Grace Cheng and Pedro Pla know how to stretch a dollar — or, more accurately, their credit card points. Thanks to savvy planning, they and their two children have already flown to five continents for free, and that's just in this year so far.
Cheng and Pla are the founders of GET.com, a website that helps travelers make the most of their credit card points through firsthand blogs, travel guides and a customizable credit card comparison tool. The site made eight figures within its first two years, according to the company.
In an interview with CNBC Make It, Cheng and Pla share their top tips and tricks for how credit card users can minimize travel expenses and make their credit card use more efficient overall.
1. Choose the right card
It's not enough to just choose any rewards card, according to the couple. Especially if you want to travel.
"If you want to use your rewards points to redeem for an air ticket, you will need to make sure that the credit card you are using allows you to convert points to real airline miles on the airline of your choice and at a favorable rate," they say. "This may seem obvious, but there are many cards that advertise themselves as 'miles' cards where miles can only be redeemed toward a statement credit on travel booked through certain sites."
They add that the amount of points one can earn will vary based on the credit card as well as the spending category, "such as air tickets, restaurants, supermarkets, etc., so it's important to use the card with the highest earn rate for each type of purchase you make."
2. Let banks compete for you
"Don't get too comfortable with your existing stash of credit cards. Banks are constantly trying to outdo one another to get new customers," they say. Be proactive in finding the right fit.
"It's important to frequently update yourself with the latest credit card offers. The fact that credit card offers are constantly changing and have different terms and conditions, signing bonuses, rewards programs and rewards earning rates make it tough for people to find the best cards," they say.
Look around and stay current. "Don't be afraid to apply for a new card if the offer is better than what you have, " they say. "We signed up for several new credit cards while working toward our goal of earning a million miles for our family's round-the-world adventure.
"Earning a million miles through meticulous planning ended up saving us $54,000 just on air tickets, so the time spent planning, comparing cards and working toward the goal was more than worth it."
3. Pay bills on time to avoid interest
Pla and Cheng pay their credit card bills in full each month to avoid accumulating any interest. That allowed them, within a year, to reach their goal of earning a million miles from their credit cards, "enough for our family of four to fly to five continents on business class."
Billionaire Mark Cuban, who doesn't use credit cards, has explained that interest is part of the reason why: "The money I save on interest by not having debt is better than any return I could possibly get by investing that money in the stock market," adding, "I should have paid off my cards every 30 days."
4. Use sign-up bonuses for extra perks
Credit card companies will often offer sign-up bonuses to lure new customers. Take advantage of these bonuses, the founders say. Bonuses could come in the form of additional credit points, cash back or other rewards, according to Credit Karma.
In Cheng and Pla's experience, "a signing bonus of up to 50,000 points or miles is not uncommon. Just remember, most of these bonuses come with a minimum spend requirement within a certain time period, so it's important to time getting these cards with planned spending."
CNBC Make It reporter Kathleen Elkins had a similar experience with her rewards card. "So far," she writes, "the bonus has covered a handful of trips home to Charlotte, plus flights to Jamaica, New Orleans, San Francisco and Chicago."
5. Stay in hotels for free
Certain hotels will offer a free night if the customer uses a particular credit card and books three or four consecutive nights through the hotel's travel concierge.
In some cases, though, "It's not worth it all of the time, because sometimes you can find a deal for the same hotel room that is still cheaper overall throughout the four nights, so it's good to compare before booking," Cheng and Pla say.
If you skip it, though, you could be leaving free breakfast on the table: "Some credit cards which confer you elite member status with certain hotel loyalty programs and that entitles you to complimentary breakfast and room upgrade."
Credit cards come with risks: Using them, you can accrue high-interest, even life-changing, debt. They can also come with rewards. Not just hotel upgrades, either, but more abstract rewards in the form of positive credit, which is helpful for apartment hunting or buying a car.
That's why, according to one financial analyst, millennials are making a mistake by not using them more often. When handled correctly, there's power in the perks.
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