Beginner’s Guide to your First Free Trip!
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Beginner’s Guide to your First Free Trip!

Alright, I’ll come clean right away. Free is a bit of a stretch, but you can achieve 80-90% discounts on your largest travel expenses if you’re willing to learn some tricks and tips. This way more of your budget can be spent on experiencing tours or sampling delicious foreign food in your dream destination. 

Note that the following details are targeted towards Canadians, however the philosophy applies to most western countries.

How to get free flights

Earning Travel Points Fast

Most people’s largest travel expense is thankfully also the easiest to solve. Most people know that credit cards can give you a point or two for each dollar you spend for your favourite airline, but aren’t thrilled about collecting points for a lifetime in the hopes of a free trip. 

A single welcome bonus on a new credit card can surpass years of regular spending and earning on an older travel card. This welcome bonus could be enough for a round-trip flight to most parts of the world.

For example, the AMEX Gold Card has a welcome bonus of 70,000 points, which can be converted to Aeroplan. This is more than enough for a round-trip flight to anywhere in North America, Europe, or Hawaii. As the net annual fee on this card is $150, and you'll only be paying for some airport taxes, your flight cost is down from $1,000 or more to just $200.

Travel hacking is best done in two-player mode. After receiving your card, you can refer your partner to the same card for a referral bonus. If you each get a card you'd have over 150,000 AMEX Membership Rewards points to use on flights. This amount of points is worth thousands when used for free flights - all for $300 in fees. 150k AMEX MR would be enough to fly a family of 4 to Hawaii. You could also use it for 2 business class seats to Saint Lucia.

We have a more detailed guide here with more information on travel hacking including the current best offers in Canada to quickly earn travel points and airline miles.

Free trip booked on Aeroplan - how to get a free flight.

Spending Travel Points To Get Free Flights

We now see how easy it can be to get a very large amount of points. A welcome bonus from a single credit card can give us hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of points in free flights. The tricky part is spending these points efficiently.

Those unaware of travel hacking often redeem their points for statement credits, gift cards and merchandise. Using our example above, these 150,000 AMEX MR points could be used for $1,500 in statement credits, or products with a valuation in the same ballpark. This may be enticing to some, however they'd be missing out on the best redemption - booking free flights. The 4 round-trip tickets to Hawaii are worth over $2,000. The 2 round-trip seats to Saint Lucia are worth nearly $10,000.

AMEX MR points are a flexible currency that can be used in Amex's own travel portal to search for flights or hotels, or they can be transferred to Aeroplan and 5 other airlines. Before you transfer any points, search for the reward flight you want to book with Aeroplan. Point-costs of flights can vary significantly from day to day, so you'll need to be flexible. Only after you find your desired flight, you can log into your AMEX account, choose Rewards & Benefits, Redeem Points, then Transfer Points under the Use Points drop-down. You'll have access to your Aeroplan points in minutes.

Use Aeroplan's Flight Reward Chart to get an idea of the typical point cost of your flight. When booking your Aeroplan reward ticket, use an Aeroplan branded credit card to pay for the airport taxes to receive free travel insurance.

As mentioned, finding available reward flights at a fair valuation can be tricky. Reward flights are usually released for availability roughly 360 days in advance, so booking nearly a year in the future will provide the best results. This is especially important for highly sought-after business class tickets.

How to get free hotel stays

Collecting & Redeeming Hotel Points

Getting free nights at hotels is unfortunately not as easy a flight. For example, the round-trip flight you need to your destination may cost 50,000 points. Meanwhile each night at your resort may cost 50,000 points or more.

Not only is the volume of points needed higher, but they're also more difficult to earn. We have dozens of credit card options for earning airline miles, however there is only one hotel-branded card in Canada - the Marriott Bonvoy AMEX Card. The card currently has a welcome bonus of 70,000 points, nearing the all-time high offer

If you refer your partner to this card, you'd find yourselves with over 150,000 points. This can be enough for 4+ nights at a mid-range hotels. Aim to take advantage of the Book 5, Pay for 4 promotion on any reward point redemption with Marriott. This can already save a ton of money on your trip.

If you want to go further, the link above will explain that the Marriott Bonvoy card has a business version of the card as well. Another sign-up and referral would lead to an additional 165,000 points. If happen to find availability, this could be enough for 5 nights at JW Marriott Resort in the Maldives.

It's worth mentioning that AMEX points are also transferable to Marriott and Hilton. However Aeroplan points can be redeemed for 3 cents or more each, while its difficult to get more than 1 cent of value out of a hotel points. It's best to save your AMEX Membership Rewards for flights. If you're just a few thousand points short on making that Marriott redemption, then go ahead and transfer from AMEX.

