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

“The only thing I’ve ever gotten free was 10 chicken wings,” joked a co-worker of mine. The conversation had been about another of my nearly free trips. To where I don’t recall: Hawaii, Rome, Paris, a Greek Isles cruise. Didn’t matter. What did was the notion that nearly anyone could do what I’d done: travel the world practically free through strategically planned credit card signup bonuses.

On occasion, I’ll say “practically free”, “almost free, ” or “nearly free” for the, how to say, detail-oriented. There are always fees to pay, sure. So in some sense “free travel” is a misnomer. But only in a pedantic one. Grumps delight in stating the obvious, suggesting a vicious duplicity.

But whether it’s taxes on Award travel plane tickets, an annual fee on a credit card, or a Resort Fee at a tropical hotel, I’d rather pay a few hundred bucks for a $10,000 value trip, wouldn’t you? One could say the trips I take are “not free, but heavily subsidized by the banks and their travel partners.” But that’s saying too much.

If it’s not 100% free, then it’s free enough. In this post and throughout the blog, we’ll use the “free” shorthand. Hopefully this disclosure satisfies readers and furled brow commentators alike. 🙂

This has been difficult to write–not the “free vs. almost free” bit. That was fun. But rather, the chief content and promise of this piece. The aim is to take you from zero to 60 seconds in one blog post. I wrote it to help friends, family, and colleagues get started.

Don’t feel overwhelmed or give up. Each subheading could have its own article or blog post series. Seriously. I link to where I presently have appropriate content and will continue to update as I generate more. Oh yes, and I may use the word “points” as shorthand for either frequent flyer miles, hotel rewards points, or bank credit card points. Start your engines, y’all.

What’s the game?

The Game or Hobby (used interchangeably) is:

That’s it. But “it” is more than most can manage. With the right tools and mind set, however, many more can manage than typically would otherwise.

Can I play (the credit card signup bonuses game) too?

I’m not your parents, playmates, or Overlord. So I’ll not issue any fiats–nor drive one (I’m a Toyota guy). But I am a realist. This is generally the case: those successful in the credit card signup bonuses / miles and points hobby:

  • Have high personal credit scores (near 700 or above)
  • Pay off their credit card balances each month in full (or nearly so)
  • Are financially responsible

Note I didn’t mention anything about Salary. You don’t have to earn six figures, or anywhere near it, to participate. When my wife got started in The Hobby, she was earning in the high 20’s / low 30’s. And she still got approved for dozens of cards.

While the arcana of credit reports and credit scores deserves its own post, just know that spouses’ credit reports are also separate from one another. A surprise to me when I married. “Hers” and “His” reports and scores and completely separate. If one spouse has, how to put it nicely, a sub-optimal score, have the other spouse apply for credit cards. When the lower-scoring spouse learns to improve her score, it’s double the points!

Like Lotto, you’ve gotta be In It to Win It. But the odds are ever more in your favor here.

Why doesn’t everyone do this?

Glad you asked. Because it’s not necessarily easy. Hell, it’s not easy at all if you want to structure a complex semi-free trip. Because it takes:

  • Active effort
  • Self-discipline
  • Organizational skills (supported by calendar reminders and a tracking spreadsheet)
  • A strong passion for travel
  • A strong will to succeed
  • Willingness to stay current and informed (rules change all the time)

… and “Getting It.” Greed, forgetfulness, apathy, living beyond one’s means–all of these are anathema to success in this hobby. Apologies for sounding like the Buddha enumerating bits and bobs of the Eight Noble Truths. But there’s certainly a Miles and Points Path one needs to roughly follow to free travel nirvana. The “Getting It” part can be hard to quantify. Howver, one tends to “get it” (understand and play the game well) or not (let points expire, use one rewards card for everything).

If you catch the miles and points fever, with several nearly free trips under your money belt, you’ll see it in others. They just “get it”–it jibes–or it doesn’t–they’re not willing to go through the gyrations we in the hobby consider “normal.” And fun!

The hobby has its own jargon; and points discussions are provided with servings of Acronym Soup. As a moderately knowledgeable points person, I still get lost in a lot of conversations, like those on the forums–a terrific place to learn for those at all levels; but especially those who’ve achieved loftier understandings of our mile and points trade craft. And it is a bit of trade craft–but secrets hidden in plain sight.

Reward yourself: the varieties of reward credit cards

Here are 5 reward credit cards types of interest to those who want to travel free or inexpensively; not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it covers much of the territory.

1. Airline credit cards

These are cards for earning miles on a particular airline. Some examples:

  • Chase’s United MileagePlus credit cards
    • Mandy and I love United for flying to Europe from Raleigh.
  • Citi’s various American Airlines’ AAdvantage cards
    • We’ve had great luck flying to Hawaii with these points
  • Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines credit cards
    • Oddly enough, have used these points for Hawaii

Airlines typically have partnerships with Alliances (groups of airlines) or individual partners. United Airlines, for example, is in the Star Alliance. And so with United miles you may book award travel flights with other Star Alliance airlines. For us, we’ve taken advantage of flying Air Canada and Lufthansa from RDU to Europe.

