7 ways my credit cards make traveling cheaper, easier, and more fun

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When I tell people I have over a dozen credit cards in my wallet at any given time, they react with shock and concern.

But I'm not using the cards to rack up debt or pay for things I can't afford. In fact, for the last eight years I've successfully used rewards credit cards to travel for pennies on the dollar. Rewards credit cards have not only made travel cheaper for me - they have also made it more comfortable.

Here are seven ways credit cards have improved my travel experience:

1. Free nights (at nicer hotels)

Before I got into rewards travel, I generally booked the cheapest hotels using Priceline's now-defunct Name Your Own Price tool. Since I began racking up hotel points through credit cards, I've been able to stay at much nicer hotels for cheaper.

On my 26th birthday, I stayed at the Park Hyatt Sydney, which was going for over $1,000 per night at the time. New Year's Eve in Dubai can get expensive, but I was able to avoid the $500 nightly rate at the Conrad Dubai by using a combination of Hilton points and Barclay Arrival miles.

I make it a point to redeem points whenever I can save cash. Most often, that has enabled me to stay in some pretty incredible hotels without the associated expenses. Sometimes this means using credit card points for hotel bookings and other times it means getting a fourth night free through the Citi Prestige® Card.

2. Elite status credits

I haven't spent a single paid night at a Hilton hotel this year, yet I have top-tier Diamond elite status thanks to the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express. When I check in for my next stay, I will get to skip past the lines to a dedicated check-in desk, receive free breakfast, club lounge access, premium WiFi and, more often than not, a room upgrade. Being an elite member also translates to more points, since Hilton Diamond members receive a 100% bonus on points earned via paid stays.

3. Hotel freebies

What's the use in staying at a nice hotel if you can't enjoy the amenities? Luckily, credit cards have made it possible for me to get those free of charge.

For starters, the aforementioned Hilton Honors Aspire includes a $250 Hilton resort statement credit issued annually. Simply charge on-site purchases like spa treatments, restaurant bills, and everything in between to the card and the credit will automatically apply to your account. In addition, the Hilton Aspire card offers $100 Hilton property credit when you book a minimum two-night stay at HiltonHonors.com/aspirecard.

Recently, I used my Platinum Card® from American Express to pay for a weekend trip to Las Vegas through Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts. In addition to free breakfast for two, I received a $100 dining and $100 spa credit per room. While the annual fee on this card is hefty at $550, I get more than my money's worth through on-site credits alone.

4. Room upgrades

In my four consecutive years as a Hilton Diamond elite, I've received room upgrades on all but one hotel stay. In Bali, I even ended up in the Conrad's Penthouse Suite. It was over 3,600 sqft and featured a rooftop infinity pool. Its previous inhabitants, I was informed, include Justin Bieber.

5. Lounge access

Hotel club lounge access has saved me hundreds of dollars on group trips. While hotel lounges in the US may offer continental breakfast followed by cheese and crackers in the evening, these meals are generally much nicer abroad.

The food at club lounges can be meal substitutes. Even if you don't want to eat "lounge food" when you're traveling to the most exotic places, you can find value in the lounge. It's incredibly convenient to be able to grab a quick snack at any time or a bottle of water, without paying the high mark-ups some hotels like to impose.

At the Conrad Bali, the club lounge is essentially a restaurant where guests can have breakfast, afternoon tea, and evening appetizers with a large selection of food and drinks. At the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, you're treated to a massive buffet with incredible views of the Kowloon skyline.

Club lounge access is incredibly convenient and thanks to my Hilton Aspire card, I don't even have to book a club room or pay for an upgrade to get it.

The same goes for airports. Step into an airport lounge, courtesy of Priority Pass Select membership from credit cards like the American Express Platinum Card and your travel experience is instantly improved.

6. Fewer airport hassles

I recently applied for Global Entry and was conditionally approved. I paid for the $100 application fee with my Citi Prestige Card and received a $100 statement credit shortly after. Once I complete my interview and get approved, I'll not only breeze through customs on my international trips for the next four years, but I'll also speed through the TSA PreCheck line at domestic airports. That's right: Approval for Global Entry also gets you TSA PreCheck.

If you're interested in getting your Global Entry application fee waived, be sure to read up on the top credit cards with free Global Entry.

7. Free checked bags

I get shamed for this all the time, but I always check my bag when flying economy class. For starters, I don't like dragging a bag around the airport. Lifting it over my head is a hassle, if not a danger to those around me. If I'm flying economy class, I like to sit in the back of the plane to avoid the headaches associated with boarding an airplane. I board and deplane last. By the time I arrive at the luggage carousel, my bag is already out.

I refuse to pay for this convenience and thanks to various rewards credit cards, I don't have to. The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® gets me free checked bags on all domestic flights. If I'm flying a different airline, I can use my $250 airline incidental credits from the American Express Platinum, Citi Prestige, or Hilton Aspire Cards to cover the cost.

Rewards credit cards have improved my travel experience greatly and provided me access to benefits normally reserved for elite travelers. While the annual fees on premium credit cards can be quite high, I easily get my money's worth just by using them a few times a year.

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. We occasionally highlight financial products and services that can help you make smarter decisions with your money. We do not give investment advice or encourage you to adopt a certain investment strategy. If you take action based on one of our recommendations, we get a small share of the revenue from our commerce partners. This does not influence whether we feature a financial product or service. We operate independently from our advertising sales team.

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Please note: While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they're subject to change at any time and may have changed, or may no longer be available.

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