This is Patti Geroulis’ story, as told to Marianne Hayes.
I first got the travel bug as an 18-year-old college student, backpacking my way through eight European countries with my sister. The experience ignited a sense of wanderlust that inspired trips to more than 30 countries over the following decade. From diving in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to going on a Namibian safari, I soaked up some pretty amazing adventures.
I know, jet-setting from one corner of the globe to another might seem like an extravagant hobby. But I always was (and still am) very budget-conscious and have sought out ways to travel on the cheap.
Still, as I grew older and settled into my career as an attorney, my taste for hostels and communal bathrooms changed. I wanted a more luxurious travel experience–or at least my own room and bathroom. I started splurging on more expensive hotels and dreamt of ditching cramped economy class seats.
So three years ago, I doubled down on my quest to lower the costs of international travel—and found an amazing solution: credit card rewards. By learning the game, I’ve flown to Asia (a bucket-list destination) three times at a fraction of the cost, all while getting the royal treatment in either first or business class.
I started by reading stories from in-the-know bloggers on BoardingArea, a site that aggregates a ton of frequent-flier sites. This is how I learned one seriously game-changing strategy: racking up sign-up bonuses. These are significant chunks of points or miles that a card company doles out to entice new cardmembers.
One of the first offers I came across required I spend $3,000 within three months. In exchange, I’d receive 50,000 United Airlines’ MileagePlus miles. I pulled the trigger and hit the target by charging everything from utility bills to gas—then paying it off, of course.
Over the following six months, I successfully applied for several more cards, earning 222,000 miles between all of the stellar bonuses. I focused on rewards for United and American Airlines because they’re affiliated with other major carriers through alliances, which means I could transfer miles to their partners. Both airlines also have hubs in my city (Chicago), which would make it easier to find flights.
Throughout this process, I made sure to maintain good credit habits and kept an eye on my FICO score to ensure I wasn’t jeopardizing it—and thankfully it remained in great shape. (More on this in a bit.)
Before I knew it, I had enough rewards to cover almost 100 percent of my airfare (we paid just $50 in fees) for a trip my sister and I had been dreaming of to Asia—so we booked it and took off in January 2013. We snagged first-class seats for the longest legs of the trip (economy for the rest, not that I’m complaining) on ANA. Had we paid out of pocket, these tickets would have easily cost $10,000.
We visited Hong Kong, Laos and Bangkok. The vacation was amazing—especially swimming in Kuang Si Falls and visiting incredible temples along the way—and it fueled my confidence in my new travel game plan.
When we returned home, I continued applying for new cards every few months. On more than one occasion, I’d sign up, collect the bonus, then cancel before the first annual fee came due. I watched as my points balances soared.
In January 2014, my sister and I traveled to Tokyo, China and Taipei—again in first and business class for the longest flights. One year later, we explored Brunei, Singapore and Japan in the same fashion. The most we ever paid in fees was for our Singapore Airlines Flight, which was a couple hundred bucks. When I think back to all the years I traveled without using points, I cringe at all the missed opportunities!
Today, I have about 15 active rewards cards. Aside from sign-on bonuses, I also earn points through daily transactions. For instance, when I go out to eat, I pay with the credit card that awards extra points for dining. Another card earns me 5 percent simply for paying my cable bill.
In other words, it’s all about using your everyday spending to pocket more points. If you’re making unnecessary purchases to get rewards, you’re doing it wrong.
To get the most out of rewards cards, it’s imperative to pay them off each month in full. Carrying a balance totally negates the benefits, as the interest rates are usually pretty high. (It’s also important to check the annual fee on the card, which can be $100 or more, to be sure that the benefits you’re getting from that card are worth what you’re paying.)
While some people may be concerned that applying for so many cards will harm their credit, that hasn’t been the case for me. I’ve always had a good FICO score of at least 750, but since playing the rewards game, it’s improved, thanks to an improved utilization ratio. I have many open lines of credit, but I’m only using a small fraction of the money available to me.
If my score ever takes a tiny dip, it ultimately rebounds, and then some. Over the last two years, it’s ranged from 792 to 816. I’m careful to never miss payments or carry a balance.
I believe in this system so much that my sister and I have started a blog devoted to teaching others how easy it is. My biggest piece of advice to beginners is to start small, focusing on just a few cards with reward programs that fit your lifestyle.
From there, the sky’s the limit.