Thanks to United Mileage Plus miles for getting us to Rome (and Vatican City) twice
Thanks to United Mileage Plus miles for getting us to Rome (and Vatican City) twice
2. Hotel credit cards

These are cards for earning miles with a particular Hotel Chain. Some examples:

  • Chase’s IHG Rewards credit cards
  • Barclay’s Wyndham Rewards credit cards
  • Citi’s Hilton Honors credit cards

Beyond the initial credit card signup bonuses, some of these cards offer an annual benefit that exceeds the cost of the credit card’s annual fee (AF). The best example is Chase’s IHG Rewards card. For less than $50 AF per year, you receive a free night certificate good for a Standard room at any IHG property. Meaning you could redeem the same certificate at a Holiday Inn. Or an InterContinental (highest brand in the IHG chain).

Only in Rome, pizza for breakfast. Be still my clogged arteries!
Only in Rome, pizza for breakfast. Be still my clogged arteries!
3. Bank transferable points cards

These cards allow you to either redeem points for travel on their own portals or transfer points to various airline and hotel loyalty programs:

  • Chase’s Sapphire Preferred (Ultimate Rewards points)
  • Citi’s ThankYou Preferred cards (ThankYou points)
  • Amex’s Membership Rewards cards (Membership Rewards points)
Thanks to United Mileage Plus miles for getting us to the Trevi Fountain; miles ensured our return to Rome, not a backhanded coin toss
Thanks to United Mileage Plus miles for getting us to the Trevi Fountain; miles ensured our return to Rome, not a backhanded coin toss
4. Travel statement credit cards

These cards allow you redeem points to erase or reduce specially coded travel purchases (e.g. airfare, hotel stays, car rentals) in certain increments with travel statement credits. My wife Mandy and I once used the bonus from Barclay’s Arrival card (one card per spouse) to slash the price of a Mediterranean cruise by half!

  • Barclay’s Arrival credit card ($100 increments)
  • Bank of America’s TravelRewards credit cards ($25 increments)
Ephesus, Turkey mosaic - cats tread where humans can't
Ephesus, Turkey mosaic – cats tread where humans can’t
5. Cash back cards

Self-explanatory. This is a realm of cards I’ve not “played” yet. But I can see how cash back bonuses could be combined to pay for some or all of a travel purchase like airfare, hotel stays, or cruises.

Obligatory couples photo at the Acropolis on our half priced Mediterranean cruise
Obligatory couples photo at the Acropolis on our half priced Mediterranean cruise

Will you be traveling for Pleasure or Business?

In addition to offering Personal credit cards, some banks offer Business versions of their credit cards. So even if you don’t have a spouse, you may be able to apply for business versions of credit cards for double the credit card signup bonuses; and corresponding points. With a spouse, it could be quadruple. Or more. As some credit cards have variants for a given loyalty program–Hilton in particular has historically offered more than one Personal card for points. American Airlines has done the same.

Paper or plastic?

Plastic. Always. Unless there’s a fee, or the fee isn’t worth the reward (like meeting, or not, a credit card signup bonus). Or metal–some of the Premium credit cards are made that way. No cutting up when you’re done–unless you run a metal shop. Envelopes are provided for return. Anyway, yes. Put everything you can–things you’d purchase for your family anyway–on credit cards and be rewarded. We’ll do a whole post on ways to Meet Spend. That’s for another day. Work one credit card signup bonus; when complete, apply for another card in a few months and repeat. That’s much of the game–more than 50% of it, conservatively speaking–so to say.

Always pay your monthly balance in full. Or wait until you can before delving deeply into this hobby.

Churn baby, churn. Plastic inferno?

Churning. Not for beginners. Possibly not for you, depending on your views. Churning is when you re-apply for the same cards and receive multiple credit cards signup bonuses. Lots of rules. As Sallah said to Indiana Jones, “Asps, very dangerous. You go first.” Or rather, in our case, it would be: (credit card) apps, very dangerous… Points bloggers have gone first. We can lead the way. But not today.

The only initial advice I can give is, when first venturing out into the mile and points credit card hobby is to apply for Chase 5/24 Rule credit cards first. Which leads to…

What are the “best” credit cards for free travel? Which should I apply for first? And who has the best credit card signup bonuses, historically?

That would be Chase 5/24 Rule credit cards, most likely. We’ll discuss in Part II of this series. Spoiler alert: the first card anyone new to the hobby should apply for is the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

(Plastic) Wrapping up

Of parenting, as my brilliant-yet-modest Science Fiction author & friend Jay O’Connell once exclaimed, I’ll co-opt a turn of phrase: this miles and points stuff is hard work; but it’s a joyful work. Our transmission ends now.

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