You know why I never worry about last-minute trips back home or a weekend trip to visit a friend out of state? I have one of the greatest travel tools at my disposal – the Southwest Airlines companion pass. If you are looking to get into the miles and points game, you’ve got to get this.

Here’s how it works – my husband currently has the Southwest Airlines companion pass in his name. When he books a trip on Southwest, I get to go with him for free to anywhere that Southwest flies (which now even includes Costa Rica)! It’s that simple! This is because he earned the pass and I’m listed as his companion. Now it is possible to switch companions if you want, (but my husband isn’t doing that or he’d never hear the end of it).

How do you get this incredible companion pass? All you need to do is earn 110,000 points with Southwest! Don’t be intimated by that number, because it’s very easy to do with Southwest Airlines credit cards. I’ll break it down for you:

  1. Get out of debt. I can’t stress this enough as step one. Obviously, Southwest Airlines doesn’t care if you’re in debt and the credit card companies really don’t care that you’re in debt, but if you are unable to pay off your credit card statement balance each month, then you are paying interest and it will most likely negate any credit card rewards you earn as a result of spending on the card. If your spending is under control, then move on to step two!
  2. Apply for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus credit card and earn the opening bonus. Playing the credit card game to earn points for travel is all about the opening bonus – seriously. You can spend all you want all year long on your travel card, but unless you’re opening new cards with the goal of earning the bonus, it won’t get you far. The bonus offer on the Southwest card is currently 50,000 points for spending $2,000 in the first 3 months – you need to make sure you spend the full $2,000 to earn all those points. Now if you’ve never done this before, I know $2,000 may seem like a lot to put on a credit card. However, remember it’s spread out over 3 months – that comes out to be $666.67/mo. I put all my spending on my credit card unless I’m forced to use cash and I completely recommend doing that. Think about all that you can put on the card – can you pay your rent/mortgage with a credit card? If you’re going out to dinner with friends, can you offer to pay the entire bill and have them give you cash/Venmo their portion? (I do this all the time, thanks, Venmo.) What about your electric bill? Daycare bill? Groceries? It adds up and I think most people would have no problem meeting the $2,000 minimum spend (credit card points lingo, you’ll hear this term again) in 3 months.
  3. Apply for the Southwest Airlines Premier Business credit card and earn the opening bonus. Wait, what? Didn’t you just apply for a Southwest card? You sure did! There’s no time to mess around here, if you want that companion pass, you’ve got to work for it. As of this writing, the bonus offer for the Southwest Airlines Premier Business card is 60,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months. Okay, so now the spending is getting a little trickier – first you only had to spend $666.67/month for 3 months to get your opening bonus and now we are adding $1,000/month to make that $1,666.67/month for 3 months. I still think this is doable for most people if you put all the things on these two credit cards. There are also some hacks you can do if you are really having trouble meeting the minimum spend (if so, go you, this minimum spend doesn’t even cover rent in the NYC metro area I live in). The easiest tip I’ll give you right now is to buy gift cards if you’re not spending enough otherwise. You can purchase Visa gift cards on your Southwest cards and then use the Visa gift cards to buy things after your first 3 months is up.
  4. You now have 110,000 points! This is enough for the companion pass! Officially, you need to earn 110,000 points in a calendar year and you’ll have the companion pass for 2 years. However, this is when it’s important to read the fine print – it’s not 2 years from when you earn it, it’s for the remainder of the year in which you earned those points (so if you finish earning in November, you’ll have the companion pass throughout December), plus the following full calendar year (Jan-Dec). So ideally, you want to earn those 110,000 points as soon as possible at the beginning of the year. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you wait to do this until the end of the year, so plan accordingly. 

