When I was broke and burnt out, my airline credit card scored me a vacation I could never have afforded otherwise

I really needed a vacation earlier this year, but I had no idea how I'd afford it. 
Luckily, I had opened a United Explorer Card a year before and earned the sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles. That bonus helped me take a vacation to Greece and Italy.
While I'd always thought airline miles and travel rewards were too good to be true, I found out that they're incredibly valuable, and I won't go back to another type of card anytime soon. 
See Business Insider's picks for the best rewards credit cards »

The start of 2019 found me in a rather precarious financial situation. 
I was a freelancer living in Seattle, an area with incredibly high costs of living. While I still made more than the job I left to freelance, I didn't make enough for the area. I never knew when money was coming in, though I knew when it was going out. It was always feast or famine, and I felt like I'd been on an emotional roller coaster.
By March, I was just plain burnt out. 
I needed a break — time away from the gray and the rain, to shut my laptop for a few days and live a little. I missed the days when I could drive to the beach in Georgia. Sun and sand sounds cliche, but it was what I needed at the moment.
But I had no idea how I could afford a vacation.
Just looking into my airline miles made me realize I could make it work
The idea of traveling had me feeling an energy I hadn't felt in a while, and I knew I'd do whatever it took to do it. I did have a few airline miles I could use — 40,000 and some change from opening my United Explorer card the year before. I figured that the least I could do was research it.
I went to United's website and found that 40,000 miles and about $150 in taxes would get me a round trip flight in economy to Europe. In mid-March, there's not all that much warm weather in Europe. Greece, however, would give me everything I wanted. 
I rounded up as friend who's always ready to travel so I'd have someone to split lodging costs with. Going on the off season in late March made it extra affordable. With my hotel and Airbnb costs cut in half and the airfare virtually nonexistent with my airline miles, I knew I could make this trip work. 
Just before I booked my flight to Greece, I read about something called the Excursionist Perk, which adds an extra flight within the same region when you book with miles. That helped me add a free flight from Greece to Rome, Italy since I booked with miles. That extra perk extended my vacation for a few days, along with a $30-per-night hostel. 
I'm so glad I opened an rewards credit card when I did
Flights are often the most expensive part of any trip, but they're also the easiest part of the trip to get for free.
As an avid traveler, airline cards seemed to provide the most benefit for me. I've always been intentional with my spending, and try to maximize rewards when I can. But I won't lie — a part of me always thought that airline credit card rewards were too good to be true. This trip showed me that they're a very real and accessible benefit that anyone can use.
When the time came, I thanked my former self profusely for opening that United credit card and racking up those miles. These days, I can't imagine ever carrying a cash back credit card or a simple debit card ever again. My credit card gave me a vacation and an experience I couldn't have otherwise afforded, and for that, I don't think I could ever go back.

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