Which credit card will get me home for the holidays next year?
By Cathleen McCarthy
Cathleen McCarthy is a journalist whose articles on travel, commerce and consumer topics have appeared in dozens of publications. She writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com
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Dear Cashing In,
season is about to come and go without me getting to do what I really want to
do with rewards -- take a flight back home for the holidays. I live in the New York
area and most of my family is in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We usually
gather in San Francisco for the holidays. My goal in 2013 is to get on a free flight
for either the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday to go home. Right now, I
have three general purpose rewards credit cards: a Visa (my main card), a
Discover and a MasterCard. I don't really pay that much attention to them. I just
keep an eye out for whatever rewards are running a special. How can I get my
act together to achieve my goal? -- Stranded
Sorry to hear you
won't be traveling home for free this Christmas (cue Bing Crosby), but this is a good time to set
your plan in place to make sure you're home free next year. Too many of us wait
until the last minute to try to score award travel, as you know from experience.
rewards cards, such as those you're carrying now, aren't really designed to
maximize travel rewards. Why not add or trade one of your cards for a travel
rewards card? I'm going to assume that since you didn't mention having significant
frequent flier miles with any one airline, you don't have them. Without those,
signing up for virtually any co-branded airline card could get you a free
domestic fare in sign-up bonus miles alone -- but possibly not enough for
As you're probably
aware, you're targeting the toughest travel periods for finding award seating.
Most airlines have blackout dates during the holidays, which mean your
hard-earned awards may not do you any good unless you can plan an extra-long
stay. And even then, you may find seat availability limited, which bumps up the
miles needed to purchase a ticket.
flights from New York to San Francisco can be had for about $450, even this
close to the holidays. With generic miles (generally worth one cent a mile),
you could purchase a ticket for 45,000 points.
Let's look at the
options. If you had a credit card that awarded two miles per dollar spent, you
could buy that ticket, with no blackout dates, by charging $22,500 over the
next year on that card.
If you had the Discover Escape card ($60 annual fee), rather than the generic Discover, you
could be earning two miles per dollar spent to use on any airline, hotel or
rental car, with no blackout dates. You also get 1,000 bonus miles every month
that you make a purchase for the first 25 months. So you could earn 12,000
bonus miles by this time next year, and would need to charge $16,500 to
get the balance you need for the 45,000 points.
A Capital One Venture
card also gets you two miles per dollar on all purchases, and there are no travel
rewards blackout dates, but the $59 annual fee is waived for the first year. Plus,
you get 10,000 bonus miles when you spend $1,000 within the first three months,
equal to $100 off that $450 fare. If you ever decide to fly overseas with those
miles, you pay no foreign transaction fees, which that can save you up to 3
Your surest bet for
that flight home for the holidays, however, is the Chase Sapphire Preferred
card. That's because the sign-up bonus alone can cover your flight home. It
offers a 40,000-point sign-up bonus if you charge $3,000 in the first three
months and a 1:1 point transfer to participating travel programs, including
United MileagePlus. You also get 20 percent off airfare and other travel expenses
when you book through Ultimate Rewards, no foreign transaction fees and a 7
percent annual points dividend on all new points earned on purchases -- even on
points already redeemed.
One caveat is that
Sapphire Preferred was designed to reward frequent travelers -- which may not
describe you -- with two points per dollar spent on travel and dining and one
point on other purchases. However, the $95 annual fee is waived the first year
so you have a year to redeem those bonus points and then decide if you want to
commit to this card going forward.
Good luck getting
home next holiday using your new credit card rewards and points.
See related: Best ways to earn final points that get you a free flight, Strategies for maximizing frequent flier credit card points, Are free frequent flier miles really free?,
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