I remember the bribe I got when I applied for my first credit card. It 1998 and it was outside Doherty Hall at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. I remember walking to class and someone stopped me to ask if I wanted a t-shirt. I was a freshman, I had clothes but an extra t-shirt meant another day I didn't need to do laundry!
I applied for an AT&T Universal Card, a t-shirt, and 50 minutes a month of free long distance calling so I could call my parents for free (remember, 1998). A pretty sweet deal if you asked me back then.
If you offered someone a t-shirt today, they'd laugh at you.
Credit card companies no longer offer toasters, t-shirts, or other anything like that. They're offering money. If you are approved for a Chase Freedom card and spend $500 in your first three months, you get $150. CASH. Forget t-shirts, bonuses these days come in the form of free hotel rooms, free flights, and cash money. If you aren't getting paid something to use a new card, you aren't doing credit cards right.
Travel hackers have known this for years, getting new cards and accumulating massive numbers of points. My post about how to get to Walt Disney World for free revolves around credit card bonuses and rewards.
If you want to get some of your travel subsidized by credit card special offers and promotions, check the list below to see the best available. I will update this list with the best ones as often as they come out.
Best General Promotion
If you don't have a specific plan and just want to get a card with a great bonus and a flexible rewards program, look no further than the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. The Chase Ultimate Rewards program is the most flexible general rewards program available. You can transfer 1:1 to British Airways Executive Club, Korean Air SKYPASS, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®, United MileagePlus®, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Hyatt Gold Passport®, IHG® Rewards Club, Marriott Rewards® and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards®. When you book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, you get 20% off on airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises so your points go even farther.
One of the best cards in their portfolio is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. Just look at it! It was named MONEY Magazine's Best Credit Card for Travel Rewards.
You can get 60,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, that's the equivalent of $750 in travel when you redeem through the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. You also earn 2x points on dining at restaurants and travel; 1x on everything else. There's an annual fee of $95.
If all that wasn't sexy enough, it is also a no foreign transaction fee credit card!
If you already have the Chase Sapphire card or were otherwise unable to get it, a good alternative is the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. It offers a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the 1st 3 months, equal to $500 in travel. You earn 2x miles on every dollar you spend and its flexible rewards program lets you fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime. The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
Best Hotel Promotion
The Starwood Preferred Guest program covers 1,200+ hotels in 100 countries and across 11 brands. It's a popular program because the bonus on tier flagship American Express credit card is so great… but it's a good program on its own anyway. Also, Starpoints can also be converted to airlines miles on a 1:1 basis with a laundry list of airlines.
I have a special spot in my heart for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express and the Starwood Preferred Guest program because two of Walt Disney World's nicest hotels, the Disney Dolphin and Disney Swan, are Starwood properties. The Starwood Preferred Guest card will give you 25,000 Starpoints if you use it to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. That'll give you 28,000 Starpoints to use which is worth up to 14 days if you book a Category 1 on a weekend!
They also have a Fifth Night Free program where if you book 5 nights in a Category 3 – 7 hotel, the fifth night is free.
If SPG isn't up your alley or you consider yourself a Conrad Hilton type of traveler, the Hilton HHonors has partnerships with two credit card companies – Amex and Citi – with two compelling promotional offers. The Hilton HHonors is a great program on its own because members, even at the lowest Blue level, get a ton of benefits. The redemption prices are not as good as SPG, with a free night starting at 5,000 points, and a schedule that isn't as clear.
The Hilton HHonors Card from American Express is the one I prefer. it feeds into the Hilton HHonors program, offers automatic upgrade to Silver Status (one up from the starter Blue status), and has no annual fee.
The Hilton HHonors Card from American Express offers 50,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after $750 in purchases on the card within your first 3 months. You get 7 Bonus points per dollar spent at a Hilton hotel, 5x Bonus points spent at supermarkets, drugstores, and gas stations and 3x on everything else.
Lastly, just so we don't leave a major hotel chain off the list — the Marriott Rewards program has their own Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card. It offers 80,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, a generous rewards structure, and an $85 annual fee.
The best airline credit card really depends on where you live and which airline you fly the most.
For us, it's Southwest so we only have one option – the Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card. We use it to earn points so we hit the 110,000 points necessary for a companion pass, which lets my wife fly when I fly for free. They currently have a promotion where you get 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months – email me for a referral (it's not a publicly available offer, so you'll need to find an existing cardholder to refer you).
Otherwise, here are the best airline cards for each airline:
- British Airways Visa Signature Card – No sign up bonus but you get 4 Avios for every $1 spent on purchases in your first year, up to $30,000 in spend (120,000 bonus Avios)
- Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard – 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 within the first 90 days.