Update: This post references offers that have since expired. See current offer information here.
“Easy” and “Frequent Miler” don’t tend to go together in the same sentence. I tend to gravitate to the complicated stuff. After all, why write about a simple deal that takes two sentences to explain when I can, instead, write about a complex 8 part scheme that requires a lot of risk and effort for moderate rewards and will most likely no longer work a week later (like this one)?
Pictured above is the view from our room in Mürren, Switzerland. Staying here at the Hotel Bellevue, for free, was one of many easy wins that my family has taken advantage of. In this case we used Barclaycard Arrival Plus points to pay for our stay.
For those who like my Rube Goldberg approach to earning points & miles, don’t worry, I don’t plan to abandon those noble pursuits. Today, though, I decided to list a few easy opportunities for big rewards. These are the deals that even my mom can take advantage of. Soon, maybe tomorrow, I’ll do a similar roundup of “big wins,” that are a bit more complicated.
A word of caution: Most of the easy wins described below require signing up for a credit card or two. There’s a reason that credit card companies offer huge signup bonuses: many customers use their cards unwisely and end up paying huge interest rates and fees. The bank’s income from those customers is more than enough to justify the expense of paying people to sign up for their cards. Don’t be one of those people! Only sign up for cards if you absolutely know that you have the ability and discipline to pay the balance in full every month. And, never take cash advances (i.e. don’t withdraw cash from an ATM using your credit card and never use those checks they send out!). One more thing: When playing the credit card game its easy to get swept up in a cycle of buying more than you would otherwise. It’s not easy, but unless you’re rich, its wise to keep spend amounts down despite the promise of great rewards from your credit card. See this post for more.
So, without further ado, my favorite easy wins:
Free Hotel Stays
There are a number of hotel branded credit cards that offer two free nights when you signup for the card and meet the minimum spend requirements. These can be used for a weekend getaway, or a couple can each sign up for the same card and book back to back two night stays for a combined four night vacation.
The best of these “two free night” offers, in my opinion, is the Chase Fairmont Visa Signature card. It offers not just two free nights, but free breakfast (for two) as well. And, Fairmont hotels tend to be really nice. The main downside is that they don’t have many properties compared to most other chains. Other good options include the Chase Hyatt Visa Signature card, and the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card (but this Hilton card restricts the free nights to weekend nights and excludes a few properties).
Another path to free hotel nights is to sign up for cards that offer hotel points which can then be used to book free nights. One advantage of this approach is that while free nights generally have to be used within a year (or sooner), points can be kept for long term use. Also, if you tend to stay at less expensive properties, you may be able to stretch each signup bonus far past two nights.
To find the credit cards that offer the best first year value for hotel stays, please see: Top 10+ Hotel Credit Card Offers.
Use the free tool AwardMapper to find hotels, by chain, in the places you want to travel. The tool will even show you how many points are required at each hotel for a free night. Another very useful tool is Hotel Hustle. This hotel search tool will show you hotels available when and where you need them, along with how many points are required for your stay.
Free (and easy) flights
Airline miles can be a great way to save money on flights (especially international business or first class flights), but finding award availability and booking awards (especially with partner airlines) can be anything but easy. There are at least two good alternatives to typical airline miles: Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points, and bank points for booking flights.
If you have Southwest Airlines points, booking a flight with points is incredibly easy. Simply browse to Southwest.com, search for a flight, and select “show fares in points”. To get the best deal, try to pick a flight that has availability in the rightmost column labeled “Wanna Get Away”.
If you don’t have Southwest points, look for Chase to offer 50,000 point signup bonuses on their Southwest cards (they tend to alternate between 25,000 and 50,000 point offers every few months). Alternatively, look for the best Chase Ultimate Rewards offers such as the Sapphire Preferred card, Ink Bold, or Ink Plus which each offer bonuses of 40,000 points or more. Once you receive the Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you can sign into your account (or call Chase) and transfer points to Southwest Airlines, as needed.
Another solution for free and easy flights is to collect bank points which allow you to pay with points for airfare. One example is to sign up for the Citi ThankYou Premier card which (at the time of this writing) offers up to 50,000 bonus ThankYou points. With the Premier card, ThankYou points are worth 1.25 cents per point towards airfare. For example, a flight that costs $400 would require 32000 points. All it takes to book a flight is to log into thankyou.com, search for flights and book with points right from their web site. The ThankYou Premier card is just one example, though. Almost all bank point programs offer some way to buy airfare with points. The advantage to booking airfare this way is that there are usually no restrictions on what flight you take or which airline you fly on. And, when you book airfare this way, you typically earn miles for the flight if you are signed up with the airline’s frequent flyer program.
B&Bs, taxis, and more
Some points programs will let you pay for any travel with points. One of my favorite of these is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card which offers a signup bonus of 40,000 points, earns 2 points per dollar on all spend, and has no foreign transaction fees. The 40,000 points earned from the signup bonus can be used to pay for up to $400 worth of travel related charges of $100 or more on your Arrival credit card. Even better, 5% of those points are immediately rebated to you so that you can redeem points for $20 more in travel. In a trip to Switzerland, I used my Arrival card to pay for train travel and two nights at a B&B in the Alps, then I used points when we got home to pay the statement charges.
If you have upcoming plans to fly more than usual or to stay in hotels quite a bit, you may be able to make your upcoming and future travel more comfortable and rewarding by enrolling in a status challenge. Many airline and hotel programs offer challenges that make it possible to get high level status quickly by meeting certain requirements. With high level airline status you’ll generally get free economy plus/comfort seating, the chance of a free upgrade to first class, reduced or eliminated fees, etc. With high level hotel status you may get free breakfast, room upgrades, welcome gifts, etc. If you have plans for a lot of upcoming travel, it is well worth it to call the airline or hotel chain in question to see if they’re willing to offer you a status challenge.