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Travel Hacking for Beginners: The Best Travel Credit Cards

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In the past five years, I’ve gotten more serious about my travel hacking, going from credit card novice to a Jedi-in-training. And while I definitely still consider my knowledge level somewhere in the middle, I wanted to share my personal best travel credit cards list in case you’re looking for your next move.

Contrary to popular belief, holding multiple credit cards will not damage your credit score if you know how to play the game, including not having too many credit inquiries (or hard pulls) in a set amount of time as well as paying off your balance in full every statement cycle so you don’t find yourself paying interest. I repeat: You should only play this game if you have good credit already and can pay off your credit cards monthly. Free travel is awesome, but there’s nothing worth getting into credit card debt over!

In the past year, we used points on two of our three trips to Europe to cover our flights and rental cars, and we just booked another for my birthday in February. And since this July alone, I’ve accumulated an additional 400,000 rewards points, and no that is not money I spent, but through playing the game of sign-up bonuses and meeting minimum spends.

Best Travel Credit Cards for Racking up Points

With that said, here are the five cards I currently have and use—and how and when I use each. If you’re interested in getting into the travel hacking game, I’ve found the 10x Travel Insiders Facebook group very helpful as to how to churn-and-burn cards while staying debt-free and maintaining a high credit score. I also recommend going for a card that has no foreign transaction fees, which includes all of the below cards, if you plan to travel internationally.

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1. Chase Sapphire Reserve

I love the Reserve so much—it’s my go-to card, and it’s currently got one of the highest sign-up bonuses you’ll find this product offering ever. Since you can only hold one Sapphire product at any one time, you’ll need to product-change your card to a Freedom if you currently have the Reserve, then wait a week or two before applying.

Benefits of the Chase Sapphire Reserve include:

  • $300 annual travel credit
  • 5x points on flights
  • 10x points on hotels, rental cars and dining through Ultimate Rewards portal
  • 3x points on all other dining and takeout
  • 10x points on rideshares
  • Instacart+ membership ($180/year)
  • DashPass membership ($120/year)
  • Global entry/TSA PreCheck credit
  • Priority Pass lounge access
  • Trip insurance
  • Car rental loss and damage insurance

Annual fee: $550

Current sign-up bonus: 80,000 points

Related post: Global Entry vs. TSA PreCheck: Which One is Better?

In the credit card universe, you’ll hear what is referred to as the 5/24 rule often. That simply means that in Chase’s mind, you can only apply to and receive five credit cards (from any company) in a 24-month period. This is important because if you do decide to play the points game, you will want to make sure you always hover somewhere under that number, meaning that you keep a detailed spread sheet of any credit cards you hold, as well as when you opened them. If you are close to hitting 5/24, you’ll want to consider going for other cards like American Express while your credit card history with Chase cools off.

Explore current Chase sign-up bonuses here.

2. Southwest Priority Card

If you fly Southwest regularly, this is the best travel credit card for you and this is the best time to open it. Why? Well, if you earn 125,000 points, you get Companion Pass status, meaning a plus one will fly for free with you for the rest of the calendar year in which you earned it in addition to the following year. What does this mean? You should plan on hitting your sign-up bonus in January and not a minute before!

Benefits of the Southwest Priority Card include:

  • 6,000 anniversary points
  • 3x points on all Southwest purchases
  • 2x points on internet, cable, phone services and select streaming
  • 25% back on inflight purchases
  • 2 Early Bird Check-Ins per year

Annual fee: $99

Current sign-up bonus: 50,000 points for personal card, 80,000 for business card

While the Southwest cards are Chase products, you earn miles directly deposited to your Rapid Rewards account instead of Ultimate Rewards in the Chase ecosystem. To earn Companion Pass on credit cards alone, you’ll need to open one Southwest card—I recommend the Performance Business to start—and then wait 30 days and open a personal card like the Plus, Premier or Priority. I repeat: Do this so you hit your bonus on each early in the year and not this calendar year, so you maximize benefits of your Companion Pass. You also can’t earn the bonuses if you’ve received any on these Southwest cards within the past 24 months.

