Rewards Credit Cards

5 Ways to Use Credit Card Rewards to Take Your Dream Vacation

My husband and I recently took the trip of a lifetime to Singapore and Malaysia, flying first class and staying at 4- and 5-star hotels. You're probably thinking this cost an arm and a leg—in fact, it only cost a few hundred dollars thanks to the smart use of our rewards points. Even better, you can do it too!

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Below are the five key steps to make your own dream vacation happen with points. But first, a brief recap of our trip, which included:

  • First class round-trip flights on Singapore Airlines to Singapore
  • 5 nights at the JW Marriott Singapore South Beach
  • 1 night at the Courtyard by Marriott Singapore Novena
  • 2 nights at the Le Méridien in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
  • 1 night at the JW Marriott LA Live in Los Angeles
  • Free breakfast buffets every morning
  • Access to travel lounges with food, drinks, dining areas, comfortable chairs, and even showers.

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1. Work That Sign Up Bonus

In 2016, we signed up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card, which offered a 100,000-point bonus for signing up and spending a certain amount in the first few months. We both got the card separately, instead of just getting one card and adding a user —which enabled us to rack up 200,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points right off the bat.

While that bonus is currently down to 60,000, there are still several great options for getting tons of bonus points. But you want to make sure to find the right card for you—so you're not just spending to get points. Read more here for how to make the most of credit card sign-up bonus offers.

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2. Put as Much as Possible on That One Card

For the past few years, we put everything we could on those Chase cards so we'd get the big bonus and then collect more points toward a big trip. Of course, you shouldn't be racking up credit card debt along the way, as that will hurt you in the long run.

This rule is meant for those regular purchases you've got in your budget and can pay off every month—groceries, gas, your cell phone and internet bills, and utilities if possible (we are even able to put our daycare expenses on our card).

By charging these things to your rewards credit card, you can rack up points for everyday things you'd be buying anyway. Make sure you pay attention to things that make your rewards less valuable like interest rates (if you do carry any balance), credit card fees, or transaction/ processing fees—sometimes companies will charge a processing fee to use a card because they're paying the fee.

Also, depending on the airline and whether you're traveling domestically or internationally you'll also likely have some fees to redeem your airline miles. This can cost a few dollars to a few hundred dollars depending on the airline and the distance of the trip.

Another hack: If you use a personal credit card for work and are reimbursed for expenses, use this rewards credit card for work-related costs and travel. That can help points add up quickly, and there's nothing coming out of your pocket (as long as you make sure to fill out your expense report on time).

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3. Do Your Research

We spent a lot of time searching the Singapore Airlines website to find potential target dates when we could get the best deal with points. Many airlines and rewards programs have different points levels.

For instance, Singapore Airlines' KrisFlyer program offers different levels for redemption, with Saver being the more affordable option using fewer points. It's easy to see both when searching for rewards flights on the Singapore Airlines site (you do need to have a KrisFlyer membership to search for rewards flights).

Many of the first class or suites flights on Singapore Airlines book up quickly, so you may also see a ‘Waitlist' option. They'll let you waitlist multiple flights so you can look at different routes to get to your desired destination. One important note is that you must have enough points to waitlist on a flight.

Other airlines, like Delta, have point tiers based on the class of the ticket and dates, so you'll just have to spend some time on the various sites you're using for your rewards travel.

A few things to note if you use the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program (this will be the case if you have Chase rewards cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card or the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card):

  • For some partners like Singapore Airlines, you'll need to actually transfer the points to that frequent flyer program first. Once we determined which flights were available for purchase or waitlisting for our Singapore trip, we then had to transfer the points to the Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer account we created.
  • You can't transfer points back to Chase. In fact, once you transfer points to another rewards program you typically can't transfer them back (and even if you can, you will usually pay a fee). So you want to be 100% sure about your destination and estimated timing, aware of the flight availability and know the number of points you'll need for your tickets.

Make sure you also look at any perks offered with your rewards programs so you get the most out of them. If you or the person you're traveling with is a frequent traveler, you may have a certain status with a hotel. We got to enjoy my husband's Platinum Elite status with Marriott Rewards since he travels a lot for work. At the JW Marriott in Singapore, this included a delicious breakfast buffet at their restaurant, Beach Road Kitchen, which was the equivalent of a $100 SGD brunch (the equivalent of $73 USD). Not too shabby.

You can plan around the perks, too. For instance, not all Marriotts have an executive lounge, so we picked the JW Marriott in Singapore for most nights, which cost a few more points but had an Executive Lounge with free afternoon tea, and evening hors-d'oeuvres and cocktails. We did stay one night at the Courtyard because, well, just look at this infinity pool.

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4. Combine Everything

If you're traveling with a partner, look at your total rewards points for both of your accounts. For our trip, we used a combination of Delta SkyMiles, Chase Ultimate Rewards (converted into KrisFlyer points), Marriott Rewards, and SPG Starpoints.

I transferred Marriott Rewards and SPG Starpoints to my husband to combine our points for reservations. We were able to get some amazing rooms at the JW Marriott in Singapore and the Le Meridien in Malaysia using points, along with another room at the Courtyard in Singapore, by tallying up all our points from various business trips and vacations.

If you travel at all, make sure you're signed up for loyalty programs for hotels and airlines that you commonly use. The more you can use one, the better. It also worked out well for us that Starwood and Marriott recently merged, since we had points with both and could transfer between the two rewards programs.

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5. Enjoy the Ride

Now, you get to reap the rewards. One of the coolest experiences on this trip was flying first class on Singapore Airlines. You start with Dom Perignon or Krug champagne before takeoff, and you basically have your own cubby to sit in, which later the amazing flight attendants help you make into a lay-flat bed.

Then you enjoy delicious meals throughout the flight. Singapore Airlines also offers a "Book the Cook" program, which gives you more food options in addition to the several choices you'll get on the airplane itself (as long as you select the food 24 hours in advance of your flight). It's fun to go through the menu with choices such as lobster, Korean beef bulgogi, Chilean sea bass, steak, and more. You can even select things such as a fruit-only meal or options for Kosher, vegetarian, and other special diets.

You also get fun add-ons like comfy pajamas and a set of toiletries. The service is stellar from start to finish, and you will feel like royalty flying with them. When there isn't turbulence, you sometimes forget you're even on an airplane. The crew is attentive and friendly while giving you space when you want it.

Let's just say my first flight after this one in coach was a jolt back to reality.

The first class lounges also blew my mind. We got access to The Private Room in Singapore, which is only accessible to anyone flying first or suites classes. Tasty champagne and wine, delicious food, spacious showers, a dining room, and comfy chairs make a layover rather pleasant. The hotels were great as well—luxurious rooms, amazing views, great food, and incredibly helpful staff.

Needless to say, we're looking forward to planning our next rewards trip. My husband has his eyes set on the Maldives—what's on your bucket list?

The information related to the Chase Sapphire Reserve® credit card has been collected by Experian and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card.