Credit Card Signup Bonuses: The Key to Free Travel. A Beginner’s Guide, Part II

In Credit Card Signup Bonuses: The Key to Free Travel. A Beginner’s Guide, Part I, we discussed:

  • Truly free travel vs. “OMG, I’m Living My Dreams!” heavily subsidized travel
  • What the frequent flyer mile points game is about
  • Who should play it and who shouldn’t
  • The 5 chief types of credit cards used in The Hobby
  • Some variations on those credit cards and how to multiply your points take
  • What to put on credit cards–not cutesy little butterfly stickers…

In this second installment, we resume our Beginner’s Journey by adding actionable credit card signup bonus travel intelligence; answering the question “How do I really get started?” We also serve up a large heaping of Things You Just Need To Know to your fine self. Let’s do this thing.

Which card(s) should I apply for first?

Put on the brakes, turbo. “I know that you know that I know” that this is what you really want to learn. But before we get there, you’ll need to learn a thing or three about credit card applications and signup bonuses.

Anatomy of a Credit Card Offer for Free Travel

For any credit card you apply for, there will be an Offer. Not all offers are equal. There may be:

  • Multiple offers available simultaneously for the same card, with one of those offering a higher signup bonus. You won’t know if yours is the best offer unless you search. Could be an “A/B” marketing thing–put out multiple offers and see which perform best.
  • Higher or lower offers from one day, one month, or one year to the next. Banks seem to tweak the signup bonuses over time to gain new customers. What factors they consider and how they decide to create the bonuses are beyond me. But plain ‘ole competition is likely the biggest driver.

But there will always be the same basic elements of a good rewards credit card offer.

1. The credit card signup bonus

For example, you might earn free night certificates, 50K hotel points, frequent flyer miles, or points in a bank’s loyalty program such as Chase’s Ultimate Rewards.

2. The basic terms you must meet to earn the bonus

The basic terms are the things you must do to earn the bonus dangled before you. This is a “gotcha” area for many new to the hobby. The chief items to know are:

  • The Minimum Required Spend (aka Spend) – how many qualifying dollars you must put on the card to receive the signup bonus. Helpful hint: credit card annual fees and cash advances certainly do not count toward Spend. So always account for that when you’re working a Spend.
  • Days or Months you have to meet the Spend – the Standard is 90 days. But it could be as low as 60, high as 180, or some other increment. Extra caution is merited here.
  • Annual Fee – If the card carries an annual fee, see if it’s waived the first year–if so, that’s a Good Deal because you truly “bought” the points for free; assuming you purchased everyday items or expenses on the card you would paid anyway.

Pay close attention to the bonus and its terms, then record the info in your spreadsheet. Never hurts to screenshot the bonus & terms and put it aside in case there’s ever any question about how many miles or points you were promised. Pros do this as a matter of course. I’ve slipped as a matter of laziness. Set calendar reminders at different intervals to remind yours to Check Your Spend. Did you meet the Spend? Are you in danger of losing the points due to lack of Spend? Doesn’t leave anything to chance here.

It’s also perfectly fine to call customer service and ask if you’re met the minimum required spend to earn the signup bonus. While I download purchases and a spreadsheet (you’ll see I use these a lot), it helps to have outside confirmation. Because one of the cardinal sins in this hobby is to miss earning a signup bonus due to insufficient spend. It’s highly unlikely any bank will extend your Spend people because you:

  • Didn’t know the Spend Clock began on the day you applied for the card
  • Didn’t know the Spend Clock began on the day you were approved for the card

It can take up to two weeks to receive a new credit card in the mail. Be mindful and “pad” your dates–try to meet your Spend earlier than you think you must. The AppliedFor tab of the My Points Blog mile and points tracking spreadsheet tries to add some padding in for you. But ultimately it’s your responsibility to get this right.

3. Additional Bonuses & Terms

Also note any additional incentives to earn sign-up bonus points.

  • Tiered bonuses – you might earn X thousand points on your first purchase, then another Y thousand after spending an additional Z dollars. I’ve seen several variations, so again, read the bonus terms closely.
  • Authorized Users (AU) – You may be able to score an additional 5K points for merely requesting an Authorized User credit card (where you’re liable for the charges) for a trusted family member. Please note that this could subject the added AU to the Chase 5/24 rule…

Free beer in St Maarten with purchase of t-shirts, at a good price; we would have bought anyway, so why not get the free El Presidente?
Free beer in St Maarten with purchase of t-shirts, at a good price; we would have bought anyway, so why not get the free El Presidente?

Ways to meet Minimum Required Spend (aka “Spend” in the hobby)

Put anything on credit cards that either don’t require a fee; or require a fee but get you to your minimum required spend. There are dozens of ways–a good topic for another blog post. But there are some to get you started:

  • Utilities like water and electricd
  • Media services like Cable TV / Satellite TV
  • Car and homeowner’s insurance
  • Your weekly groceries
  • Gas
  • Dining out, including the tip
  • Rent or mortgage (the latter, at least, most certainly will require a fee)

In short, for anything you write checks or pay cash for, consider using plastic. All Points Matter and they add up quickly.

Which card(s) should I apply for first? / Which cards are “best”?

There’s no one right answer and this deserves its own blog post. We’ll make it a Part III. But if I had to answer knowing nothing else about you, the answer would be a card I own named the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Much more about this in Part III. But a typical current bonus offer on this card offers:

  • 50K bonus points (Chase Ultimate Rewards)
  • For a $4,000 minimum required spend
  • In the first 3 months from account opening

Why? Because it’s like a swiss army knife of credit cards. You can use it to transfer points 1:1 to airline partners like United, hotel partners like Hyatt, and even book travel at a discount using the Ultimate Rewards travel portal. I advise nearly everyone I meet to get this card first, so I’ve kept my initial promise.

See you in part III!

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