Now for some FAQ:

  •  Aren’t there annual fees? Yes, the Southwest Airlines Plus credit card has an annual fee of $69 and the Southwest Airlines Premier business card has an annual fee of $99. But you’re going to be flying all over the US (and possibly more – hello, Costa Rica!) for free! That $69 + $99 is nothing to worry about, in this case, the credit card rewards are far more profitable than that fee.
  • What if I’m not a business owner? I bet you’ve done something that qualifies as a business. Ever sold anything on eBay? Had a yard sale? Rented a room? Baked brownies and sold them? Painted someone’s house? Taught someone how to play soccer? Baby-sat? There’s your business. I sell things on eBay occasionally, so I made that my business. There is no reason to get worked up and worried that your business on the application isn’t an official business – no one is going to be checking that your charges are all “business charges” or anything. My husband and I have several business cards and have never had a problem in this manner.
  • What happens after two years? Switch! This is where you really get into the credit card game, it’s like a Chinese fire drill. Don’t wait, you can cancel your Southwest cards as soon as the annual fee comes up and then have your companion be the one to apply for both Southwest cards at the end of the two years the same way you did. Now you get to be the companion! And the best part? You can keep doing this every two years. The bonus offers may fluctuate in the amount offered, but you will still be eligible as long as you don’t have the card and haven’t received a card member bonus in 24 months. My husband and I have been doing this for 5 years, so I can attest it’s possible to keep the companion pass going consistently; just remember, timing is everything.

If you are interested in applying for a Southwest card at this time, you can click here to use my referral link! (*Disclaimer – My referral link is always available, but it may not match the promotional offers available.)

As always, feel free to drop me a line in the comments section if you have any more questions!

I recently applied for and received my visa to enter Ghana as a U.S. citizen. Ghana is one of the countries where you need to have your visa in hand before you leave home (as is typical with other West African countries). Even if you’re not going to Ghana or West Africa, I wanted to share my experience with you in case you do need to apply for a visa to travel somewhere.

Here are my tips on applying for a visa:

1. Shop Around

If you’re trying to save as much money as possible on travel expenses, like me, you’ll want to shop around for your visa. It came as a surprise to me to learn that there can be different prices offered on the same visa! For example, The Ghana Consulate of New York City charges $100 for a standard visa and $140 for a rush (delivery in 72 hours) visa (both prices based on postal submission). Now I could also have gone in person to The Ghana Consulate of NYC and paid $70 for a standard visa or $110 for a rush visa. I considered this at first, in order to save $30 over mailing in my visa application, but by the time I calculated in the cost of my train ticket to and from NYC, not to mention the hours I could be standing in line, the $30 didn’t seem worth it.

Luckily for me, I found that The Ghana Embassy of Washington D.C. charges $60 for a standard visa and $100 for a rush visa (both also through the mail). This is a $40 price difference per visa and still cheaper than me going to NYC and applying in person! Based on this information, I applied through Washington D.C., even though I’m physically located closer to NYC. So it doesn’t matter where you are located, you can just look up consulates and embassies and find out who will give you the best price.

2. You Can Do It

There are third party companies out there that want to help you with the process of applying for your visa – these companies are out to make a profit on something that is fairly simple if you are able to read and write! I went to get my vaccinations at a travel clinic that then offered to help me with my visa, so out of curiosity, I spoke with them on the phone, asked them how much it would be, and was quoted an exorbitant amount of money (I’m talking at least double, if not triple the amount of the visa application fees from the embassy).

When I declined and said I’d just complete the application on my own, this company sent me an email trying to convince me that I would end up spending more money on my own because of the mistakes I would make. (I’m digitally rolling my eyes at this insulting statement.) The email also stated that I would probably have to go in person (which wasn’t true for me) and that it wouldn’t be convenient with my work hours (like they knew my work schedule). This email honestly made me so angry that someone was trying to convince me that I would fail trying to do something on my own. It just seemed like they were using fear tactics to try to persuade me to use their company, but I wasn’t having it and you shouldn’t either. I simply followed the instructions given on the embassy website and had absolutely no problems with the process.

Now if you have the extra money to shell out and feel more comfortable applying through a third party, that’s totally your call, but I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t do it on their own, because I believe in empowering people and showing that travel is accessible and doesn’t have to cost you a ton of money – all the third party company does is gather your information and check for errors – that’s all within your reach.

