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How to use travels to and from college to fund your next vacation

Nov. 10, 2019
9 min read
Airplanes in an airport at sunrise
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It doesn't matter how far your college is from home, travel from campus during the holidays can get expensive. It's inevitable that you're going to pay more for a plane ticket during this busy time, but we do have a few tips on how you can cut down the cost by maximizing your points and miles.

Let's take a look:

Flying home

(Photo by Tais Policanti / Getty Images.)

Join an airline loyalty program

This is free and the first step to earning points. I recommend picking an airline that has a range of availability from your home and school airports. For example, if you go to school in Philadelphia, American Airlines would be a good choice since PHL is an American hub. Don't pick an airline that only operates on certain routes seasonally, like Frontier.

Bottom line: Pick one airline to be loyal to so you're not spreading your points across various carriers and never accumulating enough for award flights.

Check the baggage policy

I admit, I totally messed up here when I was a freshman. I didn't fly that often in high school and when I did, I was usually just bringing a carry-on. That completely changed in college. I went to school out of state and had limited space in my dorm for four seasons of clothes, so I would always change out my closet over the breaks.

I was now checking at least one bag, but usually two plus a carry-on. The checked-bag fees add up fast when they're not included in the ticket price. Eventually, my cheap-flight "finds" ended up costing more than if I had just booked with an airline like Southwest, which gives travelers two free checked bags and a free carry-on. Airlines like American, United and Delta all charge extra for checked baggage. One way to avoid these fees is by getting a co-branded credit card that offers a free checked bag. Here are a few cards to consider for that free checked bag:

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American Airlines: Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®; AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®

United: United Explorer Card

Delta: Gold Delta SkyMiles® Card from American Express

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum 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.

If you choose to get a credit card to cover checked bags, be sure to read the qualifications for the card. You may want to ask a parent to get it and then add you as an authorized user.

Learn about the magic of shopping portals ASAP

I'm a major advocate for shopping portals. In an age where nearly everyone is shopping online — especially college students — this is an amazing opportunity you can't pass up. These portals allow you to mindlessly earn points while shopping. All you have to do is activate the rewards through either a plug-in or through the portal site. Learn more about online shopping portals here.

Earn points towards flights on your ride to the airport with Lyft

Another easy and mindless way to earn points and miles is by pairing your Lyft account with Delta and Hilton. By doing this, you'll earn points and miles towards award bookings by simply taking a Lyft. While the earnings aren't enormous, they do add up. It's such an easy opportunity to earn points and miles, you simply can't pass it up.

Collect points when you dine out

What's better than food and flying? Earning miles on meals that can eventually go towards an award booking. You can do just that with dining reward programs available with many airlines and hotels. Even better, you don't necessarily have to have a fancy credit card to take advantage of this strategy. All you need is a debit card (although a credit card is preferable for double-dipping purposes) and a loyalty program account. From there, all you have to do is link the card to whichever program you want to build your balance with and voila! You're on your way to booking a spring break via points.

Sign up for a travel rewards credit card or ask a parent to add you as an authorized user

Credit cards are a great way to build your points balance. However, they can also lead to a dangerous pile of debt if you're not responsible with them. The key to fully benefitting from a travel rewards credit card is to always pay your monthly bill on time and in full. Don't bite off more than you can chew. Check out our guide to maximizing travel rewards cards as a college student.

There are a lot of great credit cards aimed at college students, but it's not always easy to get approved with limited or no credit history and no stable income. If you want to wait before getting your own, consider asking a parent to add you as an authorized user to one of their points-earning credit cards. This way you can build your credit history and the two of you can work as a team to rack up the points.

Driving home


If you go to school close enough to drive home, consider carpooling with classmates from your area. Most schools have Facebook pages specifically for this purpose. Students will post when and where they're going and the number of spots they have in their car. Not only is this a good money-saving option because you can split the cost of gas, but it's also an environmentally sustainable choice.

Even if you don't live close enough to drive home, these ride-sharing pages are good resources for hitching rides to the airport. For example, my college was two hours from two major airports, so getting to the airport was another expense. There was a shuttle, but it was pricey and the schedule didn't always work for my flights. That's when I would reach out to friends or check the ride-sharing page to see if anyone was headed toward the airport on the day and time that I needed. People were usually happy to give me a lift. I contributed to their gas and sometimes they just enjoyed the company.

Use a credit card that rewards you for gas purchases

If you're headed home in a car, you're more than likely going to have to fill up the tank at least once. Use a credit card that rewards you. Here are a few recommendations and their earnings:

  • PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature Card (5x points on gas)
  • Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card (3x points on gas stations) (card no longer available)
  • Citi Premier® Card (3x points per dollar on gas)

Another way to save on gas is by signing up for gas station and grocery store loyalty programs. These are often overlooked, especially by college students. However, even if you're not driving a ton or spending big money on groceries while at school, the rewards still add up. It may only be a few cents off each time, but it's still money saved.

Taking the train

Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.)

Join the Amtrak loyalty program

The train usually isn't anyone's first thought when it comes to travel to and from school, but it's definitely one to consider. If you're lucky enough to have stations close to your school and home, you should definitely go for it.

Before you book a ticket, be sure to join Amtrak's reward program. Reward tickets start at just 800 points and that's a pretty easy goal to reach after a few trips. Additionally, Amtrak often offers student discounts so be sure to check out the deals page before you book.

As for baggage, Amtrak has a generous allowance of two personal bags and two carry-on bags (click here to check dimensions) at no extra cost. Additionally, most trains include complimentary Wi-Fi on board so you can binge the shows and movies that you've been meaning to catch up on all semester.

Bottom line

It's never too early to get into the points and miles game. In fact, the sooner the better. College is the first time that you start to make bigger purchases like books, housing, tuition and travel to and from school. These purchases can lead to big rewards in the long run — like a spring break paid for with points.

One of the first steps to becoming a points junkie is to get a credit card that rewards you for your spending. However, there are plenty of other ways to boost your points without a credit card but a card is your key player when it comes to becoming rich in points.

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Featured image by Getty Images
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.