Air · Saving and Money

Beginner’s Guide for Using Credit Card Points to Travel

*All the information below comes from personal experience. This post is not sponsored, I am not receiving any payment or compensation for this post in any way. I am committed to only recommending practices that actually work. I will never recommend anything to you that I wouldn’t do myself!

I have news for you: if you’re using a debit card or a credit card with no points or rewards system, you’re leaving money, experiences, gift cards, and more on the table! My sweet husband Steve has the credit card game down pat. He has over a dozen credit cards with various cash back or rewards programs, spread sheets to keep everything organized, a “cheat sheet” every quarter to help us (mostly me!) remember which card to use for every situation (5% cash back on groceries with Citi, 3% cash back on restaurants, 10x points on hotels.com with the CapitalOne Venture card, etc.).

Earn the points, take the trip! We used points to go to Verona, Italy, then earned more points while we stayed there!

We have done so much with points over the years, including thousands of dollars in cash back rewards, thousands of dollars in reimbursed travel expenses, and FREE hotel rooms all over the world! Last year I spent two nights at the only five-star hotel in Downtown D.C. using points I accumulated with my credit card! And I’m here to tell you the secrets of how get started.

This epic hotel in D.C. is the only five-star downtown! And I stayed here for FREE.

Essential Credit Card Reward Info

Just so we’re all on the same page and speaking the same language, here are some quick facts to know about earning and redeeming points:

The #1 Thing to Know About Credit Cards: Pay it off ASAP

If you pay for anything with a credit card, pay the credit card off, in full, every month. People villanize and fear credit cards because of the potential for insurmountable debt. But if you pay your credit card in full every month (or more often if you like), you will not accumulate debt—you’ll accumulate points! Rule of thumb: if you can’t afford to pay your credit card bill, you can’t afford to pay with your credit card.

Franny and Ferdinand Turtle agree… you get to go on more adventures when you’re debt-free!
Fees

Another big mistake people make with credit cards: disregarding the fees, hidden and not-so-hidden!

Annual Fees

A note about annual credit card fees: I do not recommend cards with fees. Lots of people swear by credit cards like Chase Sapphire Reserve (recently increased to $550 per year), CapitalOne Venture ($95 per year), or the American Express Card ($95 per year). If you choose a card with fees, you will usually accumulate points more quickly. For instance, the CapitalOne Venture card will cost $95 per year, but you’ll accrue two points per dollar spent; the CapitalOne VentureOne card has no fee, but I only accrue 1.5 points per dollar spent. Always know what your options are, and choose what works best for you!

International Fees

International fees are becoming a thing of the past with many credit card companies, but always check the fine print, and ask this question if you talk to a company representative: “Does this card have international fees?” International fees apply when you use your card in another country. A 3% (or more) fee every time you use your card may not seem like much, but trust me, it will add up quickly! Make sure you get a card with no international fees.

Credit card fees can multiply like tulips in Holland.
Cash Back, Gift Cards, and Rewards:

The points you earn with a credit card can translate into cash back, gift cards, or rewards.

Cash Back

This is my husband’s favorite way to redeem points! Many credit cards offer cash back on purchases. Some cards, like CapitalOne QuickSilver, always give cash back (1.5%) on every purchase. Other cards off cash back on different types of purchases each quarter. For instance, a Citi card may offer 3% cash back on gas from January-March, then 5% on restaurants from April-June, then 2% on groceries from July-September, and 5% on Amazon purchases from October-December!

Do you dine out often? Make sure you pay with a card that gives back!
Gift Cards

Alternatively, some cards will give you a choice of cash back or a gift card to redeem points. Read the rules of redemption carefully on this. While it may be tempting to just get the cash, you may actually be leaving money on the table. For example, I use the CapitalOne VentureOne card, and I have been exceptionally satisfied with it! I get 1.5 points per dollar spent, and so let’s assume I have 500 points. However, when I click to redeem my points, I can choose a $50 gift card from a vast list of choices (Starbucks, Amazon, Bed Bath and Beyond, Hotels.com, Uber, etc.), or I can get a check for $25. The gift card is better! So just make sure you know all your options first.

Rewards

Using points for rewards is my favorite option. Using the CapitalOne VentureOne card, I earn points by using the card to make purchases. And then I can use my accumulated points to pay off travel-related expenses. It’s kind of like double dipping! To me, this is better than using airline miles to buy flights in particular, because when you use airline miles, you still have to pay for the taxes outright. With purchase reimbursement from your credit card, the taxes can be covered with your points!

Flights are so much more fun when they’re free!

Getting the Most Out of Your Points

Now we’re down to the best part: making the most of it! Save up those points, keep track of the deals that come across to earn extra points, make sure you’re spending wisely, and think big about how you want to use the points.

Save Up

Don’t jump the gun and redeem your points for a $10 gift card as soon as you reach 1000 points. Let them accumulate! I’ve been hoarding points for about 10 months now, and I already have almost 120,000! Be patient for a big payoff.

Keep Track

Make a spreadsheet if you need to. Check your account online daily if you need to so you can make sure all your points come in and that they’re not set to expire (points usually do not expire, but read that fine print just to make sure). Keep track of the deals as they come. Some deals have a maximum spend (i.e. 5% cash back up to $1500 within a designated timeframe), so make the most of it by spending up to, but not above, that number. Do whatever will help you keep track of your money and points.

Spend Wisely

In all of this points accumulation, don’t lose sight of what’s important: saving your money so you can travel more. Don’t buy things you don’t need. Don’t spend more money than you usually would just because there are extra points up for grabs—that completely defeats the purpose!

However, if you’re going to spend money anyway, make sure you’re spending it in a way that gets you closer to your goals. For instance, CapitalOne Venture and VentureOne cards have had a MAJOR deal going with Hotels.com from December 2018 until January 2020, allowing VentureOne cardholders to earn 10x the points. So, for every dollar spent, I got 10 points for booking on Hotels.com and my usual 1.5 points for booking with the VentureOne card. That’s 11.5 points her dollar! So, every time we traveled during that time period, we booked using my VentureOne card directly on Hotels.com. We consciously chose to book with Hotels.com instead of directly with a hotel or a different third-party site. The points came rolling in quickly!

Our anniversary trip was made more special at the Royal Hawaiian—-and we earned 11.5 points per dollar to boot!
Think Big

Remember that 120,000 points I mentioned (and counting)? I’m planning to use those points to take my parents on a 40th anniversary trip this year! I’ll buy the plane tickets and book the accommodation (so I get points for spending the money), then use the reimbursement reward feature with CapitalOne VentureOne and reimburse myself for those costs!

Above and Beyond

There is so much to know about points, and every company and category seems to have its own rules! The best points blogging conglomerate is definitely The Points Guy. He and his team keep up with everything! Give them a follow on Facebook, Instagram, and on their newsletter!

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2 thoughts on “Beginner’s Guide for Using Credit Card Points to Travel

  1. I have a Chase Amazon Prime Rewards card. I always get 5% on all Amazon purchases, 2% on gas, drugstores, and restaurants, and 1% on everything else. Those points I mainly use on Amazon purchases – which can save some serious money, be it on a giant lump-sum, or merely paying off the taxes or shipping charges.

    However, I can also transfer those points for cashback (where 1 point = $0.01) or gift cards (mostly restaurants, but there are a couple offers for Regal Theaters or stores).

    Plus Chase offers cash back rewards with certain restaurants or services, but you need to choose those on the app.

    Relevant to this post, they have recently dropped international currency transfer fees, and in the past they offered a sizable percentage if used for travel, but my memory’s fuzzy on the details.

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