Ready for your first airline card? Ask yourself these questions first
The sky's the limit if you play your cards right
Specializes in family finances
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You’ve likely heard stories about people using their credit card points and miles to fly for free, or in some cases, fund full-fledged trips to far-off destinations with their families. If your credit is strong, there’s no reason why you can’t get in on the action as well.
To get you started, we consulted three expert “travel hackers” on how to choose your first airline credit card to match your travel goals.
Here are the top questions to consider before you let those credit applications take flight:
Important considerations before applying for an airline card
- What’s your travel style?
- Are you loyal to one airline or do you prefer flexibility?
- How to determine rewards points’ values?
- Will you earn enough points to make it worth your time and effort?
- What’s the sign-on bonus and what do you have to spend to get it?
- How hard is it to redeem points?
- Are you looking for VIP treatment?
Before you can even look at what various cards offer, you need to think about how often you fly, where you’d like to go and if you’re traveling solo (such as for business) or with family, says Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie, miles and points expert and founder of The Globetrotting Teacher.
“If you just want to take weekend trips around the U.S., your needs are much different than a family who wants to go to Europe. Think about your immediate travel goals, and where you’d like to go in the future,” says Sills-Dellegrazie. This will help you narrow down if your card needs to cover international trips, or if you can focus on ones that support domestic airlines.
Are you loyal to one airline or prefer flexibility?
There are two schools of thought here, so it really comes down to personal preference. Ariana Arghandewal, founder of PointChaser.com, is a big proponent of having lots of options.
“I prefer to earn American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou points, and Chase Ultimate Rewards points, all of which can be transferred to dozens of airlines, giving me lots of flexibility when it comes to redemptions,” she says.
Sills-Dellegrazie agrees, adding that having flexible points adds a layer of safety.
“If you have a card for one airline and that airline decides to devalue their program (something they can decide at any time), your points will be devalued,” she says. That’s also why she recommends not ever sitting on points for too long and redeem them quickly, a practice known in hacking circles as “earn and burn.”
On the other hand, there are some people for which a branded airline card is a good move. Lee Huffman, travel writer and founder of BaldThoughts.com, is one of them. “I’ve had the Southwest Airline card for 13 years and the reason why is that they offer something that no other airline offers – a companion pass,” he says. With that unique perk (which does require a significant spend), he’s been able to bring his wife or one of his children with him on many flights for free. “It’s a huge way to stretch the value of the points that I earn,” he says.
If you travel to visit family in a specific city a few times per year, leaving from and arriving to the same airports, always on the same airline, that would be a good case for choosing that airline’s branded card. That way, you can access cardholder perks like priority boarding, checked bags for free, and discounts on in-flight purchases, says Huffman.
The easiest solution to this, of course, is to eventually have one (or more) of each card type in your arsenal.
How can you determine points value?
If you’ve never used airline miles or points before, you probably have no idea what they’re actually worth. A good ballpark: “For major airlines such as United, Delta and American, 50,000 points can get you as much as two round-trip tickets,” says Huffman. Of course, with changing prices and depending on your travel route and award availability, values constantly fluctuate.
What Sills-Dellegrazie recommends is doing some research into your preferred airlines to get a sense of how many miles they charge for your destinations of interest. American Airlines has a flight award chart on its site, as does United to give you an idea.
From there, she says, get the base price of a flight you’d like to take and divide it by the number of points needed to see how much value you’re getting per point. “I try to not redeem unless I’m getting at least 1.5 cents per point,” she says.
In other words, if a domestic flight costs 20,000 points, but the airline is running a $199 special to your destination, the point value would only be 0.9 cents. In that case, Sills-Dellegrazie says you might opt to pay cash and save the points for a pricier flight. Or, you might decide not having to pay out of pocket right now is value enough for you.
How do you earn points and will you earn enough?
Points hackers juggle multiple cards (Huffman has more than 40!) and have gotten their spending and redemption habits down to a science in order to reap rewards. They also make sure to pay their bills in full each month so that they are not paying interest or getting into trouble with debt.
