About a year ago, I started to get really serious about strategically using credit cards to enhance our travel experiences and reduce our travel costs (aka travel hacking). So far it’s been a mostly great experience, and I wanted to give a recap of one year of travel credit cards. This is both for myself and because I feel like there is so much information out there that it can be hard to parse out what someone’s strategy actually looks like.
So here is our year of using travel credit cards + points, including the cards we opened and the way we’ve used (and plan to use) those points.
How Can Travel Credit Cards Actually Help?
I mean…doesn’t it take forever for those points to add up?
Not if you regularly open new cards to get the sign up bonuses!
For instance, the first travel credit card I opened (not counting the ones we already had, which we’ll get to in a minute) was the Chase Sapphire Preferred. At the time, the sign up bonus for this was 100,000 points. Then I got additional points for spending, and additional points for referring a couple of family members. By the time we were ready to book our Scandinavia airline tickets, I had about 150,000 points.
We purchased airline tickets through AirFrance for a total of 145,000 points + $400 for all three of us to fly to Copenhagen and then back to the US from Oslo.
And this is just one example. We’ve been able to do so much more too!
Travel Hacking Caveats
If you want to use travel credit cards there are a couple of REALLY important things to keep in mind.
First of all, ALWAYS pay off your bill in full each month. If you carry a balance and are charged interest, then traveling on points is not going to be beneficial. The best way to do this is probably to set up automatic payments. (I don’t actually do this though, because I pay off our cards in chunks based on spending categories. This is more time consuming, but it just helps me with budgeting.)
Second of all, make sure you don’t open too many cards at once. You want to wait a couple months between cards so it doesn’t hurt your credit score and so you don’t run the risk of being rejected for the cards you want.
Third of all, make sure you can meet the minimum spend. Some of them have pretty high thresholds to get the bonus points, and some are lower. When we get a new card we put everything on it: groceries, gas, going out to eat, utilities, donations, etc. Then, if we get a card with a higher spending threshold, I try to make sure I know something bigger is coming up in those months (i.e. paying for a trip or a big new household purchase).
Also, just a note: if you always thought (like I did) that too many credit cards is bad for your credit score, it’s really not as long as you are responsible with them. We still have really high credit scores despite opening several cards this year.
There are a lot of other details to know if you want to get into travel credit cards. If you really want to learn more, I recommend a couple of sites that have really helped me (I especially love these sites because they are all moms trying to travel with families and not just focused on getting those business class tickets you see from some outlets all the time):
Travel Credit Cards We Already Had
Ok, first let’s spell out the cards we already had before I got serious about this.
First of all, we had the Delta Gold card. My husband travels a decent amount for work, so opening this card a few years ago was a no brainer.
We also had the Hilton Surpass card. Again, with work travel my husband has generally stayed in Hiltons. We used to have the lower tier card, but ended up upgrading it at some point.
So we also had a stash of points built up from these that has helped with some of our travel in the past year.
Cards We Opened + How We Used the Points
So let’s break down the cards we got in the past year, how many points we got, and how we have used (or plan to use) those points.
Note: You’ll find referral links in this post. This means that if you open a card using one of these links, I may get bonus points. The number of referrals I can get per card is limited though.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Like I mentioned, the first card I opened when I really got serious about this was the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
This is far and away the card everyone will recommend to you if you want to get started earning travel points. Not only are the bonuses great, you can also transfer points to so many different airlines and hotel brands. The card also comes with built-in travel insurance.
I signed-up when the bonus was 100,000 points, and through spending and referrals had enough points to pay for our flights to Scandinavia this summer. The annual fee is $95, but considering the transfer options and the travel insurance, this is well worth it.
After I got the bonus on this one, I referred Gerrit to it (this strategy is often known as having a Player 2). So I got the referral bonus and he got another set of points (this time at 75,000). We haven’t used these points yet, but I’m planning to book a Hyatt near Disneyland next summer for a girls trip with my daughter, my mom, and my aunt (because Chase points transfer to Hyatt!).
Chase World of Hyatt Card
Last fall, I opened the World of Hyatt card. Everyone raves about the Hyatt brand, and knowing they have some great properties in some desirable locations and very competitive point rates, I wanted to get on board.
This card came with a bonus of 30,000 points after spending $3,000 and 30,000 more after spending $15,000 (within 6 months). There are so many Hyatt properties in the 15,000 point range, so this is a great deal. There is an annual fee of $95, but it also comes with one yearly free night, so it’s well worth it.