3. Be Thorough

Be your own editor. If the consulate or embassy you are applying through has a checklist of what you need on your visa application, use it. If there is no checklist, find out what documents you need to gather and make your own checklist. Some things you might possibly need to start working on in advance include:

  • recent passport photos – (I always get these at my local drugstore – it’s about $15 for 2 pictures where I go and I always get lovely shots of me mean mugging while staring at the Dorito aisle across from the white background I’m posing in front of.)
  • letter of invitation – (If you need this, you’ll want to contact whoever needs to send you the letter ASAP so they have time to write it before you can send in the application.)
  • vaccinations – (In addition to getting whatever vaccinations may be required for the visa, I always check the CDC website to see all of the recommended vaccinations and medications for the country I’m visiting, so I can get them all around the same time. I’m a nurse so I feel obligated to tell you vaccinations are important!)

Once you have all your documents in order and the application filled out, double check and triple check your work!

4. Mailing Your Application

Check to see if you need a self-addressed envelope with postage on it for your passport to be sent back to you. (If you do, I recommend using usps.com to print out your own labels to avoid standing in line at the post office.) I also use Priority Mail to insure the package for at least the cost of an expedited replacement passport (about $170), plus the cost of another expedited visa, in case something happens to your package. Priority Mail also includes tracking on the package, so you can breathe a little easier when you see the package has been received.

 

Applying for visas can be one of the most annoying parts of any trip, but I have faith in you! Once you get past the visa application, you’ve gotten over probably the least fun part of preparing for the trip. Good luck and happy travels!

Amsterdam is such a lovely city!

Today I’m super excited to tell you how I just booked a last-minute flight from the US to Amsterdam for less than $300 roundtrip! I know that last-minute trips to Europe might sound a little nuts, but with my miles and points, I never stress out about them.

Here’s how I did it, step-by-step:

  1. I used Google Flights (love Google Flights, make this your go-to flight search engine) to find the best price on a flight from airports within a 3-hour driving radius from me. (I definitely recommend branching your search out like this if it’s feasible for you and you don’t mind a little driving to save some cash.) I live closer to NYC, but sometimes find that flights out of Boston can be a lot cheaper (in this case, a flight from Boston-Amsterdam was about $300 cheaper than the most inexpensive flight from NYC-Amsterdam, which was $831).  To me, a $300 savings makes a 3-hour drive more than worth it.
  2. I picked the flight I wanted for just $536 (which includes an 8-hour layover in Dublin)! Call me crazy, but I do love a long layover in a city I’ve never explored before and I plan on seeing as much of Dublin as possible.
  3. I visited the airline website (in this case, Aer Lingus, which, by the way, partners with United, so I’m getting my United frequent flyer points on this flight – score!) to find the exact flight I wanted and book it.
  4. I pulled out my Citi Prestige card to pay for my ticket. This card does come with a hefty annual fee ($450), so I don’t recommend it if you’re just getting into the game, but the deal is that I get a $250 travel credit each calendar year, meaning when Citi Bank sees that I spent money on travel, they’ll reimburse me with a statement credit of up to $250/calendar year. Now here’s the catch – if you open the card on January 1, you will be charged the $450 annual fee and get your $250 travel credit to use by the end of the year, so that’s a total of a $250 credit. But if you open your card on July 1, for example, you’ll have until the end of that calendar year to use the $250 credit and then when January 1 comes around, you’ll get another $250 credit – total $500 credit!. So, in essence, the card pays for itself. (Plus, you also get 3 x points when you buy travel and hotel stays on the card, in addition to the initial 50,000 bonus points for opening the card and meeting the minimum spending requirement, which makes it one powerful card.)

That’s all there was to that, friends! Just a few minutes was all it took for me to book a trip to Europe in 2 weeks for less than $300, no travel agent needed for deals like this – that’s the power of credit card rewards!

