The first 15 credit cards to get if you want to travel for free-ish

Now that the benefit of using credit cards has gone mainstream:

This is something I’ve wanted to post for a while, because it’s something I wish I’d seen 15 months ago, upon first realizing credit cards aren’t evil when used responsibly.

Instead I made some stupid choices.

There are tons of “best cards” lists out there, but the confusing thing is that many of the people writing those lists have financial incentives in getting you to sign up for certain credit cards.

A couple of notes:

  • Some of the bonuses listed here are the highest ever for those cards. If you see it higher, move it up your list. If you see it lower, move it down your list.
  • Chase won’t approve you for most of its credit cards if you’ve signed up for 5 or more cards in the last 24 months. That’s why the first 5 cards on this list are from Chase.

Here is the list I would give to my closest friends who want to start traveling for free:

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred: 55k

Why? The first three cards on this list earn valuable Ultimate Rewards points, which can be used for cash back or strategically transferred to airline and hotel loyalty accounts. This card is free your first year and has a generous bonus. Here’s a post on why travel bloggers have been obsessed with this card for a while.

Idea: Go into a Chase Bank branch if you have one nearby and see if you’re targeted for a 70k bonus instead (even if you’re not targeted, you can apply in the bank, then message Chase and ask them to match you to the 70k offer).

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Keep it forever? No, product change it to a Chase Freedom after your first year. As much as I love this card, I don’t spend enough to make up for the $95 fee that starts your second year.

2. Chase Ink Business Preferred: 80k

Why? In spite of the $95 fee right out of the gate and the $5k spend requirement, this card rocks because its bonus is worth at least $1,000 in travel.

Keep it forever? Again, unless you spend a solid chunk of money on your small business, it’d probably be better to product change this card to the no-fee version of the Ink card after the first year.

If you’re concerned that you don’t have a small business, check out my post here.

3. Chase Sapphire Reserve: 50k

Why? This card had a legendary 100k-point bonus when it first came out, but 50k is still worth $750 in travel.

This isn’t a starter card due to the $450 annual fee, but I think it’s a solid investment due to the $300 travel credit you get each calendar year. Get it in April, use up the travel credit for this year and again when it refreshes in 2018, and you just got $600 in travel credit within your first year of having the card. It also gives you Priority Pass membership and a free $100 credit to sign up for TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry.

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Keep it forever? If you’re looking to settle down with a card, this could be a good one to choose. But if you don’t feel like your expenses are high enough to make up for the $150 fee($450 minus $300 travel credit), then I would product change it after the first year to whichever of the two Chase Freedom cards you don’t already have.

4. Chase Southwest Premier Business: 60k

Why? Southwest Airlines will give you a companion pass if you earn 110k miles in a calendar year (more on that here). Get two of Chase’s three Southwest cards consecutively and you’ve got it: a companion pass that will let you bring your travel partner with you for free on any Southwest flight for up to ~23 months.

Keep it forever? No, I wouldn’t keep it past the first year.

5. Chase Southwest Plus: 50k

Why? The 50k-mile bonus on this card is very good for only having to spend $2k.

Keep it forever? The annual fee is only $69 and gives you 3k miles each card anniversary. But I still wouldn’t keep it after the first year, unless you purchase a lot of Southwest flights and don’t have another card that earns at least 2 cents per dollar spent.

6. American Express Delta SkyMiles: 60k

Why? The standard bonus for this card is 30k miles, but it’s fairly easy to get targeted by American Express for great bonuses if you don’t have any of their cards:

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A 60k-mile bonus, with a $50 statement credit, and a waived first year annual fee, all with a small $1k minimum spend is an extremely good deal.

To get targeted, sign up for a Delta SkyMiles account and/or take a Delta flight.

Keep it forever? I would not keep it past the first year.

7. American Express Platinum: 75k or 100k

Why? I haven’t had any of Amex’s three Platinum cards yet, but I definitely will if I ever get offered 75k or 100k bonus points with a minimum spend of $5k or less, which are bonuses I’ve seen people get offered.