So far, we have used our points/free nights for:
- Hyatt Place Nashville Airport (before our flights over the summer)
- Thompson Central Park in NYC (we had a long layover in NYC before Scandinavia and this was a luxury!)
- 2 nights at the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico (an upcoming trip this fall)
Delta SkyMiles Reserve (Amex)
Is the Delta SkyMiles Reserve a card I would choose to get if all financial decision were up to me? No. But my husband flies Delta for work a lot, so this was important to him for Skyclub access, point multipliers, and upgrades.
It’s a $550 annual fee (yikes!). But it does come with free Skyclub access for the card holder (aka my husband) and one companion ticket within the continental US per year (after your first year of having the card).
The bummer about the companion ticket is that it is only a one time thing and you have to use it with a ticket purchased with cash (i.e. you can’t pay for a flight with points and use the companion ticket).
The bonus on this card was 80,000 Skymiles. I think we used these mostly for our flights to our cruise out of Miami? But that was awhile ago and I didn’t write it down, so don’t hold me to that. We have definitely used those miles though!
Still TBD on what we are going to use the companion ticket for. Probably a flight for one of our trips we have planned next summer? But you better believe I’m going to figure out how to use that companion ticket with a $550 annual fee!
Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Performance Business Card
Because Gerrit and I both have our own businesses (this for me, and a drone company he runs on the side of his day job) we can both get business cards.
One of my goals was to get us on track to always have a Southwest Companion Pass, and the best way to do this is to get the points by opening both a Business Card and a Personal Card. The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Performance Business Card has an annual fee of $199 and came with a bonus of 80,000 Southwest miles.
Once you have a companion pass, it’s good for the year you earned it plus the entire next year. I earned ours at the beginning of this year, and it will be good through next year. I added Gerrit as my companion and so far, using points and companion pass, we have booked flights to Puerto Rico this fall (just me and Gerrit) and to Utah to go skiing this winter (all 3 of us).
The only bummer here is that we are not actually a Southwest hub in Huntsville. But since Birmingham and Nashville both are, and are both just an hour and a half away, I feel like the short drive is worth it for free flights.
(If you want a guide on getting the Southwest Companion Pass, That Minivan Life has a great primer that I have referred to a lot!)
Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card
This Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card is the Personal Card that put us over the top for getting Companion Pass. Plus it came with 40,000 more miles at a $69 annual fee.
Capital One Venture X
The Capital One Venture X was the HOT card of the Spring, and I almost didn’t get (actually, I didn’t…Gerrit did), but I decided it was quickly going to pay for itself with the benefits.
It’s a $395 annual fee, but it comes with Priority Pass Lounge access in airports for you and two guests, a $300 credit on the Capital One travel portal, and a $100 Global Entry credit. (The Southwest Business Card and the Delta Reserve Card also have Global Entry credits, so we have used them all so we will all have global entry!)
At the time we signed up, it also had a $200 Air BnB credit (this isn’t being offered anymore) and the sign-up bonus was 100,000 miles after spending $10,000 in 6 months (it’s now down to 75,000 miles and a lower spending threshold).
Here’s what we’ve used this card for:
- Used the $200 Air BnB credit (no longer offered) to offset the cost of Air BnBs in Scandinavia.
- Used the $300 Capital One travel credit for a hotel room at the airport in Oslo before we had an early flight.
- Went to a bunch of lounges in airports.
- $100 credit for someone in our family to get Global Entry.
- Offset about $900 of travel purchases with the purchases eraser (this is one way you can use your points!)
Was using the purchase eraser to credit us back for travel purchases the best way to use points? No…it’s not. But the cost of our Scandinavia trip was getting out of hand, so this made the most sense for us at the time.
Plus I know we will be have more Capital One points coming our way as we spend on this card, plus I will probably get one in the coming year as well.
Chase Ink Business Unlimited
Again, being able to get business cards is so amazing for getting more points!
I opened the Chase Ink Business Unlimited card earlier this summer. It has no annual fee and comes with a $750 sign up bonus which can be turned into 75,000 Chase points.
No specific plans on how we are going to use these yet, but I’m thinking we will likely transfer them to Southwest or United to pay for some flights for next summer!
I’m also referring Gerrit to this card as soon as we hit the sign-up bonus!
Where We Went and How We Paid For It
So besides breaking down the cards we have gotten in the past year, let’s break down the trips we took and what part of these trips actually got paid for in points.
