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I have received several emails over the last couple weeks from readers (and friends) saying that they love the idea of traveling on points, but don’t know where to get started. I’ll be the first to admit that the staggering number of different credit cards, sign-up bonuses, airlines, redemption options, etc… can make it really hard for a newcomer on the “Points Scene” to know the best way to get started. It can be so hard to know the first place to start, that many have not started at all. While there are seemingly endless ways to earn miles and points (actually traveling, shopping portals, rental cars, dining programs, etc….), I am going to limit this post to information about selecting a good points/miles earning credit card to get started with. If you already are a little farther in your point collecting, you can use this post to see which card might be a good one to apply for next!
To help those who are ready and waiting at the starting line, I am going to break down a few of the current good credit card offers available, and explain situations in which that might be the best card to start with for your family. I’ll also use a few examples from within my own family!
Before we get into the specific offers, here are a few things to think about when selecting a points or miles earning credit card.
1. Which airlines are most convenient or enjoyable for your family to fly?
Your geographic location will likely come into play here. Think about the airlines that fly in and out of the airports that are most convenient for you. For example, the Southwest Airlines credit card deal I am going to talk about may be a great deal, but if Southwest doesn’t fly in and out of the airport that is convenient for you, it probably isn’t the best deal out there for your family. You may also just have a personal preference for a particular airline, so that may come into play when you make your credit card selection as well.
2. The sign-up bonus!
While it is important to have at least one basic card that you use for everyday spending to earn points, it is also very helpful to start (or supplement) your point totals with a large sign-up bonus. It is not uncommon today to see sign-up bonuses that are in the 50,000 point range and up. That usually equals at least two domestic round-trip airline tickets. This is the time to get a little
greedy selective, and perhaps just focus on the very large sign-up offers.
This offer has expired. Go here for current offer.
3. How many points per dollar does the credit card earn?
1 point or mile per dollar is average, but many cards are now offering 2 or 3 points per dollar in certain categories. Think about the way your family spends money, and give some preference to cards that earn more in the categories you spend the most on.
4. How difficult is it to redeem the miles and points?
If you are new point collector, you may not intuitively know this answer, but I will give you some information about that on each offer that I list. You can also always ask me in the comment field or by email, and I will be sure to get you some information! There are some programs that have a better track records of awards being available than others. Of course, it all depends on when and where you want to go, so there are never any guarantees. If you want a sure-fire guarantee that your points can always be used, I will list some options that allow you to convert your points into a “cash equivalent” that will allow you to purchase any available ticket out there.
5. Do you want to focus on free airline tickets, free hotel nights, or do you want the flexibility to have either?
Some cards focus on one or the other, while other cards give you multiple choices on how to redeem your points…..just in case you want to keep your options open!
Okay, now that we have covered some basics, on to the offers!
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card – Chase
Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points ($833 dollars in Wanna Get Away fares)
Minimum Spend: None – just make one purchase
Annual fee: $99
If Southwest is a convenient airline for you to fly, this is a great beginner card. This is the card I am recommending for my dad to get next as it is simple, and he likes simple. It does have a $99 annual fee that is not waived the first year, but it comes with the point equivalent of $833 credit in “Wanna Get Away” fares. Southwest’s new point system is a little tricky at first (read more here), but once you get the hang of it, it can be great for points newcomers as they don’t use capacity controls and black-outs the way that other airlines do. This is especially great for families needing multiple seats on the same flight! If there is a seat available, you can pay for it with points. If you are planning at least a week or so in advance, you can usually get Wanna Get Away fares. These are the fares available for the lowest number of points. You can also use points for their Anytime and Business Select fares, but your points don’t go as far on those types of tickets. This card has no spending requirement to get the bonus – just make one purchase and you are set.
The base earning on this card is one point her dollar, and 2 points per dollar on Southwest Airlines and their hotel and rental car partners. This card also gives you 6,000 points per year at renewal time and awards up to 15,000 points on balance transfers made within the first 90 days. Read more about this card here.