Explore current Southwest card bonuses here.

3. Chase Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is what I consider the gateway card to travel hacking. It’s under the Chase Universal Rewards flexible points system—which is key because it means you can spend those points on so many different airlines, hotels or car rental companies—and it’s also got a low annual fee, making it easy to justify for those who are looking for the best travel credit card for their needs (and possibly their first). You can also combine Chase points across products if you hold multiple cards.

Benefits of the Chase Sapphire Preferred include:

  • $50 annual hotel credit
  • 5x total points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • 2x on other travel purchases
  • 3x points for dining purchases, including eligible delivery services and takeout and dining out
  • 3x points on online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs)
  • 3x points on select streaming services

Annual fee: $95

Current sign-up bonus: 60,000 points

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great intro card for anyone who wants to get in this game and test the waters. For years, it was the only travel credit card I had until I eventually product-changed and got the Chase Sapphire Reserve instead (you cannot hold two Sapphire products at the same time, so it’s best to downgrade—or PC—to a Freedom card if you currently have the Preferred and want the Reserve). And while $450 may seem hefty, you immediately get $300 back on your first travel purchase making it just $150. From there, the benefits pay for themselves and then some.

Explore current Chase sign-up bonuses here.

4. American Express Platinum

This is the gold standard card for those who travel often and well. It’s not for the frugal traveler, as the annual fee is high, but the American Express Platinum is worth it for many, myself included. That said, you absolutely have to go into the benefits section of your dashboard and enable everything to make the fee worth it.

Benefits of the AmEx Platinum include:

  • Walmart+ ($12.95/month)
  • Paramount+ ($49/year)
  • Digital entertainment credit of $20, which I use for New York Times and Hulu ($240/year)
  • CLEAR membership ($189/year)
  • Hotel credit ($200 annually)
  • Airline credit ($200 annually)
  • Global entry/TSA PreCheck credit
  • Priority Pass lounge access
  • AmEx lounge access
  • Delta Sky lounge access when flying Delta
  • Hilton Gold status
  • Marriott Gold status
  • Trip insurance
  • Car rental loss and damage insurance

Annual fee: $695

Current sign-up bonus: 150,000 points

Other benefits include an annual $100 Saks credit, an annual $300 Equinox or SoulCycle credit and 5x points on flights or travel booked through AmEx. So far, not including my sign-up bonus, my annual benefits for the AmEx Platinum exceed $1,100, and that’s not including the cash value of being Gold with both Hilton and Marriott and also lounge access.

Explore current AmEx sign-up bonuses here.

5. United Business MileagePlus

While it’s genuinely looked down upon to open a card for a very specific purpose, I’ve found that being based out of Nashville, all of our best international flight options are with United. So in my case, opening a United Business MileagePlus card will give me priority on upgrades, not to mention the 150,000 points I’ve earned through the sign-up bonus will take me far in points travel.

Benefits of the United Mileage Business include:

  • $100 United credit
  • 2x miles on United purchases
  • 2x miles on select categories
  • 1x miles on all other purchases
  • 2 United Club one-time passes per year ($100 value)
  • Free first checked bag ($35 per flight)
  • One-year complimentary DoorDash membership ($96)

Annual fee: $99

Current sign-up bonus: 75,000 points for the first tier, 150,000 for the second

It’s important to note that while the United Mileage Business card is in the Chase universe, the points accrued go directly into your United Mileage account and cannot be combined with your Ultimate Rewards points from other cards.

Explore current Chase sign-up bonuses here.

