Disclaimer: I do not work for a bank, nor am I “qualified” in any way to give real credit advice. I speak from my own experiences.
Used responsibly, credit cards provide the biggest opportunity for collecting miles and points to travel places for free. I can easily speak to that. Since getting my first travel rewards card, my wife and I have burned through over 120,000 Amtrak points, 120,000 airline miles and over 150,000 hotel points. The total net “value” (going cash rate of redemption travel minus fees) we have gotten from our points and miles so far is somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000 USD. Currently, we have accumulated over 250,000 airline miles, 200,000 hotel points, and 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (transferable to multiple travel programs) between the two of us. All while maintaining an excellent credit score.
There are two things I want to mention before going further. First, if you think you’ll have issues controlling your spending with a credit card, don’t get one. Collecting points and miles is not worth it if you are spending yourself into a financial hole. Second, always consider the impact to your credit that will result from applying for new cards. A poor credit score is also not worth any miles or points you may gain. You can check out my post ‘The 5 Factors That Influence Your Credit Score‘ if you’d like.
Points/miles are typically earned two ways: card sign-up bonuses and card spending. The sign-up bonuses are the initial hook, and they nearly always comes with stipluations of spend X dollars in Y time to get Z points. As an example, consider this United credit card issued by Chase that offers 30,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first three months. It has an annual fee, but this is waived the first year.
Using your card for purchases also yields points or miles, and in most systems this is at least one per dollar. Banks profit from you using their credit cards since they get a cut of every purchase you make through a fee that a merchant pays, so getting you to use their credit cards for your everyday spending is in their interest. They also profit from the interest that accrues on your purchases when you use the card, but, please, don’t let that happen. It will quickly offset the value of any points you accrue.
What you want to do is make the system work to your advantage. You want the card to pay you rewards that substantially offset any fees you may pay. For example, I have a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card that lets me accrue points in the SPG program. I love it. I use it a lot. But it costs me $95 per year (first year was free). However, I spend enough on the card to more than cover the cost of keeping it, and this justifies it in my opinion.
Another example is the IHG Mastercard, while has a $49 annual fee, but it provides an annual free night at any IHG property. This is well worth keeping because the cash rate for a night is nearly always more than $49, and can be upward of $500 for top locations! These are the only fees I pay on these cards, and I can therfore come out net positive in the end. Otherwise there would be no point in playing this free travel game.
You should also have a plan. If you are going to apply for a card, try to have a good reason. For example, United is the only airline that flies out of the small ariport in my area, so their miles are by far the most valuable to me, and I applied for their card before many others. Try to have either a specific purpose for the miles or points, or at least identify some possible options.
When going after lots of cards, I typically identify some as “keepers” and others as “churners”. By churners I mean it is a card that I apply for, spend enough on it to get the sign-up bonus, and then keep it for about 11 months before cancelling so that I don’t get hit with the annual fee. I then wait to reapply for the card a year or two later, if I can get the sign up bonus again. This may not be most people’s definition of churning, but it is mine. I then pick up a “keeper” card now and then, which typically has no annual fee, or an annual fee that is overwhelmingly outweighed by the benefits, like the IHG Mastercard above. I do this mostly to maintain a healthy credit score.
There is so much more earning free travel with credit cards. I’ll be taking an deeper look at several moving forward.