Points Points Points!
Have you ever wondered how your friends or family members travel so often? Have you ever wondered how people travel for free? Do you envy those who enter airport lounges while you sit in at the gate and pay $5 for a bottled water? If you answered yes to any of these questions, keep reading..this post is for you!
As much as credit cards and debt have become an unfortunate epidemic amongst Americans, some of the credit card options out there have excellent perks. IF you can safely manage your finances without overspending. If you are disciplined, there is no reason to avoid these dangerous pieces of plastic. There is a card for almost any type of person: shoppers, long-distance drivers, business travelers, and more. In our opinion, the travel cards are the biggest “bang for your buck.” Especially if traveling is a hobby of yours. If you have bills and want to travel, you should look into one of these. If you have to spend the money, why not earn some rewards towards free flights or hotels?! This post will review the top travel credit cards competitors, as well as explain how to take advantage of their perks.
Which are the best travel cards?
In our opinion, the top credit cards for all-around travel are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the AMEX platinum. A lot of the other cards out there are more specific to companies. For example, the SPG card only allows you to use points for SPG hotels. Chase, AMEX, and even the Capital One Venture card allow you to use points for multiple airlines and hotels. The Venture card can be used towards any company and you get a refund after purchasing your flight/hotel/car. However, the points per dollar spent are not as high of value as the other two and come with less benefits overall.
The downside of these versatile cards is that each come with an annual fee. Some heftier than others. However, their benefits alone tend to make up for the fee when taken advantage of.
Our favorite travel cards
The first travel card I applied for was the Chase Sapphire preferred. Since I was in grad school at the time, I wanted to work on building my credit and gaining points, so that when I graduated, I’d be able to travel for cheap. I was worried about getting denied with the Reserve card, so I went for the next lower tier. I was stoked when I got approved and started to save my points. Gregg had been working as a CRNA at that point, so he applied for the Reserve card. Between the both of us, we were able to accumulate over 150,000 points just by applying and spending the minimum within 3 months. Within a year or less, we purchased our first round trip tickets to Europe from Miami for 120,000 points. We didn’t have to do anything, but spend our normal budget. It was amazing! We couldn’t believe that almost $2000 worth of flights were practically free. Since then, we have put all bills that can be paid with credit on our Chase cards. By the time we get to our next trip, we have enough points to get our flights just by paying our normal bills. When we travel, we put all costs on the card and accumulate 3X points per dollar spent (2X on the Preferred card). It has been a great cycle that has really allowed us to travel more often and to further destinations.
Below, we will evaluate three cards: the Chase Sapphire Reserved, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and AMEX Platinum. These are by far our favorite travel cards, but they each have their own benefits. All of these cards have no foreign transaction fees, some type of travel protection/coverage, and >1X points per dollar spent on travel expenses.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is one of the best cards for accumulating travel points. With the card, you earn 3X points per dollar spent on travel and dining worldwide. Also, 1X point per dollar on every other purchase. The biggest benefit is that you don’t have to book through Chase to earn points. However, if you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards, you save around 50% on travel costs when redeeming points. Another big perk is that they credit you for a TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry application fee. This is a one time only offer per authorized user when the fee is paid for on the card. A TSA Pre-check application costs $85 and Global Entry is $100 fee. I’m not sure why anyone would choose TSA over Global Entry, but you can do either. Global Entry is essentially the same as TSA but works internationally. TSA is only for domestic travel in the US.
Another amazing perk is the access to Priority Pass lounges at airports worldwide. You must apply online through the Chase website. Once you have applied, you will receive a card in the mail. You will also be able to access the Priority Pass app for your membership info in case you don’t have your card on hand. You can usually bring up to 2 guests into the lounge. Each lounge has different amenities and discounts. Visit the Priority Pass site for info on all the lounges and their individual benefits.
Depending on the promotion at the moment, the Reserve card offers 50,000+ points when you spend at least $4000 in the first 3 months of using the card. When Gregg got the card in 2017, he was awarded 100k points for spending that. Currently, it is at 50k, but it’s always worth calling and asking for the bonus. We have a friend that walked into the branch and just missed the 100k points deadline. They caved in and gave him the other 50k points!
One potential downside of the card is that it comes with an annual fee of $450. However, you automatically receive a $300 reimbursement for travel purchases. So basically, if you travel at all during the year, you get that money back and the fee only feels like $150.
