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Scoring Points

Dana Ferris

I’M NOT SOMEONE WHO enjoys spending money on luxury travel. I’d never pay cash for a business class airline ticket or a hotel suite. Nonetheless, on a recent trip to Spain with my husband, we flew business class and had suites in all four hotels we stayed at.

We also visited lounges in every airport before our flights, had access to executive lounges at two hotels where we could get free meals, snacks and cocktails, and indulged in lavish breakfast buffets at the other two. We paid for none of these extra amenities, but we certainly enjoyed them.

We managed this through a judicious deployment of points, miles and hotel status. I paid for the business class airline tickets with points earned through American Express and Chase credit cards. I’m a Titanium Elite member with Marriott, which got us complementary suite upgrades at three hotels, and my Diamond status with Hilton procured us the suite at the fourth hotel. The other perks at the hotels also came from my status with those brands, and access to airline lounges came automatically with our business class tickets.

In addition to all of those luxuries, we were able to use the TSA Precheck and CLEAR lanes when we departed from San Francisco, and the Global Entry lane when we returned, so we cleared U.S. immigration quickly. Our membership in all of these programs was paid for by holding specific travel credit cards. We also have access to American Express and Priority Pass lounges at airports around the world because of the credit cards we have.

You might have noticed that I’ve mentioned a variety of different credit cards, and you might be wondering how I earned all those points and miles. Well, at the risk of horrifying HumbleDollar writers and readers who have as few credit cards as possible, I’ll confess to having many. No, I don’t have as many cards as some travel writers, such as the staff of The Points Guy. But I currently have 13.

My cards are a carefully curated combination of co-branded airline and hotel cards, as well as cards which earn “flexible currency,” meaning Ultimate Rewards (UR) points from Chase and Membership Rewards (MR) points from Amex. Among points-and-miles adherents, these latter cards are considered the most valuable because they can be used in different ways depending on your travel goals.

You can purchase travel directly from the Chase or Amex travel portals, using points or money, and thereby earning yet more points. Alternatively, UR and MR points can be transferred to airline and hotel partners, and they can also be put toward rental cars and other uses. For example, for our flight home from Spain, I transferred UR points to my United Airlines account and then used those miles to buy our tickets.

As for earning points or miles, there are several ways to do so. First, you can earn sign-up bonuses when obtaining these various cards. That’s the quickest and easiest way to fatten up your points or miles account. Second, you can earn points or miles by actually traveling—staying at a Marriott and earning Bonvoy points, flying on Alaska Airlines or a partner airline and earning Alaska Airlines miles, and so forth.

Third, you can put as much of your day-to-day spending as possible on various credit cards to earn points and miles—things such as utility and cable bills, insurance premiums, and supermarket, pharmacy and gas station purchases. Finally, you can earn points by shopping online with partner merchants. When we were furnishing our new condo in 2019, I earned 75,000 extra Ultimate Rewards points by not only using a Chase card that earns UR points, but also by purchasing from merchants such as Pottery Barn while logged into the UR portal.

When I was younger, I used to listen to a personal finance radio show hosted by Larry Burkett, who strenuously preached that credit cards were bad, that you should only have one of them if you really had to, and that if you ever had a month where you couldn’t pay off your card in full, you should cut up the card and never get another one.

It took me a long time to question the idea that credit card usage was inherently bad. But finally, I did some reading and thinking for myself. I was surprised to learn, for example, that having more than a few credit cards doesn’t necessarily harm your credit score and, indeed, can boost it. But you have to know what you’re doing and be able to keep track of payments, rewards and rules for usage.

The key to responsible credit card ownership for me includes the following  three principles:

1. Always pay off any credit card you use in full every month. Whatever benefit you might earn from getting credit card points will be negated if you’re paying interest on card balances.

2. Only get a new credit card if you have a specific travel-related goal for obtaining it. Every one of my 13 cards is in my wallet or sock drawer for a reason. Other people may not care about travel rewards and instead focus on cash-back cards, but it’s the same principle.

3. Only keep a credit card with an annual fee if you can justify it by recouping perks that are worth even more. My most expensive card is my Amex Platinum, which costs a hefty $695 per year, plus an additional charge for authorized users. But there’s a long list of benefits that I use, and they add up to well over $1,000 a year. These include CLEAR membership for my husband and me, TSA Precheck and Global Entry fee reimbursement, airline and hotel credits, Uber credits, and digital streaming credits.

Lest you judge my champagne tastes too harshly, I’ll end this piece by telling you about the next trip we’re taking—another trip without a champagne price tag. It’s a five-day jaunt to Chicago over this coming Labor Day weekend. We’re flying Southwest from Sacramento to Chicago Midway (Southwest points for my husband’s ticket, companion pass for me). We’ll be staying at the Chicago Ritz Carlton (four free nights thanks to our Marriott Bonvoy credit cards and from earning status, plus some Marriott points for the fifth night).

We’re attending two games at Wrigley Field to see our San Francisco Giants play the Cubs—one game in a luxury suite and the other in club box seats right behind the first base dugout—both paid for with Marriott points via their “Bonvoy Moments” program. No, flying Southwest isn’t exactly luxury travel and, no, we won’t get a suite upgrade at the hotel. But we’re taking a very nice trip for relatively little outlay.

Travel is an important goal for us as we near retirement. We’re not “too fancy” to fly economy. But as we get older, being able to fly business class on a lengthy international trip, have extra space in a hotel suite, access airport and hotel lounges without paying extra, and get through airport security more easily, all combine to make travel more pleasurable and manageable.

Dana Ferris and her husband live in Davis, California. She’s a professor in the writing program at the University of California, Davis, and is the author or co-author of nine books on teaching writing and reading to second language learners. Dana is a huge baseball fan and writes a weekly column for a San Francisco Giants fan blog under the nom de plume DrLefty. When not working, she also loves cooking, traveling and working out. Follow Dana on Twitter @LeftyDana and check out her earlier articles.

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