The Best Travel Credit Cards: How to Fly Anywhere For Free

In Credit Cards, Money, Personal Finance, Travel by KatelynLeave a Comment


My friends often ask me how I can afford to travel so much. Well, the easy answer is that I prioritize it in my life. Traveling hasn’t always been a prioritization or passion in my life. Like most Americans I thought it was expensive. I couldn’t find a travel mate and I was afraid to go alone. I didn’t have time. Guess what? Those are just a bunch of excuses I told myself because I feared the unknown. According to the daily news in America, I was much safer living under a rock. And that’s exactly what my father tells me. Don’t go to Greece. Don’t go to New Orleans. You know what? I did go to New Orleans and I fell in love with the city. And I am going to Greece in May. Don’t let excuses dictate your life. Take a chance and live outside of your comfort zone.

Travel does not have to be expensive. Yes, you may have to live outside your comfort zone slightly and sleep in hostels and take the chicken buses in Central America, but you can afford travel if you prioritize it and make smart decisions with your money. When I first started getting antsy with the desire to jump on the next plane to anywhere, I discovered the not-so-secret world of travel hacking. And it changed my life!

America is obsessed with plastic. Seriously, who carries around those dirty greenbacks anymore?! Plastic is gold these days. A 2012 Surveys of Consumer Payment Choice report found that 72.1% of American consumers had at least one credit card in 2012. Additionally, a 2014 Gallup poll found that the average American had 2.6 credit cards in their wallet, which is actually down from the 2001 high of 4 credit cards per person. Credit cards can be a scary form of payment if you are prone to overspending and living beyond your means, but they can also be your best friend. You should always make your money work for you. Credit cards can do just that if you love to travel (for free) like me.

Travel hacking is the art and science of using credit card reward miles and points to earn free flights and hotel stays. Credit card companies and airlines are constantly competing for your business and thus offer initial bonuses when you first sign up for a card and meet a specific spending amount within a specific time frame. Some vary to your first purchase while others can range up to $10,000 in 6 months. The average seems to hover around $3,000 within 3 months of opening your card. Depending on your normal monthly spending habits this can be easy or hard to meet. Personally, it is hard for me to meet that spending limit unless I have some major purchases coming up. If you have a hard time meeting the minimum spending limits for miles/point sign-up bonuses then consider asking a trusted family member to help you out or try more advanced methods like manufactured spending.

Credit card companies and airline branded cards often offer specials or increased mileage bonuses throughout the year so I recommend signing up for airline mileage programs even if you have not used them or have a mileage balance with them because they often invite you to targeted campaigns with either a larger mileage bonus or lower spending minimum. I got both my Delta and my American Airlines card this way. It pays to sign up for every mileage or reward program you can.

There are several different categories of travel reward cards. Some are airline specific and you can only earn miles on that airline (and their partners). Some are hotel specific cards for specific hotel brands with a few that offer transfer points to specific airlines too. Others are general reward point cards that allow you to use points on specific airlines or hotel brands or to wipe out any travel-related purchase. Many cards also include additional benefits, such as no foreign transaction fees, free checked baggage, and travel insurance among other benefits.

Before you choose your first credit card, you need to consider what is important to you and your travel needs and desires. Here’s a few questions to ponder:

  • Does the airline service the airport close to you?
  • What are their reward miles chart look like? How many miles does it take to get from x to y?
  • Do you travel internationally a lot? Is no foreign transaction fees important to you?
  • Does the airline fly to where you want to go?
  • Do you like a particular hotel brand?
  • Does it have the technology you need?
  • Can you meet the spending requirements?
  • Do you qualify?

After picking your first card, check you credit score and then apply. Depending on your credit score, you may get denied for a card. Most of the credit cards with the best reward benefits require a credit score in the upper 700 range. If you get denied, it’s okay. It just means you need to work on your credit and may qualify in the future.

Credit cards are great, but remember, never go in debt for rewards and miles! It is not worth it.

