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Between free flights and hotels, zipping through security and customs, or relaxing in airline lounges, travel perks can be such a wonderful asset. And without a doubt, I love every bit of ’em!
Over the years, we built up a nice stash of these things just by being strategic in our credit card spending. They’ve not only helped to make our travel more comfortable but also a lot cheaper or completely free.
Well, it’s been a few years, but our travel perks are starting to dry up. That’s costing us a lot of money and, if you know me, I don’t like spending a lot of money!
Let’s go through how we built up so many travel perks (anyone can do it!), why they’re going away for us, and how we’re going to fix it.
What kind of travel perks are we talking about?
There are so many different travel perks out there, but I’ll tell you about my favorites that we enjoy…
Frequent flyer miles / Travel points
This is probably the most widely-known travel benefit out there. Each airline lets you build up a reserve of frequent flyer miles. Once you have enough miles, you can take a flight for free (though you’ll still pay a few bucks for taxes). Have a ton of miles and want to splurge? Feel free to book business class or first class.
Some hotels will do something similar. Build up enough points and you can stay for free in one of their hotels without paying a dime.
And then there are third-party travel hubs that let you accrue points and use them toward booking free travel for flights, hotel stays, or rental cars. These are great because you’re not just tied to a specific airline or hotel chain when booking so you have a lot more flexibility. A couple of these entities are Chase Ultimate Rewards and Capital One Travel.
Out of all the travel perks, miles and points are probably the most valuable because they can literally save you thousands of dollars for each trip.
The three of us have flown a lot over the past few years…
- Back and forth to Panama several times
- Domestically between Ohio and Texas a few times
- To other places like Florida for cruises
We paid for probably about 75% of our travel using accrued frequent flyer miles. That’s saved us thousands and thousands of dollars… and I love it! Without this benefit, there’s no way we could have afforded to travel so much.
We also stayed at several Hilton hotels on our big road trip last year. Total cost… $0!
Southwest Companion Pass
This is a really cool benefit. If you score enough Southwest frequent flyer miles in one year (currently 125,000), you can earn the coveted Southwest Companion Pass. That little bonus means that for the rest of the calendar year that you earned it plus the entire next calendar year, you can add a companion on each flight to fly for free with you.
So, when we’d fly from Austin to Cleveland, for example, I would book the flight for me and Faith on the reservation. I’d also usually be paying for the flight with frequent flyer miles. Once booked, I go back into the reservation and add Lisa as a companion. We didn’t have to use up any frequent flyer miles for her flight and it wouldn’t cost us anything (except taxes). Nice, right?
Unfortunately, I earned this pass right before the pandemic hit and didn’t get to use it as much as we wanted, but when we did, still pretty awesome!
A lot of folks don’t realize that a lot of airports around the world have membership lounges tucked away in them. These lounges are generally pretty large and offer couches and comfortable seating as well as plenty of places to charge up all your devices. They’re usually much quieter and nicer than hanging out by your gate.
Additionally, many of them offer free food and drinks. Want a beer or three before your flight? This is your place. Looking for a bag of pretzels, a Slim Jim, or a sandwich to tide you over? Look no further.
There are airline lounges such as the United Club, the Delta Sky Club, or the Admirals Club (American Airlines). Then there are lounges that aren’t associated with specific airlines. Regardless, they can all be accessed by paying a fee – the United Club is currently $59 per person for one visit, for example.
But if you have access to these lounges, you’ll appreciate how much nicer it is to wait during a long layover.
We’ve gotten several passes to the United Club over the years and love it. We also currently have a free Priority Pass Select membership that gains us access to over 1,300 airport lounges around the world. It’s not a necessity when traveling, but it’s truly one of the better travel perks to have!
Global Entry / TSA PreCheck
TSA PreCheck is something you can pay $85/year for that gets you through U.S. airport security much faster than the regular lines. You also don’t have to worry about removing your shoes, belts, light jackets, and laptops before going through. That’s always a small headache to do each time otherwise.
Global Entry gets you expedited entry through customs when coming into the U.S. from another country. And when I say fast, I mean, fast. On our trip back to the States last week, we spent less than 10 minutes in line from start to finish… and that was actually much longer than usual.
