All the world’s a game, right? Every country you visit has rules they call “laws.” Every time you pack, it turns into a game of Packing Tetris (or, is that just me?). The stock market is a gigantic game of Chicken: Will prices go up? Will prices go down? Should I buy now? If I wait, will I get a better deal? If I wait, will I pay more? Even going to the grocery is a game of sorts: Which line can you stand in to get checked out the fastest? Or is the self checkout faster? OR IS IT NOT?
One game I can totally get on board with is the credit card game. Either you love it or you hate it. Some people have been so far in debt that they swear off credit cards altogether. Other people just don’t understand the game, and they unknowingly leave points, miles, rewards, and cash on the table. But Steve and I have been winning at the credit card game for a while now (yes, I did pretty well on my own even before I married him!), and I thought some of our experiences might be helpful if you’re thinking of getting a credit card for travel, or if you’re just curious how it all works.
Can You Pay It Off Every Month?
Before we go any further, this is literally the million dollar question. Because if you can’t pay it off every month, you’ll be spending so much more in the long run. If you’re going to play the credit card game, you gotta know the rules so you can play to win.
Rule #1: Don’t spend more than you have in your bank account when you use the card.
Rule #2: Pay it off so you never carry a balance.
If the answer to can you pay it off every month is yes, keep reading. If not, check out my Ultimate Guide to Travel and Your Money first!
More here: The Ultimate Worst Money Wasters on Travel
What Are the Rewards?
This is the whole point of playing the credit card game, right? Rewards! Points! Miles! Free trips! But the real question is, are the rewards worth your while. Rewards could be cash back, bonus points, bonus miles, gift cards, travel expense reimbursement, member-only VIP events, the list goes on. But the question remains, is it worth it to you?
That’s something only you can answer, but I’ll help you find out how to know.
What are your travel goals?
Do you want to take one big trip a year on points? Are you interested in earning hotel rewards? Do you want to fly on points or miles during peak travel times like summer vacations or holidays?
Or are you more interested in getting cash back or being reimbursed for your travel expenses? That way, you earn points but also get the money back that you spent to get the points. There are a lot of avenues for earning points and miles, and having a goal will help you figure out the best strategy for those goals.
Do you have a plan to use the points and miles you earn?
Failing to plan is planning to fail. Did you know some people accrue hundreds of thousands of points and never use them? What’s the “point” of that?! Have a plan, have a trip to work toward, have an idea of how many points and miles you’re earning. Keep track so you can stay on track! Whether you want to redeem them for flights, hotels, gift cards, or experiences, know what you have, and know how you plan to use it.
What’s the best reward they offer?
Free travel, right? I mean, what other rewards could be better than that?
Well, consider your options. Many cards offer cash back, which you can use to put money back into your bank account.
Some cards offer charge forgiveness or reimbursement, which works well for things like zipline tours, helicopter excursions, or anything else that you have to pay for up-front and doesn’t have a point-redemption option.
Some cards offer gift card options on things like Uber, Starbucks, Hotels.com, Amazon, etc. For as example from one of my credit cards, if I have 10,000 points, I can either get $75 cash back or a $100 gift card. Since I know my husband and I rely on Uber to get to and from our home airport and beyond, I take the $100 Uber gift card option every time!
Know what your options are for redemption purposes, and make the best choice for you. Know the rules, and you’ll see how to use them to your advantage!
Read next: The Ultimate Guide to Hotel Rewards
What’s the Minimum Spend for that Bonus?
Read that fine print, y’all! Yeah, you’ll get a 50,000-mile or -point bonus, but they don’t actually give those things away for free. There is always a minimum spend, which could be $1,000 that you have to put on that credit card in the first three months, or it could be $12,000 that you have to put on that credit card in the first year. If you don’t make that minimum spend, you don’t get the bonus, and then you’ve signed up for that new credit card with no big bonus to show for it. That’s the game.
In a similiar way, carefully read the wording of referral bonuses! Restrictions may apply to you or the party that signs up for a card based on your referral, leading to disappointment months down the line. Read and digest the fine print!
