup bonuses, minimums and fees
Most travel cardholders must meet a minimum spend requirement — frequently thousands of dollars in a few months. Only then do rewards and a sign-up bonus (usually 25,000 points or more) kick in.
And many rewards programs charge an annual fee after the first year. But the perks, services and protection included often far exceed the cost.
Take the new Chase Sapphire Reserve card. It comes with 100,000 bonus points after the $4,000 minimum spend, a $300 annual travel credit, complimentary Priority Pass Select lounge membership and a $100 application fee credit for the Global Entry or TSA PreCheck programs. It doesn’t charge the standard 3 percent foreign transaction processing fee.
“You’re getting a ridiculous value, and it essentially cancels out the $450 annual fee,” Abbamonte said.
Can rewards be shared?
Some cardholders are allowed to add authorized users to their accounts or invite guests to piggyback on benefits such as airport lounge access.
Travelers with multiple Chase cards can move Ultimate Rewards points from card to card or to a Chase-using spouse. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card includes discounted companion fares.
Are the rewards consistent?
Not all points are created — or stay — equal over time. Delta, Southwest and United have all devalued their reward currency recently. And in many programs, points can only be redeemed for travel within a certain period before they expire.
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Step 4: Get your timing right
Ott suggests jumping on cards when they debut. “When they’re pushing a new card to market, they offer almost unsustainably good terms to lure people in,” he said. “Those who get in early get to keep those terms, whereas later-to-the-game sign-ups may not have the same benefits that were initially offered, or the sign-up bonus!”
And keep restrictions in mind: In what is known as the 5/24 rule, Chase rejects applicants who have opened five or more bank card accounts in the past 24 months. American Express limits cardholders to a single sign-up bonus per lifetime on personal cards.
But it doesn’t hurt to call the card company and ask for a customized plan, such as double points in certain spending categories or several more years of waived annual fees. Just remember that sign-ups over the phone or online sometimes bear different bonuses.
SuperMoney has a free credit card search engine to help you find the best travel card for you. Check it out!