Rookie Guide to Award Travel: Getting a Rewards Credit Card

Jul 13, 2015

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Even the most prolific award travelers had to start somewhere. For those of you who are curious about getting into the game, TPG Contributor Carly Blatt presents the first installment of her Rookie Guide to Award Travel with a primer on how to look for a rewards credit card.

When I started collecting points and miles more than a decade ago, my goal was simple: find ways to earn free travel. I frequented mileage-themed message boards to learn tips and tricks, but often felt intimidated by the sheer volume of information, and the number of travelers focused primarily on flying in first class or achieving elite status. As a non-business traveler and only occasional flyer, I had a different focus: finding ways to rack up as many rewards as possible without shelling out a ton of cash.

As I quickly learned, the best way to do that was through lucrative credit card sign-up bonuses. Many TPG readers are masters in the art of applying for travel rewards cards, but if you’re new to the game, here are eight tips to get you started.

Get one card to start with; you can always apply for more later.
Get one card to start with; you can always apply for more later.

1. Start off with a single card. Expert award travelers often apply for multiple cards at once, but to get a feel for applying, meeting the minimum spending requirement and earning your sign-up bonus, just start with one. You don’t want to overcommit by signing up for too many cards at once, and then fail to receive bonuses because you stretched yourself too thin.

I fell in love with award travel after securing my first sign-up bonus from the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. With a strong offer, manageable minimum spending requirement and no annual fee for the first year, my first card helped me score a domestic coach ticket and, almost as important, it helped me understand the application process. Once I had the hang of it, I diversified to other cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, the Citi Premier Card and a number of hotel-branded credit cards.

If you’re not sure where to start, check out TPG’s monthly list of the top credit card offers, 5 Reasons to Get the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card Now, or see this list of the 10 Best Travel Rewards Cards with Annual Fees Under $100.

2. Have a strategy for meeting minimum spending requirements. Depending on which card you apply for, you might need to change your spending habits to ensure that you meet the minimum requirement and earn your bonus. With a few exceptions, almost everything can be paid for by credit card, so consider any expenses that you currently pay by debit card or cash, and see if you can switch to credit instead.

Also, look for opportunities to boost your spending, such as offering to pay for group dinners and having your friends pay you back in cash, or purchasing gift cards from businesses you know you’ll frequent in the future. Check out TPG’s post on 10 Ways to Meet Minimum Spending Requirements for more suggestions.

Have realistic expectations about how quickly you can use your rewards, as the extra time will improve your chances of finding award space.

3. Plan ahead. It takes time to sign up for a new card, complete the spending requirement and receive the points or miles in your account. Furthermore, your chances of finding award availability for the dates you want are much better if you book early. You’ll need more lead time for premium awards, such as an international first-class ticket, than you will for a domestic economy flight. That means if you’re applying for a card now, you could reasonably earn your points in time for holiday-season travel within the US, but maybe not for a Labor Day jaunt to Europe.

Hoarding travel rewards is generally a bad idea, but it’s never too early to begin building up your loyalty accounts even if you’re not sure precisely when you’ll travel. Just keep track of expiration dates so your hard work doesn’t go to waste. Airline miles are easy to keep active with minimal maintenance, particularly since almost any mileage-related activity will reset the expiration clock. Two of the easiest ways to earn miles are through related dining programs and shopping programs. You can also use this handy TPG guide to ensure your miles don’t expire.

4. Pick a card with no annual fee for the first year. A number of the top travel rewards cards will waive your annual fee for the first year while offering you full benefits. This gives you an opportunity to try out a card and make sure it suits your needs. Once you receive the card, jot down a note in your calendar for a month before your account anniversary so you can reassess whether you want to keep the card with the annual fee, downgrade or cancel it entirely. Most cards will give you a grace period to call and have the annual fee removed even after it’s posted, so keep an eye on your statements.

If you’d prefer not to pay any fee (even after the first year), you can also check out this list of Travel Rewards Cards with No Annual Fee.

Naturally, you should focus on earning the rewards that will be most useful to you. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

5. Get the card that’s most useful to you. This is especially important if you’re picking a co-branded airline card that has travel benefits, in which case you should go with whichever airline you’re most likely to fly in the next year. While American Airlines AAdvantage miles might be the highest rated in TPG’s monthly valuations, that doesn’t mean much if you only fly Delta. Pick a card that helps you get the travel experience you want rather than the one that’s objectively most valuable.

On the flip side, while canceling your card won’t cause you to lose the miles you’ve earned, you will lose the flight-related benefits like free checked bags and priority boarding. Lounge passes often have expiration dates that extend beyond the first year, so those can be used even if you no longer have the co-branded credit card.

Make sure you understand how applying for new cards will affect your credit.

6. Know your credit score. Many people are hesitant to apply for multiple credit cards because they’re worried about how those applications will impact their credit score. However, if you have good credit habits in general and aren’t in the process of applying for a major loan, the impact on your credit score is usually minimal, and may even be positive in the long run. For more information, see this post by Jason Steele about How Card Applications Affect Your Credit Score, and check out TPG’s post on How to Check Your Credit for Free.

7. Apply responsibly. If you can’t regularly pay off your balance, applying for a new credit card may not be a good idea. Travel rewards cards are great for earning bonus miles and getting other perks, but they’re a poor choice if you tend to carry a balance or don’t consistently pay bills on time — particularly since interest rates tend to be higher than for non-rewards cards. Any interest charges you incur can easily wipe out the value of the rewards you earn, so make sure your house is in order before building a new wing.

Use the TPG To Go App to maximize your purchases.
Use tools like the TPG To Go App to track your purchases, bonuses and expiration dates.

8. Stay organized. Award travel is fun and the payoff can be huge, but staying on top of your cards, bonuses, spending and expiration dates is vital to achieving success. Set aside a little bit of time each month to track your rewards, pay your bills on time, research bonus offers and complete any other upkeep. You can use a spreadsheet and calendar, or you can use tools like AwardWallet and the TPG To Go App to help you maximize your points and keep track of earnings. Use whatever method works for you, but make sure to have one in place! For more tips on organizing your rewards credit cards, check out this post.

Of course, there’s much, much more to award travel, but if you’re getting ready to apply for your first rewards card, these tips should make the process easier!

What do you wish you had known about award travel when you first started out? Please share your suggestions in the comments below.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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