The 5 credit cards this recent grad keeps in her wallet

Jun 24, 2020

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Growing up, my family didn’t travel often. It wasn’t until the summer of 2017, when I studied abroad in Paris, that I realized what I was missing out on. I was bitten by the travel bug – and from that point forward, I made travel a priority.

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But as a college student, it can be hard to find the time (and money) to travel between classes, work, and other commitments. I’ve had my fair share of part-time jobs and side hustles throughout my four years. Simply put, I wanted to find a way to travel without breaking the bank, but I didn’t know where to get started.

At 19 years old, I stumbled across the world of points and miles. During my efforts to learn more about travel credit cards, I discovered The Points Guy and became an avid reader myself. I was amazed by all the opportunities for (almost) free travel.

Related: Best credit cards for college students

Before you jump right into points and miles, it’s important that you start with understanding credit scores and personal finance. Establishing credit is one of the most important things you can do for your financial future. But from annual fees to annual percentage rates (APR), it’s hard to navigate the world of credit cards.

Whether you’re in college, recently graduated or just a beginner at this whole points and miles game, there’s an initial learning curve for everyone. With a few years of experience now, I’ve been able to take some awesome trips – completely paid for with points and miles – at just 21 years old.

Related: Your guide to responsible credit card use for college students

In This Post

First card and first mistake

In late 2016, I entered my first year in college and had just turned 18 years old. As a gateway to adulthood, I was ready to start building credit. I opened my first credit card – the Wells Fargo Cash Back Credit Card for College Students – which features a $0 annual fee and 1% back for Wells Fargo Go Far Rewards.

This was the easiest card for me to open, as I had no credit history but had already been banking with Wells Fargo for years. I used my first credit card sparingly – only putting my phone bill, gas, and other school-related expenses on it.

The information for the Wells Fargo Cash Back Credit Card for College Students has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: Your 18-year-old wants a credit card — which one should they get?

Then, I studied abroad in Paris during the summer of 2017. This was the first time I flew internationally by myself and was also my first time in Europe. In those glorious six weeks, I learned that a 50-cent baguette with lots of butter makes for a delicious lunch (while keeping my taste buds AND my wallet happy), and that comté cheese is the best cheese in the world.

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ate escargots today #thriving

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While I was eating to my heart’s content, I also made one of the biggest mistakes I could ever make. I didn’t know what foreign transaction fees were, so I paid a hefty amount using a debit card and my Wells Fargo credit card. The fees ranged from 1-3% on every purchase I made, so I wasted quite a lot of money that summer.

As a credit card newbie, this was quite the rookie mistake. But all things considered, no study abroad experience is complete without a couple of mishaps along the way.

Getting started with airline rewards cards

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Fueled by my desire to keep traveling and to find a card with no foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees), I applied for the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card in 2018. As Delta has a major presence in my hometown airport of Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), I’ve been a loyal flyer for years. The card offered great perks: I was drawn to the introductory bonus miles offer, which at the time was 60,000 miles (worth about $720 according to TPG valuations). The card is currently offering a welcome bonus of 35,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. Other benefits, such as the ability to check one bag and priority boarding were enticing, too.

However, I had to consider paying an annual fee for the first time. While it was waived for the first year, the fee at the time was $95 thereafter (the ongoing annual fee has since been increased to $99) (see rates and fees). In the first year of owning the card, I would have saved more than $300 on checked baggage fees alone. I almost always fly basic economy, but owning this card automatically enhances my Delta flying experience.

Finally, as a fan of the SkyTeam alliance (namely, Korean Air, Air France and KLM), earning and redeeming SkyMiles for partner airlines is easier than ever.

Therefore, the mere value of the benefits helped me justify the annual fee as a college student. In terms of free trips, I used my SkyMiles for a fall break trip to Seattle, a winter break trip to South Korea and a spring break trip to Puerto Rico.

While the Delta card has served me well over the past couple of years, I ran into a couple of frustrations using American Express while traveling internationally. While in Amsterdam, my Amex was denied at many of the restaurants and bars, so I knew I needed a more universally accepted credit card next.

Related: Perfect for infrequent Delta flyers: Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card review

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

In June 2019, I applied for my third credit card – the JetBlue Plus Card – when I was an intern at JetBlue Airways. For employees, the $99 annual fee was waived for life – even if you were working at the airline short term. With an introductory bonus of 30,000 TrueBlue points for employees (worth about $390), it was a no-brainer to add this card to my portfolio, which came with free checked bags, 50% off inflight food and cocktails, and more.

