a pool with a view of mountains and a city

People dismiss the whole credit card, points and amazing travel thing as spurious, because they just can’t imagine that first big win. Programs have been too complicated and red tape always sounds abundant. Spoiler alert: not always.

Most travel fans aren’t born with a rewards card in their hand, or with the occasionally intricate knowledge needed to get the most out of credit card rewards, via things like transferring credit card points to a British Airline to book flights on a Japanese airline from the US to Japan.

See – complicated, and that’s why people don’t always bother.

But at the same time, this stuff is too good to miss. Here’s how to have your first big win with rewards credit cards, so that you can gracefully dive into the shallow end, and come up swimming in rewards…

a man and woman in a plane
Say what you want about the old Virgin Upper Class, but this was an “a-ha” moment for me, and one of my happiest on a plane.

How I Started Out In Rewards Cards

People often ask how I got started in credit card rewards, and the answer is pretty simple. I got a Delta Amex card, and I paired it with an Amex Membership Rewards card – the Platinum card.

At the time, Delta charged excellent points rates for business class between US and Europe, and it seemed like an easy way to have a first win. It was.

I redeemed 100,000 miles, the rate required at the time, to fly to Rio De Janeiro in flat bed business class round trip. At the time, it was a revelation and immediately got me hooked on the game. It was all about that “first win”

citi cards

Two Card Combos Are Great To Start

You may have heard the term app-o-rama, where people get tons of cards at once. That’s fine for some, but for me, I personally think it’s best to start simple, with a very concise goal for your points. A simple two-card strategy tends to work best here when you’re first starting.

The simplest idea is to get two cards which complement each other, by allowing you to earn points in the same program(s) via both cards. I’ve always advocated cards which offer transferrable points over specific airline cards, but there’s no reason not to have both.

In other words, get a card which offers points you can turn into miles with a variety of airlines, and then also get the credit card of the airline whose points you hope to earn and spend. For many, it would look something like…

We have a marketplace where you can apply for many of these cards. We appreciate your support if but, as always, make sure you’re getting the best offer available to you. If you have any questions, we’re always happy to point you in the right direction.

By going with a combo like this, you’re able to enjoy two welcome bonuses which pair together and give you a dynamic duo for earning maximum miles on every purchase in the long term.

If you wanted to fly first class to Japan for the fewest points, Virgin Atlantic charges 120,000 per person round trip for travel on ANA between the USA or Europe and Japan.

If, for example, the Virgin Atlantic Mastercard was offering a bonus of 50,000 points, and the Amex Platinum was offering a 100,000 point bonus, you’d have enough points on hand to book some truly incredible travel and get your first win quickly, and then have two great cards to maximize your long term points earning. Japan in style, here you come.

If you think there’s a chance you’ll invest a bit more time in earning miles and points so you can travel more (or in business class), take a quick look at the Chase 5/24 rule before you get started.

a crowd of people crossing a streetThe Key To Picking The Right Combo Is Working Backwards

It’s easy to shell out examples like the above, but travel is entirely personal, and happiness in the points game is about finding what works for you. If that means paying less for Southwest tickets to visit family, that’s equally as valid as flying in some first class apartment to a place you have no interest in actually going.

To pick the right cards which help you in the short term and long term, focus on the welcome bonus aspect and the ongoing earn rates equally. But for that first win, think about what you really want your first experience to be, and where. Once you have that thought, the crucial step before doing any card applications is to look at which loyalty programs offer the best points rates to that destination or in that airline cabin. Here are a few resources for each major bank program, which can help inspire…

These resources will help you figure out which program offers the best bet for what you want, and then you can pick the cards which will best help fulfil your goals to get there. It’s taking this step to come up with a concise, achievable near term goal that really cements why playing the points game is something you can’t afford not to do!  Set a goal, work towards it and enjoy.

a man sitting at a table with food and headphonesDon’t Get In Over Your Head Too Soon

Credit is a journey and one that’s best taken responsibly. Don’t ever put yourself in a position where you have to spend too much to meet a welcome bonus requirement, or carry a balance to make it happen either. Points will always be around, and if you want to be able to take advantage of great credit card products as they come out in the future, keeping your profile on the up and up is crucial.

Basically, earning rewards from every purchase is something everyone should be doing, but don’t cut any corners to put yourself in a place which allows you to get there. If you have, there’s always time to let your profile heal and repair it, but it’s best to start simple, start easy and get that first win.

Does Getting Two Card Hurt Your Credit Score?

I don’t work for a credit scoring company or a bureau, all I can speak on is experience, which many others share.

In general, you may see a small single-digit dip in your score when you take out new cards, because they are new lines of credit. It’s generally insignificant and recovers quite quickly and often actually improves if – and only if – you keep balances low, under 30% of your available credit line and always pay on time.

More than 60% of credit scores are made up from on-time payment history and how responsibly you are utilizing your credit, aka keeping statement balances under the 30% of available credit mark. Use resources like the Fico forums to see first hand accounts.

Obviously, it’s not a good idea to go signing up for new cards and taking hard inquiries on your credit report if you’re in the process of sealing a new home mortgage, an auto financing or other important life decisions.

But if those things are in the rearview mirror, or at least a year ahead in the distance, using credit and new cards responsibly tends to help you, rather than hurt you. You’re showing that you can manage a lot of credit without going off the rails!

Why Having Multiple Rewards Cards Is Good

Getting to the elite levels of points nerd glory is all about maximizing every purchase, not just some.

One card might offer 5x on airfare, but not a great earn rate on hotels, while the other is the opposite. Having the right card for each of the major purchase categories you make is what will keep you flying and traveling the way you want, for many years to come.

Unlike many bloggers, I don’t have 20 cards. I have a handful which tick off each of the major boxes and earn me maximum reward on every purchase I make.

I have had most of these cards for years and plan to keep them as long as the benefits are the most compelling in the business. Starting with a two-card combo helped pave the way for me to appreciate how easy rewards really can be because I wasn’t cluttered with too many options.

Once I had my win, I learned what I wanted to shoot for in the long term and built a card portfolio that keeps me traveling with a smile on my face, and is built with a key foundation of transferrable points.

What was your first big “win” in credit card rewards? Share your story below!

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. First big win was a combo of AA Flagship F, Etihad Apartments, and Etihad’s old suite first class to the Maldives. Definitely got me hooked!

  2. not quite my first use of points, but my first first, flying BA First Class to Seychelles using BA 2-4-1….

  3. Definitely had a few flukes but just getting savvy about Avios for the wins. Upgrade vouchers from old Lloyd’s Amex to go business to Doha (during the BA engine issues period so was switched to Qatar airways business free of charge…).
    Using Avios to book Iberia business to Cuba.
    Then 241 to take my mum on her dream holiday to New York over Christmas in First.
    Just had a Tokyo in business thanks to the last Lloyd’s upgrade voucher, and just yesterday booked South Africa in First with our latest 241!
    Thanks so much for your hard work with the posts and blogs Gil, flying at the fizzy end of the plane is not all bad! 👍

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