Why Even Bother With Travel Rewards?

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ChooseFI Favorite: top rewards card for beginners

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card​

Looking for the best credit card to start earning travel rewards points? The Chase Sapphire Preferred is our pick. With a 50,000 point signup bonus (after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months), the $95 annual fee waived the first year, and ultra-flexible points (transfers to 13 airlines & hotels!), this is our top choice!

ChooseFI Favorite: top rewards card for beginners

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card​

Looking for the best credit card to start earning travel rewards points? The Chase Sapphire Preferred is our pick. With a 50,000 point signup bonus (after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months), the $95 annual fee waived the first year, and ultra-flexible points (transfers to 13 airlines & hotels!), this is our top choice!

Why even bother with travel rewards? My friends ask me a version of this question all the time. People think it’s too much work, requires too much organization, too time consuming, etc. etc. For me, the simple answer to this question is: Because I love to travel!

Why I care about rewards

I like to stay at nice hotels and let’s face it, if you're going to spend 10 to 14 hours on an airplane, it’s a lot more enjoyable to sit up front in business or first class. I can honestly say that if it weren’t for travel rewards I simply would not have gone on one of the best trips of my life. Spending 15 hours in coach en route to Australia does not sound appealing at all.

Over the course of the last couple of years my interest in travel rewards has grown. That sense of wanderlust hit me bad! I want to see the world and I also have family abroad that I’d like to visit on a regular basis. Wouldn’t it be nice to do all of these things while not spending a lot of money?

I like to hunt for deals and I use shopping portals for all my online shopping. I am constantly trying to figure out how to optimize my spending on everyday things to maximize the travel rewards. This need to optimize your life is actually a perfect personality trait for anyone who takes travel rewards seriously.

Related: Extreme Stacking and Optimizing Hotels.com

I’ve flown business class to see my family abroad a couple of times over the last five years or so, but my first big win was flying to Australia in first class and staying at one of the most amazing hotels with a view of Sydney Opera House. My husband and I then flew for free, between Sydney and Bangkok in business class. We stayed at an amazing hotel in Bangkok and, finally, I flew in business class back home. After this trip I was hooked! I immediately started researching ways to travel like this all the time.

If you want to learn about travel rewards, think why YOU want to do it, what are your goals? It doesn’t have to be first class travel all the time or at all. Maybe your family is scattered all over the country, maybe you want to go on as many trips as possible, maybe you want to show your kids the world while spending very little money. Maybe your why is aspirational trips and luxury travel you could never afford otherwise.

Being good at travel rewards requires organization. You need to keep track of cards, their expiration dates, and always be on the lookout for deals. And yes, you will have to do some work, nothing is completely free but the value in travel rewards is enormous.

My rewards strategy

Anyone pursuing travel rewards needs to have a strategy. It’s like chess, you always have a strategy. You should never go in blind and just start opening random credit cards. For example, if you don’t fly Southwest or don’t do a lot of domestic travel in general, don’t get swept up in the excitement of obtaining a companion pass.

Do you want to take your family to Disney? Or travel in first class to Europe? Or are you planning a destination wedding? All of these will require you to develop different strategies so think first about your travel goals.

My goals with travel rewards all involve big international trips. As I mentioned already, I absolutely hate being stuck in coach on a long haul flight. So, I focus all my energy on obtaining rewards that would help me get to my destination in comfort. I have my big trip of 2018 planned already. My next goals are to collect enough miles to go see my family abroad. And I want to fly business class. I also want my husband and I to go to Japan in first class in 2019. I already have an airline in mind and what points/miles I’ll need to get us there in comfort.

Think of credit cards as your friends. They're not your enemies (if handled responsibly). Treat credit cards with respect they deserve, but don’t fear them. When you change your way of thinking, a whole world of new possibilities opens up.

Tell me about the trips you want to plan and what you would like to learn and let’s see how we can get you there for pennies on the dollar!

Why travel rewards are worth the effort

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20 thoughts on “Why Even Bother With Travel Rewards?

  1. We are planning a trip to Europe this summer and planning to use travel rewards for the flights and maybe some of the hotels! It will be our first international redemption. A few years ago we paid for flights from the US to Tanzania, flying from Phily through Doha. We randomly got upgraded to business class on the way there (not sure how that happened), and after the 14 hour flight home in economy it made me seriously consider travel hacking for business class or better in the future. I’m still on the fence for what we’ll do on our Europe flights! I”m leaning towards economy class on the way there and business class on the way back, but we’ve got to finish earning the last of our points before deciding.

    • Mrs. Kiwi, see my response to Patrick’s comment about my opinion on using points for flights to Europe. It truly is a matter of personal preference and, of course, if you on the West coast then the flights are substantially longer. If you are going to Europe this summer and are planning to use your points for flights then you need to start looking for redemptions NOW; especially in business! Those go fast! If you want any specific suggestions, tag me in the group, I’d be happy to chat.

