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I love travel. Money, too!
For many years, I used one Chase credit card for pretty much everything. With a typical credit card bill of $4,000 to $5,000 a month, I was rewarded with $40 or $50 worth of points every month and I thought that was pretty darned good.
When I shopped at Amazon, I got triple the usual points, and there used to be some other perks, like using $250 worth of points for a flight worth up to $400. I knew the ins and outs of the one card’s benefits pretty well, and I did my best to get the most value I could for my points.
When the redemption options changed and the points were essentially devalued, my eyes started wandering to these other shiny cards I was starting to hear about online. There are plenty of fish in the banking sea, and I was willing to cast a line to see if there were better options out there for me.
Boy, were there ever.
Since then, and then was just a few years ago, I’ve done much better.
I’ll bet you could do better, too.
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In the span of a few years, I’ve booked at least 20 round-trip flights, about half of them to international destinations, using bonus points and miles earned mainly from introductory offers on various credit cards. The only out-of-pocket costs on those flights are the taxes and fees, which typically run $5.60 each way on domestic flights (and more for international flights).
I don’t keep a ledger of all the travel I’ve booked this way in the last couple years, but off the top of my head, I know I’ve booked all of these nearly-free flights:
- Me to Colorado for a Golden Gophers football game
- My wife to visit family in Michigan
- My wife and mother-in-law for a “girls trip” in the Caribbean
- My wife to accompany me on a CME trip to San Francisco
- My family of four to Orlando for spring break and a Disney Cruise
- My family of four to Guanajuato, Mexico for three weeks
- My wife and 2 sons to accompany me (CME paid mine) to Hawaii
- My family of four to Honduras for a medical mission
- Yet another trip for four to Mexico
In total, I would guesstimate I’ve saved over $10,000 in travel costs per year for the last five years, and I don’t spend a ton of time on this stuff. That $50,000 I’ve saved is the equivalent of earning an extra $90,000 or so when you factor in the taxes I pay on earned income. Bonus miles and points are not taxed.
Another way think about it is that, for a high-income earner, $10,000 in free travel is like getting an $18,000 raise.
I have acquired a number of different credit cards, of course, but I can easily meet the minimum spending requirements in a month or two, and when you have a system to track your cards, it’s not difficult to manage.
And I’ve got just the thing you need.
Top Credit Cards & Limited Time Offers
Chase Sapphire Preferred: 60,000 points
The “CSP” is a top travel card and for good reason. The perks are great for a card with a manageable $95 annual fee. You get double points on travel and dining worldwide, and double points on up to $1,000 at grocery stores through April, 2021.
I say double points, but it’s more like 2.5x points because when you use your points to purchase travel through the Chase portal (run by Expedia), you get 1.25 cents per point.
There are no foreign transaction fees, and Chase has plenty of top-tier travel partners including airlines and hotel chains that can give you even more bang for your buck when redeeming points. See CardRatings’ guide to redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards points for tips on how to use your points balance optimally.
60,000 is a generous welcome bonus (after spending $4,000 in 3 months), and it’s the highest you’ll see on any personal card from Chase.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is an excellent first (or only) card. Flexible rewards good for cash, travel, or transfer to travel partners. Great travel protection and perks, plus new Lyft & DoorDash perks for 2020!
Chase Sapphire Reserve: 50,000 points
The “CSR” is the premium option for Chase Sapphire Cardholders. With $300 of annual travel reimbursement, the steep $550 annual fee becomes more palatable at an effective $250.
For that, you get unlimited Priority Pass lounge access at airports for you and two guests. Points rewarded for travel and dining are triple, and it’s more like 4.5x points because you can redeem Chase points for 1.5 cents per penny when you’re a Sapphire Reserve cardholder.
