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With the right rewards credit cards, you can travel the world on any budget

I was one click away from booking my trip to Thailand with a stop in Paris. The webpage read: “Do you want to pay $9,000 instead of using your miles?”

Not a chance, I thought.

Rather than forking over cash for my flights, I redeemed 65,000 frequent flyer miles and paid just $142 in taxes for my entire itinerary. I earned these miles without stepping on a plane or spending other than I normally would.

How did I do it? I racked up frequent flyer miles with credit card rewards.

Earning miles on the ground with credit cards

A major misconception with earning frequent flyer miles is that you need to actually fly to earn points. The reality is there are tons of opportunities to earn frequent flyer miles without ever setting foot on a plane.

In my experience, the best source is rewards credit cards with introductory offers. I’ve earned over 200,000 frequent flyer miles almost entirely through credit cards that offer anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 miles or points when opening a new account. My system is simple:

  1. Apply for credit cards that offer a big chunk of frequent flyer miles when opening a new account.
  2. Meet the minimum spend on the card within the specified time period.
  3. Receive the miles.
  4. Book free flights for destinations all over the world.
  5. Repeat.

There’s a bit more to this, and you need to be strategic on how you earn your miles. Here’s more on my experience and how you can replicate this process.

Carefully choosing credit cards

Picking the right credit cards is vital. I only apply for cards that offer valuable rewards with requirements I can meet.

For my Thailand trip, I used two cards to earn the necessary points:

  1. United Explorer Card. I earned 40,000 miles by spending $2,000 on the card within three months, an easy threshold for me to hit. The annual fee of $95 is waived for the first year.
  2. Continental OnePass Plus MasterCard, which no longer exists since the United/Continental merger. A comparable substitute (and a card I now carry) is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. With this card, I earned 40,000 miles by spending $3,000 in the first three months. Points are then instantly transferable to United MileagePlus miles on a 1:1 ratio. The $95 annual fee is also waived for the first year.

For rewards cards, the offers and terms vary widely. A typical offer might require spending $3,000 on the card within 3 months to receive 30,000 miles. Some offer bigger bonuses of up to 100,000 miles but may require you to spend more money on the cards as well.

Many of these cards come with annual fees, although many also waive the fee for the first year. I avoid paying annual fees unless the deal is too good to pass up, like when I earned 100,000 Avios on the British Airways Visa Signature Card.

The airlines you’re earning miles for matter, too. Many airlines are part of “alliances,” where you can redeem miles on partner airlines. For example, I earned miles with United Airlines’ MileagePlus program, but I flew on Air Canada, Thai Airways, and Lufthansa for my trip.

Earn miles with regular spending

Once I received the cards, I simply used them to make my usual purchases. I made sure to never spend extra money to earn rewards since this would take away from the value of free travel. I always paid my bill in full to avoid any finance charges, too.

In this case, I opened the United MilagePlus Explorer card and completed that offer before opening the second card to ensure that I’d be able to hit the spending minimums.

Once I met the requirements, the miles showed up in my frequent flyer accounts within a few weeks.

These offers both earned me enough for the 65,000 miles required for my trip to Thailand with the stop in Paris.

How I redeemed the miles

To me, redeeming miles was the trickiest part since it wasn’t as simple as when I booked flights with cash. Redeeming miles isn’t necessarily difficult, but knowing how to book complicated itineraries for the best value does require some expertise.

I wasn’t sure what the best way to go about booking my trip and getting the best value for my miles. That’s when I called Mike at I Fly With Miles, who’s an expert at maximizing miles for elaborate trips.

I told Mike my original plan to fly from Boston to Thailand and back.

“Would you like to stop in Europe on your way over?” Mike asked.

This got my excited, especially as he explained that I could work in a four-day stopover in Paris, free of charge.

Mike also let me know that I could fly into Chiang Mai, Thailand, but leave out of Bangkok, cutting out an extra trip between the two cities on my trip home.

He gave me a few routing options for my flights. Once ready, I booked my trip through the United Airlines website.

I could’ve tried to figure out this process on my own, but it would’ve taken more time. I probably wouldn’t have stopped in Paris, either.

