How to Tackle Your Bucket List With Points, Miles and Deals

Bucket list trips don't have to cost a fortune. Here are 10 tips on how to use points, miles and deals to afford that once-in-a-lifetime trip sooner than imagined.

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Take Advantage of Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses and Points

"There is no doubt that rewards credit cards and their 50,000 to 100,000 point sign-up bonuses are the fastest and cheapest ways to get almost free flights and hotel stays," says Summer Hull of Mommy Points. "For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve gets you 100,000 points worth $1,500 in travel with $4,000 in purchases. Of course many of those cards do have annual fees and you won't come out on top in the long run if you don't pay off the balances each month to avoid interest," she says. Experts across the board recommend Chase Sapphire Preferred as one of the best cards for accruing points. Editor-in-Chief of The Points Guy Zach Honig says, “Not only does this card offer 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months, those points are much more flexible than the points and miles you’ll earn directly with a hotel or airline, since you can transfer them to a partner when you’re ready to book an award, or redeem them for paid flights, hotel stays and some other travel expenses directly through Chase.” Other recommendations for racking up points include Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi Thank You Points and the Starwood Preferred Guest Program.

Accumulate Points and Miles at Participating Vendors

Shopping portals are another way to earn points and miles. Visit aggregator sites such as Evreward or Cashback Monitor, which list how many points or miles you’ll earn from shopping at your favorite stores via major airline and hotel portals. The Points Guy, The Travel Sisters and Million Mile Secrets are among the many travel sites that provide extensive tips on how to maximize this strategy.

Don't overlook eating out as a way to acheive your dream trip. For example, the Rewards Network consists of more than 11,000 participating dining establishments, and it’s free to join. Just link a credit card and search whether you want to earn points with airlines or hotels.

Join Hotel and Airline Loyalty Programs

"It may sound simplistic, but the loyalty programs that save you the most money are the ones you’re actually able to use. It doesn’t make sense to earn Hyatt points if you don’t ever plan to stay at a Hyatt hotel, though the same doesn’t necessarily apply to airlines," says Honig from The Points Guy. "The major U.S. carriers all allow you to redeem miles with partners, too — in some cases 30 or more international-based airlines — giving you a ton of options when it comes time to book free flights. My favorite U.S. airline program is United MileagePlus, since I find that it offers the best award availability, especially on partners like Lufthansa and Thai," he says.

For those who aren’t brand loyal, particularly with hotels, Brent and Jackie Blum of Out of Office suggest Hotels.com for its reward program. "It cuts across major and boutique hotels and lets you accrue rewards points across all of them (letting your points rack up faster)." This means a free night’s stay after spending 10 nights at any of the 275,000 eligible hotels. The Blums add that Hotels.com also price matches popular sites like Booking.com, Priceline and Hotel Tonight. The site also offers secret prices only available to reward members. Plus, it’s free to join.

Manage Miles and Points

Keeping track of various miles and points can become time-consuming and overwhelming. Instead, use sites like AwardWallet, a free service that tracks all of your reward programs in one easy-to-use place. It alerts you to any points that are about to expire. (Unfortunately, some reward points expire in as little as a year if there’s no activity.) TripIt is a handy service that organizes your entire trip itinerary; all you have to do is forward email confirmations for hotels, flights and restaurants. Even better, upgrade for a small annual fee to TripIt Pro, and it will also automatically update your points and miles. Points.com is another worthwhile service; besides doing the dirty work of tracking, it also allows you to transfer your points and miles between loyalty programs.

Volunteer to be Bumped From a Flight

You’ve probably experienced hearing a gate agent ask for volunteers to be bumped from a full flight. Arthur Hsu, a digital producer at TravelChannel.com, not only received a $1,000 credit from Delta by going this route, but he says he even got home three hours sooner. Since agents don’t always ask for volunteers, Hsu advises letting them know you're willing to be bumped, just in case.

Be Flexible

This includes your flexibility to be bumped, travel dates and which airports you’re willing and able to fly to and from. Sam Huang, the founder of TopMiles.com, notes that flexibility comes in handy during the holidays, when award seats are often blacked out on international flights, but sometimes open up. If you're not redeeming points, Huang recommends using the Google power matrix tool for finding the lowest fares with flexible dates and airports.

Make Use of Stopover Programs

Though not always widely advertised, quite a number of airlines offer the opportunity to spend a few days in a hub city before continuing on to your destination — without paying extra airfare. Icelandair is one of the best-known stopover programs; not only does it allow you to stay a full week in Reykjavik, but last year it also added a free buddy service, which paired travelers with Icelandair hosts upon request. This year it’s offering a twist by offering stopover buddies to help plan celebrations. Other airlines offering stopovers include Emirates (Dubai), Air France (Paris) and Turkish Airlines (Istanbul).

Monitor Deals

The Flight Deal, Booking.com and Travelzoo are among the many sites to find discounts on everything from flights and hotels to travel packages. Since it’s not realistic to spend every free moment searching for deals, Matilda Geroulis of The Travel Sisters advises, "Sign up for email alerts from websites such as AirfareWatchdog, and they will email you when there is a low fare on your chosen route." It doesn’t hurt to continue monitoring a fare after you’ve booked, since some airlines will honor a lower price. Sign up for newsletters to stay informed of daily and weekly deal roundups. You can also find amazing deals on auction sites such as Priceline and Sky Auction. If you’re worried about the unknown factor of what you’re bidding on with the former, check The Bidding Traveler first, which reveals recent winning bids, along with the actual hotel names.

Use Apps

If you can wait until the last minute to book a hotel, the Hotel Tonight app offers deep discounts on (literally) last-minute deals at both basic and high-end hotels around the world. Skyscanner factors in both major and budget airlines, and often finds cheaper fares than other major sites. Hopper is useful for monitoring the cheapest months to fly and suggesting the best time to buy. Yapta not only tracks fares and alerts you to price drops, but it also continues tracking the fare until you leave, helping you reap a potential refund.

Grab Mistake Fares

Mistake fares are simply too-good-to-be-true fares that an airline or hotel posts in error, and which they usually catch and correct pretty quickly. However, if you diligently monitor certain sites that announce these, scoring one isn’t impossible. "Twitter accounts that tweet fare sales and mistake fares include @theflightdeal, @airfarewatchdog and @secretflying," says Geroulis of The Travel Sisters.

Just be sure to wait for a confirmation from the airline or hotel before booking the rest of your trip, since there’s no guarantee that a mistake fare will be honored.