My first post-college credit card strategy wasn’t anything fancy. I carried a card issued by the bank where I had a checking and savings account at the time. It had a higher credit limit than the one I had while I was a student, so I stopped running the risk of maxing it out.
That’s about the only benefit it had, really. No rewards, no cash back. Those were simpler times, folks.
A former co-worker of mine, generous with his knowledge, led an office seminar on how to use credit cards rewards to travel. He managed to see the world for a fraction of the price, without compromising his credit score or his ability to secure a mortgage.
I was fascinated, so I ditched my no-frills card in favor of the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. I’ve since added to it a smorgasbord of other rewards cards, such as:
The Chase Freedom®.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® (now off the market).
The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express (now off the market).
Over the years, I racked up rewards that I redeemed for flights, hotel stays, rental cars, rail passes, and ferry tickets.
By now I’ve lost count of the cards I’ve opened and closed over the years. I carry five currently, and I've stored a few others that I leave open but don’t use. I often downgrade to the fee-free version of a rewards card so I don’t pay a ton of annual fees, while still leaving that line of credit open.
And much like that former co-worker, I’ve created a system for accumulating points and miles and redeeming them to take some incredible vacations to places like Maui, New Zealand and Australia — without dinging my credit score or going into debt.
Personal strategies from our credit card writers
• Chanelle Bessette: A Card for Every Case • Gregory Karp: Making Simplicity Rewarding • Melissa Lambarena: Two Cover the Bases and One’s on Deck • Robin Saks Frankel: Fund Summer Camp, Get 'Chase Trifecta' • Kimberly Palmer: Stretch the Budget With Cash Back • Claire Tsosie: I'm Disloyal, and It's Paying Off • Sara Rathner: Meet #TravelGoals Via Smart Swiping
Above all else, take care of that credit score
Despite what it looks like to my friends who think what I do is sketchy, I don’t rack up debt while I gallivant around the world. I nurture my credit the way one would bottle-feed a kitten:
I don’t buy things I don’t need just to earn rewards.
I pay my credit card bills in full and on time every month.
I check my statements for suspicious charges.
I periodically check my credit reports for free at annualcreditreport.com.
I keep an eye on my credit score (the NerdWallet app is a great way to do this).
Make every dollar spent worth more
If I’m going to spend money, each dollar needs to work harder for me. I rarely pay for anything in cash unless I absolutely have to. Instead, if I’m working toward a bonus for a minimum spend on a new card, I’ll use that card exclusively. If I have a card that earns me extra points at certain types of stores, I’ll use that. Otherwise, I’ll just default to my go-to, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.
Increasing the value of my spending doesn’t stop at earning points. If there’s something I can do to make them worth more upon redemption, I do it.
For example, I use my Chase Freedom® for its quarterly rotating bonus categories, and I transfer those points to my Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s Chase Ultimate Rewards® account. Why do I bother with the extra step of transferring? Because with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, my points are worth 25% more when I book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal.
Use the buddy system
If your spouse or partner is also willing to sign up for a new credit card, you can double your points earning in the same amount of time.
My husband and I share the same ambitious travel goals and, thankfully, the same excellent credit scores and fear of getting into debt. Because of this, we often each get the same card at the same time so we can earn double the sign-up bonus.
Some rewards programs allow you to share one account or transfer your points among accounts for free. We’ve had success with JetBlue, Hilton, Hyatt, Chase Ultimate Rewards® and Starwood Preferred Guest (before it merged with Marriott, though Marriott allows for free point transfers, too).
Most of the time, though, we’ve had to book travel through our respective rewards accounts, which sometimes has led to begging gate agents to swap our seats on a flight so we could sit together. You’ll get a few snarky questions about why a couple would book their flights on separate accounts, but hopefully, your relationship is strong enough to withstand such judgment.
Or you could just deal with sitting apart for a few hours in exchange for a free flight. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all.
Set travel goals while leaving room for spontaneity
When I first started saving up rewards points, it helped to have a specific trip in mind. That way I could plot out which airlines flew to that destination, which hotels offered the location and amenities I was looking for, and decide whether I’d need to rent a car. From there, I could pick the rewards programs that would grant me that trip at a steep discount.
I still have certain vacation ideas in mind for the next year or so, but I've also found that stockpiling points in a flexible rewards program where you can book travel or transfer points to partners (looking at you, Chase Ultimate Rewards® and American Express Membership Rewards) gives us the room to squeeze in an unexpected trip.
We’ve also stockpiled points and miles for major hotel chains and airlines with cards like:
I won’t always have the carefree, mortgage-less lifestyle that allows for one big trip a year. Until then, I’m happy to spend our points on priceless experiences.