There are hundreds of credit cards that either earn points redeemable for travel or generate cash back up to more than 2.5%. Deciding which card or cards to apply for can be difficult. We’ll help.
This is the second post in a four part series on maximizing travels points from our colleague, Phil Ridolfi of The Exceptional Traveler. Read post one: Getting Started in the Points and Miles Game.
Frequent travelers tend to gravitate toward a favorite airline or hotel loyalty program. Many times, the choice of airline will depend on the availability of flights from the closest airport. In the Detroit area, Delta has the most flights. In Charlotte, American would be the obvious choice.
Frequent flyers living in major cities like New York, Chicago or LA, all served by most major airlines, have the luxury of choosing the airline they actually like the best. In small and mid-market cities, there might not be a clear cut choice since different airlines provide service to specific cities (usually via a connecting flight) and travelers in those areas may fly several different providers.
The choice of hotel loyalty programs for frequent travelers is a personal one as well. Absent a clear favourite, the choice of loyalty program can be based on availability at favorite destinations, best value or most luxurious surroundings. And this choice can change over time; Marriott had been our hotel of choice for over 20 years, but Hyatt has recently emerged as the clear favorite based on the value of their points.
For those who only travel a few times a year, the focus may be on an upcoming aspirational trip. If two weeks in northern Italy and Tuscany are in your plans, the airline of choice might be Emirates, based on their direct flights between JFK and Milan. If Venice is on the agenda, a stay at the Gritti Palace hotel on the Grand Canal is about as good as it gets. That hotel is part of the Marriott family, so Marriott Bonvoy points will be an important part of a points and miles plan.
Once the airline and hotel determination is made, the choice of credit cards narrows. Virtually every one of these travel providers has a loyalty credit card (or several) available to both personal and business cardholders. The key factors in deciding which card or cards to pursue should be based on three primary factors:
- signup bonus
- value of the points
- and how easily points can be earned with everyday spend.
In addition, each of the major credit card providers has their own set of cards that earn points in their own unique “currencies”. Each of these cards has their own specific set of airline and hotel partners that will accept transfers of points, usually on a 1:1 basis. In addition, they also have their own travel portal for cardholders to book flights, hotels and more, paying with points at a value of one to one and a half cents per point. These cards offer the most flexibility to their cardholders and are often the best choice for travelers that are looking for flexibility.
Here are a couple of examples of crafting a points and miles strategy, each based on the preferences of the traveler:
Wanda Wanders likes to stay at hotels in the Hyatt family. Since she lives in a mid-market city, Wanda doesn’t have a clear cut favourite airline and picks her flights based on availability and value. One of the Chase Sapphire cards would be a terrific pick, since Chase Ultimate Rewards can be transferred on a 1:1 basis to United, Southwest or JetBlue plus eight other international airlines.
Wanda could also transfer those points to Hyatt, Marriott or IHG, giving her thousands of hotel choices all over the world. If Wanda frequently travels with her husband to cities served by Southwest, she might also apply for one of the Southwest credit cards (also offered through Chase) that is currently offering a free companion pass through February 2023 as part of their signup bonus.
The Southwest Companion Pass would allow Mr. Wanders to fly with Wanda on any flight with a seat available and pay only the taxes on that seat, usually less than $10. That’s arguably the best airline perk available today.
Wanda’s friend, Barbara Bridal, lives in Manhattan and is planning her honeymoon for later this year. She and her fiance Louie Lux are planning a trip to Aruba and want to fly JetBlue’s swanky Mint service to and from and stay at the Ritz Carlton, right on the north end of beautiful Palm Beach.
Here’s where the lucky couple can benefit from using a two player approach to making this a truly unforgettable honeymoon… for free. If both of them get The Platinum Card from American Express, they’ll each earn at least 156,000 Amex Membership Rewards points after meeting the spending requirement. Like Chase, Membership Rewards points transfer to 18 airlines (including JetBlue and Delta) and three hotel rewards programs (Marriott, which includes Ritz Carlton, Hilton and Choice). Those points will cover round trip flights for each of them in a Mint suite. And the Platinum Card’s $200 airline incidental credit will cover the fees and taxes.
Next, they should each apply for the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Card from American Express and earn at least 78,000 Marriott Bonvoy points after meeting the minimum spending requirement. Finally, Louie’s business can apply for the business version of this card, adding another 78,000 points to their stash. All of those points, plus the $600 total Marriott credits from the personal cards, should be enough for a week’s stay at the luxurious Ritz on the beach.
If they need a few more points, they could transfer them over from their Amex Membership Rewards accounts. They’ll pay some hefty fees, but those fees can be more than offset by the various perks and credits available for each card.
These are just two examples of how to construct a credit card strategy that fits each individual’s situation. Just as no two people are alike, neither are their approaches to maximizing travel value by playing the points and miles game. Determining your travel plans first and selecting the cards that maximize your savings for those plans is the best way to get great value and drive down your travel costs.
Phil Ridolfi, aka The Exceptional Traveler, blogs about travel and how to use credit cards, points and miles to see the world for low or no cost at his website The Exceptional Traveler. You can also find him on both Instagram and Facebook.