The Best Travel Credit Cards
Barclays Arrival Plus Credit Card

The Barclays Arrival Plus Card – My go-to card in my wallet!

Barclays Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard – This is my everyday spending and go-to card when I’m traveling. It was actually my first travel rewards credit card and I got it right before Barclays increased the spending minimum from $1,000 to $3,000. This is a powerful and versatile card that I believe every serious traveler should have in their wallet. It is the only card thus far that I will pay the annual fee when it comes due later this month.

  • Earn 40,000 points when you spend $3,000 within 90 days – this translates to a $400 travel statement credit
  • Earn 2x points per $1 spent on all purchases
  • Points never expire as long as the account is open and in good standing
  • Points can be used for any travel-related expenses, such as flight, hotels, bus or train travel, travel insurance, etc. (2,500 points = $25 in travel statement credit)
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 10% points back when you redeem for travel statement credits
  • Chip-and-pin technology
  • $89 annual fee; waived the first year
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card – I do not personally have this card at the moment, but it is most likely my next card. The avid travel hackers and a few friends have praised the awesomeness of this card so I would highly recommend this powerful card that is similar to the Barclays Arrival Plus card above.

  • Earn 40,000 points when you spend $4,000 within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn an additional 5,000 points when you add an authorized user to the account and they make one purchase within 3 months
  • 40,000 points is equivalent to about $500 if used in the Chase Ultimate Rewards website
  • 1:1 points transfer to several major airlines and hotels, including (but not limited to) United, Southwest, British Airways, and Hyatt Gold Passport
  • Earn 2x points on all travel and dining and 1x points on everything else
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Chip-and-pin technology
  • $95 annual fee; waived the first year
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Capital One Venture Card – I personally don’t have this card and most likely won’t be getting this card any time soon. However, I do have another Capital One card that I no longer use and I know friends who have this card. Capital One is a great company. They really helped me a few years ago when someone used my card and racked up over $2,000 in fraudulent charges in Spain.

  • Earn 40,000 miles when you spend $3,000 within the first 3 months, which is equivalent to $400 in travel credits
  • You can book travel through Capital One Rewards website or on your own and use your miles as a statement credit
  • Earn 2x miles on every purchase
  • Miles never expire
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Chip-and-pin technology
  • $59 annual fee; waived the first year
The Best Airline Credit Cards
US Airways Credit Card

The US Airways Premier World MasterCard

US Airways Premier World MasterCard – Kids, if you don’t have this card, get it NOW! US Airways is merging with American Airlines later this year and thus this card will be going away. This is one of the easiest cards to get and right now you can get 50,000 miles instead of the normal 40,000 miles (ending any day). This deal will be going away soon, so you better hop on this train now. Your US Airways Dividend Miles will merge with your American Airlines mileage account later this year so get an American Airlines card and you’ll easily get 100,000 miles quickly! Not to mention that US Airways/American Airlines is one of the few airlines where you still earn miles flown instead of revenue-based earnings.

  • Earn 50,000 miles after your first purchase and you pay the $85 annual fee
  • First checked bag is free for you and four of your companions
  • Receive one companion certificate good for up to 2 companions traveling with you on a domestic US Airways-operated flight for $99 each, plus taxes and fees (going away later in 2015)
  • Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on US Airways and American Airlines
  • 1 x miles for every dollar spent
  • Priority Zone 2 boarding
  • 25% savings on all eligible US Airways and AA in-flight purchases
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Offer really awesome off-peak travel award tickets (but might go away in the future)
Citi AAdvantage credit card

The Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard – I currently have the Gold card in my wallet because I got a targeted offer in the mail, but the Platinum card is just as good if not better. Like I mentioned above, US Airways and AA is merging later this year so if you hop on both cards now then you’ll be able to pack your mileage account with at least 100,000 rather quickly.

