Using credit cards can be a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Use them the wrong way, and you can end up like the millions of Americans struggling to pay down expensive debt. Use them the right way, however, and you can finance a never-ending vacation like Pedro Pla and Grace Cheng. Since January, the couple and their two children have been flying around the world for free.
Pla, 35, and Cheng, 36, are co-founders of the website GET.com, which aims to help people maximize their credit card air miles and rewards. They launched the site in 2011. According to the company, it made eight-figures within the first two years and has remained profitable ever since.
CNBC Make It spoke with Pla and Cheng to see how two self-described "credit card geeks" worked the system, turning points into an international adventure for their family, as well as into a multimillion-dollar business.
Q: How did you get the idea to travel for free using points, and how long did it take to turn the idea into your reality?
Pla and Cheng: Over the years, we frequently redeemed our credit card points for short-haul flights. As 2017 marks the 10th year of our first round-the-world journey, we decided we should travel around the world again, but this time with our two toddlers in tow.
Within a year, we reached our goal of earning a million air miles from our credit cards — enough for our family of four to fly to five continents on business class. In October 2016, we used 960,000 miles out of our million-plus miles to redeem for four round-the-world air tickets on business class to five continents, worth $54,000, through Singapore Airlines' KrisFlyer program.
Q: What were you doing before making this huge lifestyle change?
Pla and Cheng: Before GET.com, Pedro was the CTO of a travel company while Grace was a forex trader blogging about finance. In 2007-2008, we went on a round-the-world trip for a year where we traveled without missing a day of work.
During that year-long trip, Grace blogged about the places we explored as well as how we used credit cards to maximize our savings on travel expenses. As the blog gained international popularity over time, we figured we would make a great team managing the website together.
The site was thus rebranded and now its focus is helping people find the best credit cards and how you can maximize your credit card air miles and rewards points.
Q: Were you always good at optimizing your credit card use? How did you learn to be?
Pla and Cheng: Both of us have always loved traveling and are obsessed with getting the best deals. During our first round-the-world trip in 2007-2008, we started analyzing and leveraging the use of credit cards to earn frequent flyer miles and travel perks to save on our travel expenses.
We realized that there are literally hundreds of cards out there but just using any credit card is not going to get you anywhere. The fact that credit card offers are constantly changing and have different terms and conditions, signing bonuses, rewards programs and rewards earning rates make it tough for people to find the best cards.
As credit card geeks who were familiar with this, we started to develop our own technology to make it easy for Americans to compare the different credit cards in the market and to apply for the ones that give the most air miles or points per dollar spent. This tool at creditcards.get.com is an objective way to compare among cards and see which will give you the most rewards for your spending patterns.
Q: What advice would you give to others looking to maximize their use of points and plastic in general?
Pla and Cheng:
1. Use credit cards to hack travel
Set your own goal of how many miles you need to redeem for a free flight to your dream destination, and then use the best credit cards to help you earn the most points or miles per dollar spent on your card.
2. Use the right cards
Just using any credit card isn't enough. If you want to use your rewards points to redeem for an air ticket, you will need to make sure that the credit card you are using allows you to convert points to real airline miles on the airline of your choice and at a favorable rate. This may seem obvious, but there are many cards that advertise themselves as "miles" cards where miles can only be redeemed toward a statement credit on travel booked through certain sites.
Different cards will also have different earn rates in different spending categories such as air tickets, restaurants, supermarkets, etc., so it's important to use the card with the highest earn rate for each type of purchase you make.
3. Take advantage of signing bonuses
A signing bonus of up to 50,000 points or miles is not uncommon. Just remember, most of these bonuses come with a minimum spend requirement within a certain time period, so it's important to time getting these cards with planned spending.
4. Pay your bills in full and on time
Carrying a balance and paying interest defeats the whole purpose of getting more for your money without spending more. We always pay off our credit card bills automatically in full each month, so we never had to pay any interest fees for using the cards.
Q: What do you think are the smartest moves you've made, money-wise?
Pla and Cheng: Getting $54,000 worth of round-the world business class air tickets for free was definitely a smart move.
We took about a year to reach our goal of collecting one million air miles across our credit cards, of which we redeemed 960,000 miles for four round-the-world tickets on business class with SIA. It was such a surreal moment when we finally exchanged our miles for something that was worth $54,000.
When we booked our round-the-world flights, the customer service representative actually told us that we had "hit the jackpot," as they had never encountered anyone redeeming for round-the-world award tickets on business class before, let alone for four people.
Q: What are your other tips for keeping costs down while you travel?
Pla and Cheng: Another travel hack is to get free hotel nights using certain credit cards that give you a night free when you book three or four consecutive nights through their travel concierge. It's not worth it all of the time, because sometimes you can find a deal for the same hotel room that is still cheaper overall throughout the four nights, so it's good to compare before booking.
Also there are some credit cards which confer you elite member status with certain hotel loyalty programs and that entitles you to complimentary breakfast and room upgrade.
Q: Given how central to your lives cards have become, what role does cash play? When is it important to use, if ever?
Pla and Cheng: Even though we use credit cards to pay for most things, we still have to have some cash on hand simply because there are still places that don't accept cards. In some remote locations the majority of shops or restaurants don't have credit card processing facilities and only accept cash, so it's always important to have enough cash with you just in case.
Q: Any last thoughts or advice for readers who might want to travel the world on points?
Pla and Cheng: Don't get too comfortable with your existing stash of credit cards. Banks are constantly trying to outdo one another to get new customers, so it's important to frequently update yourself with the latest credit card offers.
Don't be afraid to apply for a new card if the offer is better than what you have. We signed up for several new credit cards while working toward our goal of earning a million miles for our family's round-the-world adventure. Earning a million miles through meticulous planning ended up saving us $54,000 just on air tickets, so the time spent planning, comparing cards and working toward the goal was more than worth it.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook.