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Do you want to travel for free? Do you have kids? While it's not impossible to accomplish, it's going to take more work to do than if you were single or married without kids. However, with a little bit of work on your side, taking the vacation of your dreams can be accomplished.
Travelling for free sounds like a marketing gimmick. And to be completely honest, it is. However, travelling for really cheap to really fun and/or really nice places is not. It will require work on your end to earn the points, and patience to get there. Once you’re at your final location though, you’ll likely be planning how you’re going to make it to your next destination for really cheap.
This guide is not going to go into all of the details about credit card points - it’s meant as a starting point to help you to get your mind around how you can travel on points with a family. We’ll introduce the concept of credit card points, talk a little bit about how to earn credit card points quickly and in large amounts, and a few ideas on how to use those points. Future articles on the site will discuss different techniques around points travel.
Should I follow this points guide?
Before we get to the details about points, I’d like to suggest that if you carry a balance on your credit card, or can’t pay off your balances, then the following guide is not necessarily for you. Your number one goal should be to pay off your debts (especially high interest debt) before starting to think about maximizing your credit card points. If you do have to use a credit card in your day to day, while carrying a balance, then by all means use one that gets you points (or cash back).
If you don’t have any credit card debt, only have low interest debt payments that you do not struggle to pay each month, and have a 6-month emergency fund, then this guide is aimed more at you. The goal here is to make your money work for you and your family.
What are credit card points
If you’ve never had a credit card before, or if you live outside of the United States (where credit card points are really popular), you may not be familiar with credit card points.
The two most common benefits that a credit card will offer for rewards are cash or points. Cash is quite popular because it can be used to pay off your balance, cashed out towards any travel, or used in most any way you want.
Points, on the other hand, are not cash. Some points can be converted into cash, but not all points. There are so many different variations of points, that it’s hard to say anything definitively about how they can be used. There are entire sites that are dedicated to help you to understand how your points can be used and what they’re worth. For the point of this guide, points are considered similar to cash in that they can be used to help pay for some form of travel.
Why get points instead of cash
The primary reason to obtain points instead of cash is that they can be worth more than cash. This is hard to get across without an example of how points work. There will be a little math involved here, but we’ll try to make it clear. Imagine a flight that costs $200 for the ticket. If you have cash, you have to pay $200. For the point of our argument, we’ll assume that every credit card point you earn is worth 1 cent (often said to be 1cpp - 1 cent per point). If that same $200 flight costs anything less than 20,000 points (200 * 100 because every dollar is 100 pennies which equals 100 points), then it’s going to be cheaper to use your points to pay for that flight than to pay cash. In other words, if it takes the same amount to earn $200 and 20,000 points, our points will be worth more than $200 because we won’t have to use them all for the flight.
This means that there is going to be a bit of research into understanding how many points you’ll need to get to a certain destination, and figure out if the price or points are better. One additional thing to note is that a lot of times points are much easier to earn than cash - there are simply better offers out there for point earning cards than there are for cash earning cards.
Earning credit card points
There are a few strategies to getting credit card points. In this section, we’ll talk through where you can earn points from, and how to really up the number of points that you earn.
Types of points
Before you go and apply for a bunch of cards, you need to do some research about what points can be used where. Points from the American Express Delta Gold card cannot be applied with the American Express Gold card. The reason is that one of those cards earns Delta Skymile points while the other earns American Express Membership Rewards points.
This is part of the reason that credit card points are a little messy. Once you have a good understanding of points, then it will become easier, but it may be a little confusing to start. There are a lot of great blogs and resources out there to help you through some of the details on this, but you’ll want to figure out what points you want and need for your vacation.
Category spend vs sign up bonuses
If you have a credit card that gives points or cashback, you’re likely aware that certain categories of spend may earn you more points or cashback. For example, the American Express Gold card provides you 4x points when used at the grocery store. In other words, use the card at the grocery store, and you’ll earn 4 times as many points than using the card at gas station. Category spend will allow you to increase your points much faster than if you are just earning a single point per dollar that you spend (in the case of the Gold card, 4 times as fast).
The downside to category spend is that it’s still going to take you a very long time to earn enough points to redeem for a family. If it’s just you, then you can get there in a reasonable amount of time. However, if you’ve got a family of 4, you’re going to be spending for many years before you can earn a “free” trip on those points. I had a credit card for many years that I put all of my spend on, and it would have taken me 10 years to earn enough points on that card to take my family on a nice vacation.
Enter credit card sign up bonuses. These are offers that credit card companies offer on their cards to attract new customers. Generally, there is some type of spending requirement over a period of time, and once you meet that requirement, you get the bonus points. Sign up bonuses will help take your point earning ability to another level. An example is the best way to illustrate to how much sign up bonuses make a difference in earning points.
