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LESSON 06

These 10 Credit Cards Can Score You Free Travel

 

Our credit card articles, reviews and ratings maintain strict editorial integrity; however we may be compensated when you click on or are approved for offers (terms apply) from our partners. How we make money.

Updated, September 17, 2020

What You’ll Learn In This Lesson

Which credit cards to open first
Why Chase cards are super important

It’s finally time to start talking about which credit cards are going to help you earn that almost-free travel you’ve been hearing so much about.

If you run a generic a Google search, you’ll find a whole bunch of advice on which rewards credit cards to apply for first.

As you can probably guess, we have our own opinion on which cards can help you earn the most travel rewards. So let’s get going!

Start With The Chase Cards

There are various perspectives of the ideal card-application strategy, but most seem to agree that the Chase credit cards should be your starting point.

The 5/24 rule

A Chase credit card should be your first pick, partly because of how valuable and versatile Chase Ultimate Rewards® are, partly because of the vast number of cards they offer, but mostly because of what has become known as the 5/24 rule.

The 5/24 rule is one whereby Chase will usually not approve any credit card applications if you’ve had more than five new personal (and some business) credit cards from any financial institution in the last 24 months (including authorized user cards on someone else’s account). If it shows up in your credit report, it counts towards 5/24.

Since Chase business credit cards do not show up in your credit report, they do not count towards the 5/24 rule, but the 5/24 rule is used as an initial filter when you apply for a business card.

If you’re reading this course, then chances are you’re new to travel rewards and are well under any 5/24 limitations. It’s still important information to know from the outset as it will help determine your strategy moving forward.

Always remember, this is a long-term strategy, and you want to make sure you give the bank a reason to want to keep your business.

Click here to compare all Chase cards

Match Up Your Travel Objectives With The Chase Cards

Earlier, we mapped out:

  • Where you want to go and which airlines will take you there
  • How many people you will be traveling with
  • Which flexible card programs and co-branded cards will help you earn the points you need

Now pair your travel plans with these Chase partner airlines, all of which are good redemption values:

  • United and Southwest in the US
  • British Airways
  • Iberia Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Virgin Atlantic

As a side note, even if your chosen airline is not a direct Chase transfer partner, chances are, there is still an indirect way to get free flights.

For instance, you could get award flights on Delta through Virgin Atlantic, often at better values than on Delta’s program itself.

Rules Of The Other Card Issuers

We’ve spent a lot of time on the Chase 5/24 rule, but we should also note that the other banks have rules as well:

American Express®

American Express® is a CardRatings advertiser.

American Express® has a "one bonus per lifetime" policy on both their personal and business cards.

Once you earn that bonus, you will likely not get it again even if you close and open the card years later.

Occasionally, some offers are made without the “one bonus per lifetime” language. If you choose to try for a second bonus on a card you’ve had before, watch out for a notification by American Express® during the application process.

CitiBank

Citi is a CardRatings advertiser.

Citibank has an interesting rule where you have to wait 24 months after opening or closing a card in order to get a bonus on any card of the same brand, like ThankYou® point-earning cards or American Airlines.

However, in June 2019, the bank changed the rules on some of its cobranded cards with American Airlines, extending the wait to 48 months on some cards, but also simplifying the terms by removing reference to wait times being tied to when an account is closed for some cards.

It is likely that Citibank will be extending these rules to more cards – we’ll update when we get more clarity on how things go.

Capital One®

Capital One® has the strictest rules of all. You are only allowed two personal Capital One® cards at any time.

Also, you’ll only be able to apply for one personal or business card every six months.

Our Top Ten Recommended Cards

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve®

The information related to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has been collected by CardRatings and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of these cards.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (This card is not currently available on CardRatings) or the Chase Sapphire Reserve® are the cards most people new to travel awards should start with. They usually come with great bonuses, but more importantly, it opens up the Chase Ultimate Rewards® (UR) program to you.

Note: you can only earn a bonus on one of the Sapphire cards every 48 months. If you earned the bonus in September 2019, you will not get another bonus even if you closed a Sapphire card and got approved for another until October 2023.


From there, the Chase UR points you earn will position you to score award travel with:

  • United, especially for its Excursionist Perk across all its Star Alliance partner airlines (more on that in lesson 11).
  • Virgin Atlantic and its international bargain redemptions on Delta (lesson 11 as well).
  • British Airways, with its distance-based domestic redemptions on American Airlines (lesson 10).
  • Iberia and great redemptions to Europe via Spain, or Aer Lingus to Ireland (lesson 11).
  • Singapore Airlines, one of the world’s best airlines, and the only program that is a transfer partner of all reward programs (Chase, Amex, Citi, Capital One®, Marriott Bonvoy).
  • Southwest Airlines, with its low cost, no frills travel within the Americas.

Remember, if you are playing in two player mode, this should be your significant other’s first card too because the URs from either account can be combined if both of you are living in the same household.

Caution: The UR points can be transferred back and forth between members of a same household. But once they are transferred away from the Chase UR program to a transfer partner, there’s no transferring them back!

2. Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card

The Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card is a business card from Chase and should be among the first several cards you open during your travel award career. This is because:

1. Like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, it comes with a large bonus.
2. When you apply for it, the 5/24 rule is used by Chase as an initial filter to decide if your application may be approved.
3. Conversely, after you are approved for it, the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card does not get included in your 5/24 number.

Don’t forget that the URs you earn with the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card can be transferred to your Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card as well.

You do have to have a business to apply for a business card, but think broadly about the definition of business. This card is designed for small businesses, even sole proprietor firms like dog-walking, cleaning, ride-sharing, Etsy retail, and more. If you have a side hustle, you probably have a business.

In this modern economy, you do not need a store or office, and lots of employees, to be considered a business. We talk more about business credit cards in lesson 8.

3. Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card

Many experts in the travel awards world would laugh at this idea, because the whole idea is to focus on Chase cards.

But we think this is a good time diversify a little.

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card and the Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card are interesting cards because they work like fixed value cards, but they also work like flexible points that can be transferred.

So, you could use the points you earned to erase various travel expenses like car rental, transfers, and booking fees, or, send them to a Capital One® transfer partner like Singapore Airlines.

4. American Express® Business Gold Card

The second most valuable flexible travel currency is American Express® Membership Rewards® points. My all-time favorite use of these points is by transferring them to ANA and Virgin Atlantic for flights to Asia, Europe, and Australia. Other great transfer partners include Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and Air Canada.

An easy way to starting earning these points is with the American Express® Business Gold Card.

5. Ink Business Unlimited℠ Credit Card

The Ink Business Unlimited℠ Credit Card is another business card from Chase. It may not come with the biggest bonuses, but it does have a few things that make it a great card:

1. The points earned can be transferred and combined with the URs in the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card.
2. You earn 1.5x on non-bonus spend, which means for every $2 you spend, you actually earn three Chase URs.
3. There is no annual fee.

6. Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card

If Southwest Airlines is an important carrier for your travel plans, the co-branded Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card or the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card needs to take pride of place in your wallet.

This is especially so if you are trying to score the vaunted Companion Pass, which lets a family or friend fly free with you, regardless of whether you paid for the flight with points or cash. Even more amazing is that the Companion Pass is good not just for the year you earn it, but all of the following year too.

Make sure you wait till around end-October/early-November to apply, and then, earn the bonus points in early January. That way, you’ll get the Companion Pass for almost two years.

To earn the Companion Pass, you’ll need to earn 125,000 Rapid Rewards points. You can do this by flying 125,000 miles in a year, or, the easier path would be to pair of co-branded Southwest business credit card with a personal card to get you closer.

One way is to get the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card, which comes with a bonus of 70,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months plus an additional 30,000 points after you spend $25,000 on purchases in the first six months (note: there is a $199 annual fee). Then pair it with any of the personal co-branded cards (mentioned further below), which come with bonus point offerings of their own to get you easily over the finish line with no additional spending. 

The other way is to get the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card which comes with a 60,000 Rapid Rewards bonus with a $3,000 minimum spend in 3 months (the annual fee here is $99). Then pair it with one of the co-branded personal cards to get you closer to the required 125,000. Note that you still have to spend a several thousand more to get pass the 125,000 hurdle.

The Southwest co-branded personal credit cards are:


You will only get the bonus on one of the personal cards, so pick the one that you like based on annual fees and benefits, and stick with it.

You’ll still need to earn several thousand Rapid Rewards points by flying on Southwest or using the credits cards before scoring the Companion Pass, but these cards can truly help you to get there.

7. Chase Freedom® or Chase Freedom Unlimited®

The information related to the Chase Freedom® has been collected by CardRatings and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card.

The URs earned on both the Chase Freedom® (This card is not currently available on CardRatings) and Chase Freedom Unlimited® transfer to your premium UR card, and both come without annual fees.

The difference?

  • The Chase Freedom® earns 5x on bonus categories (up to $1,500 spent in the quarter) that change every three months.
  • The Chase Freedom Unlimited® earns you 1.5x on all non-bonus spend, with no limits. Additionally, new cardholders can earn 5% cash back on up to $12,000 spent at grocery stores during their first year (excludes Target and Walmart purchases).

Either card would be a great way to add to your arsenal of Ultimate Rewards® points.

See our full Chase Freedom® review.

See our full Chase Freedom Unlimited® review.

8. United℠ Explorer Business Card or United℠ Explorer Card (Personal Version)

United is a great airline co-branded card to have in your purse or wallet, especially with the Excursionist Perk and access to the Star Alliance partners (more on this later in lesson 11). If United and the Star Alliance factors into your Why of Travel, consider getting either the United℠ Explorer Business Card (This card is not currently available on CardRatings) or United℠ Explorer Card. Note that these are both Chase cards.

9. American Express® Gold Card (Personal)

If your experience with American Express Membership Rewards® was, well, rewarding, consider adding to your stash of Membership Rewards® points by applying for the personal version of the American Express® Gold Card. Occasionally, American Express® might offer an increased bonus, so if you aren’t in a hurry to amass points, you should hold off until you see a great offer.

10. Citi Rewards+ Card

If your "why of travel" sees you flying a big family to far away places, you’re going to need a generous amount of points to cover all that travel. At some point, you’ll be grateful to have some ThankYou® points to transfer to partners like the Singapore Airlines Krisflyer or Jetblue TrueBlue loyalty programs, making the Citi Rewards+ Card a great addition to your travel rewards strategy.

Final Thoughts

  1. There is no one perfect way to earn travel rewards. Everything we discuss is just a suggestion. Use some, none, or all of it to build your own plan.
  2. You may not be approved for every application (you typically need good to excellent credit to qualify for these cards).
  3. You should adjust the timeline and sequence if an increased bonus offer on a card you want becomes available.
  4. If you do not think you can meet a minimum spend unless you carry a balance and owe money, adjust the timeline and give more time between applications.
  5. We assume you’re in single player mode. If you’re partnering with a significant other and can meet the spend, you can double up on this timeline to earn more points in the same period. Or, extend the timeline over three to four years, so neither of you are ever over 5/24.

Now that we’ve gotten a handle on the various rules around timing and number of cards, it’s time to figure out how to apply for them.

We’ll take this up in the next lesson.

If you found this course on travel rewards helpful, you may also enjoy this free illustrated guide, packed with many other ways to get more for your buck and win back your financial independence.

Course content originally produced by ChooseFI was edited/updated by CardRatings for this lesson.