I'm planning a family vacation to Hawaii for myself, my husband and our daughter for later this year. Although I'm typically not much of a travel hacker, my goal is to get the airfare and lodging to be as inexpensive as possible, which is what lead me to apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card.
This credit card offers a very large welcome bonus to eligible new cardholders (100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 on purchases with the card within the first three months after account opening). I wanted this card in particular because points are worth 50% more when redeemed for travel. In other words, if I spend the 100,000 points on travel, they will yield $1,500 in travel reward value.
Applying for the New Card
I was fairly certain my application would be approved. I knew my credit score at the time was somewhere around 740 or 750, depending on the source. I know it could be even higher, but at this level I don't worry about it too much. I use credit cards for almost everything I buy and, although I'm not perfect — I do carry a balance now and then — most months I pay my credit card balances in full. I usually see high utilization reflected in my credit scores, though, because the balances are often reported before my payment due dates. But just like I expected, my card was approved. But what I didn't expect was what would happen to my credit scores.
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The Thing That Sent My Credit Score Skyrocketing
I knew applying for a new credit card would knock a few points off my scores. What I didn't expect was the very high credit limit ($12,000) on my new Reserve card. The credit limits on my other cards range from $1,900 to $7,200.
When I checked my credit after receiving the card (which I did for free on Credit.com), I was pleasantly surprised. My credit score had gone up 37 points!
I was quite suddenly within reach of the elite 800+ club, and the only significant change was my overall amount of available credit, and the lower utilization ratio that resulted.
Let's make sure that's plain as day. Lowering my credit utilization ratio to 12% caused my credit score to rise by 37 points.
One of the keys to excellent credit is having low utilization — meaning keeping your debt levels low in relation to your overall credit limit. Experts recommend keeping that rate at 30%, ideally 10%, of your overall credit limit. So, if you have a credit card with a $1,000 limit and you charge $900, your utilization would be reported as 90%. Bumping my credit limit up helped me improve my scores. But remember: Just because you have a higher limit doesn't mean you should be spending more, especially if you can't afford to pay off the balance in full.
What else impacts your credit? Using the free credit scores tool on Credit.com, I found out what other factors I had working for and against me.
On-Time Payments: 100% (excellent). No work to do here. I automate many payments, and use a bill pay app to help me make sure I maintain a good payment history (this accounts for 35% of your credit scores).
Oldest Credit Line: 12 years (good). My student loans from the '80s and '90s finally aged off, lowering my average file age. I'll need to hold on to my oldest accounts to improve this factor. Also, the average age of all of my accounts is just five years, pulled down by my new Chase account.
Utilization: 12% (good). To lower this, especially after holiday spending, I plan to focus on making my credit card payments by the statement closing date on each card. That way, the balance reported will be zero.
Recent Inquiries: 1 (good). This was the Chase card I recently applied for, and I know the inquiry counts against my score for one year (and ages off my credit report after two years). I'll avoid applying for new credit for the time being.
New Accounts: 2 (good to average). I recently refinanced my mortgage. The inquiry was more than six but less than 12 months ago.
Before You Get a New Credit Card
Are you considering getting a new card? Well, first up, you'll want to see what your credit scores are so you have an idea of the types of cards you may qualify for.
Needless to say, so-called "elite" credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve would likely not be available to me if I had a low credit score, as you typically need good or excellent credit to qualify for rewards credit cards. Because my credit is already healthy, I can take advantage of deals that are only available to consumers with good or excellent credit. In this case, a great credit score translates to being able to have the chance to secure $1,500 in travel perks.
Beyond that, you'll want to look at the details of any card you're considering. Is there an annual fee and, if so, would it fit into your budget? (The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with a $450 annual fee, for example.) And think about your personal habits. Do you tend to carry a balance? If so, a rewards credit card may not be right for you, as you'll likely lose out any benefits of the card due to paying those interest charges.
As for that trip to Hawaii, I transferred my Ultimate Rewards points from two lower-tier Chase cards over to the Reserve account where they have more value. Once I get the welcome bonus, I'll have more than 200,000 points to shop with. Not enough for an all-expenses paid week vacation for three, but I've still got plenty more time to earn and save.
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.
This article originally appeared on Credit.com.