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Are you a low spender? Here's how to travel the world anyway

Sept. 23, 2021
10 min read
The Ritz-Carlton, Fari Islands, Maldives
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There's a popular saying in personal finance circles: "You can afford anything but you can't afford everything." While that's obviously an oversimplification, it's a great reflection on miles and points. Rewards make the impossible feel within reach -- but most of the time, you still have to be choosy.

As a low spender, I don’t earn miles fast enough to jet off to Europe for a week in Lufthansa first class and then book a family trip to an overwater bungalow in the Maldives a few months later, no matter how envious I am of the Instagram highlight reels I see from other travelers. I’m fortunate in other ways, but I’m not a mileage multimillionaire.

I know I’m not the only one who’s constrained as to how many miles I can realistically earn in a year.

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I’m dedicated, but I’m also pragmatic. For me, charging tens of thousands of dollars to my credit card or constantly meeting the minimum spending requirement of a new card simply isn’t realistic. And especially now, earning miles and points the old-fashioned way through actual travel is limited by border closures, corporate travel policies and even personal health risk assessments.

Thankfully, that doesn't mean we're all doomed to just a once-per-year weekend away if we want more. I’m living proof of that, as my last trip included round-trip business-class flights to Europe and a few nights at a five-star Regent hotel, all on points. And while the details of my next trip are still being researched, I’ve got miles set aside for that, too.

Even low spenders can still rack up a substantial set of rewards and book incredible trips with their balances. Sure, it takes a little more mindfulness, but these strategies will help get you there faster.

Keep your eye on the prize

For those of us who can't afford everything, identifying your top goal isn't just a fun exercise -- it's an essential step toward saving up awards effectively. The more specific you can be, the more you can focus on your earning strategies — but even a general idea can help you prioritize.

In my household, the top priority is always the same: two round-trip business-class flights to an international destination. Obviously, we make that more targeted as we start sketching out our plans but that goal keeps us on track all year long.

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An Austrian Airlines business-class cabin. (Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

We know we need to focus on airline miles before thinking about hotel points or cash back, which helps us choose which rewards cards to keep at the top of our wallet. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the hype of new offers and promotions but it’s important not to get distracted unless you have a plan to hit that first goal.

Most years, we hit our goal with time to spare so there’s still space to pursue other promos, but I’m careful not to overextend.

Don't diversify too much

Blogs and other tutorials often tout the benefits of diversifying your points — and it's true, flexibility helps protect you from devaluations or a lack of availability when you're ready to book a trip. Low spenders who can't build up balances in the blink of an eye need to ensure they're not inadvertently stretching themselves too thin. That's one of the reasons transferable currencies like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards are so popular: They simultaneously protect you from devaluation while consolidating your points into a single pool.

For me, transferable currencies are ideal for flights but won’t fill every other travel need.

While there certainly are hotel loyalty programs that partner with transferable bank points, with a few exceptions, the transfer rates aren't always great and the options aren't as numerous as airline transfer partners. Hyatt and Wyndham are two hotel transfer options that do make sense at times, but that isn't always the case with every program. That means that at some point, you’ll likely have to collect hotel points another way.

With most properties requiring 35,000 points or more per night these days, low spenders should seriously consider doubling down on a single program instead of scattering points all over the place. Not earning enough points to make a useful redemption locks you out of free travel altogether, which has more of an impact than the chance of awards devaluing by 10% or 15%.

It can take a while to spend your way to a free night or two. (Photo by Andrea Rotondo/The Points Guy)

Determine your own best offers

More often than not, roundups of the best credit card offers are heavily weighted toward one thing: the value of the welcome bonus. That makes a lot of sense, since earning 50,000 or 100,000 miles in one fell swoop is an awesome way to jump-start your award travel budget.

But for low spenders, the spending requirement on new cards is equally important. I’ve had to pass on six-figure offers because I knew there was no way I could spend $15,000 in six months. Other cards have pushed me to the absolute limit. That’s okay. Personal finance is personal and someone else’s take on the “best” might not line up with your own definition.

