Travel Credit Card Basics

This post is part of the Travel Hacking 101: First Class in 90 Days series.

Travel Credit Card Benefits

Sign Up Bonuses

The easiest way to stockpile massive amounts of miles and points, and the “bread and butter” of travel hacking, is opening travel credit cards and earning their lucrative sign-up bonuses. Most travel credit cards offer huge point bonuses after meeting a certain amount of spending within a given timeframe.

By putting all of your spending on credit cards, you can meet these spending requirements and earn sign-up bonuses worth thousands of dollars in travel. You can gain all of this without ever spending any more money than you normally would.

The vast majority of the points I have earned were earned through sign-up bonuses. This will be the primary method of earning points we will use moving forward.

Category Bonuses

Most travel cards offer bonus points for spending on certain categories. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers 3 points for every dollar spent on dining or travel. By using credit cards for all your spending, you can constantly earn points on all your purchases you would normally make anyway.


Many cards come with perks such as free checked bags, travel credits, priority boarding, and even airport lounge access. During a trip to Puerto Rico for a friend’s bachelor party, I took 6 of my friends into a lounge, all for free, where we enjoyed free food and drinks (including alcohol) before our flights. All of this thanks to Priority Pass Lounge access, a perk of the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

A Priority Pass Lounge at Heathrow International Airport. Image courtesy of Priority Pass.

Common Questions Around Travel Hacking

What about the annual fees?

Most travel credit cards have an annual fee. These can range from $30/year all the way up to $500/year. Many cards waive your first year’s fee, but some do not.

Every time I open a new card, I set a reminder for exactly 11 months later. At the 11 month mark, I decide whether or not it is worth it to me to keep the card. Most of the time the answer is no, and I’ll call the number on the back of the card and tell them I want to cancel because of the annual fee. Sometimes they’ll offer to waive it, but sometimes you’ll just need to close the card. However, I am willing to pay the annual fee if the benefits of the card are worth it to me.

As an example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve has a $450 annual fee, but I’ll gladly pay it because to me, the benefits I gain from having this card outweigh the fee. This card comes with a $300 travel credit each year, lounge access, free Global Entry/TSA-Precheck, and incredible travel insurance.

The important thing to note here is waiting 11 months before canceling cards. What you don’t want to do is open a card, earn the bonus and then immediately close the card. This will raise a red flag with the banks and you could be barred from opening cards with them in the future. However, by waiting 11 months, you avoid raising any concerns and can safely cancel the card if you decide the fee isn’t worth it to you.

But won’t I lose my points if I cancel the card?

There are 2 categories of points and miles.

  1. Airline/Hotel Points (Southwest Rapid Rewards, United Miles, etc.)
  2. Credit Card Points (Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, etc.)

When you earn points with an airline/hotel branded credit card, these points go directly into your rewards account with that airline/hotel (the accounts you signed up for in Step 1). These accounts are independent of your credit card. Cancelling your card WILL NOT cause you to lose your points.

When you earn credit card points with non-airline/hotel branded cards, these points sit in your credit card account until you use them or transfer them to an airline/hotel rewards account. Cancelling a credit card that still has points in it WILL cause you to forfeit your points. Always transfer or use these points prior to canceling these credit cards.

Won’t opening and closing all these credit cards hurt my credit?

See my complete post on this subject here.

Your “action items” for this post are:

  1. Sign up for CreditKarma
  2. Check your credit score

As long as your score is above 740, you should qualify for all the best travel cards. If it is below 760, you may need to work on increasing your credit score before you can start getting approved for some of the cards we are going to be discussing moving forward. However, this isn’t a definitive rule, and it is possible to be approved for these cards even with slightly lower scores.

If you are planning to take out a large loan (like a mortgage) in the near future, you should probably hold off on travel hacking until after you’ve gotten your loan. A card or two is probably fine, but you don’t want a lot of hard credit pulls on your account when you apply for the loan.

Coming up…

In the next post of this series, we are going to discuss which points you want to try and acquire and why. Now that you have a basic understanding of how we’ll be using travel credit cards to achieve our goals, you are one step closer to your first, first class flight!


Editorial Disclaimer: All written content on this site is for information purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are solely of the author, unless otherwise specifically cited. All information or ideas provided should be discussed in detail with an advisor, accountant or legal counsel prior to implementation.¬†Neither the editorial content nor the comments on this site are provided by the companies whose products are featured. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or evaluations provided here are those of the author’s alone.

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