Few experiences can be as fulfilling as traveling around the world. Recently, I got to surprise my wife and whisk her away on the trip of a lifetime — and even visit family that we hadn’t seen in almost five years — all without racking up a big expense list.

The most remarkable thing about our trip wasn’t just the myriad places we visited; it was that we traveled in the lap of luxury for a fraction of the actual cost. Flying first class on Emirates, Singapore Suites, and Etihad’s First Class Apartment normally would have cost us nearly $60,000. But with the points we had accrued, it only cost us a little more than $1,000 each.

We never could have afforded such an absurdly expensive adventure without utilizing the points that we had strategically accrued. Fortunately for us, it’s my job to make the most out of every points-based rewards program that credit card companies have to offer.

It might seem daunting, or even impossible, to tackle this yourself. But the strategies behind points maximization are actually quite simple. Applying a little finesse means you won’t have to wait a lifetime before you find yourself flying first class, too. With these tips, you can pay a fraction out of pocket for your next trip — regardless of whether you’re flying around the world or just visiting that one dream destination you’ve always wanted to see firsthand:

1. Start planning now

Your goal is to pay for the majority of your trip with rewards points, so you will need ample time to collect those points. It’s essential to start planning for your trip now so that you’ll have the necessary time to plan. Ideally, you should start preparations at least eight months to one year beforehand. Select travel dates that aren’t holidays or weekends when possible, as these are often the busiest days and could make planning your trip more difficult.

2. Choose the destination first, then work backward

Select your dream destination, or dream transportation method, first. If your goal is to fly a specific airline, then the destination might not matter as much. However, most people do travel for the destination, so first choose where you want to go, and plan every leg of your trip accordingly. Research which airlines fly there, what points can transfer to those airlines, and what local hotels accept those same points. That way, you’ll know which points you need to focus on racking up over the next few months.

3. Be strategic with your points

Tools are available to help you find out which types of points can be transferred to your target airlines and hotels so that you can easily see all your options. Research which cards will give you those points, and choose the ones that offer the most rewards based on your spending habits. But keep in mind stipulations that the credit card companies might have in place. For example, some cards have limits on how many new accounts you can open. First, though, take stock of what you have. Many people are surprised to learn that they’re already earning some of the points they’ll need.

4. Open new cards to fill the gaps

After counting up which points you’ll need and how many, select cards that fill your points gaps. Most importantly, though, make sure those points are transferrable to other airline and hotel partners. That way, you still have the option to transfer your points to another airline while keeping the maximum value of your points intact.

Our trip around the world matched the time and effort I put into planning it in points used. Don’t expect all of this to be accomplished overnight. If you want a once-in-a-lifetime experience, expect to devote some time and effort to achieving that. But by following these tips, you can make any trip memorable — and affordable.