Amex just raised the fee from $450 to $550 on the personal Platinum, so I’ll need a very good sign-up offer before I ever consider that card. The business Platinum is more tempting though, as it still has the lower fee.

The main reasons I would get this card: The sign-up bonus should be worth around $1k, the Centurion Lounge access would be nice for certain airports, and the high-tier elite status the card offers for both Hilton and SPG/Marriott can be valuable. There’s also the $200 per calendar year in travel incidentals credit, Priority Pass membership, and the Global Entry credit.

I would probably have this card lower on the list, except for the fact that you could combine your same-day credit pull from your Amex Delta card with this one, getting you two credit cards for only one credit pull. Here’s a complete guide from Doctor of Credit on how that works.

Note: I’ve seen offers for this card with minimum spend requirements of $10k+, which sounds like a horrible deal to me (unless your expenses are that high). Look closely at your offer to make sure the minimum spend required is not exorbitant.

Keep it forever? No.

8. Citi Prestige: 50k

Why? I wrote a post on this card, but basically it’s another premium card with very good value for your first year. You get a $250 travel credit per calendar year, $100 towards TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry, a sign-up bonus worth at least $665 in travel, Priority Pass membership, your 4th night free at any hotel, and probably the best trip insurance out there.

Citi bumped the minimum spend requirement from $4k up to $5k last year, so you might consider waiting to see if they drop that down again.

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Keep it forever? I’ve loved having this card for the past 9 months, but I don’t think I’ll want to pay the $450 annual fee a second time when my anniversary hits, especially considering it will no longer offer free Admirals Club lounge access after July of this year.

Since I have all three of the main premium cards on this list, here is a DoC guide that compares them all.

9. B of A Alaska Visa: 30k + $100

Why? Now that Alaska Airlines has merged with Virgin America, they make a strong duo of quality airlines with routes all over the U.S., including especially strong coverage on the West coast. Though the bonus doesn’t look very big, these points are valuable and flexible (they can be used on many different airlines). Bank of America has also been pretty relaxed with these cards, and will likely easily approve you.

The benefits of this card can also now be used on Alaska or Virgin America.

Keep it forever? I would prefer to just get a new one every year, if Bank of America will continue to allow that.

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10. B of A Alaska Business Visa: 30k

Why? You can combine this same-day hard credit pull with the one you did for your personal Alaska card. This one isn’t as valuable since it doesn’t come with the $100 bonus, but these points are still very valuable. The minimum spend requirement for both of these Alaska cards is a relatively low $1k each.

Keep it forever? Probably not.

11. American Express SPG: 35k

Why? Each SPG Starpoint can be converted into 3 Marriott points, so if you like either of those hotel chains, this is a very valuable card. You can also turn 20k Starpoints into 25k airline miles if you have that need, though I don’t think that’s usually a great way to use these points.

Where is the best value? Here are 314 hotels you can stay at for 3k or 4k Starpoints per night.

Or stay 4 nights in downtown San Diego for only 28k Starpoints, then your 5th will be free:

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Every 5th consecutive award night is free.

While the minimum spend requirement is usually in the $3-5k range, this card has a waived annual fee for the first year.

Keep it forever? Because the points can be worth more than 2 cents each, this is the card that many people use for all of their spending. I will have a tough time paying the $95 fee when my anniversary hits, but it will also be hard to give up this card.

Here are a couple little-known benefits of this card.

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12. American Express Premier Rewards Gold: 65k

Why? The standard offer is 25k, while 50k shows up from time to time. A 65k-point offer or higher is possible in the mail (I got the 65k offer one time, but have no idea why they sent it to me).

This card has a $195 annual fee that is waived the first year, and it includes a $100 credit for airline fees per calendar year.

Keep it forever? I wouldn’t keep it past the first year.

13. Chase IHG: 80k

Why? Chase has two hotel cards that are not subject to the 5/24 rule, and they are both great cards. The IHG card has a $49 annual fee that is waived the first year. These 80k (60k is the standard) points are worth about half of what 80k Chase Ultimate Rewards points would be worth, but it’s still a generous bonus.

