We Haven’t Paid for Travel in Seven Years


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Travel for Free

Dave Ramsey holds a special place in my heart and my podcast playlist. For a long time, specifically before I was married and had a more firm grasp on my finances, he intimidated me. I’d switch radio stations as soon as I heard that slow southern drawl remind me of all my financial misdeeds and student loan debt. Now, though, I tune in for at least a few minutes each day to hear a good newlywed debt-free scream or some out-of-control spenders get a verbal spanking. Dave has really inspired me and TJ to maintain our budget and set a goal to pay off our house as soon as we can. But there is one pretty big ideal where Dave and I part ways. Dave, please don’t hate us, but TJ and I have credit cards.

About two dozen open lines of credit at any given time, to be exact.

Now, before you assemble with pitchforks and torches and surround our home like I’m Frankenstein’s monster, let me explain. We don’t believe in debt, and we never carry a balance on any of our cards. They are paid in full every single month. In fact, we have every card we open synchronize with the 27th of each month so all the bills are due on the same day for easier bookkeeping. Why use credit cards when we don’t intend to use them as they were intended? The bonuses, of course!

Before I get into the nitty gritty, I must first give a word of caution. If open lines of credit are as tempting for you as the flashing “Hot Now” sign at Krispy Kreme is for me, then this method is not for you. If your credit score is below 700, stay away from this strategy. If you don’t like keeping detailed notes and spreadsheets about spend requirements, due dates, and points bonuses, make like a tree and get outta here.

Still here? Great!

Here’s how TJ and I have avoided paying for travel for our entire marriage. We find credit cards with great travel sign-up bonuses, meet the minimum spend requirements, stash the miles and points, and hang onto the cards until their annual fee comes up the next year. If it’s an option, we downgrade it to a no-fee version of that same card. Since canceling lines of credit dings your credit score, we try to avoid it if we can. If we’re able to downgrade, we hang on to the card in a filing cabinet and let it collect dust. If we’re unable to downgrade, we go ahead and cancel the card. Our credit scores have stayed really high using this method.

In order to meet the minimum spend requirements, we just use that card for all our purchases until the desired target has been reached. Then we file that card away as mentioned above and use the next card. If we know we have a big purchase coming up, like new carpet for the house or a new king-size bed for our room, we get cards with higher spend requirements (and usually higher bonus structures) to maximize the opportunities.

The points we have accumulated over the years have piled into so many different airlines, hotels, and loyalty programs, it would be impossible to keep track of it all without a spreadsheet. Our points and miles budget was born from our original budget out of this necessity. Another free online tool, www.awardwallet.com, keeps track of your points balances for you by linking to your loyalty accounts similar to the way mint.com links to your bank accounts. The spreadsheet we created to help keep track of how much we need to spend by certain deadlines is used in tandem with Award Wallet to help us know how many points we have and when they expire. We also pay close attention to whether certain loyalty programs will be going through points devaluation phase, which means we’ll need to use up those points before that happens to maximize their value.

I didn’t believe this could all actually work when TJ told me about it after our wedding. It felt surreal to book our first week-long trip to Hawaii with some American Airlines points we’d accumulated by signing up for just two cards. I half expected the concierge to deny us our room key because it couldn’t be real that this gorgeous hotel cost us nothing. It wasn’t until we walked into our twentieth floor, ocean-view suite that our jaws dropped and the reality hit us. We had scored the vacation of a lifetime for practically no money. Pinch me!

Since then, we’ve been to Cancun, Kauai, San Diego, and a whole variety of other domestic locations by paying with points. We’re currently planning another trip to Maui and possibly England so I can geek out and see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and get a subsequent restraining order from JK Rowling when I inevitably stalk her every location. We love the financial freedom traveling for free brings us. The cash we may have used toward an annual trip can instead be used to help pay down our home, buy a car, drop into investments, or just add to our emergency fund. And I’ll admit traveling is a lot more enjoyable when you know you’re not paying out the nose for it.

How do vacations factor into your budget? Do you like the points idea, or is paying with cash the only way to go?

