You landed the big job, you start in two weeks, and the travel begins just as soon as as you’re done with orientation. Now what?
Under no circumstances should your first concern be something as trivial as a credit card that’s geared towards points and travel. There are too many more important things to worry about, including learning how to pack, what to wear when you fly, how to choose flights, how to eat well in unfamiliar locations, and how to deal with social and professional obligations that revolve around unhealthy food and drink. Learning a bit more about your team and the job you’re doing will almost never hurt either.
But eventually, there are four pieces of plastic you should concern yourself with. Well, three, assuming you already have a passport. They are, in order of importance: a good travel credit card (or several), a Global Entry card, and an international SIM. These are invaluable tools for getting the most out of travel, and it’s worth taking some time to talk about how to find the right ones for you, how to get them, and why you might want them to begin with.
Prerequisite: the passport
You should really already have a passport — it’s a prerequisite for Global Entry, often an employment requirement for a travel job, and if you live in one of about 22 states/territories, your driver’s license will no longer be valid travel ID on October 10, 2018 anyway.
If you don’t have a passport, apply as soon as possible. It can take as many as 10 weeks, and expediting services aren’t really worth the money and trouble unless you have a hard deadline approaching.
If you do have a hard deadline approaching and live in any of these cities with regional passport centers, also don’t bother with the expediters. Just go apply in person for expedited service (with proof of imminent international travel) — it’s exactly what an expediter would do, but it only costs $200ish dollars and an hour of your time instead of $500, and you don’t have to wait for FedEx to overnight it to you to you afterward. If you get an appointment early enough in the day, you can normally get a new (or replacement) passport by the afternoon.1I learned all of this the hard way after leaving my passport in the back of a New York City cab two days before a trip to Toronto. Additional note: if you can’t get an appointment soon enough, I know at least New York and DC have a limited number of “walk-up” spots available. Here’s the blog post I found most valuable when going through that whole ordeal.
If you’re forced to use a corporate card when you travel, or have bad credit (or no credit) to the point where using your own card and being reimbursed for travel expenses would be prohibitively painful, go ahead and skip this section. Use the corporate card. The benefits are not worth the pain.
If you have the opportunity to use your own card, I’d recommend doing so, even if it means a little extra work on your end (mostly in booking flights2Even if you aren’t using your own card, book your own travel. If you’re anything like me, you’ll still do the research and send one or a few preferred flights to the booking agent, which means the only difference between doing it yourself and using an agent is: you avoid filling out some forms and in exchange you risk not getting the exact flight you want, because the agent has a different incentive and trade-off calculus than you do. Just fill out the forms.). You’re going to have to do expense reports no matter what card you use, so you might as well use this as an opportunity to build credit and rack up some of those sweet rewards points. Keep up-to-date on your expenses and pay off the card in full every month when you get reimbursed for those receipts, and you won’t even need to dip into your own money to do this.
I specifically recommend getting at least one good rewards card and putting just your travel expenses and nothing else on that card. Feel free to get several cards if you want to maximize your points bonuses and perks, but you only really need two credit cards total: one for things that you can expense and one for everything else. Why two? Because it can be a living hell to have to tease apart work and personal expenses — and it’s simple to just pull out the right card when you’re paying, Keep them separated from the start by having two cards.
Evaluating the relative merits of rewards cards is one of those travel hacking things that could easily fill an entire website3In fact, credit card affiliate programs pay so well that there are too many “points hacking” sites to name or even rank. Everyone who has even the most spurious claim of expertise has made a website trying to tell you which one to use, and they all say the same thing: barring unique circumstances, just get something from the Chase Sapphire line.— you’ve got to weigh sign-up bonuses, points accrual and redemption, additional amenities, so-on and so-forth. We’ll just go over the most important factors.
Unsurprisingly, you’re probably going to want a travel rewards card, because their perks and points earning/redemption rules are most suited to travelers. The main options are either getting the card affiliated with one of your status-giving travel providers (airlines, hotels, etc), or an unaffiliated card that rewards you in transferrable points, cash, or travel reimbursement. Both have their benefits.
First, affiliated cards. All major travel providers have them, and often offer extra perks like lounge access and up to 3x points multipliers for using the provider-branded card to buy provider services. The points multipliers are so good it can even be worthwhile to, for example, get the SPG card just to book your Starwood hotels, and/or the United card to book your United flights, even if you use a different unaffiliated card for the rest of your travel spending.
Past the affiliated cards, most issuing banks4Because I am a pedant: AmEx is not an “issuer” in the same way Chase is, because while they do perform this function, they’re also their own network, whereas Chase have to partner with Visa or Mastercard to actually make the transactions happen on a technical level. If you’re curious, this is a good intro on the subject. The credit card industry is quite interesting. have some form of bank-branded unaffiliated offering in the ‘travel credit card’ category. While some are just okay, several are as good or even better than their affiliated counterparts, with perks like 1-to-1 points transfer to a wide variety of mileage programs and even personalized lounges.
At the time of writing, the one everyone talks about is Chase Sapphire, because of its points system and sign-up bonus, but that may change. The American Express Platinum cards are also perennial favorites — they have a high credit/income requirement and not-insignificant annual fee, but many still believe them to be worth it.
Regarding membership fees: the math to figure out if the fee is worth is as simple as seeing if the monetary value of the benefits you get outweighing the fee of the card. Put it in a spreadsheet, and if the value of the perks and points are greater than the cost, it’s worth it. You’ll probably find that the break-even point to reap more benefit from the card than the cost is significantly lower than the average annual spend for a business traveler. Plus, ask your employer if you can expense the fee. I know of at least two firms that will put a certain amount toward the fee for a good travel card.
