The Best Credit Card Rewards = Free World Travel

It’s a cliché on every dating profile ever written: “I love to travel.” But for most of us, it really is true. The big catch is that traveling is expensive. But it doesn’t have to be! The key is to take advantage of introductory offers that credit card companies use to get your business.

First, a caveat. This is only for people that can use credit cards responsibly. If you don’t pay off your bill every month, this isn’t for you. The interest rates on these credit cards will eat you alive. The credit card companies are counting on some applicants paying them a lot of interest—that’s why they offer these great introductory offers. But if you can trust yourself to use credit responsibly, there’s no reason you can’t travel for almost free. And travel in style.

The Best Credit Card Rewards for Free Travel

The 2 biggest expenses when traveling are usually airfare and lodging. Here’s how you can use introductory credit card offers to practically eliminate both expenses.

Airfare

Like Sinatra said, Chicago is my kind of town. Besides street festivals, North Avenue Beach, and the Hangge Uppe, Chicago is also a hub for United Airlines (UA) and American Airlines (AA). This works out perfectly because those two have perhaps the best frequent flyer programs in the world if you want to fly internationally. The critical reason UA and AA have great frequent flyer programs is they don’t pass on fuel surcharges when you book an award ticket through them, even if the ticket is on one of their partner airlines (Star Alliance for UA, OneWorld for AA). On many other frequent flyer programs across the world, you can book a supposedly free roundtrip flight but still end up paying $500 to $1,000 in fuel surcharges. What’s free about that?

Collecting UA and AA miles is pretty straightforward with introductory credit card offers. These credit card offers require you to spend a certain amount of money within a certain amount of time in order to get the bonus. I would recommend getting the cards one at a time and focusing all your spending against the card until you’ve hit the bonus requirement. Then move on to the next card.

Card

Minimum Spend

Length of Time

Bonus

Annual Fee

Chase Ink Plus business card

$5,000

3 months

50K Chase Ultimate Rewards. Has been as high as 70K in past.

$95, waived first year

Chase Sapphire Preferred Personal Card

$4,000

3 months

40K Chase Ultimate Rewards plus an additional 5K for adding an authorized user

$95, waived first year

Chase United MileagePlus Explorer business card

$2,000

3 months

50K United miles

$95, waived first year

Chase United MileagePlus Explorer personal card

$1,000

3 months

30K United miles plus an additional 5K for adding an authorized user. Has been as high as 50K in past and targeted offers of 50K are frequent

$95, waived first year

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select personal card

$3,000

3 months

50K American miles.

$95, waived first year

CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select business card

$3,000

3 months

50K American miles.

$95, waived first year

A few things worth pointing out in this chart:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards are transferrable 1:1 to UA miles. They’re also transferrable to a lot of other programs (like Southwest) so they’re better than UA miles.
  • A few of these are business cards. The credit card companies are really lax about giving out business credit cards to people with not much of a business to show. Maybe you’d like to start walking dogs on occasion for a few extra bucks. That’s a business! Maybe you’ve started a blog that you intend to put advertising on someday. That’s a business! You don’t even need revenue yet. You can read more about getting business cards without much of a business here.
  • These cards all have annual fees, but they’re waived for the first year. Just be sure and cancel the cards before the annual fee is due.

If you were to get all 6 of these cards, the introductory bonuses alone would net you 95K Chase
Ultimate Rewards (which can be transferred 1:1 to UA miles), 85K UA miles, and 100K AA miles. Not to mention that all these cards also earn at least 1 mile/point for every dollar spent—that’s another 18K miles/points you’ll get from completing the introductory offers. Suffice to say, this is a ton of miles and can get you anywhere in the world!

Hotels

Airfare is half the battle, but lodging can really add up, too. Especially if you don’t want to sleep in a 20 bunk bed dormitory where the smell can best be described as “sweaty dude mixed with cheap tequila mixed with broken condoms.” Fortunately, there are some great hotel credit cards that let you get your Z’s for free. Here’s a few of my favorites:

Card

Minimum Spend

Length of Time

Bonus

Annual Fee

Chase Hyatt personal card

$1,000

3 months

2 free nights at any Hyatt in the world

$75, waived first year

American Express Starwood Preferred Guest personal card

$3,000

3 months

25K Starpoints

$65, waived first year

American Express Starwood Preferred Guest business card

$5,000

6 months

10K Starpoints with first purchase and add’l 15K Starpoints after meeting minimum spend