Take a look at this photo below I took (click on it to see it larger). Our line with the handful of folks in front of us went to the left where you see the first couple of CBP officers. They took just a few seconds with each person because we’ve already gone through a previous screening.
Now compare that to the rat maze you see further back… that’s the normal line for customs. I would guess it’s going to take a minimum of an hour or so to get through that line… long live Global Entry!
The cost of Global Entry is $100 for a 5-year membership. A nice additional benefit is that it includes TSA PreCheck. Even if you rarely travel outside of the country, for an extra $15 for 5 years, Global Entry is still worth considering.
We didn’t pay a cent for my membership or Lisa’s, though we did drop the $100 for Faith’s. Without a doubt, Global Entry and TSA PreCheck can be travel perks that make your airport time a lot less stressful.
How we made this happen
Hopefully, you’re seeing how beneficial all these perks can be to anyone who likes to travel. But if you’re thinking that they’re only for the rich and affluent, you’re mistaken.
Anyone can make this happen and without much effort. The key is understanding the credit card rewards game. Providers try to entice you to sign up for their cards with some big sign-up incentives. Your job is simply to strategically take them up on what they’re offering.
Over the years, we determine what our path will be over the next 12 months. Either Lisa or I will apply for one credit card that we want to utilize. Once we get that card, game on. Most bonuses require something like spending $3,000 on the card within the first three months. So we simply put all our regular spending on that card instead of other ones we have. We don’t spend more than we would otherwise – we just concentrate on that card.
Most importantly, we still pay off our card every month so we don’t accrue any interest. Once we’ve spent enough to get that bonus, we move onto the next card and do it again to gain some more travel perks.
As a side note, never add an authorized user on a card when going after travel perks. There’s a limit to how many cards you can apply for on a rolling basis and being an authorized user counts as one of your cards. Chase’s infamous 5/24 rule, for instance, basically means that you can’t have opened 5 or more credit cards (including ones not with Chase) in the last 24 months. Business cards don’t fall under this.
As an authorized user, you would be occupying one of those slots so that’s kind of a waste. Instead, Lisa and I just pass the card back and forth when we know we’re going to be spending some money. Or I’ll add the card to my Google Pay account and just pay using my phone so Lisa can hang onto the card.
For those concerned about credit scores (you should be), opening new lines of credit drops you ever-so-slightly but then your score will actually increase because of the new credit line offered. Suddenly, you’re now utilizing a smaller portion of your available credit, which is a large part of your score.
We periodically put a few dollars on each card we’re done with so the issuer doesn’t cancel it. But if it has an annual fee, we usually cancel the card after the first year. That gives us a slight credit score drop but not much. I recently closed a card and even with that event, here’s where my score stands right now per Credit Karma:
We’ve gotten tons of miles through United, Southwest, American, and Chase Rewards. That’s paid for almost all our flights over the past few years. The United card comes with a couple of United Club passes every year so that’s fantastic. Several cards also offer reimbursement for Global Entry – that’s a $100 reimbursement for each use!
The Southwest Companion Pass enables you to pick someone to fly free with you on every flight you take. That can be huge money saved! The problem is that to earn it, you need to either fly 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 125,000 frequent flyer miles in a single calendar year. For the average person, that’s going to be a tough hurdle.
However, earning miles through credit cards counts in making this happen. And with the bonuses that are available on the credit cards, that makes it a lot more attainable. If you sign up for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Priority Card, Premier Card, or Plus Card, you can receive a bonus that could be as much as 65,000 miles for any one of those if you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months.
That’s the route I took to make it happen. I signed up for the Plus card and once that was done, I signed up for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Business Card. That card had a similar bonus. Bear in mind that you don’t need to have an incorporated business to apply for the business card. If you’re earning any money on the side, you can qualify for it.
Two of those cards alone can earn you the Companion Pass. But don’t forget, you now also have all those frequent flyer miles in the bank to use plus the miles earned as you spent money on the card to reach the bonus. That’s still crazy awesome to me.
And that’s it, folks. Rinse and repeat. Just be sure to track your cards so you know where you stand. If only there were an easy way to do that.
