The perks of credit cards that earn airline or hotel rewards are compelling, but comparing the options can lead to information overload. Minimum spends, earning bonuses and annual fees are all over the map. Most experts agree, however, that you can strike some factors off your list by being responsible. While interest rates for auto or home loans are near historic lows, most credit cards still boast an exorbitant 14 to 20 percent interest rate. So carrying a balance on any of them negates any value gained from the miles or points. You can ignore the interest rate and penalties if you pay off any charges when the bill comes due.
The annual fee can be a factor, but keep it in perspective. Many cards will waive the fee the first year. Upon renewal, they’ll offer bonuses to keep you around that can easily equal or exceed the fee amount — elimination of checked bag fees, a hotel night or two or airport lounge passes, for instance.
If you travel internationally, you’ll want a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, typically running at 3 percent. For Europe especially, carry at least one card that has a chip rather than just a magnetic strip, or you may encounter situations where you can’t use your card. Unless indicated otherwise, the cards recommended here feature a chip and no foreign transaction fees.
NATURALLY, IF YOU LIVE in a hub city where most of your flights are with a single airline, that airline’s card will provide you the most benefit, regardless of how strong the bonuses are. The Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card offers a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus with a relatively low $1,000 initial spending requirement. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year, and you get two lounge passes when you renew, which makes the fee a wash if you don’t already have access. You also get a free checked bag and priority boarding, though currently the cards don’t have a chip. The United MileagePlus Club version carries a hefty $395 annual fee but grants unlimited lounge access and an additional free checked bag.
Delta Air Lines’ various American Express cards often don’t offer generous sign-up bonuses, but the $195 annual Platinum version may help you reach elite status if you’re a big spender. You receive 5,000 Medallion elite-qualification miles and 35,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 the first three months. The Medallion Qualification Dollar requirement is waived, though, if you spend at least $25,000 in the calendar year on the card, and then you earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles toward elite status plus 10,000 bonus miles.
Andy Shuman, author of Travel Free and editor of the Lazy Travelers blog, likes the American Airlines cards from Citibank. “The Citibank AAdvantage has three credit cards. Each offers a 50,000-mile bonus and no annual fee for the first year except the Executive. That one does have an annual fee but adds Admirals Club membership.” He notes if you get all three, which is allowed, “You can get 161,000 American Airlines miles (after meeting the spending requirements) before even setting foot on the plane. That’s six domestic tickets or up to four tickets to Europe or Latin America.”
You also earn two lounge club passes with the lower levels after spending the required $3,000 to get the bonus miles, plus you get a free checked bag, priority boarding and 10 percent back on miles when booking AA flights. This one is best used for domestic spending, however; there’s a 3 percent foreign transaction fee, though new cards do come with a chip embedded.
Keep an eye on smaller airline card bonuses if you’re near an airport they serve. Otherwise, if you frequently travel internationally, you may be better off getting a card connected to a foreign airline, such as Korean Air (SkyTeam) or British Airways (oneworld) to leverage better mile-earning options for the larger alliance.
JOHN DISCALA, THE MAN behind the popular JohnnyJet.com website, recommends the Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express for international awards. “I can redeem Starpoints for free nights at over 1,100 hotels in around 100 countries and for free flights on over 150 airlines with SPG Flights with no blackout dates. I love that you receive a 5,000 Starpoints bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to a participating frequent-flyer program.” The annual fee is only $65 on this one — waived the first year — and if you spend $6,000 in the first six months, you earn 25,000 points. It’s a poor choice for international spending, though, with a 2.7 percent foreign transaction fee.
Daraius Dubash and Emily Jablon of Million Mile Secrets prefer the Citi Hilton Hhonors Reserve Card. “You get two free weekend nights valid at any Hilton hotel as a sign-up bonus. In addition, you get free Hilton Gold status which means free Internet and breakfast (a savings which can add up!).” You earn 10X points per dollar on Hilton charges and 3X to 5X on other purchase categories. Upon renewal and payment of the $95 annual fee, you get a free weekend night, but this requires $10,000 in annual spending. The initial two nights upon sign-up require $2,500 in spending.
Shuman says it’s worth looking at a card affiliated with Carlson Hotels, the parent of Radisson. “The U.S. Bank Club Carlson has two cards, personal and business. Each offers an 80,000-point bonus and gold status that allows you to book two award nights for the price of one. It is an incredible benefit that will stretch your free hotel stays considerably. The disadvantage is that Club Carlson has a smaller footprint than its more famous cousins like Hilton and Marriott, but the features cannot be beat.”
The IHG Rewards Club Card from Chase awards you a free night’s stay in any one of their network hotels — including Inter-Continental or Crowne Plaza — when you pay the annual $49 fee. They have a generous 60,000-point sign-up bonus after just a $1,000 minimum spend, and you get instant elite status for room upgrades. They don’t have a chip yet, however.
IF YOU DON’T WANT to be locked into one particular program, a credit card that allows you to transfer points to multiple partners (and “top off” your account to reach a goal) can be worth using for regular purchases. Plus, they’ll often rack up points faster because of double or triple points on a wide array of purchases, rather than just one category.
Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup and founder of The Travel Hacking Cartel, says Chase Sapphire Preferred is his overall best card recommendation. “The card offers a 40,000-point sign-up bonus, double points on all dining and travel expenses, and has the annual fee waived for year one.” To get the 40,000 bonus miles you need to spend $4,000 on it within three months. Do that on travel expenses, however, and you could end up with an additional 8,000 points. You can transfer points at full one-to-one value to United Airlines, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Amtrak and four large hotel programs. It has a chip and an annual fee on renewal of $95.
Dubash and Jablon combine this with the Chase Ink Plus Card for business spending. “The online offer is for 50,000 points, but you may get a 70,000-point offer if you visit a Chase branch. You get 5X points for cable/Internet and at office supply stores. As with the Sapphire card, you can transfer points to different airlines or hotels … and it has a chip.”
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard has moved to the front of the wallet of many mileage-savvy travelers. DiScala uses it internationally. “It has a chip and pin system so it can be used around the world at unmanned counters, which is key for taking trains.” You get a 40,000-point sign-up bonus after spending $3,000 within 90 days and earn double miles on all purchases, not just specific categories. The $89 annual fee is waived the first year.
This one operates a little differently on the rewards side: You purchase travel as you normally would, through any website, then apply the points to the purchase as a statement credit, getting a 10 percent bonus. This is a hassle-free method for people who like to book flights through a site like Priceline or search for the best hotel deals at a meta-search site like Trivago.
WHEN YOU NEED to pay with cash in the local currency, you’ll get the best rate by using your debit card at an ATM. Some banks charge $5 or more each time you pull money out, however, on top of the local bank charge.
In general, your best bet for foreign travel is to use a card connected to a cash account at a brokerage firm such as Schwab or Fidelity. These cards don’t charge you a fee for an ATM withdrawal and will even rebate the local charges. Many credit unions also have a no-fee policy.
For large bank chains, find out about alliances. With Bank of America, for instance, you can withdraw money for free at Santander, Barclays and others. Citibank has its own ATMs in many countries, as does Scotiabank of Canada. TD Bank has operations in both Canada and the United States. In most cases, though, you’ll get hit with a fee, whether it’s a mid-sized chain such as Regions Bank or a national one like Wells Fargo or U.S. Bank.
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