Take a look at the line I passed at the Peace Arch.
Watch this video for a demonstration on how to scan your RFID TTP card at land crossings. In this example, I am using the NEXUS lane with my Global Entry card.
Something I realized in 2021, when I had to stay on the line with American Airlines customer service for long periods of time before I could reach someone, is that I didn’t have to wait for those long periods of time.
In fact, I didn’t even need elite status on the airline to get this shortcut.
I kept this secret to myself until now because in June, The Points Guy decided to spoil it and share it with everyone! But then again, this shortcut can’t be taken by everyone.
So, what exactly is this shortcut?
Foreign language customer service lines
Airlines in the United States offer customer service lines in languages other than English for their clientele who are more comfortable speaking other languages. It turns out these phone lines are not used as often as the normal English lines. In fact, despite having much fewer staff members on the line, they are still used much less to the point where there is usually no wait or a minimal wait.
When the English line is backed up for hours, the last thing you want to do is wait that sort of long period. If you speak a foreign language to a decent level, you can try calling using a foreign language line.
I grew up speaking Mandarin at home and English in society. While my Mandarin isn’t the best, I can usually get by in China without people suspecting I was brought up outside the country. This, however, allowed me to use the Chinese language lines with relative feasibility.
Which languages have the best shot?
The three languages that have the best shot are Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin), and Japanese. All three legacy carriers in the U.S. (American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines) offer assistance in these languages.
All three of them offer a 24/7 Spanish line.
American and Delta offers the Mandarin Chinese and Japanese lines 24/7, while United’s hours for the Chinese and Japanese lines are the most convenient among non-24/7 language lines.
In terms of accessibility, I would say Chinese or Japanese is probably the best shot, especially on American Airlines. Significantly fewer people speak Chinese and Japanese than Spanish in the U.S., meaning the line is usually underutilized. In my experience calling the Mandarin Chinese line at American Airlines, I’ve only had to remain on hold once or twice, and not for more than 10 minutes. That’s awesome compared to the 3 hour waits I often encountered in American Airlines’s English line.
This isn’t very helpful to most people
Now, obviously, this advice does not pertain to most people. It would take years for someone to become fluent enough in Chinese to hold a decent conversation with the customer service agents in full Mandarin. However, here’s a secret: you don’t need to fully utilize the language.
Writers at The Points Guy advocated trying to simply speak English on the lines if one didn’t know the foreign language. They also seemed to suggest that you could try your luck at the French line if you took French in high school. However, speaking only in English is risky, because they might just end up transferring you to the English line. And your high school French skills are probably not good enough to handle speaking on the French line.
You don’t have to speak completely in the foreign language
Instead, what I recommend doing is to try using a mix of the foreign language and English. After all, the customer service reps have to know English to work at these airlines too, and they have to deal with a reservations system in English to assist customers.
In fact, I recommend doing this, because it’s much better to deal with English terms when you’re flying on a U.S. airline. Speak as much as you can in the foreign language, but use English for aviation-specific terminology.
If you don’t understand a specific technical term, ask them to say that specific term in English. For instance, don’t know how to say reservation in Mandarin? No problem, just say reservation in English and surround it with as much Mandarin as you can.
The only thing I recommend with this approach is having good enough listening skills in the foreign language. You can’t just learn Spanish on Duolingo for a few days and call the Spanish line and expect to understand the rapid pace at which they speak.
You can also call the foreign country English lines
Here’s a pro tip: the foreign phone numbers they have? You can call those too, and many times, they are offered in English. Sure, you might be calling someone with a heavy English accent, but at least you can speak in English with them.
While this is a much more feasible option and doesn’t require knowing a foreign language, keep in mind that international calls don’t come cheap. It’s best to either get an international calling plan through your phone company or use Skype or Google Voice to make these international calls so you don’t pay $1 per minute to call abroad. Also, the lines are most likely not open 24/7, so if you’ve caught them outside of their local business hours, you are out of luck. For instance, trying to call the United Kingdom line at 8pm Pacific Time is probably a bad idea because it’ll be 4am in England.
I’ve been enjoying the wonderful benefits of AAdvantage Platinum and oneworld Sapphire since January 2022. While I had qualified for AAdvantage Gold back in October 2021, I was going to be making a 2 month trip to Europe and I realized it would be really handy to have the additional benefits provided by oneworld Sapphire status.
Some background on the AAdvantage program around this time
It just so happened that American Airlines was launching a revamped AAdvantage mileage earning system (Loyalty Points) that shifted the program year to March–February. As a result, they decided to make January and February 2022 a special two-month double dipping period, where flights would count both for Elite Qualifying Miles/Dollars/Segments (EQMs/EQDs/EQSs) and the new Loyalty Points system. This meant I had two more months than usual to qualify for the 2022 AAdvantage loyalty year.