You also get a credit for up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ plus some DoorDash and Lyft benefits that were added in 2020.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers great travel perks including Priority Pass lounge access, a credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ and a $300 annual travel credit. Elevated Lyft and DoorDash benefits. $550 Annual Fee
Capital One Venture: 50,000 Miles or 100,000 Miles
Known for the “what’s in your wallet?” catch phrase, the Venture card is a great alternative to the Chase Sapphire Preferred card for those that don’t want to play the points game. The annual fee is the same at $95, although it is waived for the Venture card in your first year.
You essentially get double “miles” (points) for everything, with 10x points on purchases at hotels.com. You can use those points to directly offset any travel purchases you make with the card. Like the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you also get up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓, and there are no foreign transaction fees.
The normal welcome bonus of 50,000 points ($500 worth) currently applies when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months, and there’s a limited time offer of a total of 100,000 bonus miles ($1,000 worth) when you put $20,000 on the card in your first 12 months as a cardholder!
The Venture Card from Capital One gives you double points on all purchases that can be redeemed directly against travel purchases you make on the card. Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ reimbursement, a $95 annual fee (waived in year one), and a huge welcome bonus for a limited time.
Chase Ink Business Preferred: 100,000 Points
I mentioned that the CSP gave you the largest welcome bonus of any Chase personal card, but the Chase Ink Business Preferred gives you the best welcome bonus of any Chase card. It’s currently a gigantic 100,000 points after spending $15,000 in 3 months.
100,000 points can be used to book $1,250 (when paired with the Sapphire Preferred) to $1,500 in travel (when paired with the Sapphire Reserve) via the Chase portal or can be transferred to one of several popular travel partners.
Those partners include United, Southwest, and Jetblue airlines and Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, or Ritz Carlton hotels. A good redemption of 80,000 points could easily carry a value of $2,000 or more. The minimum spend is high at a total of $15,000 in the first three months.
You’ll get 3 points per dollar on travel and select business categories (on up to $150k in purchases per year). This card also comes with an annual fee of $95 and adds the benefit of no foreign transaction fees.
The Chase Ink Business Preferred offers 3 points per $1 spent on travel & select business categores. 1 point per dollar on all else. No foreign transaction fees (unlike other Chase Ink Business cards. $95 annual fee.
Chase Ink Business Cash: $750: Straight cash, homey.
A simple cash back card with no annual fee and an outstanding $750 welcome bonus after a spend of $7,500 in your first three months with the card.
You’ll get 5 points per dollar spent on the first $25,000 per year on office supply, cable, and phone bills. One point per dollar on everything else, and, as with all Chase Ultimate Rewards points, those points can be worth 1.25x or 1.5x when paired with a Sapphire card and used to book travel.
The Chase Ink Business Cash offers 5% back on up to $25,000 spent on cell and landline service, internet, cable TV, and at office supply stores. 2% back at gas stations & 1% back on all else. No annual fee.
Chase Ink Business Unlimited: $750: Again, straight cash, homey.
Another A simple cash back card from Chase with no annual fee and an outstanding $750 welcome bonus after a spend of $7,500 in your first three months with the card.
The difference from the Ink Cash card is that you get 1.5 points per dollar spent on all purchases.
I like to think of these cards as the Business equivalent of the personal cards Chase Freedom Unlimited (1.5% cash back on every purchase) and Chase Freedom Flex (5% cash back on rotating categories & groceries on up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter and 1% on everything else).
The Chase Ink Business Unlimited offers a flat 1.5% cash back on all purchases. 0% introductory APR for 12 months. No annual fee.
American Express Platinum Card: 75,000 Points
The Platinum Card from American Express is a premium card on par with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and in some ways, it’s superior. These are two of the only cards that offer evacuation coverage for medical emergencies worldwide, and the Platinum Card’s coverage is better.
You’ll earn 75,000 Membership Rewards Points as a welcome bonus after spending $5,000 on the card in the first 6 months. In your first 6 months as a cardholder, you’ll be granted 10 points per dollar spent on up to $15,000 spent at U.S. gas stations and U.S. supermarkets. Booking flights and hotels through the AmEx portal will get you 5 points per dollar spent.