Sign-up bonus: 75,000 American Airlines AAdvantage Miles
Minimum Spend: $1500 in six months
Annual fee: $85, waived the first year
This card comes with one of the largest sign-up bonuses available today – 75,000 American Airlines miles. That is the equivalent of three domestic round-trip tickets. If you are just looking for one economy ticket, that number of miles can get you just a round-trip ticket to just about anywhere in the world you want to go. If you are looking for a more advanced way to turn this into 150,000 miles by signing up for two Citibank cards at the same time – read more here. This card has a relatively low minimum spend requirement, and is the card my mom was just approved for recently. She likes large sign-up bonuses and doesn’t mind realistic minimum spend requirements. She did not take advantage of the two Citicard 150,000 offer that I mentioned as that would be pushing it for her minimum spend requirement. We just kept it simple and got one card. Another positive for her (and others) is that this is not a Chase card. Since Chase has offered many of the great bonuses recently, it is good to be able to turn to other banks from time to time so as not to wear out our welcome getting new Chase cards.
I have found American to be very good in terms of availability for domestic tickets. I have had no problem getting multiple seats on the same flight. They do block out some days/flights at the lowest redemption level from time to time, but overall they have pretty decent domestic availability – which is the kind my family needs the most!
The only potential negative about this card is that there is no offer screen available for you to know for sure you are getting 75,000 miles. There is a long Flyertalk thread about this offer (here) and people, including me, are still getting in on this date long after its set expiration date. However, it is a disclaimer that I wanted to add.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
Sign-up bonus: 40,000 Ultimate Reward Points
Minimum Spend: $3000 in the first three months
Annual fee: $95, waived the first year
The Sapphire card has turned out to be a very good card. I have written about it a few times, but it just keeps getting better and better. Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to into other programs such as: Continental Airlines, Hyatt, Priority Club, and others. This gives you some flexibility when it comes time to redeem. You can also use your points as cash to pay for travel. For example, the 40,000 sign-up points translate to $500 to use towards travel in their Ultimate Rewards portal. This also helps when the flight that you REALLY need to book isn’t technically available as a reward seat. This card also gives 2 points per dollar when you use it on dining and travel purchases, more on travel if you use their portal (read more here). That is awesome!
Admittedly, some of that starts to get a little complicated at first, but if Continental is your preferred airline, this is the largest publicly available offer for Continental miles (since Ultimate Rewards can be immediately transferred into Continental Onepass Miles). Continental also has pretty good award availability, especially if you start planning a bit in advance. If I have some flexibility, I rarely have trouble finding flights that will work for my family on Continental. Continental miles can also be transferred into a United Airlines account, so this is a great card to consider if Continental or United are your preferred airlines.
Not that it really matters, but this card also looks and feels really cool!
Starwood Preferred Guest – American Express
Sign-up bonus: 30,000 points (10,000 at first purchase and 20,000 additional after meeting the minimum spend requirement)
Minimum spend: $4500 in the first three months
Annual fee: $65, waived the first year
I normally would not recommend the Starwood card for a beginning point collector, as the minimum spend is a bit high for some. Even though this is the next card I plan to apply for, I would not recommend it to anyone else in my family due to the spending requirement. However, if you are confident that spending $4500 on a new card in three months will not be a problem for your family, SPG points are very valuable and can be used for hotel nights at Westins, Sheratons, W Hotels, Aloft Hotels, and more. SPG points can also transfer on a 1:1 ratio to a large list of airlines, with a 5,000 mile bonus when you transfer 20,000 at one time. So, 20,000 points becomes 25,000 airlines miles. Not bad! Read more about this card here. It also earns the typical one point per dollar spent on most purchases. This sign-up bonus only lasts until August 22, so don’t delay if you want this card.
There are numerous other good credit cards out there, but for a newcomer who needs a good boost to their miles and points accounts without having to jump through too many hoops, these are some of the top offers. You really cannot go wrong selecting any of these cards as your first (or next) mileage earning card. Let me know what you think!