Why did I decide to get it?
Quite content with my AAdvantage Gold status, I was originally not too worried about it. However, as I researched ticket prices between Europe, leaving in late January and returning in late March, I realized that the prices of transatlantic business class tickets going to Europe in January were not too bad at all. (March prices were a different story, but no matter, as March wasn’t in the double dipping period.) This made Platinum attainable, as I would be reasonably able to attain Platinum status by meeting their EQD and EQM requirements. Furthermore, this money spent would also count towards Loyalty Points, helping me attain requalification for 2023. Encouraged by this, I did the math on how many more EQDs it would take for me to attain Platinum. (The amount of EQMs I would be getting for simply flying to Europe in economy would’ve been enough to meet the Platinum EQM requirement.) It came down to a matter of about $2,000 EQDs. And that would mean I would need to spend about $2,000 excluding taxes for my outbound segment of my flight. The problem was, I needed to make sure if I booked the outbound leg as business class, I needed the spend to meet the EQD requirement for Platinum. Otherwise, this investment would be a total waste of money.
So yes, while this is certainly a lot of money I did not necessarily need to pay, I decided at the end of the day to go for it. I called the travel agent and asked her for the pricing per leg. It just so happened that the outbound segment in business class would cost a little over $2,000 excluding taxes. This was perfect. I would be cutting it close, but I would be able to get AAdvantage Platinum for 2022 (based on EQDs and EQMs) and get close to AAdvantage Gold for 2023 (based on Loyalty Points).
On the day of my flight, I was nervous, but I wouldn’t be able to tell until the points had posted after the flight. When I landed, I opened the American Airlines app to track my baggage. But of course, when it first opens, it shows the AAdvantage account overview. When the app fully loaded, I saw my AAdvantage Gold color flicker away and be replaced with a silvery color. It worked! At that moment I became AAdvantage Platinum!
Later that day, I received an email from American Airlines sealing the deal.
How it helped me
If there weren’t any additional benefits, then I obviously would not have gone out of my way and paid more money just for Platinum status. However, there were some benefits that I realized couldn’t exactly be bought with money outright. (Instead, you have to “buy” your elite status to make use of these benefits.) This included:
- International lounge access. This was by far the most important benefit that I took advantage of. When traveling on any oneworld carrier, I could, as a oneworld Sapphire elite, make use of the lounges the carrier makes available to their business class passengers, as long as it was an international flight (i.e. it could not start and end in the United States). This was extremely helpful, because although I had a Priority Pass that got me into most lounges in Europe, it still wouldn’t get me into certain lounges. For instance, at Heathrow Terminal 5, I could access the small Plaza Premium Lounge with my Priority Pass. But the British Airways Galleries Lounges were only accessible for British Airways business class passengers and qualifying oneworld elites. Furthermore, when traveling back to the U.S., you can make use of the Admirals Clubs even if you aren’t traveling as a business class passenger. (You can use the Flagship Lounge when leaving the U.S. from an American Airlines hub like DFW.)
- Fast track security. When I flew on British Airways, I could take advantage of fast track security at Heathrow Terminal 5, exclusive to elites. When I flew back to Dallas from Paris, I could use fast track security since I was Platinum. (Although I flew in business class, the upgrade cleared at the gate, so I was using my elite status to qualify me for that access.)
- Priority luggage return. While this wasn’t necessarily an amazing benefit or a consistent benefit, it helps out when the crew actually do send your baggage out first. One time, my bag was literally the first out!
- Two checked bags free. I bought so many souvenirs for my friends and family that eventually I had to buy a second bag with me on my travels (and stored my carry-on suitcase inside of it). With the myriad amount of flights I took, who knows how many several hundreds of dollars I saved. (Well, I could calculate it, but I’d rather not waste my time doing so.)
- Priority check-in. I did get this as AAdvantage Gold/oneworld Ruby, but either way, it was so nice being able to skip the main line and check in much faster than other people. Even when there was a line, elites get front of line privilege too. I felt bad because twice I have been called to the desk over a person in the main line who had arrived slightly earlier than me.
- Preferred seats. I could now choose preferred exit row seats on British Airways and American Airlines before check in started. This allowed me to get extra legroom and avoid sitting in the cramped seats that the rest of the people had to sit in when they flew in economy.
All in all, these benefits were extremely worthwhile, and I basically got a two-in-one deal: business class going from the U.S. to Europe is already worth $2,000, but then I got another $1,000+ in value through oneworld Sapphire and AAdvantage Platinum.
