I'm already booking travel with reward points from my new credit card

Chase Sapphire credit card

My initial foray into the world of prestige credit cards is going pretty well -- with one notable exception.

I've already overspent and stuck myself with an unwanted balance.

But most of the surprises have been good surprises with the Chase Sapphire card I signed up for in November.

Just carrying the card has garnered me all sorts of attention.

The Chase Sapphire card is heavier than your typical credit card, and the account number is on the back, not the front.

Those are traits it shares with uber-high-end charge plates such as Barclay's Black Visa Card.

I had one merchant who almost refused to take the card. She thought it was a store-branded card, not a general-use Visa card.

But the overall response has been quite positive, with about two dozen people commenting to me about the card.

Today, for example, a parking lot attendant grilled me about it. She liked that she couldn't snap it in two if she tried.

I've most often had friends ask about it when I've pulled the Sapphire card out to pay restaurant bills.

One was so intrigued about the points that he pledged to go look it up to see how it stacked up against his American Express card.

So as a marketing tactic, making Sapphire physically different from most credit cards works.

I feel special having it in my wallet.

But the ability to rack up lots of points toward airline tickets and hotels is the main reason I decided to get a credit card that charged an annual fee (although the first year's fee is waived).

So far, I've earned about 58,000 points.

Most of those came from the 50,000 bonus points I received for spending $3,000 within the first three months of opening the account.

The remaining 8,000 points came from Christmas shopping, meals while on a preholiday vacation and a 7% annual points dividend.

I also transferred a handful of points I had on another Chase account to this one.

Not too shabby.

But the sorry fact is that I wanted to make sure I hit the $3,000 required spending, so I used this card for everything.

It became my primary way to pay for travel and Christmas gifts as well as groceries (I usually pay cash or use my debit card) and small purchases that clearly should have been paid for in cash (like my morning coffee).

Swiping made it so much easier, and thinking "I'm getting my points!" left the door open to overspend.

So I'm going to get hit with a finance charge on some of this balance, which is bad news.

Good thing I'm not applying for a loan anytime soon.

This card has a $6,000 limit, which means I'm using more than half of my available credit on this card. It would skew my debt-to-credit ratio big time.

That will change after I pay my bill, but it makes me uncomfortable to be that close to a limit, even if it's relatively low (in comparison, my Chase Preferred Card's limit is $17,600).

Although I expect the finance charge will be $30 or $40, my points are worth about $750 in travel costs.

That makes me think I still came out ahead, and I've already come up with a plan to use them.

One perk of the Chase Sapphire card is that you can book travel through the bank's Ultimate Rewards site and pay directly with your points.

So far, the prices and deals that I've seen through Chase's site are the same that I'm finding on kayak.com and through bing.com's travel site, which is where I first turn to price a trip.

This is a very good thing.

I was worried that the tradeoff of booking through Chase's site would be losing some of the good prices I'm able to find elsewhere. But not so far.

The first big trip I booked was for this October, to run in the Chicago marathon.

I was annoyed that many of the hotels I checked through Ultimate Rewards came back showing no availability. You could only make reservations through the marathon's travel site.

That took out a huge range of options for what I could get via points.

Eventually I managed to score a boutique hotel close to the starting line for all of my points and an extra $150. I'm good with that. It took a huge cost burden off running this race.

My only quibble with Chase is that its hotel-finder application is confusing.

The map function (for if you're trying to book close to one specific spot such as a marathon starting line) is tiny and hard to use.

Making this feature more user-friendly might be a good change for Chase to make.

What if I had decided to use my points for something other than travel?

They'd be worth about $580 if I had applied them against my balance or bought gift cards.

Once again, this would more than pay for the finance charge I'll get whacked with for overspending. But $580 in cash is not $750 toward travel.

So what have I learned so far?

That the points game can work in my favor. Grabbing that 50,000 point bonus means that, at the very least, most of my hotel costs for Chicago will be covered.

But I need to be careful and not overspend, or I could get in way over my head.

I already dug myself out of credit card debt once (oh, why did I get a card in college when I had no idea how to use it?) and am smart enough not to do it again.

I write about this stuff, for Pete's sake, and still fell into the overspending trap. Every dollar spent toward finance charges will be, mentally at least, deducted from the $750 I got in travel.

I'm not going to beat myself up over it, though. No point in lamenting about what I've already done. Instead, I'll learn from my mistakes. I won't be picking up the card again until the balance is paid.

I'll report back in a few months to let you know how it's going -- and to tell you if I'll be keeping the card once my one-year anniversary comes up and it's time to actually pony up the $95 fee.

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