How to plan a trip around the world with points

Traveling internationally can be expensive if you’re paying cash for everything. One of the beautiful benefits of earning credit card rewards is that you can greatly reduce the cost of travel. Those credit card rewards can pay for your international flights, hotel stays, rental cars and even your activities. When you have the best travel credit cards, you can book your dream trip to another country for pennies on the dollar.

Picking a destination

One of the first things you need to do to plan your international trip is to pick a destination. The destination you choose affects which airlines, hotels, and activities are available in that area. Unfortunately, not every airline flies to the destination you want to visit and not every hotel has a property in that location.

Do you want to ski in the Alps, tour the Louvre in Paris or relax on the beach in Cancun? Knowing what you like helps to narrow down the choices.

For this article, to serve as an example, let’s explore how to plan a trip on points from the U.S. to Greece — a country with a rich history to explore and stunning coastal cities, like Santorini, to enjoy. From there, simply apply these steps to suit the destination of your dreams.

How to pick a hotel

When researching a new city, you may not know which hotels are in that city. You could go to the website of each major hotel brand, but that takes a lot of time. Instead, visit a travel portal like Expedia.com to figure out which hotels have locations in your destination.

Because Athens is a large city in Greece, a quick search of the Expedia results found hotels from all of the major hotel brands:

  • Hilton
  • Hyatt
  • IHG
  • Marriott
  • Radisson

This is great news because it gives us plenty of options to work with. For this example, let’s pick Hyatt as our hotel because there are several ways to earn the points needed to pay for our stay. Bonus: Hyatt generally offers good redemption values, and “elite status” in their World of Hyatt loyalty program, providing you with nice perks.

There are two great Hyatt options at only 12,000 points per night each, the Grand Hyatt Athens and the Theoxenia Palace & House Suites. These hotels are both Category 3, which means the annual free night from the World of Hyatt program can be used here to pay for one hotel night.

How to pick an airline

Picking an airline for an international flight can also be a challenge. Familiar airline names don’t always fly to the destination you want to travel to. Instead, they often use partner airlines to get their passengers to cities around the world without having to dedicate an entire plane.

These are the airline alliances for the three major U.S. airlines:

The best way to figure out which airlines fly to your country of choice is to look at your destination airport’s website, like the website for Athens International Airport. There are 83 different airlines that fly into Athens, representing all three of the airline alliances. As an added bonus, all three of the major U.S. airlines fly into Athens.

For this example, let’s choose to fly with United Airlines, because United has several consumer and small business credit card options available from Chase, and a Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United Airlines on a 1:1 basis with no fees.

Another option is converting Marriott Bonvoy points into American Airlines AAdvantage miles. They convert on a 3:1 basis on a straight transfer and are included as part of a Travel Package. When you convert Marriott points into miles, you also receive a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points you convert. This means you’ll receive 25,000 airline miles when you trade in 60,000 points. Redeeming Marriott points for Travel Packages gives you both airline miles and a one-week future stay at Marriott hotels.

Another reason to choose United Airlines is that Marriott offers a 10% bonus when converting points to United miles. This gets you that much closer to redeeming miles for your free flights.

Signing up for loyalty programs

If you haven’t already, it makes sense to sign up for every airline and hotel loyalty program available, and subscribe to their email newsletters. These newsletters provide notice of special promotions and limited time offers to earn and redeem miles and points.

Once you’re a member of these airline and hotel loyalty programs, you’re ready to start earning rewards towards free flights, hotel stays and other redemption options. Here are the links to sign up for the major airline and hotel brand loyalty programs:

Airlines

Hotels

Earning airline miles

The traditional way to earn airline miles is to buy a ticket and fly somewhere. That option still works, but it takes a long time and a lot of money to earn enough miles to earn your next free ticket. This is especially true for international flights. Luckily, there are several other options to earn airline miles that don’t require as much time, money and effort.

