Remember extreme couponing? That was me about 10 years ago! While I didn’t end up with hundreds of items in a stockpile, I did find it a challenge to see how much I could get for free – or even earn a few bucks – by combining coupons and sales.
About three years ago, however, I was introduced to the idea that you could “stockpile” airline miles and points through a handful of credit card sign-ups and use those points to fly almost free. I was hooked, and thus began my study of all things miles and points!
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Up until then, my family rarely vacationed, usually taking one or two car trips per year with a visit to Walt Disney World every few years. Once I took up this new point-collecting hobby, I realized that instead of putting my energy toward free cereal and toothpaste, I could put it toward a much bigger return in the form of free travel for my family.
We went from those few car trips to traveling to six destinations in the first year for less than $100 per flight for all four of us. Last year we went on eight trips and paid next to nothing.
Here’s how my family travels for virtually free with credit card rewards:
The Southwest Companion Pass
As a points-collecting newbie, I immediately focused on the Southwest Companion Pass, because it seemed to be by far the best deal. With a Southwest Companion Pass, one person with you flies for free, aside from the mandatory government security fee of $5.60 per way, from the time you earn the pass until the end of the following year.
By accruing this pass, I could eliminate the cost of flights for one of my family members entirely and work toward flying the rest of us on points. Southwest also regularly reduces airfares during frequent sales. We always try to buy during a sale to pay the fewest points possible.
How we earned our first pass: We signed up for two Southwest credit cards – one personal, one business – in 2015. With the credit cards’ sign-up bonuses for meeting the minimum spends (along with some additional spending on those cards), we quickly earned the 110,000 Southwest points needed to get our first Companion Pass.
A few months later, I also applied for Chase Sapphire Preferred, absolutely my favorite travel card, to get the sign-up bonus of 50,000 points that could be transferred instantly to Southwest.
The end result: We flew our family of four on roughly 160,000 points for nearly a year, hitting six destinations. We live in Indianapolis and deliberately picked destinations that cost the fewest points for flights from our airport so we could take as many trips as possible.
The Mettler family used credit card points for flights to cut their Florida vacation costs.
That first year we visited New York City (around 22,500 points for four of us to fly), San Diego, Beaver Creek and Telluride in Colorado, Orlando and Disney World in Florida, Orange County, California, and back to Florida for a visit to Marco Island.
The travel bug had definitely bitten us!
We continue to fly nearly free everywhere in the U.S. using Southwest points that I accumulate through referring people to sign up for the Southwest credit cards and our everyday spending on the cards. Whenever we shop, we earn points using the Southwest Rapid Rewards portal, and even book hotels through SouthwestHotels.com.
I also love that Southwest charges no cancellation or change fees, so if you find a lower fare, you can cancel and rebook with no penalty. When you book with points, the points are instantly refunded to your account; however, if you book with cash, you get a refund in the form of a travel voucher that must be used within a year (more reason to book with points!).
American Reduced Mileage Awards
In 2016, to give us a few more options, I applied for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard from American Airlines to earn a 50,000-mile sign-up bonus after meeting the minimum spend. Since American charges 25,000 miles round-trip for distances farther than 500 miles, that initial haul of points wouldn’t cover my family of four.
Lyn Mettler biking in Carmel on her California getaway with her husband (who snapped this photo).
So, my husband and I opted for a getaway for two.
How we did it: We used American’s Reduced Mileage Awards program, which gives you a discount of 7,500 miles per person round-trip to select destinations when booked using the Citi AAdvantage card. The destinations change each month, but we chose Monterey, California, as we’d always wanted to see this area of northern California.
The end result: We spent a week checking out Carmel, Big Sur and San Francisco and had a lovely trip!
Chase Ultimate Rewards for flights to Europe
The final type of points we’ve used for free flights are the uber-flexible Chase Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred to airlines, including United, American, Southwest, Aer Lingus and British Airways, and major hotel chains, as well.
You can earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points with the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Preferred cards, the Chase Freedom and the Chase Ink Business Preferred.
When the Sapphire Reserve launched, we used the then whopper sign-up bonus of 100,000 points to fly Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, from Chicago O’Hare to Dublin for 26,000 miles round-trip per person during the “off-season” when the airline charges fewer points for flights.
How we did it: By meeting our minimum spend of $4,000, we accrued 104,000 points, which is exactly what we needed for four of us to fly to Europe. We did pay fuel surcharges and fees of about $112.50 per person per way, so it was not entirely free, but it did make it affordable for us to get there!
Lyn Mettler and her two children outside the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Once in Dublin, we used a combination of extra Chase Ultimate Rewards points and miles transferred from Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints to British Airways (a partner of Aer Lingus) to book flights on Aer Lingus to Paris and back to Dublin.
We did pay about $320 out of pocket for all four of us to fly on Ryanair, a discount airline in Europe, from Paris to Bologna.
The end result: It was a fantastic first trip to Europe for my family, and we couldn’t have done it without our newfound knowledge of how easy it is to collect and redeem miles and points!
I am so grateful to have discovered this hobby as it has allowed me to open the world to my kids and hopefully, instill a lifelong sense of wanderlust in them. Miles and points truly have changed my life!
See related: Best ways to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points, 2 ways to earn airline miles by shopping in stores, How credit cards take a bite out of gas prices, Ways to save on your next car rental,