This post may contain affiliate links. Read our disclosure here.
As you read this I am packing my bags to head off tomorrow to Scotland! I surprised my husband and “gave” him a trip to Scotland for Christmas (and his birthday, our anniversary, my birthday…). I say it was a gift, but in reality the gift was from grandmothers being willing to watch our kids! We are traveling on points for every aspect of our trip! So while it sounds like we are living the high life, in reality for a 8 night trip we’ve paid less than $500 total for the flights, a week long car rental, and all our hotel rooms! Here’s how you can go anywhere in the world and travel on points.
Before I breakdown all our tips, let me share that we’ve been saving up points for a while. This doesn’t happen in one month, it’s at least a 3 month process to get the airline miles but more realistically will take 6-12 months.
First let’s talk points.
How to Earn More Points
Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses
You may be anti-credit card, but you won’t be flying anywhere for free without one. There are some great sign up bonuses for credit cards right now that offer enough points for a round trip ticket anywhere in the world! Search out the best ones for you based on the airlines that serve your normal airport and current bonus offers. Two cards I would recommend are the Chase Sapphire and the United Airlines cards. Together those two would give you 90,000 points/miles!
Note: You don’t want to get two new cards at the same time. The bonus offers are usually based on you making a certain purchase requirement in the first 3 months. Having to hit that amount across two cards would be tricky!
What to Look For In A Card:
1. Bonus offer for signing up.
2. Does it have an annual fee? Not all are bad, some give great perks that are well above the cost of the fee. In general though look for one without a fee.
3. How many points do you earn for everyday purchases. Typically it’s higher for certain categories so aim for one that gives higher points on things you regularly buy!
4. How easy is it to use the points? Can they be transferred to multiple airlines, hotels etc., or are they only good with one program?
Be Loyal to One Rewards Program
When it comes to travel it really pays to be loyal. I’ve shared with you a lot over the years that we are brand loyal to Marriott. It started years ago when we discovered the joy of 2 bedroom rooms at the Residence Inn, then we got their credit card (also years ago) and achieved Platinum lifetime status (renamed Titanium Elite last week). While we could have easily switched between hotels, staying loyal helped us achieve rank. That’s half the equation! The higher the rank you earn in any rewards program, airline or hotel, the faster you earn points! If I stay at a Marriott I earn 75% more points than regular members with each stay because I’m Titanium Elite. I also earn 6X points on every dollar spent because I pay with my Marriott credit card.
For Airlines: While the same advice holds true, also consider being loyal to one Alliance. When earning points across multiple airlines, if they are in the same Alliance you can transfer points from one to another to get enough to cover a trip. It won’t help you achieve rank, but does help pay for the trip.
For Car Rentals: Most car rental companies have agreements with other large hotel chains and/or airlines. For example our Marriott rank gives increased Hertz points of up to 2,000 points on one rental. It only takes 2800 points for a free weekly rental in Europe!
Join Dining Out Rewards
Most of the major airline programs also offer a free dining rewards program. Search for the one associated with your airline and register with them. You link your credit card and earn extra airline miles every time you eat out. You will also still earn miles from the credit card too. Many offer sign up bonuses of up to 3,000 miles when you first join their program.
Maximize Your Purchases
If you have a large purchase coming up, try to pay on a credit card to earn miles and then immediately pay it off. We actually make ALL of our regular purchases on credit and don’t even carry debit cards. While that decision was mostly due to keeping our money safe, it is really paid off with points!
One big example: This past year when taxes were due in December on our cars and house (yes all in the same month) we signed up for a Chase Sapphire card and paid the taxes with the new credit card. Not only did we earn the 50,000 bonus points we also earned another 4,000 points just from the purchases. That covers one plane ticket completely! While I don’t like property taxes, at least I get to go on vacation thanks to them.
Travel on Points
Off Season And Off Peak
Traveling in the off season will save you a ton of money on everything, but it also will save you a ton of points! The difference can be massive for airline tickets. For a round trip ticket from the US to Europe off season and off peak is 45,000 points on American. The same trip during main travel seasons and peak times/days would be 130,000 points! Since the goal is to probably not travel alone and to hopefully go on more than one trip, you want to use your points wisely.