Now that I’ve been back from Europe, I’ve still taken full advantage of my Platinum status on domestic flights. I flew on six flights in April and May. On five of those flights, I got upgraded to first class. Between January and May 2022, I flew ten American Airlines flights. I only traveled in economy on two of those flights. By the end of May, I wondered if I would ever even be sat in “cattle class” ever again. (I was.) In the meantime, taking full advantage of these upgrades was absolutely wonderful and makes the benefits reach almost $2,000 in value, honestly.
If you’re flying to Canada from the United States, chances are, you’ll probably be visiting (or at least starting your journey in) one of its larger cities: Toronto, Montréal, or Vancouver. Then, you might rent a car for your trip. Only problem is, it’s much more expensive to fly to Canada and rent a car in Canada. Additionally, it’s a lot more annoying to take an international flight where you have to go through customs and immigration. This is no fun and you could literally be saving hundreds of dollars if you take a slightly different approach: fly to the closest U.S. city on the border and drive to Canada.
Why does it save money to do this?
This has to do with Canada’s higher cost of living. In general, Canadian stuff costs more than if you get it in the United States. This is true for things like gasoline, airfares, and rental cars, which are going to be among the primary costs of your trip. Considering Toronto and Vancouver are both close to other large American airports, it’s perfectly feasible to fly to a U.S. city to take advantage of American pricing for airfares, rental cars, and gasoline.
Why are Canadian plane tickets more expensive? Without getting into the details, Canada shifts more of the financial responsibility of aviation to the passengers themselves, whereas the U.S. ends up being able to shift some of these costs away from a passenger’s ticket itself.
Do I really save money on plane tickets?
On average, yes, but this is not guaranteed.
On average, plane tickets between the U.S. and Canada are more expensive than between most U.S. cities and the U.S. border cities. In practice, it depends on when you’re going.
If we were to fly between Dallas–Fort Worth and Toronto Pearson nonstop, the cheapest plane ticket would be $744.
The same itinerary to Buffalo instead is slightly less. While this is pretty high (and I’ve gotten a lower price than this in the summer), it’s still less than the comparable nonstop flight to Toronto on the same dates.
If we relax the requirement to fly nonstop, we get much more economical tickets on Frontier, starting at only $241 round trip. If we opt for a legacy carrier, the cheapest is Delta at $410.
The same itinerary doesn’t look as good price-wise when you fly to Toronto instead. On the legacy carriers, the price is about the same as flying to Buffalo. But it simply can’t beat Frontier’s $241 price.
While the savings are not that big, you can tell that on average, it’s still cheaper to fly domestically than it is to fly to Canada. This being said, the difference can at times be negligible, so the savings do not really mean much for flights at all times.
If you are not renting a car, then the only reasonable option is to fly to the city directly, unless the price difference is over the price of a rental. That would have to mean that a flight to Canada costs several hundreds more than a flight to the nearby U.S. border city.
Do I really save money on rental cars?
Yes. To give you a concrete example, I’ll show you the cost of renting the two cheapest car types from Avis between October 5 and October 12, 2022 (one week) from two locations: Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) and Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ).
To rent the cheapest car from Buffalo Airport, it’s US$224.39 if you prepay.
Meanwhile, you have to pay a whopping CA$629.10 for the cheapest car at Toronto Pearson. Although one Canadian dollar is usually worth less than one U.S. dollar, the exchange rate is still not enough to make US$200 be equivalent to CA$600.
At the exchange rate of 1 USD = 1.28322 CAD, CA$629.10 is equivalent to US$490.25, which is more than double US$224.39. If the exchange rate were to shoot back up to 1 USD = 1.15 CAD, then it would be US$547, which is even more expensive. (One U.S. dollar would have to be equivalent to CA$2.80 for these two prices to be equivalent, and that’s never happened in history before.)
Even if you insist on a fair comparison between two intermediate-sized cars, Buffalo still comes out wildly on top, at just US$233.74.
As you can see, just by renting your car in the U.S. instead of Canada, you can save $400 right off the bat.
While the savings you get from flying to Buffalo might not be too significant, they are very noticeable for rental cars.
Any other benefits of flying domestically, renting domestically, and driving to Canada?
The other big change is how your border crossing experience will be. Rather than clearing immigration and customs at the airport, you clear it at a land crossing. It’s important to note that it’s not necessarily time-saving to cross at a land crossing; it can take more time than airport immigration if it gets busy. However, you won’t have to wait for immigration right after your flight, and you won’t need to get to the Canadian airport early for U.S. CBP preclearance when you return to the U.S. Plus, if you cross by car, you can always time your border crossing to be done at a less busy time, and in the meantime, you can hang out on the other side of the border. At the airport, you must wait in line to cross immigration before you can leave the airport. For some people, breaking apart the immigration and customs clearance part of their trip from the rest of the air travel part makes a world of a difference.
