[Update: Some offers mentioned below have expired. You can view the current offers from our partners here — Discover it Secured, American Express Platinum, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and Capital One Venture Rewards. Disclosure: Cards from our partners are mentioned below.]
If you dream of taking a year off and traveling the world, but have wondered how you’d pull it off financially, well, it can be done, but credit cards alone aren’t going to get you there, no matter how great they are. In a nutshell, we have some good news and some bad news for you.
First, the bad news: You’re going to need some substantial savings. Unless you’re a photographer, writer or other similarly occupied individual who can parlay your stay in an exotic location into some extra income, you’re most likely going to have to spend your travel time unemployed. And while some countries allow temporary work visas for visitors, qualifying for them can be difficult at best.
Now the good news: With some solid advance planning, including having the right credit cards in your wallet, it’s possible to make your travel dreams a reality. Here’s a six-step approach to making it happen.
1. Start Planning Now
Whether you’re shooting for a departure date in two years or 10, your advance planning today will make all the difference. You can start by plotting where you want to go (e.g., are some harder-to-reach destinations better for a one-stop vacation at a future time?) and then researching airline alliances that offer multi-leg bookings with lengthy layovers in your destinations of choice. Booking your flights this way can be significantly less expensive. And if you change your mind mid-trip, you can always change your bookings, but typically only for a fee. The Lonely Planet site has some great tips on how to do this.
2. Start Saving Now
Not only will you be incurring costs as you travel, you’ll also be giving up the income from whatever job you won’t be working during that time, so saving now is imperative. There are numerous ways you can reduce your costs every month to start setting aside money. If you have a budget, adjust it accordingly. If you don’t, now is the perfect time to start one.
3. Check Your Credit
It’s also the perfect time to evaluate your credit and, if it’s not so great, start working to improve it. Why? Because having good credit makes it much easier to get a rewards credit card, which can help you start packing for your dream trip even sooner.
You can start the process by viewing your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com. You’ll also find tools there offering a personalized plan for improving your credit scores. The better your credit scores, the better the rewards you can qualify for.
4. Evaluate Your Credit Cards
Do your credit cards earn you miles, cash back, other rewards? If not, it’s a good idea to consider some of the options that will help you achieve your dream trip. You can start that process by reviewing some of the best travel rewards credit cards in America, but it also pays to consider cards like the relatively new Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which offers sign-up bonuses totaling $1,500 when you redeem them through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
Of course, these cards require excellent credit to qualify. If you don’t have excellent credit, though, never fear. Even if you have really awful credit, you can qualify for a secured credit card like the Discover it Secured card, which offers 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations up to $1,000 every quarter, plus 1% cash back on all other purchases. More importantly, it can help you improve your credit if you manage it properly, and help you qualify for other cards with even greater rewards.
5. Maximize Your Rewards
You can have the world’s greatest rewards cards and reap very little benefit from them if you don’t know how to use them. That’s why it’s important to understand the fine print and details of exactly how your rewards cards work. For example, is there a minimum spend required to get your sign-up bonuses? Probably. Do your rewards expire? They might.
Once you understand the rules, you can then begin maximizing your rewards. In some cases you can triple dip on credit card rewards, sometimes even quadruple dip, often through airline, hotel and credit card issuer partnerships.
6. Evaluate Your Card As a Travel Companion
If you have a great rewards card and you’ve been happy with it as you’ve been saving for your big getaway, it’s possible it’s also going to be a good companion card for you as you travel. But how can you tell?
Well, for starters, it would be great if it offered no international transaction fees, and some travel protections while you’re on your journey. For example, some cards offer trip cancellation insurance and lost luggage coverage. Some cover your Global Entry application fees, which can smooth your travels at points of entry. Some cards also offer car rental insurance (which can vary by country). Premium cards offer extra points for booking flights directly with the carrier, plus offer entry to airport lounges, which can be especially great if you’re in need of a quiet place to rest and possibly even a shower.
The American Express Platinum card, for example, offers these benefits and then some (you can find a full review of the Platinum card here). Of course, it also comes with an annual fee of $450, but, depending on how much you spend, you could make that up in points and other travel benefits, including a $200 airline fee credit.
Other credit cards that can help make your year abroad more affordable, either through signup bonuses, travel rewards and other benefits include:
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
How it Could Help: Cardholders get 2x the miles back on all purchases. They also get 5% miles back to use toward their next redemption every time they redeem. Plus, the card currently touts a signup bonus that give 50,000 bonus miles (the equivalent of a $500 travel statement credit) to new cardholders who spend $3,000 in the first 90 days of having the account.
Annual Fee: $89, waived the first year.
APR: Variable 16.24%, 20.24% or 23.24%
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
How it Could Help: Cardholders earn 2x the miles on all purchases. They can also get a signup bonus of 40,000 miles if they spend $3,000 on purchases within three months of opening the account. (You can find a full review of the Venture Rewards card here.)
Annual Fee: $59, waived the first year.
APR: Variable 13.24% to 23.24%
At publishing time, the Discover it Secured, American Express Platinum, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and Capital One Venture Rewards credit cards are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.
Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.