Free Cash and Free Travel: Will you Play the Travel Hacking Game?

Almost every time I post a travel related article on this site, we have readers who want to learn how they can take great vacations for next to nothing. I’ve written a short primer on the basics of travel hacking, which boils down to signing up for numerous credit cards to receive the initial signup bonus on each. There is definitely a learning curve to the game, but if you invest some time upfront you will be repaid handsomely in free vacations and extra cash.

Let’s get started:

1) If you are new to travel hacking, consider applying for Chase cards first.

Chase has recently made a few internal changes that negatively affect the travel hacking community. They have started carefully looking at hard credit inquiries (you receive a hard credit inquiry when you apply for many types of new credit, including a credit card), and now refuse to approve new credit card applications if you have more than 5 new open accounts in the last 24 months. They look at all accounts, not just Chase accounts. That means you should apply for Chase issued cards before any others.

The main Chase issued cards include:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred – signup bonus is 55,000 Ultimate rewards
  • Chase Ink Business – signup bonus is usually 60,000 Ultimate Rewards
  • Chase Freedom – signup bonus is usually $100, but many people downgrade the Sapphire preferred to the Freedom

The Sapphire and the Ink would be my first two applications if I were just starting. The Freedom is a good card to keep for the 5% categories, but we obtained our Freedom by downgrading Vanessa’s Sapphire card. The annual fee is waived for the first year on all these cards, but I wouldn’t ever pay the annual fee on the Sapphire. It’s not worth it.

The Ink is a business card, but you can apply with your Social as a sole proprietor if you have sold anything in the last year. Just be prepared to answer questions about your business on the phone with one of their agents. The Ink card earns 5 Ultimate Rewards per dollar spent at office supply stores, cell phone, landline, or cable services. And 2 Ultimate Rewards per dollar spent at gas stations.

Chase Ultimate Rewards are very valuable and can be transferred 1:1 to many valuable partners including Hyatt hotels, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, British Airlines, and more.

1b) Consider the co-branded Chase cards.

If you already have those Chase issued cards listed above, Chase issues co-branded credit cards. Co-branded Chase cards worth considering:

  • Southwest Airlines Credit Cards – Southwest and Chase have issued 4 credit cards for a long time – 2 personal cards, and 2 business cards. They are all closely related, and the signup bonus has historically bounced from 25,000 to 50,000 Southwest miles on each card. The great thing about these cards is the ability to obtain the Southwest Companion Pass after signing up for 2 of the credit cards. For a complete guide to the Southwest Companion Pass, read this post.
  • British Airways Credit Card – This card offers 50,000 British Airways Avios (miles) as the signup bonus. Avios are great for short distance domestic flights because the program is distance based. You can search the British Airways site for award flights, and BA.com will allow you to use Avios to book American Airlines flights (they are in the same airline alliance).
  • United MileagePlus Credit Card – Offers either 30,000 or 50,000 United miles as the signup bonus, depending on the time of year. United is the easiest airline for searching and booking award flights using your miles. It’s very straightforward and easy on the United website.
  • Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card – This card usually has an 80,000 point signup bonus. Marriott has a lot of great properties for 10,000 points per night.
  • IHG Rewards Club Credit Card – The signup bonus has recently been 60,000 IHG points. It has been 80,000 miles in the past. IHG is the parent company behind Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Staybridge Suites, and a few other hotels. They release quarterly Point Break hotels that cost only 5,000 points per night. Regular rates start at 10,000 points per night. This card also give you a free night anywhere in the world on your card anniversary date. The annual fee is waived the first year, then $49.

There are other Chase cards as well, but these are a few of the majors worth considering. Wait for the higher signup bonus on each card listed. The IHG and Marriott cards are always a good option, and you can ask to be matched to a higher signup bonus if it increases after you are approved.

In my experience, Chase will usually only approve 1-2 cards at a time. I’d apply for 2 of them at once, then wait a few months and do it again.

You can receive the bonus on each card more than once with Chase. You have to wait 24 months from the time you received the last bonus. It has nothing to do with the date of application or the date of closing, only the date you received the previous bonus.

2) American Express

The great thing about travel hacking in the US is the ability to spread your credit inquiries across multiple financial institutions. Apply for a couple from Chase, then a couple from Amex, then Bank of America and Citi.

