Finding the Right Credit Card, No Matter How Much You Travel

I receive compensation for many links on this blog. You don’t have to use these links, but I am grateful to you if you do. American Express, Citibank, Chase, Capital One and other banks are advertising partners of this site. Any opinions expressed in this post are my own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by my advertising partners. I do not write about all credit cards that are available -- instead focusing on miles, points, and cash back (and currencies that can be converted into the same).


Stephanie Rosenbloom offers my framework for valuing a credit card offer in the New York Times. The article is “Finding the Right Credit Card, No Matter How Much You Travel” —

Your Points, Perks and Bonuses Strategy There are three main attributes to seek out in a travel-rewards card, according to Gary Leff, a co-founder of Milepoint.com, a website for frequent fliers, and the writer behind the miles-and-points blog View From the Wing.

The Sign-Up Bonus Sometimes it’s worth getting a card for the sign-up bonus, which can be thousands of miles or points. You may not even want to keep the card past the first year, Mr. Leff said. Some of the best bonuses are targeted offers — a good reason to check your snail mail. For instance, earlier this year, some travelers were offered 100,000 rewards points as a sign-up bonus for the American Express Platinum Card after spending $3,000 in the first three months of card membership.

The Perks Airline credit cards aren’t always the best way to earn miles, but they are often worth having for the perks alone, such as priority boarding, free checked bags and airport lounge access. So explore a card’s benefits and, if they’re worth paying the fee, sign up— just don’t make many purchases on the card.

The Points The most valuable points are those that can be transferred to a variety of airline mileage programs, Mr. Leff said. So look for cards that allow you to do that while also earning points quickly.

The best cards, he said, combine elements of all of the above.

The recommended cards:

    Someone who isn’t looking for the perks that improve the travel experience, and isn’t going to be using their miles for premium cabin international award tickets, is likely best off with a cash back card or a travel rebate card — something that lets you avoid dealing with award space, and even earn miles on your travels.

Citi Double Cash Card combines the best rate of return most people can get on a cash back card – 1% when you make a purchase and another 1% when you pay your bill – with worldwide acceptance. And it’s a no fee card. This is my pick for best all-around cash back card.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard gets you an even better rate of return (2.2%) when you redeem points for airline tickets or other travel. You pick your flights or hotels and related travel and use the points to simply cover the charges to your card.

If you do want points, though — and that’s the best strategy for generating international business and first class travel — the best all-around card remains Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

It gives you a strong signup bonus (40,000 points after $4000 spend within 3 months plus 5000 more points if you add a no fee authorized user to the account and make a purchase during that time). It earns fast with double points on travel and dining. And it has some of the most valuable points, transferring to a variety of airline and hotel programs.

Sapphire Preferred partners with United (for Star Alliance), Korean (a Delta partner and also the airline with the best first class availability between the US and Asia and that charges among the least miles for South America and for Europe), British Airways (American partner, and gets you cheap short distance awards starting at just 4500 points each way), and Singapore (great business and first class availability), among others.

The card generating the most excitement right now is probably Citi Prestige — with its $250 airfare credit than works on tickets and not just fees, American lounge access and Priority Pass Select lounge access that includes free visits and guests, and even free golf.

I still see the American Express Platinum as the single best card for benefits. American Express points are also among the most valuable, but I don’t see the Platinum card as one you get to put spending on (because it doesn’t have big bonuses for spending, so it doesn’t earn that fast). You get it for the benefits.

There’s American Express Centurion lounge access, Delta lounge access when flying them same day, and Priority Pass Select lounge access.

You get Starwood Gold status and National Car Rental Executive status (pick your own car from the ‘Executive Aisle’). You get the Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit. There’s a $200 airline fee credit. There’s also unlimited Boingo wireless internet access.

I think that someone who is a regular traveler, but not someone who flies enough to earn elite status, should consider getting the co-brand credit card of the airline they fly the most in order to leverage the card’s perks like priority boarding (avoid having to gate check your bag) and waived checked baggage fees. Like American Express Platinum that doesn’t mean it makes any sense to actually put spending on that card, however.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of any advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either. Terms and limitations apply to all offers.

