Everything You Were Afraid to Ask About Travel Credit Cards, Answered

Insider Guides
by Erin Lizzo Mar 30, 2018

I got my first credit card when I was sixteen years old and it was accompanied by a strict lesson on “financial responsibility” from my dad. Whatever he told me worked, and maybe a bit too well. The conversation about debt scared me to the point that if I paid for so much as a movie ticket with that card I would run home and pay it off as soon as the charge was no longer pending.

To me, debt was the scariest thing a person could have to deal with. It meant a loss of freedom, being financially tied down, and obligated to pay off things that you couldn’t necessarily afford in the first place. I was a cash-only girl until my early 30’s. Sure, that meant at one point I was stuck in Sweden with $200 in my bank account waiting for a paycheck to come through, but in my head, that was totally fine. I preferred to sleep on a friends couch and eat crackers for three days instead of pulling out my Visa.

Then I met my husband who paid for everything on his credit card. He didn’t carry cash and used his debit card purely for backup. His logic was that he would pay the balance off at the start of every billing cycle, and collect award miles or other benefits from the card. This was a totally new concept to me. It had never occurred to me that if managed properly, a credit card could actually be working for me. Although it took awhile to get on board, watching him book a free trip to Belize with miles he’d saved was a turning point. Since we both love to travel, figuring out how to maximize our airline mileage and points accumulation has become a wonderful challenge.

Here are some tips that will allow you to travel the world for free with the help of a travel credit card.

1. Select the right card for you.

There is no one perfect credit card that will suit all travelers. Depending on what your travel priorities are (miles, hotels, upgrades, etc.), as well as what your spending habits are, different cards may work best for you. Do you shop exclusively on Amazon or at Target? Both retailers offer a credit card that provides five percent off your purchases. Are you planning to do a big home remodeling project? If so, a Lowes card that offers five percent cash back on all purchases might be a total money saver. I have a friend who charged her kitchen remodel on this card and then used the money she saved to take a two week trip to Spain. After a three-month kitchen remodel, a trip to Alicante sounds ideal.

We love the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which gives you 50,000 bonus points when you sign up if you spend $4000 in the first three months, and earns three times the amount of points on travel and dining purchases, along with many other perks. I was hesitant to sign up at first because of the $450 annual fee. But after outlining the money we’d get back for traveling and rewards offered on this card, it was the clear winner. You may prefer a card like the Capital One Venture Card, which simply offers two times miles per dollar for every purchase, without any additional perks for certain types of purchases. Perhaps you prefer to stick with a card from one airline that you constantly need to fly on, whether that be for business or to visit your folks at Christmas.

Regardless of what card or cards you end up with, start out by doing the research. There are plenty of credit card comparison tools out there that can help in the decision-making process (our favorite being travel credit card guru The Points Guy). Remember your end goal when selecting a card. Be specific when determining what you’re looking for. Check for blackout dates and hidden restrictions. Do the math.

2. Compare the benefits.

The very favorite perk of my current credit card is that it comes with a Priority Pass that allows access to over a thousand airport lounges. If you were to buy that pass it would cost about $400, but it’s free with the Chase Sapphire card. Strolling into the lounge for a snack and a cocktail between connections still feels so luxurious. The ability to take a shower in the lounge before or after a long flight feels like a total lifesaver.

Other common benefits to look for include:

  • Gifting a large number of miles when you initially sign up for the card. Sometimes that can be up to 100,000 miles.
  • Travel credit. Some cards offer up to $300 off travel you book.
  • Three times the miles accumulated on certain purchases such as transportation and restaurants.
  • Discounts on other products such as rental cars, gas, hotels.
  • Travel insurance — some cards offer insurance for items that you’ve purchased on the card.

3. Stay within your comfort zone.

For me, the key to spending money on my credit card is that the benefit (accumulating airline miles) outweighs the negative (the fear that I can’t pay it off). It’s important to make sure that you stay within your comfort zone when you’re using your card. This means maybe you set a monthly limit for spending. Or maybe you only charge up to the amount that you currently have in your bank account. Knowing that you will be able to pay off the balance of your card every month is the best way to stay out of the danger zone: credit card debt.

4. Decide where you’ll travel (for free).

Last April, we saved up and charged our entire wedding on an Amex. Then we used the awards miles for two roundtrip tickets to Panama. Six months later we booked two round-trip flights from Denver to Myanmar on awards miles. Between daily expenses, monthly bills, work travel, transportation, and restaurant meals, it’s pretty surprising how quickly awards miles can add up when you’re using a credit card

Reframing the concept of spending money as a deficit and, instead, thinking of the benefit can make even seemingly annoying expenses feel like there is some reward involved. You had to spend $1,000 to fix your car? At least you got the miles. That dental check up turned into a $500 crown replacement? At least you got the miles. Your lawyer couldn’t get you out of that speeding ticket? Now you’ve got enough miles to fly to Hawaii. When you’re on the beach in February enjoying a beer and watching the waves, life will be just a little bit sweeter when you remember you flew there for free.

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