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The internet can make it seem like collecting points and miles — done primarily through a travel rewards credit card — is only for the most impressive among us. And certainly, people who spend thousands of dollars on lavish shopping sprees do tend to rack up travel rewards for swanky “free” first-class airfares to (and presidential hotel suites in) the most ostentatious of destinations.
But even if you're more frugal than Benjamin Franklin, you can benefit from chasing travel rewards. In fact, you might be best suited to benefit from the pursuit of points and miles.
Rewards can fund travel to weddings and graduations that you hate to pay for out of pocket. They can snag you free breakfasts. They can unlock discounts and exemptions, like waived resort fees and free checked bags.
Even if you’re not a high-rolling, first-class international vacationer, travel rewards can still benefit you. Here are other common types of travelers — budget, occasional, family and couples — and strategy suggestions for each on how to use travel rewards.
Would you rather your points cover one first-class trip or 10 basic economy trips? With travel rewards, you can have it either way. While the ritziest Instagrammers might proclaim the former, putting miles toward budget airfares is sometimes wiser.
Get a strong value for your points
Airlines like Southwest and JetBlue command a similar points value whether you’re redeeming them for a higher-class airfare or the lowest, basic economy-type fare. Frugal travelers who prioritize dozens of free flights over one fancy flight with free champagne and lie-flat seats can maximize travel rewards just as well.
Book on points to avoid paying resort fees
Resort fees can be brutal, but many hotel loyalty programs, including World of Hyatt and Hilton Honors, don’t charge them for rooms booked on points. The budget traveler will appreciate the extra cash to use elsewhere on a trip.
Unlock even more discounts with longer stays
Some hotels offer additional discounts for booking on points. For example, Hilton Honors members with at least Silver Elite membership receive the fifth night free when booking on points.
Marriott has a similar policy, as does IHG.
» Learn more: Hotel loyalty programs that offer free nights
Use credit card benefits to get free food in airports
Don’t overlook the other money-saving benefits that credit cards can offer you: Credit cards with airline lounge access can save frequent travelers hundreds of dollars in overpriced airport food, as most airport lounges offer complimentary coffee, alcohol and light snacks. Some even serve complete meals.
Get through security faster (without paying for it)
Meanwhile, a credit card that covers the cost of TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or a Clear membership not only saves you the application fee, but also saves you time waiting in the security and immigration lines.
Occasional travelers can likewise benefit from travel rewards. If you don’t travel often, you probably don’t need to prioritize transit-specific perks, like airline lounge access or TSA PreCheck. It may not be worth it to you to pay for those luxuries out of pocket or to get their costs reimbursed via a premium credit card (which means hefty annual fees).
Look for no-annual-fee travel cards
With a no-annual-fee travel credit card, you’ll typically earn rewards for everyday spending, which you can put toward the cost of your trip.
Avoid foreign transaction fees
Apply for a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, which are typically up to 3% of your purchase when you pay in a foreign currency.
That’s not the kind of fee you want to see on your bank statement after your international vacation.
Having enough points to book award travel for more than two travelers at a time might seem like a challenging endeavor, but with the right credit cards and a laser focus on family-friendly perks, you could be lining up significant travel savings before that next family vacation.
Use free checked bag benefits
If you hate being bogged down by bags while balancing your baby, you might be more likely to check luggage. Free checked bags are among the perks that come with elite status and/or a premium travel credit card.
It’s not uncommon to find airline credit cards with annual fees of $100 or less that offer free checked bags for you — and sometimes your entire party.
Go for the free breakfast
Free breakfast is not just an obvious money saver for families, but also a time and stress saver too.
Have picky-eater kids who can’t sit still at a table-service restaurant? Then the hotel breakfast where your tot can have their choice of cereal might be a lifesaver.
Have trouble wrangling all the teens into a car to drive somewhere to eat? Have them head down to the lobby breakfast whenever they’re ready.
Travel rewards can unlock automatic elite status with hotels that offer free breakfast as an elite status perk.
In many ways, couples have twice the opportunities to earn travel rewards.
Look for complementary credit cards
Couples should focus on earning transferable rewards, a flexible type of travel rewards currency, like American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards® and Citi ThankYou points. These rewards can be transferred to specific hotel or airline loyalty programs.
Consider a Companion Pass
Don’t overlook trying to earn a Southwest Companion Pass, a coveted perk that allows you to designate one person to fly with you for free aside from taxes and fees, which start at $5.60 one way. You can earn that either by flying Southwest a ton or by spending on certain Southwest credit cards.
While not as extensive as the unlimited companion fares you could earn on Southwest, other airline credit cards offer companion tickets as a benefit to cardholders. Some of those companion tickets offer you a completely free ticket on a flight you've already booked for yourself, while others allow you to book a ticket for a buddy at a steep discount.
The bottom line
If you’re a budget-conscious traveler who usually just books travel after spotting a low-cash deal, you might actually be missing out on even better deals.
Booking travel on points and miles can unlock even deeper discounts — not only rates lower than their worth in cash, but also the chance to avoid annoying charges like resort fees. Throw in benefits like free breakfast, lounge access, security membership and a Companion Pass, and you’re saving big money on things you’d otherwise have to pay for — as long as you play your cards right.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card