If you're like me, you're inundated with credit card offers. Maybe you already have a travel rewards credit card or one affiliated with a specific airline or hotel chain. Then, it's even more likely you are bombarded with deals enticing you to pack your bags. The missives feature white-sand beaches, opulent suites, infinity pools — images whispering, "Take a vacation. C'mon, you're entitled. It's easy. Just charge it."
Credit card companies call it marketing. Others see it as manipulation — encouraging Americans to go into debt for a vacation or spend more for upgrades.
And when it comes to travel, we often are emotion-driven creatures.
"We think, 'A vacation is something I deserve. After all, my friends went on one, why didn't I? I'm special and should treat myself as special,' " says Michael Kamins, visiting professor of marketing at Claremont Graduate University and author of "Marketing Manipulation: A Consumer's Survival Manual."
Credit card issuers aren't necessarily sneaky, says Sean Messier, associate editor at Credit Card Insider. "A lot of the temptations offered by credit card issuers actually have the potential to be valuable," he says. "Trouble begins when people neglect to use their credit cards in a way that allows them to take advantage of that value."
How can you avoid falling prey to the hype? Here are some come-ons that should set off warning bells.
The pitch: Sign up and spend X amount of money in the first three months for X bonus points.
The reality: Nearly every travel rewards credit card offers some sort of introductory sign-up bonus. Typically, you receive from 30,000 to 60,000 points or airline miles for spending $1,000 to $4,000 in the first three months. If you're thinking you'll get a new card and use it to pay for an Alaskan cruise, take a step back, advises Messier. Craft the budget you'd have made for a vacation before you knew about the bonus. If you find the amount you'd ordinarily spend doesn't come close to the signup's bonus spending requirement, don't bother.
The pitch: Act now and pay 0% interest in 12 months.
The reality: It's easy to lose track of an intro annual percentage rate period, if you're not budgeting carefully. So if you planned on spending $750 for an all-inclusive getaway to Cancun, Mexico, with airfare, but instead opt to drop $2,500 on that Rome, Florence and Venice by rail tour, you could easily be left paying off the debt well after the introductory period ends. "In some cases, even if you have paid off most of the balance, you'll still be charged interest on the entire balance if you haven't paid it off by the end of the intro period. This is known as deferred interest," cautions Messier.
The pitch: Enjoy special benefits when you book at our hand-selected hotels.
The reality: In many cases, these properties, usually classified as "luxury hotels and resorts," cost much more than perfectly suitable alternatives. So unless you were planning on staying at one of those properties, forget it. Getting a room upgrade or welcome bottle of Champagne isn't worth paying more for a hotel than you need to.
The pitch: But wait, there are so many extra benefits.
The reality: Many travel rewards credit cards provide benefits that seem to make travel more appealing. This might drive you to spend more often or to apply for a credit card with an annual fee that costs more than you'll get back in value from the card. Sure, Hyatt's new credit card offers points for using public transit in Chicago and New York, and you may accrue points for using Lyft and Uber. "But does a $15 Uber credit really offset that $550 annual credit card fee?" asks Grant Martin, business of loyalty editor at Skift, a travel industry website.
The pitch: This is a limited-time offer. The clock is ticking. Buy now.
The reality: According to Martin, airlines such as American and United have ratcheted up their in-flight credit card pitches usually with an offer or deal good only until the plane lands. Flight attendants receive an incentive ($50 to $100) for every sign-up. Because the focus is on regret (miss it and you'll hate yourself), a limited-time offer leads to illogical decisionmaking.
The pitch: For only X more, you get an upgraded (fill in the blank).
The reality: Kamins calls this the "incremental pitch." Once you've bought into that $2,000 cruise ship cabin or $350 airline seat, why not spend an extra $50 or $100 to get a balcony or better seat? "Essentially [you've] made the first bid, which is the toughest decision, to go from zero to $350," he says. "Now, you are more susceptible when presented with a smaller amount to move from A to B, then B to C."
The pitch: Our credit card pays for itself.
The reality: Earning and maximizing rewards through credit cards is complicated and could sink you into debt faster than the Titanic went under. One pitch we received recommended partnering cards. After spending enough to earn the maximum points on one card, you transfer those points to another card and combine them with that second card's points to maximize their value for redemption. By the time you're done, according to my calculations on one such offer, you will have spent $24,000 (plus the $95 annual fee for one of the cards) to earn $1,500 in travel rewards. Credit cards should not require a user's manual. Says Martin: "Partnering credit cards can be a good way to earn points across a wider spectrum of spend categories, such as dining on one card and travel on another, but it also multiples the amount that one needs to spend in order to reach sign-up bonuses. Faced with the prospect of finding a reason to meet those thresholds, it can be easy to let spending get out of control."