Shot from the airplane

A few other credit card tips

While, again, I’m no Jedi (yet), I’ve been playing this game for awhile and have garnered quite a few handy tips along the way. These are a few other travel credit cards that frequent fliers love and I’ve yet to dip into (but likely will in the future):

  • Capital One Venture
  • Chase Ink Business Preferred
  • Chase Ink Business Cash
  • American Express Business Gold

And here are a few to keep in mind as you figure out the best travel credit card for your needs:

Many cards offer insurance, so use it

The majority of these best travel credit cards I’ve featured include some form of trip delay or cancellation and baggage insurance, meaning if you something happens and you find yourself needing a hotel at an airport in a pinch, you’ll likely be able to get reimbursed. Likewise, they often include both primary rental car insurance and cell insurance, so if you book your trips with these cards and something goes wrong, you can file a claim for reimbursement.

Related Post: What to Do When Your Airbnb Host Cancels Last Minute

Stay within a flexible points system

The best way to accrue points you can actually use are to play within both Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) and American Express Membership Rewards (MR). UR points transfer 1:1 to so many different airlines including Delta, Southwest, Air Canada, British Airways and United, though often I simply use them by booking flights through the Ultimate Rewards portal (always cross-check awards availability via the airline’s website first to make sure you’re not spending more points than needed). MR also have a good roster of transfer partners, which include Delta, Qantas, Virgin, and Singapore Air and Hilton and Marriott on the hotels side.

Don’t cancel cards, product change them instead

One way to build up a great credit score is by having a long history of credit, which includes cards you’ve had open for years (my lengthiest streak is 17 years!). When adding new cards to your roster, it’s often best to keep the old ones—when it makes sense—and just carry a balance of $0. So, for example, even if you decide to change from a Chase Sapphire Preferred to a Reserve, rather than canceling the Preferred outright, you’ll want to call Chase and PC (product change) it to one of the no-fee Freedom cards instead.

That said, at times you may have to cancel a card if you plan to reopen it for a new bonus—the rule is usually that you can’t receive a sign-up bonus for the same card within either 24 or 48 months—which I’m finding myself doing this week to take advantage of getting the Companion Pass through my Southwest credit cards points.

Co-branded cards often aren’t worth it

Co-branded cards like a Sephora credit card are typically not worth using a credit card slot on. Sure, if you fly Delta several times a week, you might consider getting one of the Delta SkyMiles Cards simply for the status. But if you’re more of a casual flier with no loyalty to one airline over another, it’s generally smarter to get a Chase Sapphire Reserve or AmEx Platinum that is in one of the flexible point ecosystems (meaning you can transfer your points to many different partners).

Southwest for the Companion Pass status is an exception to the rule or if you are a frequent flier who stays loyal to one airline. If you’re more of a casual takes-a-few-trips-a-year kind of traveler, you’ll want to start your points journey in the Chase or AmEx ecosystems.

Transfer monthly payments to meet a new SUB

Every time I get a new credit card, I transfer over any recurring payments like my phone or our insurance, which help me quickly meet a sign-up bonus (SUB). It’s an easy way to capitalize on money I’m already spending by earning points I can use toward travel. And while you can’t pay a mortgage on a credit card, you can pay pretty much everything else including income tax and property tax. Get those points for big payments you’re already making!

Related Post: Tax Prep for Freelancers, Bloggers & Biz Owners: A Q&A with Accountants

The value of points depends on what you spend them on

No matter what credit card you use, the value of individual points will depend on if you spend them on gift cards, online shopping or travel. I find that travel usually yields a higher point value, and you often can get even more out of each point by transferring them to travel partners (assuming a 1:1 transfer rate). You can also take advantage of bonus periods when your credit card, for example, offers 5x points on gas or pay-yourself-back bonuses. Just paying attention to these small details can bank you a good stockpile of points in no time.

These Are the Best Travel Credit Cards

Would you agree with me that these are the best travel credit cards? What’s your preferred card?

These annual fees and sign-up bonuses were accurate at the time of publication, but credit card deals change with the seasons, so be sure you’re getting the best sign-up bonus available when you apply for a card.


 

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How to Travel for Free: The Best Credit Cards for Travelers
How to Travel for Free: The Best Credit Cards for Traveler
How to Travel for Free: The Best Credit Cards for Traveler
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