We’ve all seen it before: #travel Instagram photos of “point hackers” sipping on champagne on their first-class flights to Paris that they got completely through travel credit card rewards — all while you sit #jealous at home.
When most people see these pictures, they’ll say things like:
- “Maybe if I had all the time in the world, I’d learn how to get a free flight on a travel credit card.”
- “Interesting… I’ll sign up next week…” (And they NEVER get to it.)
- “Aren’t gimmicky credit cards just marketing? No, thank you.”
But here’s the thing: Utilizing and maximizing a travel credit card to pay for your flights is a great way to earn a Big Win. In fact, you can save THOUSANDS each year if you travel often and know how to effectively leverage your points/miles/pudding lids.
There are hundreds of options out there. How the hell do you find the best travel credit card AND learn how to maximize the points so you get the best deals?[Spoiler Alert: The best travel card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. (No affiliate links – this isn’t sponsored.)]
That’s why we turned to one of the best minds when it comes to travel credit cards and rewards hacking: Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy.
Brian tells millions how to maximize points to do things like this:
He also sometimes takes his dog out on helicopter rides just because he can do it with his points.
“I would go to Europe in first class and my friends would ask me, ‘What trust fund are you on?’ [When I started out] I was basically living below the poverty line in New York City and I also had some debt from college. So there was no trust fund. It was just my miles and points.”
He’s since used his acumen to help others find the absolute best deals and launched a media empire.
So we spoke to him about his recommendation on the absolute best travel credit card on the market right now.
Brian’s 2 most important factors
1. Fixed value points are the best points
Airlines and travel credit cards offer points that you can redeem in exchange for things like flight tickets and hotels. While you can earn points directly from airlines through frequent flyer miles and associated rewards programs, the value of those points tends to fluctuate constantly at the airline’s discretion.
That’s why we’re going to be focusing on fixed-value points — points where you always know exactly how much money your points are worth — from travel credit cards.
2. Fun perks you actually want
Travel perks are everything offered that are NOT just airline miles/points and encompass a large variety of things including free checked bags, priority seating, first-class seating, and lounge access. “The flight itself is just one part of your traveling,” Brian says.
“[Airline] credit cards can make the whole travel experience MUCH better, whether that’s lounge access or assorted perks to help you save tons of money — things like free checked bags, Global Entry, etc.”
We want a card that provides a good amount of return for your travel points while offering some solid perks that’ll help make your travel easy, relaxing, and fun. You also don’t want to be nickel-and-dimed for idiotic things like blackout dates, penalties, and fees.
That’s why today, Brian is going to be giving you TWO credit card suggestions. Having multiple travel credit cards will help maximize your rewards as each one will offer different perks of which you can take advantage.
It’ll also benefit you as a traveler in general. For instance, many credit card companies are overeager to protect you from fraud and might just shut down your card if they see you do something out of the norm like purchase bottle service from a nightclub in Berlin.
“Credit cards get shut off for fraud all the time. If you’re traveling abroad and your card gets shut off, you should have a back up. Also, your card might not be accepted in certain countries due to coverage blackouts,” Brian explains.
With that, here are the two credit cards he recommends, one for first-timers and one for travel pros:
The best beginner travel credit card: The Chase Sapphire Preferred
Credit: Wallaby Financial
Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Bonus: 50,000 points (after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months)
If you’re looking to dip your toes into travel rewards, start with the Chase Sapphire Preferred. This card is the 1966 Ford Mustang of travel credit cards — reliable, classic, and full of perks.
“The Preferred is a great way to start,” Brian explains. “It’s a good gateway card because it waives the $95 fee its first year AND you’re getting 50,000 bonus points.”
That’s equivalent to about $625 towards your airplane ticket if redeemed through Chase’s Travel Rewards program. “So you’re not going to spend a cent out of pocket AND you’re getting a ton of points. That makes it an absolute no brainer,” he says.
You can also transfer the points at a 1:1 ratio on other travel programs. So you’re not locked into one airline or hotel chain.
A few other benefits:
- Double points on all dining and travel expenses. If you’re automating your finances and have a Conscious Spending Plan laid out, you’ll be able to have plenty of money left over each month to earn points through travel and dining purchases.
- No foreign transaction fees. Most credit cards will charge “foreign transaction fees”— an additional 3% on top of any transaction you make abroad — but with the Sapphire, you won’t have to worry about that. This can save you a ton of money on a post-Brexit trip to London.
- Annual fee is waived the first year. IWT readers already know how to do this with a single phone call, but they handle it without the ask.
