In the Beginner’s Guide and throughout The Higher Flyer, I stress the importance of maintaining a good credit score. Everyone should have at least a 675, because without that, you won’t be approved for the cards required to earn lots of redeemable miles and points. Such a standard is pretty high already, and if you’re a student, you might not have a credit score at all. While that might seem problematic — how could you possibly get approved for a credit card? — you shouldn’t be discouraged. It’s entirely possible to build a score high enough to get you higher flying within a year.

I first got involved with higher flying during my junior year in college, and before graduation the following year, I had successfully applied for four credit cards and redeemed points for three first class experiences. The point is: anything is possible if you know what to do. By following a few steps, you can be on your way to enhancing your travel experiences with points from credit cards… even if you’re starting from square one.

1. Don’t be overly ambitious at first

Credit cards are hugely lucrative for both consumers and issuers in the United States, and in the past few decades, banks have been dueling with one another to offer competitive products in terms of point bonuses and perks. The top-of-the-line cards, like the American Express Platinum and the Chase Sapphire Reserve, represent the very best that you can get. They enable their users to create remarkable opportunities to fly higher.

Unfortunately, as a student who doesn’t have a credit score, you shouldn’t be considering cards like these… yet. To be approved, you must have a long record of credit worthiness, which entails at least a rating of 750. If you have anything short of that, you risk being denied, which would damage your credit score. You can go to websites like Doctor of Credit to research what you might need for a specific card application. Until you’re pretty certain that you’ll be approved, don’t apply for anything!

Even though you might not do not have access to the best-of-the-best initially, that doesn’t mean that you’re out of the game. After all, everyone has to start somewhere, and a lot of companies feature programs that are designed with students in mind. While there may not be as rewarding perks or points earnings rates, your approval is practically guaranteed, which is the best that you can hope for when you have no prior credit. Here are some popular programs:

There are certainly others available too, and you can check your local bank for options. If I had to recommend one starter card though, I’d opt for Citi Bank’s offering: Citi ThankYou Preferred Credit Card for College Students. This is the only student card with a Flex Value Point signing bonus (2,500 ThankYou points after spending $500 in the first 3 months), plus it has decent earning rates (2 points per dollar spent on dining and entertainment, 1 point on everything else). You won’t earn a ton of points with that, but that’s not the goal right now, you need to focus on building your credit score.

2. Be financially responsible

When you get your first credit card, it is imperative that you do not abuse the privileges that come with it. This may be the first time that you can purchase things with credit (exciting!), and remember that just because you can spend money that you don’t have doesn’t mean you always should. To really accelerate the growth of your credit score, you should get in the habit of immediately paying off any charge you make, even if it isn’t the end of the billing cycle yet. This will demonstrate to the ratings agencies that you are serious and committed to acting financially responsible.

I’ve already written an article entitled “How To: Boost and maintain your credit score” and most of what’s discussed in that feature is applicable to new users as well. The key difference lies in the fact that students without credit histories have unblemished records. If that’s your case, you should do everything you can to keep it just so; that’s a huge benefit! You’ll see quickly see noticeable improvements to your credit score if you can…

  • Pay your bill in full every month
  • Minimize your monthly credit utilization
  • Refrain from requesting lots of credit at once

If you practice responsible credit usage, you’ll most likely have a credit score above 675 within the first 6-12 months of opening your first account. In other words, you’ll then be ready to apply for more lucrative higher flyer cards!

3. Be patient

If you have a credit score above 675 after, say, nine months of card ownership, you still probably shouldn’t apply for the top-tier cards (American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, etc) quite yet. It’s best to think of this whole process as a journey, and after succeeding at the entry-level, you can then begin to think about acquiring a mid-range card. Some of these include the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, and the Citi ThankYou Premier, and usually have $95 annual fees attached to them (which are often waived the first year). You’ll also have access to more lucrative signing bonuses and earning rates.

As a relatively new user, your credit score will be volatile for the first few years that you have open accounts. This partly justifies the importance of having patience. If you “jump the gun” and apply for too many cards at once, your score will negatively reflect that and possibly strip you of your worthiness to be approved for higher-caliber cards. You should apply for, at most, two new credit cards per year.

You won’t be ready for an elite card until you’ve had other ones for at least 24 months, but after slowly building your way up and practicing responsible credit habits, you’ll have a near-infallible credit score. Slow and steady wins this race!

4. Be cautious

As the previous points explain, you shouldn’t get in too deep too quick. You risk your ability to be approved for practical credit cards, which would then make it quite difficult to become a higher flyer. You should behave responsibly and deliberately, so that way you can build an immaculate credit score while you’re still young. Later in life, that will serve you well as you look to apply for other more important loans, like for a car or for a mortgage. Be cautious, and don’t ruin the opportunity you have now to get started off in the right direction.

Also, as a novice in the world of higher flying, be aware of everything that you’re getting in to. There are a lot of shady characters looking to take advantage of people who don’t know what they’re doing. Before you apply for anything, be sure that you know the terms and conditions of the credit card. Do your research, be wary of things that sound too good to be true, and question everything. It would be a shame to be juggling serious debts already as a college student.

When you’re safe and secure in your finances, you’ll get a lot more value out of your cards, plus you won’t risk ruining your credit score. This is the only way you should be flying higher, and getting to that point requires careful planning and deliberate, thoughtful actions.

Other tips

  • When you apply for credit cards, make sure you count ALL sources of income beyond your job wages. According to the CARD Act of 2009, income legally counts as “reasonable expectation of access” to money that will fulfill your financial obligations. This includes scholarships, gift money, one-time bonuses, and many other things that you may receive in any given year. Loans however do not count as income. By including these additional funds, you’ll likely receive a higher credit line than you otherwise would have, which in turn makes it easier to keep your credit utilization low.
  • If someone is willing to help/sponsor you, you could gain access to a more premium card as an authorized user. In this case, someone with a more established credit score would apply for a card that would otherwise be unavailable to you. Following approval, the owner would give you permission to use the card by adding you to it. This would help you build credit, but you also might forego some of the perks and point bonuses that are otherwise offered with the card. It’s still usually better to get a card on your own though, but sometimes that’s not always possible.
  • If an application gets denied for a new card, don’t give up hope entirely, but you might want to consider holding off for at least a couple of quarters until you try again. You’ll be able to further grow your credit score in that time.
  • When you’re ready to pick up a better card, consider upgrading it instead of outright applying for a new account. Most major companies will let credit worthy customers get a new/better/more expensive card at no additional cost. You might forego a points bonus, but your credit score will not suffer any deductions.

Even though students don’t usually have substantial income or credit history, they are not excluded from higher flying. Granted, it might take a little bit longer to accrue the cards and perks and points needed to enhance travel experiences, but if done correctly, students can become full-blown higher flyers even before they graduate. With patience and enthusiasm, anything is possible — good luck!