How to do this for Toronto?
To take advantage of cheaper flights and rental cars, you’ll want to fly to Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) instead of Toronto Pearson or Toronto Bishop. It’s a few miles out of Buffalo and just 15 minutes away from the Canadian border. It is 30 minutes away from Niagara Falls and 2 hours from downtown Toronto (excluding border crossing times).
The rental car agencies know that lots of people will be taking their cars across the border, so you won’t need to ask for anything special to be added to your car in order to drive across the border.
For a Toyota Camry, you’ll be able to drive between Buffalo and Toronto round-trip on less than one tank of gas. This lets you save money on gas, since you can take advantage of the lower prices in New York State than the much higher prices in Ontario. If at all possible, try your best to fuel up in Buffalo or the American side of Niagara Falls instead of during your drive in Ontario to Toronto. Worst case, if you still need some gas to make it back from Toronto to Buffalo, pump a third of a tank, and then fill it all the way back up in Buffalo before you return your rental car.
Crossing the border
Assuming you don’t have NEXUS, you can cross the border at three bridges, listed from south to north:
- Peace Bridge (Buffalo, NY–Fort Erie, ON)
- Rainbow Bridge (Niagara Falls, NY–Niagara Falls, ON)
- Lewiston–Queenston Bridge (Lewiston, NY–Queenston, ON)
The recommended crossing point to minimize tolls is to use the Peace Bridge. If you travel via the Lewiston–Queenston Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge, you’ll have to pay tolls when driving on I-190, and it’s all electronic tolling, meaning if your car doesn’t have an E-ZPass on it, you’ll have to pay by mail. (In the case of rental cars, it doesn’t matter if you have an E-ZPass or not: it’s going to be much more expensive than if you could just pay by cash at a toll booth.)
When crossing the bridge to enter Canada, the toll is US$4 as of 2022. There is no toll to cross the bridge to enter the United States.
How to do this for Vancouver?
The closest major U.S. airport to Vancouver is Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA), which, according to Google Maps, is exactly 2 hours 30 minutes away by car from Vancouver International Airport (YVR), excluding the time it takes to cross the border.
However, the closest U.S. airport to Vancouver is Bellingham International Airport, which is most popular with Canadians who want to avoid the long drive to Seattle and wish to fly to other destinations in the U.S. for cheap. Very few cities have direct flights to Bellingham, but it’s worth noting Alaska Airlines has flights between Seattle and Bellingham in case you are inclined to fly to Bellingham by connecting via Seattle. It’s less than 30 minutes from the U.S.–Canada border.
At the rental car pickup area, it’s worth asking your rental car company if you need to get a special Canadian car insurance document to place in your car. Not doing this, however, won’t be a major issue, as I’ve driven a rental car from Seattle to Vancouver without trouble.
Compared to the trip between Buffalo and Toronto, it will be harder to make a round trip between Seattle and Vancouver without refueling, but you can do this in a city in Washington near the border such as Blaine or Bellingham (or any city in Whatcom County, really). My recommendation is to fuel up once in Bellingham (right off of I-5) before you enter Canada.
Crossing the border
The primary place to cross the border is at the Peace Arch. It’s very simple to get here: just keep driving north on I-5 until it ends. Another border crossing nearby is the Pacific Highway one, but it’s mainly for commercial trucks shipping goods across the border. Passengers can still use it, but it’s not as pretty and you have to exit the highway and get back on, which is a pain. However, if you do not have NEXUS, it can be faster to use the Pacific Highway crossing. Check the road signs on either side of the border which specify the border crossing waits.
There are other points, like Abbotsford and Sumas, but they are out of the way, and honestly, are not really worth the detour even if Peace Arch has a slightly longer delay than the rest.
There is no toll to get to any of these border crossings.
Want to build credit? The best way is probably going to be by applying for one new card every six months (give or take a few months—it doesn’t need to be precisely this long). While this may seem excessive, it actually is a great rule of thumb to live by because of how credit scores are calculated.
Won’t applying for too many credit cards lower my score?
When I was 18 years old, this is what I thought, and as a result, I was always hesitant to apply for new credit accounts. However, this ended up being false, and it’s because I had the following common concerns over how my credit score might drop because of applying to a new credit card:
- Hard inquiry will lower credit scores
- A new account lowers the average age of credit accounts on an individual’s credit file
- Applying for too many credit cards at the same time can be alarming to a credit card issuing company
- Opening a new credit card costs money
However, here’s why these concerns are mostly irrelevant.
