Tools and tips to help finance your active lifestyle
Beat credit companies at their own game—and travel entirely with points, miles, and cash-back
As a financial planner, I love finding ways to book flights and see the world without draining our bank account, and when my husband and I got married, we vowed to continue traveling, even if it meant delaying other money goals. That means I've had to become a pro at working the credit-card game. Packing plastic comes with plenty of great perks, but some of the best are the rewards, points, and cash-back that make travel more affordable. Here are the lessons I've learned to make the most of those benefits. If you do it right, you may never have to buy a ticket or pay for a hotel room again.
Play the Points Game
Lots of people, like Nomadic Matt and the Points Guy, make a living playing the travel-hacking game. My husband and I have created a four-credit-card system that enables us to rack up points and cash-back on flights, hotels, and restaurants. Those four cards work well for us, but they might not be right for everyone. To find out the best cards for you, answer these questions first:
What Airlines Do You Use the Most?
We opted for the Citi AAdvantage credit card because we fly American Airlines or its affiliates all the time. This card offers free bags and points, and over last three years, we’ve saved over $2,200 by not paying for baggage fees and earning free flights.
What's Your Favorite Hotel Chain?
My husband and I often stay at the same hotel franchise without even thinking about it. So we went for the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card. It offers a great sign-up bonus, and we can use our points to stay at any Starwood—and recently Marriott—across the world. One of my favorite experiences was staying in a five-star hotel in Paris for a week without paying a dollar out of pocket.
What Rewards Do You Prefer?
Some people love cash-back while others go crazy over points. I wanted a credit-card system that builds up both. In our case, that means we use the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and the Discover. With our Discover card, we get cash-back that we use toward travel or other purchases. The Chase Sapphire Reserve card has zero foreign transaction fees and we can use its reward points on hotels, flights, car rentals, and gift certificates.
Other Cards I Like
Details, details: No foreign transaction fees; $95 annual fee after the first year; 50,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months; receive up to $100 credit for TSA Precheck and Global Entry.
Details, details: No foreign transaction fees; $95 annual fee after the first year; 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months; One-to-one airline transfer of points; a 25-percent bonus when you book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards website.
Details, details: $69 annual fee; 40,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months; no blackout dates or seat restrictions.
Details, details: $450 annual fee; 150,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months; no blackout dates; transfer points to hotel and airline partners
How to Build Points
My husband and I use our credit cards like debit cards and pay them off in full every month. If you can stick to this strategy, you can build a lot of travel points without incurring debt and paying often-hefty interest rates, which tends to be quite high with rewards cards.
We're pretty flexible as to which expenses we charge on which card. For all our regular monthly purchases, we tend to use our Chase Sapphire Preferred, because we can get point bonuses for spending on travel and restaurants. Big-ticket items go on our Starwood Preferred and Citi AAdvantage cards, as that's the quickest way to save up for expensive plane tickets and hotel stays. However, if we’re closing in on the number of points that would put us over the edge for a particular travel reward, we’ll devote all our purchases toward that card.
Shannah Compton Game (@shannahgame) is a certified financial planner professional with an MBA. She hosts the award-winning podcast, Millennial Money, where she shares relatable, easy-to-understand financial advice that will actually make you want to talk about money.