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The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: Credit Cards Part 1

If you’ve got questions about travel hacking and credit cards, you’re not alone. 

Credit cards and what they may or may not do to your credit score are always a big part of what beginners and skeptics alike want to know.

In this post, let’s address some of these credit card myths, as well as look at credit card best practices, and even whether or not travel hacking is right for you.

Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: 
Credit Cards Part 1

Let’s first consider the results of a study commissioned by The Points Guy in which Americans were surveyed about what they knew about travel rewards credit cards.

  • A mere 1/3 of people answered yes when asked if they had a credit card that earned miles and points. Just 10% said they had 2 or more travel rewards credit cards.
  • 1/3 of the people with travel rewards credit cards had no idea if their card came with foreign transaction fees or not.
  • Nearly 3/4 of the survey participants said they never checked with banks to learn about the latest or the most lucrative sign-up offers.
Travel rewards are plentiful and can take you to gorgeous places like Iceland.

Step 1- How is your credit score calculated?

It’s not entirely clear why the majority of Americans are so in the dark about travel rewards credit cards. However, there seems to be a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding credit scores, credit cards, and how the two affect one another.

This misinformation and the concerns over whether you’re making a good or bad credit decision are enough to stop many people from taking advantage of the incredible travel rewards that are out there.

You don’t have to be one of these people. You can take that BIG trip without saving money for years and years!

Are you ready for your Travel Hacking Economics Class? (collective groans, I know.)

I promise it won’t be that bad!

1. Watch this 2-minute video below to learn how your credit score is calculated.

What goes into FICO Scores? from FICO B2C Sco

2. Let’s debunk the most common credit score myths.

Now that you understand the factors used to calculate your credit score, it’s also time to let go of credit score myths that are holding you back from earning valuable travel rewards.

Won’t too many credit cards hurt my credit score?

No. The number of credit cards you have does not hurt your credit score. In fact, if you’re responsible with your credit cards and pay your bills off on time each month, your credit score is likely to improve. Here’s why.

Credit scores reflect how much of your available credit is in use. 

If you have 1 credit card with a $5,000 limit and $2,500 of that is a balance you’re carrying, then 50% of your available credit is in use.

Compare this with someone who has 4 credit cards for a total $25,000 spending limit and the same $2,500 balance. Only 10% of the credit available is in use.

People who use less than 30% of their available credit are considered low-risk. As a result, their credit score goes up.

Ok, but won’t applying for all those credit cards hurt my credit score?

How long your accounts have been open counts for 10% of your credit score.

With each new account, the average age of your accounts gets younger. This can cause anywhere between a 2-10 point TEMPORARY dip.

Remember you’ll also have more credit available to you so the percentage of how much of your credit is in use will go down and your credit score will go back up and just might even improve!

Source: myfico.com
Source: myfico.com
Shouldn’t I carry a balance to improve my credit?

No. The less debt you have the higher your credit score will be. The lower that in-use percentage is from above the better it will be for your credit score.

Also from a travel hacking perspective, paying high interest on balances cancels out the value of the miles and points you’re earning.

Debit cards are better than credit cards for your credit score, though, right?

Absolutely not! Debit cards aren’t tracked on your credit report and have no impact whatsoever.

Not to mention, your money isn’t working for you. You’re in a cycle of earning money and paying bills with no reward. 

If you’re responsible about spending and paying off the balance each month, put your debit card away and use your credit card for bills and everyday spending.

I’ll never have a good credit score because I don’t make a lot of money.

The amount of money you make has nothing to do with your credit score. As long as you spend within your means and pay your bills off each month, your credit score will positively reflect that no matter how much your paycheck is each week.

Remember, there’s a teacher writing this and we all know that teachers don’t make a whole lot. At last check, my credit score was an excellent 832!

Credit Score

3. Find out your credit score. 

If you don’t have a credit card that gives you access to your credit score, you can use Annual Credit Report to get your credit score free once every 12 months.

You can also use a service like Experian where for $1 you can check your FICO score.

Step 2- Credit card best practices for travel hacking

Use your travel rewards credit cards for everything. 

By everything I mean, everything you have to buy or pay for that accepts credit cards. From your cable bill to car insurance to doctor’s office co-pays to Netflix and your morning coffee, pay with your travel rewards credit card.

You get no return from paying your bills and buying groceries with money directly from your checking/savings account. 

Put your debit card away and make your money work for you every time you use your travel rewards card!

Spend smarter, not more. 

Use your travel rewards credit card for the same things that would’ve normally come out of your bank account or been purchased with a debit card.

But, do not spend more than you can pay off at the end of each month!

Paying Bills
Pay your bills with a travel rewards credit card.
Pay your monthly balances in full. 

Travel rewards credit cards typically come with high-interest rates. If you carry balances, the amount you’ll pay in interest fees will cancel out the value from the miles and points you’re earning.