If you’re just getting into miles and points, you probably want to know, “What credit card should I get?” This can be a difficult question to answer, because it really depends on your own personal goals, and there are so many rewards cards out there that it can be tough to narrow it down, but I’m going to recommend one that I think is the perfect starter rewards credit card for anyone and that is the Chase Freedom card. Here are my list of reasons why I recommend getting the Chase Freedom card:

  1. No Annual Fee – If you are just getting into the credit card rewards game, you probably don’t want to pay a fee to start with. You want a card with no annual fee just to get your feet wet and test the waters a little before you move on to the big guns. With the Chase Freedom card, you don’t have to worry about whether or not you should close it after a year to avoid a fee – just keep it open and enjoy the benefits! It’s a great start to building a relationship with Chase, as Chase has several rewards cards you’ll want to apply for down the road.
  2. Promotional Bonus – I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m always on the lookout for credit cards with a big promotional bonus. (In fact, I almost never open a card that’s not offering a promotional bonus.) The Chase Freedom card offers a $150 cash-back bonus (or 15,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, more about that in a second) after spending $500 in the first 3 months. (This is a great offer because $500 is a pretty low minimum spend to get the bonus as far as credit card offers go.) There is also an extra promotional bonus – if you add an authorized user and that user makes just one purchase of any amount within the first 3 months, you’ll get an extra $25 cash back (2,500 Chase Ultimate Rewards points).
  3. Chase Ultimate Rewards Points – Now cash back is great and all, but we’re here for the travel, am I right? So back to the Chase Ultimate Rewards points I mentioned – with Chase Ultimate Rewards, you have the option to book flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises, and activities from multiple partners, not just one airline or hotel as is the case with many other cards; (also, you can use the points for gift cards and merchandise, but I’m going to stick with talking about travel). Now if you only read the information Chase Bank puts out, the Chase Freedom card comes off as just a cash back card, but I’m here to tell you there is so much more to it! When used to its full potential, Chase Freedom can be a pretty fantastic travel card. Each cent you spend on your Chase Freedom card technically earns you one point, a 1:1 value. However, (stick with me here), there are other Chase cards (that come with an annual fee) that give you 25% more (or greater) when you redeem them through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, thus, 1.25 points for every cent you spend. So eventually, when you’re ready to open up that Chase card with an annual fee, say the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points that you earned with the Chase Freedom account to your Chase Sapphire Preferred account and then redeem them for travel with this 25% bonus, which is amazing, because if you just used the points for cash back, you wouldn’t have got the 25% bonus, which is huge! (And in actuality, my husband and I have gotten as high as an 80% bonus using this method.)
  4. Spending Bonus Categories – Chase Freedom rotates spending categories every 3 months; throughout the 3 month period, if you activate your card for the bonus categories (this has to be done every time a new category rolls out), you will earn an additional 5% cash back (but we’re here for the travel, remember, so that’s 5 times the Ultimate Rewards points) for purchases made within the announced category. This is a great perk, because typically it’s places you would frequent anyway. For 2017, the breakdown is as follows:
    • January – March: gas stations, local commuter transportation
    • April – May: grocery stores and drug stores (not including Wal-Mart and Target)
    • July – September: “Summer Fun” (TBA by Chase)
    • October – December: “Holiday” (TBA by Chase)
  5. Transferring Points to Spouse/Domestic Partner – My husband and I both have several Chase credit cards and with Chase, the great thing is that we can transfer our Ultimate Rewards points between our own Chase accounts and to and from one another! If one of us doesn’t have enough points in one account to book the flight we want, we can combine from multiple accounts of ours.

Seriously, guys, the Chase Freedom card is where it’s at for anyone new to this game. It’ll get you hooked and is a great lead-in to start earning your Chase Ultimate Rewards points! Let me know if you apply for the card or have any questions. For anyone who has this card already, post a comment and tell me how you like it!

Do you like traveling? Would you be interested in earning free flights and hotel stays for spending on things you normally purchase anyway?

If you’re like me and the answer to both of those questions are a resounding “yes,” I want to tell you how I’ve been able to travel the world with free flights. People often ask me how much a flight here or there cost me, but my answer is usually, “I flew there on points.” If you pay your bills on time and don’t carry credit card debt, channeling your spending through rewards credit cards can really benefit you. The promotional bonus for opening a new credit card alone may be worth over $2,000!