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20 Comments

  • Reply Raia August 26, 2016 at 9:55 am

    I have had mixed experiences using points and miles for travel. We tend to prefer staying in condos or AirBnB rentals with our family of 4, so hotel points are not that valuable. And the airlines make it difficult to use the miles. We did fly our family of 4 to California last year with points we got on a credit card, using much of the same tactics discussed, and it was great to save so much money! But it did really limit the flight times available as our departure city is a hub for the airline but the destination is not even served by that airline so our “free first checked bag” was not honored on our return trip because the airline we checked in with was not the one we had the credit card with. And when I was booking the flights, there was a huge range of point values for some flights which meant we had to fly on a date/time that I didn’t like. Generally, I prefer a cash back credit card – I can use the money on any airline I choose after shopping around for the best deals or on a home rental instead of a hotel.

    • Reply Ashley August 26, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      I so feel you on how hard it can be too book flights and hotels with points! We usually have to spend a lot of time online figuring out when certain dates aren’t blacked out, when hotels are free, how we can possibly get upgraded, etc. Especially since our family has grown, it’s been harder to find flights that accommodate four people! But, for us, it’s all worth it to not spend that extra cash on a trip. I do sometimes wish we could just deal with cash and not worry about the hassle! Cash-back cards are totally awesome for that reason. :)

  • Reply Ashli @ The Million Dollar Mama August 26, 2016 at 10:48 am

    I absolutely utilize credit cards for the points/cashback rewards, but I’m very careful with my spending and never carry a balance on my cards. As for vacations, we specifically budget for those. I like to try to get over to Australia every couple of years, which definitely isn’t cheap!

    • Reply Ashley August 26, 2016 at 7:02 pm

      Australia is really expensive! But with miles and points, it’s totally doable! Vacations that far away can easily add up to $10,000 or more. That’s what makes the time and effort tracking points worth it for us! I’d rather spend that money on a front row ticket to Harry Potter and the Cursed… I mean on our investments. :)

  • Reply Clayton August 26, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    I enjoyed reading this article. May I ask a quick question? What do you do with the cards that don’t allow you to switch to no-yearly alternatives? Are you then forced to pay the fee and keep the cards or is it better just to cancel those cards?

    • Reply Ashley August 27, 2016 at 4:47 pm

      It’s totally up to your discretion, but we usually cancel the card after a year if they don’t allow us to downgrade to a no-fee version. The majority of cards we sign up for do have a no-fee version, so that helps our credit when we don’t have to cancel. But for the cards that have an annual fee and no way to downgrade, it’s usually not worth it to us to keep it open. Sometimes a good hotel card will have an annual free night that offsets the annual fee, which makes it worth it to keep open for some people! Totally up to you! I hope this helped! We do have several credit card accounts we’ve kept open for years and years, and we will never cancel those for the sake of our credit score. Ps, when I saw your name, the first thing that came to my mind was Kingdom Hearts 2 for PS2 – the Tarzan level, specifically. Nerd level: infinity.

  • Reply Kim August 27, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    We can’t accumulate enough points to 100% pay for trips, but we can always trim the cost. Our Italy tickets were 1/3rd the cost out of Newark compared to our little home airport. So we accumulated enough Amtrak points to get to Newark for almost free (we have to drive to Amtrak). So that alone saved 3k. Our Disneyland Shanghai tickets in 2018 will almost be free because of points (and we will Amtrak it to Chicago again to save another 3k on flights to China).

    • Reply Ashley September 4, 2016 at 3:04 am

      Any little bit helps for sure! I have heard awesome things about Amtrak, but we haven’t tried it out yet. Definitely on my list! Thanks for sharing. :)

  • Reply Chris August 30, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Using points to pay for trips is clearly the best solution. It’s just the matter of keeping track of how many points you’ve accumulated and when the annual fees kick in – some can be as high as $450.