The card gets you access to the Global Lounge Collection at airports around the globe. Additional travel perks include $200 in reimbursement of airline fees like baggage fees.
Cardholders also receive Uber VIP status good for up to $200 in annual Uber savings and an annual credit of $100 at Saks Fifth Avenue in person or online.
The Amex Platinum offers a generous welcome bonus, Global Lounge Collection access, $200 in airline fee credits, Uber VIP status worth $200 in savings & a $100 Saks 5th Ave credit & emergency medical evacuation coverage. Elevated status in several hotel and car rental loyalty programs. $550 annual fee.
American Express Gold: 60,000 Points
The Platinum Card’s little brother, the American Express Gold card is lighter on both perks and fees, but you do get some great benefits, including a strong 60,000 point welcome bonus after a $4,000 spend in your first 6 months.
Benefits include a $10 monthly credit to specific restaurant chains or Grubhub, 4x points at restaurants worldwide and U.S. grocery stores (up to $25,000 anually, which is a lot of groceries). There’s also $100 in airline fee reimbursement each year, and 3x points when booking flights and hotels via the AmEx Portal.
The AmEx Gold Card offers a strong welcome bonus, up to $120 in restaurant credits, $100 in airline fee reimbursement, 4x points on worlwide restaurants & U.S. grocery stores,and 3x points on flights & hotels booked via AmEx. $250 annual fee.
Hilton Honors Surpass American Express: 130,000 Points
A top hotel card with great perks for Hilton Honors members (which is free to join). The 130,000 bonus points for spending $2,000 in the first three months is good for at least a few free nights in a nice Hilton hotel.
When you spend $15,000 in a year, you’re granted an additional free night, and that bonus can be earned year after year. If you reach $40,000 in spending on the card in 12-month timeframe, you’ll be granted coveted Hilton Honors Diamond status, an upgrade from Gold status which is conferred upon all cardholders.
Points are less valuable than other programs (by about 3:1) but this card makes up for it by offering 12x points at Hilton properties, 6x points at U.S. restaurants, U.S. supermarkets, and U.S. gas stations, and 3x on all else.
There is a $95 annual fee, which I don’t mind paying when I can earn a free hotel stay that can be redeemed at hotels normally going for $300 and up. There are no foreign transaction fees.
The Hilton Honors Surpass has a welcome bonus good for 130,000 points redeemable for free hotel nights. Additional free weekend night after $15,000 in spending annually and Diamond status after a $40,000 annual spend. 12x points at Hilton properties. 10 Priority Pass uses every year. $95 annual fee.
Hilton Honors Business American Express: 130,000 Points
I like to think of this card as the Surpass equivalent for small business owners. There are very few differences between the two cards and their perks.
The Hilton Honors Business card adds cell phone purchases to the 6x category and gives you a second free weekend night at a Hilton hotel if you reach $60,000 charged to the card in a year.
The Hilton Honors Business has a welcome bonus good for 130,000 points redeemable for free hotel nights. Additional free weekend night after $15,000 in spending annually, 2nd night after $60,000, and Diamond status after a $40,000 annual spend. 12x points at Hilton properties. 10 Priority Pass uses every year. $95 annual fee.
Credit Card Spreadsheet — Track the Details
I’ve been on a spreadsheet-building spree lately, and I made another one just for you. Well, it’s for me, too. I took the one I’ve been using and spruced it up, including some of the better offers available for those who love free travel and money.
There are columns for all of the pertinent information, and I’ve pre-filled the current info for some of the top cash back and travel reward cards available. I’ve blurred the data as it changes often, but I frequently update the actual spreadsheet available for download.
Personal credit cards
Business Credit Cards
I’ve also summarized the best perks for these cards. This screenshot has been edited to fit the perks on screen.
Finally, if you prefer to start with a blank slate, entering only cards you currently own, the second tab in the file gives you an empty canvas on which to paint your card rewards masterpiece.
