Chicago real-estate consultant Rhea Campbell recently returned from a nine-day vacation in Thailand.
Campbell, her husband and their six-year-old son flew business class and they stayed at upscale hotels in Phuket, Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Campbell and her family take about five trips every year, visiting places like Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Punta Cana and Monterey, Calif. If you’re not envious already, consider this: Campbell rarely spends a penny for airfare or hotels. Instead, she strategically uses travel reward points to pay for vacations.
“When you look at how much it would cost to do five pretty audacious international, or even local, trips, it’s a lot of money,” says Campbell, who blogs about her money-savvy travels at HaveKidsAndTravel. com. “I am pretty efficient when it comes to everything else I do with my life, but I had historically paid retail for travel. A few years ago, I thought, ‘Why don’t I apply that [efficiency] to travel?’”
Jelena Ewart, credit-card analyst for NerdWallet.com, says credit cards with travel rewards are a great deal for consumers with excellent credit. However, she says cardholders typically must meet certain stipulations to trigger sign-up bonuses. The popular Chase Sapphire Preferred card, for example, offers 40,000 bonus points—after you charge $3,000 within three months. NerdWallet lists reward credit card offers to help you find the perfect card for your lifestyle. Campbell also recommends FlyerTalk.com’s message boards for information on credit card deals.
To maximize travel rewards, opt for cards that offer extra points for purchases in categories where you spend the most. Campbell says the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers double points on dining and travel. For business owners, she recommends the Chase Ink Bold card, which gives five points for every dollar spent on telecommunications. If you’d rather not bother using different cards for certain purchases, Ewart recommends the Barclaycard Arrival MasterCard, which earns two times miles on all purchases.
Texas mom and travel blogger Summer Hull says you also can rack up points by making purchases through online shopping portals associated with travel rewards programs. For example, United Airline’s MileagePlus Shopping site allows you to earn points when you make purchases from online retailers like Home Depot, Neiman Marcus and Sephora. Hull says you might earn up to 30 points per dollar during special promotions. She watches for deals and then stocks up on things like shoes and clothing for her daughter.
Hull recommends AwardWallet.com to manage reward account balances and keep track of expiration dates. If strategizing to optimize travel rewards seems stressful, outsource it. Campbell says that for a few hundred dollars, you can hire a pro to book your reward travel, such as BookYourAward.com or MileValue.com.