Credit Cards for People Who Love Travel and Money
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 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. As they say, 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.
Current Limited Time Offers
Hilton Honors Ascend Card from American Express: 100,000 points
- 75,000 points after spending $2,000 in first 3 months
- Additional 25,000 points for additional $1,000 spent in first 6 months
- $95 Annual fee
- Weekend night award after spending $15,000
- Automatic Gold Status
- Diamond Status after spending $40,000 in a calendar year
- 3x to 12x points earned per dollar spent
- Click here to learn more and compare this card to others.
Hilton Honors Card From American Express: 75,000 points
- 75,000 points after spending only $1,000 in first 3 months
- No annual fee
- Automatic Silver Status
- Gold Status after spending $20,000 in a calendar year
- 3x to 7x points per dollar spent
- Click here to learn more and compare this card to others.
Marriot Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card: 100,000 points
- Spend $5,000 in the first three months
- $95 Annual fee
- A free stay in a category 1-5 hotel with each annual renewal
- Silver Elite Status Granted on cardmember anniversary
- Click here to learn more and compare this card to others.
Finally, a business card so good I’m not allowed to mention by name, but it will get you 70,000 Aadvantage Miles after $4,000 spent in 4 months. It only cost me 90,000 miles to take my family of four to Central America. The card also offers a free companion certificate if you spend $30,000 and renew the card the following year. Compare small business cards to find this offer.
In the last two and a half 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 (where we are right now)!
Those flights alone would have easily cost me over $10,000, probably closer to $15,000 if I had paid with cash. I’ve also stayed in some really nice hotels for free, and have also had a few thousand dollars worth of travel expenses reimbursed using points from cards that have flexible redemption options good for any travel expenses.
In total, I would guesstimate I’ve saved over $20,000 in travel costs in the last couple years, and I don’t spend a ton of time on this stuff. That $20,000 I’ve saved is the equivalent of earning an extra $35,000 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.
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, with some recent limited time offers highlighted in red.
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.
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.
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 Southwest Premier
- Chase Freedom
- Chase Business Ink Plus
- Amex Hilton Honors
- Capital One Venture
- Citi Thank You Premier
- Citi Aadvantage Select World Elite
- Citi Business Aadvantage Platinum Select
- Amex Gold Delta Skymiles
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 a 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 a Citi AAdvantage 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 Citi Platinum Select World Elite AAdvantage cards with no annual fee for the first year (and $95 thereafter), and spending a total of $5,000 in three months ($2,500 per card) will get you enough points to get you to any American Airlines Caribbean, Mexican, or Central American destination and back.
Why wouldn’t you do that?
Tips to Simplify Managing Multiple Credit Cards
The first thing I do when I acquire a new card is set up autopay by connecting the online credit card with my bank account and ensuring the card 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 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.
Chase 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.
If I were starting anew today, I would start with a Sapphire Reserve or Sapphire Preferred card.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve (compare to other travel cards)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred (compare to other travel cards)
If you have any kind of business, the Ink Business Preferred card is a great next option.
- Chase Ink Business Preferred (compare to other travel cards)
After that, consider a travel card branded with your favorite hotel or airline.
- Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier (compare to other travel cards)
- The Hyatt Card (compare to other travel cards)
- Marriott Rewards Premier (compare to other travel cards)
- IHG Rewards Club Premier (compare to other travel cards)
Finally, grab either the Freedom (1% back + 5% on rotating categories) or Freedom Unlimited (1.5% back on everything). These will give you Ultimate Rewards points that are more valuable if transferred to one of the Sapphire cards.
- Chase Freedom (compare to other cash back cards)
- Chase Freedom Unlimited (compare to other cash back cards)
If you are still in the market for a fifth Chase card, I would consider a second travel branded card, but there are other options.
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 keep one cashback card (Chase Freedom) 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 travelling 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. If you’re interested in the extra 80% of the effort for the optimal results, you can try one of the apps designed to help you choose the right card for every situation. Be prepared to carry a “Costanza wallet.”
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.
Where to Find Top 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:
For specific categories or issuers, please use these links:
- Premium Cards
- Small Business Cards
- No Annual Fee Cards
- Cash Back Cards
- Travel Rewards Cards
- Airline Miles Cards
- Hotel Points Cards
- No Foreign Transaction Fee Cards
- American Express Cards
- Capital One Cards
- USAA Cards
- Other Issuers’ Cards
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 be cautious 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.
Have you scored some nearly-free trips using travel rewards? What has your strategy been?
If not, what’s stopping you?
The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone.” Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses below have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.
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