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Saving Money in Pajamas with Credit Cards?

One of my favorite pastimes is travel. I’ve had the good fortune to visit a wide range of countries over three different continents. I’m hoping to get to more next year. I’ve also been on trips to Hawaii and California at prices that most people could only dream about. For example, I got tickets to LA from my home in the Midwest for a whopping $11.20 each. I also got three of my five nights at a Hyatt House hotel for $0. I paid for two nights out-of-pocket.

How do I do this? I use points that I’ve earned from various credit card bonus programs. This is not for everyone. People with bad credit will not get approved for a card. People who tend not to pay off their bills in full every month should not get approved for a card. Those who only buy what they can afford and then pay it off every month can get some great awards. There are several different options that can help you get to the destinations that you’re looking to get to.

1. Airline or Hotel Co-Branded Cards

These cards are tied to a specific airline or hotel. For example, Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt all have their own credit cards that give you a certain number of points per dollar spent. They usually pay bonus points when used to pay for a hotel room at the hotel company that the card represents. All of the major US airlines have a co-branded card (or cards) that can help you get to the destination of your dreams quickly, be it Orlando or Oranjestad. Of course trips to exotic locations like Australia or Tanzania might take more points, but they can be had. I’ve flown to Aruba, Denver, and LAX on miles, and I’ve stayed in Honolulu, Aruba, and Anaheim on hotel points.

2. Flexible Point Cards

These are the gold standard amongst those who are really travel hackers. Cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Citi Thank You Premier fall into this category. Chase, Citi, and AMEX all have their own point systems that allow you to transfer your points into a chosen travel partner (or get cash back). For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred at a 1:1 rate to airlines like United, British, or Southwest, among others. They can also get transferred to IHG (Holiday Inn), Marriott, or Hyatt at the same rate. Only certain Chase cards work like this. I used these cards for my recent trip to see Mickey and Minnie, and they saved me over $1,000. If you’d rather have cash back, some of these cards will offer a bonus of up to $500 after meeting a minimum spend over 3 months. Of course, if you have to pay interest to get the bonus, it’s not worth it, so make sure that you can pay off your account IN FULL each month before applying.

3. Cash Back Cards

These cards come in two major varieties. One is the straight cash back card. The old Discover It card would fall into this category. Basically, users get 1% cash back for every dollar spent and 5% cash back on various rotating categories each quarter that can involve merchants like gas stations, travel, grocery stores, restaurants, etc. The other form of cash back card is the travel reimbursement card. The Capital One Venture Miles or the Barclay World Arrival Mastercard would fall under this category. These pay a cent or two back for every dollar spent, redeemable for a statement credit on travel expenses.

Before getting these cards, it’s important to remember that credit cards can be a very good employee, but they can be a very bad master. Do not go applying for credit cards if you have a propensity to be a spendthrift. If you’re fairly frugal, you pay off all of your bills every month, and you can avoid the temptation to spend money you don’t have just because it’s on plastic, these cards can help you save money on travel or get some cash back on a regular basis. They can get be a great way to get into debt, but they can also be a great way to get some great experiences for a fraction of what you’d otherwise have to pay.

For more information on how to game the system, I regularly read popular travel blogs like

The Frugal Travel Guy and Million Mile Secrets, among others.

Apply at your own risk, but if you’re disciplined, these cards can really pay off.