Using our earlier example of the American Express Gold card, we know that we earn 4 points per dollar spent at the grocery store. Right now, that card has an offer of 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. If we’re not spending towards the bonus, and assuming we spend $4,000 all at the grocery store, that $4,000 will earn us 16,000 points (4,000 x 4). That same $4,000 spend towards the bonus will earn us at least 54,000 points (50,000 bonus points + 4,000 points for spending). That’s a difference of 28,000 points. You’d have to spend another $7,000 at the grocery store, on top of the $4,000 you already spent, to make up that difference in points.
The reason that sign up bonuses can really make a difference is because you’re not trying to maximize category spend. In the example we just went through, that additional $7,000 could be put towards the spend requirement for another sign up bonus and net you way more points in the long run. If you want to take your family on a nice vacation on points, you’re going to want to get comfortable using a new card (or multiple cards) to earn bonus points.
Business credit cards
You may think that there aren’t very many cards to get sign up bonuses on. That’s not really the case, but when you’re trying to get a lot of points, especially for a family, you’re going to need some additional cards to start looking at. Fortunately, most banks offer multiple versions of their cards in both personal and business variations, and generally, you’ll be able to sign up and get the bonuses for both.
Now, you may wonder how you can qualify for a business credit card if you don’t have a business. The short of it is that you can easily create your own business without having any impact on your taxes or other financials. Note, I am not a tax professional, so make sure to discuss with a CPA or tax lawyer.
Most business credit cards don’t require you to actually have any income, or any years of business to qualify. You can literally have a business that started today, and still get approved for a business credit card. Obviously, if you have business income, and you’ve been in business for a longer time, those things will help, but they’re not required.
You may be wondering what business you could possibly have. Here’s where you get to be creative and figure out some things on your own. Do you sell things on Craigslist, Facebook, eBay, or some other online marketplace? Even if it’s not a regular thing, it can qualify as a business. Perhaps you provide dog sitting or dog walking services; tutoring services for kids; babysitting for other families; or some other household service. Of course, you could have a blog, Youtube channel, or some other form of online content generation that you use for your business. There are so many different things out there for you to use, and nothing is required beyond that to qualify for most cards, as long as you are applying as a sole proprietor and calling your business by your legal name.
Both spouses should apply for the same cards
The other important thing when trying to earn points, especially for a family, is that both parents should be getting the same cards. That doesn’t mean you are adding your spouse as an authorized user on your credit card, but rather that you both apply for the same cards. You don’t have to do this at the same time, but you do want to get the same card twice so that you can get the sign up bonus twice.
What this means is that you’ll be meeting the bonus spend requirements two times. It also means you’ll get twice as many points. From our running example with the American Express Gold card, you can earn the 50,000 sign up bonus twice for a total of 100,000 bonus points. For a couple, without any kids, 100,000 points is usually enough points for a round trip ticket in economy. For a family, this likely won’t cut it. You’re going to have to earn more points than that. See above about business credit cards for earning even more points.
Using your points
What are some cool ways to earn your points? Some people need a little bit of inspiration or ideas on how to use their points. Below are a few ideas of ways to use points.
This is one of the easier redemption ideas. It’s a nice place in paradise, but not all the way around the world. There are a lot of ways to get to Hawaii, but one of the easiest for a family is on Southwest Airlines. Southwest points are pretty easy to come by, and as of right now, you can earn three different sign up bonuses within a short period. Read more about earning those bonuses in our article about the Southwest Companion pass for families.
Japan in business class
I know you think this is unrealistic, but it’s actually not as hard as you might think. Virgin Atlantic offers round-trip business class tickets for 90,000 points on All Nippon Airways (ANA). Virgin Atlantic is a transfer partner of both Chase and American Express, which means that you can transfer the points you earn in those programs to Virgin Atlantic. For a family of 4, you’ll need 360,000 points to fly round-trip to Tokyo in business class. You can earn that by you and your spouse signing up for:
- Chase Ink Preferred business card, which offers 80,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months
- American Express Business Gold card, which offers 50,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months
- Chase Sapphire Preferred, which offers 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
That will earn you enough points to have an unbelievable experience in a unique country with your children. The hardest part about this redemption is going to be finding multiple seats together.
Cruises and Disneyland
Unfortunately, neither of these are great options for redeeming your points. While there are ways to do it, the value is not really that great. However, you can use your hard earned airline points and hotel points to help pay for getting to these destinations and staying there. Stay tuned for future articles on both cruising with kids and Disneyland with kids in which points help to offset the costs.
If you need some help navigating the world of credit card points, I’d love to hear from you. I’m happy to help consult and give guidance. Just drop me a line and we’ll figure out the best way to make that dream vacation happen for your family.