So, can you meet that minimum spend and still pay off your card every month? If so, remember that you stand to earn more points than just that bonus. If you spend that $12,000 minimum in the correct time, and you earn two points for every dollar spent, you’ll earn 24,000 points along the way in addition to that 50,000 points you get in a lump sum at the end of the minimum timeframe. You’ll have 74,000 points to work with. That’s how the game works for you.
Does It Have a Fee?
Here’s the kicker: Some credit cards charge you a fee for the privilege of using that card. Sounds like a bum deal, right? And in general, it is. But it’s worth considering what the bonuses are that come with that card. For me, I don’t think it will ever be worth an annual fee to use a credit card. But my accountant-turned-travel blogger friend, Allison of Forever On Vacay, picked one best credit card with an annual fee, and it’s worth it for the benefits she reaps.
What does that fee get you?
- Global Entry Reimbursement? ($100 value for 5 years)
- TSA Pre-check Reimbursement? ($85 value for 5 years)
- Entry to VIP Events? (unknown value; location-specific)
- Travel Credit? ($300 for Chase Sapphire Reserve; credit card company-dependent)
- Discounts for Services like Lyft, DoorDash, Peloton, etc.? (variable value, credit card company-dependent)
- Airport Lounge Access? (variable value)
Those are just some of the benefits associated with credit cards that come with hefty annual fees. Read the fine print, do you research, and decide if it’s worthwhile for you to pay for a card with an annual fee.
What’s Your Current Credit Score?
Opening one new credit card will not impact your credit score very much. Opening several cards and cancelling them at an alarming rate will impact that score detrimentally. So don’t do it too often. Keep an eye on your credit score every few months, and be strategic about when you sign up for a new credit card, how often you do it, and how it effects your score.
Spend wisely: Travel Splurges Worth the Price
Will the New Card Entice You to Spend Extra?
This is last on the list because it should truly be the deciding factor. Is the card you sign up for going to give you too many reasons to spend money you would not otherwise spend? If so, reconsider. Think about your upcoming expenses.
- Are you about to start planning a trip? If so, booking all your hotels, airfares, train tickets, etc., with your new card will make meeting that minimum spend easier.
- Is Christmas or a big birthday coming? If so, a cash back benefit will come in handy to pay off those expenses faster.
- Do you have a different big expense coming like a new car or college tuition? It’s a good time to consolidate those expenses to your bonus-heavy card and rack up points for your next trip!
If you’re going to struggle to make that mininum spend, or if you think you’ll find yourself buying things you don’t necessarily need to buy yet just to get that bonus, don’t get that new card yet. Wait until you can earn points and use your card naturally. If the bonus offer is about to expire, making you feel like you need to sign up now, don’t! Offers come around often enough that a better deal may come around the corner with the next round of offers. (Remember that game of Chicken I mentioned earlier?)
Read next: Budget Blunders and How to Avoid Them
What’s in It for the Credit Card Company?
So let’s be for real here. Credit card companies do not exist to give out free money. They exist to make money. That’s the game of business, y’all. So what’s in it for them? How can they seemingly give away money, points, and miles and still make money themselves?
They are banking. They’re banking on you not paying off your card or only making the minimum payment so they earn interest off of you. You paid off your card but it was late? BAM–late fee. You used your credit card to take money out of the ATM? BAM–cash advance fee. That’s how they make money, and it’s what you sign up for when you sign up for any credit card program. Now that you know how it works, you can make the system work for you instead of against you.
Keep reading: The Ultimate Guide to Travel and Your Money
Want more? Check out my dedicated Saving and Money Page!
*For far more in-depth information, take a look at The Points Guy’s website. His entire blog, which has really morphed into a travel news source, has all the detailed, nitty-gritty, nuanced information you’ll need to dig deeper into points, miles, and credit cards. This post is only meant to help you make sense of the game if you’ve never played before, and to make it less intimidating. I have no affiliation with The Points Guy or his company, but I do want you to get the most out of your travels, and he has some excellent resources on how to do that!
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