The Rewards Credit Card You Should Get First

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Some people reading this have likely been in the miles, points, and credit card rewards game for longer than I’ve been a parent or have been running this site. However, there are also people brand new to this way of traveling for less that still make their way here every single day. I have conversations with people out in the ‘real world’ who are still paying for their everyday purchases with checks, cash, debit cards, or credit cards that earn them virtually nothing in return several times a week. This post is not for the miles and points ‘old timers’, but for those who are just finding their way here…or maybe for the friends of the ‘old timers’, just in case you need a little help getting a loved one to explore a new way of travel.

The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express

Travel and credit cards don’t have to be expensive or scary

If you think travel is expensive and credit cards are for suckers who like to waste money on paying interest to banks, you are right from a certain perspective. But, more often than not for those who have unlocked this way of living, you are also very wrong. That’s okay though, many of us started from somewhere near that perspective.

My family has been able to travel the world, often by staying in nice resorts and sometimes even flying in first class, not because we won the lottery or roll around in tons of money, but because we have figured out how to earn and maximize airline miles, hotel points, and credit card rewards.

My family on a recent trip to Costa Rica

We can get 50,000 to over 100,000 miles or points simply by obtaining a new rewards credit card and meeting the minimum spending requirements. Do that two or three times a year, and perhaps have your partner do the same, and you can easily earn around half a million miles and points just from those actions alone.

Miles and points can unlock the world for (much) less

You can do a lot of travel when you have that many miles or points at your disposal. To give some recent examples, we just stayed at the beautiful Andaz Costa Rica Resort for 15,000 Hyatt points per night. This morning I wrote about how to fly to Hawaii and back for a little over 25,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points if you have the Sapphire Reserve Card. A few weeks ago we booked round trip business class tickets to Europe for 88,000 points each. Last week my parents booked Spirit Airlines tickets to Las Vegas for 2,500 miles each direction, just as they have done so many times in the past. Next month, Josh and I are staying at a world-renowned wellness spa that sells for $1,000 per night for nothing out of pocket.

Why cram yourself in coach if miles can put you in business class

I could go on, and on, and on, but you hopefully get the idea. I’m not special in what we are able to put together using our miles and points. In fact, by some measuring sticks, we are pretty conservative with what we do. The majority of those miles and points were not earned from travel but from our rewards-earning credit cards. We charge absolutely everything possible to our credit cards and then typically pay off the balance every month. Often, we are earning 2, 3, or even 5 points per dollar charged by utilizing various bonus categories on our cards. By using our cards instead of cash, we earn points, have some built-in purchase protections, and are not racking up piles of debt or interest charges since we pay the bills each month.

This sounds too good to be true at first, but even my super financially conservative parents have baby-stepped their way into this world of rewards credit cards over the last few years and now they travel more than they ever dreamed possible. For the record, they still pay off their balances every month, too.

Grandma and Grandpa Points on a recent adventure to Lake Tahoe

If all of this sounds interesting, you may be wondering where in the world to start. There are, quite literally, hundreds of rewards credit cards available and dozens that can be very good choices for those who like to travel.

The best rewards credit card to get first

Which rewards credit card you should get first depends on a number of things such as your travel goals, your preferred hotels and airlines (if any), how much you spend each month, what categories of spending are the heaviest for you, and whether or not you want to invest some time in learning at least a few basics about airline award charts.

In other words, there is no one best first rewards credit card for every single person. I’m more than happy to chat about your specific situation, if that will be helpful, or here is a slightly more in-depth beginner’s guide.

All that said, sometimes people just want a simple answer to the seemingly simple question of which rewards credit card should be obtained first. In my experience, the most common answer to that question these days is the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is not the newest or flashiest card on this scene, but it remains a rewards credit card work-horse for many families. There are a few versions of the welcome bonus out there, but a standard offer online is for 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months. With that version of the offer, there is an introductory $0 annual fee the first year and then $95 in subsequent years. If you want to add an authorized user, you can earn another 5,000 bonus points if that person makes a purchase with their card in the first 3 months that your account is open.

The Sapphire Preferred earns 2x Ultimate Reward points per dollar charged on travel and dining, 1x elsewhere. In the travel category, this includes not only 2x points at airlines and hotels, but also on train tickets, cabs, and more. In the dining department, you can earn 2x points per dollar at nice restaurants, fast food joints, coffee shops, bars, and more. The points earned by this card can then be used in two primary ways. First, you can use them at a value of 1.25 cents each towards travel booked through Chase. This means that your 50,000 welcome bonus points are worth $625 in travel if used in that straightforward manner.

Why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a family favorite of mine

However, what makes the Sapphire Preferred a favorite of mine, is that you can also transfer the points at a 1:1 ratio to several different popular airline and hotel loyalty programs. When you do this, you can utilize the various loyalty programs awards charts to book awards rather than at a fixed 1.25 cents per point if you book through Chase.

The Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners include:

  • United MileagePlus
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • World of Hyatt
  • Marriott Rewards
  • Ritz Carlton Rewards
  • IHG Rewards
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Aer Lingus AerClub
  • Iberia Plus
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Air France Flying Blue
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
  • Korean Air SkyPass

Enjoy the Grand Hyatt Kauai for 25,000 Hyatt points per night

Some of these programs are extremely simple to use, such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards program, and others require a little more research to truly maximize. Still, having the option to use your points at a fixed value to book travel through Chase and having the option to transfer them to more than a dozen different programs makes this card a perfect match for beginnings and ‘old timers’ alike.

Why the Sapphire Preferred card should come first

A specific reason that the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a card I recommend to get first is because with Chase you can only get approved for some of their cards, such as this one, if you have four or fewer credit card approvals in the last 24 months. This is commonly referred to as the Chase 5/24 rule in miles and points circles as having five or more new credit card accounts in the last 24 months across all banks will be an automatic decline for many Chase cards.

It is worth a mention that you can only get approved for the Sapphire Preferred Card if you do not already have any other Sapphire card. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is another similar and very popular rewards credit card that I personally enjoy. You can only have either the Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve, but not both. If you think you are going to deep-dive into the world of miles, points, and travel then the Reserve may be the better choice. However, for those brand new to the hobby, I think the $450 annual fee that comes with the Reserve may be too large of a turn-off, even though the math truly does make it worth it when you factor in the $300 annual travel credit, lounge access, 3x points earning potential, and more.

Again, there is no one best ‘first’ rewards credit card for every single person and every single situation, but if you have good credit and want to use your points to travel near and far, then the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is probably a solid place to start.

Do you remember your first rewards credit card? Which credit card do you recommend to your friends just getting started in the world of miles and points?

Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


  1. I like to keep things simple so for me it’s Chase Reserve ( travel, restaurants), Freedom (rotating quarterly bonuses), Ink Cash (cable, internet, phones), Citi Costco Anywhere (gas), Citi Double Cash (everything else). They pretty much cover all the bases and I don’t have to overthink the points/ rewards process.

    • Sounds solid! I love that you can go as deep or as surface in this as it makes sense for you and your family.

  2. “This site has financial relationships with Chase, American Express, Citibank, Barclays and US Bank.”
    When writing anything about credit cards, you would be more upfront placing this statement of yours at the beginning of each relative post instead of its continuous placement at the very end of your site.
    As referenced in the same paragraph, where does one find your “advertising policy page”?
    Thanks —–

  3. My first travel related credit card was the Sapphire Preferred, which I converted to Freedom Unlimited after getting the Sapphire Reserve (before the Sapphire rules changed). I too like to keep things simple so my primary cards are:
    Sapphire Reserve: travel, restaurants
    Freedom: 5x categories
    Freedom Unlimited: other purchases

  4. I love Mommy Points!

    Yes, I use the Sapphire Preferred as my ‘primary’, as a multiplier card for the Freedom 5x category. I use Discover for 5x category.

    I think it is important to point out that the Sapphire Reserve only makes economic sense if your annual spend is over a certain amount. That is, it takes a certain amount of annual spend (at 3x) to cover the more expensive annual fee. Some accountant type came up with the formula on a blog. I never get to that amount because I am so focused on covering the Freedom and Discover 5x.

    • First, thank you! Second, indeed – I think when you subtract the $300 travel credit from the $450 annual fee you don’t have a ton of additional spending you need to make up the difference of $95 per year with the CSP vs. that actual $150 with CSR, but it is still a real difference.

    • For me it’s also the extensive travel insurance that I get from the Reserve card. We go on a cruise every fall(charged to the card) and I looked over the coverage and it’s pretty solid. So much so that I don’t buy travel insurance anymore for those things that can go wrong. The Reserve has me covered. I also dropped my AAA roadside assistance coverage for the wife and myself saving another bill because this card picks up $59 toward a tow or jump. We eat at the Timberline Grill at the Denver airport before we go on our cruise and the Priority Pass that comes with the card pays for 3x$28 meals. When you add all the benny’s up it’s a no brainer to hold this card…at least for me!

  5. Well written article on acquiring points, miles….
    Where do I find a book, pamphlet, PDF telling me how to use those points, miles, etc.
    I may be wrong but that is where the problem is for most people !
    Most travelers can and sometimes should buy a reduced price ticket….but how do you upgrade with that to BIZ or FC on AA, Delta, United, Lufthansa, BA….and so on. Is there a current chart, PDF, etc. that I can buy to compare using one air alliance miles to fly in another airline within that alliance to my destination?
    Do you have any suggestions?
    Thank you.

  6. Would the Sapphire Preferred be the best credit card for someone six months into their first job after college? She is an authorized user on two of my credit cards — American Express and Barclay’s and has been for several years.

    • Pat, generally speaking, I think that is still a good card to start with in that situation. If she wants to start with a no annual fee card and work up to a fee card then the Freedom Unlimited is a good option. Start earning 1.5x everywhere and then save the points until you add the Sapphire Preferred down the road as they can then transfer to hotel and airline partners.

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