August 11, 2022

The best credit cards for travel

Wondering which credit card is best for you? Ask yourself a few questions: Where do…

The best credit cards for travel

Wondering which credit card is best for you? Ask yourself a few questions:

Where do you live? How frequently do you travel? Do you travel mostly domestic or international? Business or leisure? What do you value?

Whether you’re starting with a plastic-free wallet or you’ve tried every credit offer out there, Sidekick turned to food and travel writer Adam Erace for inside tips on finding the card that works for you (and to get his trade secrets to maximize your value and perks!). Here’s what Adam had to say.

Every major airline has a basic co-branded credit card (flight attendants hand out brochures for them on the plane). It’s normal to feel wary of the pushiness, but your HACC (home airline credit card…Don’t Google the acronym bc I made it up) is the one piece of plastic you should definitely have in your wallet. These introductory cards typically offer a decent sign-up bonus, benefits like priority boarding and/or a free checked bag, and a low annual fee (under $100) that’s often waived for the first year.

You can find your HACC by analyzing your last year of travel: What airport did you fly out of most frequently? Atlanta (ATL)? Then you want the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express. Seattle (SEA)? Go for the Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa. Newark (EWR)? Get the Chase United Explorer MileagePlus Visa, which is currently offering a $100 credit for global entry along with a 70,000-point bonus. And that brings us to…

Bonuses: Understand, exploit, collect

No matter how many points you rack up dining out or gassing up your car, you’ll never meaningfully accrue miles or points unless you use bonus shortcuts. Bonuses are the points and miles that credit card companies give you to open accounts—but they almost always come with a minimum spending catch. The ol’ reliable Chase Sapphire Preferred, for example, requires $4,000 in charges within the first three months of opening the card to qualify for the 60,000-point sign-up bonus. Some of us could easily hit that target and some of us would never make it (or pay it back in a timely manner), so determine your spending habits and income, and only apply for cards that work with your financial situation. ⚠️ Remember: Having a $25,000 credit limit does not mean you have $25,000 in the bank!

Let’s circle back to that Chase Sapphire 60,000-point bonus. Those points, in dollars, are worth roughly $750. Points programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards offer flexibility so you can use your points to book anything from hotels and car rentals to Hawaiian helicopter tours and Disney World tickets. And keep an eye out for when cards offer periodic “mega bonuses” (I made that term up, too). Last year, for instance, Capital One offered a mega bonus of 100,000 points for new Venture X cardholders (more on that card later). But the downside of this tantalizing bonus was that cardholders had to rack up $10,000 in charges within the first six months. Note that the standard (and current) bonus for this card is 75,000 points upon sign-up.

When collecting points and miles through bonuses, I limit my options to flexible points programs and HACCs—but I recommend you do this only if you know you’ll fly with your local airline and out of your local airport frequently. (So, like, if you never fly Southwest, don’t open a Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa, even if it happens to be offering a mega bonus.) In short, stick to programs you know you’ll use. Or better yet…

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Take the trip-first approach

So, you want to go on a trip. And you want to fly in style and stay somewhere amazing. But…you don’t want to pay for it. (That’s the dream, isn’t it?!) Well, with some time and planning, you might be able to make it happen with the trip-first approach, meaning you accrue points and miles for the sole purpose of paying for a vacation. OK, so let’s say you want to go to Los Cabos this winter. If you open four cards right now, you can take that trip for two—virtually for free. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Flights: First determine which airline can get you from your home airport to Los Cabos nonstop. Check out the airlines and destinations section of any airport’s Wiki page to help with this. If it’s your HACC—great! (If not, that’s OK, too.) Denver (DIA), for example, offers service to Los Cabos (SJD) via United, Frontier, and Southwest. After searching for award availability, you decide that a Chase United Explorer MileagePlus Visa card makes the most sense for you and your travel partner. When you both sign up, you’ll net 140,000 miles to use on United, which is typically enough to cover two round-trip tickets in economy or two one-way tickets in business.
  • Hotel: There are lots of hotel brand options in Los Cabos like Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt where you can book with points. I’ll pretend you decided on The Cape, a chic Thompson property (and Hyatt partner). A room here costs $1,000/night or 25,000 Hyatt points. So if you and your travel partner both sign up for World of Hyatt Visa cards, you’ll get 120,000 points. That’s four nights worth $4,000 for free.

Four cards = one practically free trip. 🚨Important note! 🚨No credit card is ever truly free! Check the interest rates and annual fees. I can’t say that loud enough!  But I like the trip-first approach because I can see how points work in real time as opposed to hoarding them for some unknown vacation in the distant future.

Once you have a few cards in your wallet and are regularly using points and miles, it’s time to consider upgrading to a premium card. The astronomical annual fees can be tough to stomach, but the bonuses and benefits programs might be worth it in the end.

The Platinum Card from American Express is the historical standard-bearer in this category. It provides airport lounge access, and Amex’s Centurion Lounges are definitely the cream of the crop. (You could honestly offset the high annual fee of $695 in what you would save on food and drinks in lounges alone.) And there’s a slew of other benefits, too, including a $200 annual airline credit and a $200 annual hotel credit when you book through American Express Travel. Then redeem Amex points on business or first-class flights and earn 35% of those points back.

The Capital One Venture X is hot on the heels of this premium Amex card, and it comes with a lower annual fee of $395 and many similar benefits, like a priority pass and an annual $300 travel credit. Plus, Capital One is upping its airport game with branded luxury lounges, too. The swanky new lounge is now open in Dallas (DFW), and two more are set to open in Denver (DIA) and DC (IAD) this year.