Wait, I know! Hop on my email list and I’ll send you a copy of the credit cards rewards tracker spreadsheet I created. This is the same one that we use to keep track of our cards…
Did you do it? Come on, don’t be shy… you’ll love it and if you don’t, you can unsubscribe at any time.
Done? Good! Let’s move on!
You can see the credit cards that we’ve concentrated on over the past few years on my Recommended Credit Cards page. If you find my content helpful, please consider using one of my links to sign-up for your next card. I’ll earn a little referral money toward my time in creating more great content for you.
Why are all these goodies going away for us?
So, we’ve established that attaining these travel perks isn’t hard to do and can make traveling much nicer. Throw in that they can save you thousands of dollars and this seems like a great road to be on, right?
Perfect! So why are all our goodies slowly disappearing if this path is so great?
Very simple. We’ve been living in Panama over the past couple of years and that throws a little wrench in the works.
First, we don’t have an opportunity to spend as much on our cards. We pay our rent in cash and several places are still cash-only in Panama. And our spending there isn’t too high anyway.
The next problem is that, unless a credit card has no foreign transaction fees, using those cards in another country can be costly. Some cards with bonuses have them but not as many.
So our biggest opportunity for building up our “reserves” is when we’re in the U.S. visiting. Unfortunately, we’re usually not visiting long enough to pull off the required spending on a card.
We had a good run of all these beautiful, beautiful travel perks but it’s tough to see them slowly going away.
We just booked our travel to return to Panama in mid-August (we’re in the States right now) and then to travel back to the U.S. in November for another visit. Up until now, these trips have always been free or would cost next to nothing…. not this time.
Flights are expensive right now and between those and the hotel we’ll need for one of the trips, it cost us $2,160.75 for the three of us. Ouch! I’m not used to that and it stings!
The good news is that for those of you not living as ex-pats like we are, our problems aren’t your problems. You can just continue to build up your reserves and enjoy traveling the world for free or close to it.
For us though, we need a new plan…
How we’re going to build our travel perks back up
Seeing that $2,100+ cost of travel take place was not fun for a frugal guy like me. You get spoiled with something and then when it disappears, you’re left sitting there astounded. Time to take action.
The irony is that since we knew we were going to be footing a big travel bill, we applied for a new credit card to put the costs on. This time around, we got the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. We weren’t sure how our spending would go, but we figured we could make the $3,000 in the first 3 months happen. And if not, the card doesn’t have foreign transaction fees so we could continue to use it once we get back to Panama.
Turns out, we crushed that $3,000 spend in just a couple of weeks. I’m not thrilled at the amount of money we’ve been spending lately, but at least we’ll get the 50,000-mile bonus for our crazy spending.
Next up, it’s time to earn another Southwest Companion Pass (and a ton of miles). My pass expires at the end of this year. And once we move back to the U.S. next spring in 2022, we’ll be doing more domestic travel. We’ll also probably need to spend some money on travel again as we build our reserves back up. And we’ll likely have some costs in moving back to the U.S. as well.
So in probably the second week of December, Lisa will apply for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card. The Companion Pass is good for the following year plus the remainder of the calendar year that you earned your 125,000 qualifying miles. So December is important because the bonus won’t post until January 2022.
She’ll then apply for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Business Card likely in February or March. Once that bonus is hit, we’ll then have her Companion Pass which will be good for the rest of 2022 as well as all of 2023. Awesome, right?!
By that time, we’ll be back in the U.S., which will make spending on a credit card and meeting the bonus requirements relatively easy for us to do again. We’ll then possibly look at the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. Let’s get these travel perks rolling again!
You can see more about the Capital One card, the Southwest cards, the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card as well as the other cards we’ve used and recommend on my aptly-named Recommended Credit Cards page. Again, If you find my content helpful, please consider using one of my links to sign-up for your next card. I’ll earn a little referral money toward my time in creating more great content for you.
As disappointed as I am in seeing our miles and other travel perks starting to dry up, it’s nice that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.
Do you take advantage of the travel rewards and bonuses offered by credit card companies?
Plan well, take action, and live your best life!
Thanks for reading!!