Hard inquiries aren’t as bad as you might think they are
A hard inquiry will temporarily lower your score for like 3 months maximum, so you can chill about that, lol
Average account age is a long-term investment; be a tortoise, not a hare
If you never apply for more credit cards in an effort to raise your average account age, it will only hurt you in the future when you actually need the card. It is a fallacy. If you disagree with this assertion, let’s explore why with two scenarios, one labeled tortoise and one labeled hare:
- Tortoise: Let’s say you apply for one card every six months between 2020 and 2030. In 2030, the average age of your 20 accounts is 5 years, which is considered young. Your average age is currently on the lower side because you are still in the credit-building phase. But let’s say in 2040, you apply for 5 more credit cards in the same year. Before you applied, the average age was 15 years. Now your average is 12 years. Not too bad of a drop; it’s been propped up by all the accounts you opened between 2020 and 2030.
- Hare: Let’s say you applied for only one card in 2020. In 2030, the average age of your 1 account is 10 years. In 2040, the average age is 20 years. Congratulations, your average account age has surpassed that of the tortoise so far, so you are ahead. But if you apply for just one credit card in 2040, your average age suddenly drops to 10 years. If you apply for 5 credit cards in total in 2040, your average age just dropped to 3 years 4 months! You will have to wait almost 20 more years for your average age to go back up to 20 years. Now, you are way behind the tortoise, and there is nothing you can do about it, because you can’t turn back time.
As long as you don’t close old accounts, your accounts that are kept open will help prop up your average age. It ages like wine.
You might say, “oh I’ll just apply to one credit card right now and I won’t need another one, ever!” Well, that’s probably not true, because there will always be a credit card you might need to end up applying for in the future, and plus, you are saying goodbye to free money AND credit-building opportunities by doing that. (Free money because you miss out on sign-up bonuses, and credit-building because each new card increases your credit limit, which is good for decreasing utilization percentage.)
You might also say, “but I am in my 20s and need a mortgage now, not in 20 years!” Okay, but there’s also no way for you to get your average account age to 20 years by your own means, because you could only start applying for accounts less than 12 years ago, when you turned 18. A high average account age matters for those who can have them: people over 35-40. And there’s no way they could achieve that by their own means if they didn’t apply for cards early on in their adulthood.
There’s a difference between applying recklessly and applying often responsibly
Applying to 5 credit cards in the span of less than 1 month is definitely cause for concern. That may imply you’re broke and trying to get lines of credit to borrow on, only to not pay the debt back anytime soon. But one new card every six months is not an issue as long as you actually use the most recent card you got approved for and demonstrate at least 3-6 months of on-time payments for it. If you do that, it becomes clear your previous new card wasn’t used for carrying a balance, and therefore it makes credit card issuers a lot more comfortable with issuing you a new credit card, even if your last one was opened 6 months ago.
One rule of thumb you might want to keep in mind about applying too often is: you shouldn’t be breaking Chase’s 5/24 rule. They reject applicants who have already opened 5 accounts within the past 24 months. Applying for a new card once every 6 months won’t ever put you above 5/24.
Credit cards don’t have to cost money; in fact, most of them don’t
Some people get scared at the idea of applying for a new credit card because of its annual fee. The thing is, many credit cards don’t have annual fees! You certainly should not be keeping too many credit cards open that have annual fees, but the simple way to fix this problem is to… apply for credit cards that don’t have annual fees!
Should I apply just because, or does it help me build credit or earn bonuses?
Now that you see why the excuses are wrong, here’s why it’s still better to apply for them than to simply avoid applying at all:
- Each new account raises your overall credit limit. When your credit limit is higher, the utilization rate is lower for the same amount of money owed. When your utilization rate is lower, your score is higher.
- Let’s say each month, you spend $2,000 on your credit cards before you pay them off. This is constant because you need to get groceries, dine at restaurants, run errands, etc. If your overall credit limit is $5,000, your utilization is 40%, which might cause your credit score to drop dozens of points!! On the other hand, if your overall credit limit is $40,000, your utilization is only 5%, which keeps your credit score high.
- Utilization is a highly influential factor in determining your credit score, and because it keeps changing, you never want your utilization to be higher than 10%, especially when you’re applying for a mortgage or auto loan
- The more accounts you have, the better it is for your credit score.
- If you have fewer than 21 open credit accounts, it technically lowers your credit score because you are considered to not have enough accounts open. While this impacts your score only modestly, it still means a lower score.
- The earlier you apply for accounts, the better it will be for your average account age in a decade or two.
- Again, as mentioned earlier, this is an investment for the future. Taking a temporary dip right now will help you raise your credit score in the future.
- The more credit accounts you have open that are paid on-time, the more likely it will be that credit card issuers will open a new card for you.
- Credit card issuers don’t just look at your score and make a determination. One of the other factors is taking a look at all of your current credit accounts. The more amount of credit accounts you have, and the more on-time payments you have, the better that looks for you.