- Flights: Paid for with Delta Miles
- San Diego Air BnB: Paid for out of pocket
- Disneyland Hotel: Paid for with Hilton points
- Disneyland Tickets: Paid for out of pocket
- Rental Car: Paid for out of pocket
- Food, Souvenirs, etc.: Paid for out of pocket
Disney World (November 2021)
- Gas to drive: Paid for out of pocket
- Resort Hotel: Paid for out of pocket
- Park Tickets: Paid for out of pocket
Disney Cruise (March 2022)
- Cruise + Extras On Board: Paid for out of pocket
- Flights: Paid for with Delta SkyMiles + vouchers
- Hotel pre-Cruise: Paid for with Hilton points
Scandinavia (plus 24 hours in NYC) (May/June 2022)
- Hotel in Nashville before flight: Paid for with Hyatt points
- Flights to Nashville to NYC and back: Paid for out of pocket + used a Delta credit we had
- Hotel in NYC: Paid for with Hyatt points
- Flight from NYC to Copenhagen: Paid for with AirFrance points (transferred from Chase) plus about $30
- Flight from Oslo to NYC: Paid for with AirFrance points (transferred from Chase) plus about $350
- Flight from Copenhagen to Bergen: Paid for out of pocket
- Air BnBs: Used $200 Air BnB credit, erased $900 worth with Capital One Miles, paid the rest out of pocket
- Activities, trains, food, etc: Paid for out of pocket
Paying for Upcoming Trips
One of the many things to know about using credit card points to travel is that you need to plan WELL in advance. (Which works for me because I love planning in advance.)
Not only do you need time to earn the points and have them credited to your account, you also need to book far enough in advance that award availability doesn’t run out. Many hotels, especially popular ones, limit the amount of award stays they have per night. For instance, for popular Hyatt properties you will want to book as far as 13 months out.
So here’s what we have coming up in the next year and what we’ve booked:
Puerto Rico in October (a belated anniversary trip!). This trip will be almost entirely on points. We used Hilton points and Hyatt points for two different resort stays (we only have to pay one night at the Hilton in cash because we didn’t have enough points). And we are flying Southwest using points and companion pass. We’ll still need to pay for a rental car for at least part of the stay and food of course.
Skiing in Utah in February (for my birthday!). We found a great deal on a ski in/ski out Air BnB which we paid for out of pocket. We have flights books via Southwest points + companion pass. And the rest of the extras (ski rentals, etc.) we’ll pay for out of pocket.
Disney World in June. For this trip we’re paying for most of it out of pocket. We are still TBD on flights, but this might be where we pay for a Delta flight in cash, use the companion ticket we will get, and get a third ticket on points.
Yellowstone and Grand Tetons in June. Instead of our usual beach trip next summer, we’re planning to head out West with my family. We are all sharing the cost of an Air BnB. TBD on flights, but I am hoping to stock up on some United points with a card soon, because I think that is going to be the best option for us.
Disneyland in July. This is a girls trip and I’m treating some family members to it who have never been to Disneyland before. This is another trip that will be almost all on points! We will book two rooms at a Hyatt near Disneyland on points, and use Southwest points + companion pass to fly there. So we’ll just have to pay for our park tickets, food, and extras out of pocket. (We COULD erase using Capital One points, but I think that won’t be the best value for me here.)
Thoughts on Travel Hacking
Here’s the deal. Travel hacking isn’t going to be for everyone. Aside from keeping up with all the cards and bonuses (which, there are definitely apps that help you do that!), it also takes time to find the right award availability, figure out how to combine points, and generally make it work the best it can for you.
Luckily, I enjoy the extra time it takes. I can get super detail oriented and love a good internet research session, so it’s fun for me.
And it has truly changed the way we travel and how much we can travel. You can see from the descriptions above that we are still spending a lot of money on travel. But instead of spending that much money on just one or two trips a year, we are getting to spend it on way more trips. This year may not be the best reflection of how much we could do either, because several of the things we are doing (especially the Disney related things) are just harder to do on points. But even being able to use points for just the flights makes a huge difference.
Just FYI, as I noted at the beginning, some of the links above are referral links (not affiliates because talking about points isn’t my general goal here so I’m not part of an affiliate program). This means that I may get bonus points if you use a link to sign up, but it’s limited to how many I can get.
Really though, I wanted to share this post because when I was first trying to figure out how to start this journey, reading first-hand accounts of what other people have realistically done was so helpful. And I didn’t feel like they were that easy to find! I mean, how may points can you get in the first year? Where can you actually use those points? What cards should you get in your first year? After lots of research, this is where we landed and I just wanted to share what it has looked like.