The Best Travel Credit Cards and How to Use Them

Credit cards can be our best allies or our worst enemies. Many times they’re thought of as tools that allow us to buy something that we can’t yet afford, but what if they had a much better use? Well, they absolutely do.

I’m not a financial analyst, nor are these tips coming from a licensed professional – but what I do know is that I was able to get over $4,000 for free in just a few months, all without accumulating any debt.

I’ve been experimenting with this system for over a year-and-a-half, even before we were considering traveling full-time. In this time, I’ve learned the ins-and-outs of travel credit cards and how they can help lower overall travel expenses with relatively little effort.

How Travel Credit Cards Work

Many travel credit cards will offer you a nice initial bonus of travel points if you spend a minimum amount of money, usually $1,000 – $3,000 and within the first 3 months. The travel-point bonuses are typically tens of thousands of points, which equates to hundred of dollars. Plus, this money is usually worth more when used specifically for travel-related purchases, like airfare, hotels, transportation, etc. 

The best way to spend those initial amounts – if you don’t have thousand-dollar purchases coming up – is to use your new credit card on every single bill and purchase you would normally make after getting it. Don’t buy anything that you hadn’t planned on buying, especially if you’re budgeting! So, use the card to make usual bill payments (insurance, internet, phone bill, etc.) and to pay for other expenses (groceries, gas, dining out, and other miscellaneous purchases).

Did it hurt my credit score to open several credit cards within a short amount of time? Only slightly, initially (mostly due to the hard inquiries). However, by keeping myself disciplined and constantly paying my credit card down as I used it, my credit score was back to its usual score within a few short months.

 

How to Deal with Annual Fees

Often times, credit cards with great rewards will waive their annual fees the first year. But what happens the second year? Once the card is 12 months old, you have three options:

  1. Pay the fee

  2. Close the account

  3. Ask for a “downgrade”

Asking for a downgrade is my favorite, as it won't affect your credit score at all and the process is very simple: you ask the bank if there are any credit cards available without annual fees that you can switch your line of credit to. This way, you will have taken advantage of the benefits without having had to pay an annual fee. You won’t always be able to ask for a downgrade; the worst-case scenario then is closing this new credit card, which won’t affect your credit score much given how relatively new the credit is.

To mitigate the effects of hard inquiries on your credit score, my best advice is to wait a few months between applications. I waited 3 or 4 months between each application and was never denied. Plus, by keeping my balances low and paying my cards each week, my credit score never dropped drastically. And like I said earlier, I would only buy what my money allowed me to buy, and then immediately paid those purchases down with the money I had in my checking account.

This tactic worked tremendously for us, over and over again. 

However, I should mention that if you're looking to purchase property, ask for a loan, or do anything else that requires having an impeccable credit score, I would consult a financial professional before applying for new credit cards.

 

The Best Travel Credit Cards

After much research, here are the credit cards that we found to be the best for accumulating bonus travel points fast and without much of a hassle.

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve: This is the queen of all travel credit cards. This card is an improvement over the Sapphire Preferred (described below) and it is the card that will grant you the most rewards in a short period of time. What’s the catch? It has a $450 annual fee, and it is not waived the first year. What? It’s not as bad as it sounds; there’s actually much more than $450 in benefits throughout the first year.

    • Bonus: After spending the requisite $4,000 in purchases within the first three months, you will receive a bonus of 50,000 points, which is $500 cash back, or $750 in travel credit when you make your travel arrangements through the "Ultimate Rewards" portal (Chase website)

    • It also provides you with $300 of travel credit per calendar year (anything from hotels to airfare to paying for a taxi – use this credit card and they’ll reimburse the cost up to $300, per calendar year)

    • 3 times the points for all of your travel- and dining-related purchases

    • A $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ (skip processing and check-in at several US airports!)

    • No foreign fees

    • A complimentary Priority Pass with access to 900+ airport lounges worldwide. This really came in handy during our honeymoon travels to Bali! Below is an example of one of these lounges.

Like I said, this has been my favorite credit cards, especially considering that when I applied for it, the initial bonus was 100,000 points. Tip: You will receive the $300 travel credit twice within the first 12 calendar months. If you apply for this card near the end of the year, you will receive both $300 credits within the first few months of having the card. For example: I applied in October 2016, so I then had 3 months to spend my first $300 of travel credit. Then on January 2017, I received another $300 dollars and I had until October 2017 (the 12th month) to spend it before asking for a downgrade. Cool, right?

 

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred: This is the credit card that introduced me to the world of travel rewards. Unlike the Sapphire Reserve, this one has no annual fee the first year (but $95 every year after) and gives you 2 times the points on travel and dining expenses. Bonus: After $4,000 in purchases within the first three months, you will receive a bonus of 50,000 points, worth $500 in cash back, or (for this card) $625 when used within the "Ultimate Rewards" portal (Chase website). This card is the little sister of the previously-mentioned Chase Sapphire Reserve.

  • Barclays Arrival Plus: This card also has no annual fee the first year (but $89 every year after), and 2 times the points on all of your purchases. Bonus: After spending $3,000 within the first three months, you’ll get another 50,000 points that are best spent on travel-related purchases through the Barclays portal (website or app) if you really want to maximize their $500 in worth. You do also get the option to receive “cash back” in the form of a check, but it will be worth half.

    • Something to keep in mind that’s specific to this card: to redeem points through the Barclays portal (a.k.a. "Rewards & Benefits Center"), each purchase has to be at least $100 – so plan accordingly.

    • You’ll also get a 5% bonus in miles every time you redeem (i.e. use) your miles. For example: if you redeem 10,000 miles, you will get a bonus 500 miles on your next redemption. 

  • Capital One Venture: This card is similar to the Barclays Arrival Plus. They waive the annual fee the first year ($59 every year after) and you get 2 times the points for all of your purchases. Bonus: With this card, however, the bonus is a little smaller: 40,000 points, redeemable in the same manner as the Barclays Arrival Plus.

    • This card has an interesting feature, in that you can transfer your points to another account. For Example: Since Robert applied for this card a few months before me, he was able to transfer his rewards to my credit card. This not only consolidated the points, but bought us more time to spend them all, as we were now able to wait until my card was a year old.

One thing I should mention: Qualifying for certain travel cards (or credit cards in general) requires having a great credit score. To see what your odds are of getting a certain credit card, use apps like Credit Karma. While it may not provide you with the most accurate score (we found it to be a little generous at times), it does do a good job of advising you which cards you are most likely to get based on your credit score. Plus, it'll alert you if anything were to suddenly happen to your credit.

 Put those points to good use!

Put those points to good use!

The travel credit cards above are just a few of the many credit cards that can help you get tons of bonus travel rewards. I focused on getting the ones that specifically offered international traveling benefits, and to that end, the ones I've mentioned are some of the best available (in 2017). If you follow the tips I've mentioned, you'll soon find yourself flying for free, too. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: This article was published at the end of April 2017. Before applying to any of the credit cards, please double-check the information to see if there have been any changes.