For those of you that don’t know me, I really like to travel. While I also believe that there are plenty of new and interesting places to see in an individual’s local area, the world is such a large and diverse place that there is so much to experience. Even among the travelling community, everyone has different ideas on how to travel, and no one is wrong.
You can travel with a tour group and not have to worry about planning your logistics… or you can do it yourself and plan out every detail. You can escape to a resort and get some nice R&R… or you can get down and dirty and go on a multi-day backpacking trip.
Regardless, I think travelling broadens your horizons and allows you to experience new things you never may have experienced otherwise. I think it’s great how the utilization of platforms like blogs, Instagram and Youtube have brought the experience of travelling closer to everyone and spurred more people to dream about travelling.
The unfortunate reality, though, is that travelling for leisure still costs money. And for someone who is on a tight budget or dealing with debt, the idea of travelling feels out of reach. Some of the biggest costs associated with travelling are airfare and lodging. Fortunately, there are clever ways to lessen these costs.
How It Works
Take a look in your wallet/purse. If you’re like most people today and use plastic to pay for things, is it a debit card or a credit card? If it is a credit card, is it rewarding you when you use it? If it is not providing any cash back, points or miles for every dollar you spend on it, you may be leaving free money on the table. Additionally, did you receive any sort of bonus when you first signed up for the credit card? If not, that may have been a lost opportunity.
Now, credit cards themselves are a topic that would span several articles to go over, and the details of leveraging credit cards to achieve travel goals are another set of articles to explain properly. However, the point I hope to get across with you today is to provide an overview of how credit card sign-up bonuses can help pay for some or all of your travel expenses.
Step 1: Sign up for a new credit card
These days, there are a multitude of credit cards available that offer a sign-up bonus when you apply. There is almost no excuse to apply for a credit card these days that does not offer a sign-up bonus.
These are all examples of offers currently available. I would not entertain signing up for a credit card unless it offered at least $200 worth in sign-up bonus, and that’s for a card with no annual fee.
If it is a card that has an annual fee, I would not entertain it unless it provided me with at least $500 in value. I’ve gotten a credit card before that gave me $1500 in value on the sign-up bonus alone. In addition, that particular credit card also offered other benefits that added even more value.
On a side-note, I do not recommend signing up for store-specific credit cards that usually try to entice you with %-off-your-first-purchase when you are checking out. Their benefits and terms are generally very weak.
However, if the bonus isn’t given in dollars, how do you know how much a sign-up bonus is worth? Does 100,000 points mean it’s worth more than 50,000 miles? Not necessarily. This is a topic that will depend on a lot of factors such as what points program it belongs to as well as what kind of travel you personally want to do. I hope to break this down in a future post.
Step 2: Meet minimum spend requirements
Generally, for these credit card sign-up bonuses, they require you to spend a certain amount of money on the credit card in a certain amount of time in order to receive the bonus. Most often, the time period is within 3 months of the credit card opening.
The minimum spend requirement varies depending on a couple of factors. Cards with no annual fees usually offer lower sign-up bonuses when compared to annual fee cards, therefore their minimum spend requirements are also usually lower than cards that carry an annual fee.
It’s important to evaluate how much you can realistically spend in the required time period. This is where good financial sense and management comes in. Just because you have a target spend amount to reach, this does not give you the freedom or excuse to buy unnecessary things just to “meet the minimum spend”.
While it’s definitely important to meet the minimum spend requirement in order to receive the sign-up bonus, the best practice is to just put organic spending on the card to do that. What that means is to just buy things you would normally buy anyway. Or, another strategy is to time credit card applications to when you have a large expense upcoming (like insurance premiums, appliances, repairs, etc…) that you can put on your new credit card to help you meet minimum spend requirements.
Step 3: Receive the sign-up bonus
After you meet your minimum spend requirement, you will receive your sign-up bonus at the end of your credit card statement date in the month that you meet your spend requirement. Some credit cards won’t even wait until then and will provide your bonus a few days after you meet spend requirement.
Where they deposit the bonus will depend on what rewards program it belongs to. If the bonus is airline miles, they will usually end up in your appropriate mileage program. Same with hotel points. Cashback and general points program will reside with your credit card account until you spend them.
It’s important to keep in mind that points and miles related to airlines and hotels will expire based on the respective program. Depending on the program, this is usually between 12 months to 2 years with no account activity (any activity resets the expiration timeline). Points that are attached to a credit card points program do not expire unless the card is cancelled.
Step 4: Redeem your sign-up bonus
Finally, the fun part! Now’s the time for you to utilize the rewards you’ve obtained from your credit card sign-up bonus. How you redeem these rewards is going to vary with what type of rewards program you signed up for.
With airline miles, you can redeem towards free flights. With hotel points, you can redeem for free stays. Credit card points and cashback programs are extremely flexible and can sometimes be used to transfer into airline/hotel programs or be used directly for travel-related expenses.
How you spend the rewards you earned is extremely personal and will vary wildly from person to person. As an example, one person may want to utilize their points towards a single business class flight, while another person may want to stretch their points and redeem for 2 economy flights instead.
Step 5: Rinse and repeat
The amazing thing about this trick is that the rewards are almost endless. There are dozens of credit cards available today with great sign-up bonuses. You won’t be able to sign up for all of them all at once or even within a year, but just knowing that there are so many options out there just shows that the rewards you can redeem can continue even after the first free trip you take.
There are some financial considerations to be aware of if you go this route, but if you remain responsible and educated on how credit scores and your own personal finances work, there are almost no downsides with going this route. I’ve personally done this process many times and have saved thousands of dollars in travel expenses each time when travelling to many international locations.
My Final Take
While I’ve only given a general overview of the topic, I hope I’ve been able to shed some insight on how anyone can leverage credit card sign-up bonuses to help them achieve their travel dreams.
If this is a topic you’re interested in, I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter to get notified on my most popular posts on topics like this. Also, feel free to let me know in the comments below what aspects of this topic you want to know more about. Keep an eye out for my upcoming post where I go over in detail a real world example of how my wife and I travelled to an all-inclusive resort vacation in Mexico for pretty much free.