In short, when you apply often but show a consistently responsible pattern of spending and then immediately repaying your debt, it actually increases your creditworthiness than if you only applied for a new account once every few years. If you only have a few accounts, there isn’t enough data for credit issuers to make a well-informed decision on whether to issue you a credit card, and it might even result in a rejection due to not having enough credit history. Conversely, this won’t be an issue for people who have lots of existing credit accounts that they responsibly pay off.
In regards to regularly earning sign-up bonuses, keep reading to see whether that’s a good idea or not.
Is there ever such a thing as too many credit cards?
It may be true that credit card companies can close accounts they believe are not being used anymore, as it may represent a liability to them in case you suddenly need to max out your credit cards and you come back to carry balances on your old credit cards. As long as you remember to make a few transactions on each of your cards on occasion, this won’t be a problem. Plus, remember how having fewer than 21 credit accounts is considered “not enough” by credit bureaus? Most people think 10 credit cards is “too many”, so it’s important to frame it in the context of the bureaucrats making the decisions, not our personal feelings.
Can I apply for a new credit card regularly to take advantage of their sign-up bonuses?
You sure can, and you can even do so responsibly, both earning rewards and keeping a good credit score. This is called churning. There is a subreddit called r/churning; you should take a look at it if you’re interested in methodically planning how to do this. Warning: I know churners and they take this very seriously! I’m talking about them having Excel sheets to plan out their next 5 credit cards to apply for in the next 3 years.
After I got my first credit card, I started saving money on my transactions because I got at least 1% cash back on each purchase. Once you get your first rewards credit card, in general, you should never use a debit card ever again.
By using a debit card, you are essentially throwing away free money! Why spend on a debit card and get 0% cash back when you can use a credit card and get at least 1% cash back? You’re still paying the same price to the merchant. Might as well stretch your dollar by an extra cent or two and save up for a nice vacation or to pay off some of your expenses.
Are there any exceptions?
Assuming you are eligible for a credit card, the only times you should use a debit card are when:
- The merchant only accepts debit cards, like WinCo
- When the merchant says they will charge you over 1% more to use a credit card over a debit card
- You are trying to withdraw cash from an ATM
- You’ve maxed out your credit cards and need to pay off your balance first
An important proviso: Using a credit card is only better than a debit card if you’re not carrying a balance. The rule here is to never spend more than you can afford. Carrying a balance is not only high interest (meaning you usually pay at least 25% to 30% more than you originally spent if you let the debt sit there for a year), it’s also highly detrimental to your credit score, and it takes many years to raise it to a healthy score.
What if I’ve maxed out my cards for the month?
Assuming you’ll pay off your balances, it’s still possible that your card might be maxed out for the month (i.e. you’ve reached the credit limit), and it won’t be usable again until the balance is paid off. If this is the case, you should still try to use another credit card you have (if you have any left), even if the earning rate is lower than your preferred card. For instance, if you hit your Chase Freedom Unlimited’s credit limit but you still have a Chase Freedom Flex to use, there’s no reason to give up and say “oh man, I won’t be getting 1.5% cash back anymore, I should just use a debit card”. No! Go use your Freedom Flex. You might not be getting 1.5% but you’ll still get 1% back. It’s not ideal, but you shouldn’t go back to using a debit card unless it is a last resort. (Also, try to avoid this by paying off your balances as soon as possible, multiple times a month.)
This is also a sign that you should apply for more no annual fee rewards credit cards.
Which credit cards should I apply for then?
Today, there are few credit cards that do not offer at least 1% cash back or 1x points on all purchases. If a credit card doesn’t have cash back, don’t apply for it. This goes for secured credit cards too; see why in the below section.
Keep in mind that not all cash back is created equal. For instance, many Capital One cards claim to offer 1x or 2x points on purchases, but in reality, the points are only worth ½ a cent when applied against your statement balance, so really you’re only getting 0.5% or 1% cash back. Programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards are much better in this regards (in Chase’s case, each point is always worth at least 1¢).
For my list of recommended cards, see My most useful credit cards.
What if I have bad or no credit?
If you need a secured credit card, then you can get one with cash back, like Quicksilver Secured or Discover Secured.
Even if you don’t yet have a credit history, there is still no excuse to use a debit card because you are most likely eligible for a student credit card. While they aren’t as glamorous as other credit cards and they don’t offer as nice of rewards, they are a stepping stone that still offer decent rewards. I’d recommend applying for either the Chase Freedom Student or the Discover it® Student Credit Card. Learn about how I got my first credit card, a Discover it® Student Credit Card, on this post: How I got my credit score above 800 before I turned 22 (Part 1).
