Guide to making luxury travel more affordable

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Hardly anyone knows this, but luxury travel isn’t just for rich people. You can skip lines, recline in lie-flat seats, drink unlimited alcohol in exclusive lounges, and check into five-star resorts, all for literally less than you’d spend on a week’s worth of Starbucks. Believe it or not, opening the right travel credit card or two can help you achieve exactly that. Let’s walk through a trip using various credit card perks to see how you can book a champagne-sipping vacation on a Pabst Blue Ribbon budget.

Skip the TSA lines with your preferred program

Trusted traveler programs are great inventions in the travel industry that help to minimize the frenzy airport security can cause. There are three programs in particular that help in different aspects of your journey — and they’re all free (or deeply discounted) by holding certain credit cards.

TSA PreCheck

TSA PreCheck is far and away the most popular trusted traveler program, and one that you’ll likely use the most frequently. With TSA PreCheck, you’ll practically sprint through TSA security checkpoints at domestic airports. Here’s why:

  • You can keep your shoes on
  • You can keep your belt on
  • You can keep your light jacket on
  • You can leave your laptop in your backpack
  • You can leave your liquids in your bag

This program’s application fee costs $85 for a five-year membership. You’ll need to be interviewed. Once the United States of America decides you’re not a threat to airport security, they’ll grant you membership, and you’ll get an exclusive line at the airport.

Global Entry

Global Entry is one step above TSA PreCheck. Not only will you get all the benefits of TSA PreCheck, but you’ll also receive expedited immigration when returning to the U.S.

You know that insanely long and winding line with passport control booths, each glaring suspiciously at inbound travelers? You can totally avoid it. Just walk to a Global Entry kiosk beside the line, give a quick passport scan, fingerprint scan, and facial recognition, and you’ll be on your way.

A Global Entry application fee costs $100 for a five-year membership. You’ll have to apply online, and then schedule an in-person interview (which can be challenging at times. Read our post on how to get same-day walk-in appointments with Global Entry).

CLEAR

CLEAR focuses on a unique aspect of airport security — namely, the lines. At U.S. airports that participate in CLEAR (currently 30+ airports), you can scan your eyes and fingerprints and go straight to the front of the security line.

Note that this stacks well with TSA PreCheck, as you can skip to the front of the line AND not have to take off your shoes and belt. That’s how you travel hack the airport.

When you sign-up for CLEAR, be prepared to pay $179 annually. That is exponentially pricier than both TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.

How to achieve it

Whether you’re interested in Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, you can get either (or both) for absolutely free by opening one of the best credit cards for global entry and TSA PreCheck:

And to get a huge discount on CLEAR, the American Express® Green Card offers up to a $100 annual credit for membership. That brings your cost down to $79 per year. Just note that the Amex Green doesn’t come with any credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.

Read our comprehensive post comparing TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and CLEAR for a thorough answer to which of these memberships best fits your lifestyle.

The information for the Amex Green card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Make the best of your wait times by getting lounge access with these cards

Airport lounge access is another luxury travel game changer. Not only do you get to walk through sliding glass doors towards, into an alluring lobby, and away from the noisy terminal, you can also enjoy the following amenities:

  • Beverages (coffee, hot chocolate, wine, beer)
  • Snacks (sometimes hot buffets)
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Tons of outlets

Some lounges even have showers and private rooms with beds!

How to achieve it

By far the largest chain of lounges is Priority Pass, which has more than 1,300 lounges worldwide. You can score membership to Priority Pass and handfuls of other lounge networks by holding the best credit cards with lounge access — including airline-specific lounges:

Read our full post on everything you need to know about airport lounges for more info.

Go the extra mile and make air travel as comfortable as you’d like

Priority boarding

If you don’t have airline elite status, small children, a physical disability, or active-duty military status, priority boarding may seem like a dream. Imagine having room to shove that Steinway of a carry-on you managed to smuggle through airport security into the overhead bin. If you board early, you’ll have the room you need.

Honestly, overhead bin space is the one of the only good things about priority boarding. Aside from the slight hit of dopamine you’ll experience when your boarding group is called before everyone else’s.

Seat selection

Seat selection isn’t uncommon, though if you purchase Basic Economy tickets often, you’re probably not in the habit of choosing your own seats, unless you pay extra. In this case, many credit cards will provide you annual statement credits that reimburse you for airline “incidental” fees, which usually include the upcharge for seat selection.

Besides simply desiring to sit with family, there are definitive best seats on the plane based on your travel style.

Upgrade to first class

Similar to selecting your seat, you can also use credit card statement credits to upgrade to first class. Some carriers, like American Airlines, will prod you to upgrade your seats even before you reach checkout.

You can also upgrade many flights with airline miles. If you’ve never flown in a lie-flat seat, it will ruin economy class for you forever. And even if you don’t technically upgrade your flight, it’s easy enough to simply book premium seats with miles and points. Read our post on how to book American Airlines business and first class flights with Citi ThankYou points.

How to achieve it

All these feats can be achieved with the right credit cards. Priority boarding comes with the best airline credit cards, such as:

These cards will even grant priority boarding to others on your itinerary. So if you’re a family, you won’t have to leave anyone behind.

If you’re looking to upgrade your ticket to business or first class, you can also use the miles you earn with the above credit cards to do just that. Read our guide to upgrading with miles for step-by-step instruction on how to do this with each airline.

And if you want a card that offsets airline incidental credits, choose one of the following:

Affordable high-end hotel chains

Free five-star hotels are one of the easiest aspects of the miles and points hobby. It takes little effort to quickly amass hotel points, which is the key to accessing otherwise prohibitively expensive and glamorous hotel stays.

However, if you know where (and when) to vacation, you can easily find some Disney-palace level hotels at super reasonable prices. Some of my recommendations are:

These are truly bucket-list resorts that you can reserve for between $120 and $240 per night during the low season. Your Instagram followers will think you make eight figures per year.

How to achieve it

If you do find heavily discounted five-star hotels like those listed above, you can further reduce your out-of-pocket by using a travel credit card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. You can use the welcome bonus to redeem some or all of the room rate from your balance.

But if you want to book a ridiculously expensive hotel stay for free, open one (or many) of the below hotel credit cards:

There are so many more hotel credit cards to choose from, so visit our post on the best hotel credit cards for a more comprehensive list.

Bottom line

Traveling in luxury is the standard for MMS readers. There are so many ways to upgrade your trip for free — as long as you choose the right travel credit card arsenal to accompany you on your journey.


Sarah Hostetler is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets. She covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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