  2. Hi Anna! Thanks for the post. I’ve adopted almost every strategy for pursuing FI… except travel hacking! It is overwhelming to me, it feels like a large barrier to entry. I’d love to visit Poland, Europe in general, Thailand, and South America. I will be FI in 2 years and then I’ll have more time to figure it out… but I’d love to start now. I was hoping to see links here, specific things to try, maybe next post? I signed up for the travel hacking email series and have glanced at MadFientist’s calculator for CC rewards. Thanks!

    • Carolyn, it certainly feels like drinking from a fire hose at the beginning, doesn’t it? Considering your plans I’d start with Chase cards that earn Ultimate Rewards; my favorite currency because the points are so versatile and offer so much flexibility. Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card to start with. Because of Chaise’s 5/24 rule (need to be under 5 cards in the last 24 months from ANY bank) I would definitely recommend starting with Chase cards and then moving on to Amex SPG cards that earn SPG points as well as Amex cards that earn Membership Rewards points. Did you listen to Travel Rewards episode and the episode about the Chase gauntlet? If not, I’d definitely recommend starting there. I’ll definitely be writing more about different strategies and different “currencies”. Feel free to tag me in the group too, I’d be happy to chat.

  3. My wife and I love traveling, and have been advocates of credit card programs for a while now (this is our second time with SW CP). We have done a lot of domestic traveling, and we are starting to plan more travels internationally. Our first European trip is in the fall, and that flight has already been paid for, but we are starting the standard set of Chase cards (CSR,CSP,CIP) in the next few months. We want to plan yearly international travel moving forward. My first inclination is that “well if we can afford two tickets in first class, we can afford 4+ tickets in economy!”. I’m also afraid that if I get a taste of the business/first class that I’ll never want to go back!

    • Haha, business class is certainly nice! But you know, with ticket prices to Europe being so cheap now, I don’t think it makes sense to spend points on economy awards. You can pay cash and save your points for super long flights and then use them for business class. That’s personally what I do; save my points for trips to Asia, Australia, Israel etc.

      As far as CSP and CSR, you can’t have both at the same time anymore, so pick the one that makes the most sense for you. They both have 50K sign up bonus but different annual fees and come with different benefits.

  4. I’m planning a trip to Hawaii with my husband in late 2019. We’ve almost earned the 50,000 ultimate rewards points required for two round trip tickets from the West Coast. But, I’m struggling with how to hack the lodging part of our trip. We want to visit Hawaii’s national parks, and with no Hyatt hotels near either of them I’m at a loss. Airbnb sounds like our best bet but I’m not sure if I can hack it with points. Any suggestions for hacking lodging in more rural areas?

    • Karryn, there are so called fixed value cards that are basically like cash back cards that will let you “erase” your travel related purchases with the points but if you are under 5/24 with Chase I would stay away from them for now. There are ways to to reduce the cost of AirBnB and to optimize your stay, I have a post in the works on how to save on different lodgins options in Hawaii in the works. You can also tag me in the group if you want some pointers right away.

  5. I am so excited you are writing about this topic as this is one superpower I have yet to delve into! I would love some advice from you on which card(s) to start with. In 2018 I am looking to do some travel in the states on probably American Airlines or United. Then in 2019 perhaps a short-term mission trip to Uganda or a vacation to London. For the latter, it could be on Aer Lingus, Air Canada, United or British Airways…

    • Ms. FI-ology, I’d recommend starting with Chase cards, Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card with 1st year annual fee waved. Chase Ultimate Rewards points is my favorite currency, they are so versatile. And because of Chase’s 5/24 rule it is always a good idea to start with all Chase cards.

  6. Thanks so much for the post. I feel like I just won the lottery by thoroughly listening and researching all the travel hacks from ChooseFI in one day. I just opened my first card and will be doing the Chase gauntlet. The one question I have that I don’t recall anyone addressing is this: how long do you need to keep the cards open? I’d prefer to get the points and close the card. Do you have a recommended time period for that? And, is there any problem with applying for the same card in 24 months? Thanks a ton!!! I’m a travel addict and so happy to get this info.

    • Christine, nice to hear from another travel addict! Do NOT close the card right after you get the point, banks really don’t like that. Plus, why close it? Some cards come with great benefits like CSP or CSR. Wait at least a year and when your second year annual fee posts you can close or downgrade the card. I think downgrading to a no fee version of the same or similar product is the best option. You can apply and receive the sign up bonus 24 months after you received the bonus (not 24 months since opening the card because it might take a couple of months to meet min spend and get the bonus points). At least that’s the rule right now but who knows, banks change their products and their rules all the time.

