Last Updated: November 2018
“So much of who we are is where we have been.”— William Langewiesche
This is the third in a series of posts on Travel Hacking, so please read the first two (listed below) 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. In this post I will share details on the various point programs, rules of the games, card sequence, and recommended cards. You will now be ready to start earning points!
Travel Hacking Series
- Part I: Is it Right for You
- Part II: Getting Started
- Part III: Card Selection (This post!)
- Part IV: Using Points: Flight Bookings
- Part V: Using Points: Hotel Booking
- Guide: Recommended Cards
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
- Marriott Rewards
- Citi ThankYou Points
Rules of the Game
I know, I know…rules are made to be broken. Still a good idea to know the rules. These rules aren’t published, and results may vary, but are commonly known to travel hackers.
- Chase 5/24 rule – If you have opened 5 or more credit cards, from any issuer, in the last 24 months, Chase will likely not approve a new Chase card. There are exceptions to this such as business cards. [Update: 11/30/18] Co-branded (Hyatt, IHG) cards were an exception but rumor is this is changing. I Google, “Does the <card name> count against 5/24” before applying for a new card.
- American Express – AMEX may limit consumers to four or five of their credit cards (personal or business) plus 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 provides 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. Make sure to pay attention of there is a fee to an authorized user.
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. Your initial objective is to maximize Chase 5/24, meaning you want all five cards that count against it to be Chase cards. Don’t get that Nordstrom card or AMEX Gold card until you’ve hit 5/24…actually don’t ever get that Nordstrom card! There are business cards you can start acquiring, but you want to make sure you lock in the Chase Trifecta (Sapphire + Freedom + Freedom Unlimited). The one card I recommend getting prior to starting the trifecta is the business card, Chase Ink, as you get 80k points for only $95.
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.
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. Don’t immediately assume you are not eligible for business cards. If you do an activity with the intent of generating revenue, such as selling items on eBay or Etsy or you do photography on the side, these are businesses. Just don’t lie on your application, new businesses with little or no revenue need cards, they will ask for your personal income as well. You use your name and SSN if you don’t have a business name or TIN.
- A great starting point, with a massive bonus, is the Chase Ink (80k points, cell phone insurance, and only a $95 annual fee).
- Another great business card is the AMEX Blue Business Plus. It has no annual fee and earns 2x points on all purchases, and provides a 10k point sign-up bonus.
Chase Personal Cards
These cards are typically the best in terms of points, transferability, and benefits. You can get these cards in tandem with business cards and you may consider getting a couple of these first.
- Considered by many to be the best first card or if you only had one, select either the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred.
- Another great Chase personal card is the Chase Freedom Unlimited. It’s technically a cash back card, but is also part of Chase Ultimate Rewards. Used in concert with Ink or one of the Sapphire cards it earns 1.5 pts/$ on all purchases.
AMEX or Citi Personal Cards
The sequence of AMEX and Citi cards doesn’t matter, just don’t start until you’ve hit 5/24 with your Chase cards. I prefer AMEX cards so would start with these, but be open to new or limited time offers.
- My new everyday card is the AMEX Gold Card. It earns 4x on US dining and grocery and 3x airfare and has a 50k bonus until January 9th, 2019.
* Full disclosure: I’ll get a referral bonus if you use some of the links above. I would recommend these same cards without the bonus but please use if you found these posts helpful.
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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 (free for subscribers)
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 (also included in the Card Tracking Spreadsheet)
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.
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Read the next post in the Travel Hacking Series: Part IV: Using Points: Flight Bookings
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