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Keep it forever? Yes! You get a free night at any IHG hotel for every anniversary you have the card, which could be worth hundreds of dollars. Plus, the card gives you IHG Platinum Elite status as long as you have it, which will get you room upgrades at most IHG hotels in foreign countries, and if you’re lucky, even in the States (so many Americans have elite status that it’s almost impossible to get a room upgrade here).

14. Chase Hyatt: two free nights

Why? This is the other Chase hotel card that is available even if you’re over 5/24. The sign-up bonus on this card is awesome: Two free nights at any Hyatt hotel. I got over $1k in value from my bonus by staying at the Parks Hyatt in Milan and Zurich (though I would never spend that much on a hotel).

The $75 annual fee is waived for the first year, and it gives you Hyatt elite status as long as you have it.

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Keep it forever? I’m planning on keeping mine. Every anniversary of having the card, you get a free night at any category 1 through category 4 Hyatt hotel. There are plenty of those that cost much more than $75/night, so I think this card is worth keeping.

15. Barclaycard Arrival Plus: 50k

Why? The only reason this card is on the list is for the sign-up bonus: basically a flexible $500 to use on travel.

The $89 annual fee is waived the first year, and the 50k-mile bonus can be used on anything travel-related. You could use this bonus to fill in the gaps of travel expenses that your other points don’t cover very well (Airbnb, rental cars, non-chain hotels, smaller airlines, etc).

I haven’t gotten this card yet because Barclay is stingy with its cards. I have two Barclay cards, and they told me they need to see more history on those accounts before they can approve me for another.

Keep it forever? Please don’t.

That’s the list.

Fine print:

Don’t want more than one credit card? The best option is probably the Citi Double Cash card, which gives you 2% cash back on everything, with no annual fee.

Don’t trust yourself to pay off the balance on your credit card? This list is probably a bad idea then. I’d just stick with the Double Cash card until you get accustomed to the credit card thing.

Think the photos of credit cards on my beige carpet are cheesy? I agree. I’ve seen cheesier.

Don’t think you can hit the minimum spend for these bonuses? I have the same problem. I’m not wealthy. I don’t have $5k in credit card expenses every three months. One of the things that’s helped me hit the higher spend requirements is getting my close friends/family to help me by using my card for their normal expenses. Then they can Venmo you the cost of whatever you purchased for them. Or you can move future spend forward by pre-paying your car insurance or buying discounted gift cards that you can use for future expenses, then driving for Uber on weekends to pay off the gift card expenses (half-joking, but I’ve done it…don’t tell my ma).

Can’t afford the annual fee? Drive for…Uber.

I can’t drive for Uber, I have a life… Eesh, that was harsh. Mow some lawns on weeknights?

I thought you said I could travel for free. This sounds like work…? That’s only if your expenses are not ≥ the required minimum spend. Here is a list of cards with spending requirements of $1k or smaller.

I’m not in the States. Is this for the States only? Hmm, yes it is. International visitors, I’d appreciate any comments or tips you have about the best card options outside the U.S.

Have questions about credit cards? Feel free to email or comment here, or go to doctorofcredit.com for the most comprehensive, unbiased info on credit cards.

Disagree with this list? Please comment. I’d love to hear what you would change. I spent hours writing this, so I hope it helps at least one person.

2 thoughts on “The first 15 credit cards to get if you want to travel for free-ish

  1. I just wanted to let you know that I found this post super helpful. The only rewards card I have for travel is the Capital One Venture, which did give me a nice travel bonus when I signed up last year (although the card took about a month to receive for some reason) and you can use their Purchase Eraser to be reimbursed for any travel expense. I’ve erased Lyft and AirBnb and train/bus fare with no problem. For every other purchase I use my Chase Freedom especially if it’s a 5% quarter promo.

    Thanks for the non-sponsored, non-biased review that was very easy for a non-finance person to follow 🙂

    Like

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