I’m currently writing this from a yoga retreat center in Cambodia. I came here on a flight from the U.S. I paid $25 for.
I also have over $4,000 in credit card points sitting in my account right now! My secret? I’ve been travel credit card hacking for years, cycling through credit cards to get their sign-on bonuses. This is a beginner’s guide I have put together for people from the U.S.A. who want in on travel-hacking secrets.
I’ve long said it is silly for young people to not be building up a credit score AND taking advantage of the perks of being a responsible credit card owner. And, contrary to popular belief, you CAN do both at the same time. My credit score fluctuates between 780 and 800, which is better than most of my friends my age in their mid-20s.
I STRONGLY RECOMMEND that you be honest with yourself if you are a responsible spender before diving head-first into this. I’m a tight-ass and a nerd about finances, so I do not spend money I don’t have and religiously pay off my cards all the time. It is easy to rack up $1,000s in credit card points if you’re responsible, but it’s easier to end up in a $1,000s in debt if you’re not. I’m not going to be one of those people who says “anyone can be a travel credit card hacker” because that is untrue. It takes responsibility, a little time, and a little research. If you have responsibility, time, and are willing to do some strategizing and learning, then this is an excellent opportunity for you!
My Top Tips for New Travel Credit Card Hackers
1. Make sure you have some credit built up already. You can’t apply for the good cards without it! You won’t get approved for a really good card if you don’t have any credit history. However, there are many cards that are good to start out with for people who haven’t built up credit, such as the Chase Freedom Unlimited card, which offers a wonderful 1.5% cash back on all purchases and has no annual fee. It also has a sign-on bonus of $150 if you spend $500 in 3 months. Most people can manage that, right?
2. Wait, what is a sign-on bonus? Sign-on bonuses are where travel credit card gurus get almost ALL of their travel points. Most cards offer a reward for people who have newly signed on to incentivize people to open new accounts. The only catch is that you have to spend a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time. This ranges depending on the card. Smaller cards, like the Chase Freedom Unlimited, require you to spend only $500 in 3 months and you get an automatic $150 in points. “Big kid” cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, require you to spend $4,000 in 3 months to get the bonus, but the bonus is worth much more.
3. Start small. DO NOT open more than one credit card at once. You likely won’t be able to meet the sign-on bonus requirement on multiple cards, and you want to make sure you can handle it before adding more. Be patient! Getting into the credit card game takes time and practice. You don’t want to end up in over your head!
4. Hunt for a card with an EXTRA sign-on bonus. Many cards frequently pump up their sign-on bonus at certain times of the year. It’s sometimes worth it to check back every once in a while and see if there are any cards with extra bonuses available. I tend to keep my eye on multiple cards I think are appropriate for me and only open up a new credit card if they are offering a little extra!
5. Be mindful of annual fees. Lots of good cards have an annual fee, usually
6. Put all your spending on the card. I’m talking everything. Rent. Utilities. Tuition, if possible. Most cards offer an enticing sign-on bonus often worth over $500, but you usually have to spend somewhere around $2,000 to $4,000 in the first 3 months.
7. Know some tricks for meeting sign-on bonus spending requirements. Can you put your rent, utilities, gym membership, etc. on the card? You probably get the gist! Put everything you can on the card. For many people, this is enough to meet the sign-on bonus requirement. If not, have a few tricks up your sleeve. Is your dad buying a new computer? Ask if you can put it on your card and he can pay you back. Are you a student, and does your university allow you to put your tuition on a card? Do it. For people who want to take an extra step, I have also figured out how to money cycle through Kiva loans, which allows you to do some good in the world while getting travel points. However, it does take quite a bit more time, education, and risk. If you’re interested in this let me know!
8. Keep a ledger of the dates you open and close cards. This helps with #5! Put reminders on your phone or write in a special place in your planner or journal the date you opened a card. You don’t want a year to pass and realize you missed the deadline to cancel the card before getting hit with an annual fee. (However, Chase is great about doing a partial refund if you do cancel after 12 months has elapsed).
9. When you’re ready for multiple cards, consider keeping them with the same credit card company. I am a Chase fanatic. Many of their cards have no international fees and Chase offers really wonderful and versatile rewards. You can even transfer points from one Chase account to another, and transfer Chase points to airline partners. This means you can use the points with multiple airlines instead of being locked to one airline like you are with airline-specific cards. With Chase, your cards will all be on the Chase portal, which makes it easy to track your balances and pay off the cards. I much prefer logging on to one account to track my spending as opposed to having accounts with multiple companies. It simplifies things immensely.
