If you’d love to do some traveling this summer but don’t want to break the bank, credit cards can be a smart way to save some money. I’m not saying you should use your credit cards to charge a bunch of travel expenses you can’t afford. I’m saying that you should take advantage of some of the travel perks offered by credit cards, which could save you hundreds of dollars on your summer travel costs.
1. Miles and cash-back rewards
This is the most obvious way to use credit cards for free travel, but it’s still worth mentioning. If you’ve earned enough miles or hotel points from your travel credit cards, consider redeeming them for free flights or rooms. Or, if you’ve earned a lot of cash back points, you can redeem them to help pay for your travel expenses.
However, if you’re a forward-thinker, consider taking advantage of an introductory offer from one of the best travel credit cards. There are some pretty lucrative offers that can give you as much as $500 (or even more) in free travel after meeting a certain spending requirement in a few months. This could be a smart way to set yourself up for a free vacation.
2. Free checked bags
One of my favorite travel perks is free checked bags. Offered by some airline-branded credit cards, this perk generally allows a checked bag for you and whoever you’re traveling with — my go-to credit card allows a free bag for as many as eight other people, as long as they’re traveling on the same reservation as I am.
It’s nice to be able to check your luggage. Who wants to battle for ever-decreasing overhead bin space? Each time I take a trip with my family (there are four of us), this benefit saves me $200 and a whole lot of aggravation.
3. Travel reimbursement
Some higher-end travel credit cards have various travel reimbursement perks. My favorite credit card reimburses as much as $200 of incidental charges on my preferred airline each year. Other cards offer this much or more, and with fewer restrictions. That means you may even be able to use your annual travel reimbursement allowance for plane tickets and hotels. One popular high-end credit card even offers $200 worth of free Uber rides annually, which can help you get around cheaply once you get to your destination.
Higher-end credit cards that offer this type of perk tend to have high annual fees ($450 or more), but if you use the benefits, it could be well worth the cost.
4. Free TSA PreCheck
A free TSA PreCheck or Global Entry (the international equivalent) membership has become a common perk among mid-level travel credit cards. While you don’t need one of these to travel, it’s such a luxury to keep my laptop in its case, my shoes on my feet, and my belt around my waist — not to mention the fact that PreCheck security lanes are generally much shorter than the alternative.
5. Hotel perks
There are several hotel-related perks you can find from credit cards. For example, some hotel co-branded credit cards offer late check-out privileges, so you could get some extra time in your room for free. Others have programs that will give you a free night when you pay for a certain number of nights, or a certain amount of resort credit during a qualifying hotel stay.
Also, some hotel credit cards give you a free night each year upon your account anniversary, so this could help you travel for free next summer.
6. Airport lounge access
This is another perk that’s common among high-end travel cards. If you’ve never been, airport lounges can be quite a travel luxury and money-saver. You can find a quiet place to work or read a book, and you can get a bite to eat and something to drink (even alcoholic drinks in many lounges) for free.
Depending on the lounge network, an annual airport lounge membership can cost upwards of $500 per year. Some, like American Express’ Centurion Lounge network, are only available to cardmembers and their guests — you can’t even buy your way in.
7. No foreign transaction fees
Most travel-specific cards don’t charge foreign transaction fees, but many other credit cards do. The typical fee is 3%, so this can add $30 for every $1,000 in purchases you make. Even many travel credit cards with no annual fees have this perk, so there’s no reason you should pay foreign transaction fees when you travel internationally.
If you do have to spend money, get the most value
Even if you take advantage of all of these perks, your summer vacation isn’t likely to be completely free. Whether it’s gas for the car, meals at restaurants, or other incidentals, there are some things you’re going to have to pay for.
So as a bonus tip I’d suggest making sure that when you spend money, you get the maximum value towards future free travel. For example, maybe one of your credit cards gives you 3% cash back on gas and dining, so be sure to use that card when paying for these purchases. You may not get everything free, but if you keep this in mind, you’ll be setting yourself up nicely for your next heavily-discounted vacation.