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How you can score free trips with credit card rewards

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By Cameron Huddleston/GOBankingRates

Traveling can be expensive, especially if you have a family of five as I do. American Express found that the average amount Americans spent on a week-long summer vacation in 2015 was about $1,000 per person. For a family of five, that's $5,000 -- a big chunk of change for a week of sightseeing.

One of the ways my family keeps costs under control is by taking advantage of the best travel rewards credit cards and hotel and airline loyalty programs to score free flights and accommodations. I've already saved more than $500 on hotel stays for a couple of weekend trips my family has taken this year by cashing in points I earned using a Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card.

I'm a travel rewards amateur, though. My goal is to eventually get most -- if not all -- of my travel is free, which is the case for Holly Johnson. Johnson blogs about travel and saving money at ClubThrifty.com and takes seven to eight trips a year with her husband or entire family of four and pays next to nothing.

She does it by maximizing credit card rewards and racking up points through loyalty programs. Although anyone can use her tips to maximize their credit card rewards, her strategy -- which is used by many so-called travel hackers -- works best if you meet these criteria:

  • You have a credit score of at least 700, ideally 720, to qualify for the best rewards cards.
  • You don't carry a balance on the cards.

If you're charging cards to rack up points and aren't paying off what you owe each month, you're also racking up interest, which can wipe out any savings you're getting with free accommodations or flights. "It's not very rewarding to end up in debt," Johnson said.

If you want to start traveling for free, here's what you'll need to do.

This article was originally published by GOBankingRates.

​Join loyalty programs

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The major hotel chains -- such as Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott -- and airlines -- such as American Airlines, Delta and United -- have loyalty programs that let members earn points for booking hotel rooms and flights. Once you have enough points, you can redeem them for free stays or flights.

I'm a member of Southwest Airlines' Rapid Rewards loyalty program. I fly about three times a year and typically earn enough points to score at least one free flight. Rapid Rewards and other airline loyalty programs also allow members to earn points when booking rental cars and hotel rooms with their partners and by making purchases from retail partners on their online shopping malls.

Johnson said that she belongs to almost all of the hotel and loyalty programs available because they are free and offer perks beyond points, such as free WiFi and room upgrades. You won't earn points as quickly through loyalty programs as you can through rewards credit cards, but if you're worried about racking up debt with credit cards, the loyalty programs might be better for you. By joining loyalty programs and using rewards cards simultaneously, you can accumulate points much faster.

​Get rewards cards that offer flexibility

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With so many airline-branded cards, hotel-branded cards and general travel rewards credit cards out there to choose from, which one should you get? Johnson recommended getting a rewards card that isn't tied to a particular airline or hotel because you'll have more flexibility with how you use your points. For example, if you don't end up traveling much, you can redeem your points for gift cards or cash.

Her favorite by far is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which lets you earn two points for travel and restaurant purchases and one point for all other purchases. Points can be transferred at full value -- 1 point for every $1 -- to participating travel loyalty programs such as British Airways Executive Club, Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus, Hyatt Gold Passport and Marriott Rewards.

If you are loyal to a particular hotel chain or airline, however, you shouldn't ignore the hotel- and airline-branded rewards cards. Look up card offers or use an online tool that compares cards to help you decide which travel rewards card you'll benefit from most.

​Take advantage of sign-up offers

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Most rewards cards offer bonus points for signing up for a card and spending a certain amount on money within in a specified period of time, typically the first 90 days of having the card. Fulfilling this requirement is the fastest way to earn enough points for free travel -- especially if you take advantage of several offers during the year, Johnson said. She signed up for 10 travel rewards credit cards last year and has already signed up for two cards this year.

The bonus from just one card can be enough to net her free flights for her entire family of four, she said. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card currently is offering 50,000 bonus points -- worth $625 in travel rewards -- for new cardholders who spend $4,000 in three months after opening an account.

Johnson said she can sign up for more cards in a year than most people because she owns two businesses and can take advantage of bonus offers for both personal and business credit cards. Couples can rack up points quickly if both spouses sign up for cards with bonus-point offers, she added.

If you plan to sign up for more than one card, Johnson said you should do so every three months rather than all at once. That way, it will be easier to meet the spending requirements to earn bonus points. This strategy is also a good idea because you might improve your chances of being approved for cards if you spread out your applications. Opening new lines of credit can affect your credit score, but Johnson said she's seen little impact on hers, which is above 800.

​Charge everything to your rewards cards, then pay them off

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One of the main reasons I haven't earned enough points from my hotel-branded card to get all of my hotel stays for free is because I haven't charged enough to my card. Even though I pay off my credit card balance, I've been reluctant to use my card to pay for all of my everyday purchases. I've gotten over that reluctance though because, as I said, my goal is to travel for free.

Johnson said she uses her credit cards for gas, groceries, business expenses, and all of her regular bills, including car, health, and homeowners' insurance. "We dig really deep to find things to pay with our credit card," she said.

When Johnson makes purchases, she uses the card that will give her the most points for that purchase because the number of points you can earn per purchase varies from card to card. The free Wallaby mobile app and browser extension can help you identify which card to use for which purchase to get the most rewards points if you have several cards.

Johnson also pays off her cards once a week so interest doesn't accrue. "I never get a bill because I always pay it [off]," she said.

​Book trips far in advance

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Not only is there a strategy for earning points, but there's also a method for redeeming them. Johnson said that you need to plan trips well in advance of your travel dates to get the most out of rewards points.

You have to plan ahead if you want to take advantage of bonus points because it can take a few months to earn them and then another month for them to be credited to your account. Additionally, some airlines and hotels have a limited number of rooms and seats on flights that can be redeemed for points, so if you don't book far enough in advance, you'll miss out and be left with points you can't use, she said.

At times when I've waited until the last minute to book a hotel room for a weekend getaway, I haven't been able to find rewards rooms that suited my needs. My family needs a suite because we have three kids. But sometimes by the time I wanted to book the trip, the only rooms left that could be redeemed for points had just one king-size bed.

Johnson said that she went to Cancun last December by redeeming sign-up bonus points from Marriott Rewards Premier credit cards for a package that included flights on Southwest and a seven-night stay at a JW Marriott, which typically costs $800 per night. The rewards availability in December is limited because it's a peak travel season, but she was able to redeem her points because she booked her trip nine months in advance.

​Be flexible with travel plans

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Being flexible with your travel plans also can help you get more out of your rewards points, Johnson said. For example, she recently stayed at a Westin hotel on Grand Cayman Island during the offseason because it required fewer points.

When she flies overseas, she typically departs on a Wednesday because there are more rewards seats available on midweek flights. Just as you would compare prices for hotels and flights at various times to find the best deal, you have to compare the number of points you'll need for hotel and flight options as well as the availability of options that can be booked using points, she said.

​Stay organized

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If you have more than one rewards card, you need a system to keep track of them. Johnson said she uses a spreadsheet to record the following details so she can stay organized:

  • Date she signed up for a card
  • Date by which she needs to spend a certain amount to earn the sign-up bonus
  • Date of the 12-month point if and when an annual fee is charged

If she's opened a card with an annual fee that she knows she doesn't want to keep, she'll close the account before the fee is charged.

It sounds like it could be tedious keeping track of points and earning enough to get free travel, but Johnson said it isn't. If it was, she wouldn't do it. "I like to earn stuff free," she said. "But I also don't want my life to be complicated."

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