How To Maximize Credit Card Reward Points for Free Travel

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My time spent researching and exploring redemption terms and conditions has finally convinced me that credit card rewards programs are a viable way to earn travel rewards. Next week, my boyfriend and I are headed on a whirlwind trip across the United States and will be traveling for the majority of our 6,600+ mile trip for free. Read on to find out how we maximized the conversion of credit card rewards points to put together a really amazing trip.

Step 1: Earn Rewards Points

Blogs like The Points Guy have calculated that Chase cards offer some of the most valuable points around. My boyfriend earned his new customer bonus points (offer details) on his Chase Sapphire Preferred card while using it for his business travels around the world. I have two cash back Citi Cards and always have been skeptical of cards offering rewards points. Could they really be worth it?

Step 2: Figure Out Points Value for Redemption

The points value for Chase Ultimate Rewards is fairly simple:

  • 1 point = $.01 cash back
  • 1 point = $.0125 when booking through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center
  • 1 point = 1 partner (mile or point) when transferred

That last point about transferring points to partner programs at a 1:1 ratio? That’s key. Our first thought was to book a flight with multiple stop-overs. Now that so many airline carriers have changed the way we earn and redeem rewards, it’s harder than ever to find a flight for a low amount of miles (let alone two flights as a couple). We thought about redeeming points for hotel nights, but apps like Airbnb and HotelTonight have made our accommodation more affordable than ever. Then, we noticed Amtrak Guest Rewards is a Chase Ultimate Rewards partner.

Step 3: Enroll in Amtrak Guest Rewards

When you enroll in  Amtrak Guest Rewards you will receive 500 bonus points automatically. At the time of this post, you will continue to earn 2 points for every dollar spent on Amtrak (with a 100-point minimum, no matter the price of your fare). Frequent Amtrak travelers, specifically Northeast Regional travelers, can really benefit from those redemption rules.

Step 4: Maximize Your Route

After you check the Blackout Dates calendar, view the Amtrak Reward Zone Map. Because we live in New York City, Northeast Regional train fare can be as little as $50 each way. Spending 4,000 points on a coach seat just doesn't make sense. Instead, we looked for the longest possible route across two Amtrak zones, like Chicago to Los Angeles or New Orleans to Seattle, to maximize our points value. For two zones of travel, a Superliner Roomette costs 20,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points. The best part? The Roomette ticket is valid for two travelers.

 
amtrak sunset limited route.png

We transferred 20,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak Guest Rewards and booked a trip for two people to travel across America at a redemption value of around $.07 per point (the retail cost for a roomette ranges from $1,500 to $1,700). Did I mention our Superliner Roomette also includes:

  • Two free bags
  • Access to Acela Club Lounges
  • Roomette with two reclining seats facing a panoramic window (and nightly turn-down service to convert it into beds)
  • Fresh towels, linens and soap (you can always upgrade to the Superliner Bedroom for an in-room bathroom)
  • All meals (and they offer a lot more than hot dogs and hamburgers!) and bottled water

We'll fly to New Orleans with Delta early Sunday morning in order to take advantage of a full day of touring before our Sunset Limited train departs early Monday morning. The Sunset Limited is one of Amtrak’s least traveled train routes. The stops range duration from several hours to several minutes while we pass through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. We really want maximize our daylight hours in the panoramic lounge car, so summer seemed like the best time to book this trip.

Once in Los Angeles, we’ll have breakfast with our friends before boarding the Coast Starlight bound for Portland, Oregon. After a couple days in Portland, we’ll be renting a car to travel up to Seattle, Washington before I fly back on American Airlines to New York City.

I'm so excited my dream of seeing more of this great big country is finally coming true! You can follow along as always on @onecarryon on Twitter and Instagram.

Have you ever redeemed rewards points for travel?

UPDATE 9/1: Amtrak just announced they are changing their Guest Rewards program in 2016.  Essentially, the same cross-country trip I outlined above will now cost double the amount of Guest Reward points! More details can be found here.