After returning from a relaxing 12-day trip to Hawaii, I unpacked my suitcase and sorted through vacation photos. You know what I didn't do? Nervously wait for the credit card bills to arrive. Using reward points and some creative thinking, I spent less than $2,500 on a trip for four to Kauai and Oahu. Throughout the year, I charge most of my purchases to a rewards credit card and then pay it off every month to avoid interest. I am also lucky enough that my husband's company lets him keep the frequent-flier miles he earns on monthly business trips. Over the years, we have put together budget trips to exotic locations including Alaska and Costa Rica using points and miles.

If you want to take that dream vacation on a budget, utilizing credit card points and miles is one of the best ways to do so. There are two primary stages to take full advantage of your credit card benefits for that perfect trip: booking your itinerary and then traveling.

When booking your trip, consider these tips:

Be flexible

When we began researching the trip, we were willing to travel anytime during my children's three-week fall break from school. We were also open to visiting any of the Hawaiian islands, though Kauai was my preference. Our flexibility, along with traveling off-season, helped us snag tickets at the lowest reward level.

"Airlines have different tiers of rewards available. If you are dead set on a certain day, you may spend more miles on the ticket than if you were willing to leave a day earlier or have an extra layover," says Matthew Klint, Live and Let's Fly senior editor. "You can save hundreds of thousands of miles on tickets for a family if you are a little flexible."

Consider alternate airports

At this point in the planning process, we had enough miles to fly to Kauai but not enough to cover round-trip tickets. Luckily, we soon found a flight home out of Honolulu and were happy to discover cheap inter-island flight options from Kauai to Oahu. Positioning flights to a nearby airport can be a huge money and points saver. John Ulzheimer, founder of CreditExpertWitness.com, says to look into flying in and out of nearby airports which may have more frequent-flier availability—Midayway instead of O'Hare, for example, or Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami. When looking at the alternatives, don't forget to factor in extra costs—gas, parking and time—in order to ensure your plan makes financial sense.

Check all available points options

Since we were going through Oahu to maximize frequent-flier miles on our way home, we decided to stay overnight and visit Pearl Harbor. We checked on one of our little-used credit cards and realized that our rewards points had really added up over the years. Instead of paying out of pocket for a room, we redeemed our points and stayed at a boutique hotel where we could see the sunrise over Waikiki from our bed. If you don't have enough points for a hotel or car, Ulzheimer recommends redeeming points for a gift card that you can use on your trip to cover items like food or gas. Also, be sure to check your hotel and airline accounts to see if you have points/miles that have accrued to redeem for your trip.

Be creative with lodging

Since we didn't have enough rewards points to pay for 12 nights of lodging, we asked my husband's parents to let us trade their timeshare as our Christmas present. Instead of paying thousands for a hotel room overlooking the ocean, we only had to pay a $200 trade fee. While you might not have a relative with a timeshare, you may have a friend with a beach house or a client who might be willing to give you a reduced rate on their mountain cottage.

Use the best rewards cards for booking

When I pulled out my credit card to pay for our boat ride down the Na Pali Coast, I made sure to use the card that offers the highest rewards points, effectively kick-starting plans for a future getaway to Belize while still soaking up the sun in Hawaii.

"Some cards give up to 5% cash back on travel expenses, which can be a great jumping off point for your next trip," Ulzheimer says.

So, now that your trip is booked it is now time to travel. Here are some tips for saving money while traveling and getting the most out of your card:

Use a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card for international travel

If you travel overseas several times each year, then you may want to consider getting a credit card that waives the foreign transaction fee on all purchases. “These credit cards are typically also fantastic cards for people that travel regularly,” says Ulzheimer. You shouldn't worry too much about the annual fee because the benefits outweigh the cost so the cost usually comes out as a wash.”

You may be surprised to learn that you have a no-foreign-transaction fee card in your wallet already. If you're unsure, call your customer service representative or check on your card's website.

Avoid dynamic currency conversion

"If you are billed in U.S. dollars, you don't usually get the best conversion rate because the vendor gets a cut, which is called Dynamic Currency Conversion," says author and credit expert, Beverly Harzog. "This is one way you can still find yourself paying a fee with a no-foreign-transaction-fee card." She recommends asking to be billed in the local foreign currency instead of U.S. dollars when paying with your credit card, regardless of the foreign transaction fee policy of the card.

Use your credit card travel coverages

Many travel credit cards are packed with travel coverages and benefits. These can help save you a lot of money while you’re on the road. For instance, if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card, you have an Emergency Evacuation and Transportation benefit that can cover for medical services and transportation up to $100,000 if you or a member of your immediate family are injured or become sick during a trip far from home that results in an emergency evacuation. Many cards have coverage for auto rental collisions, trip delays, baggage delays, etc. so if you have a situation arise where you need some help be sure to utilize the coverages that can help cover you.

Avoid frequent withdrawals from ATMs

While many travelers try to limit the amount of cash they are carrying to prevent losing money to theft, they make frequent trips which results in a large amount of fees by the time they head home. Check with your bank before leaving to find out what fees you may incur and consider taking out money in larger sums to reduce the number of withdrawals.

Featured Partner Cards

loading