As I gear up for a trip to Argentina this year, I’ll fret over testing requirements, travel insurance requirements and a health app I need to download before departure. One thing I won’t worry about is paying for the flight: I’ll travel roundtrip on United Airlines to Buenos Aires using loyalty miles earned from credit card spending.
After arrival, I’ll spend one night at an InterContinental hotel earned simply by renewing my IHG Hotels card and paying the annual fee. In Patagonia I’ll enjoy a free night from Wyndham at one of its top-level hotels, paid for with bonus points I received when acquiring its card this year.
It would be logical to think loyalty programs reward actual loyalty from flying on an airline or staying with a certain hotel chain, but that’s only true for a small percentage of frequent travelers. Most of the freebies go to people who just bought their way in: those who obtained the right credit card and used it for their regular spending.
BEST AIRLINE CARDS FOR TRAVELERS
The overall trend with airline loyalty programs has been to downgrade the value of loyalty points for all but the highest- spending, frequent, first-class travelers. For everyone else, airline credit cards offer an easier path to free flights.
For most of these cards, you’ll get a sign-up bonus after a minimum spend within three months. You’ll usually earn bonus points on airline purchases, and an annual fee may be waived the first year. Perks may also include priority boarding, a free checked bag (domestic only on American Airlines) and Global Entry fees, among others.
Canadian residents don’t have as many choices when it comes to points-earning credit cards, but three companies offer affinity credit cards tied to Aeroplan: TD, CIBC and American Express. The CIBC Aeroplan Visa does not charge an annual fee, while the fee is waived on the Visa Infinite, normally $139 annually, if you have the right bank account through CBC. Premium cards that cost $500 and up offer lounge access, a complimentary checked bag and other benefits.
Air Canada is a transfer partner of the multiprogram cards from Amex and Chase mentioned on page 42. U.S. residents who travel often in Canada are better off with a Chase Aeroplan Visa: It can earn 100,000 points with a sign-up bonus and awards 25K elite status for its $95 fee.
The Alaska Mileage Plan Visa card currently offers an attractive sign-up bonus of 60,000 points plus a discounted companion pass each year. Miles never expire, and you receive 50 percent off admission to the airline’s lounges.
Barclays and Citi both offer AA cards, with similar benefits but differing sign-up bonuses and points multipliers on purchases. All proved more attractive this year after American announced credit card spending points will count toward elite status, giving AA flyers an incentive to shift spending and regular bills to one of these cards.
The AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard from Barclays costs $99 per year but comes with a 60,000-point sign-up bonus after a single purchase and includes plenty of perks. The Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard offers 50,000 points after a $2,500 spend but waives the $99 fee the first year.
DELTA AIR LINES
American Express offers a range of cards that earn Delta points, the best value being the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card. It waives the annual fee the first year ($99 after that) and currently offers a sign-up bonus of 40,000 points with a $1,000 minimum spend. Spend part of that at a restaurant and get $50 back.
While Southwest does not offer a business-class cabin, it offers plenty of benefits, such as two bags checked free on any flight. It has the most transparent points program of any airline: Just toggle between “points” and “dollars” to see the fares.
Chase offers three levels of Southwest cards, with annual fees ranging $69–149, giving you more anniversary miles, higher earnings multipliers and other differences as the fee rises. You will receive a sign-up bonus, good enough for several free flights, plus bonus points for each annual renewal. The sign-up bonus sometimes includes a companion pass.
Through Chase, United Airlines offers four levels of Visa cards. The best value is the Explorer card, which currently offers 50,000 points after a $3,000 minimum spend, two annual lounge passes and a free checked bag benefit on any flight. The annual fee, waived the first year, is $95. Higher levels offer more benefits but cost $250 or $525 per year.
BEST HOTEL CARDS FOR TRAVELERS
If you use a certain hotel chain a lot for business travel, that program’s card will have an edge, but be advised hotel programs vary radically in how easy they make it to cash in points. While Wyndham’s program is straightforward and predictable, Marriott’s gets more complicated every year. Many hotels have followed the airline model of using dynamic pricing for points, which means you don’t really know what your points are worth until you pull up a specific city and dates.
The point redemption levels for Hilton properties are higher than most others, making their points worth as little as half a cent each much of the time. Hilton hands out those points so generously to its credit card holders, however, that you can easily cash them in regularly if you have its Amex card. It’s common to earn 3X, 5X or more for every dollar you spend in a multitude of categories. The lowest-level Hilton Amex comes with a generous sign-up bonus and no annual fee; but if you pay $95 annually for the Surpass or Business card instead, you get far more in value than that. Besides earning 12X points at Hilton properties and a minimum of 3X elsewhere, you can enjoy a free night award annually, automatic Gold status and 10 complimentary Priority Pass lounge visits per year.
The IHG Rewards Club Premier card currently grants you 125,000 points for signing up and spending $3,000 and gives you automatic Platinum status for room upgrades. The $89 annual fee is easily offset by a free-stay credit each year for any property costing 40,000 points or less. In some cases, that covers an InterContinental or Kimpton property.
After swallowing up Starwood a few years ago, Marriott now offers the largest array of hotels in the United States and beyond. Its new dynamic pricing means you’ll pay dearly outside of low season, though, and luxury properties can cost a whopping 130,000 points for a single night. The Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card awards you 100,000 points after a $3,000 minimum spend, and you earn an industry-high 17X per dollar at any of Marriott’s 7,000-plus properties.
With a wide range of properties and a straightforward redemption system with only three tiers, Wyndham’s cards from Barclay prove an easy choice, offering 30,000–45,000 points with a minimum spend, plus high multipliers on every dollar put on the card. You can buy your way into automatic room upgrades with the Wyndham Rewards Earner Business Card, though, which grants automatic Diamond Elite level for its $99 annual fee. Upon annual renewal, you receive a 15,000-point bonus.
MULTIPROGRAM TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS
If you frequently travel on different airlines, stay at different hotel chains and have orphan points that don’t add up to enough to cash in, a multiprogram card can help you top off those accounts to reach your goal. Instead of being tied to one provider, you can bank points in a central system and then transfer them to partners as needed.
The Chase versions are Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve. The Preferred — currently offering a 60,000-point sign-up bonus — makes a better bet for most travelers since it carries an annual fee of $95 compared to $550 for the latter.
You get primary rental car insurance and travel discounts when booking through Chase, but the main reason to have this card is program transferability. For airlines, you can shift your points to programs from Southwest, Air Canada, United, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue and others. Points can transfer to hotel partners IHG, Marriott and Hyatt.
If you hold a regular Amex that’s part of the Membership Rewards program, you earn points you can transfer elsewhere as needed. Delta Air Lines is the only U.S. national carrier, though, joined by JetBlue and Hawaiian Airlines. A more extensive list of foreign carriers includes Air Canada, Aeromexico, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and others. Participating hotel programs include Choice, Hilton and Marriott.
The Membership Rewards program is the same no matter which card you have, but the benefits and earning multipliers vary as the annual fee rises from $149 to a hefty $695 per year.
Just remember to pay off the balance, of course, or otherwise high interest charges will negate those free flights and stays.
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