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 40,000 bonus travel points (worth up to $500) if you spend $3,000 on the card within 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?