Pro tip: For United ticket purchases, you earn 5x miles for every dollar spent on the base fare and any charges by the airline. Government taxes and fees are not included in this calculation. When buying your tickets, use the airline’s credit card, like the United Explorer Card, to earn even more miles.

Using airline credit cards

Having an airline credit card and using it to pay for your daily expenses is one of the best ways to earn airline miles. You don’t have to do anything special, and the miles add up quickly, especially when spending at stores and restaurants where you receive bonus rewards.

In our example, we need to earn United MileagePlus miles, so signing up for the United Explorer Card makes sense. It earns 2x miles on United flights and 2x miles on dining and hotel reservations. It also earns one mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.

Transfer from partners

Several banks offer flexible currency points that transfer to partner airlines and hotels. Chase Ultimate Rewards is a partner of United Airlines and its points transfer on a 1:1 basis. The bank does not charge anything to transfer points.

One of the best credit cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points is the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. It earns 3x points on dining and travel while earning one point per dollar on everything else. The card offers a welcome bonus of 50,000 points after spending $4,000 within three months of opening the account.

Online shopping portals

When shopping online, instead of going directly to the website, go through a shopping portal instead. With shopping portals, you can earn cash back, airline miles, hotel points, or flexible points, like Chase Ultimate Rewards, on your purchases.

Use a service like CashBackMonitor.com to see which programs are offering the best rewards on shopping. In our example, since we’re focused on earning rewards to pay for a trip to Greece, focus on cash back, United miles, or Chase Ultimate Rewards. The cash back will help pay for travel expenses not covered by miles and points, the United miles will go towards the flights, and the Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United on a 1:1 basis.

Dining rewards

Earn additional airline miles when dining at participating restaurants. The Rewards Network dining program partners with seven different airlines, including United Airlines.

While traveling or going out to eat in your neighborhood, search for participating restaurants on the dining rewards website. Link your credit cards and use them to pay for your food. You’ll receive up to five miles per dollar spent on your entire bill, including taxes and tip. These extra miles are in addition to the rewards earned from your credit card.

A couple of credit cards to consider for dining out are the Chase United Explorer credit card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. The Chase United Explorer card earns two miles per dollar spent on dining, while the Chase Sapphire Reserve card earns three Ultimate Rewards points per dollar.

You can also sign up for the Dosh cash back app to earn up to 10% cash back on your meals. This cash back stacks on top of United dining and credit card rewards to triple dip on your meals at participating restaurants.

United MileagePlus X app

United is the only airline that developed its own app to help you earn extra miles on everyday purchases. It is available for both iOS and Android. Purchase gift cards for yourself, or friends and family, simply using the app. This is a great way to earn extra miles when the store you’re shopping at isn’t part of a bonus category on your credit card.

These gift cards can be purchased at any time and used online or in-store.

Pro tip: Using the app, buy a gift card for the exact amount of your purchase while at the register. For example, when shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond, wait until the cashier has scanned all items and coupons. Then, buy a gift card for the exact amount of the bill, and they can scan your phone to redeem the gift card instantly.

Other airline partners

Earn additional United miles from the airline’s other partners. These partners include rental car companies, lenders and golf courses. Visit the United website for a complete list of the latest partner programs where you can earn United miles.

Earning hotel points

There aren’t as many opportunities to earn hotel points as there are airline miles, but there are still several great options besides staying at a hotel.

Booking hotel reservations

When you book a hotel reservation and stay at the hotel, you earn points for your stay, plus meals and activities during your stay. At Hyatt, you earn five points per dollar spent on your bill. Pay with your World of Hyatt Credit Card to earn an additional four points per dollar for your stay.

Hold a meeting

Some hotels also reward members for holding meetings at the hotel. At Hyatt hotels, you earn up to 50,000 points for hosting a qualified meeting at one of its hotels. Plus, all of your meeting attendees also earn points for their Hyatt hotel stay.

Use hotel credit cards

The World of Hyatt Credit Card earns 4x points per dollar spent at Hyatt for your room, meals and activities charged to your room. Plus, it also earns 2x points on dining, airline tickets, local transit and gym memberships. All other purchases earn one point per dollar.