This completely defeats the purpose of using these travel rewards credit cards.

Keep no annual fee credit cards open forever. 

Remember the older the age of your accounts, the better your credit score will be. You can selectively use these cards without worrying whether or not there’s value in paying the annual fee.

The only caveat might be in the case of a bank that limits the number of their cards you can hold at a given time.

In this case, closing a no-fee card that you no longer get any benefit from might make sense to make room for a different card and its welcome bonus.

Credit cards
You can absolutely open and close credit cards with an effective strategy.
Apply for new credit cards wisely. 

Of course, you want to take advantage of large sign-up bonuses. Just be sure your budget allows for the minimum spend to earn that bonus.

There’s no point in applying for 2 credit cards at the same time if you can’t earn the bonuses.

Some travel hackers apply for 2-3 cards at a time with 3-4 months in between each round of applications. Others prefer to target specific cards or wait for higher than usual sign-up bonuses.

Do what’s right for you, your finances, and your travel goals.

Close credit cards strategically. 

Keep credit cards open for at least the first year. You’ve either paid the annual fee for the year or it was waived. Either way, the longer the account is open the better it will be for your credit score. 

Banks also take note of people who apply only for a bonus and then close the card shortly thereafter. This practice can definitely make it more difficult to get that same bank to approve you for new cards in the future.

However, evaluating your credit cards is an important part of earning travel rewards. An effective long-term strategy includes closing cards when they no longer serve your needs or offset the annual fee.

Before you cancel a card, always call the bank to see if there’s a retention offer that makes it worthwhile to keep the card for another year. You can also check to see if a no annual fee version of that card exists and whether it’s possible or smart to downgrade your card instead of closing the line of credit. 

If you do decide to cancel a card, do it right after you’re approved for any new cards.

Step 3- Is travel hacking right for me?

Credit Cards
Is travel hacking right for you?

We can dive into the specifics of different kinds of credit cards, the credit cards every beginner should start with, ways to meet minimum spend requirements, and annual fees. 

BUT before you continue, think about what we’ve discussed so far and decide whether travel hacking is right for you. 

Put another way:

Can you responsibly handle the power that comes with having multiple credit cards?

  • Do you spend within your means?
  • Do you pay your bills on time and in full?

If these answers are no, you’ll be better off saving money little by little to pay for the vacation you want to take.

Earning miles and points for travel rewards isn’t worth damaging your credit score over.

Calculator and cash
Think realistically about what you know of your money habits.

You should also consider these two points carefully.

  • If you’re applying for a loan, like for a mortgage, a car, or college tuition, finish this process first before applying for any credit cards.
  • If your credit score is under 700, it will be difficult for you to be approved for travel rewards credit cards. Work to bring up your credit score before applying for any. A tool like Experian Boost can help you increase your FICO® score. It’s a completely free tool with no credit card required that can instantly improve your credit score by factoring your mobile phone and utility bills. 
  • If either of the two points above apply to you, earn miles and points with shopping portals and dining programs  in the meanwhile.

So, what questions do you have about travel rewards credit cards?

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Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Travel Hacking- Credit Cards Part 1

28 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: Credit Cards Part 1”

  1. Great article. I read LeAnn’s too I’m extremely conservative and thrifty with money, only have one credit card now with a few hundred dollar balance on it (for plane tickets ?which I can pay off but am glad I haven’t paid off b/c I found a travel AA CITI CARD I want to transfer the balance to to help me meet the $1000/90 day spend minimum)! This is all starting to come together now… Can’t wait to check my credit score later and apply for that AA card soon!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Hi Jessica, Glad you found the posts useful. Be sure to read the fine print on the AA Citi Card. Many times balance transfers don’t count toward minimum spend. If you’re concerned your monthly bills and spending don’t add up to enough to meet the spend, consider buying gift cards for places you would usually shop and then use the gift card credit to make purchases just as you would have if you weren’t worrying about a minimum spend. If you’re just starting with credit cards, look at the Chase sapphire preferred and the chase freedom cards. Definitely check your credit score first, though.

  2. Hi Jackie,
    I tried to check my credit but it reminded me I already received my ‘free credit report’ in Nov 2015.
    However I cannot recall my score and Equifax wants to charge $11 to see my score now! That’s not even including what I’d pay for the other 2 agencies to give me my score.
    Do you know of another way I can find out my credit score for free??
    Thank You,
    Jessica

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Hi Jessica, Great job on doing the week’s tasks! Annual Credit Report allows just once every 12 months. Try CreditKarma.com You should not need to enter in any payment info to get your credit score. Let me know how it goes. 🙂

  3. Three things..

    1. Credit Karma is great to keep tabs on your credit,

    2. Transfer balance doesn’t normally count toward spending requirement, sorry.

    3. Judging by the minimum spend, you’re about to get a card with 30,000 miles bonus. There is an AA card with a better 50,000 bonus available but $3,000 spending. I’d go for that one since you can only get one bonus in 24 months…

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Andy. Credit Karma is a great tool. I used it before I had credit cards that offered free credit scores as a perk. Yes, sadly balance transfers don’t count toward minimum spend! Too bad! 😉 There are beginner and experienced travel hackers in the challenge I’m doing right now. We haven’t yet talked about credit cards and best deals currently available. I agree with you not to get the AA card at 30K. I haven’t seen the AA Citi Platinum Select higher than 50k, have you?

