In 2017 alone, I’ve traveled to Norway, London, New York, and more, all while consistently making less than $1500 each month (nailin’ the income game as a young ~professional~, AMIRIGHT!). While this is a laughably low income (in my defense, I did an Americorps nonprofit service job for a year, so I only received a stipend), I’ve still been able to eat gluten free scones in Hyde Park and kayak in a Norwegian fjord and celebrate my birthday weekend at my favorite exposed-brick-wall Mexican restaurant in Williamsburg.
This, my friends, is thanks to travel credit cards, a gift from the banking heavens to travel-lovers like you and me. In the last three years that I have owned travel credit cards, I’ve earned nearly $2,000 in free travel. That is literally more money than I make in a month currently, which is both slightly disheartening to think about, income-wise, but also incredibly rewarding to see how much I’ve saved with these cards.
Of course, the downside of a credit card is the temptation to go crazy with your spending and sink into hopelessly irrevocable debt, which would defeat the purpose of the potential to earn thousands of dollars worth of free travel. So let’s just not do that, shall we?
Here's how I've earned nearly $2,000 in free travel —
// Barclaycard Arrival Mastercard //
The first credit card I opened as a sweet soon-to-be college grad was the no annual fee Barclaycard Arrival Mastercard. With this card, I earn one point for every dollar spent and two points for every dollar spent on dining or travel (like airfare or hotels). These points can then be redeemed as a credit on your statement. So, let’s say you purchase a $250 plane ticket on your Barclaycard, and you have at least 25,000 points—you can redeem those points to cover that cost on your statement. What I love about this card is the flexibility to apply those points to anything travel related, whether it’s a flight or an Airbnb or a rental car.
Unfortunately the no-fee Barclaycard Arrival card is no longer available; instead, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus Mastercard, with an $89 annual fee (waived the first year), is available. Though the annual fee is a slight downside, that card offers a fantastic intro bonus offer of 60,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first 90 days (more on bonus offers below) and 2 points for every dollar spent.
Over the last three years, I’ve earned this free travel with my Barclaycard:
- 4-Day Rental Car in Arizona : $325
- One-Way Flight from Phoenix to Nashville : $126.60
- London Airbnb : $225
- Norway Airbnb : $75
TOTAL FREE TRAVEL: $751.60
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// Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard //
(...that’s a mouthful of a name…)
My Citicard allows me to earn American Airlines miles, which is the airline I frequent the most as it often has the most affordable flights out of Nashville. This card does have an annual fee of $99, but the first year is waived.
Along with AA miles that I already had and this card’s dope bonus offer of 30,000 bonus miles (the bonus offer now is even better), I was able to book a roundtrip flight from Nashville to London for only a $186.76 booking fee. Normally flights from Nashville to Europe would be at least $900 in the off season so POINT SET MATCH.
The only downside to cards that earn miles are that airlines do charge a fee when you book with miles.
If you frequent American Airlines, the Citicard might be a good fit for you, although Barclays recently introduced another AA card, the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard, which looks like a good deal as well.
Over two years, my Citicard has gifted me with this glorious free goodness:
- Nashville to London Roundtrip  - Average Flight Cost: $900 (Fee: $186.76)
- Nashville to NYC Roundtrip  - Average Flight Cost: $275 (Fee: $11.60)
- Nashville to NYC One-Way  - Average Flight Cost: $125 (Fee: $5.60)
TOTAL FREE TRAVEL (AFTER FEES): $1100*
*This isn’t an exact number, as I had to estimate my savings on flights by using the average cost of a flight from Nashville to these destinations.
// Chase Sapphire Preferred //
I opened the Chase Sapphire Preferred card in January. This card is incredibly flexible in how you can redeem your points and probably my favorite card so far.
- Transfer your points to one of its partner rewards programs (so if you have 20,000 rewards points, you could transfer that to Southwest’s rewards programs and use them as 20,000 miles)
- Book flights, hotels, rental cars, and more directly through Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Redeem your points for gift cards
- Redeem your points for cash back or a statement credit
The bonus offer right now is 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months of earning that card.
Those 50,000 points can be redeemed for:
- $500 in cash back or statement credit OR
- 50,000 miles to use for one of its travel airlines or hotels rewards programs OR
- $625 to redeem for travel when booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards
WOWOWOW. I’m next-level aghast mainly because I just realized (while writing this post) the extent of flexibility this card allows for redeeming points.
This one also has an annual fee of $95, but the first year is waived. If you like this card (which you should, because it's the beeest), sign up with my referral code here!
So far, I’ve only redeemed points for one flight by transferring some points to Southwest and booking with miles:
- Nashville to Boston One-Way  - Flight Cost: $72 (Booking Fee: $5.60)
TOTAL SAVINGS (AFTER FEES): $66.40
TOTAL FREE TRAVEL: $1823*
*This is after my Citicard’s annual fee deducted from last year. And, again, not an exact number, since the American Airlines flights were estimates based on average prices.
// INTRO BONUS OFFERS //
And a word on bonus offers...
Card companies want new customers who they can then tempt into deep debt and thus make money off said new customers (but you are immune to this temptation, right?!), so most offer insane sign-up bonuses to new card owners. As mentioned, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months of opening the card.
- Irresponsible ways to reach this amount: Ball out on Target home goods and overpriced Anthropologie cardigans. (Do not do this.)
- Responsible ways to reach this amount: Pay rent with your credit card or offer to pay for meals out with your friends and have them Venmo you their portion of the bill.
The second option puts expenses that you already have on the card rather than adding unnecessary ones that lead you to flirting with debt. Do not flirt with debt over silly things like cute Target dishware, please. (I know, it's tough.)
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Lost in the Dream // The War on Drugs
My “Now Playing” pick this time around is an entire album, because Lost in the Dream from the band, The War on Drugs, is one that I always must listen to in its entirety. My always-in-the-music-know friend, Lane, introduced me to this album two summers ago, and it has remained a favorite, especially when I’m nestled within my window seat cove 35,000 miles up and getting all pensive about life (‘cuz that’s what air travel does to me). My bro gave this album to me on vinyl for my birthday last week and I’ve literally listened to it just about every morning since.
So if you’re looking for the perfect album for pensive reflection, look no further.
I'm also v, v, v into the band's new album, A Deeper Understanding.