Learn how I only spent around $1,250 this year on two roundtrip international flights, 10 nights in Japan, and three nights in Amsterdam. 

*disclaimer, this article is not for those in credit card debt or have difficulties managing finances. If you are in that boat, please refrain from reading. 

I love traveling. I was 5 or 6 when my parents took me on my first international trip to Japan to visit my relatives in Kumamoto. We visited a couple of years later and did a formal tour of Japan with my American grandparents - those are some of my most cherished memories. And between 2nd grade to high school my family did very little traveling and focused mostly on short domestic trips to accommodate my dad’s restaurant schedule or my mom’s teaching schedule. My family took a few trips between my high school to college years for big celebrations and funerals but nothing consistent. 

In the spring of 2013 I was sitting in my professor's office as he was telling me about his upcoming trip to Taipei and how he was going to fly business class round trip. Innocently, I pointed out that a tenure faculty member must be making decent cash to make that happen. He looked me dead in the eyes and laughed hysterically.

To me, and the average person, flying business class is a big cash expense ranging from $2,000-$6,000 for international flights which makes no sense when you can travel in economy for $500-$1,000. And because I had only flown using cash, I couldn’t fathom spending that kind of money on airfares. But that’s the thing, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” 

Over the next couple of years he was lightly encouraging me to dabble in this credit card game to help pay for arguably the most expensive part of any travel, airfare. As a recent college graduate I didn’t know any better and googled “travel credit cards for beginners.” There were so many options but because I remember Samuel L. Jackson asking “What’s in your wallet?” I signed up for a “beginner” Capital One card; the Capital One VentureOne. This card (still) had no annual fee and had a Sign Up Bonus (SUB) offer of 20,000 points or $200. It also accrued 1.25% points back on everyday purchases. This first travel credit card taught me the ropes with accruing and saving points for my dream vacations. 

Before the pandemic, two of my favorite travel agencies (HIS and IACE) would hold annual Black Friday sales for insane cash price round trip airfares to Japan on ANA or JAL. With these deals, my partner (Michelle) and I traveled to Japan in the spring of  2018 and 2019 using my VentureOne card’s “purchase eraser” tool. Simply put, I was able to “erase” these travel expenses using my Capital One points. As a rookie, this made complete sense to me! In retrospect this is one of the worst ways to leverage credit card points as it redeemed one penny for one point. But, the card and the points served their purpose for what I knew at the time. 

Fast forward to the Summer of 2022, I was telling my former professor turned mentor turned good friend about my 2023 travel plans (Japan in May and Amsterdam in July). He encouraged me to consider pursuing a more aggressive credit card approach to make airfare virtually “free” using SUB offers and category spend cards. After this conversation I set a goal for myself; to travel in 2023 to Japan and Amsterdam for free, or, for as little as possible. 

So, after some research I decided to enter the Chase ecosystem and go after Chase’s credit card points called Chase Ultimate Rewards by applying for and receiving the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. The card had a 60k SUB with excellent category spends including 3x on dining. Three months later I applied for the Chase Ink Business Cash which had an all time high SUB of 90k with a big category spend of 5x at office supply stores. With these two cards I was sitting comfortably with 150k just on the SUB offers plus the points accrued to reach those offers. Simply stated, I was well on my way to travel to Japan (for free) with just two credit cards.

In December of 2022 I started to track flights on United Airlines from LAX to HND (Tokyo). I was seeing roundtrip (saver) award availability for 35k one way, which meant for 70k I could have a roundtrip economy ticket to Tokyo (plus taxes and fees). And at the top of January, I did just that. I booked two roundtrips for Michelle and I to Tokyo in May for a total of 140k Chase UR points plus $105 in taxes and fees. That’s right folks, I flew round trip to Japan with Michelle for $105 in economy! Our friend joined us on this trip and paid $1,500 cash via Expedia for the same seat in our row. 

Now these two Chase cards only covered one of my two trips. To make my Amsterdam trip “free” I applied and was approved for the Capital One Venture X premium travel card for the 75k SUB, 2x on everyday purchases, lounge access, and travel protection, among a number of other perks. The SUB from this card helped pay for a roundtrip to Amsterdam on KLM (43k points) and Air Canada (70k points) and about $300 in taxes and fees. So in total, I paid around $300 for a round trip to Amsterdam! 

Around February 2023, I asked “why stop here?” and decided to go after a hotel credit card that had an all time high SUB of 175k with the IHG Premier card. This card’s SUB paid for two nights at the Intercontinental Yokohama Pier 8 hotel  and three nights at the Crowne Plaza in Amsterdam. I ended up paying an additional $200 cash between these two trips to make up the difference, but still, $200 for 2 nights at a luxury property and 3 nights at a standard property is mind-blowing! My Capital One Venture X card also had a $300 travel credit which paid for more hotel stays in Japan. So overall, it lowered my cash expenses for my two trips, allowing me to spend my cash on dining and experiences rather than the usual airfare and board. 

PC: Brennon C.

As I author this in October/November I’ve had some time to reflect and think about my travels this year. It’s been good to reflect on how affordable travel can be if you leverage SUBs and cards with 3x-5x category multipliers. All in all, I applied for 4 credit cards and spent about $1,250 on travel expenses this year which included 2 roundtrip international flights, 10 nights in Japan, and 3 nights in Amsterdam. 

As for next year, I’ve set my 2024 goal to travel roundtrip to Japan on business class. And on November 2nd I was able to do just that. I found 2 business class saver award availability seats (one-way) on Singapore Airlines from LAX to NRT in October 2024 via Air Canada Aeroplan. These two business class seats came out 150k Aeroplan points and $110 in taxes and fees. I transferred points from both Capital One and Chase to total 150k. With this outbound booking in place, the hunt begins for a return flight home. To make this happen, I have opened three new cards and am weighing out my options considering airlines, taxes and fees, etc. 

This game/hobby is exciting and has brought me a sense of purpose in the last year. I have been able to afford travel that would otherwise cause me financial stress. I have also been able to share my knowledge with family and friends. A couple have even taken my advice to heart and were able to leverage credit card bonuses and spend to fund their trips this year. I hope this is inspiring and encourages you to consider what travel or even cash back goals you want in 2024 and how choosing the right credit card strategy can get you there. 

Traveling for "Free"

Learn how I only spent around $1,250 this year on two roundtrip international flights, 10 nights in Japan, and three nights in Amsterdam. 


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