A major area where we stray from the sound advice of financial advisors is our use of credit cards for cheap travel. Even though we use them for the basically all our purchases, we are still able to maintain that elusive ‘zero-based budget’ thanks to independently keeping track of all our spending on Google Drive spreadsheets. The credit card travel game definitely isn’t for everyone, and I would recommend you read my post on Things To Consider before applying for your first card. Under no circumstances would it be worth it to save money on travel while maintaining a credit card balance with 20%+ interest; that would be insane.
But… if you’re organized and disciplined, credit cards are a great way to travel for cheap, or even free. These are the cards we currently use, and I’ve included the miles and points we earned for meeting our minimum spends, which may be more or less than what is currently offered. We get miles and points for certain credit card recommendations, so if you ever need a new card we’d love to refer you.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card: 25,000 Mileage Plan miles after meeting minimum spend. Earns 3x miles on Alaska and Virgin American purchases. 1x miles on all other purchases. $99 Companion Fare every year. Free checked bag on Alaska and Virgin America flights for you and up to six other passengers on the same reservation. No foreign transaction fees. $75 annual fee.
Why we keep this card: This was Greg’s first credit card so we’ve kept his account open to maintain a good credit history with Bank of America. I keep mine open because we love Alaska’s airline partners and the companion fare is an amazing deal if you ever fly Alaska Airlines.
American Express Premier Rewards Gold: 50,000 Membership Rewards points after meeting minimum spend. Earns 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines. 2x points at US restaurants, US gas stations, and US supermarkets. 1x points on other purchases. Use MR points to book travel, or to transfer to twenty travel programs, including three hotels. $100 annual Airline Fee Credit at one airline. No foreign transaction fees. $0 annual fee for the first year, then $195.
Why we keep this card: We can transfer Membership Rewards points to AeroMexcio, Air Canada, Air France/KLM, Alitalia, All Nippon Airlines, Asia Miles, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, El Al Israel Airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia, jetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Choice Privileges, Hilton Honors, Starwood Preferred Guest. We’ve used two airline credits each to fly to Vegas for free, and through Amex Offers we’ve received two free Sam’s Club memberships (we gave one away), bonus Membership Rewards points for paying our wireless bill online, and multiple cash back offers for online purchases, including our wireless bill. The airline credit and Amex offers easily make up for the $195 annual fee and we like knowing we have to option to transfer points to all those airlines.
American Expresss Hilton HHonors: 75,000 Hilton Honors points after meeting minimum spend. Earns 7x points on Hilton purchases. 5x points on U.S. restaurants, U.S. supermarkets, and U.S. gas stations. 3x points all other purchases. Earn 500 bonus points when you use your card to book online and pay for your stay. Automatic Silver status. No foreign transaction fees. No annual fee.
Why we keep this card: No annual fee cards are the best! We’ll use these anytime we stay at a Hilton property, and to keep our points from expiring.
Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Mastercard: 40,000 AAdvantage miles after making first purchase and paying annual fee. We actually downgraded this card to an annual fee-free version, but the one linked here earns 2x miles on eligible American Airlines purchases. Earns 1x miles on all other purchases. 10% of redeemed miles back (10,000 miles maximum per calendar year). First checked bag free for the primary cardmember and up to 4 companions. Preferred boarding for the primary cardmember and up to 4 companions. 25% inflight savings on food and beverages. No foreign transaction fees. $95 annual fee.
Why we keep this card: Like I said, we have the no annual fee version because it’s an easy way to earn miles and keep our AAdvantage accounts from expiring. And it gives us good credit history with Barclays.
Citi Thank You Premier Mastercard: 50,000 Thank You points after meeting minimum spend. Earns 3x points on travel purchases, including gas stations. 2x points on restaurants and entertainment. 1x points on all other purchases. Redeem TY points for travel at a 25% savings, or transfer points to fifteen travel programs. Card is eligible for Citi Price Rewind, which shops around for the cheapest online prices for items purchased with the card. If it finds a lower price within 60 days you’ll get credited the difference. No foreign transaction fees. $95 annual fee.
Why we keep this card: At 3x points for travel purchases, points accrue quickly, and we can transfer Thank You points to Air France/KLM, Asia Miles, Etihad, EVA Air, Garuda Indonesia, Jet Airways, jetBlue, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Turkish Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Hilton.
Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature: 85,000 Gold Points after meeting minimum spend. Earns 10x points on Carlson Rezidor hotels. 5x points on all other purchases. Receive 40,000 Gold points every year you keep the card. Automatic Gold status. 3% foreign transaction fee. $75 annual fee.