10. Cancel or downgrade cards before 12 months elapse to avoid the annual fee. Many cards waive the annual fee for the first year. Even if they don’t, you usually end up coming out ahead with the points you get from the sign-on bonus. Just make sure to think about whether or not it’s worth it to keep the card an extra year. If not, cancel the card or downgrade it before 12 months pass.
11. “Downgrade” cards when possible. Part of your credit score is calculated based on how many accounts you have open and the average longevity of your accounts. When I switch a “big kid” card with a big annual fee to a smaller card with no annual fee, I call this “downgrading” a card. For example, I switched my Chase Sapphire Preferred account, which has a $95 annual fee, to a Chase Freedom Unlimited account, which has no annual fee, to keep the credit line open. However, keep in mind you don’t qualify for the sign-on bonus of the new card you get when you downgrade an old account. The sign-on bonus only works with brand new accounts.
12. Don’t be scared to close accounts you no longer want, but spread out the cancellations. I’ve heard lots of people say travel credit card hacking wrecks your credit score but this is totally untrue as long as you spread out cancellations and don’t apply for multiple accounts at the same time. Don’t cancel multiple credit cards on the same day or month. Try to spread it out. Remember #1 and #8. Your credit card account openings should be staggered since you have to meet sign-on bonus requirements, so you can easily stagger the cancellations too.
13. Put reminders on your calendar to close the card before 12 months pass so you don’t forget. Do this when you get the card so you don’t have to worry about it or miss the deadline to cancel!
14. Browse for the best card. Do you want airline miles or cash back? Do you want to do international travel or will you stay stateside? Do you think you can spend $2,000 in 3 months, but not $3,000? Depending on your answers, some cards will be better than others. Here’s a brief overview of accounts I’ve had myself that I personally recommend.
Chase Freedom Unlimited: in my opinion, this is the best card for both beginners and people who just want cash back. You get 1.5% cash back on all purchases, and a $150 bonus when you spend $500 in 3 months. Also, a great card to downgrade another Chase card to, such as the Sapphire cards. Use this link and we both benefit!
Southwest Rapid Rewards: ideal for people who travel mostly in the United States since Southwest points stretch really far. Also ideal for people who want points for travel but who are able to hit a more modest spending requirement, since the spending requirement is $2,000 in 3 months. Get this card here
Chase Sapphire Preferred: good for people who want to do international travel. Points are worth 1.25% when redeemed for travel on the Chase portal, and you get 2 points per dollar on all restaurant and travel purchases. There are also no international fees! Also, you can transfer these points to a plethora of airline partners.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: good for people with a bit more experience who are confident they are going to travel. This card carries a hefty $450 annual fee, but you get $300 a year to use on travel purchases, you get 3 points per dollar at restaurants and on travel, there are no annual fees, and you get a sweet Priority Pass that lets you into lots of airline lounges worldwide. If you travel and use this $300 credit in the year, the annual fee is more like $150. This is my favorite card but I don’t really recommend it to beginners because the annual fee is so high and it isn’t waived the first year. Save this one for a little later.
Chase Ink Plus and Chase Ink: These are business cards. If you happen to be a small business owner, you are in luck because you can use your personal spending AND business spending to rack up points! The Chase Ink card is better for beginners, and the Ink Plus is better for people who can meet a higher spending requirement. Ask me if you’d like more details.
15. Use a money management app like Mint to track your spending, bank account, and credit score all in one place. Mint provides you with a free credit score once a month, so you can see if and how your new accounts are impacting your credit score. You can also make sure you don’t miss a bill if you’re juggling multiple credit cards. It also helps you budget. I love it for reasons beyond travel credit card hacking!
16. Bonus for small business owners: Leverage your small business to get even more points. Make sure to get a good business card, and if you need to, put personal expenses on it to meet the spending requirement. Just remember to be honest at tax time.
17. Bonus Tip for Checking Accounts: Open an account with Charles Schwab. This is a checking account, not a credit card account. They give you $100 for opening the account and have no international fees and refund all ATM fees at the end of the month!
As you can see, I am a huge advocate of Chase. I’ve tried other credit card companies, but nothing compares, and it’s so nice to have all my accounts in one place. I do get referral bonuses for everyone who uses my links up to $500 a year, so if you found this guide helpful, I would love for you to use my links provided above. Thank you!