When my husband and I got married, we didn’t exactly have a lot of money to throw around.
We weren’t poor by any means, but our idea of a honeymoon was leaning more towards a relaxing weekend at the family cabin than a transatlantic tour of Europe and the UK.
Thankfully, my then-fiance and I had been racking up points on a credit card with a travel rewards program.
Before I even started to come up with honeymoon ideas, we’d earned enough mileage to fly to London and Croatia for free.
Instead of heating up s’mores in the microwave and burning through a pile of DVDs, we were exploring ancient palaces and stuffing ourselves with Croatian seafood. It was perfect.
Travel rewards are a slam dunk, as long as you’re responsible enough to reap the benefits. If you’re looking to adventure on the cheap, here’s how to find the best credit card for you and use credit cards to travel.
Examine your credit.
If you want to start earning airline or hotel points, you have to see if your credit is good enough to qualify for the best credit card rewards programs.
The most lucrative cards often require credit scores of 750 or higher, although some will approve people with scores between 620 and 749.
Don’t like what you see? Look at your credit report to see what’s dragging you down. It might be a high debt-to-income ratio, frequent late payments, or large credit utilization. Work on improving your score before you apply.
If you already have a credit card, pay off the balance each month in full and on time. Doing so regularly for a few months will boost your credit score.
Choose the right card for you.
Almost every airline and hotel company has their own credit card, so it’s easy to find one that fits your needs.
Before you sign up for any cards, research which one makes the most sense for you. If your local airport is mainly a hub for Southwest, it doesn’t make sense to sign up for the United Airlines card.
Many consumers apply for cards based on their initial sign-up bonus. Often signing bonuses are worth at least one round-trip domestic flight.
These bonuses usually require users to spend a certain amount within three months to qualify. Some of these cards only ask that you spend $1,000 in three months, but others demand you spend closer to $3,000 or $4,000 in three months to receive the bonus.
A family of four could probably spend that amount easily, but it’s much harder for a single person. It’s a waste to sign up for a card when you won’t be able to earn the bonus.
Also, it’s not worthwhile to carry a balance on a card just to get the extra points. Travel cards often have higher interest rates, and it’s never worth the free trip if you wind up in credit card debt.
Do the research.
Credit card travel expert Brad Barrett of Richmond Savers said the best airline deals come with traditional frequent flyer miles, but they also sell out the fastest. The key to maximizing any credit card reward is to be adaptable in your plans.
“If they can’t be flexible with their dates, and that often means even plus or minus a few days, then it will be very difficult to use traditional frequent flyer miles,” he said.
Every card has its pros and cons, but some are better than others. One of the perennial favorites is the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which offers 50,000 bonus points that can be redeemed through almost any airline. Another popular option is the Southwest Rapid Rewards card, which has a
One of the perennial favorites is the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which offers 50,000 bonus points that can be redeemed through almost any airline. Another popular option is the Southwest Rapid Rewards card, which has a 40,000-mile bonus. Flights through Southwest can cost as little as 2,000 points, giving you great bang for your buck.
Barrett’s other favorite picks include the Capital One Venture and Barclaycard Arrival Plus, “which allow you to buy the travel with your credit card like normal and then log in after the fact to redeem your ‘miles’ to wipe the expense off your credit card statement.”
For hotels, Barrett loves the Starwood and Hyatt cards, “since they allow you to use your points to book any ‘Standard’ room they have available.”
“Most hotels aren’t at full occupancy, so you can almost always use your points, even on last-minute stays,” he said.
Read the fine print.
You have to pay taxes and fees when you travel, even if you book your flight for free. Taxes for domestic flights are usually less than $20. However, those taxes and fees can cost more than $100 for an international flight. Don’t forget to include this cost when budgeting for your trip.
Used to traveling at the last minute? Reward flights have to be booked months in advance or you’ll face staggering prices (like 40,000 points for a flight that usually costs 20,000).
Stay on top of your credit rewards.
When you use credit cards to travel, you can build up points for your next trip. Many cards give you double points on your travel, helping you earn rewards faster.
Pay attention to how you are earning points. Use your points to book free airfare, free hotel rooms, and get discounts on rental cars.
You might be surprised at how cheap travel becomes when you use your rewards credit cards.