I could go on and on about how much I love my credit card rewards, but I want to keep this simple and briefly go over the benefits of rewards credit cards and why you should be using them. Each rewards credit card has its own method of rewarding customers. The reward currencies vary from cash back to miles to unique points systems. From here on forward, I will refer to the various rewards program currencies as “miles and points,” or just simply “points.”

The benefits of a credit card reward program can be broken up into 3 categories:

  1. Promotional bonus for opening up a new credit card.
  2. Rewards earned from spending.
  3. Other benefits for just having the credit card.

The promotional bonus for opening up new credit cards is the single most efficient way I earn points. This is the introductory bonus that I get from credit cards for applying, getting approved, and meeting some initial requirements. These requirements may range from using the credit card to make a single purchase to spending $3,000 in the first three months. I’m always on the lookout for credit cards offering a huge bonus just for opening the card – this is where I earn most of my points!

Spending rewards are the points earned from the total spending on qualified purchases. This is typically the category I focus on when I’m not applying for new credit cards and want to benefit from my normal everyday spending. Personally, I try to put all my purchases on my credit cards instead of using cash or debit cards so that I can earn points on things I would have bought anyway. For me, credit is king.

Other benefits for just having the credit card are specific benefits I get that are included, such as free checked bags on a particular airline or a free hotel stay every year I own the card. These perks may not be the reason I open a credit card, but they are so nice to take advantage of and can help me reach my travel goals.

Are you convinced yet? Credit card rewards have honestly changed the way I live my life. Without my miles and points, there’s no way I would have been able to travel to 21 countries in the past ten years and these travel experiences have greatly enhanced my life and helped shape who I am.

Iceland – One of many trips I’ve booked on points.

I just visited Cuba for the first time over Christmas. Cubans were the friendliest people I’ve ever met and Cuba itself was an amazing place that I recommend getting to know! Since my return, a lot of my friends and coworkers have been asking me how I was able to visit Cuba as a U.S. citizen. The following is a basic overview of things to know for anyone interested in visiting for the first time, based on my personal experience:

Getting to Cuba: Getting there isn’t as hard as you think, I promise. There are 12 reason for visiting Cuba that will get you there legally as a U.S. citizen. They are:

  • Educational – People to people
  • Family Visit
  • Official business
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances
  • Support for the Cuban people
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations
  • Exportation and importation

Okay, so you didn’t see “tourism” on that list, but I suggest doing as I did and checking off “support for the Cuban people.” If you are going to Cuba and spending any money, you are supporting the Cubans. Done. I bought my plane ticket via Southwest Airlines and they actually sent me a step by step guide as to making sure I knew what I needed to do to get my visa. I bought the visa from Cuba Travel Services for a total of $85 and it was painless. No one interrogated me on why I was going or questioned me once I was in the country; it’s really that simple.

Where to go: I went to Cuba for a 6 night stay and my biggest question was where to visit. My itinerary ended up being Havana to Varadero to Trinidad and back to Havana. Havana is a must – it’s the big city where you’ll find kids playing in the street and people partying with their neighbors into the wee hours on a weekday. It’s full of so many beautiful old buildings and classic cars that you’ll wonder if you’re on a movie set. Don’t skip out on Havana. Varadero is the beach resort town with the beaches there considered some of the best in the country, if not the whole Caribbean. Varadero Beach did not disappoint with white sand and turquoise waters. To my pleasant surprise, I didn’t even encounter a single peddler trying to sell me goods as I have encountered on countless other foreign beaches. I was somewhat surprised to learn that some tourists just go straight to Varadero without ever leaving to explore other parts of the country. I would recommend exploring as much as you can. The crown jewel of my Cuba trip was Trinidad. This city was my favorite because it was colonial and picturesque; I loved just walking the cobblestone streets and taking pictures. There were also some great hiking spots and waterfalls nearby. If I’d had more time, I would have included Viñales on my itinerary, which I’ve heard is verdantly beautiful and the place to go for outdoors activities like bicycling, rock climbing, etc.

