Vacations are great – and they’re better when they’re free. If you’ve been paying attention, then you know that there are a wealth of credit cards on the market – all enticing you to sign up with the offer of miles, points, or cash back on your spending. Over his or her lifetime, a customer is worth a certain amount of money to companies like Visa or American Express, and credit card firms are willing to allocate a portion of that money towards customer acquisition. Hence credit card rewards programs.
The name of the game is to find cards that offer the most generous rewards – if the annual fee is waived, even better. Citi made waves last year when they offered up 50,000 “ThankYou Points” on their ThankYou Premier Card. Depending on the time of year and if Citi is running offers or not, these points are worth anywhere from $500 to $800. That’s nothing to sneeze at. When you can find flight deals from Chicago to Hawaii for just $650, your dream vacation is closer than you ever thought possible.
Here are few things to consider as you go about using credit card tricks to take your dream vacation.
Choose the Right Cards
It’s important to pick the right rewards card when you first start out. Easy wins allow prospective credit card tricksters to continue down the path, moving onto bigger and better victories. If you pick the wrong program, you risk becoming frustrated at the earning or redemption mechanics and giving up. Any dream vacation starts with a plane trip. That said, here are two of the best travel rewards cards out there.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
Chase’s crown jewel. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card gives you 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months of opening your account. When you redeem your points for travel, you get a 25% redemption bonus, so 50,000 points nets you $625 to put towards travel when you redeem through Chase. You can redeem for cash if you wish, but you won’t receive the 25% bonus.
The Chase card is great because of its flexibility, allowing users to transfer points between various rewards programs quickly and efficiently. The first year is free, and $95 annually after that. The only downside is that it doesn’t offer as many perks as other travel cards do, such as free checked baggage or entrance into a first-class lounge.
Barclay Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
Quite the mouthful. The Barclay Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard (BAPWEM for short) is an incredibly versatile card. It’s another card offering 50,000 points, this time following a spend of $3,000 in three months. The annual fee is waived for the first year, and then $89 per year following – cheaper than the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.
Just like the Chase card, customers get a portion of their miles back each time they redeem. All told, the signup bonus is worth $525. You can use BAPWEM points for hotel stays, timeshares, cruise lines, and more, a definite advantage over the Chase card.
The savvy credit card trickster prioritizes generous signup bonuses as well as flexibility. Generally, cards that give you miles are best for air travel and cards with hotel points are best for hotels, but sometimes you find cards that are transcendent. Snap them up when you can.
If you stick to the cards described above, you’re going to be fine. Their ease of use means you don’t need to worry about whether you can redeem for points or not; simply pay for your purchase and then apply your points.
With other cards, especially ones branded with a particular airline or group of airlines, you have to be more mindful of how you redeem. For example, with Aeroplan, you can only redeem points for flights on individual carriers such as Air Canada or Turkish Airlines.
You will also want to stick to redeeming for flights and hotels as there’s more value for money there. Do not redeem your points for a blender. For example, when you redeem Aeroplan miles for flight rewards, the exchange rate can range from 1.5 cents, all the way to 13 cents a mile. If you use those miles to buy a vacuum, the exchange rate plummets.
Stay Somewhere Nice
If we define a dream vacation as five nights in Hawaii, then it’s going to be a breeze if you use the right credit card strategy. Once you touch down in Hawaii, you’re going to need a place to stay. If you don’t use one of the cards above, which allows you to redeem points for hotel stays as well as flights, you may want to explore the Starwood branded American Express cards, which not only allows you to transfer points from the Starwood rewards program to other programs, but you can also use them to redeem free nights at Starwood properties. The Starwood Preferred card currently comes with a signup bonus of 25,000 points, which translates into three free nights at one of Starwood’s Category 3 hotels. These aren’t terrible hotels either – you can stay at properties such as Le Meridien and the Westin.
Have a Plan
Map out how many points you will require. How many points will you need to finance your dream vacation and what sort of bonuses can you expect to earn? If you need to supplement signup bonuses with points earned from spending, how many can you expect to receive based on your spending habits?
Long-term vision is essential, so keep your eye on the prize. Here are a few tips that can help:
- Time it right – Cards periodically offer larger sign-up bonuses, typically in the summer. Keep an eye out for these and strike while the iron is hot.
- Use it everyday – The key to maximizing your return on credit cards is to use them for the majority of your daily purchases. Try to put expenses that you wouldn’t usually pay for using a credit card on there too. Some folks go as far as to ask friends if they are buying any big-ticket items and see if they will let them put it on their credit card.
- Cycle through cards – You can sign up for more than one card to achieve your dream vacation. Credit card tricksters, would often open one, focus on meeting the spending limits and then move on to another card once they’ve reached their goal.
Let’s address your concerns. What about my credit score? Won’t I get penalized if I open too many accounts?
It’s going to be just fine.
If you borrow money or apply for a loan, information about your credit history is recorded. Big credit bureaus like Equifax compile that data and then translate it into a score. Here are the different components of your credit score, in order of importance.
- Payment History – 35%
The most important piece of your credit score is your payment history. Pay your bills on time because missing a single payment by even a few days can affect your score negatively.
- Amounts Owed (Credit Utilization) – 30%
The next important piece is amounts owed, or how much debt you have. Most people would assume that the amount of debt you carry is the most important constituent of your credit score, but it’s a close second. If you’re maxing out your credit cards, that hurts your score.
- Length of Credit History – 15%
Somewhat counter-intuitively, lack of a history can hurt your score. Even if you are against credit cards for whatever reason, it might be a good idea to have one that you maintain just so you don’t run into difficulties down the line.
- Types of credit used – 10%
This part of the credit score looks at your overall mix of credit usage (credit cards, mortgages, etc.). Showing that you can handle a variety of credit responsibly is a good thing.
- New Credit – 10%
This part of the credit score looks at how many new accounts you have opened, and it’s worth 10% of the overall pie.
So, to answer the question. Opening new cards can impact your score but not by much — only if you open a lot of accounts in a short amount of time. New accounts affect your score because they lower your average account age. Given that new credit only accounts for 10% of the overall score, it’s probably not going to be the thing that makes or breaks your credit score. Your payment history and credit utilization are far more important. Furthermore, opening a new account can help your credit utilization ratio by lowering your ratio of credit used to credit available.
Let me repeat: good debt repayment habits are far more important to your credit score than simply opening or closing accounts.
A Note on Manufactured Spending
Don’t do it. Manufactured spend refers to the practice of gaming rewards systems and can be unethical. For instance, some attempt to meet spending targets on a credit card by sending a friend $3,000 via PayPal. The friend then simply returns the money later. Others buy gift cards that they then sell on second-hand websites for a slight loss. They lose money on each gift card, but make it up in the sheer volume of points they accrue. You don’t need to resort to these tactics.
It may seem like hitting these spending targets are difficult, but they can be very achievable if you focus on one card at a time. You don’t need to own a small business or travel extensively in order to rack up a lot of points and miles.
Most ask you to spend $1,000 a month. Even taking rent or a mortgage out of the equation, this is an achievable target for a lot of people if they can put most of their daily spending on a credit card.
While strategizing for your beach vacation, don’t sacrifice proper monthly spending habits just to accumulate points. Keep track of your monthly spending through Personal Capital’s free tools.
Be smart, pay off your balances in full, and you’ll be sitting on a plane to Hawaii in no time.
Jacob Jaegle, CFP®
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