I’m working on studying the rules more in anticipation of my next trip. Information sources like the Travel Hacking Cartel as well as the FlyerTalk Forums are helpful for understanding the process.

What I’d do differently

I’m more than happy with my first travel hacking experience (it’s not hard to be when I saved $9,000 on airfare). But there are a couple of things I’ll do differently from now on, including:

  1. Save on taxes. I could’ve tried for cheaper routing in Europe to save on taxes, but I chose an itinerary with shorter layovers instead.
  2. Been more careful with older credit cards. Before I started earning miles, I closed out several older cards that I wasn’t using in an attempt to simplify my credit card accounts. This was a mistake as I weakened my length of credit history, resulting in a lower credit score. While I’ve only been rejected for new cards a few times, having a higher score would be helpful.

The trip itself went off flawlessly, and I’m definitely looking forward to more like it.

Keep earning miles

I still have many miles banked, and I’m continuing to earn more.

I just opened a Ink Bold® Business Card account and should have another 50,000 miles coming my way once I meet the minimum spend within 3 months.

Update: The Ink Bold is no longer offered by Chase. However, the Ink Plus offers a 60,000 mile bonus worth $750 when used for travel.

I also just added a Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express card, which only requires $500 in spending to get 30,000 points.

While earning more miles, I keep track of what I have with Award Wallet to make sure the miles don’t expire.

What’s the catch?

You’re probably wondering the drawbacks to earning these types of rewards. In my opinion, there are few:

  • Determining how to redeem miles. As I explained above, it’s not always simple, especially if you’re booking a multi-city itinerary.
  • Miles expire. If you’re not careful, you can lose your hard-earned miles after a certain period.
  • Often need an excellent credit score. Most credit cards that offer these types of rewards require an “excellent” credit score. My score has hovered around 750 since I started “travel hacking,” staying in about a 725-775 period over that range.
  • Credit score risk. It’s possible your credit score will drop. As I explained above, mine has only been minimally effected.
  • Taxes. Although taxes are a small expense compared to the retail price of airfare, flights won’t be completely free.
  • Less value on domestic flights. You’ll get the most out of your miles for booking international flights, and the best value when booking in business or first-class. You can still use miles for domestic flights, but your miles will typically be worth less compared to the flight cost.
  • It takes time. Researching cards, managing accounts, and talking with customer service are all part of the process.

Not so bad, right? Other than that, there’s little to stop you from earning free flights like I did for my $9,000 trip.

Have any questions on earning miles with credit cards? Let us know in the comments.

Article comments

Michael says:

Can you still keep the points if you cancel the card close the the one year anniversary of having the card? ( I suggest this to avoid the annual fee).

Yes, once you earn the points, their yours to keep regardless of if you keep the card.

Additionally, some card issuers will take back the annual fee if you call them within a certain number of days after it’s been charged. I was able to do this with one card with Chase, which resulted in closing the account.

You can even call before your first annual fee is set to be due, say you’ve found a better offer with your credit union and you’ll only keep the card if the fee is waived. This has worked for me. Also keep in mind, if you close credit card accounts, your credit score will be dinged.

We have just started this process of accumulating reward points with multiple credit cards and are pretty happy with our experience so far. Our daughter is still very young and we’re expecting our son in March so we don’t plan on taking any trips soon but love the fact that we can rack up miles to use 2-3 years down the road.

Rob Berger says:

That’s a great plan. I’m always surprised how quickly the miles or points add up if you use the card for everyday purchases.

Bucky says:

You keep saying apply for new credit cards to get miles, after the first year these credit card company’s will start charging annual fees resulting in a loss of any savings. Or if I cancel my credit card I get a hit on my credit rating. How do you get around this?

Jeffrey Trull says:

Based on my experience, you can either cancel before the fee is charged after the first year or some will give you 30-60 days to cancel the card after the fee is charged and they’ll take the annual fee charge off.

It’s not necessarily true you’ll take a hit to your credit score by canceling card accounts. My credit score has hovered around 750 for the entire period I’ve been doing this (about 2 years now). It depends on your personal case and has to do with how much credit you have available. You can read more about the subject here: https://www.doughroller.net/credit-cards/canceling-credit-card-hurt-credit/