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Travel Hacking for Beginners: The Best Travel Credit Cards [UPDATED 2024]


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Mar 19, 2024
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Photography Tips for Capturing the Red Rock Scenery of Utah and the American Southwest
As I continue my own credit card points journey, my list of personal best travel credit cards is constantly evolving. I’m big on the suite of AmEx cards as I get so much value out of them, though the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a top contender for those who want to travel but can’t justify a high annual fee. And if you haven’t already considered business cards, they’re a great way to rack up points without paying much at all in annual fees (even if you don’t technically have a profitable business!).

Best Travel Credit Cards for Racking up Points

In the past two years, we used points on two vacations to Europe to cover our flights and rental cars, plus three weeks in Thailand and Qatar, as well as trips to Tucson and Hawaii on points. Since last summer, I’ve accumulated an additional 1,000,000 rewards points, through sign-up bonuses, meeting minimum spends and taking advantage bonus categories.

Here are the travel credit cards I currently use—and how and when I use each. I highly recommend cards with no foreign transaction fees, which includes all of the below cards, if you plan to travel internationally. And if you decide to sign up for one, please use my included referral link so I also get bonus points along with yours!

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: 75,000 points

Explore current Chase sign-up bonuses here.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great intro card for anyone who wants to get in this game and test the waters without committing to a high annual fee. 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 product change—i.e. downgrade—to a Freedom card if you currently have the Preferred and want the Reserve).

or Chase Sapphire Reserve

You can only hold one Sapphire product at a time, so you can’t get this one if you’re applying for the Preferred, but it’s worth investigating if you’re someone who travels a lot. 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.

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 ride shares
  • Instacart+ membership ($180/year)
  • DashPass membership ($120/year)
  • Global entry/TSA PreCheck credit
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve Lounge access
  • Priority Pass Select lounge access to 1,300+ lounges in 500 cities worldwide
  • Trip insurance
  • Car rental loss and damage insurance

Annual fee: $550

Current sign-up bonus: 75,000 points

Explore current elevated offers here.

The 5/24 rule is important to keep in mind 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.

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 135,000 points, you get Southwest 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. Here’s the best strategy to do this.

Explore current Southwest card bonuses here.

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 Select lounge access to 1,300+ lounges in 500 cities worldwide
  • American Express Centurion 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: 80,000 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. I’ve also found a lot of value in having the American Express Business Platinum as a supplementary card.

Explore current AmEx sign-up bonuses here.

Capital One Venture X

This card has similar perks to the Chase Sapphire Reserve at a lower fee—plus advance ticket access to things like bowl games and concerts (it did not, however, help me get Taylor Swift tickets)—but I still use my Reserve and AmEx Platinum before ever pulling this one out. That said, the Cap One Venture X does offer 2x on all purchases, so if you open it, this is a great everyday spend card for categories where you may not receive regular bonuses (think: hardware stores, pet stores, medical bills). If the network of Capital One lounges expands in the future, this one might get a higher spot on my list in the future.

  • 10x total points on hotels and rental cars purchased through Capital One Travel
  • 5x total points on hotels and rental cars purchased through Capital One Travel
  • 2x on all purchases
  • Global entry/TSA PreCheck credit
  • Capital One lounge access
  • Priority Pass Select lounge access to 1,300+ lounges in 500 cities worldwide
  • Cell phone protection
  • Secondary rental car insurance
  • Travel accident insurance

Annual fee: $395

Current sign-up bonus: 75,000 points

Explore current Capital One bonuses here.

United Business MileagePlus

I’ve found that being based out of Nashville, all of our best international flight options are with United, connecting in Dulles. In my case, opening a United Business MileagePlus card gave me priority on upgrades, not to mention the 150,000 points I earned through two tiers of the sign-up bonus, will take me far toward booking rewards flights in the future. United also has the Club Infinite Card, the Gateway Card, the Quest Card and the Explorer Card.

The United Explorer Card MilePlus offers similar benefits:

  • $100 credit on Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
  • 2x miles on United purchases
  • 2x miles on dining and hotels
  • 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: free for first year, then $99 a year

Current sign-up bonus: 75,000 points

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 United sign-up bonuses here.

Shot from the airplane

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

This post was last updated May 2024. 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. I do receive a small commission on some and points bonuses on others, but all recommendations are from my own experiences.

A few other credit card tips​

These are other credit cards that I use for everyday purchases, particularly for software (AmEx Biz Platinum), subscriptions (the Inks), as well as groceries (the AmEx Gold):

Note: You can have multiple Inks, even of the exact same card, which you can’t do for other popular credit cards like the Chase Sapphires. Here are a few nuggets to keep in mind as you figure out the best travel credit card for your needs:

Use all the benefits and offers​

Many cards like the AmEx Platinum and the Chase Sapphire Reserve have very high annual fees. One way to justify it? Take advantage of every benefit and offer and activate them upon activating your card. For the AmEx card alone, I get $1200 a year back in bonuses and other perks, not counting my lounge access. Don’t get the cards solely for the points; get them if you plan to use all the perks—and also check regularly for the monthly offers and quarterly bonuses that you can activate via your credit card dashboard.

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.

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 or Delta credit card are typically not worth using a credit card slot on. 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 cards 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!

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

What’s your favorite travel credit card?​

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!


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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