Comments

  1. Gary, how much of a perk do you think access to the premium/1st class security lines is? The co-branded lounge access cards from the big 3 all give it (DL, UA, AA), and I’m wondering how that would factor into whether or not the annual fee is worth paying. I fly out of DCA/IAD, if that matters.

  2. “The most valuable points are those that can be transferred to a variety of airline mileage programs, Mr. Leff said. So look for cards that allow you to do that while also earning points quickly.”

    Not necessarily because one size does not fit all.

    I can and do earn loads of HHonors points quickly with my HH AMEX Surpass card, which I can transfer to a whole bunch of airlines but I will never do it because (a) HHonors points are more valuable to me for redeeming free stays at Hilton properties and (b) the transfer rate of HHonors points to miles truly sucks in almost every case. Hilton’s model is clearly to encourage members to earn points through revenue stays at Hilton properties and to spend them by redeeming award stays at Hilton properties. The large number of HHonors points that are required to redeem free stays is how Hilton decreases their ‘liability’, i.e., points that are earned by members that would continue to count against the company’s bottom line until they are redeemed. This is in contrast to, e.g., SPG which offers a great transfer rate of Starpoints to miles of many airline partners as way to decrease their ‘liability’, but the transfer of Starpoints also makes sense because SPG has some of the highest-priced top-tier awards in the business. Therefore, SPG does not seem to explicitly encourage members to earn points through stays and redeem them for award stays at SPG properties. In the latter model (earn points anywhere and spend them anywhere through favorable transfer rates), I think that the card issuer (AMEX in the case of SPG) may benefit the most, whereas under the Hilton model (earn and spend points at Hilton properties) the hotel may benefit the most.

    So, it is clearly important to add come caveats to the quoted statement. It depends on what one wishes to do with points that they earn through a credit card and what the transfer rate to partner miles may be…

  3. @DCS If you truly choose to earn HHonors points via Hilton co-brand credit card spend for things other than Hilton stays (and arguably to earn the $10k threshold bonus on the Citi Reserve Card) then there truly is no hope!

  4. Hi Gary, Do you know if the additional card holders of the Prestige cars (not the primary card holder) can get entrance into the American Admirals club when they are traveling or is entrance to the club restricted to the primary cardholder. I guess my question also covers additional cardholders for the American Executive card, as well. My son will be going off to college and traveling on his own. Thanks, mj

  5. @Gary — what a silly thing to say. First, I got rid of the Citi Reserve card, which should tell you how much I valued the free weekend night that I earned for spending $10K on the card.

    I have seen where you have promoted the wonders of the Citi Reserve card, just as you have those of the SPG AMEX, but I know from experience that neither card is very good loyalty card. The Citi Reserve consistently “forgot” to award me points (10/$) on stays at Hilton properties 60 % of the time over a one year period so I got rid of it, especially after their customer support made it clear to me that the Citi Reserve was too small a card in the huge Citi cards portfolio for anyone to care about improving customer support. That did it for me.

    The SPG AMEX does not earn enough points for it to be good for anything, despite the bloggers touting of its many transfer partners as the feature that makes it the most valuable card in the business. Well, Hilton also have as many airline transfer partners!

    So, for you edification, I do not use the Citi Reserve visa for anything because I got rid of it, nor do I use my HH AMEX Surpass card for general spend, although it does meet the criterion in your claim that I quoted, which you still need to make with a few caveats. The claim is simply not universally true…

  6. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for taking the focus off of the frequent business traveler for a second and for looking at the vast majority of people who don’t have that as part of their job. So my question is:

    does this mean you recommend folks to get the jetblue credit card if that’s what they happen to fly most often? what do you recommend for the folks that just take the occasional 1-2 vacation trips per year because they don’t have to travel for work and who just try to find great savings via kayak every time they fly?

    Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *