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Travel for Free: Top 6 Tips on How to Game the Credit Card Reward System

April 9, 2019
4 mins
A pile of three credit cards

To simply say I love credit cards is an understatement. Currently, I have more than 10 active cards, which is much more than the average person will ever need at once, but I use them all for a variety of reasons.

When you know how to game the reward system and reap the benefits of different cards, the possibilities are endless, especially with regard to travel rewards. I’ve flown to Hong Kong on points, and just recently, I stayed at the Marriott Amsterdam hotel for a week solely on credit card points. Now, imagine if I had to pay for that flight and hotel in cash; I would have spent more than $6,000. So you can see why I get so excited over using my credit cards.

Mind you, I’m pretty open about how I use my credit cards, and I likely spend a lot more on them in comparison to the average person. But as long as you’re careful about how and where you spend, here’s how any average person can take advantage of the system and reap all the benefits that credit cards have to offer.

Tip #1: Look out for sign-up bonuses

Without a doubt, sign-up bonuses are one of the best ways to travel for free. For example, the Scotiabank Passport® Visa Infinite* Card comes with 25,000 Scotia Rewards points when you spend $1,000 in the first three months. Those points are worth $250 that can be redeemed for flights or accommodations through the Scotia Rewards system – not a bad starting point.

Think about it this way: If you were to divide the required spend by month, you would only need to spend $333 per month in order to get those bonus points. If you throw your daily living expenses, groceries, and transportation costs on the card, you’ll surely reach that $333-mark in no time. However, when opting for a card with a sign-up bonus, beware of the annual fee. If the card has no fee or a first-year waiver, then there should be no issue.

On the flip side, if the card does have an annual fee, you should measure it up against the sign-up bonus. For example, the Scotiabank Passport® Visa Infinite* Card does come with an annual fee of $139, but the sign-up bonus alone has a value of $250, so you’re still technically getting a $111 bonus for making purchases you would’ve made anyway.

My personal rule-of-thumb is if the sign-up bonus has a value of $200 or more, I’ll still go ahead and apply and try out the card out for a year.

Tip #2: Get free travel insurance coverage

Some of the best travel credit cards come with a comprehensive travel insurance package. This is obviously great since it can save you a few hundred dollars every year if you travel often, but more importantly, it protects you in the event you get sick abroad or ever run into a situation when need to make a claim.

With flight delay insurance, you may be entitled to claim a hotel room, meals, and a few incidentals if your flight is delayed (usually by more than four to six hours). I personally used this coverage on more than one occasion and it was a huge relief. I didn’t have to hound my airline to provide me with accommodations or meal vouchers when my flight was delayed for long periods of time; my travel insurance allowed me to make the best out of a bad situation. Remember, every insurance policy is different, so always read the fine print, and call your card provider if you have any questions.

Tip #3: Use multipliers

Many credit cards allow you to earn more points when spending at merchants that fall into specific categories, such as grocery, drug stores, gas, recurring bill payments, etc. So if you happen to spend a lot on one of those categories, you could easily rack up those points.

For example, I have the Scotiabank®* Gold American Express® Card, that earns four points per dollar spent on gas, grocery, dining, and entertainment purchases. Otherwise, I only get one point per dollar spent on the card. With these category multipliers, it’s easy to earn points fast on life’s typical expenses.

So, if you’re strategic about the way you spend, you can organize your expenses so you only use the cards with multipliers in specific categories (go grocery shopping with the card that earns you the most points in the grocery category, pay for gas with the card that earns you the most points in the gas category, etc.).

Tip #4: Get access to airport lounges

Admittedly, this tip isn’t a deal breaker. Having lounge access doesn’t save you a ton of money since you’re really just getting meals and snacks, but what makes it appealing is the comfort. Many lounges offer comfortable seating, free Wi-Fi, and entertainment while you wait for your flight. You may even have access to a shower and bed which is a nice way to refresh and recharge if you have a long layover. Some people don’t put a lot of value on lounge passes, but to access them, you would normally need a membership or to pay for individual visits, so there is value in this feature.

Tip #5: Double dip your rewards

Another way to earn more points is to double dip where possible. For example, if you have a PC Optimum card, you can earn PC Optimum Points when you shop at Shoppers Drug Mart or participating stores where President’s Choice products are sold. Just scan your loyalty card at checkout to earn points. But if you also pay with a President’s Choice Financial® Mastercard®, you can earn additional points with every purchase.

Now, you may be wondering how PC Optimum Points help me travel for less? Well, whenever I use those points to save on groceries, I take the amount I saved and put it towards my travel fund. There are also merchants that allow you to collect Aeroplan points or AIR MILES, so always have your loyalty and co-branded credit cards handy.

Tip #6: Look for reward redemption flexibility with multiple partners

Any loyalty program with multiple partners or brands appeals to me more since it gives me options. For instance, with Marriott Rewards, I can use my points at 6,500+ properties in 110 countries. They also have 30+ airline partners where I can transfer my points.

With regard to point redemption, flexibility is key, so I’m not obligated to always book with a specific airline or hotel chain (watch out for programs with redemption blackout periods as well!). This is another reason why I have so many active credit cards; I tend to collect points with various programs since I know I have the option to use them eventually anywhere.

Juggling all these cards and mapping out where and when you can use them may be too much of a hassle for some people. Depending on your dedication and how determined you are to game the system, it may make more sense to just stick to a rewards program that allows you to redeem all your points for any type of travel, with no restrictions. Credit cards have helped me save on travel and they can help you too. That being said, don’t forget to be responsible with your spending and to always pay the full balance every month so you don’t incur any interest charges.

Barry Choi

Barry Choi is a personal finance and budget travel expert at He has been quoted by media in Canada and the United States including The Financial Post, The Toronto Star, Business Insider, The Globe and Mail, and has appeared on HuffPost Live.

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