How to stay with Mariott Hotel for free using the AMEX Marriott card.

Using Flexible Travel Rewards

As you can see above, unless Marriott can meet your needs, then it sounds like we're out of luck in terms of getting free hotel stays as Canadians. This is not entirely true however - this is where we can use flexible rewards currencies offered by the major banks.

Bank points aren't worth as much as airline points, but are more flexible, and have a set value. TD points can be used on any travel spending booked through Expedia at a half a cent per point. Aventura has frequent promotions that allows you to make a travel purchase with your credit card anywhere you like, and then apply your points for a statement credit at 1.25 cents per point.

The TD FCT VI and the CIBC Aventura VI can each save you over $500 on your hotels with their current offers. You and your travel partner each getting a card would likely cover your hotel costs in full.

Getting Free Night Hotel Credits

There is one additional benefit of the previously mentioned Marriott Bonvoy AMEX card - the annual free night credit. Every year, if you and your partner each hold this card, you'd receive two free hotel nights at a Marriott hotel worth 35,000 points or less. Of course you'd have four free hotel stays per year if you each also hold the business version of the card.

Calling this a free hotel stay is of course not fully accurate, as you're receiving this for paying an annual fee of $120. However given that you can find stays worth well over $500 to use this free night credit on, it's easy to see why this card is so highly rated.

Free Travel Perks

Minor costs of a trip can quickly add up. The great thing about travel hacking is that not only are you collecting points quickly and redeeming for free trips, but you get perks that elevate your experience.

Airport Lounges

Probably our favourite benefit is being able to relax at a premium business lounge before our flights. The unlimited drinks and buffet for free is a huge quality-of-life upgrade from paying $12 for an airport sandwich. Lounge visits usually cost ~$35. We estimate that we each visited 20 airport lounges last year for free.

Many Visa Infinite and World Elite Mastercards offer DragonPass membership. These cards typically give 4 or 6 free lounge entries for you and your guests each year. DragonPass membership gives you access to 1300+ lounges in airports around the world. The CIBC Aventura Visa Infinite has the current best offer of all cards offering free DragonPass membership.

The second major lounge network available to Canadians for free is Priority Pass. The AMEX Gold Card gives you 4 free entries annually to Plaza Premium lounges, while the Platinum Card provides unlimited access.

Insurance

Just about every premium credit card you have will offer you free travel insurance when you book the cost of the trip to your card. This includes travel medical insurance, trip cancellation insurance, and rental car coverage.

Be aware that many credit cards will not extend coverage for flights booked on points. The exception is when you book an Aeroplan flight with an Aeroplan credit card - then you'll be fully covered.

Free Air Canada Baggage

Once again, Air Canada Aeroplan is the only valid travel hacking option in Canada for this perk. Holders of the CIBC or TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite cards are entitled to a free checked bag on their Aeroplan flight, as are holders of the Aeroplan AMEX cards. On top of this, premium Aeroplan credit card holders will be given preferential pricing on both cash and points flights.

Air Canada Aeroplan flight booked for free from travel hacking.

Free Hotel Elite Status

Several cards will provide instant elite status with major hotel chains. Elite status can be used for free late checkouts, room upgrades, and other welcome gifts.

The Marriott Bonvoy AMEX provides you with immediate Silver Elite status, as well as 15 Elite Night Credits. With these 15 credits and 10 paid nights, you'd be upgraded to Gold Elite. Silver Elite status will allow you to earn points faster, get preferential pricing on rooms, and entitlement to late checkouts.

The AMEX Platinum Card grants Gold Elite status with both Marriott and Hilton. Gold Elite provides a free room upgrade, subject to availability. With Hilton you may also receive free breakfast or another welcome gift.

No Foreign Exchange Fees

Most credit cards charge 2.5% foreign exchange fees. Exchanging cash often costs significantly more. Having a card that saves you this fee on all your restaurants and other purchases during your trip can save a lot.

The Brim Mastercard is the only card without an annual fee in Canada that offers this benefit. It's a great sock drawer card that you only pull out for your occasional vacation. The current best offer on a premium card which offers no foreign exchange fees is the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite. The welcome bonus is worth over $400 when combined with Great Canadian Rebates, and also offers lounge access.

Conclusion

There you have it - it's surprising how easy it can be to get a free trip. You and your travel partner choose the right travel card, you can get a 90% discount on your flights. Another card each can give you access to free hotel stays. The free lounges and perks on top of all this is the cherry on top.

If you're interested in learning more, or seeing the current best credit card offers in Canada, click here.

We saved over $25,000 in 2023 from travel hacking. Click here for details.

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