How to Take a Frugal (or Free) Vacation or Trip

Girl with Map in ParisWhat if I told you I am able to take a free vacation or trip at least once a year? Would you believe me? I would be doubtful too if someone told me that, but the truth is that it’s rather easy to do if you have a rewards credit card and work hard to maximize your earning potential with it.

I have not been on an airplane in 6 years; I gave up flying in 2007 and now travel solely by Amtrak train or by car. Most people are familiar with earning miles on their favorite airlines by signing up for frequent flier clubs that track the miles flown, and Amtrak train miles work the same way – you sign up to be a member and when you travel, the miles get added to your account. Eventually you accumulate enough miles to trade them for a free flight or train trip, and everyone is happy. But did you know there are easier and faster ways to accumulate those miles which could be enough to give you a free trip at least once a year, if not more? There is… you just have to know how to do it.

The first thing to do is to sign up for the rewards program and get a rewards credit card from your favorite airline, car rental company, or from Amtrak, depending on how you like to travel. When I flew a lot for work, I exclusively used American Airlines because I wanted to make sure all my trip miles were consolidated into one rewards account. By the time I quit that job, I had hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. I now have the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard Card from Chase, which gives me 2 points (track miles) for each $1 I spend on Amtrak travel and 1 point for every dollar I spend elsewhere. It’s a pretty typical rewards card and the airline ones do just about the same. If you are a new cardholder you usually get some bonus points upon signing up, and the Amtrak card gives you 12,000 points to start with. Use your card and you get points. Sounds easy, right? It is, but it will take you quite a while to rack up points if you don’t go searching for ways to accumulate them at a faster rate. Here’s what I do to make sure I can take a free vacation or trip at least once a year using just my points:

Use the card to pay for everything. I use my credit card like a debit card, in that I use it for every purchase I make. Gasoline, groceries, drugstores, restaurants – you name it, my Amtrak card gets used to pay the bill. No sense in using cash if I can use a rewards card that gives me something in return. Regular old purchases add up if you use the card for all of them. Buying groceries gives me at least 700 points a month and gasoline a few hundred more!

Pay recurring bills with the card. If you have recurring monthly bills, use your rewards card to pay them all automatically. My AT&T, Netflix, utility companies, and Amazon Subscribe & Save bills are all paid using my rewards card, so I rack up the miles when paying for recurring bills online. My AT&T phone bill alone gives me over 1200 points per year.

Pay any tax bills with the card. Everyone has to pay taxes, but did you know that if either you owe year-end taxes or you pay quarterly taxes like I do, you can pay with your credit card? I use Official Payments to pay my tax bills, which results in thousands of rewards points each year. Official Payments does charge a small fee for using your credit card, but it’s not that much in comparison to the points you can get back on your card. The reason I have to pay the fee is that the state I live in doesn’t take credit card payments directly, so I have to use Official Payments. But you may be luckier and your state may not charge a fee to pay online.

Shop at reward portal sites. This is the easiest and fastest way to earn more rewards points. When I shop online anywhere other than Amazon, I shop at the Amtrak Guest Rewards “Points for Shopping” portal. There are hundreds of stores available, and most of the time you earn many multiples of points for each dollar that you spend. For example, I bought an Eddie Bauer down winter parka for $249 through the portal and earned a whopping 1498 points for doing so. They paid 6 points per dollar for my purchase! I needed the jacket but the nearly 1500 Amtrak points is a really nice bonus too. Never shop online without checking to see if your favorite rewards program offers points for shopping through them first. Most every major name-brand store or shop is in the Amtrak program; what companies could be in yours?

So while racking up miles from travel alone is a good way to take a free vacation or trip when you save up enough of them, by smartly using a rewards credit card you can ensure that those points add up much, much quicker. Of course, you need to be able to pay your credit card bill in full each month or the “free” trips aren’t really free – you will be charged interest on any outstanding bills you haven’t paid, and those interest charges do add up – but if you can manage it in a positive way you can easily earn enough points for free travel much more often than if you just saved up your actual miles traveled.

When I racked up the air miles flying around Europe several times a year for business, I didn’t need to figure out other ways to accumulate rewards points. I couldn’t even use up the miles I already had! But now that I no longer fly I need to be resourceful in making sure I can still take the trips I want for a minimal (if any) outlay of my own cash. Using rewards points allows me to do just that, and you can do it too!


How to Take a Frugal (or Free) Vacation or Trip — 15 Comments

  1. Sounds like a great plan!

    I churn credit cards for rewards all the times and have gotten many free trips. I have about 65,000 Starwood preferred guest points that I need to spend right now!

  2. I also use credit card bonuses and rewards to get points for trips. I’ve thought about taking Amtrak on vacation especially if it passes scenic areas, as I live in NYC, there are lots of places I can visit that with a train leaving from Penn Station.

  3. Still have to pay for lodging, food, entertainment, etc. – “free” trip make be a little misleading unless I am missing something here?

  4. Good point David but for me I always wait for the best deals and promos, here in our country we have Piso Fare Promos that happens twice a year. Or getting a good package deal that offers a 50% for flights and hotels but you need to book in advance to avail that kind of promos. I can save lots of $$$ by doing that.

  5. my old job used to send me all around Europe on business. I often asked for a few days off to stay longer and would visit a friend or stay in a cheap hotel. The flight being the most expensive part of the trip it made for a really cheap holiday.

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