How I Traveled Across the Globe for Only $42

You know that woman who makes way less than you do but always seems to be jetting off to a new city, ringing in the New Year at the latest beachside hotspot, or spending weekends visiting friends halfway across the country? Me, too. For the longest time I assumed she either has a trust fund (lucky!) or a trail of debt (yikes!). However she does it, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me more than a little jealous.

There I was, working 60+ hours per week at a good corporate job, making enough to live on and save, but still finding myself wondering why another year had gone by without a new passport stamp to show for it. Sure, I’d go home during the holidays to visit family but that certainly didn’t count as a “getaway.” Even though the destination may have been cheap once I arrived, the flight and hotel were always prohibitively expensive. Or so I thought. 

It turns out, I’d just been doing it wrong. We’ve been conditioned to think credit cards are, in large part, bad. They lead to mountains of debt from which it’s nearly impossible to get out from under. Ruining your credit and making it hard for you to buy that starter home you’ve seen in your future for who knows how long. 

But the truth is, these little pieces of plastic are more than just a way to build credit, an emergency source of funds, or your ticket to splurging on that handbag you’ve been eyeing since last season.

When used responsibly and with a little planning, credit cards are one of the easiest ways to get free plane tickets, hotel stays, upgrades, and other perks most people think are only reserved for business travelers and jet-setters. I would know. I’m two months into a five-month journey across Asia, Europe, and Africa and I’ve spent under $1,000 on flights and hotels. I flew from San Francisco to Bangkok for $42. I booked a flight from Tokyo to Milan for about $27. And I’ll be flying back to California from Tanzania for under $100. And I’m not taking crazy routes with 20-hour layovers. My ticket from Japan to Italy, for example? Non-stop. My flight to Bangkok connected through Singapore because that was the only flight available. On my way home from Tanzania, I’ll be stopping in Frankfurt for a few hours only because that’s the only option. And I’ll still have enough points to fly to Mexico City and back for New Year’s.

As for hotels, I’ve been staying at Starwood Hotels in the majority of places I’ve visited, getting upgraded to ridiculous suites and enjoying free breakfast and wifi. For free. How did I do it? I played the credit card game. What is the credit card game? It’s when you actually open those pieces of junk mail from that airline, hotel chain, or credit card company offering thousands of points if you spend up a few thousand dollars within the first three months. I used to ignore these mailers, automatically assuming they were a bad deal and questioning whether I actually spent a few thousand dollars in three months. But it turns out spending $3,000 in three months is really easy and something I do every month without fail. And it’s not like I go out all the time or shop till I drop every weekend. When I calculated how much I spent on groceries, going to a few dinners, buying gas, paying for utilities, etc., I was up to $3,000 well before the three-month deadline would lapse. 

Even if you don’t spend that much on a regular basis you can still get a ton of points by getting a reward-rich credit card before making a big purchase. I was renovating one of my apartments and made sure I bought as much of the materials as I could on a couple of credit cards I had opened. Within a few weeks I had already racked up a few free flights and hotel stays at nice properties. Similarly, when I needed a computer, I signed up for a new credit card and waited until it came in the mail to purchase it. Thanks to this planning, I’ll be staying at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo in a couple of months.

It’s not just big-ticket purchases that help you rack up points and miles. Loyalty also matters. I have chosen an airline and only fly them whenever possible, even if the flights are a little less convenient. Likewise, I’ve chosen Starwood Hotels as my hotel group of choice and stay at their properties whenever I can. These efforts mean I get everything from early boarding, free baggage, upgrades to first class, free breakfast and wifi, late check-out, and upgrades to suites even though I book the least expensive room available. The lesson: Pick a company you like and stick with them. 

Racking up all of these credit card charges may sound scary but if you set up autopay and pay the full balance off on time, you won’t have to worry about it. And besides, in most cases you don’t get the points unless you pay your bill in full on time anyway. And paying off your credit card in full each month helps you build good credit, which means lower interest rates in the future for things like cars, homes, and other lines of credit you may need further down the line. The banks and credit card companies are already winning, but now you can, too.

What are your tips for racking up points like a boss? Tell us in the comments below!