Credit Card Signup Bonuses: The Easiest Path to Free Airplane Tickets and Hotel Nights
Unless you frequently travel for business, the way to earn really large quantities of reward points is to "collect" credit card signup bonuses.
Instead of waiting years for points to accumulate through paid travel or 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 more than $500 each and you can earn these bonuses one after the other.
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 them, how little effort this takes, and that it won't kill their credit rating.
Typical signup bonuses for travel and reward credit cards are very generous. Collecting the signup bonus for a typical hotel-branded credit card provides enough points for 2 to 3 nights at a nice downtown hotel in a typical city, 1 night at one of the fanciest hotels, or 8-20 nights at one of their least expensive options. The signup bonus on a typical airline credit card provides enough points for 2 free economy tickets within the US or a free economy ticket to Europe.
Is it crazy to apply for a bunch of new credit cards, just for the signup bonuses?
It might seem foolish to sign up for a bunch of new credit cards, just to collect their signup bonuses. For many people who are new to “travel hacking”, our advice may fly in the face in how they currently think about credit cards.
You may believe that getting a bunch of new credit cards simply isn’t possible, will hurt your credit score, or will be a huge pain to manage. But the truth is that most of our readers have nothing to fear about signing up for many different travel and reward credit cards.
- Applying for new credit cards won’t kill your credit score—it is likely to improve it. Many people’s credit scores go up, rather than down, as they start to get new cards. It isn't unusual to have your score go up 50-100 points.
- Credit card companies will approve you for a surprising number of cards. If you have good credit, credit card companies desperately want your business. That is why they offer such lucrative signup offers and travel benefits, in the first place. It is sort of shocking how many credit cards you can get. With some banks, you can even get multiple copies of the same exact same card.
- It you are organized, it doesn’t take much time. It takes a few minutes to sign up for the card and a bit of effort to track your initial spending (to make sure you qualify for the signup bonus). However, if you are at least a little bit organized, it doesn’t take very much time, and the corresponding benefits are large.
- You don’t have to walk around with a dozen credit cards in your wallet. Once you’ve spent enough to qualify for the signup bonus, you can put many credit cards away, perhaps occasionally retrieving them when you need to take advantage of one of their unique benefits. While you might be getting a bunch of credit cards, you aren’t going to be using most of them as part of your day-to-day life.
One of the biggest factors in your credit score is “credit utilization”, which is the percentage of your available credit that you are using each month. When you get new cards, your overall credit limit goes up. Since your spending should stay the same, your credit utilization rate drops. Even though nothing has really changed with your finances, you look like a better credit risk, and your score goes up.
Of course, as you start getting lots of cards, this effect goes away, and getting a new credit will cause a small, but temporary, dip to your credit rating. Also, the increased amount of credit can interfere with your ability to get a new loan. For more details, see Credit Cards 101.
If you aren’t quite sure you want to follow this strategy yet, consider upgrading your current credit card to the best possible reward credit card and slowly getting a few additional credit cards that come with some valuable perks and benefits. As you get each of these cards, make sure to earn their signup bonuses. You’ll build up more experience with the process (as well as a bunch of points and miles) and can then reconsider whether you want to keep going or not. In the meantime, you'll also be accruing valuable points from your primary rewards card. Easy Access to Valuable Travel Benefits.
If you aren't paying off your credit cards in full every month, if getting a bunch of credit cards is going to cause you to spend more money than you otherwise would, or if you are too disorganized to avoid paying fees and interest, you'll need to avoid this strategy and just focus on just getting good deals for your airline and hotel reservations. Credit Cards 101.
The basic approach
Our recommended approach is straightforward.
- Decide on the next card you want to get. 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, which are discussed in more detail in our Which Signup Bonuses to Get First guide.
- 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'll never pay your bill 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, you should be focusing on reducing your credit card debt, not on getting new cards. If you don't like having your bills paid automatically, no problem. It will just take a little extra effort to manually make sure you are never late with any of your payments.
