People often come across my Blog in search for something travel related and are astonished by the miles and points world and all the possibilities. They want to know how to get in the game for free travel and the best way to enter. Friends and family and their friends will often hear about all the free trips they’re taking and then have the same question. The best way to start racking up miles and points is by signing up for a few credit card bonuses, but beginners need to know what the right credit cards are. So I put together a list of credit cards for beginner travelers.
Before starting, I’d like to issue a bit of a warning. You should only sign up for credit cards if you already have good credit and can pay off the balance in full every month. The APR on high yield rewards cards is high and carrying a balance and paying interest will quickly negate the value of any rewards you may earn. If you have the discipline to not rack up debt and keep your finances organized, the miles and points game can be extremely rewarding (and it is for me with luxury hotels and first class tickets). Although I lose 3–5 points on my credit score when I apply for a new credit card, it comes back after a few months. My score also benefits from having a low credit usage ratio, which means I have a lot of credit and use very little of it, making me look very responsible in the credit card bureau scoring model. After years of collecting miles and points, I’ve been able to maintain an excellent credit score of 750 and take great trips at the same time!
What beginners should think about when signing up for credit cards!
- don’t have many miles in different programs and need points that are flexible
- don’t already know the ins and outs of every miles program and need points that are easy to use
- want to be rewarded well for their everyday spending
- want an attractive sign-up bonus with a reasonable spending requirement that’s not too high
There are many miles credit cards and miles programs. I personally have stashes of miles and points in United Airlines, American Airlines, US Airways, British Airways, Alaska Airlines, Hyatt Gold Passport, etc. and flexible currencies like Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, Barclaycard Arrival Miles, etc. The idea is that there is no “one size fits all” miles program and different points are good for different things. I’ve been doing this a long time and have a system worked out to replenish miles in all these programs, but it’s simply not feasible for beginners to have every single type of mile. That’s why beginners need to consider credit cards with flexible points so they can easily transfer their miles into these programs and use as they see fit. That’s why two of the cards I selected allow you to transfer points into many different miles programs, including British Airways, without forcing you to use a particular miles currency.
Beginners also need miles and points that are easy to use and don’t force them to digest a complex miles program. Let’s take as an example, my father, who had signed up for a 100,000 mile British Airways offer a few years ago. These were the only miles he had. He then wanted to take a trip to Israel. Because British Airways charges fuel surcharges on many routes connecting through Europe, he ended up paying $700 per ticket in taxes and fuel surcharges. He didn’t get much value at all from his miles and hard work because he didn’t have the right miles or plan for his trip. The miles he had were inflexible and not great for beginners. While British Airways offer great value for short flights within North America and can be a gold mine there, I don’t consider having only those miles a good decision for beginners. They are not very easy to use for a trip to Israel, for example, because you have to think how to avoid fuel surcharges. Nevertheless, given their value for short trips within North America, beginners should have the option to use them.
The Best Credit Cards for Beginners
I carefully selected the following credit cards for beginner miles and points collectors. These all have attractive sign-up bonuses, easy to use and flexible miles and points. Since all these credit cards come from different banks, you can apply for all of them (just make sure you can organize and meet the spending requirement for the sign-up bonus) or one or a few of them. I personally have each of these cards and can recommend each one.
1. BarclayBank Arrival World MasterCard!
This is a very simple 2.2% cash back card where the earned cash rewards can be used for any travel purchase including flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises.
Sign-up bonus: $440 travel credit toward any travel purchase after spending $1000 within 90 days.
Everyday spending rewards: 2 miles per dollar for all spending. Miles are worth 1.1 cents each toward any travel purchase with the card. This is essentially a 2.2% cashback card where you can use cashback for any travel purchase.
Why this is a good card for beginners: In the entire universe of miles and points, there is nothing easier to use than Barclaycard Arrival miles. There is no award searching or specific websites or portals you need to use to redeem your points. You simply use your card to pay for any travel expense. Whether that’s a domestic plane ticket, hotel, cruise or car rental, you just put the expense on your card and then go online and select that you’d like to redeem for miles for that purchase.
Additional perks: Members get free access to TripIt Pro and FICO credit scores.
Annual fees: $89 — waived the first year
This is a hotel points credit card offering good value for redeeming points at Starwood properties all over the world. However, these points also transfer to 30 different airline with the ability to convert 20,000 points to 25,000 airline miles.
Sign-up bonus: 25,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points after spending $5,000 within 3 months.
Everyday spending rewards: 1 Starwood Preferred Guest point per dollar spent (equivalent to 1.25 airline miles per dollar spent).
Why this is a good card for beginners: Starwood Preferred Guest points are the most valuable hotel points out there and the ones I tend to use the most. Starwood hotels give a fifth night free when redeeming points. On top of that, Starwood Preferred Guest points are a valuable and flexible currency. It gives beginners access to 30 different airline programs such as American Airlines, British Airways, US Airways, etc by allowing them to transfer the points directly into these miles programs.
Annual fee: $65 waived first year
This card earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which are extremely flexible in that they transfer to ten different airline and hotel partners. In most cases, the transfer is instantaneous so you can find an award ticket, transfer the miles and book it immediately.
Sign-up bonus: 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $3,000 within 3 months of account opening.
Every day spending rewards: 1 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar spent, 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining.
Why this is a good card for beginners: Ultimate Rewards points are a valuable, flexible currency and can be transferred to 10 different airline and hotel partners including United Airlines, British Airways, Hyatt Gold Passport, etc. For those who are not ready to deal with miles or find good value purchasing tickets, you can redeem each point at 1 cent cash back (10,000 points = $100) or 1.25 cents toward airline tickets (10,000 points = $125). The card also gives access to the Ultimate Rewards Mall, a shopping portal to earn extra points when shopping online at merchants like Macy’s, Staples, Sephora, drugstore.com, etc.
Annual fee: $95 — waived the first year.
How I’ve used my Chase Ultimate Rewards points in the past:
- 120,000 points for a Business Class flight from Bangkok,Thailand for me and my wife.
- 60,000 points for a round-trip flight to Rome,Italy and Madrid,Spain for both of us in Aug, 2013.
- 40,000 points for several round-trip flights to Hawaii in the past 5 years.
The American Airlines credit card has an attractive sign-up bonus and American Airlines miles are simple to use with their region-based award chart and ability to book one-way tickets as well as round-trips.
Sign-up bonus: 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 within 3 months of account opening.
Everyday spending rewards: 1 miles per dollar spent, double miles on American Airlines purchases.
Why this is a good card for beginners: Although this credit card only earns American Airlines, the American Airlines programs is one of the easiest to use and probably the one I write about the most. They also don’t have fuel surcharges except on British Airways so that’s one less thing to figure out when redeeming awards. This is also by far the most attractive offer with Citibank.
Additional perks: 10% miles rebate on miles redeemed for awards, up to 10,000 miles a year. Group 1 boarding. Free checked bag.
Annual fee: $95 — waived first year.
For questions on how to use any of these credit cards for free trips, leave me a message and I’ll answer as soon as possible!