There many are more things to consider, like a free first year, sign-up bonuses, ancillary non-points perks like concierge services, and so-on, but that gets a little too far into travel hacking for my personal taste or expertise. Instead, I’ll just point you at The Points Guy and NerdWallet, who both make more detailed and more up-to-date card recommendations than I care to.
Also, this should go without saying, but the whole trick here is that you’re using the cards on things that will get reimbursed. Don’t ever use miles or points as an excuse to rack up a bunch of credit card debt. It’s better to not have the points.
Full disclosure: unlike most websites for travelers, none of our links to cards in this section — or anywhere else — are affiliate links, which means we don’t get a kickback if you apply for these cards through our links. We’re not against affiliate links in general (every link to Amazon on this site is one, they’re generally a nice way to defray the cost of hosting, and we don’t let them change what we recommend at all) but the rules around what affiliates can and have to say about credit card offers and how you have to present those offers are too onerous for to be worth it to us. That calculus might change in the future; if it does, this paragraph will change too.
The process for getting a Global Entry card is fairly complicated, including a long form to fill out, a fairly intense background check, a $100 fee, and an in-person interview. It might not seem worth it if you don’t travel internationally very much. It is, because it comes with TSA Pre✔5Also known as just “TSA Pre-Check,” but a) the “correct” name is in fact “spelled” with the ✔ checkmark , and b) I recently learned how to type the ✔ checkmark and this is the only time I’ve ever gotten to use it in a real context, so we’re using the ✔ checkmark. ✔✔✔! (or more specifically, a Known Traveler ID, which is what gets you TSA Pre✔).
If you’re going to get TSA Pre✔, which you absolutely want to do unless you want to spend 30-60 extra minutes in line every week, there is no reason not to go ahead get Global Entry too — Precheck also requires a big long form, in-person interview, and (simpler) background check, plus an $85 fee.
The only major differences between the two processes is that Global Entry has a few more pages on the online form, has fewer interview locations, and the interview has to be scheduled ahead of time. But the total time difference will be immediately earned back if you take even one international trip in the next five years.
Start by creating an account and filling out the application on this terrible website (which, if you’ll believe it, used to be worse) and pay the fee. Keep your receipt for this fee — many employers, some frequent traveler programs, and a few credit cards will reimburse you for it.
From there, you’ll wait for an email that has a link to (another terrible to use and look at) website where you can schedule your interview. Considering a majority of the interview points are at major US airports, I recommend trying to schedule it around a trip.
The interview itself is extremely simple. They review the printed results of the background check, and then ask you a bunch of questions they should have already learned from it, including if you’re a felon, identity thief, terrorist, or drug trafficker. Then they gather some biometric data. Assuming you’re not any of those things and have fingerprints on all of your fingers, you’ll be on your way fairly quickly.
Little-known but very important fact: you do not have to wait six weeks for your Global Entry card to come in the mail to takem advantage of your Known Traveler ID and get Pre✔.
Your Known Traveler ID is a 9-digit number, and it’s on one of the pieces of paper that they’ll give you when you leave your interview. There will be a field to enter it in your airline’s personal information section — or sometimes booking flow, or sometimes both — and once you have it in there, that little green checkmark will (almost) always appear on your boarding pass.
The process for using Global Entry itself is even simpler — when you deplane from an international flight, skip the line, follow the signs and use the kiosks. Don’t bother filling out a customs card on the plane. I’ve never actually been asked to show my GE Card during this process, but it’s probably worth keeping it on you just in case, if for no reason other than it’s a valid secondary form of ID for basically every international travel scenario where that would be necessary.
Even (especially!) if you only travel internationally for pleasure, get an International SIM. An international SIM is a second SIM card you put in your phone when you’re out of the country to get faster, cheaper, and all-around better data roaming. The reasoning here pretty simple: all the international data roaming plans from US-based carriers are some combination of bad, expensive, slow, or simply nonexistent.
To my knowledge, comparison shopping for international SIM providers isn’t really necessary. There is a best international SIM provider, and that’s Know Roaming.6With thanks to nickd, my travel obsessive friend who plays a prominent role in the travel coffee article, for turning me onto them. It works the best and has almost global coverage, a major advantage over many travel SIM providers, which only work in a single region or even a single country. It does all of this at prices so low — cents per MB, compared to Verizon’s dollars— that I’ve never felt the need to look around for a better price. They now even have a sticker that simply goes on your existing SIM and automatically activates when you leave the country. Technology is neat.
You talked about credit cards, but what about points hacking? How do I maximize my points?
Honestly, I don’t know how to maximize points. I never learned.
I don’t particularly care to, either. I’d rather spend the time and effort optimizing other parts of my travel, like the speed with which I can pack, or the amount of time I can spend not thinking about how many damn airplanes I get on a year.
Get the most out of traveling full-time in whatever way you want, not the way you think you should. If that includes obsessing about cards, great. Head on over to any of the blogs that cover that exclusively and get to it. But if it doesn’t, that’s also fine, and in that case, the above is probably all you’ll ever need to learn about rewards cards.
Every aspect of the travel lifestyle, especially rewards cards and points, can be incredibly complicated if you want it to be. But why would you want it to be?
I don’t mean to denigrate the points hackers of the world here — I absolutely get the idea of turning a chore like booking flights into a hobby, or even better, a game you can win. If you legitimately derive enjoyment from it, more power to you.
But: we all have limited time and mental capacity to learn and keep track of things, and if you don’t want to spend a decent amount of that on the arcana of airline and credit card reward structures, don’t. Get any decent points card (and the three other pieces of plastic from this article) and you’ll be well past the point of diminishing returns. Then, instead of seeking that extra 20% of benefit by regularly spending your evenings and lunch breaks trawling The Points Guy for the next great sign-up bonus, do literally anything else.