How we use flexible bank rewards for free travel 2

Posted by Beth | January 7, 2016

Our nine-month round-the-world trip cost is significantly lower thanks to the millions of airline miles and hotel points we have accumulated and redeemed. You can read more about the points and miles basics in this post, but today I want to dig in to a third type of points we are heavily relying on to offset some of the costs of our trip.

Flexible points are typically earned and stored within the bank’s loyalty program (versus the bank partnering with an airline or hotel and automatically transferring your points into those accounts). There are lots of types of bank reward programs, but we are currently only using five of them.

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Barclaycard Arrival Points
  • Capital One Venture Points
  • Citi Thank You Points
  • American Express Membership Rewards

    Managing a lot of different points at once can be tricky, kind of like walking 10 dogs at once in Buenos Aires.

    Managing a lot of different points can be tricky, kind of like walking 10 dogs at once in Buenos Aires.

Chase Ultimate Rewards
Though Ultimate Rewards (UR) points are arguably the most flexible, Chase Bank is on our shit list right now for locking us out of our account (and therefore our points) for over seven weeks until my sweet husband drove seven hours to Oklahoma City and back to the nearest branch on one of our only days home for the holidays. Anyway, I digress.

There are three ways to use UR points: transferring to travel partners, travel redemptions, or cash back.

  1. Transferring to Travel Partners

The primary way that we have used UR points in the past is to transfer them directly into either our United or Hyatt accounts. Transfer ratio is 1:1. The Points guy compares transfer partner redemption values here.

2. Travel Redemptions

Chase also allows you to book flights, hotels, rental cars, or activities directly through their site, which we have done in the past and will likely do some for this trip. If you have a Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink, you’ll essentially get a 20% discount when paying with points, so each point is worth 1.25 cents.

3. Cash Back

Finally, if you’re interested in cash back you can redeem points for a statement credit at a flat rate of 1 cent per point. We’ve never done this, as it’s typically the worst value for your points, but we’ve contemplated it for this trip as a large sum of money would come in quite handy when we’ve already got more than enough points.

Thanks to bank rewards points we got to try Colca Sours.

Thanks to bank rewards points we got to try Colca Sours.

Barclaycard Arrival Points
Over the past year the Arrival Plus cards have overtaken the top slots in our wallets. Despite recent negative changes*, we still use this as our current go-to card. The reason is that we’re no longer trying to earn specific types of miles for this trip, but instead need our points to work for us to help to offset miscellaneous trip costs. The Arrival cards earn 2x points on ALL purchases; so we don’t have to worry about switching out cards based on category spend.

The best way to maximize Arrival points is to redeem for travel statement credits. This includes most transportation, lodging and travel booking services.

For example, let’s say we are staying in a small town in Argentina and there are no chain hotels where we can book with points. We can walk into a small guesthouse that’s $100, pay with our Arrival, and then log-in to our account to apply 10,000 points for a travel statement credit of $100 to essentially wipe away that purchase. Then we would get 1,000 points (10%) back in our account. We love the flexibility this offers!

*Note that after November’s changes to the card the minimum redemption amount is 10,000 points, and the rebate dropped to 5%. For current cardholders who got the card after October 1, 2014, these changes don’t go in to effect until August 2016. We got this card before that date, but since mine was after we’ll be able to use it with the better rates for the entirety of our trip.


Hooray for better benefits lasting for a few more months!

Capital One Venture Points
Despite Jennifer Garner’s and Samuel L. Jackson’s claims that this is the best card out there, it doesn’t get a lot of play among most points and miles collectors. It works quite similar to the process for Arrival points: earns 2x points on all purchases and you can redeem against travel purchases for statement credits (but without the bonus rebate). The thing I like about this card versus the Arrival is the annual fee is lower at $59 vs. $89. But beware Capital One typically pulls your credit from all three credit bureaus. We got this card to diversify since we didn’t have any Cap One cards. Not sure we’d get it again, but since it’s our only other 2x card we do have it with us on the trip to use in case we were to lose or have issues with the Arrival.

We have several Citi Thank You Points-earning cards between us. Like Ultimate Rewards these points are quite diverse and can be used in a variety of ways. I’ll be posting soon in more detail about our experiences booking hotels and airfare on Thank You points, but in the meantime check out The Points Guy’s overview of all your Citi redemption options.

American Express Membership Rewards

Saved this one for last because to be honest I’ve just been hoarding these points for awhile and have yet to actually redeem them. I don’t know much about how they work, though they are among the most valuable points currency according to most of the bloggers I follow. We only have one Membership Rewards earning card, the business gold card. I’m hoping to use our points to book our flights within Asia, which I should be doing in the next month or so.

Having too much fun exploring quiet streets to redeem my Membership Rewards at the moment.

Having too much fun exploring quiet streets to redeem my Membership Rewards at the moment.

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