How to Use Travel Credit Cards

I never spend a dollar without getting something in return, whether that’s miles, points, cash back, or Starbucks stars. There are countless programs and cards that will reward you for spending money but you have to be smart about how you use them. I am NOT a financial advisor so you will need to make your own plan on what works best for your goals and situation. Here is some insight into the cards I have and how I use them.

The Basics

– I have 4 credit cards geared towards earning points or miles.
– I always pay off my balance at the end of the month, I’m not going into debt to travel, just making my money go further.
– Some of my cards I use more than others because the benefits are better and my money goes further and some of my cards I only use to book tickets for a particular airline, to maintain status with that airline, and to take advantage of benefits such as free check bags, priority boarding, miles that don’t expire.

My “Hacks” for Getting More Points

Wait to apply for a credit card until a great points/cash back offer is given. For example when I got my Delta SkyMiles Card, I applied for it when I was booking a ticket to Tokyo which took $200 off my ticket price bringing my round trip ticket from the US to Tokyo under $350. Many times, this “cash back” offer is only given to people as they are purchasing a ticket. There are also promotions where you can get extra miles for signing up, keep your eyes peeled and wait for a sweet deal.

Family or friend making a large purchase? Offer to put it on your card. Obviously, make sure you trust that this person will give you the money for their big ticket item, but asking if you can make the purchase for them to get the points or status is a great way to make your card work for you. And many times your friends are totally cool with helping you achieve this goal.

Add your significant other to your account. Many cards will reward you big time for adding another person to your card and this additional card usually doesn’t cost extra as credit card companies see this as an added opportunity for you to spend extra money. Once again, make sure you trust this person and make sure you have their permission before adding them to your account. For example, my husband and I both have our own accounts with United but we also have cards on each other’s accounts.

Move your recurring bills to your rewards card. Any expense that you have that you can pay with a credit card (utilities, Netflix, insurance, etc.) should be moved to a card that gives you something back. If you are going to be spending this money every month, you might as well be getting something in return.

Refer your card to your friends and family. If you absolutely love a card talk to your family and friends. Most cards have a referral link that you can hand out (I most certainly have mine linked in this post) that will reward both you and them for signing up. If you are talking about a product that you love already, you might as well be rewarded if you encourage others to try it out as well.

Take advantage of card bonus offers. Many cards will sponsor programs with retailers and other businesses to offer bonuses if you use that card to pay for their products or services, but a lot of the time you have to manually opt in to get these extra points. Make sure you are checking your account regularly to not miss these opportunities. For example, I’ve had an offer to get 10% back when using one of my cards to pay for a stay at Airbnb, something I was already going to be doing, so I chose to use that card over my others to pay for that stay to take advantage of that bonus. Note that you shouldn’t use these bonuses as an excuse to go shopping and blow your budget, use them for things that you were already planning on purchasing.

How to Stay Out of Trouble

It can be so tempting to buy things on your card with the mentality that you are doing it for the points and that can quickly get you into trouble. You don’t want to spend extra just because you are being rewarded for it, think of this as a way to be rewarded for the money you already plan on spending.

If you are worried that you might go a little overboard with getting points, put a limit on your card so you don’t go beyond your budget. You can also setup auto payments to make sure that you are paying off your card and not carrying a balance. You don’t want to pay interest on your card (which can be hefty!) Remember the idea is to be rewarded, not penalized and if you are paying interest then that cancelled out the benefit to you.

My Cards and How I Use Them

American Express Platinum
This card is so awesome but it comes with a hefty annual fee ($550 as of 2020). Here are my favorite benefits:
Paid for my Global Entry and TSA pre-check ($100 value)
Membership to Priority Pass which gives me access to hundreds of lounges all over the world (~$200 value)
Access to Delta Sky Clubs and Centurion Lounges
$200 credit to the airline of my choice
$200 credit to Uber
Elevated status at Marriott and Hilton Hotels
And loads more of other benefits!

How I use my Amex Platinum
Besides the fact that there are no foreign transaction fees, Amex has one of the most impressive concierge services. Back when I was planning my trip to Rome one of the tours I wanted to go on could only be booked by SENDING A FAX TO THE VATICAN. I’m sorry, it’s the 21st century, I barely know how to fax to a local number let alone international? Forget about it. I called up the Amex concierge and they handled the whole thing for me, at no extra cost. Another time when I was working on planning a trip to Hong Kong and was getting in over my head. I reached out to the concierge and asked them for brunch recommendations. I gave them my budget and what I was looking for in a great brunch and a day later they sent me a pdf with a huge list of options. Once I picked the one I liked, they made the reservation for me.

I will also use the Amex website to book hotels. They offer 5x the points when I book through them and they will also price match (multiple times) if I find a better deal on a different website and that even includes websites like Agoda which can have some too-good-to-be-true deals.

Amex also has great protection on purchases and built in travel insurance when booking through them.

Here is my Amex referral link if you want to apply!

My Airline Specific Cards
I have cards for the three major US carriers, Delta, American, and United. They all have similar benefits in terms of checked bags, priority boarding, lounge access, and complimentary upgrades. They also have a similar yearly fee.

You’re probably wondering, why all three? Quite honestly, because I fly all three (and their affiliated international partners) enough every year for the fee to be worth it to me. I use United the most because the routing from Austin to the East Coast where I go to visit family makes it my most utilized domestic airline so the bulk of my spending happens on this card to get miles for when I fly back home. Having all three also gives me a Visa, MasterCard, and an Amex in my wallet which can be to my benefit when I’m traveling internationally and not all cards are accepted everywhere and I don’t want to pay international transaction fees.

I also like having an elevated status with these airlines. These companies love loyalty and it goes a long way when you are trying to have an issue resolved or looking for something a little extra. I have used my cardholder status to my advantage multiple times when asking for a schedule change or asking for an upgrade. When your account gets pulled up, the airline can see that you are a cardholder and I swear it works in your advantage.

If you know you are loyal to only a certain airline, or if you absolutely hate a certain airline and are willing to skip over them even if they have the cheapest ticket, then you can narrow down your card loyalty to just one card. One of the reasons that I do love the Amex Platinum card is that it can be used with multiple airlines even though they do have a deal with Delta for some extra benefits.

How I Spend My Points

I not only try to make my money go further but I also stretch my points. I typically use my points/miles to pay for airfare in the summer, major holidays, or during times where my schedule is inflexible. The reason being is that in these times there are less travel deals and flights are more expensive so my points go further. Typically, an airline will increase the ticket price but the points needed for a flight will remain about the same year round with less fluctuation than you see with ticket prices around certain times of year like holidays or during the summer when everyone is taking vacations.

I hardly ever use my points for international travel because they won’t go as far as waiting for a deal on a ticket. For example:

Regular ticket to Asia: $1500
Deal ticket to Asia: $500
Points to Asia: 80K

It makes more sense for me to wait for the deal than to spend that many points, which could be used for multiple domestic flights. You are more likely to see a monetary deal for a ticket than a points deal.

Now, if your plans are inflexible, like you are traveling for an event, this is a great time to use points if ticket prices are high because you may not have the luxury of waiting for a deal to pop up.

I will also sometimes see what a ticket costs each way and will buy one way using money and the other, more expensive way, on points.

Using credit cards and points/miles to your advantage can significantly decrease your travel costs and make your budget go further!

The Points Guy – Great website for hearing about deals, tips, and comparing credit cards.
NerdWallet – Another fantastic website for comparing credit cards.
Million Mile Secrets – Resource for travel credit cards and points.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I have recommended. While clicking these links won’t cost you any extra money, they will help me keep this site up and running as well as keep me traveling!