Subscribers to the site already have a link to the spreadsheet in the e-mail I sent out, but if you enter your email to download, you won’t be double-subscribed.
If you would like a copy of your own, please enter your e-mail below, and I’ll send you a link. You’ll be subscribed with the option to receive a weekly digest and can opt out completely with one click.
Credit Cards I Have Used
I plan to update this spreadsheet with new offers and updated information when it becomes available and subscribers will be alerted to new copies of the updated spreadsheet when it becomes available.
Note that I have not acquired all the cards listed on the spreadsheet, but I have used each of the following cards in recent years:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Chase Business Ink Preferred
- Chase Freedom
- Chase Southwest Premier
- Amex Hilton Honors
- Amex Hilton Honors Surpass
- Amex Gold Delta
- AmEx Bonvoy Business
- Capital One Venture
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®
Tips to Simplify Managing Multiple Credit Cards
Always Autopay Your Credit Card!
The first thing I do when I acquire a new card is to set up autopay by connecting the online credit card with my bank account and ensuring the full statement balance will be paid on time automatically.
It’s a good idea to keep at least a few thousand dollars in a checking account and / or have an automated sweep from savings into checking at your bank.
If you can’t afford to pay credit cards in full every month, you should not be using a credit card, plain and simple.
If you have the option to set your monthly due date for the credit card, there is some advantage to having each of your cards due at the same time to keep things simple.
If you fail to do this, it’s not difficult to miss a payment — and, yes, I have. The late fee or finance fees may be forgivable if you call the credit card issuer and make an honest plea, but it’s best to set it, forget it, and not have to make that awkward phone call.
No Companion Credit Cards
You will often be enticed to pick up a second card for a spouse on the same account with a bonus of points or miles that might be worth a small fraction of the welcome bonus.
I advise against this.
The better option is to apply for a new card under your spouse’s name and social security number, using household income on the application.
By opening a new account rather than obtaining a companion card, you can get double the bonus for each card you choose to acquire. Would you rather have 55,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points or 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points?
Chase Credit Cards First
If you are new to travel rewards, start with Chase cards. The bank has a “5 / 24” rule. If you have applied for five new credit cards in the last 24 months, you can expect to be denied. Companion cards count, unfortunately, even if you’re not the person who originally opened the account. We learned that lesson the hard way.
Chase Ultimate Rewards are among the most desirable and flexible reward points out there. They can be transferred to a number of travel partners including Southwest, United, Hyatt, Marriot, IHG, Ritz-Carlton, and a number of international airlines. Points can also be redeemed directly for travel at 1.5 cents per point with the Sapphire Reserve or 1.25 cents per point with the Sapphire Preferred.
Chase Personal Credit Cards
In addition to the difference in travel redemption, there is a drastic difference in annual fees. The Sapphire Reserve is $550 per year with the benefits of $300 of reimbursed travel and a $100 Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ credit. You’ll receive 50,000 Ultimate Reward points when meeting the minimum spend of $4,000 in the first three months
The Sapphire Preferred has a much smaller $95 annual fee. The welcome bonus is larger at 60,000 Ultimate Reward points granted when meeting the minimum spend of $4,000 in the first three months.
Second Card: Grab either the Freedom Flex (5% back on grocery stores up to $12,000 per year and 5% on rotating categories on up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter), 1% back on all additional purchases) or Freedom Unlimited (1.5% back on all purchases). These will give you Ultimate Rewards points that are more valuable if transferred to one of the Sapphire cards you obtained first.
Third Card: Consider a travel card co-branded with your favorite hotel or airline. The following are all Chase cards:
Chase Business Credit Cards
Fourth Card: If you have any kind of business, the Chase Business Cards are outstanding options.
The Ink Business Preferred card gives you 100,000 Ultimate Reward points as a welcome bonus (currently the best welcome bonus out there, in my opinion) when you meet the minimum spend of $15,000 in the first three months and comes with a $95 annual fee.