- Until you've met the initial spending requirement, switch ALL your credit card spending to your new card. Each card requires a certain amount of spending before you qualify for the signup bonus (usually during the first three months). You want to complete this initial spending requirement as soon as possible. This ensures that time doesn't run out for earning the bonus and also lets you more quickly move onto the next card.
- 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 make sure you get the bonus.
- Collect your points or miles.
- 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. That way you'll be able to start spending on the new card as soon as you finish the requirement from the previous 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. On the other hand, you 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). It is good practice to set up a calendar appointment on your phone to remind yourself 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. In contrast, Hyatt only requires about a quarter as many points for a similar hotel, making their points worth around 1.7-1.8 cents each. A 40,000-point signup bonus from the Hyatt credit card seems a lot less valuable than a 100,000-point bonus on a Hilton card, but is actually worth more (a total of about $700 versus $400-500).
- We calculate a "Net Signup Bonus" for every interesting credit card. This is the value you get from the signup bonus, minus the costs of earning it. First, we calculate the value of the points that you'll receive and add the full or partial value for any travel (or other) credits that you get during the initial year. Then we subtract the annual fee that you need to pay (some cards waive this fee for the first year). Finally, we subtract the opportunity cost of the lost reward points you didn't earn, because you needed to use the new card to meet the initial spending requirement (instead of using a card that earns a higher reward rates).
- 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 be incorporated 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 standard Chase Ultimate Rewards bonus (normally 80,000 points) and the Business Platinum card has the biggest standard Amex Membership Rewards bonus (normally 75-150,000 points).
- Small business credit cards don't usually show up on your personal credit report, making it easier to get approved for new 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. However, the credit inquiry will be added, so banks which are sensitive to the number of your recent credit inquiries will see those.
- Signing up for both personal and business cards gives you access to a larger overall number of signup offers. If you are collecting signup bonuses in earnest, you will eventually start running out of new cards to get. Having access to business cards increases the total number of available possibilities.
- To increase the number of signup bonuses you can get in a year, switch as much of your spending as you can to your new cards. Make sure to use your card, rather than cash or check, whenever you can. Go through all your bills to see which ones can be paid by credit card and then use your new card to pay them. For more information see the discussion in Get a Great General Purpose Reward Card and Use It for All of Your Spending.
- 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 normally 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 its full value, increasing the total value you receive during the first year to $1,150. But the card has an annual fee of $550 (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 available reward cards (unless you can meet the spending requirement with restaurant and travel spending). Subtracting the $590 it costs to receive the bonus, the "net signup bonus" or "net first year value" is around $550. Note that we don't count the extra benefits of the card that depend on your particular usage, such as the Sapphire Reserve's great bonus category reward rates, airport lounge access, etc. We just count the bonus itself and some percentage of any direct cash credits.
Also note that we use relatively conservative values for points. Many other sites use higher point values. As a result, our point values increase 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.
Since they don't show on your personal report, getting small business cards can help you delay or avoid hitting Chase's 5/24 limit or Bank of America's 3/12 or 7/12 limit. This provides more flexibility to get a card you might want in the future.
As discussed in more detail in Step-by-Step Guide: After You Receive Your New Card, it is usually easy to earn an extra referral bonus for a friend or spouse, whenever you apply for an American Express card.
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 fixed-value points are very easy to use and are good options for almost everyone. It is harder to get good value from Membership Rewards points, ThankYou points, and most airline miles. 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 buy 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. 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 convert 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, depending 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|
|Hilton Surpass / Aspire||150,000||30.0||3.7||1.5|
|Marriott / Marriott Biz||75,000||15.0||2.1||.75|
|Radisson Premier Rewards||120,000||13.3||3.0||1.7|
|Wyndham Earner Plus / Business||45,000||6.0||3.0||1.5|
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 values of 1.5 cents or more, 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 upside to get even more value per point by booking frequent flyer tickets (with almost any airline). Introduction to 'Transferable' Reward Points.
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.
The easiest way to make sure you get started on the right foot, is to look at our guide on which cards to get first.
Earning signup bonuses can be addictive. As you start getting more and more cards, you'll probably want to more fully understand the rules and learn how to fully maximize your signup opportunities.
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