Other perks of the card are travel protection, car rental coverage, and hotel rewards. When you book through the Luxury Hotels & Resorts Collection site, you are eligible for room upgrades and other perks (early check-in/late check-out, etc.) when available.
Overall, if you have good credit and are willing to suck up the $450 (really $150) fee, this card is absolutely worth it! For more information and the full list of benefits, click here.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
For those who don’t have an amazing credit score or don’t want to pay a high annual fee, look no further than the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. This card has many of the same benefits as the Reserve, but without a steep annual fee. This card is also great for those who don’t travel frequently and just want the occasional free flight.
The Preferred card has similar perks, such as if you spend $4,000 in 3 months, you’ll receive 60,000 bonus points. This was what caught my eye a couple years ago. As a student, with mediocre credit, I was accepted for this card. Between Gregg’s 100k bonus points and my 50k (at the time), we were able to book our Europe round-trip flights for 120k total points. The best part was, that his points where worth more per dollar than mine. So, I was able to transfer him my points to book flights for less.
With an annual fee of $95, the card still has a ton of perks without a high cost. You earn 2X points per dollar spent on travel and dining world wide. You also earn 1X point per dollar on all other purchases. You save about 25% on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards with points. For example, $750 of travel is worth only 50k points with the Reserve card, but 70k points with the Preferred. Obviously, your points have a higher value with the Reserve, but if you’re worried about the fee, that may not be a big issue for you.
The Preferred card also has travel protection, no foreign transaction fees, and 1:1 point transfer with airline and hotel partners listed below. If you’re a frequent flyer or members of any of these airlines/hotels, you can transfer your points to take advantage of specials directly through the company.
Now obviously, this card is a lower tier, so the perks are not as great as the Reserve card. If you travel more frequently, we would suggest the Reserve instead. If you are not sold on the high fee, you can always see how you like the Preferred and apply for the Reserve at a later time. Just keep in mind that the bonus points are only offered to new Chase customers, so if you apply for a second card, they will not honor the application offer. Check out the Chase site here for details on all the Preferred card perks. We still think this card is perfect for first time travel card owners or those on more of a budget.
Chase Transfer Partners
Chase Airline Partners
- Aer Lingus, AerClub
- British Airways Executive Club
- Flying Blue AIR FRANCE KLM
- Iberia Plus
- JetBlue TrueBlue
- Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®
- United MileagePlus®
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
Chase Hotel Partners
- IHG® Rewards Club
- Marriott Bonvoy™
- World of Hyatt®
Another travel card, which we feel is about equivalent to the Chase Sapphire Reserve, is the AMEX platinum card. This card is great for frequent travelers and those who prefer a more glamorous travel style. We just recently received this card, so our review is still relatively fresh. That’s why we won’t rank it above the Reserve just yet. The benefits are similar, but vary slightly.
First, the credit card charges an annual fee of $550. This is definitely on the higher end of the travel cards, but makes up for it in a variety of ways. The platinum card offers 5X points on flights booked through the airlines or amex.com. It also offers 5X points on prepaid hotels through amex.com. You also get 1X points for all other purchases. The Fine Hotels & Resorts program has many perks when you book one of their many luxury hotels. Hotel credits, early check-in/late checkouts, and even complimentary room upgrades based on availability. The hotels are worldwide and are definitely for the lavish traveller, featuring many 5 star locations. However, they do have 4 star hotels available for those interested in more reasonably priced rooms.
AMEX offers 60,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 in the first 5 months. However, thanks to The Points Guy, we found a link for 100,000 bonus points when you use CardMatch Tool and pre-qualify for the card. The site will run a soft credit check first. If you are approved, proceed with the AMEX Platinum application through the match site. That is how we got approved for the 100k bonus. We’ll take an extra 40k bonus points any day!
AMEX points transfer 1:1 with the majority of travel partner companies. Be sure to check out the list of partners below, because NOT all companies have the same transfer value. You can’t transfer points back to AMEX, so make sure you get at least 1:1 before committing. Their major hotel partner is Hilton. There is a 1:1.5 transfer policy in place. This means, your points are actually worth more when you transfer to Hilton. This is due to the automatic Hilton Gold elite status that you’ll receive as a platinum card holder.
