This is the third in a series of posts on Travel Hacking, so please read the first two (listed above) to understand if you meet the basic qualifiers such as credit score, and to ensure you are lined up with the right tools to avoid mistakes. Don’t worry, this time I will suggest cards, but there are still a few more things to understand.
There are four main travel point programs, each with their own rules, benefits, and card offerings. What they have in common is they are all flexible point currencies, that don’t expire, with points that can be transferred to a variety of airlines and hotels. Ultimately, you’ll want to have points in all programs for flexibility, but in general, you’ll want to start with Chase Ultimate Rewards for reasons I’ll outline below. The points programs are:
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- American Express Membership Rewards
- Starwood Starpoints
- Citi ThankYou Points
Rules of the Road
I know, I know...rules are made to be broken. Still a good idea to know the rules.
- Chase 5/24 rule – If you have opened 5 or more credit cards, from any issuer, in the last 24 months, Chase will not approve a new Chase card. There are exceptions to this such as business cards and some co-branded (Hyatt, IHG) cards. I Google, “Does the <card name> count against 5/24” before applying for a new card when I am not sure.
- American Express - While it's not a published rule (and conflicting reports), AMEX may limit consumers to four or five of their credit cards (personal or business) and an additional 4 of their charge cards. They do not appear to be concerned with cards from other issuers.
- One per Month – While there’s nothing set in stone, you may get rejected if trying to open more than one card a month. There are some exceptions such as one personal and one business or getting one card for yourself and one for your spouse.
- Authorized User - Adding a family member as an authorized user is helpful to hit spend requirements and often has a bonus, but it typically counts against their 5/24. It is generally best to wait to add them once they’ve hit 5/24. An advanced strategy is to have a spouse also apply for a card to obtain the bonus, often at a later date.
The sequence in which you get cards matters due to the rules I stated above. Knowing the rules and their exceptions is key to maximizing your points. Initially, the main rule is to not get non-Chase cards that count against 5/24. This means you need to select your best Chase personal cards and also start on business cards (if applicable).
Great offers pop up so keep your eyes and ears open. Here are a few recommended cards that should fit into most strategies. These offers change frequently, so please read the details and understand all fees and spend requirements.
Business Cards – Some of the most lucrative bonuses are from business cards. They have the added benefit in that they don’t hit your personal credit report and don’t count against 5/24. If there is any activity you do that can count as your own business, it’s worth exploring.
- A great starting point, with a massive bonus is the Chase Ink (80k points, cell coverage, and only a $95 annual fee).
- With very valuable points and the unknown of how long the Marriott and SPG program will remain separate, the AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest Business (25k points – equivalent to 75k Marriott points) should be in your top 5.
Chase Personal Cards – These cards are typically the best in terms of points, transferability, and benefits. You can get these cards in tandem with business cards and you may consider getting a couple of these first.
- Considered by many to be the best first card or if you only had one, select either the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred.
- Another great Chase personal card is the Chase Freedom Unlimited. It’s technically a cash back card, but is also part of Chase Ultimate Rewards. Used in concert with Ink or one of the Sapphire cards it earns 1.5 pts/$ on all purchases.
AMEX or Citi Personal Cards – Sequence doesn’t matter, just don’t start until you’ve hit 5/24.
- For a great hotel card, consider the AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest (25k points, annual fee waived first year).
* Full disclosure: I'll get a referral bonus if you use the links above. I would recommend these same cards without the bonus but please use if you found these posts helpful.
New Card Workflow
Here are the steps I go through when I receive a new card. Just like a good packing list, this takes the thinking (forgetting) out of the equation. You don’t need to forget to set up auto bill pay and impact your credit score.
1. Activate Card
2. Establish online access to account (or add to existing)
3. Link or combine with current loyalty program (sometime they create a new loyalty #)
4. Setup auto bill pay – pay in full
5. Setup fraud alerts
6. Add to Card Tracking spreadsheet
7. Add to Mint (if not under current card/bank you already have pulling in)
8. Add to eBills*
9. Add to Amazon*
10. Add to PayPal*
11. Add to ApplePay*
* Good idea to track which card you are using for which bills / service
There are many factors in selecting the right card. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good, pick your first card and run with it. For subscribers, who are serious about getting started, I’m happy to discuss the best card strategy for you at no cost. If you’re an experienced hacker, please share your insights in the comments below. If you picked your first card based on these posts, please share that as well.