Play Your Cards Right and Earn Thousands for Travel
I was never a big fan of banks. My parents taught me as a boy that going into debt was a bad thing, and to buy something only if I could pay for it in cash. To ignore this advice was to put myself at the mercy of a bank that would charge me exorbitant interest rates and begin a cycle of ever-growing debt. Okay, they didn't explain quite it like that, but the foundations of their advice was spot on. But it wasn’t until I started researching how to earn more money to travel longer that I learned one thing that my parents didn’t teach me: There is a way to take advantage of banks without them taking financial advantage of you.
This article is for those of you who can pay off planned purchases on-time every month. If you can do this, you can make well over $2k for your next trip by committing an hour or two of your time to plan and set up a simple system for yourself. If you cannot pay your bills each month, I recommend you stop reading this article and instead focus on getting a handle on your finances first. Come back when you’re ready.
Advertising is all around us, and big companies, banks included, know that there is a cost to obtaining customers. A bank has a lot of competition when trying to entice you to apply for their credit card. This is good news for us consumers. To stand out from the crowd, banks are making credit card offers better all the time. These days, if you're not using a rewards card, you're leaving money on the table. Combine credit card bonus offers with reward points and you’ll be well on your way to earning thousands for your travels.
1. Chase Freedom: $150 bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months, plus 1-5% unlimited cash back.
This was my first cash back rewards card, and it was a game-changer for me. I started putting everything I could on this card, from my cell phone bill to groceries, and accumulated over $414 in rewards over the course of 8 months. The real highlight with the card are the rotating categories.
While you always get 1% back on everything you spend with this card, you also get 5% back on rotating categories throughout the year. These categories generally include gas, groceries, restaurants, and wholesale clubs. You get 5% for purchases in each quarter up to $1500, which ends up being $75 cash back every three months if you play your cards right. I found it easy max out each category throughout the year with my regular spending habits. Apply for the Chase Freedom Card here.
2. Chase Freedom Unlimited: $150 bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months, plus 1.5% unlimited cash back.
Never willing to settle for less, I decided to get the Chase Freedom Unlimited. The bonus offer is significant, but it's also a great card for all the purchases that I make that don't fall within the 5% categories the Freedom offered. Is it overkill to get a new card because it offers a 0.05% better offer than one I already had? I don’t think so, because over four months I earned $160 on top the $150 sign-up bonus. That’s $310 for signing up and spending money on bills and groceries like I normally would. The only real sacrifice made for getting a new card is a few points temporarily knocked off of my credit score for the bank credit inquiry. In the long run, having more credit cards can actually help your credit score. Apply for the Chase Freedom Unlimited Card here.
3. Chase Sapphire Reserve: $1000-1500 bonus after you spend $4000 in the first three months, plus incredible travel benefits
Getting this card was not an easy decision to make. The benefits are massive, but so is the yearly fee, at $450. None of the other rewards cards I have charge an annual fee, so why get this one? I had to run some numbers to make sure it would be worthwhile. Allow me to explain why I got the Sapphire Reserve.
UPDATE: Since getting this card, Chase has lowered the sign-up bonus to 50,000 points. That's $750 in travel credit when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
First of all, a $1500 travel rewards signup bonus is bonkers. Chase went out on a limb offering such a high signup bonus (which is probably why they lowered it down to $750). You could get this card, spent the $4k to get the bonus, use the points and then cancel the card, but Chase is betting you won’t. That’s because there are some fantastic perks that will make you want to keep it around. My favorites include the $300 per year statement credit for travel charges and the $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®. You also get 3x points on travel and dining, no foreign transaction fees, access to 900+ airport lounges around the world, and a bunch of other benefits. All that and more made this card worth getting.
This is the only “travel” credit card on the list. This usually means that you would use the card for it’s travel points, not for cash back, but you can use it either way. You do get more out of the card value-wise if you use the points for flights or car rentals than you would if you simply cashed them out. Ultimate Rewards, Chase’s point system makes it easy to see all your points from all cards, move them around, book a flight, or cash them out. Aside from the extraordinary benefits this card offers, the real void it filled in my rewards system was that, unlike my other cards, it charges no foreign transaction fees. So while I the other cards I got were essentially there to help me save for trips, this one would do that and more while traveling. Apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card here.
To recap, I’ve listed three cards that I haven’t had for very long (ten months at most at the time of writing) and earned $2,224 for travel. $724 for the first two, and $1500 for the Sapphire Reserve. Your mileage will vary depending on your spending habits, but if you can meet the bonus spending requirements, you could make at least $1800 of practically free money for travel. I can tell you first hand that can last you well over a month in Mexico if you budget right. And since you’ll be learning Spanish while you’re traveling (that is why you’re here right?) you’ll actually be saving a lot more as you hone an invaluable skill. (UPDATE: The Sapphire Reserve bonus has since been lowered).
Before I wrap up, I feel like I should address the elephant in the room. How did I manage to “save” anything when I spent $5000 to get the bonuses in the first place? The answer is planning my purchases carefully before even getting the cards. I’m sure I could have met the spending requirements for the Chase Freedom and Freedom Unlimited simply by paying for my bills and groceries with them, but the Sapphire Reserve took a little more planning.
Since I’ve relied on my laptop for my job for years, I’ve gotten into the habit of buying a new one every three years and selling my old one. So I planned ahead to make sure I made that large purchase on the Sapphire Reserve. This covered most of the requirement. I covered the rest by applying for Global Entry, purchasing some plane tickets in advance of my upcoming trips, and paying my bills with the card until I reached $4k. You could do the same when planning to buy the gear you’ll need for your trip. I don’t suggest attempting to get all three cards at the same time, but over the course of almost a year this system has worked very well for me.
There you have it. With three cards you can earn more than $2k on your travels. No catch, no hidden fees. Just thousands of dollars back in exchange for paying for things I would have bought anyways with cash or a debit card had I not done my homework on rewards cards.
This system has worked well for me, but that doesn’t mean it is right for you. You need to exercise self-control to not spend more than you are able to pay off on time every month. I setup auto-pay online on all my cards to make sure the balance is cleared every single month. This is about using banks for your benefit. Don’t let them take advantage of you. If you can handle this, you’ll be well on your way to your next vacation.
Related Spanish Vocabulary:
- Automatic Payments = pagos automaticos
- Bank = banco
- Benefit = beneficio
- Bonus = bono
- Credit Card = tarjeta de credito
- Debt = deudas
- Hidden fees = cargos ocultos
- Interest = interest
- Offer = oferta
- Rewards Points = puntos / puntos de recompensa
- Self-control = autocontrol
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