  • Earn 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 within 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 2x miles on every US Airways or AA purchase and 1x miles on everything else
  • Received 10% of your redeemed miles back up to 10,000 every year
  • Group 1 boarding
  • First checked bag free for up to 4 companions
  • Chip-and-pin technology
  • 25% savings on all eligible US Airways and AA in-flight purchases
  • $95 annual fee, waived first year
United MileagePlus Explorer Card

The United MileagePlus Explorer Card

United MileagePlus Explorer Card – The United card was my second travel rewards card that I got last May. I opened the card when it had a targeted offer of 50,000 miles after spending $2,000 within 3 months. I also added an authorized user to receive an additional 5,000 miles. I used 60,000 miles to purchase my roundtrip flight to Europe this spring that would have cost me over $1,500! Instead it cost me 60,000 miles and $115 in taxes and fees. I will be dropping this card when my annual fee comes due later this year because United made major changes to their mileage program. This is a great card to start with because of its low minimum spending. If you live near a Chase Bank branch then you might be able to get a better offer by opening the card at your bank. Often times you can get a 50,000 miles offer at the banks so check that option out first.

  • Earn 30,000 miles after spending $1,000 within 3 months of account opening
  • Earn an additional 5,000 miles when you add an authorized user and they make a purchase within 3 months
  • Earn 2x miles on all United purchases and 1x on everything else
  • Free first checked bag
  • Priority boarding
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Two United Club passes a year
  • $95 annual fee; waived first year
The Best Hotel Credit Cards
Starwoods Preferred Guest

The Starwood Preferred Guest Amex Card

Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express – I don’t have this card, but it is on my list to get as any travel hacker will tell you this is a powerful little card because of its benefits and transfer partners.

  • Earn 10,000 points with your first purchase and an additional 15,000 after spending $5,000 within 6 months
  • Earn 5x points with Starwood preferred Guest hotels and resorts and 1x points for everything else
  • Earn free nights at over 1,100 hotels and resorts in over 100 countries with no blackout dates (points go a long way in many Asian hotels)
  • Transfer points to over 30 airline mileage programs, including (but not limited to) Delta, American Airlines, Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, etc.
  • Travel accident insurance
  • $65 annual fee; waived first year
The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards for Not So Good Credit

Let’s face it. Maybe you made some mistakes earlier in life or perhaps you just graduated from college and don’t have good credit. Maybe you’ve never had a credit card before! All the cards mentioned above require excellent credit to qualify. If you get denied for any of the cards above then consider starting with the following cards. Use these for 3-6 months to build credit and then try reapplying for the travel rewards card you really want.

Chase Freedom credit card

The Chase Freedom Credit Card

Chase Freedom – I picked this card up right before Christmas when Chase was running an amazing promotion: spend $500 in 3 months and receive $200 cash back (20,000 points). If you don’t have a good credit history then I would start with this card. In the future you can roll these points into the Chase Sapphire or another Chase rewards account.

  • Earn $100 (10,000 points) when you spend $500 within 3 months of account opening
  • Earn $25 (2,500 points) when you add an authorized user and make a purchase within 3 months
  • 5% cash back (5x points) quarterly on select stores and purchases and 1x back on everything else
  • No annual fee
Capital One VentureOne Credit Card

Capital One VentureOne Credit Card

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card – Good for most people with good to excellent credit.

  • Earn 20,000 mile after spending $1,000 within 3 months of account opening; equivalent to $200
  • Earn 1.25 miles per dollar spent on everything
  • You can book travel through Capital One Rewards website or on your own and use your miles as a statement credit
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Miles never expire
  • No annual fee

There are many other travel reward credit cards out there, especially airline branded cards. If you get serious about earning free flights and travel awards then I recommend checking out the following websites and subscribing to their newsletters for the latest offers:

Travel hacking can been very rewarding and allows you to travel the world for cheap. It’s how I’ve scored many flights for dirt cheap or free. I highly recommend it, but remember rule #1: Never go into debt because of credit card rewards!

Do you travel hack? What’s your favorite credit card?


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