American Express allows you to have 4 or 5 credit cards, and unlimited charge cards, per person at any given time. You can get the signup bonus on Amex cards once, and never again. As such, you should wait for good offers before applying.

Some Amex cards worth considering:

  • Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Credit Cards – Both a personal and business card are available. The signup bonus is usually 25,000 miles. This sounds lower than many other cards, but SPG points are extremely valuable. You can book hotels for 3,000 points per night, or transfer to almost every major airline.
  • SimplyCash Business Credit Card – The signup bonus is currently $250 cash via statement credit. This card has no annual fee, but offers 5% cash back in some categories, and 3% cash back in a category of your choosing. I’ve held this card for a long time, and it has been very valuable.
  • Blue Cash Preferred Credit Card – The signup bonus is currently $150 cash back via statement credit. This card offers 6% cash back at grocery stores, and 3% cash back at gas stations and select department stores.

There are many other credit cards issued by Amex that are worth considering. The Gold and Platinum cards are great when they raise the signup bonus. I got a business version of the platinum last year that gave me 150,000 Membership Rewards. Sometimes they also raise the signup bonus on the Amex Delta cards to 50,000 or 60,000 Delta miles.

3) Citi

Citi’s credit card division used to be the wild west. You could get multiple signup bonuses from the same card over and over without delay. They would approve almost any application without hesitation. Unfortunately, they have recently tightened the system.

It is possible to receive the signup bonus on a card more than once, but Citi requires you to wait 18 (or 24) months from the date of opening or closing an account of the same type. Furthermore, there are specific rules you must follow when applying for Citi credit cards now:

  • Only 1 Citi application of any kind per 8 days.
  • No more than 2 Citi applications of any kind in 65 days.
  • No more than 1 Citi business application in 95 days.

With the rules out of the way, consider these credit cards:

  • AAdvantage Citi Credit Cards – Citi offers a number of American Airlines branded cards, and the signup bonus is usually 50,000 American Airlines miles on each, which is great.
  • Hilton Hhonors Credit Card(s) – There are two different Hilton cards offered. One offers 50-75,000 Hilton points. The other card offers 2 free nights at almost any Hilton property.

4) Bank of America

Bank of America will only approve 1-3 cards at a time, depending on the applicant. But if you get approved, you get the signup bonus. It doesn’t matter if you recently had the same type of card, or still have the same card open. If you get approved, you get the signup bonus.

A few cards worth considering:

  • Alaska Airlines Credit Cards – The personal and business signup bonus is almost always 30,000 miles. This is less than other bonuses, but Alaska miles are valuable airline miles.
  • Travel Rewards Credit Card – Usually offers a $100 signup bonus, but currently offering a $200 bonus. This card give 1.5 miles per dollar spent (essentially 1.5% cash back) on all purchases, and that can be increased up to 2.625% if you hold assets at Bank of America and/or Merrill Lynch (through the Preferred Rewards Program).
  • Cash Rewards Credit Card – Usually offers a $100 cash signup bonus. Offers 2% cash back at grocery stores, and 3% at gas stations. Like the card above, the cash back can be increased if you hold assets at Bank of America and/or Merrill Lynch.

5) Barclay Bank

Barclay is just like Bank of America. They usually won’t approve more than 2 applications at the same time, and if you are approved, you always get the signup bonus.

We each hold only one card from Barclays right now:

  • Arrival Plus Credit Card – The signup bonus is equivalent to $400 towards travel, and this card earns about 2.1% back on all purchases.

6) Discover

Discover doesn’t offer much for signup bonuses, but their current cards are definitely worth grabbing:

  • Discover It Card – Currently offering double cash back on all purchases for the first year = 2% cash back on everything, 10% cash back in rotating quarterly categories, and up to 40% cash back through the Discover Deals shopping portal.
  • Discover Miles Card – Currently offering double cash back on all purchases for the first year = 3% cash back on everything.

Closing Remarks

This isn’t an exhaustive list of credit cards, but it should help you get started. There are always new offers being rolled out, and sometimes the great offers only last a few days. If you are serious about this hobby, you should read my other travel hacking articles, then get started.

I’ve made thousands of dollars, and have several million miles now because of credit card offers. That means we can (and will) travel almost anywhere in the world for free. To make this game even more enticing, signup bonuses and credit card rewards are almost never taxable.

If you would like to start making money, or traveling for pennies on the dollar, you can compare many of these cards and others on this page

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