While the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers a lot of great bonuses for points and earning points, it does notably lack solid perks such as free checked bags or priority boarding. That’s why we turn to our second card suggestion…
The best travel credit card for 2018: The Chase Sapphire Reserved
Annual fee: $450
Bonus: 50,000 points (after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months)
“If I had to choose one card to have on me it’d be the Chase Sapphire Reserved,” Brian says.
This premium card offers a wide variety of perks as well as the same great 50,000 bonus points that the Preferred offers. Unlike the Preferred, though, you’re earning THREE points per dollar when you spend on travel and dining.
If you were put off by that annual fee, you should know that the card’s perks practically pay it back. “It has a $450 annual fee — which might make people say, ‘Oh my god, that’s too much,’” he says. “But every year, you get $300 in free travel instantly rebated. So functionally, it’s a $150 fee.”
IWT readers will also know that you can call up the credit card companies and negotiate with them to get the annual fees waived — or at least cut down.
To recap, each year you receive $300 in travel credit AND you’re earning triple points on dining and airfare. Awesome.
Some other benefits we love:
- Access to airport lounges. Chase gives you access to over 900 airport lounges all over the globe. These are areas where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the airport terminal, grab a drink, use wi-fi, relax in comfy chairs, and even shower in some lounges.
- Free Global Entry/TSA pre-check. If you travel frequently for work or life, this perk should have you salivating. Free Global Entry means you’ll be able to speed right through the immigration line at the airport AND get access to TSA pre-check to skip most security lines in the US.
- Better protections if your flight is canceled or delayed. If your flight is delayed more than six hours, Chase reimburses you for up to $500 per ticket.
In all, with the $300 travel credit, 3x back on dining and travel, AND great perks such as free global access and TSA pre-check, the Reserve stands out as a fantastic choice for your traveling needs in 2018.
Rules for maximizing travel rewards
Maximizing your travel awards doesn’t stop as soon as you get the card in the mail. There are a number of rules you can follow in order to get the most out of your card.
Rule #1: Sign up for the annoying loyalty programs
The best tactic to earn the most travel rewards is by compounding your credit card points with airline loyalty programs and online shopping portals.
If you’re going to fly with an airline, you might as well earn some miles along the way. To do this, you’ll want to create an account with whatever airline it is you’re flying with before you purchase the ticket. They’ll drop the miles into your account and you’ll be able to use them later.
Rule #2: Use the airline’s website or app
“Never ever ever ever go to a retailer’s website,” Brian says.
“Click through an online shopping portal that will provide you frequent flyer miles simply by clicking through to the retailer’s website. You’ll earn a second drop of points into your frequent flyer account based on your purchases that day. The extra points will really add up.”
Here are a few from the more popular airlines:
You’ll have to be diligent and not forget to use the shopping portals when you want to purchase something. You can remind yourself of this by bookmarking the shopping portals from airlines you frequent so you have them right in your browser.
Rule #3: Don’t get specific airline rewards cards
Unless you fly a majority of flights on ONE airline, a general travel rewards card (like the two we suggest above) will be able to provide you more perks and more points.
This is due mainly to the fact that airlines CONSTANTLY change the rules.
“The biggest trend right now with airlines is adding on fees,” Brian explains. “For example: United Airlines. Even if you’re an Elite member, you can’t select a seat anymore and you even have to pay to bring a carry-on bag.”
Rule #4: Use travel credit cards to grow your business
In recent years, credit card companies have set their sights on two targets:
- Digital businesses (*cough* like your side hustles *cough*)
One of the best ways to maximize your travel credit card is to take advantage of that knowledge — especially if you fall into both categories.
“Chase and AmEx have credit cards that offer triple points on online advertising. At the Points Guy, we’ve been ramping up our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter advertising and have been earning triple points on hundreds of thousands of dollars of spending — which has made me the most point-wealthy I have ever been in my life,” says Brian.
So if you’re someone with a freelance side hustle looking to improve your social media marketing game, you can bet that a travel card is the best way to do it.
Rule #5: Diversify your points
Just like your investments, you should diversify your travel rewards points in order to get the most out of them. You can do this by utilizing your points for things BESIDES flying.
“I can only fly so much,” Brian says. “So I’ll just get certain points I can use for helicopters or trains or Uber rides. I don’t need that many points anymore so I diversify. Yes, I like flying first class, but I also want to use them for private jets to splurge.”
If you earn enough points, you can even score your own private jet like Brian does here:
How’s that for maximizing your benefits?
But you don’t have to just spend it on yourself. Brian also utilizes diversification to straight up change the world for the better through his nonprofit, Points for Peace.
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