I love free stuff. Free samples, free trips, complimentary drinks… I want them all. Like, did you know the salad dressing cup at Whole Foods can double as a sample cup? I’ve eaten entire meals that way.
I’m a generally lazy person, but if you make work a game to get free stuff then I’m the most industrious human alive. In high school, I worked at Banana Republic. I was more or less a terrible employee who spent 90 percent of my time being yelled at for leaving a pile of sweaters unfolded because I’d migrated over to the men’s section to flirt. That is, unless there was a seasonal promotion going on where you’d win a free outfit for having the highest sales. Suddenly, I was a star employee/rockstar. I would go into warrior mode, getting people to invest in poorly made, expensive shoes and selling high-waisted pants to housewives like it was my job (It was. It was precisely my job).
When my husband and I had just started dating, the Jewel-Osco (a Midwestern grocery store) in our neighborhood was running this promotion where you received stickers for shopping there that you could turn in for cookware. Ten dollars equaled one sticker, and the lowest pan in the set was 150 stickers. The highest was 500. Basically, you had to spend 15 thousand dollars at the supermarket to get a pan set. That’s a lot of grocery money in a month. And because it seemed relatively impossible to get enough stickers to get one pan (let alone the whole set), most people threw their stickers out or on the ground in the parking lot. But my husband and I connected over a shared sense of frugality. So we spent the month trolling the parking lot every chance we got to pick up rows of stickers discarded on the ground or sticking tantalizingly out of the garbage cans.
“I got 15 stickers on my walk home from work!” he called me to report. I think it’s how we fell in love. A mutual obsession with free cookware and a complete lack of embarrassment when it came to picking through the trash to get it. At the end of the month, you better believe we got that full pan set.
Considering this passion for free and cheap things, I’ve always been intrigued by credit card points and rewards. There’s nothing I want more than to maximize my vacations with free stuff. But unfortunately, up until now, there are two things that have prevented me from fully exploring all that credit card rewards have to offer. First, I’m lazy. I forget that I have credit cards or they have rewards at all and then I don’t bother redeeming them. And second, I’m TERRIBLE with credit cards. A free bra at Victoria Secret when I was 22 (which seemed totally worth opening a credit card for) was less cost effective when I forgot that I opened it, never paid the balance, and ended up tanking my credit.
“This is why we can’t have nice things,” I frequently tell myself in the mirror.
So I was excited to talk to CreditCardForum editor, Kristin McGrath, this week about what I could be getting if I was smarter/better with money. Because we all know that credit card points can be redeemed for things like airfare and hotels, but did you know that you could have also used your credit card to go backstage at your favorite concert or get those surfing lessons you’ve always dreamed about?
It turns out that credit card rewards are as varied as the people using them. And no matter what you spend yours on, the best advice Kristin gave me was to just make sure you’re “Getting excited about something, making yourself happy, and getting a little splurge you otherwise wouldn’t be able to justify. Because if you’re doing that, you’re winning.”
And without further ado, here’s some stuff you can get:
Extra Excursions on Trips
There’s much more within the travel category that you can do than people realize, Kristin says. For instance, there are multiple cards that give flexible miles that you can redeem for experiences.
“A good example is the Barclay Card Arrival Plus,” she says. “They define travel pretty broadly, so it includes things like buses, trains, and most notably discount travel sites like Expedia and Priceline.”
And while most of us have grabbed a hotel room or flight on Expedia, not everyone realizes you can book tons of excursions there too. So by booking your dinner cruise, zip line trip, or swimming with the dolphins experience on Expedia you can actually use your points to get them. “This is a great way to add something a little special or splurge-y to your trip,” Kristin says.
Finally, you can convince your travel partner that the Sex and the City Hotspots tour is totally worth the money. Because. It. Is. Free. WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE NOW, TED?
If you’re the kind of person who prefers the comfort of an Airbnb to a Marriott, then you may be excited to know that you can totally cash in your points for that stay in a loft in SoHo. Kristin tells us that the American Express membership program has actually partnered with Airbnb so that you can use your points directly on Airbnb sites to book your stay.
“You can book the tree house or a villa or a cave house or a yurt or a cabin, I mean all the things that they have on Airbnb you can use your American Express membership rewards points for,” she says.
Which is good, because we have our eyes on this private island in Belize where we totally don’t plan to fake our own deaths to get out of all the credit card debt we racked up.
VIP Tours and Backstage Access
“A lot of cards have the option to redeem your points for what they’ll call “experiences,” Kristin says. “Sometimes these are in auction format, so you auction off however many points you think that experience is worth. In some cases they’ll actually put a price and points on the experience.” These experiences can range from recent auctions for VIP Coachella tickets and VIP access at Justin Bieber’s show in Dubai to fantasy experiences like playing basketball with NBA players or walking down the red carpet at the Oscars. And while again, Kristin warns that these might not be the best in terms of value for your dollar, their draw is in points getting you things that you wouldn’t normally be able to experience.
So if you’ve ever wanted to look Justin Bieber in the eye and just ask, “Like… man… what is your DEAL??” You may be in luck.
If you’ve ever wanted to have the most luxurious travel of your life, points may be the way to do it. Kristin told me about airlines like Etihad Airways (which has flying apartments and suites on board) that partner with credit cards so you can travel in style. These can be over $30,000 dollars to book outright, but with points you’re often able to upgrade like a boss.
“Etihad has partnered with the American Express Membership Reward Program and with the Cities Thank You Program,” Kristin says. “You can actually transfer the points you’ve earned with those credit cards to Etihad airline to redeem this. It’s certainly one of the coolest, once in a lifetime, experiences out there.”
And with travel that luxurious, there’s at least a 90% chance that they won’t come on board to drag you off the airplane screaming. Probably.
Rewards points aren’t just for power players running all their company’s expenses through a card every year. If you just have a small amount of points sitting around (that you don’t want to waste!) you can redeem them on smaller things rather than waiting years to get enough points for a trip around the world.
“American Express Membership Rewards lets you do that,” Kristin says. “You just link your rewards card with Uber, and it will ask you if you want to redeem points for the drive.”
So you can take that uncomfortable trip to the airport where your Uber driver tells you all about his DJ career and then asks you your stance on abortion. WITHOUT PAYING A THING!
It may not be the flashiest way to spend your points, but gift cards are a great way to make sure you’re actually getting something you want for your money.
“I have a family member who every year for Christmas just uses his Chase points, and he buys everyone gift cards for Christmas,” Kristin says. So for him, she continues, it’s a great value. He doesn’t have to spend any money and he gets all of his shopping done. And there are gift cards available for pretty much anything you can think of these days.
“They’re not just your typical Best Buy, Macy’s, Target gift cards,” Kristin says. “I saw a gift card on AMEX’s program the other day for spending money at a ski resort!”
So whatever makes you the most excited, go for it. Because at the end of the day, these are your rewards! Just remember to pay your credit card balance off with every purchase, okay? Don’t be an “Allison Sanchez”-type and throw out all notices from credit card companies while simultaneously ordering a tuxedo for your cat on Etsy with the one credit card you actually made a payment on. It’s not a good way to live your life….believe me…but hey, at least my cat looks veryyyy handsome. And points can’t buy beauty… Yet.