OOOOOKKKAAAAAAYYY. This topic can get so busy and so confusing and there are about 542,423,458,976,019,235 people out there that probably have more experience with this than I do, but I am going to share how we have been traveling inexpensively for the past five years or so and what works for us.
Three words: CREDIT CARD POINTS.
There is a whole world of travel hacking (that is, using credit card points to pay for travel) blogs, websites, pros, mentors, sherpas, tips, tricks, t-shirts and so forth out there. I, alone, am NOT the authority. But I’ve learned a thing or two in the past handful of years and if you wouldn’t know where to start otherwise, let me be your guide. If you are beyond the basics, then let me direct you to the ChooseFI travel hacking page and 19 lesson tutorial, here. It is a ton of good information, but is a little above my level since I don’t do any international travel at this point.
So here is the skinny on working with credit cards. First, don’t do this if you cannot pay off your card. We’ve been using credit cards in place of debit cards for years and paying them off every month, so it didn’t feel any different to us. But I know there are people that feel a little too spendy with a credit card in their wallet, so this isn’t for those people. As they say on the ChooseFI podcast, if you pay any interest on these cards, then the credit card company wins. If you pay zero interest and just take advantage of their sign on bonuses and points systems, then YOU win! You just have to be smart about whether this can logistically work in your situation.
Second, it’s ALL about the sign on bonuses! I have to admit that before opening my first Southwest Airlines card several years ago, I was skeptical of having to pay an annual fee when I was using a free card that was giving me 1% cash back. Luckily I had a good friend essentially slap me and wake me up to the fact that if you get a hefty 50,000 point sign on bonus, that is likely more than enough for two round-trip tickets somewhere, for the low cost of my $69 sign on bonus! Amazing! But in order to get the sign on bonus, there is typically a dollar amount that you have to spend in a certain amount of time. For example, right now with Southwest, the requirement is to spend $1000 in the first three months to get 40,000 points. Again, for us, because we use our credit cards for everything, that isn’t a hard spend to meet. But there have been cards that have had higher minimum spends in the past and we have to be very careful about those, making sure to sign up before we know we have a large expense, such as new tires, a new baby, holidays, insurance premiums, etc. So once you hit that spend, you’ll get your bonus points and then you can start traveling! You will also be earning points for the money you are spending along the way, so it will start accumulating quickly!
What cards? Well funny you ask. Across the board, EVERYONE ON THE INTERNET recommends the Chase Sapphire. We have the Chase Sapphire Preferred (the other one is much more expensive) and have been thrilled with it so far. The reason that the internet loves this card so much is because once you earn the points on this card, they can be transferred to tons of other loyalty programs, such as Southwest, Hyatt, Marriott, United, and a bunch of others. You can also book flights or hotels directly through their travel portal and your points will go even further. We just recently used these points when we went to Seattle and it was super easy. It was the first time booking through their portal (which looks essentially like Hotwire or Travelocity or something similar), so I just searched for a hotel in the location I wanted, looked at it on a map, looked through a billion pictures and reviews, and booked it. I had enough points to cover the entire stay, but even if you don’t, they will use all of the points you have, and then just bill you the rest. Which is uncommon, as most travel rewards need to be paid exclusively in points or cash. Anyway, it is really great. I have searched for airfare on it, but ultimately decided to book through the airline for other reasons, but it is nice to be able to see a ton of different airline options in one spot. Overall, it is a good gateway card to get you almost anywhere. And of course the points can be used for cash back and a handful of other things too if traveling isn’t your thing. And if that’s the case, maybe you don’t have to finish this blog post. 🙂 But anyway, if you are interested in applying for the Chase Sapphire card, here is the link!
While everyone in the world LOVES the Chase Sapphire card, I personally also really love the Southwest Airlines card. Accruing points is relatively easy, and they have, by far, the easiest and most user-friendly redemption program. You simply look up where you want to go, view the flights in points, and then book them. And the very best thing, is that when you book with points, you can change the flight at any time! This is huge huge huge. I cannot even tell you how many times I have changed flights, cancelled flights, rebooked flights when I saw there was a better fare, all of that without having any fees. The points just go immediately right back into your account. Another thing I love about them is that you can easily book flights for others. I have booked flights for three family members who were flying with us and without us, and it was never a problem. It really is so nice to have that option. But honestly, their whole rewards process is just so easy to use that it makes it feel like it is legitimately worth having the card. Plus, they often have fare sales, when their rates are so cheap, which allows your points to go a lot further. We have used Southwest to fly to San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, Salt Lake, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Atlanta, all of which went off without a hitch. If you want to try it, here’s the link!
I also really like the Capital One Venture card. I’ve had fairly limited use with it, since it is relatively new to me, but essentially instead of using the points to redeem for travel, you can go on to your credit card statement and ERASE charges that were for travel. This is how I got Maren and I to New York in September flying JetBlue. I found really good deals on JetBlue flights (which is my favorite airline to fly to NYC), booked them with my Capital One card, then used the points from my sign on bonus to erase the charges for those flights. It was like it never even happened! A card like this is good for when you want to travel on an airline that you don’t have points for, or can also be used for rental cars, train fares, hotels, amusement parks, etc. Again, I have limited use with it, but have been really happy so far. I have big plans to use it for some big Disney stuff in a few years, I’ll let you know how that all pans out. 🙂 Anyway, if you want to try it out, here’s the link!
We have obviously not limited ourselves to those three cards, in fact, we have loads more right now, but those are the three that are perfect to get started with. Of course if you are going to be doing a lot of international traveling, you might want to go a different direction, but if you are just getting started and primarily travel to places that are within the US, these cards will serve you well.
Do you have questions? When is your next trip planned? Where are you going to go? I feel like in the back of my mind, I almost always have my next three to five vacations mapped out. For us, we will be going to Louisiana for Mardi Gras in February with the whole family! Wish us luck, as we haven’t flown with all five of us before and it could get hairy. Then Philip and I would love to get away for our anniversary in May. I think I want to do a girl’s trip with some friends in June, maybe a family beach trip in July, and then we will probably do Disneyland in early 2021 before Jade turns three. And there it is, my next five trips. See? I’m good at pretend planning these.
***In full transparency, these referral links to our favorite cards will compensate us with referral points if you choose to use our links. It is at no cost to you, but will allow us to continue to put the time into sharing our favorite travel hacks and tips. Thanks you!***