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Often when discussing credit card travel rewards with a newbie, I see a growing look of dread spread across their face because they assume that playing the game means going thousands of dollars into debt.
I’ve collected travel rewards for years, using several different credit cards, and I have earned thousands of dollars worth of points. I’ve used my points to pay for first class plane tickets and to stay in high-end hotels. I have never taken on a penny of debt to do it.
It is easy to get into trouble with rewards cards if you’re not financially responsible, but done correctly, playing the travel rewards game can be a sound way to pay for your travel.
These are all of the steps you need to take to ensure that you are maximizing your point collection while minimizing your debt.
Understand welcome bonuses and minimum spending requirements
Usually the most valuable part of any rewards card is the sign-up bonuses offered to first-time users. To earn this bonus, you will have to complete minimum spending requirements. This minimum spend can vary pretty widely, depending on the card.
For example, the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card has a very high welcome bonus: New Offer! Earn 100k bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,250 toward travel when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. This translates to $1000 if taken as cash, but you have to meet the spending requirement to qualify for it.
If you can’t afford to meet the minimum spending requirement without racking up more interest charges than the bonus is worth, the card isn’t for you.
There are a number of cards with lower minimum spending requirements, such as the Citi Rewards+℠ Card. Earn 15,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in purchases with your card within 3 months of account opening; redeemable for $150 in gift cards at thankyou.com. So even if you’re on a tight budget, you can still find a card that will work for you.
If you don’t want to break your budget trying to reach a minimum spending requirement, wait until you know that you’ll have to make a large purchase, such as buying a new laptop or making an expensive repair to your car. You can then put the charge on your new card and get most or all of the minimum spending requirement taken care of at once.
Keep track of annual fees
Many rewards cards charge an annual fee, though some will waive that fee for the first year.
If you’re not earning more points every year than it costs you to keep the card, you may need to look into a different card. For example, the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card charges an annual fee of $95 to keep open. If you’re not earning more than $95 in Ultimate Rewards® points every year, it doesn’t make any sense for you to have that card.
Rewards credit cards can offer you a lot of value, but they often have a number of fees and costs that go along with them. Keep track of the annual value of your points and make sure that you’re not spending more money to keep a card open than getting in return.
Interest charges are the greatest enemy of any travel rewards collector. These payments you make to maintain a balance on your card can quickly eat away at any value you’re earning by using the card.
One of the most important things you can do as a travel rewards collector is to find a credit card that fits your budget. Rewards cards are not an excuse to go out and spend money on things that you would never buy normally.
When budgeting for a rewards card, ask yourself how large of a balance you can afford to pay off in full every month. That is the absolute maximum you should ever spend on any rewards card because the point of using them is to create more value than you spend.
No matter how high the rewards are on any card, they’re not worth it if you’re paying large fees and interest charges.
The bottom line
Pursuing points and miles can be rewarding, but it also demands a great sense of financial responsibility. Never apply for a card until you understand the fees and charges you’ll have to pay to use it and how much you can responsibly spend on the card.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2020, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card