Thursday, August 25, 2022

What's in Our Wallet? Credit Cards, Debit Cards, and Travel

Two of our go-to travel bloggers have recently published posts outlining their currently favored credit cards and the accompanying spending strategies.

Gary Leff of View From The Wing discusses his current credit cards, and Ben Schlappig of One Mile at a Time focuses on his American Express Credit Card strategy. They are among the travel bloggers who earn significant income through the credit card referrals that they link in their blog.

Some travel fanatics (a fanatic is anyone who thinks more about travel than we do) have amassed hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of points (air miles) by the practice known as credit card churning. They apply for cards with great opening bonuses, e.g. 100,000 miles after X dollars spent within a certain time frame, they collect the bonus, and then they cancel the card and move on to the next deal, keeping detailed spreadsheet records. 

They’ve gamed the system so effectively that most if not all of the major credit card providers have felt it necessary to implement restrictions on how many new cards a customer can open within a specified time period. One Mile at a Time discusses the most recent bank rules here.

As for us, we’re not nearly as creative. We’ve never felt the need to churn cards, still preferring to earn most of our miles the old-fashioned way by flying BIS (“butt in seat”). We did manage to earn significant bonuses in signing up for most of our current cards. All of our cards are set for automatic payment, needless to say with the full balance owing paid monthly. When traveling abroad, we only use cards with no foreign exchange fees, which fortunately includes most of them at this point.

We currently hold ATM debit cards with two banks. Our Chase debit card allows unlimited withdrawals from foreign ATMs, plus the refund of the fee charged by the foreign bank. We also maintain a small travel account of about a thousand dollars with Banner Bank, a regional bank that does not charge for foreign ATM use. We use that debit card if we're in any way suspicious about a transaction. It is one of our two Mastercards, along with our IHG credit card, which has saved us a couple of times when our Visa cards strangely wouldn't work. 

Credit cards are accepted much more commonly throughout the world than they were when we started to travel extensively about 20 years ago, and their exchange rates are surprisingly good, as long as you don't fall for the Dynamic Currency Conversion scam and accept the offer to pay in your home currency  in return for a 5-10% hit on the normal exchange rate. You can read more about DCC here and here. As in the US, we avoid non-bank "independent" ATMs, including Travelex and Euronet.

Here are the credit cards we actively use:

Chase Sapphire Preferred (transferable Ultimate Rewards points / general spending)

Hilton Honors Surpass AMEX (Hilton points / Hilton spending)

Alaska Airlines BOA Visa (annual companion fare / Alaska spending)

Costco Cititbank Visa Signature (2% Cashback card for Costco purchases, 3% for gas anywhere)

IHG Rewards Club Mastercard Visa (IHG Platinum status / annual free night)

In addition, we're currently using a British Airways Chase Visa to pay for the odd BA fare. The card offers 10% off BA fares. That is stackable with the AARP member savings (anyone of any age may join AARP). We credit our BA flights to Alaska. We acquired it in time to pay for our new roof a few years ago and earned a bunch of bonus BA Avios points. We also use an old Chase Ink Visa Business Card to pay our internet and wireless bills and earn transferable Ultimate Rewards.

All these of course are US-based offers. It's our understanding that lavish opening bonuses are less common in many other countries, although Alaska Airlines has for years offered a Canadian credit card that offers the annual free companion fare, and it's now possible to find Canadian credit cards with no foreign exchange fees.

There are still bonuses to be had, and valuable points to be earned, along with referral commissions to the major travel bloggers. In a future post we'll discuss another way that some travelers earn miles, the wild and wacky world of "manufactured spending."


FS said...

I know it's shameful amongst some FTers (lol), but I still use my debit cards regularly for small purchases. My Charles Schwab debit is great for no forex fees and my Colorado bank gives me six free ATM withdrawals per month since I am out of state and they don't have any of their own ATMs here. Most interesting was a few years back in Vegas. I pulled $40 out of the ATM at one of the casino's and they refunded me the $10 transaction fee.

Kathy and Brian said...

A rebate on a casino ATM is surprising and impressive. We'll still try to avoid them. We also noticed that foreign non-bank ATMs like Travelex and Euronet can offer a lousy exchange rate, so we'll steer clear of them, even though they appear to be "officially approved" in overseas airports.