Transfer from a partner

Transferring from a partner is also a good option to earn hotel points. Hyatt is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. Points transfer at a 1:1 ratio with no fees charged by the bank. The points transfer immediately, so you can transfer and book your room easily.

You can also transfer Hyatt points from friends and family members at no charge. Simply complete the form and submit to Hyatt.

Other partners

Hyatt also allows members to earn points from flying, renting cars and having experiences. For example, elite members of both American Airlines and Hyatt earn one bonus Hyatt point for every dollar spent on American flights. You can also earn 500 points when renting cars from Avis and up to ten points per dollar on experiences.

Getting the right travel credit cards

To earn enough points for your international trip, the quickest option is to get the right travel credit cards. For this trip to Greece, there are several key credit cards that make this trip possible.

United Explorer Card

The United Explorer Card offers a welcome bonus of up to 65,000 miles. You earn 40,000 miles after spending $2,000 within three months and another 25,000 when spending a total of $10,000 within six months. It also earns 2x miles on United purchases and at restaurants and hotels. The card also waives checked bag fees for the cardholder and one companion, plus both passengers receive priority boarding.

Chase World of Hyatt Credit Card

New applicants earn up to 50,000 points with the Chase World of Hyatt Credit Card. Earn the first 25,000 points after making $3,000 in purchases within three months, and an additional 25,000 points after spending a total of $6,000 within six months. You also earn 4x points at Hyatt and 2x points at restaurants, airline tickets, transit and gym memberships. The card comes with an annual free night that can be used at a hotel up to Category 4 (max of 15,000 points per night). A second free Category 1-4 night is earned after spending $15,000 each year. These free night certificates can be used at about 80% of the Hyatt locations around the world.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Frequent travelers love the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card because of its $300 annual travel credit and 3x points on travel and dining. Receive a welcome bonus of 50,000 points after making $4,000 in purchases during the first three months after opening the account. It also comes with a Priority Pass airport lounge membership and reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Precheck application fees to improve your travel experience.

Chase Ink Business Preferred

Small business owners like the Chase Ink Business Preferred credit card because it earns 3x points on the first $150,000 spent on travel, shipping, internet, cable, phone and online advertising. Receive 80,000 points as a welcome bonus after making $5,000 in purchases within the first three months. Employee cards are also available at no extra cost.

Redeeming miles and points for travel

Once you’ve earned enough airline miles and hotel points through traveling, using the right credit cards, and using their partners, it’s time to book your trip.

Booking a flight to Athens, Greece on United

To book your flight to Athens on United, go to United.com and log into your account. When entering your flight information, be sure to click “Book with miles” so United brings up the right search results. Cardholders of one of the United credit cards receive expanded award availability with no blackout dates, which is a great benefit when searching for flights.

If you don’t have enough United miles to book your flight, transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points into your account. These miles transfer at a 1:1 ratio with no fees. Most transfers happen instantly, so you can transfer and book within a few minutes.

Reserving a Hyatt hotel room in Athens, Greece

To book hotel rooms with Hyatt using points, log into your account at Hyatt.com. Enter your search criteria and check the “Use points” box to see those options.

When the search results come up, you’ll see both the cash price and how many points the rooms are per night.

Select your desired hotel and pick your room from the available options.

These rooms are 12,000 points each, which means a total of 84,000 Hyatt points for a one-week vacation. The World of Hyatt credit card offers a welcome bonus of up to 50,000 points. This means you need 34,000 more points to book your stay. These points can be earned from your hotel stays, credit card spending or transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards.

The bottom line

It is possible to book travel to destinations all over the world using airline miles and hotel points. By planning ahead and being strategic with how you earn travel rewards, you save money when you pay for your travel with miles and points instead of cash. Plus, your credit cards also improve the journey along the way with complimentary airport lounge access, priority boarding and hotel room upgrades.

Where will you travel using your miles and points?