Why we keep this card: The 40,000 Gold points every year is enough to justify the annual fee, and we like to use the cash + points option for cheaper cash stays. Plus we get an additional 20x points for stays just for being a member, so it’s really easy to accumulate a lot of points.
Chase Freedom Visa: 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points after meeting minimum spend. Earns 5x points on quarterly bonus categories. 1x points on all other purchases. Earn even more points by shopping online with Shop Through Chase, their Ultimate Rewards portal. Redeem UR points for gift cards, cash back, or to book travel. 3% foreign transaction fees. No annual fee.
Why we keep this card: No annual fee! Plus the 5% we can get back on gas, groceries, restaurants, wholesale stores, and even Amazon, depending on the quarter. We use this card in conjunction with the Chase Sapphire Preferred to transfer UR points to different travel programs (undoubtedly its best use). If we were to start our miles and points game over, we’d only appy for this, the Chase Freedom Unlimited, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Ultimate Rewards points are our most favorite.
Chase Hyatt Visa Signature: Two free nights worldwide after meeting minimum spend. Earns 3x points on Hyatt purchases. 2x points on restaurants, airline tickets, car rentals. 1x points on all other purchases. One free Category 1-4 night every year. Automatic Discoverist status. No foreign transaction fees. $75 annual fee.
Why we keep this card: The $75 annual fee is worth it for the free anniversary night. We can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt, which is UR’s best hotel deal. The highest Hyatt hotel categories cost just 30,000 points a night which feels like a real bargain compared to other hotel programs.
Chase IHG Rewards Club Select Mastercard: 80,000 Rewards Club points after meeting minimum spend. Earns 5x points on IHG purchases. 2x points on gas, grocery stores, and restaurants. 1x points on all other purchases. One free hotel stay at any IHG property every year. Automatic Platinum Elite status. No foreign transaction fees. $0 annual fee the first year, then $49.
Why we keep this card: $49 annual fee for a free night anywhere in the world?! Yes please! We’ve used our free nights in downtown Chicago and in Prague, which together would’ve cost us nearly $2,000 if we’d paid cash. We’ve used our Platinum Elite status to match for Hilton’s Diamond status the last two years and have saved hundreds just on free breakfast. Points are easy to accrue and award nights can go for as little as 5,000 pts/night. We linked these cards to Shell’s Fuel Rewards program to save and earn even more when filling up at Shell stations. This is one of our favorite cards.
Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Visa: 80,000 bonus points after meeting minimum spend. Earns 5x points on Marriott and SPG purchases. 2x points on restaurants, car rentals, and airline tickets. 1x points on all other purchases. One free category 1-5 night every year. Automatic Silver status. No foreign transaction fees. $99 annual fee.
Why we keep this card: $99 annual fee for a free night stay, plus Marriott recently bought Starwood Hotels so we can combine our points at will, depending on whether we’d prefer Marriott or Starwood points.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa Signature: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after meeting minimum spend. Earns 2x points on travel and restaurant purchases. 1x points on all other purchases. Earn even more points by shopping online with Shop Through Chase, their Ultimate Rewards portal. Redeem UR points for cash, gifts, or to book travel. Points are worth 25% more when use to book travel. Transfer UR points 1:1 to seven different airlines and four hotel loyalty programs. No foreign transaction fees. $0 annual fee the first year, then $95.
Why we keep this card: How much time have you got? In the past I’ve used this card for cash back, to book “free” travel, and to transfer UR points to different frequent flyer programs, which is its most lucrative use. This card provides an easy way to earn points in several programs, and to keep programs active so our miles and points don’t expire. We can transfer our UR points 1:1 to British Airways, Air France/KLM, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic. As well as IHG, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, and Hyatt. Because of the major airline alliances – Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance – we can use UR points to book award travel on just about any airline we could imagine. Plus the card itself is very pretty.
American Express Starwood Preferred Guest: 35,000 Starpoints after meeting minimum spend. Earns up to 5x points on Starwood purchases. 2x points on Marriott purchases. 1x points on all other purchases. Automatic Preferred status. Redeem SPG points for award flights, or transfer SPG points to over 30 frequent flyer programs with a 5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 points transferred. No foreign transaction fees. No annual fee the first year, then $95.
Why we keep this card: We never know when we’ll need frequent flyer miles in a hurry, and SPG offers great transfers to a lot of airlines we might use. Airlines aside, Starwood Hotels are some of the nicest in the world, and free night stays start at just 3,000 points/night, and they offer cash + points stays which can help you save lots of money. We also get Amex Offers on these cards, which can completely offset the cost of the annual fee.