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Earn your way to free travel

So you’ve got a travel-rewards credit card. You’re excited. You’re thinking about lounging on a tropical beach with a margarita or strolling past the Eiffel Tower in Paris and using your rewards points to pay for it all. But to get to Cancun or France, first, you have to master the art of building up travel rewards. Try out these tips for getting the most bang for your credit card bucks:

Choose your card (or cards) carefully

Before you sign up for every travel-reward card in sight, take a moment to think about what you want to achieve. Every card has its own perks, rules, and methods for dishing out travel points. Look for a card that offers extra bonus points in the categories you spend the most money on normally, whether that’s for groceries, gas or restaurants. Others may reward you more for buying airline tickets or hotel stays, so try to match a card up with your spending habits.

One single travel card might not get you where you want to go, so consider using multiple cards and mixing and matching to achieve your travel goals. If you typically patronize a single airline or hotel chain, then think about adding a co-branded card to your portfolio that will net you bonuses for those companies faster than a generalized travel-rewards card.

On the flip side, too many cards can dilute your ability to accrue points or miles, so try to find the sweet spot that works for you and don’t be afraid to close extraneous cards that aren’t earning their keep.

Discover the best-kept travel secrets you need to know right now.

Don’t be afraid of annual fees

Most conventional credit card advice tells you to avoid cards with annual fees, but travel rewards can be an exception. There are travel cards with no annual fees, but typically the biggest bonuses are reserved for cards that will cost you. Many of these also include extra perks like access to lounges or waived checked baggage fees. You will need to see if the rewards you can earn outweigh the annual fee cost. If you’re still uncertain about committing to an annual fee, then look for a card that waives the fee for the first year. You will know by the end of that year if it’s worth it to keep the card.

Watch out for sign-up bonuses

Sign-up bonuses are the big carrots credit card companies offer to entice you take out a new travel-rewards card. For example, you might be able to earn thousands of bonus points, but only after you spend a certain amount of money within a set amount of time. These bonuses are tempting because they can represent hundreds of dollars worth of travel expenses.

If you know you will typically spend that money anyway, then you’re good to go. If not, be wary of making unneeded purchases just to meet the bonus requirements. Those travel rewards aren’t a good deal anymore if you’re straining your budget to get them. This is also a smart time to look ahead and sign up for a card before making a planned big purchase, such as new furniture or appliances.

Use your card for everything

The best way to rack up travel points is to simply use your credit card. Sounds easy enough, right? But you may be missing opportunities to build up your stash of travel treasure. Make sure you know which categories you can earn bonus points from. If your card offers extra rewards for grocery spending, for example, then skip the cash and use that card for your food shopping. It adds up over time.

Check out credit card travel portals

The major travel-rewards card providers, including American Express, Chase, and Citi, all offer their own websites for booking travel using their cards. These sites suggest you can save money by buying your tickets through other avenues. They’re worth checking out, but be sure to compare with the big travel sites like Expedia or Orbitz and with buying directly from the airline.

These are the best places to find great travel deals online.

Keep your eyes on the prize

As with any credit card, travel cards can come with high interest rates that can negate your savings if you’re not careful. Keep your pursuit of points and miles within reason. These cards are just one more cog in the workings of your overall budget, but when done right, you can enjoy free or discounted travel so your next vacation won’t break the bank.

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