My New Credit Card Strategy for Free Travel
Credit Cards

My New Credit Card Strategy

banks tighten
Written by Dustin

With changes always occurring, I have decided to try a new credit card strategy for earning my travel rewards. Could it be a new way to use our points and cash back?

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I am always looking for a new strategy (in this case, a credit card strategy) to maximize my travel rewards and earnings. A trend I have been seeing lately are cheap flights from the US to Europe, South America, Asia, and even domestically as well. Have we come to a point where points might not be the top option anymore?

I should preface that we typically fly coach, so this scenario pertains to people who fly coach. Business travel is nice, but I prefer to use my points for more trips, but to each their own. There’s no wrong way to redeem your points.

So back to my credit card strategy and some back story …

We currently live near Bangor airport (BGR) where there are very sim pickings for airlines. We are stuck with Delta, American, Alliegant (I haven’t looked at them and probably won’t use them), and we are graced with United seasonally. Delta has a strong hold on this location and American’s saver award availability being limited (although I can find some good space every now and then), that usually leaves me with Delta.

Not to mention it isn’t very cheap to fly out of this airport, but it is only 15 minutes away. My other options are to fly Cape Air to Boston from Augusta,  or drive to Portland. Quite frankly, I don’t feel driving 2.5 hours each way to Portland is worth the points savings (they aren’t that large of savings to begin with). I prefer to get to my destination and start exploring.

Now from BGR, Delta flies nonstop to New York (LGA), or Detroit. Most routes flying from BGR have 2 layovers and I would really like to reduce that if possible. I can typically find routes to LGA for about 7,500 miles one way. If we are lucky enough for a Delta sale, it can be as low as 5,000 miles one way. Once we get to New York, there are plenty of airports in the area that open the whole world to us.

Now looking at American, they fly nonstop to New York (LGA), Philadelphia (PHL) and Washington DC (DCA). With flights starting at 7500 AA miles or 7,500 British Avios one way, these can be very cheap to fly into. Again from these locations, it unlocks the world to us.

Now I keep an eye on a few sites like Airfare Spot (a new favorite of mine), Airfarewatchdog, and The Flight Deal. I enjoy searching Google Flights to see the travel deals from those locations.

I’ve been seeing more flights from the US to international destinations from anywhere from $200-$500 round trip. Recently, I wrote about how we value points and should we change our outlook on that process. With that thought in mind, I started to look into more of cash back instead of points for my travels.

Changing how I apply for cards:

Over the last few years, I have opened many cards for Kristin and myself. I want to slow down on opening cards and use the repertoire of cards we have, I can stick to what I have and earn cash back or points on those cards.

I will keep an eye out for big bonuses for Delta and AA since those are the miles I need to get me to one of the airports above. This includes American Express cards, since I can use Skymiles and Avios to fly on AA. Outside of those, or some killer bonus, I will be sticking to cash back.

I still have my Ink and Freedom to earn in the 5x categories on those cards, and usually those are for Hyatt stays. Although Ultimate Rewards are very valuable, there are better currencies for my flights out of BGR.

Not to mention we are using Airbnb and have really enjoyed that as well. There could be a shift from staying in hotels to utilizing Airbnb more.

The one card I am excited about is the USAA Limitless Cash Back card. Earning 2.5%  back on all transactions will be a great everyday card. Sprinkle in my 5% cards to maximize my earnings and I think I have a very good combo of cards.

My current rotation of cards:

I don’t think there is anything special about the cards in my wallet right now, but for the time being, I think these offer me the best earnings for my spending.

  • American Express Blue Cash- Use at the grocery store for 3% back and Amex offers
  • Discover It- Use for 5% rotating categories
  • Chase Freedom- Use for 5% rotating categories
  • Chase Ink Chase- Use for Cell phone/internet bills and office supply stores for 5x and gas for 2x
  • Discover It Miles- Non- bonus spending card 3% for first year.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred- Use for travel expenses and dining. I pretty much use these points for Hyatt stays.
  • Citi Double Cash- Using for when Discover Miles is not accepted.
  • When available USAA Limitless Cash back earning 2.5%- Will replace Double Cash in wallet and become go to after Discover Miles promo is over.
So hear me out before you condemn me.

