Rewards Cards Equal Free Travel, but learn from my mistakes
There are many great travel rewards credit cards on the market that you can use to earn free travel. When I first started exploring travel rewards credit cards, I looked at them as I had used store cards in the past. What I mean is, when I made a big purchase at a store, and the salesperson asked if I wanted to save 30 percent, depending on the size of my purchase, I would consider it. So basically, I started wrong with rewards cards!
When I decided to start saving for travel, I initially started with the Chase/United Mileage Plus Explorer Travel Rewards Credit Card, which I obtained to save money on a United flight, and to get a free checked bag and priority boarding, plus free lounge passes. I looked at the initial 30,000 miles sign up bonus and thought, that’s a free flight to Europe! So I diligently used the card for all of my bills, purchases, etc, and got the bonus.
My husband and I love to travel to the Caribbean for our chill trips, so the next card I got was the Citi/American Airlines Platinum Select Master Card. Again, we were flying somewhere, I looked at the discount, the sign up bonus, priority boarding, and free checked bag, and moved all my purchases to this travel rewards credit card, and got the bonus.
Then the same with Delta, I got the AmEx Gold Delta Skymiles card.
Then I finally got smart. I started following The Points Guy, researching a bit more, and learned about Chase Sapphire Preferred. I signed up, received the card, got the sign up bonus, etc., and started earning Chase Ultimate Rewards Points. Now some people like the American Express Platinum, but AmEx has so drastically changed their perks to things that I wouldn’t use, that I pretty much ignore this card. It wouldn’t have made up for the cost of it for us.
As I booked more and more travel, I learned a great deal about travel rewards credit cards. For instance, American, which we got because of our Caribbean trips, only gives you a free checked bag on DOMESTIC flights. So why are we paying the annual fee for a card with no free bags? Plus, when I tried to redeem our mileage, they constantly only offered multiple stops and for a direct/one stop trip, very high mileage amounts to redeem. I am sure there are easier tweaks, but for the everyday person like me, this frustration just made me decide that I no longer got any real value from this card. So I downgraded to a free one so that my credit was not affected. Goodbye, American.
Because we do not live near a hub, we cannot fly non-stop internationally. So having several airline options, to me, makes sense. When we fly internationally, we sometimes drive 3 hours to our nearest international hub to save travel time and misery. I really like United’s international mileage amounts, 30K each way per person (again, I know you can find lower, but I consider myself an average points/miles user and that amount is reasonable to me).
What I really love about the United MileagePlus travel rewards credit card is all the ways you can earn mileage, little by little, that adds up. All of the cards have a dining program, shopping portals and other ways to earn. But I really love United’s Mileage Plus X app. When I shop (online or in person) or eat out, I check the app first to see if I can earn miles by buying a gift card through the app before I pay. If it is offered, I put in the total amount for the bill and get the gift card on my phone, which I then use as payment. So far in this manner I have earned 5K miles this year. And, since I use my Chase Sapphire card as the main card on there, when I buy gift cards for restaurants, I also get 3 Ultimate Rewards points, too.
With my Delta AmEx card, I mainly use the Skymiles dining program to earn. When you eat at their member restaurants 11 times within a year, you earn 5 miles per dollar. Because the card I have registered is my Chase card, I earn Delta miles and Chase Ultimate Rewards points, so I basically double-dip and get 8/$. I like the free checked bags and priority boarding with Delta, and just love Delta Airlines anyway. We have always had a great experience with them. To me, the free checked bags make this card justifiable.
When you shop through the portals, you have to be super careful. In my experience, as an avid Apple girl, you need to switch from Safari to Chrome. Every time I tried to shop with Safari it never seemed to credit my mileage accounts with the cards, and trying to resolve through their customer service was very frustrating. Sometimes stores offer 16+ miles/$, and for that not to count is just crazy. So use Chrome. You also have to be careful using discount codes at checkout. The process is very touchy, and I am still trying to tweak these earnings.
Now on to the Chase cards. We started with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, where we earned 2 points per dollar for restaurants and travel, and 1 point per dollar on everything else. What I had always done in the past was to use my debit card to pay for everything so I didn’t have to pay interest. Since I was in the habit of doing that, I just segued the same strategy to my credit cards to earn rewards. What is great about Chase is that you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points one-to-one to United and also convert to their other partners (to see their partners, click here). I had a situation where I was trying to book flights to Europe, and with cookies and time the redemption amount kept going up (in my experience, if you don’t clear your cookies and you don’t buy right away, the next time you search the price/amount of mileage needed goes up!). So I cleared my cookies, did the search again, and sure enough, it was lower. I needed to use my Chase points to supplement my United mileage, so in another tab I converted my Chase to United, and in the United tab bought the tickets, just to be sure the price didn’t go up again. Maybe I am crazy, but that worked.
After using the Chase Preferred for a year, I kept hearing about the Chase Sapphire Reserve. You earn 3 points per dollar for travel and dining, and even though the price per year is much higher, for the way we travel it is worth it. You can earn a $300 travel credit, your points are worth more if you book through their portal (where other non-partner airlines show up, by the way), you earn a fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, get Priority Pass Select Lounge access, and more travel insurance coverage. So I upgraded to that. We also pay extra for an authorized user card for my husband, who uses it for all of his purchases, too. Don’t discount the lounge access–when we recently traveled to Scotland, we used our free United Lounge passes at Dulles (free with our United card), then on our way home used Priority Pass Lounges. This was a much better way to travel than sitting in the crowded gate area for hours!
I am still learning and gaining experience from using these cards, but so far, I would highly recommend the Chase cards. Even though the hotel cards have great bonuses, too, we aren’t loyal to one brand of hotel and I really don’t think, for our usage, that those cards would work best for us. I love the flexibility of the Chase Reserve and the Ultimate Rewards Points. It has become my go-to card, and the travel portal often has hotels listed as available before the hotel site itself even opens up for reservations. I love booking as far out as I can in order to get the best rooms, hotels, flights, seats, etc. I will talk more about that in the future. But for now, suffice it to say, if you are considering a travel card, I highly recommend Chase Sapphire.
Please let me know about your experiences with travel rewards credit cards and programs below. Like I said, I know I don’t always use them to their full potential, but I am learning. There are all sorts of sites and many facebook groups that talk about redemption deals, strategies, and more. One great facebook group I found recently and encourage you to join is 10xTravel.com Insiders–when you email them they send you a great ebook about how to “Hack” travel awards. Here is a link to their website. But for now, I just really wanted to write about my experiences as the average person, as not everyone has the time to basically take a course in rewards card strategy!