For the most part, you’ll earn 1 point per dollar spent; some cards give you 2x or other point multiples in certain spending categories, especially for flight bookings.
As a beginner, you don’t have to let things get too complicated. What you really want to do is get some value for the everyday spending you already do. “It’s a way to maximize something you’re going to spend on anyway, and potentially get a free vacation out of it,” says Huffman.
Sills-Dellegrazie uses her travel cards for everything from her morning coffee to car insurance to her cellphone to dog food. “I don’t even know where my debit card is. It’s a mindset shift,” she says.
Another tip from Huffman is to use your airline credit card shopping portals to boost your points earnings even more. “When it comes time for back to school or holiday shopping, you can find additional promotions where you can earn bonus points for hitting certain spending thresholds,” he says.
What's the sign-on bonus and can you make the minimum spend?
The fastest way to a free flight is to qualify for a sign-on bonus. “When picking a credit card, 50,000 miles is a pretty standard amount you should aim for,” says Arghandewal. Keep in mind, you’ll have to meet a minimum spending requirement, usually $1,000-$3,000 within the first three months of card opening and remain in good standing.
If the minimum spend requirement is beyond what you’d normally spend on expenses, try timing the application of a new card with a big purchase you’re going to be making, says Lee. “If you know you’ll be paying for dental surgery or solar panels or some other large expense, you can easily meet the minimum spend,” he says.
How hard is it to redeem points?
“It’s not as complicated as some of the commercials want you to think. It’s about learning how to maximize different airline programs,” says Sills-Dellegrazie.
Of course, trying to find the perfect free flight with one particular airline during Christmas break will be a challenge for anyone. But if you’re flexible – especially if you have several airlines to explore – and book early, you should have no trouble redeeming.
Are you looking for some VIP treatment (and willing to pay for it)?
A lot of “premium” travel credit cards offer great perks, airport lounge access, travel concierge services and more. But these cards typically have annual fees ranging from $49 - $550.
The key is figuring out if the benefits are worth it to you. “Lounge access might not be something you want if you just travel once in a while. But with a family, it can come in handy to have free food and snacks and bigger bathroom space,” says Sills-Dellegrazie.
Also worth noting is that many annual fees are waived the first year. “Once you reach that 11-month point where you know the fee is going to be billed, you can look at the card and see if you’re getting enough benefit to keep it,” says Sills-Dellegrazie. Know that once your points are banked with an airline rewards program, they are generally safe for a period of time if you cancel the airline card. But if you cancel a rewards card where the points aren’t stored with an airline, you’ll most likely lose any points that remain once you cancel the card.
Lastly, don’t let fee sticker shock deter you without digging deeper. “A card might have a $550 fee, but if you look at the benefits, that number is significantly less,” says Huffman. For instance, with the American Express Platinum card, you get a $200 airline travel credit and $200 per year in Uber credits. If you use those perks, your fee is down to $150 – and that’s without factoring in the sign-on bonus and other benefits.
Any other trip-ups to avoid?
If you aspire to a higher level of points hacking in the future, you should be aware of a couple of bank rules, says Huffman.
Chase has what’s known as the 5/24 rule – once you’ve applied for five credit cards in a 24-month period, you will not be approved for any more Chase products. “A lot of times people get higher value Chase cards first because in short time, they won’t be able to get more,” he says. Know that some cards are exempt from the Chase 5/24 rule, such as the Chase Ink Preferred business card.
Video: Credit card reward hacks
American Express also has a unique rule in that you can only earn the sign-up bonus once per card per lifetime. This is to prevent card churning (the practice of closing cards, then reapplying later so you can get another sign-up bonus).
Another potential pitfall is getting a travel card only to find out that your preferred airline is not a direct transfer partner. For instance, Chase partners well with United, but not directly with JetBlue. There are ways around this, but you’ll usually get the most value from direct points transferring.
Making an airline credit card work for you takes a bit of research and effort, but it can be quite rewarding. “When I started focusing on airline miles, it opened up a whole new world,” says Huffman. “I’m filling my passport with lots of stamps.”
Or put another way, if you play your cards right, the sky’s the limit.
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