Earn trips with everyday spending

We’ve traveled three times as a family overseas, each time for free or a significantly lower price thanks to points and miles. Plus, I’ve helped much of my wife’s family do the same. We had a little extra motivation to help my them plan overseas travel for less, since her parents have been living in Portugal on a three-year assignment. Rather than Grandma and Grandpa miss out entirely on their growing grandchild brood for these three years, I jumped in with guidance on how to earn the free travel. And sure enough, three other families have either taken their Portugal trip on points/miles or will have done so by the fall.

How does one get started in this? It’s not too tricky–and I’ll try to keep it that way–but first and foremost you have to remember that credit cards are only useful for low-cost travel if you pay them off IN FULL every month. Any benefits that you would otherwise reap from points/miles will be quickly absorbed by the costs associated with carrying a balance, so my advice is just don’t embark on this credit card journey if you’re not ready to spend and pay bills responsibly.

Credit Card Issuers

Rack up free trips by using your credit card for everyday spending

Now that that’s out of the way, I should mention that when I’m with friends or family and we’re paying at a restaurant, I’m always on the lookout for people paying with non-rewards credit cards. Some people have good reasons for this–like the “I do better living within my budget when I spend only what I have, like with a debit card or cash” response. Totally legit. And some have other legitimate reasons.

But in all honesty, many people just don’t realize the magnitude of the rewards they may be missing out on, or they think it’s not worth the trouble to worry about it. Our extended family getting to Portugal for nearly free is a testament to the benefits of worrying about it.


How does it work?

Well, in short, you apply for a credit card (I’ll recommend one or two below). You then meet a minimum spending requirement (often it’s along the lines of “spend $3000 within 3 months of opening your account”), and in doing so, receive a sign-up bonus (for example, 40,000 miles). You also earn 1 mile per dollar spent. So if all you did was these steps, you’d end up with 43,000 miles (40K for the bonus, 3K for the mile/dollar spent). Voilà!  You’re 2/3 of the way to a ticket to Europe, since most airlines charge 60,000 miles for low-cost coach tickets to Europe.

Now let’s say that you spend $4,000 a month on stuff that you could put on a credit card (and pay off each month). If you’re planning ahead, then by one year from now, you’ve got 91,000 miles in your frequent flyer account. One and a half tickets to Europe (which depending on the airline/card could indeed be used towards one and a half tickets). Suppose your spouse does the same starting at the end of that first year. Boom. You now have the miles to get THREE OF YOU to Europe for next to nothing.


Apply for a card

Apply for a credit card with a worthwhile sign-up bonus, such as 40,000 miles after spending $3,000 within 3 months

Meet the minimum spend

Once you receive your card, use it for all purchases until you meet the requirement for the sign-up bonus

Pay each month in full

Pay off in full every month to avoid interest charges and fees that would negate the benefits of your earned points/miles

Plan your trip

Continue using your card until you have banked enough miles for your trip budget–then plan and book your trip!

For simplicity’s sake, imagine you’ve only got one child (for some of you, this will be perfectly accurate). You’re ready to plan your trip to Europe with the miles you’ve earned. Simply head to wherever your miles/points are banked (AA.com, United.com, Chase.com, etc.), use the website to find and book tickets, and you’re on your way.

Is it really that easy? Mostly. Yes, there are complications that arise, including finding available seats on the days you want, but if you make a plan to reach 60K miles (or points) in a given account or two, and then you spend and pay-off responsibly as you work towards that plan, you’ll be able to take the family on a memorable, dreamed-about, educational trip to the location of your choosing. Pretty great.

Here are a couple of my favorite travel rewards credit cards to get you started.  These links will take you to posts with an overview of the card and a link to apply:

Starwood American Express (a consumer credit card)
Chase Ink Plus (a small business credit card) – 70,000 bonus miles limited time offer

5 replies
  1. Camie Christensen
    Camie Christensen says:

    Hi spencer! I love all of your tips! We went with our family of 6 to visit Matt’s parents in Mexico this past year and we would love to take the family on another trip soon. We will be looking for moe great tips on how to do it!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] probably starting to see what you can do with responsible credit card usage.  You realize that you actually CAN afford a trip for your family if you play your cards well […]

  2. […] first recommendation is to save up points and miles to fly for free, but let’s face it, unless you’ve planned far in advance, that may not be a possibility […]

  3. […] One of the great things about earning points and miles is that lots of businesses want a piece of the pie.  That works out well for travelers/consumers, because it means that we can earn miles for doing the things we do every day.  This is on top of the miles we earn through purchases made with airline credit cards. […]

  4. […] Use credit cards that earn points and frequent flyer miles to accrue free airfare (see credit card points and miles primer here) […]

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