$65, waived first year

Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve personal card

$2,500

4 months

2 free weekend nights at any Hilton in the world

$95

The Hyatt one is my favorite…it’s a low minimum spend and you get 2 free nights at any Hyatt in the world. There are several hotels where the rate you would pay is over $500 a night and sometimes over $1,000 a night! The Starwood cards are great, too. Starpoints are really valuable—you can often stay in nice hotels for 10K Starpoints a night (Starwood has such hotel brands as W, Le Meridien, Westin, Aloft, St Regis, and Sheraton). While the Citi Hilton card is limited to weekend nights (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday), you’ve got the same opportunity as with the Hyatt—stay in a really expensive, luxurious hotel you could never afford normally. The Hilton card does have a $95 annual fee that is not waived for the first year. I should point out that there are a few exclusions from both the Hyatt and Hilton free night list that you can find online—it’s unlikely this will cramp your style.

Putting it All Together

So this all sounds good on paper, but how about a real life example of how you could travel in style for close to free with just a few cards? Let’s say you and a companion want to go to Tokyo and Kyoto at the beginning of April next year to see the famous cherry blossoms. Each of you signs up and completes the introductory bonuses for the following 4 cards, all of which have their annual fee waived for the first year:

  • Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select personal card
  • CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select business card
  • American Express Starwood Preferred personal card
  • Chase Hyatt personal card

Just from the introductory bonuses, you each have 100K AA miles, 25K Starpoints, and 2 free nights at any Hyatt. You can fly from Chicago to Tokyo in business class for 100K AA miles during off-peak times (off-peak for Japan is defined as 10/1 – 4/30). I found lots of flight options when searching for 100K mile roundtrip award tickets—here’s one example.

Best Credit Card Rewards

You get to fly first class on the domestic flights between Chicago and Dallas and business class on the trans-Pacific flights between Dallas and Tokyo. If you’ve never flown business class, it makes all the difference in the world! You get good food, free booze, and a much bigger seat that reclines enough for you to actually get some sleep. In short, you can arrive at your destination without feeling like the piece of gum stuck to the bottom of some unlucky bastard’s shoe. The total cost of your ticket: $49.70 in taxes.

When you get to Tokyo on April 5th, you can go straight to your hotel—the Park Hyatt Tokyo. This $500/night hotel was featured prominently in the movie Lost in Translation. You too can go live it up in the famous “New York Bar” on the 52nd floor, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters meet for the first time. Because you and your companion each have 2 free nights, you can stay at this hotel for 4 nights. On April 9th, having seen all there is to see in Tokyo (yeah right), you take the train to Kyoto, the spiritual center of Japan. Here you spend 3 nights at the Kyoto Westin, enjoying the chain’s signature Heavenly Bed, for 10,000 Starpoints a night—30,000 Starpoints in total. You and your companion have 50,000 points between you, so you’ve got more than enough to cover this.

The total cost for these hotels: nothing, nil, nada, zilch. All taxes are covered when using your Hyatt free night certificates or Starpoints to get a room.

On the 12th you take the train back to Tokyo and fly back to the US, again in business class. You’ve traveled and stayed in style in one of the most expensive countries in the world during one of its most iconic times of year, and the total cost for your flights and hotels was $49.70 per person. All for you and your companion each signing up for 4 credit cards and directing $10,000 of the spending you would have done anyway onto them over the course of up to 12 months.

A Final Note

A lot of people shy away from signing up for a bunch of credit cards because they are afraid of what it will do to their credit score. This is really an unfounded concern. Your score may go down by a few points for a short time after opening a card, but the effect is small and temporary. In the long run, most people who open up a lot of credit cards for the introductory offers actually have their credit score go up. I’ve opened 10 new cards in the last year, and my score with Transunion, where most of the hard inquiries on my credit were done, is between 790 and 800. Anything above 750 is excellent—you don’t get bonus points for having an 820 score instead of a 790. Opening up a few credit cards won’t jeopardize your ability to buy that dream house someday, just so long as you always pay your credit card bills on time!

So there you have it. The best credit card rewards for free travel. Domo arigato for reading such a long post. Sayonara!

Brian Wolf

Brian Wolf

Financial Planner at Bright Lantern Financial
Brian Wolf is a financial planner who helps people figure out how to afford a comfortable retirement, pay for their kids' college education, or buy their dream home.More information can be found on his website brightlanternfinancial.com. He was also one of the first investors in Protein Bar, a Chicago restaurant favorite.
Brian Wolf

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