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Andy. I don’t put links in comments, but I very much appreciate your tips.

  4. Great tips Jackie – we use a variety of different credit cards to accrue points, and as you pointed out, if you’re using them strategically, and paying off your balance in full at the end of the month, you can definitely use it to your advantage to travel hack your way around the world 🙂 We usually cancel before 12 months is over too and avoid the annual fee.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Meg. I don’t churn every card. Some like the Chase Sapphire Preferred have a place in my wallet long term. Great work on earning that award travel. 🙂

  5. I am new in the travel hacking game and still need to read up a lot. What I find frustrating is a lot of the times the credit cards with the best deals are not available in Canada.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      You are right, Christina. Some of the same cards are offered in both the U.S. and Canada. Yet the U.S. bonus will be double than that of Canada. Check Canadian Travel Hacking blogs for the latest offers. It’s still possible to gain good value from award travel in Canada.

  6. This post is so informative. I didn’t know how the credit score was calculated. But I am always nervous about having too many card s. Temptation!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Caroline. It’s good you recognize that feeling of temptation before starting to travel hack. The point is to make your money work for you, not to end up in debt.

  7. Very useful post! I think every young person out there should read this. Many people are so confused about their credit scores and how using credit cards is affecting them. In my opinion the less credit cards you use the better. I only have one and pay the balance at the end of the month. But it wasn’t always like this. I learned my own lessons. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Anda. It’s so important to understand credit scores and how they are calculated. If you spend responsibly and pay off your bills at the end of the month, credit cards will only help your score in the long run.

  8. These are great travel hacking tips, and great info on the Economical Excursionist (thanks for the introduction to their blog). The main and only concern that keeps me blocked from travel hacking is the impact on my credit score. While I do check my score every year…it still makes me nervous to open multiple credit cards. This post is incredibly informative though, need to move past my mental blocks 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for your honesty, Rosemary. You’re certainly not alone. Impact on credit score is a major road block, but needlessly so if you spend wisely and pay your bills off at the end of the month. My credit score has continued to climb even with many credit cards. Start slowly though and increase your comfort level gradually. Glad you like LeAnna’s blog, too. She is a girl after my own heart, for sure! 😉

  9. This might sound old fashioned, but I’ve found the best bonus points offers in the little flyers that come inside my monthly credit card bill (you know, the ones that say “Bonus! This month only, use your Visa at these participating partners to get…….”) Presuming you were already going to make certain purchases (like gas, or weekly pizza or something), you might as well get huge bonus points if you can.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Agreed, Vanessa! It’s smart to take advantage of these offers when they come and if they’re right for you.

  10. Great post! In The Netherlands, many people don’t even have and/or need a creditcard, it doesn’t seem beneficial unless you travel and want to rent a car. To my knowlegde, there are no ways to travel hack with my card, which actually costs me a lot … I will look into this further in the near future!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Anto. We are lucky here in the U.S. with our travel rewards programs. It’s much trickier in the U.K., Europe, Canada, and Australia.

  11. Hi, I read this posting and it’s informative but one point is truly incorrect…never close credit cards Unless…you have a credit score over 840…when you close account, you lose point for credit history. For example, about 9 years ago, I closed about 7 accounts…several the store did not even exist anymore. I thought that was the right move….that move resulted in my losing 8 years worth of credit history as those cards were open since 1980. The ones I left open were only open for 4-5 years! So my credit score went down as in order to get the max points for credit history, you not only have to pay bills on time and keep overall balances low, but you need t have at less 10 years of good credit. I’m back to 840, but it took a few years….the sad part is the cards I closed did not even have annual fees! Live and learn ….use a credit karma…it free and you can check it as ten as you want. I check once a month as a method of checking for fault and correct information being reported!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Hi Deloris, Thanks so much for reading and sharing your opinion. I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your credit score. I absolutely don’t recommend closing any cards with no annual fee. They should be kept open forever in order to build credit history. I have closed credit cards over the years but never have closed 7 accounts in the same period of time. I would never recommend this, either. Credit cards can and should be strategically closed when it makes sense to do so. The factors you mention, paying bills on time, keeping balances low and length of credit history are all important. However, when planned according, closing a credit card that no longer serves your needs can be done in a way to minimize any negative impact on your credit score.

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