April 20

How to Choose the Right Travel Credit Card to Earn Free Travel


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Disclosure: A link in this post is an affiliate link. If you click through to sign up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, I will earn points at no extra cost to you. 

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Last week I shared how to get started with earning points and miles through loyalty programs with airlines, hotels, and car rental agencies. But the secret to earning points SO MUCH FASTER is through credit cards and getting points for the things you’re buying anyway.

There are a couple different credit card types that have travel benefits:

  1. Credit Cards connected directly to loyalty programs with airlines, hotels, etc.
  2. Credit Cards that have partnerships with a variety of loyalty programs

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Airline or Hotel Branded Credit Cards

The biggest benefit to these cards are the sign up bonuses that qualify you for a free flight or hotel stay, typically after a certain amount of spend on the card within a specified time frame. This is a quick and easy way to get you free travel for spending you’d already do.

I would recommend getting a branded credit card if you:

  • Travel frequently and are really loyal to a program because they often offer extra bonus points when you use your card on spending with that airline/hotel and some other benefits when you fly/stay with the program
  • Have a specific goal in mind (e.g. free flight for a specific trip) and you know signing up will get you there

Beware that these cards usually come with an annual fee, which is typically waived for the first year. So if you  are signing up just to get the free flight/hotel stay, then I would recommend using it to get the bonus and cancelling it before you hit that year mark.

You could keep it and pay the annual fee, but be honest with yourself about how much you fly or stay with that brand to make any ongoing benefits like a free checked bag worth it. For example, if a checked bag is $25 each way and you fly once a year, but the annual fee is $95, then it may not make sense for you to hold on to that card.

There are a few exceptions, but I much prefer the other type of travel credit card…

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Credit Cards with Multiple Travel Partners

Having a credit card for just one program isn’t NEARLY as flexible and beneficial as going with a credit card that has a variety of partners to choose from.

These cards will all come with sign up bonuses (and annual fees on the flip side), but instead of just having one option of how to redeem your points, you have multiple options.

Like I said in last week’s post, the number of points/miles you need to redeem for a flight or hotel room is consistently increasing across all loyalty programs, so having options helps you use your points wisely at the time you want to “cash in” your points.

It’s like having flexible currency that you can see where you get the best value for those points at that point in time.

Here are a few examples of programs with transferrable points (source: The Points Guy – my favorite resource for maximizing miles and points):

Most of these programs have different credit cards to choose from. I know, it may seem like it’s getting complicated really fast, but let’s take it one step at a time.

To choose the right card for you, I recommend reviewing:

  1. Travel Partnerships – Check out the partners each program has to see how it lines up with your preferred airlines and hotels.
  2. Bonus Point Categories – Find out what categories of spending they give you double or even triple points for and how that lines up with the categories you spend the most on.
  3. Annual Fees – Evaluate the annual fees to ensure you’re getting proper value out of

Whatever card you choose, be sure that there are no foreign transaction fees. If your card charges you for foreign transaction fees then you are paying extra for each and every transaction abroad that is charged in a different currency. That adds up very quickly! The vast majority of travel related credit cards have this benefit, but always double check.

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My Recommendation

In my opinion, I think Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards programs are the best of the options above. I am personally very loyal to Chase Ultimate Rewards. I bank at Chase so having my credit card and bank accounts linked makes it super easy.

My card of choice is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Reserve card.

Yes, it comes with a hefty $450 annual fee, but when you consider it comes with $300 in travel credit that is automatically refunded to your card, then that fee quickly comes down to $150 for the year ($55 more than the regular Chase Sapphire Preferred card we used to have, which is also VERY good).

BUT for that extra $55 we also get these sweet perks:

  • Preferred Club lounge access – this is a HUGE benefit we love…we just enjoyed an Air Canada lounge in Newark before boarding our Southwest Airlines flight!
  • Points are worth 50% more when redeeming through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal (vs. 25% with the Sapphire Preferred)
  • 3x dining and travel points (vs. 2x points in those categories with the Sapphire Preferred)
  • Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check Fee Credit for the application fee every 4 years
  • VIP Treatment with certain hotels and car rental companies

You can choose to transfer your points you earn on the card to one of their travel partners to redeem OR you can choose to use the travel portal which converts your points into cash to allow you to book flights, hotels, car rentals, and even tours and activities.

As I mentioned in my post on how to save money on flights, paying for a flight using the travel portal allows you to also EARN miles on the flight you take (based on the fare class you book), so that’s a big benefit if the price is right. However, if it’s an expensive flight, and there is award seat availability, it makes sense to transfer points and redeem it through the airline to get the best value for your points.

Still feeling overwhelmed about how the points game works or do you think you’re playing the game wrong?

Email me at susie@carpediemtraveler.com! I offer a points/miles analysis service to help you earn maximum points and make an educated decision on how to use your points.

What is your favorite travel credit card or way to earn points? Comment below!



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