    • Reply Ashley September 4, 2016 at 3:08 am

      Annual fees can be a real B. But even the high ones you mention, like the $450 annual fee for the Amex platinum card, for example, can be offset using their $200 annual airline fee credit (per calendar year, so you can use it twice!) which allows you to receive credit back if you spend money on travel for whichever airline you previously had chosen on the Amex site. But some annual fees just aren’t worth it to us, so I agree. You gotta pay close attention or they add up quickly. Glad you agree points are worth it. :)

  • Reply Josh August 31, 2016 at 9:42 pm

    Wow!

    This is the kind of ambitious, totally nerdy, and amazing stuff that I dream about being able to do one day. I’m still in a phase that would make excessive credit card access a bad idea, but it’s definitely stocked and ready on the shelf when I’m debt free!

    Besides the obvious time commitment to keeping track of all of the cards is there any real downside to employing this strategy long term?

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply Ashley September 4, 2016 at 3:11 am

      Nerds unite! There really haven’t been any long-term consequences for what we’ve being doing. The only time to be cautious is if you’re getting ready to buy a house and want the lowest interest rate – if you’ve suddenly opened up four lines of credit and then apply for a mortgage, you may look risky. But since we bought our home, the world is our oyster! I know people who have been doing this for a decade and their credit score is even higher than mine!

  • Reply Natalie September 1, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    We’ll be moving two states away just a few short months after our first baby is born, and between the inevitable birth and moving expenses, we have decided to do just this! I really want to be able to affordably visit friends and family after we move and this seemed like the best way to achieve it. We enter all of our credit card purchases into our budget as if we were spending our own cash, and we always pay the balances, so we feel like we’re going about this as responsibly as possible. Glad to hear we’re not the only ones who are capitalizing on our expensive life events to save money on travel!

    • Reply Ashley September 4, 2016 at 3:13 am

      You are not alone! New baby expenses are definitely stressful, so traveling with points is such an awesome way to help offset some of those costs. Sounds like you’re going about it the responsible way, which is really the only way to win at this game 😉.

  • Reply Patricia September 2, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    Which airline and hotel cards have you used that you recommend (if you’re comfortable sharing)? I am all about the travel reward cards. I have a Southwest Rewards card for domestic flights and a United Mileage card for international flights, but, especially with the United card, after you use the huge reward for the initial minimum spend, it’s just too hard to rack up meaningful amounts of points. I’m looking to move on.

    • Reply Ashley September 4, 2016 at 10:15 am

      I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you… 😉
      Southwest is seriously awesome and the only way to fly domestically with points IMO. Once we’ve earned the initial bonus on any given card, we stop spending on it because of the very reason you mentioned – points are earned sooo slowly after way too much spend. That’s why we move on to the next one right after! I’d recommend the Chase Sapphire Reserve card right now for sure! 100k points which can be redeemed for $2100 in travel. Ka-ching! :)

  • Reply Melanie September 19, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    This was an interesting article. I used to be all about credit card points and then redeem them for gift cards during Christmas. But then I found budgeting so much more simple when I eliminated them. I’m also a Dave Ramsey-ite! In fact I’m seeing him live in Boston next week! Anyway, I’d love to learn to hack credit cards and get free travel but at the same time I’m hesitant. But I did just google the chase sapphire reserve out of curiosity :)

    • Reply Ashley September 26, 2016 at 3:05 am

      Love Dave so much! Yeah, this little life-hack can be too much of a hassle for some people to be worth it. You have to keep diligent track of things, you have to be clever when you work out redeeming your points for travel so you coordinate the hotel and flights just right, you have to pay attention to when points expire, etc. It’s definitely a game with a lot of rules, but the payoff is pretty awesome when it all works out. But still! Everyone does what they’re comfortable with in the end, and if that means saving up and paying cash for a trip, totally fine in my book! :)

  • Reply Money Beagle September 28, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    Traveling and having the associated experience is important to us, so we budget money every year for this. We’ve been able to get the most out of it by doing 80-90% of our vacations as camping trips, which saves significant money compared to the travel and lodging in more traditional trips.

  • Reply Max April 7, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    I really want to use points what cards specifically would you reccomend to get the most vacations in?

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