While I have 7 credit cards as of June 2022, I only use 4 credit cards on a day-to-day basis. The 4 cards I consider to be most useful for me (and the 4 I use the most) are, in no particular order:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Freedom Unlimited
- Chase Freedom Flex
- American Express Platinum Card®
I’ll explain why these are my favorite cards and why I find them the most useful.
(Full disclosure: by clicking on these application links, I’ll get a referral bonus if you get approved for the card. Thank you in advance for supporting my blogging!)
Chase Sapphire Preferred
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a fantastic travel card for most people. With a modest $95 annual fee, it provides 2x points on travel purchases as well as 3x on dining & drugstore purchases. Its signup bonus gives you hundreds of dollars. Points are worth 1.25¢ instead of 1¢ when redeemed for travel on Chase Travel. Therefore, when redeeming for travel, you can consider the cash back value to be at least 2.5% on travel and at least 3.75% on dining & drugstores.
It provides a host of other travel-related benefits too, such as:
- No foreign transaction fees
- Limited trip interruption, trip cancellation, and trip delay insurance
- Baggage insurance
- Primary insurance coverage on rental cars
Each year at your card anniversary, you get $50 to spend on a hotel when booked through Chase Travel. This offsets the overall cost of the card to be only $45.
I mainly signed up when the limited-time 100,000 bonus points offer was running, which is worth at least $1,250 when redeemed for travel.
The high amount of value provided from the Sapphire Preferred makes it my go-to card for travel-related purchases, dining, and any transactions I make abroad.
Chase Freedom Unlimited
The Chase Freedom Unlimited is a simple but powerful cash back card. It has no annual fee, yet it provides 1.5x back on all purchases, except for dining & drugstores, where it’s doubled and becomes 3x back. The 1.5x back on everything is one of the highest amounts for general purchases among reward credit cards; the Citi DoubleCash’s 2% back is better, but pair the Freedom Unlimited with a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve card and your Chase Ultimate Rewards points become more valuable. Since you can interchangably transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points between each card at a 1:1 ratio with no fees and no limits, any points earned on one Ultimate Rewards card is as good as earning it on another.
Chase Freedom Flex
The Chase Freedom Flex is a nice no annual fee rotating bonuses card where you get 5% back on purchases belonging to select categories that change each quarter. The bonus cash back is something that you shouldn’t miss if at all possible; I just wouldn’t rely on it for anything because the elevated cash back rate changes each quarter, and most spending habits don’t change quarterly. Again, it becomes more powerful when paired with a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve card, for the same reasons as Freedom Unlimited. I wouldn’t recommend getting this card until you have both the Sapphire Preferred and Freedom Unlimited cards. However, I think it remains valuable, especially when the bonus categories happen to be for expenses you were going to make anyway and you can get some bonus points to use towards your next travel redemption.
American Express Platinum Card
The Amex Platinum is a luxury travel card that is perhaps the most expensive mainstream consumer credit card available. With an annual fee of $695, its high cost is offset by its various benefits, such as the signature Centurion Lounge network. For more information on why I like my Amex Platinum, see The best personal finance mistake I ever made.
It’s important to note that, despite this card’s various benefits, I only find its 5x points on airfare to be valuable. The 5x points on hotels booked through AmexTravel.com are limited in use, and everything else is 1x back, which is inferior to Chase Freedom Unlimited’s 1.5x points on everything, and that’s a card with no annual fee.
In June, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to apply for the Capital One Venture X card. Since I would hit Chase’s 5/24 rule by getting approved for this card, I decided to go ahead and hit 5/24 by completing the Chase trifecta: Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Freedom Unlimited, and Chase Freedom Flex. This way, I could apply for other cards in peace without worrying about hitting 5/24 and disqualifying myself from Chase cards.
I applied for the Flex last month. Its introductory offer was 5% cash back for the first year. Then, for July–September 2022, one of the 5% cash back categories is at gas stations.
In theory, then, the cash back should be 10%, right? Well, actually, this is where it gets interesting.
Why it’s only 9% back instead of 10%
For both deals, it is an additional 4% cash back on top of the standard 1% back on all purchases. So, rather than two 5% bonuses stacking on top of each other, it’s actually the standard 1% cash back stacked on the intro offer’s additional 4% cash back stacked on the quarterly additional 4% cash back. That makes a total of 9%. Chase was nice enough to add an FAQ about this scenario to be perfectly clear about why it’s this case.
At least they were upfront about it, and I’m definitely glad the bonuses stack!