The information for the JetBlue Plus 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.

While interning for JetBlue, I had full access to stand-by travel. I took a trip every weekend that summer – I was jet-setting to Los Angeles, St. Maartin, Cancun, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and so many other amazing destinations. While I didn’t rack up points on these standby trips, I used my new JetBlue Plus Card on all other living and travel expenses to lock in the bonus points. And post-internship, I was able to redeem those TrueBlue points for trips to Boston, New York and Miami throughout my senior year of college.

Switching gears

(Photo by Eric Helgas/ The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas/ The Points Guy)

I’ve been an Amazon Prime Student member since I entered college, and I’ve ordered everything from textbooks to dorm essentials over the years. In late 2019, I decided to add yet another card to my wallet: The Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card by Chase.

The information for the Amazon Prime Visa 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.

Because I was ordering from Amazon and shopping at Whole Foods so frequently, I figured that I should be maximizing these purchases somehow. While I’ve never owned a store credit card, this card seemed to offer more room for flexibility. I used Amazon even more so at the beginning of quarantine and having things shipped to my doorstep was helpful throughout the stay-at-home order.

When I applied, the card offered a $100 statement credit and 5% cash back on Amazon.com and Whole Foods, 2% back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores, and 1% on all other purchases.

This card offers a decent amount of traveler’s benefits, such as no foreign transaction fees, travel and emergency assistance, lost luggage reimbursement, and more. Besides Amazon and Whole Foods purchases, I rarely use this card for other purposes. With no annual fee though, I don’t see the harm in keeping the card in my wallet.

Related: Is the Amazon Prime credit card still worth the cost?

Bigger and better travel rewards cards

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

In March 2020, I graduated to my first travel card that isn’t tied to an airline: The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. While the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Capital One Venture are often compared, ultimately, I went for the Capital One Venture.

Both have annual fees of $95, but back when I applied, the Capital One fee was waived for the first year. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. At the time, this was a compelling enough reason for me to apply, as I was still a broke college student that wanted to hold off paying an annual fee for as long as possible.

Related: Have the Capital One Venture Card but new to points and miles? Here’s what you need to know

One of the major perks that stood out to me was credit for a Global Entry or TSA Precheck enrollment fee. Unfortunately, I applied for Global Entry right as COVID-19 happened, so I haven’t been able to complete my interview yet. Regardless, I know that I’ll be able to get reimbursed for Global Entry once the enrollment centers reopen.

Related: 14 things you should know about Global Entry before your next trip

In the three months of owning the Venture card, I’ve loved it. I’ve just recently reached the spending requirement of $3,000 and acquired the introductory bonus of 50,000 miles. I also love that it’s easy to rack up miles, as you get 2x miles on every single purchase. And let’s not forget that the Venture card is a favorite of The Points Guy himself, Brian Kelly.

The ability to transfer my miles to 10+ transfer partners makes it a valuable traveler’s card. Once I’m able to travel internationally, I can’t wait to redeem my Capital One miles on a business class award.

Related: Perks of the Revamped Capital One Venture Card 

My next card

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Once I achieve the introductory bonus offer for one card, I can’t help but think about what my next move is. Now that I’ve graduated from college and have almost four years of credit history under my belt, I’ve been eyeing the Chase Sapphire Reserve as my next card. It boasts a hefty $550 annual fee but comes with some of the most valuable travel benefits in the points-and-miles game.

Aside from the 50,000-mile sign-up bonus (worth about $1,000, according to TPG valuations) after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening, the card offers a $300 annual travel credit, 1:1 point transfer to 10 airline and three hotel programs, access to more than 1,200 airport lounges with Priority Pass, and so much more.

While it’s hard to say when travel will return to “normal” again, I am looking forward to applying to this card once I resume flying, so that it’s worth shelling out cash for the annual fee.

Related: Ten commandments for travel rewards credit cards

Bottom line

Whether you’re still in college or have just graduated, I highly encourage you to get a head start on your first credit card. If you’re looking to travel for (almost) free, it’s worth opening a beginner’s card to rack up great rewards.

While I’ve made some mistakes along the way, it’s crucial to know the fundamental principles of credit card usage and to not spend more than what you have. Having multiple credit cards can be exciting, but you’ll have to be careful managing multiple accounts at once.

As seen in my own journey, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the credit card game. Who knows – you may become a points and miles junkie like me very, very quickly. And you’ll be closer to your next vacation, but maybe this time, for free.

Featured photo by David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card, click here.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.