I still will earn my points, but only to get me to those airports listed above, most likely to LGA. I mean in January, both Citi and Barclay will be offering American Airline cards, which is music to my ears. I’m optimistic the bonuses will be in the 50,000-60,000 range for a short period of time. Same with Delta cards and earning American Express Points to transfer to Delta or British Airways. Outside of those bonuses, it will be more cash back.

When you look at award tickets, they are usually fixed amount of points (except Delta), and can offer great value. But if you redeem 60,000 United miles and +$90 for a ticket that would have cost $490, then you used 60,000 miles for a $400 ticket (subtract taxes and fees you pay), which doesn’t offer great value. Especially if you could have cashed in 49,000 Ultimate Reward points to pay for that ticket AND earned miles for your flight.

Now if I was willing to pay $90 in taxes and fees for the flight above, then I really only need $400 in cash back to pay for what those miles would have covered. I earn roughly on average 3.5% back which means I would need to spend $11,429 to earn $400 cash back.

If I am able to find award space for 5,000  to 7,500 miles one way, then at saver rates, I’ll spend 10,000 to 15,000 miles round trip. I’ll earn those from credit card bonuses, so it won’t be much spending to earn that many points.

Is this approach the best option?

With airlines devaluing miles and ticket prices being cheaper, I do think this is the best approach for us. I have stopped worrying about the point value I am receiving while redeeming. I am now more concerned with how much money I am spending to earn that free flight or trip.

This also allows us to not be locked into a particular set of transfer partners, or airlines with less than favorable redemption rates.

Another piece that makes me feel this is the right choice…

I can stack these with other offers, or promotions to maximize my returns. For example, I needed $300 in Hyatt gift cards for my upcoming trip (I had used the gift cards I had for another stay). I was planning on cashing in $270 of my Discover Cash for $300 in Hyatt gift cards. That seemed to be a great plan, until I remembered I had 2 Amex offers at Lowe’s where if I spent $150, I received $30 credit.

I was actually saving $30 more using my Discover cash at 1 cent per point and stacking with my Amex Offers as opposed to cashing in for Hyatt gift cards through Discover.

I’m not a big fan of buying points, unless you have a redemption in mind and it actually saves you money. There are always promotions to buy points and with earning cash back, it would allow me the flexibility to buy points and save more.

With all the promotions out there and stacking with Amex offers it is pretty easy to make your cash work for you.

Conclusion:

Is this credit card strategy the best option out there? Well it depends on your goals, and I am perfectly fine experimenting with this credit card strategy. As I mentioned earlier, this wouldn’t make sense if you prefer to fly business class, which we don’t typically do.

But with the cheaper paid flights and miles being devalued, I think we are starting to see a tipping point to where if you do fly coach, earning cash back might be the best option. This could be extremely true if you can use your miles to get yourself to a larger airport with more options for airlines, which is what I intend for us to do.

Do you agree with my strategy? What is your current strategy?

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About the author

Dustin

After completing 6 years of pharmacy school, I finally had the time to travel. I started investigating ways to travel for less and when I redeemed my first award flight for my honeymoon, I knew I was hooked! Fast forward a couple of years and places I had never dreamed of visiting like Budapest, Honolulu, Bermuda and many other places where all within my reach, and for little to no money out of my pocket. Now, I have collected well over a million points and miles, and try to help people travel for less on their wallet.

14 Comments

  • I totally agree with your strategy for those who are focusing on economy travel.

    I fly business class on long haul flights when I can use points. For everything else I pay cash.

    • Hey Jason,

      It took me a while to figure that out! When we have flown biz class, it has been all miles. But for coach, I have realized I’ll get more value and better flights (time, layovers, etc) if I use my CB to pay for the ticket.

      Thanks for reading, I appreciate it!
      Dustin

  • I live in Presque Isle and am stuck with PenAir to BOS. Things could be worse than flying out of BGR… Thanks for the useful write-up!

  • Ha you northern Mainers!

    I lived in Presque Izzle for a few years.

