Credit Card Signup Bonuses: The Easiest Path to Free Airplane Tickets and Hotel Nights
Unless you frequently travel for business, credit card signup bonuses are the only realistic path to getting substantial amounts of frequent flyer tickets and free hotel nights.
Instead of waiting years for points to accumulate through paid travel or with day-to-day credit card spending, you can quickly earn hundreds of thousands of reward points via multiple credit card bonuses. There are dozens of credit cards that offer signup bonuses worth in excess of $500 each, and you can continuously earn these bonuses by signing up for new cards.
If you want to frequently take advantage of free airplane tickets and hotel nights, the best strategy is to continuously sign up for new credit cards, meet their initial spending requirements, and collect their signup bonuses. Most people are surprised at the number of credit cards that banks are willing to give, how little effort this takes, and that they can collect new cards without hurting their credit rating
Typical signup bonuses for good travel and reward credit cards are very generous. Collecting the signup bonus for a typical hotel-branded credit card provides enough points for 2-3 nights at a nice downtown hotel in a typical city, 1 night at one of their fanciest hotels, or 8-20 nights at their least expensive hotels. The signup bonus on a typical airline credit card gives you enough points for 2 free economy tickets in the US or a free economy ticket to Europe.
Probably the most valuable advice we have for most travelers is to start collecting credit card signup bonuses, and take a big plunge into the world of free travel.
Signing up for credit cards, just to collect their signup bonuses (or receive their travel benefits) is a good strategy for most people. Contrary to popular belief, it won't kill your credit rating—it is more likely to improve it. But, it is not for everyone. If getting a bunch of credit cards is going to cause you to spend more money or you are too disorganized to avoid paying fees and interest, you'll need to avoid this approac and focus on just getting good deals for your airline and hotel reservations. For more detailed information, see our Credit Cards 101 guide.
Managing the signup process
Our recommended approach is relatively straightforward.
- Decide on which card you want to get next. In general, you want to start with the best available signup offers and start making your way down the list to less valuable offers. However, there are several other considerations about which cards you should get first, which are discussed in more detail below.
- Apply for a card. Especially as you are getting started, keep things simple and sign up for one card at a time.
- After you receive the card, set up automatic payments, so you are never late. Pay off the entire balance every month, so you never have to pay penalties and high interest rates. If you can't pay off your balances each month, focus on reducing your credit card debt, not on getting additional cards. If you don't like having your bills paid automatically, you'll just need to spend a little extra effort to manually make sure you aren't late with any of your payments.
- Until you've met the initial spending requirement, switch ALL of your credit card spending to your new card. You want to be meet the initial spending requirement as soon as you can. This ensures you don't miss out on earning the bonus and lets you more quickly move onto the next bonus.
- If, for some reason, it looks like you won't naturally meet the spending requirement during the allotted time (almost always the first three months), don't worry. There are some "tricks" that you can use to meet the requirement and not miss out on the bonus.
- Collect your bonus.
- Start the process over again. Ideally, you would apply for your next card a couple of weeks before you finish spending on the previous card, as it can take some time to receive your new card.
- After the initial year, cancel the card. To preserve the best possible relationship with the bank, don't cancel as soon as you receive your bonus. But, you also don't want to pay the second year's annual fee, unless you really want to keep the card to take advantage of its ongoing benefits. We like to set up a calendar appointment to remind us to cancel at the end of the initial year.
For more details and tips for the best way to manage the credit card signup process, see our step by step guides:
Signup bonus tips
- Don't focus on the NUMBER of points; focus on the VALUE of the points. Every type of point or mile has its own value. Don't necessarily be swayed by a card that offers a large number of signup bonus points; you need to calculate the total value of the points you'd earn. For example, Hilton requires lots of points for each award night. As a result, their points are only worth about .4 - .5 cents each. As a result, a 100,000 point signup offer is only worth around $400 - 500. In contrast, Hyatt only requires about a quarter as many points for a similar hotel, and their points are worth around 1.7 - 1.8 cents each. A 40,000 point signup bonus on the Hyatt credit seems a lot less valuable, but is actually worth more (a total of about $700) than a 100,000 point offer on a Hilton card.
- We calculate a "Net Signup Bonus" for every interesting credit card. This is the value you get for signing up for the card, minus the costs of getting the card. First, we calculate the value of the points that you'd receive and add the full or partial value for any travel (or other) credits that some cards provide during the initial year. Then, we subtract any annual fee that you need to pay during the first year. Finally, we subtract the opportunity cost of the lost reward points you didn't earn, by using the new card to meet the initial spending spending requirement instead of using a card that earns one of the highest reward rates.
- Each bank has different rules that govern how many of their signup bonuses you can receive, and how quickly you can sign up for cards. To make sure you get started on the right foot, see our information on which cards to get first. As you start getting more and more cards, you'll want to make sure you understand the rules for the major banks, which are discussed in our advanced signup bonuses guide and in the guides for each individual credit card.
- If you have any type of business, you can earn a lot more points by also signing up for small business credit cards. As long as you have any type of side business (like selling stuff on eBay or doing some independent contracting), you are entitled to sign up for small business credit cards. You don't need to incorporate and, in most cases, you don't even need to have made any money yet. For more information see Unlock Extra Reward Points with Business Credit Cards.
- Getting small business cards often allows you to double-up on your signup bonuses. Many cards come in both a personal and a small business version. Rather than simply earning the bonus from the personal card, you could earn the bonus from both versions of the cards and receive twice as many points.
- Some of the best cards are only available in small business versions. For example, the Ink Preferred card has the biggest Chase Ultimate Rewards bonus (80,000 points), and the Business Platinum card has the biggest Amex Membership Rewards bonus (75-150,000 points).
- Small business credits don't show up on your personal credit report, letting you get an overall larger number of cards. When you signup for a small business credit card, banks will check your personal credit report. But when you get the card, it won't be added to the cards listed on the report. That means that banks (which are sensitive to the number of cards you have) won't see them, and you are more likely to get approved for additional cards.
- Each adult in your household can collect their own signup bonuses. Often one person will take on responsibility for managing the process for any less-interested participants. Signing up for multiple copies of the same cards gives you access to double the signup bonuses, and twice as many free night or companion certificates. Sometimes, banks will give you a "referral bonus" when you get someone else to apply for the card, so you can sometimes earn one of those as well.
- For airline and hotel cards, you can sometimes get an additional credit or better offer when you are in the process of making a reservation. You will be prompted to sign up for the card when you are part way through making the reservation. When you are ready to get the card, you can start to make a "fake reservation". Choose a random city and set of dates. Then see what credit card offer you get. Just make sure you don't take the final step and complete the actual airline or hotel reservation.
- Larger promotional signup offers are often available. Before you apply for a card, make sure that you try to find the best available offer. We always try to list the best available offers on our best offers page, and in each of our individual credit card guides. But you might want to check a few other websites as well (discussed in more detail in our step-by-step guides).
For example, the Sapphire Reserve card has a bonus of 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points. We value those points at 1.7 cents each. So, the total value of the signup offer is $$850. The card comes with a $300 travel credit that pays for the first $300 of travel expenses you put on the card on each year. Since this credit is so easy to receive, we value it at full value, increasing the total value you receive to $1,150. But, the card has an annual fee of $450 (which isn't waived the first year). And you'll earn about $40 less in rewards by using the Sapphire Reserve for the required $4,000 in spending, instead of using one of the best general purpose cards (unless you can meet the spending requirement with restaurant and travel spending). Subtracting the $490 it costs to get the bonus, the "net signup bonus" is around $650. Note that we don't count the extra benefits of the card that depend on usage, such as its great bonus category reward rates, airport lounge access, etc. We just count the bonus itself and the any direct cash credits.
Also note that we use relatively conservative values for points. Many other sites use higher point values. For most people, our point values increases the relative value of sure-thing cash-based signup offers. If you know that you can get good value from frequent flyer miles, the net signup values of many credit cards will be higher than our listings.
Earning signup bonuses can be addictive. If you want to maximize the number of points you can earn, make sure to look at our advanced strategies.
Types of bonuses
While we provide a base "value" for every signup bonus—you may value different types of signup bonuses differently, based on how hard you want to work to maximize the value of your points and how you like to travel.
For example, Chase's Ultimate Rewards points, hotel points, and cash-like points are very easy to use and are good options for almost everyone. Membership Rewards points, ThankYou points, and most airline miles are much harder to take good advantage of. If you aren't willing to make the effort to learn how to optimize frequent flyer programs, or don't have the flexibility or patience to find good value award redemptions, they may wind up sitting unused in your account, or you may have to settle for only around 1 cent per point on alternative redemption options. On the other hand, if you highly value premium-cabin award tickets, and are able to find award space, these same types of points can be much more valuable than our standard point values.
- Cash and cash-like points. Some signup bonuses give you actual cash. For example, the Capital One Spark Business card has a signup bonus of $500. Other signup bonuses give you points or "miles" that you use like cash. Each point or "mile" has a fixed value, usually 1 cent per point. In many cases, to get full value from the points, you need to use them to purchase travel, rather than getting straight cash back. For example, the U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve card has a 50,000 point signup bonus. To get the full value of these points (1.5 cent each) you need to use them to offset travel purchases you make with card. Point values vary per card, with some worth less than 1 cent each, some worth exactly 1 cent, and some worth more than 1 cent. Pay for Any Ticket Using Credit Card Points, Regardless of Award Availability.
- Hotel points. Every major hotel program has one or more credit cards. Each of these cards offers a large number of points. But the value of hotel points varies wildly between different programs, as they require vastly different numbers of points to book similar quality hotels. How Much are Hotel Points Worth?.
- Airline miles. Dozens of airlines issue reward credit cards. Typical signup offers are between 20-60,000 frequent flyer mile per card. You can often sign up for multiple cards (from the same airline) to put together larger balances you can use for more expensive frequent flyer tickets.
- Because of airline partnerships, miles from airlines that you may never fly are still valuable. For example, even if you never fly British Airways, you can use their miles for free flights on American Airlines, Japanese Airlines, Qantas, or many other of British Airline's partners. So don't shy away from a good signup bonus just because it is from a card affiliated with a foreign airline.
- Chase's Ultimate Rewards. Several credit cards earn "Ultimate Rewards", Chase bank's own reward currency. These points are "the best of both worlds". You can covert them to frequent flyer miles in your choice of a dozen different programs, and then use them to book frequent flyer tickets on over 100 different airlines. You can convert them to Hyatt points to book award nights at values typically over 1.75 cents each. And, deepening on the credit card you have, you can use them at 1.5 cents each, to purchase any hotel, airline ticket, etc. through the Chase website or with Southwest airlines (without having to find award space).
- Amex's Membership Rewards (and other transferable points). Other transferable point programs, such as Membership Rewards, also give you the option to convert your points into frequent flyer miles in your choice of a large number of different airline programs. As a result, point in these programs are more flexible and more valuable than any single airline's frequent flyer miles. But, to get good value from these points, you'll need to eventually use them to redeem frequent flyer tickets. So, the value of these programs is essentially linked to the value you feel you can get from airline miles. Introduction to 'Transferable' Reward Points.
|Card||Typical Bonus||# of Free Nights|
|Least expensive Hotels||Typical Hotels||Most Expensive Hotels|
|Marriott (business version also available)||75,000||15||2.1||.75|
|Hilton Aspire Amex||100,000||20.0||2.5||1.0|
|Hilton Ascend Amex||100,000||20.0||2.5||1.0|
|Radisson Premier Rewards||85,000||9.4||2.1||1.2|
The good news with hotel points is that they are very easy to use. With almost any hotel program, if a room is available, you can book it with points. You can get solid value from your points on almost every trip. And if room rates are expensive, because of a special event, holiday, or peak season, having points allows you to avoid paying sky-high rates.
However, be aware that unless you get lucky, are willing to spend a lot of time, and/or are very flexible, it can be hard to get good value from airline miles. When flights are expensive, the airlines often don't make any award space available. When flights are inexpensive, you won't get much value from your points. On a typical flight, you might expect to get 1 cent or less in value per mile.
On the other hand, if you are flexible, or can book far ahead of time, you can often get 1.5 to 2 cents in value per mile on economy class tickets. And if you highly value business and first class seats, you can get values of 3 - 10 cents per mile, for free tickets that would normally cost thousands of dollars.
In short, you have several options to easily use your points, at 1.5 cents or more per point, without having to deal with the complexities of frequent flyer programs. But unlike fixed-value point programs (such as the Barclays Arrival Plus), you still retain the the upside to get even more value per point, by booking frequent flyer tickets (with almost any airline). Introduction to 'Transferable' Reward Points.
Which cards to get first
You might be tempted to just start working your way through our best offers list, starting with the most valuable offer, and working your way down the list.
However, you are better off getting certain cards first, before moving onto other cards.
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