Don’t Carry a Dozen Cards
You don’t want the George Costanza wallet bursting at its leather seams. There’s probably little need to carry more than about three cards at any one time, and if you’re not a dedicated optimizer, one card will do.
You can always swap out the card(s) in your wallet, purse, or manbag before traveling overseas, flying a certain airline, or staying at a particular hotel chain.
manbag wallet, I tend to keep one cash back card and one card that I’m using to meet the minimum spending requirement in the first three months. Depending on our travels, I may also have a card that matches the airline on which I’m traveling. If traveling overseas, I make sure I have a card with no foreign transaction fees. Most of the cards on the spreadsheet qualify.
I don’t always use the most optimal card for the situation. As is true with most facets of personal finance, I’ve found there’s a point of diminishing returns when trying to use the ideal card in each and every transaction.
Applying the Pareto principle, 20% of the effort is likely to get you 80% of the results.
The same is true for redemptions. Don’t do anything foolish, like getting 0.8 cents per point when shopping on Amazon when you could have 1 cent per point in cash (there’s actually a card that does this). And use your Chase Ultimate Rewards points wisely. This often means transferring to a travel partner for a better redemption.
Don’t stress if you can’t remember which category gives you the most points this particular quarter. I can’t, either. If you’ve got a system that works, let me know in the comments. I can see where a label maker could come in handy, but I’m just not that into squeezing every last point out of my card collection.
Finally, I wouldn’t be too concerned about the effect of multiple cards on your credit score. My understanding from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen is that a new card can temporarily decrease your score by five to ten points. This is what mine has done over the last six months.
Finding the Best Travel Credit Cards
Many of the best credit cards can be found via my relationship with CardRatings. I implore you to consider using a link on this page, as I donate half my profits to charity. Any site that refers you to a credit card issuer receives a referral fee, and I’m not aware of anyone else being as generous with their affiliate income.
With that in mind, you can find all of the cards from the spreadsheet here. You’ll see a couple of my favorites, along with some limited time offers below.
If you’re a small business owner, see my post detailing some of your best options: The Best Business Credit Cards for Your Small Business
Free Money with Credit Cards: How One Card Saved Us $3,000
How valuable are these points? To give you one example, I booked our flights to Honduras (we left Friday, April 27th) on March 7th. Based on the AAdvantage award chart, we can get to Central America for 25,000 points round trip with MileSAAver Off Peak seats.
I was able to find flights to Tegucigalpa that fit our itinerary at that point level, allowing us to partake in an amazing medical mission with One World Surgery as a family, paying only the taxes and fees for international travel, which totaled $74.70 apiece for the round-trip flights. If we had purchased the flights ourselves, we would have paid about $3,300 for the four tickets.
So for 100,000 points, we were able to fly round trip to Central America. Using the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® card to pay for the fees, we were credited 10% of the miles back, so it actually only set us back 90,000 miles.
Currently, obtaining two (one for you and one for your spouse) of any of several available Citi Aadvantage Mastercards will get you enough points to get you to any American Airlines Caribbean, Mexican, or Central American destination and back.
The welcome bonus on two cards get the four of you to South America and back (or you and a loved one to Asia or Europe and back).
Surprisingly, far more people prefer cash back to travel rewards by a nearly three to one margin, according to statistics from Finder.com. It’s unfortunate, as travel redemptions can be substantially more lucrative.
Links to Cards by Category
For specific categories or issuers, please use these links to support our charitable mission:
You can always find these links quickly from the menu bar at the top of the page. On a desktop, it looks like this:
Finally, please exercise caution with the language in the comments. The card issuers don’t like the terms that rhyme with “travel snacking” or “travel packing.” Also, please avoid the yearning to use any word that starts like “church” and ends like “burning.” Thank you for your discretion.
Download the spreadsheet and start earning that cash back, those flexible points, airline or hotel points today!
Have you scored some nearly-free trips using travel rewards? What has your strategy been?
If not, what’s stopping you?
Physician on FIRE has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Physician on FIRE and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.