This same advice also applies to hotels, though their rewards don’t vary quite as much as airlines. You will find rooms can be 50% less points during the off season and also tend to be less points on the weekends in major cities. Coming from a family that only travels during the off season, I promise you’ll love it.
Always Get Open Jaw Tickets
This is probably one you’ve never heard of before. When booking award travel on airlines you don’t actually book a “round trip”. Because trips are the same price and not a discounted round trip ticket you can take full advantage of the airlines “open jaw” policy. This means that you don’t arrive and depart from the same airport or even the same city. There are no added points for this, and it means you get to see more of the region. For our trip we are arriving into Edinburgh and departing from Glasgow. A super tiny open jaw, but it meant we didn’t need to retrace any steps.
Note: The only rule here is that your arrival and departure cities must be in the same region. All of the US is a region, all of Europe etc. So you can fly from the US to London and then depart from Paris for your ticket home. If your first thought is how will get from London to Paris, it’s time to travel abroad where going from one city to another is much easier (and cheaper) than Americans are used to! To answer your question, it’s a 2 hour and 15 minute train ride that runs maybe $60 or less depending on the train you take.
Think Differently About Layovers
Rather than avoiding layovers, a points traveler should embrace them and plan them into your trip. For international flights (outside the same region) a layover can be any stop that is up to 24 hours long. Think about that… I could book a ticket from Atlanta GA with a layover in London for 23 hours and then continue on to Germany. Using the open jaw tip above you could come home from Milan, Italy with a 23 hour layover in Madrid, Spain. You just visited 4 different countries on one points trip! Total extra cost, $60 for the train ticket from Munich to Milan. Sleep on the plane…
Note: If you aren’t paying with points then research whether your airline allows stopovers. Many only charge a small fee and your layover can now be a lot longer than 23 hours! For points tickets this won’t work as your next leg would be another trip.
Search All Local Airports to Save on Taxes
One thing the airline never mentions about award travel is that you’ll alway owe the tax and airport fees. The same can be true for hotels but many of their taxes are based on the rate of the room so you will owe nothing. Depending on the airport, there are some hefty fees the airlines have to pay to land and local taxes. Before just accepting that, enter a few different airports in and see if the taxes and fees are less. For us it meant total taxes of $75 a ticket versus $150 a ticket by picking another airport within a short drive from the house.
Tip: The airport you land at will also have taxes. You can always try searching for different airports at your destination too!
Consider Booking Hotels Last Minute
While airports never discount award travel, we do see hotels reduce points needed to reserve last minute rooms. This will only be helpful if you are following the first key rule of traveling during off season, but can mean a discount of 10,000 or more points! Do not try this tip during peak seasons as you’ll end up paying out of pocket for your room when there are no more award rooms left.
Skip Posh & Go Free Breakfast
This is our personal tip and one we are using heavily on our trip this week! Since our main out of pocket cost will be food, always select the hotel that offers a free breakfast over the fancy hotel with no breakfast! Not paying for one meal every day of the trip (times two people) can be a huge extra savings. Since you are just sleeping in your room, it doesn’t need to be fit for the queen, just comfortable, warm and quiet. If you haven’t learned this yet, the cheaper the hotel the more free things they throw in.
Save on Attractions
While there are no points that can help you get into attractions for free, there are always discounts! My favorite is CityPass for cities in the US (and Toronto) as they include all of the big places you want to go. You’ll find other discount bundles too, just make sure it includes places that you want to see and that places listed are already free or super cheap (not to name names but one of the big ones is known for this in the DC & New York areas).
Internationally check with the tourist department for the country or city you are visiting. You’ll find most historic properties are managed by just a few trusts/organizations and they offer passes that get entry into all locations. There are other discount bundles too, but the tourist office is the best choice for making sure you buy a legitimate package.
Have you made a free trip traveling on points? I’d love to hear any other tips you have on earning and redeeming points!