    I’m really liking my FlexPerks since I can get a ton of points a grocery stores and it works well for economy flights

    • Hey Tim,

      I will say, I have started to pay more attention to the flex perk program and might need to add one of their cards to my wallet. Well once our mortgage application is finished.

      Thanks for reading!
      Dustin

  • I re-read your post more carefully this AM. I have a similar overall plan to you, I think. I MSpend on my flex (to redeem for economy airfare), amex hilton (trying to get gold status and accumulate points), and ink. Wife is under 5/24 so I’m thinking CSR next for her, but I’m slightly over and I’m trying to get back under by mostly using what I have.

    The more I look at my travel patterns, I’m realizing the hilton points are not terribly valuable. Part of me hitting that card is to try to get status and I’ve thought about upgrading to the surpass to try to get diamond status, but I’m just not sure those perks will be used much. So while I feel pretty good about the flex for cheap air travel, and I have the option to trade UR –> hyatt points once in a while, I don’t feel like I have any *good* options for the hotel portion of my travel. I’ve been realizing a cash back card would be great since I mostly stay at places that would be $100-200 USD per night, and we do B&Bs and Airbnbs as often (if not more) than we stay in hotel.

    The only cash back card wife or I have at the moment is Amex Blue Cash but the 3% capped at $6k seems kinda worthless. Do you have more info about the 2.5% USAA card? I’ve also been reading about the amex OBC. Maybe instead of opening a Discover It for the 3x first year, I might try to get OBC as the one card to add to my current arsenal.

    Flexperks would really be my go-to card if they redeemed at hotels for the same as airfare (up to 4%), but hotel I think are capped at like 3% and in practice they seem to be more like 2-2.5%.

    • Hey Tim,

      Here is the link for where I originally found the USAA limitless information

      https://www.google.com/amp/s/dannydealguru.com/2016/10/04/a-2-5-card-is-here-usaa-limitless-credit-card/amp/

      I might call once I am “allowed” to apply for a card again :-). I agree about the flexpoints and wish they’d be more useful for hotel stays.

      I think this is a good example of CB being good option. I am currently at the Hyatt Andaz SD. Great property. Used 30k + ~430 to stay here. With priceline I could have booked this room or a room similar a block away for ~330. Saving me not only $100, but 30k UR points.

      I also agree with Hilton points not being valuable. So inflated and I can’t seem to find a decent deal using them! Also, my wife loves Airbnb and I really enjoy them as well.

      Thanks for the great comment and reading!

      Dustin

  • Really enjoy this topic, and Tim’s contribution. I feel like I’m in the same boat, and I’m currently an expat in Canada, so my options are a bit different than the normal person. I definitely need to put more thought into my strategy because cashback may be the way to go. And the Flexperks program is very enticing.

    • Hey Corey,

      So many options when it comes to strategies, but I’ve realized CB allows more flexibility, IMO.

      The flexpoints program is high on my list of programs to look at!

      Thanks for reading!

      Dustin

  • Wow – way too complex. Try 3% JCB Marukai cash back, 2% Fidelity cash back, a Chase CSR and Amex SPG card. That’s all you need and minimizes annual fees.

    • Hey Boraxo,

      I’ll have to take a look into the JCB card. Not sure I’m in agreement about minimizing AF with your set up. But if it works for you, then that’s all that matters!

      Thanks for reading, I appreciate it!
      Dustin

  • I’m in a similar situation with the exact same airlines, but we live in Northwest Florida. I’m accumulating Avios to get to DFW on American where we have many more options. This is the end of my first year in this hobby and am looking at what cards to keep and pay the AF on, and which ones to let go. Also changing my strategy from grabbing all the sign up bonuses I can to best category bonuses on what I already have. I have the Flex perks, haven’t used it for travel yet. Am highly considering Amex Simply Cash Biz card for cash back. Great article, thanks!

    • Hey Terri,

      Isn’t it tough when there are only limited airlines at your nearby airport? I have started using that same idea to using the best card I have. I’ll probably open 1 to 2 cards a year for the bonus, but overall I’ll use what I have.

      The Amex Simply Cash interest me as well. The new Ink Preferred has my interest only for the cell phone coverage.

      Thanks for reading, I appreciate it!
      Dustin

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