  7. Hi Anna
    Great post. I understand general recommendation with travel hacking is to have a destination, airline hub, lodging options in mind so you could come up with a plan that suits your travel plans. But if we leave all this aside and focus simply on accumulating valuable points what would be the ideal credit card opening pattern especially with Chase gauntlet in mind? Can you provide your recommendation for opening new cards in a chronological order like below
    1st month – Chase Sapphire Reserved – Min spend of 4000USD will be met in 3 months or less
    4nd month – SW Rapid Rewards Business – Min spend of 3000USD will be met in 3 months or less
    8nd month – SW Rapid Rewards Premier – Min spend of 3000USD will be met in 3 months or less
    ……

    • Well, it all depends on your travel goals. Do you see yourself traveling a lot in the US and maybe to Caribbean/Mexico and have a companion you want to take with you? Then go for SW cards and the companion pass. People time their SW credit card applications to get the CP at the beginning of the year because then you have it for almost 2 years (the current year and the following year). I am not an expert on SW because I don’t travel in the US a lot but there are tons of articles about this topic online. Tag me in the group and I’ll give you some suggestions.
      Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve are both great cards and both have the same sign up bonus. CSP has no annual fee but CSR has $450 annual fee that could be offset with $300 travel credit but comes with a lot of great benefits like Global Entry/TSA pre-check fee credit, travel delay reimbursement etc. Unfortunately you can’t have both at the same time anymore, so depending on your needs and travel goals you’ll need to pick one. Also, if you have a business or a side hustle, you can apply for Chase Ink Preferred, also a great card. tag me in the group if you want to chat more about your strategy and your travel plans. United card is a great option and Chase regularly has increased sign up bonus for this card (usually it’s 30K, but regularly goes as high as 70K). Chase cards are definitely the way to go in the beginning!

  8. My wife and I just used travel rewards to fly to Florida and stay on beautiful Sanibel Island nearly for free! I never even thought about doing anything like this until Choose FI, and now I’m hooked for sure!
    We flew Spirit Airlines, and although it only cost us 9,000 miles I would not recommend using them. Perhaps others will have had better experiences, but our return trip was delayed 6 hours because they had to wait for one flight attendant. 130 people delayed 6 hours for one flight attendant.
    Enough of that, Thanks for diving deeper into this area, I’m really excited to learn more about it!

    • That’s great! Which points did you use for your hotel?
      I only flew Spirit once, also to FL, and it was OK. It was half the price of United so I can’t really complain.

  9. I’m a somewhat singularly focused case I think, I’m trying to muddle through to a way to a system (similar to the gauntlet) that I can rinse and repeat consistently to get enough points yearly that I can fly with my family round trip to Israel once per year (there are 4 of us right now). I’ve looked at the Flying Blue program and it looks like my best bet but I’m uncertain about how to get going. I opened CSP and got the bonus in summer of 2016 so I’m getting close to being out of the exclusion for that bonus again (as I understand it I can only get that bonus for that card once per 24 months even if I’m under 5/24, right?) but I don’t feel confident in what my next steps should be and how to create a pipeline of lets say 8 cards (1 per quarter?) to continually progress through to hit this goal.
    Thanks for broaching this topic!

    • Hi Shimon,

      I fly to Israel every year too! Yes, you can only get CSP if you are under 5/24, and yes, you can get the bonus every 24 months. What about your wife? Being in a 2 player mode is so much easier! There are other UR earning cards out there such as Ink Preferred. Now about your specific redemptions, I’d need to know where you are flying from. I use UR transferred to United and United miles earned through United co-branded card to go to Israel. You can transfer UR to Flying Blue but a couple of times I looked the connections were horrible and the fuel surcharges very high. I am currently investigating booking Star Alliance award tickets via ANA. Tag me in the group and we can discuss more specific strategies.

  10. Thanks for the post! My husband and I and our two young boys will be traveling to Germany summer 2019. We will be staying with friends some of the time, so our main rewards use will be the airfare from DC for the 4 of us. Thanks for addressing the issue of whether to close a card in the comments above. Although I’m still a little confused on how/ when we can redeem and when to cancel. We started the Chase gauntlet and are about to start card #2 of the series in the order they proposed. We got our 1st Sapphire card in Nov, and are about ready to open the second for my husband. Do you think we’ll have enough to get some/all of our tickets by next summer? Could you walk through your thoughts on how you’d proceed or if it’s possible? Thanks so much!

    • Kim, you can redeem points/miles as soon you have earned them. Don’t cancel your cards, downgrade instead, if possible. Sometimes it does make sense to close the card, it just depends on the card itself, how old it is and what other cards you have. You have plenty of time till summer 2019 to earn enough points for the 4 of you. Check awardhacker.com to see which airline flies to your destination and how many points you need with different programs. Tag me in the group if you want more specific suggestions and let me know where you are flying and when. I’d be happy to help! If you aren’t going to do a lot of domestic travel then I’d skip SW cards, I personally don’t have a SW card because my travel is mostly international.

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