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The Best Travel Rewards Programs For Average Joes; Earn Free Flights Even If You’re Not A Road Warrior

Anyone can earn free travel, even if you only fly once or twice a year. The best travel rewards programs for normal people.

Award travel isn't just for frequent-flyers; the best travel rewards programs for normal people.Think travel reward programs only work for bigwigs who fly regularly for their jobs? Not so, says Pam Keystone, the CEO of the Art of Vacationing, an agency that specializes in booking vacations using travel points.

A few weeks ago, we offered a glimpse into the world of travel hacking, or how its’ possible to leverage rewards programs to take amazing first-class trips for little to nothing. Admittedly, however, travel hacking works best if you fly a lot for work or have the inclination to devote many hours to earning travel points and finding deals.

What about the rest of us?

It’s possible for normal folks — even if you rarely fly — to find travel rewards programs that can earn you free travel anyway. The key is to choose the right programs and pay attention to the ways you can earn points or miles without spending money on travel.

Frequent flyer programs

When most of us think of travel rewards, airline loyalty programs come to mind. But these programs reward you for miles flown, so if you’re not a frequent flyer, they’re not the fastest way to a free ticket.

Also, airline programs are unpredictable.

“Airline reward programs are in a flux,” Pam says. “Prior to the US Airways and [American Airlines] merger, I liked United MileagePlus the best. But they now have fewer award options since US Airways left their group.”

But other travel reward programs can still earn you a little free R&R. Here, Pam names her favorite travel loyalty reward programs:

Travel rewards credit cards

When it comes to choosing a rewards credit card, most of us opt for those that offer straight cash back. After all, it’s cash — you can use it on anything. If you’ve got your sights set on free travel, however, a travel rewards credit card may be a better deal.

For applicants with superior credit, Pam recommends the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which at the time of publication was offering 50,000 bonus travel points (worth up to $625 if redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards) if you spend $4,000 on purchases with the card within the first three months of opening your account.

The Capital One Venture and VentureOne credit cards are good alternatives if you don’t have top-tier credit, Keystone says.

These cards “…give you the most flexibility in buying airline tickets,” Pam says. “And if you don’t fly often, you can stay for free in hotels.”

The cards have other perks, as well. With the Sapphire Preferred card, for example, you can get a 20 percent discount on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards. If you’re already a member of a specific airline or hotel rewards program, you can also transfer Chase points to participating partners.

Hotel rewards programs

For occasional travelers should consider joining the Marriott Hotel Rewards program.

After signing up for the free rewards program, members earn points whenever they book at one of Marriott’s 3,700 hotels, make purchases from a Marriott partner like Hertz, or use a Marriott Rewards credit card.

Points can be used to book free nights at Marriott hotels, upgrade rooms, or buy everything from digital books to flat screen TVs.

“The Marriott has so many different brands from inexpensive options like the Fairfield Inn to the Ritz Carlton,” says Pam. “As your taste grows, Marriott grows with you.”

Here’s the fine print: Some travelers complain that Marriott frequently raises the number of points needed to get a free nights stay and won’t allow you to use points during holidays.

What travel loyalty programs work for you? Have you had any bad travel reward experiences?

Find the latest travel deals now at Expedia.com

Published or updated on April 28, 2014

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About Patty Lamberti

Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at www.pattylamberti.com. And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at moneymannersqs@gmail.com.


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  1. For anyone interested in Marriott points, they just released a promotion that gives points for liking them on FB or following them on Twitter. Earn up to 2k per month! https://www.marriottrewardspluspoints.com/

  2. This is a wonderful article! My wife and I actually run a travel blog for millennial couples and talk about issues such as these quite often. Another helpful suggestion is to use shopping portals for purchases you would already make. For example, if you are purchasing a hotel on Hotels.com (our favorite of the 3rd party hotel websites) going first through Sallie Mae’s Upromise (if you have loans with them or a savings account) or say Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall means you can earn a percentage of what you spend back for earn additional miles- getting you that much closer to a reward!

    And Robin, I hear you! British Airways is horrible for redemptions because the taxes. To get to Europe, your best bets are American (as long as it doesn’t fly to Heathrow), Air Berlin, or if you have membership rewards or ultimate rewards points you can get British Airways Avios, and redeem them for travel on Aer Lingus (and from the East Coast, it’s a steal).

    Thanks for a great article- happy to see it on Moneyunder30!

  3. Robin D. says:

    I got my American Airlines AAdvantage number when I was 13 (I’m in my 30s now so needless to say, I’m a longtime member). It has always been easy to book reward tickets until I tried to use my miles to go to Ireland with a friend. The trip was on British Airways but they are a codeshare partner so it shouldn’t be a problem, right?. The miles were reasonable (only 40,000 because it is off-season). When I got to the point that I was ready to pay the usual nominal tax (around $60-$100 for an overseas trip), the bill was staggering!! It was almost $700 to use a “free” ticket! Talking with friends, this isn’t unusual with BA. To purchase the ticket it was only $800 so I decided to do that and earn a bunch of miles with an overseas trip. Talk about sticker shock!!

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