When it comes to travel, my family is all about getting as much as possible for free – and using the simplest methods to do it.
How do we do it? A huge part is to have a strategy in place for collecting the most miles and points for our everyday spending. It all starts with a look at our travel goals.
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Here are three easy ways to maximize your points for vacations and family trips:
1. Set your travel goals
Do you want to go to Europe with your family or perhaps Hawaii? Or are you content to fly around the U.S. to the cheapest destinations from your home city? Your goals will affect which types of miles and points you should collect.
For example, our initial travel goal was simply to fly as many places as we could in the U.S. for free. By signing up for both the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier consumer and business cards, as well as Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, we quickly amassed about 160,000 points that could be used for free flights on Southwest.
By combining those with our Southwest Companion Pass, which we earned by collecting 110,000 Southwest points, my family flies for nearly free on points.
Travel plans change, though. Last year, we decided we wanted to travel to Europe using miles. With our new travel goal, we needed a way to accrue points for transatlantic flights.
By applying for the Chase Sapphire Reserve when it was offering a 100,000-point sign-up bonus, we were able to accumulate enough points to fly all four of us to Dublin using Aer Lingus Avios, a partner in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program.
Sometimes travel plans are more immediate and the goal is focused on using points to cover the costs of an experience instead of flights.
Lyn Mettler’s sons outside Wrigley Field.
For example, we really wanted to go to a Chicago Cubs game as a family. Since we live in Indianapolis, the Cubs are about a two-hour drive away, but how to cover the costs of the tickets to a baseball game?
That’s where our SPG Preferred Guest card from American Express came in handy. Because the card’s SPG Moments program will let you purchase Cubs tickets using Starpoints, we saw the Cubs play for free.
Best of all: We didn’t have seats in the rafters. We watched the game from the comfort of the SPG suite, which includes all food and drinks (and a selection from the most awesome dessert cart you can imagine).
2. Spend strategically to maximize your points earning.
Credit card sign-up bonuses are a great way to get a big head-start on the points and miles you’ll need to achieve your travel goals, and your family’s everyday spending can take you the rest of the way.
By strategically using your credit cards, you can earn more points faster.
Here’s how my family does it:
To determine which cards to use for which expenses, we consider things like:
On which cards do we need to meet a minimum spend?
To get that big sign-up bonus, you usually have to spend thousands of dollars in the first few months. If you miss the mark, you don’t get the haul of points.
For example, for our trip to Europe, our top priority was to meet the minimum spend for the Chase Sapphire Reserve, so most spending went on that card until that goal was complete.
Which cards help meet our travel goals?
For travel in the U.S., we focused on earning points for flights on Southwest. For international flights, we accrued Chase Ultimate Rewards points that we could transfer to airline partners for flights to Ireland.
My primary goal each year is usually to re-earn the Southwest Companion Pass. I generally earn 50,000 points of the needed 110,000 points by referring others to the Southwest cards, which is the maximum allowed, and then I must accrue the rest on my own.
Using the Southwest credit cards to pay expenses is one way to earn qualifying points, so I try to reach that threshold via spending on those cards, both business and personal, first. These cards, however, only earn 1 point per dollar on most expenses, so we use other cards to rack up more points.
Which cards earn more than 1 point in certain expense categories?
Several cards that we hold earn double or triple on dining and travel expenses. For example, the Sapphire Preferred earns 2x points on travel and restaurants and the Sapphire Reserve earns 3x points in those spending categories.
We try to use one of our Sapphire cards to build a bank of Chase Ultimate Rewards points that we can instantly transfer to Southwest, British Airways, Aer Lingus (and several other airlines) to book flights.
Which cards help us score cool experiences?
Once my Southwest Companion Pass threshold has been met and if it’s not a travel or dining expense, we will typically pay with our Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card – unless we have a different travel goal we’re trying to reach.
The Mettler family’s “School of Rock” tickets, purchased with Starpoints, really were in the second row.
As I mentioned, the SPG Moments program lets you use your points to “purchase” experiences. In addition to using our points to see the Cubs from the SPG Suite at Wrigley Field the year before they won the World Series, we also used Starpoints to get four tickets to see “School of Rock” on Broadway for the price of one – and those seats were in the second row!
Which cards help us to save money?
Finally, if we’re looking to save on expenses rather than earn points, we will sometimes opt for a cash back card that gives us the most back.
3. Use your cards for all your everyday expenses.
My final recommendation – and one I have to remind myself of, too! – is to use your credit cards to pay for everyday expenses.
For example, it’s spring-cleaning and home-buying season (or it soon will be where you are). Charge your cleaning supplies, and ask your home inspector if he or she takes credit cards. With summer camp season for your kids just a few months away, that’s another expense you may be able to put on a credit card to earn rewards.
If you’re online shopping, use a credit card shopping portal to rack up bonus points for the same items or merchandise you were going to buy at the retailer’s website.
There are so many expenses that people forget could be netting you miles and points! Even for items that don’t typically allow you to pay via a credit card, such as rent, health insurance or car payments, you can use a service like Plastiq that lets you pay them by credit card. (Plastiq charges a percentage of the amount charged, and Plastiq sends a check to your creditor.)
Bonus tip: To avoid getting in credit card debt, pay off your credit card as you charge. For me, this means paying off what I charge almost immediately at the card issuer’s website. This lowers the risk that I will carry over any charges.
After all, those thousands of points you’re accruing lose their value if you roll over your balance and pay interest on your charges.
Bottom line: By putting these three points-earning strategies in place, my family is able to maximize the miles and points we’re earning to not only keep flying free almost everywhere but we also are realizing our travel goals. You can do it, too!
See related: Rack up rewards on your next road trip, How to save on your next car rental, 2 ways to earn airline miles by shopping in stores