Using rewards to fund your DNA/heritage travel

people having dinner at a restaurant

Learning about your genetic background and ancestral home is a thrill, so it’s no wonder that DNA testing has become so popular. VisitScotland.org found that an estimated 23% of North American visitors travel to Scotland so they can trace their kilt-wearing roots. 

If you’ve taken the test, the results may have inspired you to connect with the people and places that make you, you. Depending on how far you’ll need to travel and what you want to do when you get there, the trip may be expensive. 

Your adventure might require domestic or international flights, lodging, rental cars and even gifts from home. Thankfully you can minimize all those costs with credit card rewards. Here’s how.

Pursue the biggest sign-up bonus

Most rewards credit cards come with sign-up bonuses, and if you open the right one, you may get enough points or miles to cover the cost of a round trip airline ticket or hotel accommodations. 

To win the big rewards prize, you’ll have to meet the minimum spend. That entails charging a certain amount of money on purchases within a fixed number of months from the date you open the account. 

The financial expectation and bonus varies by card, but to score 30,000 to 60,000 bonus points you typically need to charge a few thousand dollars within the first three months. 

What does this mean to you? A coast-to-coast airline ticket in economy class can be anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000 points or miles, while an international flight can be 40,000 to 60,000. As for lodging, 50,000 points or miles can translate into a week’s worth of hotel rooms. 

So, think about what you may need to purchase for the trip (new luggage, maybe?) as well as your regular expenses. Use the card to pay for everything you can afford to repay in full until you’ve reached the amount needed for the bonus. When you have, you can begin to plan. 

Accumulate more rewards for the trip

Don’t stop there; keep using the rewards credit card to accumulate the highest number of points or miles possible, so you can trade them in for the many purchases and activities that will go into your heritage vacation. 

Some cards allow you to earn more in different spending categories, too, so familiarize yourself with how yours works (check the website), then charge systematically. Download the app on your phone so you can track your rewards balance as you shop. 

If your card allows you to redeem the rewards for cash, you can buy whatever you want with it. Charge groceries, gas, entertainment, clothes…anything that is within your budget. If you were to put $2,500 on a card offering a 1.5% cash back redemption, in a year you’ll have $450 at your disposal. That’s enough to take some long lost relatives out for a meal at a trattoria your predecessors might have frequented. 

In fact, one of the most amazing aspects of heritage travel is meeting people with whom you share genetic material. If that’s part of the plan, bring gifts, especially if they will be having you as a guest in their home. 

This is also where the rewards you’ve amassed on the card can help you keep costs down. Some credit card issuers have shopping portals where you can buy gifts that you will take with you. Or buy gift cards with your rewards (sometimes even at a discount) that you can use for a shopping excursion, both before you leave or while you’re there.

Make the most of other redemption possibilities and benefits

Think you’ll be needing a car for your trip? You may be able to trade the accumulated rewards to rent one, which is another money-saving option. And if the card includes extra insurance coverage, great. You won’t have to pay for it. 

Read over the card’s perks carefully, because many accounts also come with trip protection insurance. It’s a wise idea to have, especially if you’ll be traveling at a time when the weather is iffy or if you need to cancel or reschedule.

Other valuable benefits that may be attached to your card: free checked bags, entry into the airport lounge so you can collect your thoughts and dine on complimentary food and Global Entry or TSA pre-check so you can zip through the security line. 

Parting words (or warning)

Clearly there is no reason to spend all of your hard-earned money on the trip of a lifetime if a credit card can transport you there for free or for dramatically less. Just be sure to keep the balances at zero and pay on time, no matter where you go or what you’ll be doing. 

If you don’t, the value of your rewards will be diluted by interest costs and late payment fees. And the last thing you’ll want after seeing the old country or meeting with distant cousins is to return home to an overwhelming debt.