A couple of years ago, scrolling through my Facebook feed made me white-hot with envy. Not because of people’s seemingly perfect marriages or new homes or fancy steak dinners. It was their vacations. How could Todd from that internship two summers ago afford to go to Greece for a week, when we could barely make our rent payment? How could the couple we met at that dinner party last year afford to go to Miami and stay in that fancy hotel for the weekend? Travel felt elusive — beyond my control. Something “I would do someday,” instead of something I could do now. I used to think it was something reserved for the elite — the rich, the lucky, the social media famous — or maybe some combination of the three.

That was before we discovered credit cards.

Hands holding credit card and using laptop.

My husband Kevin is a medical resident now, which is a stage infamous for long hours and bad pay. We got married young, and during his undergrad, I worked for several years while we lived as frugally as possible. When he was accepted to medical school we celebrated — until realizing his tuition was upwards of $50,000 a year. For four years.

We moved to Arizona and debated about whether to buy a house or put our savings towards his schooling. Our careful saving allowed us to save just enough for one year of tuition. Finally, we decided to put it all towards tuition to minimize debt, but Kevin was hellbent on making the money go as far as possible. After a lot of research, he found out that his medical school allowed him to pay his tuition with a credit card. Most schools don’t allow that, and even when they do they often tack on crazy fees. But the stars aligned for us.

He began the quest to find the right card to use. At first, he wanted to pay all of it with a 2% back credit card, so at the very least, we’d save 2% on our tuition. But after investigating further, he realized that utilizing several different credit cards with signup bonuses was the way to go. The cash back was just the icing on the $200,000 cake.

Soon we had more points than vacation time.*

*I want to add that this extreme approach won’t work for everyone. Most people (fortunately!) don’t have $200,000+ of tuition to pay for. You may not be able to go everywhere on your bucket list within a year or two. But everyone has expenses. Most credit cards don’t require that you spend a large amount of money to receive their sign up bonus or qualify for cash back.

Traveler getting ready for a trip, he is packing his bag and booking a flight online using a credit card and a laptop

Our first trip was to Europe, the summer after his first year. We went to Italy and France for two weeks and had enough points to cover our airfare and hotels. Paying for food, transportation, excursions, and museum fees wasn’t such a strain when the rest of the travel was free. And after that, we were hooked.

It became a hobby for Kevin. Next, he wanted to earn enough points to fly first class. Then his focus was on being able to stay at exotic resorts and hotels we’d never have access to otherwise — all of it paid for with points.

Since 2012, we’ve visited the following countries solely using points:

Costa Rica (twice!)
New Zealand

Sharing this might seem a little ostentatious, and for that, I apologize. I haven’t forgotten the envy I felt watching other people travel when it seemed so out of my reach. But the truth is, that earning credit card rewards is within everyone’s reach. After all, Kevin is still a medical resident and I’m bootstrapping my own startup with two small children running around. Churning points takes effort and discipline…as well as a bit of research on which cards to apply for. But it does not require deep pockets.

Young woman on vacations using smartphone and credit card.

If you’re a beginner who wants to get started earning travel rewards, Kevin broke it down.

There are four main kinds of credit cards applicable to travel:

  1. Cards that give you specific airline points (This would be a Delta Card, American Airlines, United, etc.)
  2. Cards that give you specific hotel points (Hyatt, SPG, Hilton, etc.)
  3. Cards that give you points from a specific bank that can often be transferred to hotels, airlines, etc. (Examples of these are Chase Ultimate Rewards, AMEX membership rewards, Citi Card Points, etc.)
  4. Cards that give you some form of cash back that can be used for travel (statement credit, travel credit)

Over time, we’ve discovered which cards are our favorites. Cash back cards (type 3 and 4) are the best for us because they give us more flexibility to book flights and hotels through our preferred airlines — or through discounted sites like cheapoair.com. This allows us to stretch our points even further.

And sometimes your destination requires flexibility. For example, there are hardly any hotels in New Zealand. We couldn’t use points there and had to book Airbnb’s with cash. That made cash back cards very valuable.

Some great cash back cards to consider are:

CheapOair Card – This card gives you 6 points for every dollar you spend on Cheapoair.com, and 2 points for every dollar spent anywhere. It also gives you a $50 statement credit when you make purchases of $500 or more within the first 90 days. But perhaps the best perk is that there is special financing for purchases made on CheapOair. So you can pay back your travel with no interest.

Capital One Venture Card – Get 2% back on all purchases and a 40,000-mile bonus after you spend $3,000 with the Capital One Venture. You can also redeem the points for 0.5 cents each when redeeming for cash or statement credit. If you use them for gift cards or for travel expenses, they’re worth one cent each. The card does have a $59 annual fee, but it’s waived the first year.

Barclay Arrival Plus – You get 50,000 miles when you spend $3,000 within three months with the Barclay Arrival. If you redeem the miles for travel you get one cent a mile. Otherwise, you get only 0.5 cents. The $89 annual fee is waived the first year.

Chase Freedom Unlimited – Get a $150 bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months on the Chase Freedom Unlimited. There’s no annual fee and the card earns 1.5 Chase Ultimate Rewards points per $1 spent. These can be transferred to airlines, hotels, and more.

One Travel – Earn 6 points for every dollar you spend on Onetravel.com, plus a $50 statement credit when you spend $500 or more within the first 90 days. There are no annual fees, so you can keep this one open forever and continue to build credit. It also doesn’t ding your credit when you cancel — which we often have to do with high annual fee cards. And you can get special financing on travel purchases.

Anyone is capable of using credit cards to travel the world, regardless of your income. It just takes discipline. You have to stay on top of the details of each card, and ensure you are meeting the minimum spending on each. Kevin often tells me, “Put everything on the (insert card) for the next month.” He also keeps a detailed spreadsheet to manage the various cards, deadlines, and when the points post.

The way I see it, the credit cards are out there, ripe for the picking. If you’re used to paying off your bills in full and on time anyway, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be taking advantage of the free airline miles and hotel points available!

About The Author

Hey I'm Mandy. Writer, traveler, wife, mother, author, woman, over-sharer. I like to talk about the grit of travel, the beautiful, and the people that I meet. Oh yeah - and traveling with kids.