This is the synopsis of a recent email conversation with a reader edited for content and clarity. What do you think of my suggestions and what other tips would you have offered?

Reader A writes:

Hi Marshall,

I’m a high school teacher with a child in college and one in high school.  I am researching the points system in hopes of finding a way to take my family on a big vacation, such as Hawaii, or similar.  My credit score is excellent.  What would your suggestions be of how I should get started.  I main expenses are gas, groceries, dining, utilities, of course tuition and clothing.   Thanks for your help.

MJ on Travel Responds:

Hi. Thanks for your note. Let me ask you a couple of questions…. What airport would you normally fly out of, and is there an airline where you already have a bank of miles? Do you have any airlines that you prefer over all others? 

And the answer is:

Thank you so much for replying to me :).  Normally, we either fly from Greensboro or Charlotte which are the closest (about 2 hours away) or Raleigh.  We do not fly often.  Maybe once a year.  Neither my profession, nor my husbands requires us to travel.  In fact its just the opposite.  Both of our professions keep us very close to home.  I don’t have a preference on airline.  I did a little research on the Chase Saphire Preferred Card, and the reviews are very good on it.  I just need to make sure that the cards I apply for will earn points for the items I purchase monthly. THANK YOU so much for your help.  I am REALLY excited to learn but very conservative about making good decisions financally at the same time.
And MJ on Travel offers:
There are a lot of ways to go at this, and I will offer a few thoughts.

First, I’m a big big fan of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Ultimate Rewards points are very useful, with 1 to 1 transfer to some big mileage programs like United and Continental (soon to be just United), British Airways, Marriott Rewards, and more. You earn double points for travel and dining. If you got that card, which is currently offering a 50,000 point signup bonus AND the United MileagePlus Explorer Card (I’ve seen 40 and 50,000 mile bonus offers for that) you could have 90 to 100,000 United miles right there. Have your husband apply for the same 2 cards and you’ve got 180 to 200,000 miles. 

Living where you live, you might consider one of the US Airways MasterCards too…if you fly US Airways? You could also fly US Airways and credit your mileage earning to your United account since they are both in the Star Alliance too. US Airways miles are pretty good because you can spend them on Star Alliance carriers. US Airways can get you to Hawaii from Charlotte via Phoenix too. Just something to consider.

What I’ve written here is by no means the only way to go at free travel. Just something to think about. Feel free to write back with questions, clarification, anything you need.