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World Travel On the Cheap Using Credit Card Rewards

If you think that travel is only for the rich or for those who earn a lot of frequent flyer miles, think again. When you know a few basic tricks, you can take cheap and exotic vacations without spending a lot.

Traveling using credit card points is a popular way to explore the world and go to places you never imagined you could afford. There are plenty of people who turn traveling by points into a major hobby, and for some, it’s a lifestyle.

A word of warning: you’ll get the most mileage (literal and figurative) out of using points for travel if you pay off the balance on your credit card in full every month. Otherwise, you’re getting into a debt hole. If you don’t think you’ll be able to control credit card spending enough to keep your balance paid off each month, then you should concentrate on building good credit card habits first before playing the credit card travel game. 

If you’re already using credit responsibly, then here’s how you can start using your credit cards to travel around the world on the cheap:

1.    Plan where you want to go.

Before choosing a travel rewards credit card, think through where you might like or need to travel in the next year.

If you have a good idea of where you want to go, find out which airlines fly from your home airport to that destination. If you’re interested in free hotel stays, then find out which hotel chains/networks are there. Knowing what airlines and hotels are available for your destination will help you decide which credit card to get.

Also, if you plan where you want to go before you even get your rewards credit card, you are more likely to actually use your points.

2.    Sign up for a rewards credit card.

Your best bet is to choose a card that offers a decent bonus when you sign up or once you reach a certain spending threshold. There are a number of cards that offer 50,000 or 100,000 points when you sign up or when you spend a certain amount of money within a certain amount of time (for instance, $3000 in 3 months). This initial bonus is often the most valuable, and may already be enough for a nice getaway.

When choosing a card, make sure you take a good look at the rewards program—what airlines and hotels are covered? Do they fly to the destination(s) you want to go to? Are there other airline perks? Some cards are co-branded with an airline, like the JetBlue credit card. Other cards offer much broader programs that allow you to transfer your points to a variety of airline, hotel, and retail partners. Some make it even easier to use your points by allowing you to use your points to pay off pretty much any travel-related expense after it shows up on your credit card statement.

Your card may not be that useful to you after the first year—the initial bonus is really where it is at unless the card earns a lot of points. If your card has an annual fee (often waived for the first year) and the point earnings do not compare to the initial bonus, then you may want to cancel the card before the fee is charged for the second year.

3.    Make sure you meet the spending requirement if there is one.

If the card you sign up for has a spending requirement in order for you to get your bonus points, make sure you meet it! Try to meet the spending requirement at least 2 weeks before the end of the bonus period, keeping in mind that the period usually starts when you apply for the card, not when you receive it or activate it. Set an alert on your calendar and then call the customer service number on the back of your card and have the representative check your spending.

If the spending requirement is more than your usual credit card spend, there are a few ways of charging your normal expenses to your card without wasting money. Use your new card instead of your bank account or debit card to pay for utilities, groceries, dining, hotels, insurance, or even your taxes. If you are able to use your card to pay rent, that will also help you reach the spending minimum.

Just be sure to pay off your balance every month and to watch your credit limit!

4.    Take that vacation

To dream the impossible dream…

Before you know it, you and a travel companion may be on your way to Bora Bora for the vacation you never thought you would take. And getting there is really a piece of cake. So apply for that rewards card, earn your points, and we’ll see you in the air!


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Kaycee Cuaira's picture

Kaycee Cuaira is a Texas-barred lawyer with an affinity for personal finance and planning. She has lived in Brazil, India, and Mozambique but prefers to live in places with four seasons.

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