Credit Card Strategies

“Playing The Game” Pt. 2 – Travel Card Strategy

There's only one card out there that comes with Admirals Club Access: The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard
There's only one card out there that comes with Admirals Club Access: The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard

These tips should help you create your own travel credit card strategy!

I wrote a prior post that gives you some ground rules when ‘playing the game’. Every game has rules. I highly suggest you read that post before continuing with this post.  Once you know what they are, you are then ready to start developing your travel card strategy, which is what I cover in this post! This is where the fun begins!

Think around 6-8 months in advance.

When you do this, you are essentially in the process of defining your travel goals. Where would you like to travel to? Domestically? Internationally? All valid options, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know how to get there for less!

Try using Google Flights to see what the fares are like 6-8 months from now. Perhaps the weather in your destination is not usually the best. Certain parts of the world have Monsoon season, sometimes its too cold, etc. Maybe you don’t care, because the fare is a crazy amazing deal that you just want to hop on it, and your budget says you can handle it! Maybe you want to plan in between tourist seasons. Perhaps you are finding it hard to make that 5th vacation this year. Maybe you want to hold back on that extra credit card. Whatever your strategy, it should employ a good amount of foresight!

Here’s a good example of thinking 6-8 months in advance:



As you can see, If I fly next April, I could save $150 dollars buying tickets today on American and leverage my status! Even without status, flying China Southern in April sounds much more attractive than flying on Sichuan today.

Every couple of months, try thinking another 6-8 months from there and reevaluate your goals. Your budget should reflect this. So should your timing, and ultimately your research!  Having a future mindset also gives you ample time to save for your vacation, and also gives you the foresight to plan accordingly.

Use the right tool for the job!

Bear in mind that its one thing to get a travel card. It’s another thing to know which one makes sense to get next. This is a major component of ‘playing the game’, and can work in tandem with thinking at least 6-8 months in advance. You’ll ask yourself, “Which card will help me best for ‘that’ vacation in 7 months?” This requires a bit of research on your end on the cards, but it allows you formulate a more ‘bulletproof’ strategy.

When you know your destination, you can start researching the tools you’ll need (in this case, credit cards) to help you.

For example, I want to go to South Korea and visit Seoul.

I would not apply for the Ritz Carlton Credit Card with that goal in mind.

There are no Ritz Carltons out there to make use of the 2-free-night sign up bonus.
There are no Ritz Carltons out there to make use of the 2-free-night sign up bonus.

Instead, I would apply for the Citi Prestige card for their 4th-night free benefit. I could also use their Citi Thank You Sign Up Bonus points to reduce the hotel or airfare bill.

Alternatively, I could apply for the AAdvantage Citi Executive Mastercard because it comes with bonus miles to lessen the airfare. It also comes with Admirals Club Membership for when I wait at LAX and also when I make a stop in Dallas first for their non-stop flight to Seoul.

You fly backward to go forwards when you fly American LAX to ICN...
You fly backward to go forwards when you fly American LAX to ICN… better use that systemwide upgrade!

Maybe I don’t feel like being a fancy pants with lounge access and just want highly valued points. So, I can go for the Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR) and go for their Ultimate Rewards points instead and fly Nonstop to Seoul on Cathay Pacific. And would you look at that, CSR already comes with Priority Pass lounge membership anyway! It just so happens that there are plenty of Priority Pass lounges in Seoul!

Develop a credit card timing strategy to reduce the gap in between them.

The point is to be efficient with the dollars you spend. Even if you get only 4 cards a year every 3 months, that easily covers all 12 months of the year! That way, most dollars you spend are going towards the next sign-up bonus. It makes implementing your travel strategy easier.  If you can, make travel purchases on the cards you’re working on, to get the sign up bonuses to use for future travel. If you know that in the near future you will make a large travel expense, try applying for the next credit card you were thinking of to get the sign up bonus easily.

Perhaps you’re not looking to take a vacation every two months. Your job may not give enough vacation time, and you’re not able to put travel expenses towards more travel rewards. Maybe you have a family and can’t afford so many trips. How else do you benefit from these sign up bonuses? In this case, put most of your expenses towards your current travel card as possible! One good example: Lots of people do holiday shopping. If you’re one of those folks, this could be a great alternate strategy to ease the road towards your sign-up bonus. Matt made a great post to help you budget your holiday expenditures.

Know the value of your credit card points!

Great, you got the sign-up bonus you were working towards! NOW DON’T SQUANDER IT! Your points have a dollar value, and your travel strategy should make some attempt to maximize that value!

The Points Guy is probably the ‘travel blogging industry standard’ when it comes to valuing points. He updates his valuations every month. So before you go out and buy a trip on points, make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Also, some cards come with multipliers if you buy certain items. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, has a 1.5x multiplier for Travel purchases, but only 1.0x for everything else. I’d want to use those points for Travel!

Free-Night Certificates have value too!

Also, just because your free night nets you $0 expenses does not mean you should use them anywhere. There’s no strategy in that. You would want to use those nights somewhere that would be extremely expensive otherwise to get the most value out of them!

Of course, there are some limitations. For example, you can only use your annual free night certificate from the Marriott Rewards credit card at Category 1-5 hotels, when categories can go up to 8 or 9! Even with Categories 1-5, you can find Marriott-proper hotels that go for $200, maybe even $300 a night! I don’t know about you, but I would not want to spend it at a property that usually charges $100/night.

Personally, I’m one for using free nights internationally instead of domestically. This is why I plan on using my 2 free Ritz Carlton nights in Bali instead of, say, New York City. I could just take the PATH train in from Jersey if I wanted to visit NYC so bad!

Bali: The Australian's Bahamas
Bali: The Australian’s Bahamas

I specifically chose the Park Hyatt Hadahaa to use my free nights from the Chase Hyatt card (again, no longer advertised) . Their rooms are roughly $1200/night for the cheapest option, not to mention it is THE most expensive Hyatt property to stay at! Why spend the free nights at a reasonably priced Hyatt in Boston somewhere for $250/night?

Again, you want to get the most value out of your sign-up bonuses. Do a bit of research to make your friends think you’re some rich person!

Experiencing luxury in the middle of the Indian Ocean only takes a few well-planned sign-up bonuses!
Experiencing luxury in the middle of the Indian Ocean only takes a few well-planned sign-up bonuses!


Have any additional tips to help others learning to “Play the game”? Drop a comment below!

About the author


Jonathan "Jonny" Avila is a chubby young professional with a cat, wife, and a taste for life! Believes in 'paying it forward' by sharing the tools, tips, tricks, and lessons from his own experiences so you too can jump on the Travel Bandwagon and enjoy what this wonderful world has to offer!

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