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I’ve been fortunate enough to prioritize leisure travel over other expenses in my life. I’m married with no kids with two incomes. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to get the best deals for everything I can. When I enter a clothing store, I beeline to the clearance racks (and if I have a coupon on top of that, even better). When it comes to travel, I look for value by choosing vacation rentals over hotels, and I routinely scour Airfarewatchdog's route alerts  for the best flight deals.

One way I’ve managed to pay less for air travel is through smart use of my credit card portfolio. I keep three key cards in my wallet at all times and I pay for almost everything with those cards. This year, I’ve been able to book four round-trip flights for my husband and I using new card-member bonuses and points accrued through travel rewards cards.

I Booked Two Nearly Free International Flights in May…

I’ve become a big fan of Chase credit cards over the past several years. I started using the Chase Freedom Card and upgraded to the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card because of its awesome travel benefits.

My favorite benefits of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card are the auto rental collision damage coverage and (because I frequently travel abroad) the zero foreign transaction fees. It doesn't hurt that restaurants and travel get me 2-to-1 points per dollar spent. Those rewards alone were worth the nominal $95/year membership fee. I've accrued plenty of points with that card over the years and I stashed them away to redeem for complimentary airline tickets.

Early in 2017, I upgraded again to the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. At the time, the new card-member bonus was 100,000 points if I spent $4,000 on the card within three months. (As I write this, the bonus is now 50,000 points after $4,000 spent on the card within three months.) I was also able to move my rewards points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card.

The benefit of that move was that the while Chase Sapphire Preferred Card gave me 25% more value on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards (this meant 50,000 points were worth $625 toward travel), the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card provided 50% more value on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards. I was able to use my old points plus my new-card bonus to get two complimentary round-trip flights from Boston to Iceland during a holiday weekend while still having points in my bank to spare for another trip.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve Card offers more benefits than the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, like a $300 per year travel credit, along with elite-level travel benefits like access to airport lounges and 3-to-1 points per dollar spent on restaurants and travel.

The $450 annual fee is much heftier, so it might not be worth it for less-frequent travelers, but the card has already paid for itself for me this year by covering a small auto-rental damage charge and getting me access to a lounge at an airport that was less than comfortable otherwise.

… And Two Nearly Free Domestic Flights in November

I’m a planner; at the beginning of the year I plan out all of my vacation time and trips so, it’s not unusual that I've already booked my Thanksgiving trip to Sonoma County. My husband and I are lucky enough to have family and friends living in Northern California, so we often take advantage of the extra time off around Thanksgiving week to make this trip (getting even more value from my vacation time! See? Always frugal!). For this trip, I was able to get two (almost) free flights through JetBlue.

The second card in my arsenal is the JetBlue Plus Card from Barclaycard. JetBlue is my favorite domestic airline and I’ve been known to plan our vacations around their flight map. When JetBlue changed its card issuer from American Express to Barclaycard, I upgraded to the JetBlue Plus Card from Barclaycard, which costs $99/year but offers cardholders complimentary checked luggage (which offsets the membership fee in one round-trip.)

I was also able to acquire the new card-member bonus which, at the time, was 30,000 points after I spent $1,000 in three months. (The current bonus for this card remains the same at this writing.) I book all of my JetBlue trips on the card for 6-to-1 points per dollar spent, and I also get 2-to-1 points per dollar spent on groceries.

The new card bonus, the points accrued via grocery shopping, and using the JetBlue family pooling to our advantage (my husband’s flight miles gets pushed into my points stash automatically), I had racked up our points bank to almost 200,000 points—which meant that I was able to score our two round-trip, cross-country Thanksgiving-time flights and still have points to spare for next year.

Strategic Spending to Earn Nearly Free Flights

I rack up most of my points that I use for travel using the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and the JetBlue Plus Card from Barclaycard strategically. Obviously, the new card bonuses gave me a great start, but I also use each card for specific expenditures.

At grocery stores, I hand over my JetBlue Plus Card from Barclaycard. Since I spend $400 to $600 per month on groceries, that’s about 10,000 points per year. I also try to use points on JetBlue for those flights that are expensive. For less expensive flights, I opt to get the 6-to-1 points per dollar spent at JetBlue.com.

At restaurants, use my Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. I also use that card for all other spending, except for groceries and JetBlue purchases. Because I can book JetBlue flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards, funneling most of my points earnings to that card offers the most overall flexibility when trying to book travel. Plus, I'm able to book other airlines and non-flight travel products through Chase as well.

Two cards, a few spending guidelines, and I’m able to travel for peanuts a few times a year.  

Editor's Note: This content is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by the aforementioned entities.

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