The good news is that there are dozens of offers available at any given time, some of which still have really generous offers even without the crazy spending requirements. For example, the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card offers a limited time offer of 70,000 bonus miles plus Alaska's Famous Companion; from $122 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $23) with this offer. To qualify, make $3,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account.

If that’s still too much, look for cards that offer a bonus after your first purchase, like the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard.

The information for the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Time your card applications strategically

Best-ever card offers come and go (and not always on your preferred schedule). While it's tempting to jump on every big offer or maximize every limited-time promotion, low spenders don’t always have that luxury.

A little bit of planning here can go a long way. I’m sure you have big-ticket purchases that tend to fall in a cyclical or at least predictable pattern.

My auto insurance is due in March and September and I know I have a slew of birthdays to shop for from March through May. We have yard work and home renovation expenses in spring when our work schedules are slow, and then vacation over Memorial Day. It doesn’t take long to recognize which time of year has me pulling out a new card the most.

Yes, it’s true that not all offers will stick around until it’s convenient for you. However, I’ll remind you that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. An 80,000-point offer you can't hit is not nearly as helpful as a 70,000-point offer you can. There’s nothing more frustrating than applying for a new card and realizing at the last minute you might have to forfeit your potential points.

When you hit that expensive time in your life, cry a little over how much your wallet stings and then rejoice in the fact that you maximized those purchases. It’ll be worth it when you’re sipping Champagne at the airport.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Don't sweat the small stuff

It's easy to fall into a trap of thinking every point matters, especially if you earn points more slowly than others. Ironically, if you’re a low spender, it might not matter as much as you think. In our household, we’ve implemented the “$20 rule” — I don’t waste mental energy any time the rewards add up to less than $20. For me, that means I don’t stress over earning 2 points per dollar on gas instead of 3 points. If you only spend $100 per month on that category, it won’t even matter in the long run.

You might set a different dollar threshold and of course, your spending categories could be the exact opposite of mine, but the underlying premise holds. We only have so much mental capacity and freeing up space on the small stuff allows more time to focus where it matters.

It's not all about the mental load, though.

The numbers tell the same tale. In most cases, the strongest earning rates come on cards with an annual fee. Will you earn enough to break even on your out-of-pocket cost? Be honest with your analysis and make sure the earnings (or benefits) are worthwhile. Some cards may be counterproductive while others may make perfect sense.

Everyone, but especially low spenders, should find cards with strong earnings in the categories that matter to you and use a good all-around card for everything else.

Focus on redemptions, not earnings

Everyone's mileage-earning potential is capped somewhere but the reality is that low spenders hit their ceiling sooner. Tough love, I know, but I'm right there with you — and it's not as big a deal as it may seem. When you're constrained on the earnings side, find opportunities on the redemptions side instead.

There are dozens of sweet spots which can lower the cost of award flights and help you hit those redemptions sooner. Hotel redemptions have plenty of ways to stretch miles further, too, like getting a fourth award night included with your IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card. If you want to challenge yourself, read up on stopovers, nested itineraries and obscure programs.

Iberia Avios offers some great sweet spot awards. (Photo by EQRoy/Shutterstock)

For low spenders, the right redemptions will balance out any frustrations on the earnings side. Think about how long it would take you to accumulate that extra 20,000 miles and compare it to how quickly you could study program rules to find those savings on the award side.

Enjoy other types of travel, too

Don't get me wrong, I love sipping Champagne in a lie-flat seat instead of being crunched in an economy seat. And I certainly appreciate that hotel redemptions have helped me afford high-priced cities or events that otherwise would've been out of reach. The reality, though, is that travel is an incredible experience even when it's not glamorous.

Maybe you can’t redeem points as often as you’d like to but at the end of the day, that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck at home.

There’s plenty of travel you can incorporate while you're between redemptions. Plan a road trip to stay with family or friends, or take a daytrip to somewhere you’ve never been before. All of travel is a chance to escape, explore and enjoy the world around us, no points required. Sounds great to me.

Updated on 1/18/23.

Featured image by (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.