Struggling to fit an “explore the world” line into your budget spreadsheet? Travel hacking could be the answer, but figuring out how to rack up credit card points and redeem them in the best way can be confusing. So we asked money expert and travel hacker pro Kara Greene, aka "Aunt Kara”, who has redeemed $114,000 of points over the last 11 years, for advice on how to get started.
Kara Greene - Personal finance content creator and experienced travel hacker.
How do I know which travel credit card is right for me?
Don’t just chase the highest card sign-up bonus. Ask yourself what types of expenses you will be using the card for. Ideally, you want a card that has a high-earning point rate in your most frequent and highest spending categories. Also, consider which perks would be most useful to you. Some people care about getting airport lounge access or receiving a TSA PreCheck credit, while others want free breakfast with every hotel stay.
What’s your #1 piece of advice for getting started with travel rewards?
Take it one trip at a time. You don’t need to learn everything about all credit cards and travel loyalty programs before you get started. Decide where you’d like to travel, and research which airlines and accommodations you could use for that destination. Then, go to the airline and hotel brands’ websites and look up the number of points you would need for both the flight and the stay. Hint: Select the points option on the home screen of each website before you search. Now that you know what your points goal is for your trip, research and select the card(s) that earn the specific type of points you will be using. Use Google; there is so much info out there about specific loyalty programs and the credit cards that earn those types of points.
What is the best way to redeem credit card points for travel?
You have a couple of point redemption options. Each bank has its own version of a “travel portal” to book your travel (think: Expedia). The points you earn with your bank’s card have a fixed monetary value, and you simply apply points as cash toward the cost of your travel via their portal. However, in some cases, you’d actually gain more out of each point by converting them from the bank rewards program to a partner airline or hotel’s loyalty program (each bank has its own list of partners).
Example: A bank rewards program may have a fixed value of one cent per point through their portal, so a $300 hotel room requires you to redeem 30,000 points for it to be free. However, you may discover that one of the bank’s hotel transfer partners offers a $300 room for just 20,000 points through their own program. That would make those same points worth more once you convert them to the hotel’s loyalty points program.
In my opinion, the “best” way to redeem points is simply by getting to take the exact trip you want for as little out-of-pocket cash as possible, no matter which point redemption method you choose.
When should I book flights and hotels with points?
For destinations that are in high demand, the sooner the better. That way, availability is more open, which often means that fewer points are required. For those types of trips, I book my travel anywhere from six to 12 months in advance. A domestic flight to a larger airport may be booked more like two or three months in advance. A domestic hotel night during off-peak travel seasons could be booked at any time.
Should I focus on building status with a specific airline or hotel?
I find status easier to achieve and more valuable with hotel loyalty programs than with airline programs. Most airline cards give you the bare minimum in status with their cards, but a hotel card can automatically come with status that gives you valuable perks like early check-in or late check-out, free breakfast, and upgraded rooms. It takes A LOT of paid flights and/or credit card spending to achieve a level of status that gets you upgraded seats on flights, and I don’t really value early boarding that often comes with status.
I recently got my first travel credit card. What are five things I need to know?
1. Keep track of your progress with meeting minimum spending requirements to make sure you secure that sign-up bonus within the required timeframe.
2. Understand and use all the perks that come with the card beyond the points, which can be very valuable (think: insurance, extended warranties, dining credits, loyalty status).
3. Know which spending categories earn the most points with your card.
4. Don’t spend more with the card than you would cash just to earn more points.
5. Pay the card off in full every single month, because credit card interest rates are insane and accruing interest and/or late fees diminishes the value of using credit card points for free travel.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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