The Basics of Free Travel

basics of free travel

Grand Canyon North Rim.

About free travel

Free travel can be anything from a short Amtrak ride to an around the world first class journey. Here are some trips my family has really taken for free (or for cheap):

  • We flew first class to Chile and stayed in an amazing Diplomatic suite in Santiago.
  • We flew first class to Europe and stayed in suites at Park Hyatt hotels in Paris and Zurich.
  • We flew business class (with lie-flat seats) to Europe numerous times.
  • We took Amtrak bedroom cars from Chicago to Utah and went on a tour of several national parks.
  • We have flown many times around the US in domestic first class and have often stayed in fantastic hotels.
  • I flew first class around the world.  One of the flights was with the amazing Singapore Suites class where my in-flight suite had slide-close doors.
  • And, much more to come!

The Basics

At a very high level, free travel is really pretty simple. Banks are always looking for new credit card customers so they offer big sign-up bonuses to woo them. The best sign-up bonuses tend to be in the form of miles and points that can be used for free flights, free hotel stays, and more. It’s not unusual for a single credit card bonus to be worth $500 or more (sometimes much more) in travel. So, the secret to free travel is simply to earn points by signing up for the best credit card offers, and then to use those points in smart ways to get the most out of them.

Of course, while the idea is simple at a high level, there are many details you need to know to do it right. Through this series of resources known as Frequent Miler’s Trips & Tricks, I’ll help to get you there.

If you don’t like the idea of signing up for credit cards, that’s OK too!  The blog is all about tricks for earning points and miles beyond sign-up bonuses. In fact, in some years I’ve earned more miles and points from these tricks than from sign-up bonuses! After covering the basics of credit card sign-ups, I’ll let you in on those secrets as well. For now, though, let’s get back to credit cards…

Credit Scores

When I first learned about travel hacking, my fear was that signing up for too many credit cards would ruin my credit score. After a lot of research, I learned that I was only half right: Yes, signing up for a lot of credit cards can lower your score in the short term, but amazingly, it can actually improve your score over time!

A big factor in your score is your credit card utilization ratio (how much of your available credit you actually use). Banks like to see a low ratio because It means that you’re safely spending within your means. By signing up for more cards, your available credit increases and your ratio goes down (which is good). The pattern most travel hackers see when they sign-up for lots of cards is that their scores dip slightly at first, but increase over time. In fact, that is what happened with me as well. Here is a picture of my scores from my first 7 months of signing up for credit cards. Notice the slight upward trend?

basics of free travel


Here are some reasons not to start signing up for credit cards:

  • You have a low credit score. If you have a low credit score (less than 700) you should focus first on improving your score rather than earning free travel. The free travel can come later. You can check your credit score for free here.
  • You’re planning to buy or refinance a home in the near future. Since signing up for credit cards does have a short term negative impact on your credit score, it’s a good idea to get your mortgage established first.
  • You do not pay off your balance each month. The credit cards that offer the best sign-up bonuses tend to be the ones with the worst interest rates. It’s never a good idea to run a balance on a credit card, but it’s a terrible idea with these cards. If you can’t manage to pay off your cards each and every month, then don’t play this game.  Seriously.

Planning applications

In general, the credit card application cycle goes like this:

  1. Check your credit score. If your score is much below 700, consider working on improving your credit history before proceeding.
  2. Find the best offer for your needs.
  3. Apply
  4. Record the event: In a credit card signup spreadsheet (I use Google Docs, for example).  Document the card issuer (bank), the full name of the card, the date you applied, the offer terms (e.g. 50,000 points after $3K spend), and the result (e.g. approved, pending, denied).
  5. If denied, call for reconsideration.
  6. Meet the card’s minimum spend requirements.  Use for everyday spend, paying bills, etc. Keep in mind that the card’s annual fee, if any, does not count towards the minimum spend requirements.  Once you earn the card’s full signup bonus, record the date the bonus was awarded in your credit card signup spreadsheet.
  7. Wait until next annual fee comes due (12 months from signup).  Call the card issuer to let them know that you’re thinking of cancelling the card. If they offer you a bonus for keeping the card (a retention bonus) that you value more than the annual fee, then take it.  If not, cancel or product change to a no-fee card.

You do not need to wait until the entire cycle above is finished before applying for another card.  Instead, apply for 1 or 2 cards at a time and then wait until you’ve met the minimum spend requirements before applying for more.

Finding best offers

I always try to list best public credit card offers on the Best Signup Offers page, but it’s a good idea for you to keep your eyes out for them too. You know those credit card offers you get in the mail all the time? Most really are junk, but every now and then the credit card companies send out really special deals to select people. If you receive offers and you’re wondering if they’re any good, compare them to the same card offer shown on my Best Signup Offers page.  If your offer is better then it’s probably worth going for.

Looking Forward

Over the next few part of this series, I’ll show you how to find the best credit card offers, and I’ll help you plan your first credit card applications. I’ll also go into details about miles and points. It’s important to understand that they’re not all created equal!  I’ll tell you why I love Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program, why SPG points are incredibly valuable, and much more.  The purpose of this information will be to help you identify which points are worth collecting. Once we’ve all collected lots of points, we’ll talk about the best ways to use them.

Go to: Table of Contents - Credit Cards - Flexible Points Programs - Airline Programs - Hotel Programs - Earning & Managing Points - Miscellaneous

About Shawn Coomer - Senior Editor

Shawn Coomer has spent nearly a decade circling the globe for pennies on the dollar. He uses that first-hand knowledge and experience to teach others how to achieve their travel dreams for the least amount of money possible.

More articles by Shawn Coomer - Senior Editor »

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Patricia Rogers

Thanks you but how do I spend my card

Greg The Frequent Miler