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How I maximized my points and miles to travel as a teacher on a limited budget

Nov. 07, 2022
9 min read
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There are some different approaches when it comes to traveling with points and miles.

A lot of people around TPG, for example, live for a killer redemption. They go for the cards with the biggest bonuses, spend hours researching their redemption options, and use their points and miles to book lie-flat seats and suites in luxurious hotels.

This, however, is not how I learned to use points and miles. A high school English teacher in my previous life, my travel goals and budget were modest and my mental bandwidth was limited. I didn't have my eye on status or first class; I just wanted to be able to go to the beach and visit my friends who lived far away.

So, my approach was a bit different from some of the pros you see around here. Below, I'm breaking it down so you can see if it might work for you too.

The challenges

Being a teacher comes with a rigid schedule and difficult work-life balance, making it tough to travel when compared with other occupations. Here are a few of the challenges I faced when planning travel.

A tight budget

When I first started using points and miles, I was a new teacher and my budget was tight. I wasn't lured into points and miles by the promise of luxury travel; I was lured in by the idea of travel being an option for me at all.

SHUTTERSTOCK

I could barely afford my car insurance payment at that time of my life, so paying out of pocket for flights, lodging and other travel expenses was unattainable for me.

A limited schedule

A serious perk of being a teacher was the time off from school that allowed travel. However, my days off were predetermined for me. I didn't have the flexibility to, for example, decide to go to Hawaii in the off-season. The school calendar is designed for time off only in the "on" season, so getting off-peak pricing was almost never an option for me.

Limited mental energy

Teachers juggle a lot of things. When I came home at the end of the day, I was exhausted and still had piles of papers to grade. As much as I wanted to be able to travel, I did not have the time or energy to devote to learning and implementing elaborate points redemption strategies. The best I could do was to remember to use one card at the gas station and another at restaurants, and even that was pushing it.

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The approach

I had three major components to my strategy to keep me sane and help me work within my budget.

My points and miles balances

Instead of choosing a goal trip and using that to determine which cards I got, I focused on building and maintaining a good balance of some points and miles I knew I would be able to use when a travel opportunity arose. For flights, I kept both Southwest points and American Airlines miles available since both airlines have a significant presence in my home airport and offer plenty of good deals.

For hotels, I kept balances of IHG, Hilton and Hyatt points, knowing I was likely to find availability and a good deal with a hotel in one of these groups wherever I wanted to go.

I also used cash-back rewards cards to keep a separate travel fund that I used to cover things like food and theme park tickets when I traveled.

Related: Set future travel goals

Budget redemptions

It was really important that I stretch the points and miles I had as far as I could, so I aimed to redeem as few as possible for each trip by booking 5 a.m. flights and always keeping an eye out for Category 1 Hyatts. By doing this, a card sign-up bonus could take me on multiple trips rather than be eaten up by one larger redemption.

EMILY GOLITZIN/GETTY IMAGES

Low annual fees

It's no secret that the top premium cards come with a lot of value, but the ones with the highest annual fees weren't worth it to me on my limited budget. I decided from the beginning that I wouldn't get any cards with annual fees higher than $100.

I knew that I wouldn't get lounge access or significant status with my lower-fee cards, but that sacrifice was worth the savings for me. Fortunately, there are also some really valuable card options that come with no or lower annual fees. I focused on cards like the Hilton Honors American Express Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which gave me excellent sign-up bonuses and cardholder value with little annual fee investment.

Related: Why the Chase Sapphire Preferred's annual fee is worth paying

The travel

My strategy worked like a dream for me during my nine years as a teacher. My points and miles allowed me to book travel without hesitation when a friend moved to Peru and invited me to visit, when I found good deals on flights to visit my friends in California and when I decided to see if I could afford my dream trip to Hawaii.

LUCIA ROMERO HERRANZ/EYEEM/GETTY IMAGES

I was able to travel on almost every school break, and that was only possible because of points and miles.

Related: How 3 credit card bonuses got me a week in London

Your strategy

If you find yourself working with an exceptionally tight budget or limited mental energy, you can still make points and miles work for you.

Determine your travel budget

Be realistic about what you can and are willing to spend on traveling. Decide what, if any, annual fees you feel OK paying and set a rule for how you'll know when to pass on one. We, for example, make a really convincing argument that The Platinum Card® from American Express is well worth its annual fee, but the $695 (see rates and fees) out-of-pocket expense isn't right for everyone. If you aren't in a place where it makes sense right now, you have plenty of other great options.

Set some travel goals

If you have a specific trip you really want to take, use it to help you determine which card(s) to get next. But even if you don't, think about what types of trips you want to take in general terms. I, for instance, wanted to mostly travel domestically, so a Southwest card was an excellent option for me.

CAIAIMAGE/AGNIESZKA OLEK/GETTY IMAGES

If, on the other hand, you have family who live abroad and want to be able to visit them more regularly, you'll want to choose a card with an airline that offers good deals to get you there.

Make your plan

If you're just starting out, start small. Whether your travel goal helped you narrow down a specific trip or if you still have just a general idea of what points and miles you want to earn, choose one or two cards that will help get you there.

And if you're on a really tight budget, look at your cash-back rewards card options to help you cover the costs that points and miles generally don't.

Great cards for a tight budget

Hilton Honors American Express Card

WYATT SMITH/THE POINTS GUY

Bonus: Earn 80,000 Hilton Honors bonus points after you spend $1,000 on purchases on the card within your first three months of card membership.

Annual fee: $0 (see rates and fees).

Why it's great: This card earns 7 points per dollar on Hilton purchases; 5 points per dollar on dining, supermarkets and gas; and 3 points per dollar on all other purchases. What really makes this card budget-friendly, though, is that it comes with complimentary Hilton Honors Silver status, allowing you to take advantage of Hilton's fifth-night-free perk and stretch your points even further.


Apply here: Hilton Honors American Express Card


Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card

Bonus: Earn 50,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.

Annual fee: $69.

Why it's great: This card's welcome bonus is worth $750 according to TPG's valuations. In addition to the excellent value of the bonus, these points count toward earning the Southwest Companion Pass, which effectively doubles the value of your Southwest points.


Apply here: Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card


Citi® Double Cash Card

JOHN GRIBBEN/THE POINTS GUY

Bonus: None.

Annual fee: $0.

Why it's great: This card allows you to earn 2% cash back on all your purchases (1% when you buy and 1% when you pay). In addition to the bonus it offers, this card is a reliable one to keep in your wallet when you're buying something that doesn't earn additional points with another card.


Apply here: Citi Double Cash Card


Bottom line

The best points and miles redemption strategy is the one that works for your budget, lifestyle and goals. By setting your travel budget and deciding what points and miles will serve you best, you can find a strategy that will take you anywhere you want to go.

For rates and fees link of the Amex Platinum card, click here

For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors American express card, click here

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.

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Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review
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Recommended Credit

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Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees