Build Up a Core Credit Card Collection for Travel Benefits and Rewards
Most people will want to build up a core collection of credit cards—a set of cards that provides a worthwhile set of benefits and/or earns the best reward rates for your purchases.
For example, someone living in Seattle might put together a core credit card collection that includes the Freedom Unlimited Card (to use for most of their spending), the Sapphire Reserve Card (for airport lounge access, even better rewards on travel and restaurant spending, and primary rental car insurance)), the Alaska Airlines Credit Card (for free checked bags on Alaska and an annual companion certificate), and perhaps the Hilton Aspire Credit Card (for its free breakfast benefit and the potential of a free night certificate each year).
There are dozens of interesting cards that provide useful benefits. However, almost all of them have annual fees. You only want to choose cards whose benefits outweigh their annual fees.
Focus on the cards that will give you the most value, based on the ways that you travel and spend your money.
Cards almost everyone should get
There are a small number of credit cards that almost everyone should get.
- A great general purpose reward card, which earns a high reward rate on everything you buy. You should take the time to choose a card that has the most valuable reward rate. For most people, this should be the Chase Unlimited combination. But, for some people, there are better options. Get a Great General Purpose Reward Card and Use It for All of Your Spending.
- One (or more) premium credit cards, which provide airport lounge access and other valuable benefits. There are several “premium” cards that have very high annual fees, but provide the most valuable travel benefits and reward rates.
- One or more airline credit cards (for the airline(s) you fly most frequently) to take advantage of free checked bags and other benefits. Most airline-branded credit cards will let you check your first bag for free, board the plane early, and take advantage of other airline benefits. If you sometime check bags, it makes sense to get the card for any airline that you fly frequently. This is especially true, if you frequently fly as a couple or family and need to check multiple bags. You could easily save $50-100 each trip. Get Free Checked Bags with Airline Credit Cards.
One of the main benefits of these cards is free access to a network of over 1,000 airport lounges—for both you and your traveling companions. Rather than waiting for your flight by the gate, you can hang out in the lounge, enjoying free food and drinks, until its time to board. Get Free Airport Lounge Access from a Credit Card.
Each high-end card also has several other valuable benefits. For example, the Citi Prestige Card will give you the 4th night free on almost any hotel reservation, the Sapphire Reserve Card helps you earn the most valuable possible rewards for your credit card spending, and the CNB Crystal Infinite Card will rebate $100 on every domestic coach airfare purchase for two or more people.
The annual fees for these cards are around $450 per year. However, each card offers “credits” that help to offset this fee. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card will refund the first $300 that you spend every year on travel. This makes your out-of-pocket cost “only” $150 per year, rather than $450.
For most travelers, the airport lounge access, and other benefits that you can get from these cards are usually worth their effective $150-200 annual cost per year. As a matter of fact, it often makes sense to get more than one of these cards, in order to take advantage of their unique benefits. Which Premium Reward Card is Right for You?
Other cards that you might want to add to your collection
- A card that gives you automatic Gold status with Hilton—which entitles you to free breakfast or hotel club access. Many hotel-branded credit cards provide automatic elite status in their loyalty programs. Usually this status level doesn't qualify you for their more valuable benefits—like free breakfast, club access, or suite upgrades. The key exceptions is for Hilton, which gives you free continental breakfast for two with Gold status. If you visit Hilton frequently enough to get good value from this benefit, but not frequently enough to qualify through hotel stays, it can be worthwhile to get a credit card that provides automatic Gold or Diamond status. Get Free Breakfast or Club Access with the Right Credit Card.
- One or more cards that gets you a valuable companion ticket for air travel. Several airline-branded credit cards provide access to companion certificates. These can be used for free (or reduced) airfare for the second passenger on an airline reservation. If you fly Alaska or Delta every year, it is easy to get good value from the certificates you get from having their cards. There are some additional options, but for various reasons, they are less valuable or harder to take advantage of. Get 2 for 1 Airplane Tickets with Credit Card Companion Certificates.
- If you fly multiple times per year on Southwest Airlines, one of the most valuable travel benefits you can get is the Southwest Companion Pass. It lets a companion fly for free on every trip you take with Southwest, including award trips—essentially giving you half-priced travel, all the time. The best way to qualify for the pass is via Southwest Airlines credit cards. Get 2 for 1 Travel with the Southwest Airline Companion Pass.
- One or more credit cards that give you free night certificates every year. Many hotel-branded credit cards either give you a free certificate each year you have the card, or each year in which you meet a specified spending threshold. For the cost of the annual fee, and possibly the opportunity cost of meeting the spending requirement, you'll get a night in one of their hotels that would typically be worth considerably more. Just make sure that you don't sign up for so many of these certificates that you wind up not having good opportunities to use them.
- (Possibly) A card that gives you gives you great benefits and rewards with Amtrak. If you frequently travel on Amtrak, you’ll definitely want one of their credit cards. They offer a very generous reward program. Amtrak Rewards Guide.
- (Possibly) a card that gives you primary rental car insurance. Many credit cards provide rental car insurance. However, in most cases it is “secondary” insurance. This means your regular car insurance is on the hook first, and the credit card insurance only covers anything that your regular insurance doesn’t. A few cards offer "primary" rental car insurance instead, which works without involving your regular car insurance. You might consider making sure that you have at least one card that provides this benefit, and use that card for all your car rentals. Credit Cards That Provide “Primary” Rental Car Coverage.
The best options for getting started are probably the Hyatt and Hilton card. Get Free Hotel Nights with Credit Card Certificates.
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