An unfortunate proviso
If you’re like me, one of my favorite gas stations is Costco. The gas prices are typically the lowest in the area and they have high-quality fuel that’s good for your engine, which they call “detergent gasoline”. However, this deal unfortunately won’t be possible to enjoy at Costco gas stations. It all boils down to the Chase Freedom Flex being a Mastercard instead of a Visa. I used to go to Costco and use my Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card since it came with 2% back at gas stations. With this amazing 9% back offer, I’ll definitely be avoiding Costco since the amount saved with cash back is most likely greater than the amount Costco saves me compared to the next cheapest gas station.
Instead, I’ll probably be using my Walmart+ membership that I get through my Amex Platinum. It comes with a fuel perk that lets me get gas at Sam’s Club even if I don’t have a Sam’s membership, as well as giving me a 10¢ discount at Exxon gas stations. It’s almost always true that the Sam’s Club gas station’s pricing is about the same as Costco’s or at least within 10% of the pricing of Costco’s gas. Plus, the 10¢ discount at Exxon is no pithy amount either; it usually makes the pricing about the same as Costco or Sam’s Club.
After the pandemic, with travel surging, the estimated application wait times for Global Entry has become less certain than before. As I recently went through the application process myself, I hope my experience will be a helpful data point.
The stages of the application process
There are essentially three stages:
- Applying for Global Entry
- Waiting for conditional approval
- Scheduling an enrollment interview
Waiting for conditional approval is usually what takes the longest and you have least control over this stage. Scheduling an enrollment interview can be tedious, but you can instead do what’s called Enrollment on Arrival (EoA), where you do the enrollment interview immediately after clearing customs and immigration at an airport upon return from a foreign country.
How the process started for me
I applied in mid-November 2021 after I got approved for my Amex Platinum and it gave me a Global Entry application credit. From what I had read online, it could take anywhere between 24 hours to 12+ months to get “conditionally approved”, with the average wait time being about 1-6 months. I was hoping for a quick approval, since I had no criminal records, but unfortunately that’s not how it works. This way, I could use Global Entry upon returning to the U.S. from Europe in late March 2022. Instead, I had to wait until early March of 2022 for my approval.
I kept checking my application portal for status updates, but as I later learned, this was a waste of time and more anxiety-inducing than necessary.
Why did it take this long for my conditional approval?
From a perspective of completing a background check, the following factors may have influenced the time it took for my conditional approval to be issued:
- I have lived in two states and in four counties
- I have traveled abroad before
- By the time I applied for Global Entry, I had visited Canada, China, and the United Arab Emirates within the past 5 years
It doesn’t take that long to get background checks from four counties across two states and then reconcile them (at least, it really ought not to!), but I suspect the travels to China and the UAE may have caused flags to be raised for further review. That’s fair, considering China is not on the best of terms with the U.S. right now, and traveling to the Middle East may raise alarm due to terrorist threats eminating from the region. To be honest, I am fine about vetting me for trustworthiness; I wouldn’t want anyone communicating with terrorists or committing espionage to be a member of Global Entry.
I got an email with an application status update in early March, saying my application had been conditionally approved and the next step was enrollment. This is where I would have an interview with a CBP agent. Because I got this message when I was in Europe, the choice was obvious for me: rather than trying to book an appointment several months out, I’d simply elect to enroll upon arrival. As long as I was clearing customs at a reasonable time of day (my flight landed in mid-afternoon in Dallas), I could reasonably expect Enrollment on Arrival to be available.
When landing in Dallas, the instructions were unclear on how I was to enroll upon arrival. Should I skip the regular immigration interview and ask to go to somewhere special to both clear immigration and enroll at the same time? I ended up asking staff and CBP agents at every step of the way. When passing through regular immigration (hopefully for the last time ever), I asked the agent where I could complete enrollment—he told me to ask after I had collected my bags. After collecting my bags, I asked the customs agents (the last people you’d talk to before you’d be “released” into the U.S.) and they took me to the secondary inspection area, where nobody was there except the secondary processing agent.
The interview process was very pleasant. The agent asked me where I worked (to confirm the information I typed into the application), if I had a criminal record, and then took my fingerprints. We even joked about the high cost of living in Seattle. (In my opinion, this interview should not be stressful at all. As long as you are telling the truth, it should be very easy to work with the agent, and if you are friendly with them (and if you’re like me and like to crack appropriate jokes), you can even relate to them and it makes the process better for both you and the agent. After all, they are human too!) At the end of the interview, she told me straight up that my application has been approved and that I would be receiving my card in the mail in 2-3 working days. Sweet!
Sure enough, I did receive my card in 2 working days in the mail, which was a surprisingly fast turnaround for a government agency that had taken 4 months with granting me conditional approval. My interview was on a Thursday and I got it on the following Monday. I immediately activated it online so I could use it at land crossings. (Read about my land crossing experience with Global Entry on this post: My experience using Global Entry for the first time by land.)