How I Afford Travel: Credit Cards and Frequent Flyer Miles

One of the questions I get asked most often is how I can afford to travel as much as I do. The answer is I pretty much refuse to pay for flights, because in my mind, that is an optional fee of which I choose to opt out!

Considering I didn’t travel beyond North America until I was nearly 20, my 16 international trips have all come fairly close together. Below I’ve laid out exactly how I did it–and no, you do not need a ton of money or a rich uncle to afford plane tickets. All you need is some determination, organization, and innovation! If I can do it, you definitely can too!

If you care to read, click below. And please excuse the length, I was as detailed as possible, but didn’t anticipate just how many details there are to include!

The first few trips were relatively discounted because I had a family friend working at Delta. While I was in college, all my trips to London were about $500-600 round trip, and I almost always got to sit in first class (I’m aware this makes me obnoxious). And while first class was amazing, and probably not something I’ll ever experience again, the biggest perk was the flexible dates. I could change my ticket dates at any time and usually pay no fee. But, midway through college this stopped being an option, and while my dream to befriend a kind but lonely airline pilot who wants nothing more than to gift me his Buddy Passes is still very much alive, in the meantime I needed another plan.

After graduating I had rent, utilities, loans, and an entry level job in Los Angeles that paid like they were aware there were thousands of people who would do my job for free. Around this financially tight time, I decided to get a credit card for emergencies and to begin building credit. I got the Premier Card for Southwest and had my first taste of airline miles. Back then I got 50,000 miles for what I believe was a $1,000 spend in 3 months, which I was able to do fairly easily using a mix of actual spend and Amazon payments (where you could transfer funds to a friend and then have them write a check back to you–this is no longer an option). I flew round trip to Boston for $12.00 and realized this could be the way forward. Flying with airline miles also allows the flexibility I had with Buddy Passes, but none of the risk of being the first one booted off an oversold flight (I was once stuck in London for 6 days with a bunch of other Buddy Passes camped out, another time had to fly into Minneapolis and then find a connection back to Boston, and another time I was almost stranded in Guatemala City alone while my travel buddy boarded with the confidence of one who had a real ticket).

Luckily I had a friend who had been collecting airline miles for years who tried to show me the ropes. Unluckily we had different financial backgrounds (read: he was incredibly wealthy), so he bought plane tickets to do what are called “mileage runs,” where he’d buy cheap tickets solely to gain more miles. I don’t know much about this and really can’t help with it, but I can tell you he has millions of miles for the price of a few domestic flights.

I can, however, help with how to reach credit card minimum spends while trying to keep actual spending down. First, you want to transfer all your bills to that card–things like cable/internet, water/electric, car payments, car insurance, phone bill, Netflix, and anything else you subscribe to. Sometimes it’s possible to pay rent this way as well–something to check with your landlord. If that’s a no go, you can pay rent (and make any checks) here, if you’re will to pay 3%. I also use this card for any online purchases–Amazon, food delivery, and was able to put company lunches on it for a few months (something to ask your boss about).

I did that on a few cards with a lower minimum spend, until I felt really comfortable. Then I upped my game a bit. There was a fantastic deal going on for a Citi Executive Card that gave 100,000 American Airline miles if you spent $10,000 in 3 months. $10,000 in 3 months SOUNDS impossible, but in fact, using the method above and adding in some manufactured spend, it’s easily attainable. I did it three times!

Manufactured Spend is just what it sounds like– it looks like you’re spending money that you are not actually spending. There have been many different forms of this over the years–the aforementioned Amazon Payments, which has since been shut down, was one. Another hugely popular one was using the Bluebird card. The Bluebird card is basically a debit card that can be loaded using gift cards. So all you had to do was buy gift cards using the credit card you are trying to reach the minimum spend on, load the GCs onto the Bluebird Card, use the BB card to withdraw the funds at an ATM, put the cash back in your bank account, and pay your credit card bill. Along the way you’d lose a few dollars in fees (ATM and gift card), but overall this was an incredibly effective method of manufactured spend. This is actually still possible, if you can find a store that lets you purchase gift cards with a credit card. CVS used to be the big one, but has since stopped completely. I haven’t been able to find one since, but YMMV.

What’s left? Well, when old options get taken away, new ones pop up. Target has a card that can work, venmo is an option (though not ideal, since there are 3% fees applied to credit cards), and many more. When it comes to this, google is your friend to stay up to date on the most current avenues, since it does all change quite quickly.

I’m often told by my friends that this is a brilliant idea, but feels too risky, and am constantly questioned about my credit score. The answer is that it’s really not risky if you are organized. I had excel spreadsheets tracking my spending to make sure I hit the minimums, and to remind myself of annual fees so I could consider closing the account or downgrading it to a no fee card. The only other risk comes with overspending–it is incredibly important to pay off your balance every month. It helps your credit score, minimizes the risks of building debt, and allows you to avoid paying interest and negating the savings your are netting by getting miles in the first place.

Second, my credit score is GREAT. Like 800+. When I applied for the apartment I currently live in, my landlord said he’d never had an applicant with such a high score. It’s important to educate yourself on how credit scores are calculated, but overall, having multiple credit cards that you are using responsibly is great for credit. If you’re paying off your balance every month, you are building up your payment history, and your credit utilization (the amount you owe versus your total credit line), both of which positively impact your scores. In fact, the more unused credit you have, the better. For example, if you have one credit card with a $1,000 limit, and you have a $500 balance (50% is utilized), your utilization score will be lower than someone who also owes $500 but has five credit cards with a thousand dollar limit (only 10% utilized). As utilization is 30% of your credit score, this has a high impact.

The two factors that are negatively impacted by multiple credit cards are length of credit history and new credit (credit inquiries). Length of history is an average age of all accounts. This matters, but will eventually work in your favor as your accounts age–so while they may drop you a few points initially, they will eventually start to make your score go up. New credit, or credit inquiries, may also cause you to drop a few points, but fall off your account after two years. I will say from personal experience that though my length of history and credit inquiries are not great, the fact that everything else is perfect outweighs it. And that’s with 10 credit cards. Don’t know your score? Here’s a list of ways to check (my citi cards give me an updated score monthly) and you can also use creditkarma, which is an awesome tool for not only finding out your score, but learning more about your spending habits and your score breakdown.

I’m more than happy to answer any questions–using this method I’ve taken 15 round trip flights (5 international) and only had to pay airline fees and taxes. That much travel would have been completely impossible for me without using miles, and by never having to worry about flights, I was able to take multiple last minute trips and spend money on the places I was going instead of using it all just getting there. It also allowed me to start dating my boyfriend who lives 5,437 miles away.

I promised myself when I was much younger I wouldn’t let anything keep me from my travel dreams, and there are too many potential excuses. Finding the time, finding the courage… this way I knew I’d never need to find the money (at least for flights).


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