Thomas Barwick / Getty Images
- I started building my credit history at 18, before I’d ever heard of credit cards earning travel and rewards through points and miles.
- If you want to get into rewards travel in the future, it’s never too early to start building your credit so you get access to the most valuable cards.
- The first and most important thing you can do is make sure you’re paying your existing credit cards on time and in full.
- Find the best cards to help you build credit and start earning rewards with CreditCards.com’s free CardMatch tool »
I got my first credit card when I was 18 years old, because I knew that building my credit history was important. This was before I had even heard of getting a credit card in order to earn points and miles.
Around two years later when I first heard about points and miles, I had a short but solid credit history that allowed me to start getting better credit cards. Fast forward seven more years and I have a credit history that is longer and more solid than many of my peers. I also took a number of non-credit card related steps that help me earn miles and points even faster, and were a great option when my credit history was still shorter.
Now, I have 25 cards in total and I travel six to eight months of the year with a good portion of travel booked on rewards.
Here are the steps I followed to make that a possibility.
First things first: Pay your bills every month
The most effective strategies for earning points and miles are all linked to credit cards — but it only makes sense if you’re paying off your card every month. There’s no credit card that rewards you more than you’ll pay in interest by carrying a balance, so it’s critically important to not spend more than you can afford, to pay by the due date, and to have a plan to do so even before you apply for your first card.
Open accounts with various loyalty programs, even if you’re not sure you’ll use them
One great place to start is to open loyalty accounts with airlines and hotels. This will make sure you have an account ready to go if you want to transfer points from a flexible points program, or if you later open a credit card linked to that loyalty program.
It also makes sure you won’t run into any restrictions on new accounts. For example, you can’t transfer Avios points between British Airways and Iberia accounts unless both are at least 90 days old, and if you want to transfer points between two people’s Marriott accounts, both have to be at least 60 days old.
Having an account open lets you receive targeted promotions, and sets you up to earn bonus miles or points through partnerships. For example, you can earn Delta miles for Airbnb stays, and earn Delta, Hilton, and Jetblue points for rides taken with Lyft.
Get your credit report started as an authorized user
See if a parent or guardian is willing to add you as an "authorized user" on one of their credit cards — that will make the account show up on your credit report, which makes lenders likely to see you as a lower risk when you apply for cards of your own.
Make sure you trust your credit in their hands though, since if they fail to pay on time or default on a balance, the negative marks can also hurt your credit history.
This is a step that I didn’t take until much later — just this year, in fact! I was able to have my parents add me to a card they have had since before I was born and my average age of accounts (and therefore my credit score) increased by quite a bit.
If you can’t get added as an authorized user, consider a secured credit card
With a secured credit card, you put down a deposit (say $500) and then get a credit card with a credit limit equal to the deposit. Using the card and paying it off every month demonstrates that you can handle a credit card responsibly, and once the bank feels confident, you can upgrade to a regular credit card and get your deposit back.
The Petal Card offers a $500 to $10,000 credit limit, 1% cash back on purchases (increasing to 1.5% cash back after 12 on-time payments), and no late fees, foreign transaction fees, or no annual fees., or you can check with your credit union or bank to see if they offer a secured card option.
Start with entry-level, no-annual-fee credit cards
Once you have a bit of credit history, you can apply for your first full-fledged credit card — but you probably don’t want to start with a flashy high-end card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Platinum Card® from American Express. These cards are targeted to high spenders with high credit scores and excellent credit histories, so you’re likely to get denied.
Instead, start with a basic card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited: With that card, you’ll earn 3% cash back for the first year (up to $20,000 in purchases) and 1.5% thereafter, and there’s no annual fee.
Perhaps the best part of this card is that while it’s marketed as a cash back card, it’s actually part of the Ultimate Rewards family — so that 3% cash back is really 3x Ultimate Rewards points. If you save up your balance and later open a full-fledged Ultimate Rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can pool those points from the Freedom Unlimited with your new card and transfer them to airline or hotel loyalty programs.
Set up automatic payments
Virtually all credit cards allow you to arrange for payments to be automatically withdrawn from your bank account on the due date — as long as you’ll have enough money in your account, this makes sure you won’t have to worry about late fees or interest charges.
If you’re worried about overdrawing your checking account, at least set up automatic payments for the minimum amount due to avoid late fees, but make sure you still make payments every month to cover the remaining balance — see Rule No. 1 above.
Be mindful of the Chase 5/24 rule
If your goal is to earn points and miles toward travel, don’t go applying for a bunch of cards right away: Chase’s 5/24 rule means many of its most rewarding cards aren’t available if you’ve opened five or more personal credit cards with any bank in the past 24 months. This includes all of the cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points, as well as United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Marriott credit cards.
Pro tip: Keep track of your credit cards so you know how many credit cards you’ve opened and to make sure you don’t miss out on any signup or welcome bonuses: Using a tool like Travel Freely can help.
Use your miles and points — they never gain value over time
Miles and points are a terrible investment — they’ll almost always lose value, as airlines and hotels make changes to eliminate the best redemptions, make flights and hotels more expensive, and move towards "dynamic pricing" instead of predictable set pricing for redemptions.
So while it may be worth it to save up for a little bit so you can get an awesome award, hoarding your points over time can only end in disappointment. You’re doing this to be able to travel — so get out there and use your points!
Find the best cards to help you build credit and start earning rewards with CreditCards.com’s free CardMatch tool »
- I have 15 credit cards, and I combine sign-up bonuses with everyday spending to get the most travel rewards from each one
- I get hundreds, or thousands, of dollars in benefits from my travel credit cards every year, and there are 3 kinds of perks more valuable than the rest
- 5 things I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self about credit cards