Airline Transfer Partners
- Aeromexico 1:1.6
- Air Canada (Aeroplan) 1:1
- Air France KLM (Flying Blue) 1:1
- Alitalia (Millemiglia) 1:1
- All Nippon Airways 1:1
- Cathay Pacific (Asia Miles) 1:1
- British Airways 250:200
- Delta Air Lines (SkyMiles) 1:1
- El Al Israel Airlines 1,000: 20
- Emirates 1:1
- Etihad Airways 1:1
- Hawaiian Airlines 1:1
- Iberia Plus 250: 200
- JetBlue Airways 250: 200
- Qantas 1:1
- Singapore Airlines 1:1
- Virgin America 200: 100
- Virgin Atlantic Airways 1:1
Other great perks include: Global Lounge Collection access (Delta Sky Club, Centurion, & Priority Pass), $200 annual Uber credit & VIP status, $200 airline credit (not including flights), $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit, Global Entry/TSA $100 credit, and access to the Global Dining Collection (access to fine restaurants worldwide). Depending on how the airline charges your card, some airlines will show up as an incidental fee when you purchase a gift card. If you can maneuver this, you can use that $200 credit towards a flight purchase.
In summary, the card has some additional benefits and different transfer partners that make the card worthwhile. We love our Chase Sapphire Reserve, but plan to take advantage of the amazing benefits and perks of the AMEX platinum. We feel strongly that these are the two best cards out there for travel rewards.
How to choose the best card for you
First, determining what you want out of a card and how much you are willing to cough up for fees will be a huge decision factor in which card is best for you. Also, your credit score will come into play. If you have poor credit, applying for the AMEX or Chase Sapphire Reserve may not be the wisest decision. This is where the CardMatch tool comes in handy. By doing a soft credit check, you can see which travel cards you will pre-qualify for. It will list the best cards and their offers/benefits. Try it out and then make a decision from there. In our opinion, the top two competitors within the travel card market are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and AMEX Platinum. If you travel often, enjoy luxury hotels and upgrades, want airport lounge access, and to accrue the most points per dollar spent, these two cards are for you. If you prefer a card with better shopping or fuel benefits, the travel card may not be worth your time and investment. Figure out what you’re looking for in a card and what benefits you will take advantage of the most. Then, go from there!
Our favorite perks
All of these card benefits are amazing, but there are some we take advantage of more than others. These are the perks that make the annual fees worthwhile. Let’s compare our favorite cards: the Chase Sapphire Reserve & the AMEX Platinum.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
- 3X points on all travel purchases – no need to book through Chase Ultimate Rewards
- 50k-100k bonus points when spend $4,000 in 3 mos.
- 1:1 transfer points to partner airlines & hotels
- $300 travel annual credit
- Priority Pass Lounge Access
- Hotel Upgrades, Early/Late Check In/Out
- Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit
- 5X points on all airline purchases
- 5X points on prepaid hotels purchased on amex.com
- 100k bonus points when spend $5,000 in 4 mos.
- Global Lounge Access
- Hotel Upgrades, Early/Late Check In/Out
- 1:1 transfer points to most partners
- Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit
- $200 Uber credit, $200 Airline credit
Investing in a travel card has been one of the best and most rewarding financial decisions that we have made. As much as we enjoy traveling, we would not be able to travel as often if it weren’t for our travel cards. The points we have saved have paid for almost every flight we have taken since. We easily had $6,000 worth of flights booked for our honeymoon adventure and only paid for one of the flights (because it had to be booked through the resort). That being said, we still earned 3X points for that purchase. Each trip we take, we get our flights for free with our points and gain more points from our other purchases while on vacation. This saves us so much money in the long run, especially on long-haul international flights. In the future, we plan on getting more crafty and attempting to book business class flights with deals, but for now, we don’t like to waste points. Unfortunately, due to our jobs, we can’t do much last minute traveling, which makes random flight specials difficult to take advantage of.
Stay in touch for more tips on how to travel for free!
Flights We Have Taken for Free
- Miami ➔ Barcelona, Spain
- Pisa, Italy ➔ Tampa
- Miami ➔ Johannesburg, SA
- Johannesburg ➔ Skukuza – Kruger Park (Round trip)
- Johannesburg ➔ Male, Maldives
- Male ➔ Tampa
- Tampa ➔ Cancun (Round trip)
- Tampa ➔ Sydney (Round trip)
- Cairns ➔ Queenstown, NZ
- Christchurch, NZ ➔ Townsville, AU
- Hamilton Island, AU ➔ Sydney