As the year closes, people are starting to think about New Year’s Resolutions.
And more importantly, columnists like me are using that fact as an inroads to give out advice about New Year’s Resolutions.
Well, if you’re resolving to travel more in 2019, you should consider a travel credit card. It can act as a rocket boost to help you reach your vacation goals.
A few years ago. I didn’t have any credit cards. Now, I have 10 of them.
If that collection sounds crazy, you should realize that there are folks out there have dozens of cards. And with good reason: Credit-card bonuses have become the easiest way to rack up a whole bunch of miles… but only if you follow a few simple rules.
Actually, “rules” sounds a little bit heavy-handed. Let’s call them COMMANDMENTS!
Commandment #1: Thou shalt not carry a balance
This advice should go for all credit cards, but particularly for travel cards, which have interest rates running anywhere from 15% to 25%. Those kinds of interest rates would make your points and miles more trouble than their worth.
If you can’t afford the credit-card charges you make each month, you’ve got some personal finance troubles to address first; This game isn’t for you.
Really, I could make this Commandment 1-through-5. But I have some other “thou shalts” to make.
Commandment #2: Honor thy minimum spend
As with most advertisements, you’ve got the big text and the little text. Take this old Marriott card ad:
“100,000 BONUS POINTS”
“After you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first 3 months…”
You get it. But you need to really get it.
Just like any carnival game, you have to hit the markers to earn the prize.
Take 10 minutes and examine the monthly statement on your current credit or debit card. Can you reach the bonus in a typical 3 months?
If not, do what I do: I wait until I have saved up for a big new purchase. Before I bought my new laptop, I opened up a card. Had to buy new tires, got myself a new card.
Some of the bonuses are easier to reach than others. Most Southwest personal cards are a $1,000 minimum spend over 3 months. That’s achievable.
Commandment #3: Thou shalt know thy travel goals
Are you looking to earn enough points to help pay for a family vacation in Europe? Or do you prefer shorter vacations to see family that (SO SELFISHLY) lives out in California? Got a taste for luxury hotels, or are you cool with Airbnb?
Figure that out first before you start signing up for cards. 100,000 Hilton points may sound great, but what if the hotel you love costs 75,000 points a night? The bonus won’t even get you a free weekend. Map out a rough plan for the points before you apply.
Commandment #4: Keep the flexible points holy
Unlike the U.S. Airways days of yore, Pittsburgh International Airport is a place where no single airline dominates the market.
From the Airport Authority’s 2017 report:
As someone who flies in and out of Pittsburgh, I don’t need to be loyal to any particular airline. Southwest gets me to St. Louis (where my sister lives), Spirit gets me to Los Angeles (where my brother lives), and a bunch of airlines get me to New York (where a bunch of my friends pay too much to live).
Thus, I am big into the flexible, transferrable points. The big three:
Each has its own myriad of transfer partners. And I’m glad to have points in all three, which allows me to transfer points to pretty much any airline or hotel chain in America.
And if you’re head is already starting to spin from keeping track of all the minimum spends and transfer partners, then remember the Fifth Commandment:
Commandment #5: Thou shalt enjoy the game of it all
Brutal honesty: if I added up all the hours I spend searching the internet for deals, tracking my credit-card points and offers, and plugging away at spreadsheets (and let’s say my time working is worth $15 an hour), there is NO WAY I come out ahead in terms of the money I’ve saved on travel vs. the “money” I wasted working on all the research.
And I don’t care.
Really, I don’t.
For me, earning points and getting free (or heavily-discounted) travel is a game. A fun game at that. That’s probably why the companies call them points in the first place!
I enjoy that I was able to get my girlfriend and myself to Germany and back using points, but just as importantly, I enjoyed figuring out how I could earn those points with the least amount of effort and expenditure.