“You want to go where?” the cab driver asked. The sun was beginning it’s descent to the western side of the world and he couldn’t believe we’d actually want to go there – the beach, he had already told us twice, was just a few miles away. I pointed again at the center of the map. “Yes, there,” I said, although a little more hesitant this time, “Can you take us?” The cab driver gave us another look then turned, motioning for us to come in the van with him. “Yes, I’ll take you – but I’m not coming back.” Fair enough, I thought. Pulling out my credit card, on instinct, drew a slight smile from the driver. “That may have gotten you here, but it won’t take you any further.”
Just six months prior, I had begun mapping out my journey halfway around the world to Croatia. It is not the most popular destination in Europe – the south of France, entirety of Italy and each of the islands of Greece dominate the Mediterranean travel scene – but once there you are very quickly convinced that you have stumbled upon a hidden gem; somewhere you simultaneously want to share yet keep exclusively as your own. Conveniently for me, it is also where my great-grandfather left from the island of Korcula and made his way out to America, eventually settling in California. And, for three successive generations, nobody in my family had stepped foot back on the island. I wanted to be the first to do so.
The drive was slow, with an inclined road that curved back and forth steadily up the slope. There wasn’t much scenery, save for trees, and if it wasn’t for our arrival from the ferry ten minutes earlier I would have thought we were somewhere in north Europe, nowhere near a coast. In some ways it looked like California, I thought, and maybe that’s what made my great-grandfather settle there. My mind drifted off in a way that only traveling can make happen and before I knew it, the car stopped. The driver turned his head. “We’re here.”
Money, of course, was the biggest issue. Roundtrip flights in economy were going for nearly $4,000 – not the type of money I look to spend on any trip, no matter the importance.
Thankfully I had just recently begun practicing card churning, earning hundreds of thousands of miles every few months by following simple money management techniques all-the-while keeping my credit score in the “excellent” category. So while dollar price tag was an issue, miles price tag was not. I ended up applying for just two cards to get my initial flight, which consisted of the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card and the Citibank AA Platinum (now a MasterCard with the same spending terms).
Both cards offered waived annual fees and a cumulative bonus of 105,000 miles after spending $4,000 in three months (also cumulative). This more than covered the 60,000 miles needed for a roundtrip journey to Split, the second-largest city in Croatia and a few hours by ferry to the magical islands of Vis, Hvar and, my personal target, Korcula.
Because the miles haul was so significant, I had enough for a second roundtrip flight that I booked a few months later when my girlfriend was able to join me. Two cards and a few months of regular spending had flown us halfway around the world.
My first steps in Blato, Croatia weren’t particularly significant – the taxi dropped us off at the “main street” that consisted of a couple restaurants and a gas station. It was beautiful, in a small European town way, but I can’t say I was shocked to have seen my great-grandfather left. And yet, something strange happened. As we walked from the main street to one of the side roads overlooking the vast mountainside of trees a young boy came sprinting around the corner. No more than five or six, the boy seemed determined to outrun his companion and gave me no more than a glance. But in that moment I understood it all – why we travel, what we are searching for. That boy, a long, long time ago and by some stroke of chance, could have been me.
As customary with all of my travel tales, I do have some more tactical recommendations to maximize your miles and points for memorable travel. For Croatia, I should mention that staying at a private apartment will go for $40 or less, even during peak season at the most popular destinations (like Hvar), so be mindful of using hotel points with such great, cheap options already available. If you do stick to using points, I would recommend Le Méridien Lav in Split. This is an incredible property I have already written about in some detail - 10,000 SPG points per night will get you a room and the American Express SPG card would net you three nights alone.
I would also recommend visiting Dubrovnik, one of the main locations for Game of Thrones sets, and the airport there has many one-stop flight options from mainland U.S. The one unfortunate side-note is that no amount of airline miles can get you ferry tickets (although a statement credit can), but if you don’t mind standing for a couple hours then tickets can be had for as low as $30. This is much cheaper than other ferries in the region as Croatia is still on it’s own currency, and not the euro. You can see more information about Croatian ferries by searching here.
Getting back to my reader’s question, however, and my answer is clear: being the first in three generations to set foot in Blato, Korcula, is my victory. And this would not have been possible without credit cards.
Credit cards often get a bad rap – and if you are a person that is not able to manage credit lines and is susceptible to debt, I’ve already recommended strongly that you do not do this – without also mentioning the positives of this society-changing technology.
The short of it is that banks make a significant amount of money off of credit cards and offer rewards to customers who choose them over a competitor. That means the benefit is yours for the taking - as long as you manage your money wisely, credit cards can take you to far-away places that you wouldn't have dreamed of purchasing on your own.
Have a question about your own trek to Croatia or the Mediterranean? Or have a victory of your own to share? Just submit a comment below.