Money: The major Cuban currency for tourists is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The exchange rate is 1 CUC per 1 US dollar, however, with US dollars, there is an extra fee and in reality, I received .87 CUC per 1 US dollar. If you can, I suggest bringing Canadian dollars to avoid this extra fee. Also, change your money at a fancy hotel. (I found the banks and casas de cambio will have you waiting for over an hour, but there was never a wait for me at the hotels). You can’t use US credit cards there, so I brought enough cash for the whole trip.

Getting around: I didn’t have anything planned out ahead of time, which may not be your style of traveling, but my trips tend to be pretty spontaneous.  Sometimes not having the details figured out worries me, but this spontaneity worked out for me well in Cuba. There are buses to get from city to city that are reasonably priced, but as I was in a group of four, I just hired taxi drivers to take us long distances (our most expensive ride was around 140 CUC for a five hour drive, so I’d recommend this method for groups). To compare,  the Viazul bus would have charged about 25 CUC/person for a similar trip, but remember, you can ask the taxi driver to stop wherever you want and you can set your own schedule. You could also hire out one driver for the whole time you’re there.

Accommodations: There are some really fancy and expensive hotels if you want to go that route, and then there are cheaper and dingier hotels, but I had heard the best thing to do was stay in “casas particulares” – these are rooms rented out by people who live there. Since we didn’t have anything booked, the taxi drivers helped us find places to stay by calling up their contacts and literally knocking on doors for us – any place marked with a blue sign means they rent rooms and there are a ton. I stayed in these for 25-35 CUC/night, which was a cool way to get to know the local people (and most included breakfast for another 5 CUC).

Wi-fi: Wi-fi is limited in Cuba. You can buy a wi-fi card at a nice hotel for about 2 CUC, but it comes with a warning that it might not work, so you should plan on being able to be off the grid for the whole trip.

Food: I expected (and was not disappointed in) the typical fare such as rice and beans, but I was amazed to find Cubans eat a lot of pork – there were several times where I tried to order chicken or beef and the restaurant would only have pork! (Even one hamburger joint I found served only pork burgers.) Non-pork eaters might have a tough time. I recommend trying a “paladar” – that’s a privately owned restaurant (of note, because many restaurants are government-owned) that may be inside someone’s house. The paladares tend to be less touristy and cheaper, usually around 2 CUC/plate.

I hope this gets you started on planning your own trip to Cuba!

I’m Hilary. I work as a nurse and in my spare time, I travel the world. The number one question I get asked is, “How do you travel so much?” The short answer is that I’ve made travel my priority, but read on for the long answer.

My first big solo trip out of the country was to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2007. I was 20 years old and simultaneously excited and terrified. While there, I fell in love with Buenos Aires and spontaneously arranged a weekend trip to Chile with a few people I’d met who were a few years older than me. My travel companions had traveled to so many places! I remember asking them, in awe, how they traveled so much and being directly told, “If you want to travel, you have to make it a priority.” (Since then, I’ve realized that this is true with anything – whatever we prioritize in our lives is what we end up doing.)

Around that time, I started getting into personal finance blogs. I was a college student just learning to live on my own. I initially made some poor decisions, (such as signing up for a credit card just to get a free meal at Wendy’s). However, I learned from my mistakes and after reading many personal finance and travel blogs, I decided to start using credit card rewards points for travel. I started signing up for credit cards that offered points for travel. I got my husband (then boyfriend) into it and he simply took the idea and ran with it.

As of this writing, we are both experienced travelers (I just reached my 21st country) and we have approximately 30 rewards cards between us. (If you’re wondering what all those cards do to our credit, I can proudly tell you we have excellent credit.) Keeping our financial accounts and rewards points organized can be a job in itself, but through the method of traveling with points, we have gotten countless free airline tickets and hotel stays.

I’m writing this blog because I want others to know that travel can be affordable and attainable on a small income – my husband and I traveled nearly monthly for a year while I was the only one working. You don’t have to quit your day job to travel the world (so many travel blogs focus on people who have done just this, which is awesome, but not suitable for everyone). I will share how I use credit cards for travel rewards while posting some of my most memorable travel experiences along the way. Thanks for joining me!