Welcome to the Travel Hacking from Scratch Series – a series dedicated to getting those new into Travel Hacking up the curve as quickly as possible. Below is the layout of the series with links back to already published articles. Today our topic is Which Card and Why, a look into credit cards and which ones might benefit you the most.
|The Benefits of Travel Hacking
|Credit Cards – Which Card and Why
|Churning Credit Cards
|US Credit Cards (ITIN)
|Using Your Points
|Alternatives to DIY
|Understanding the Power of Partners
|Weighing Convenience vs Cost
|How to Avoid High Taxes and Charges
|How to Travel Better
|Why You Need Status
|Understanding Your Rights
|Beyond Travel – Financial Freedom
A Quick Introduction to Credit Cards
I get a distinct feeling that people put their guard up when I start talking about how credit cards can get you free luxury travel. I get it … it sounds too good to be true, but I can tell you from many years of experience that it is completely possible.
That being said, we should lay out some ground rules that you really should follow to really get anything out of collecting miles and points:
- You HAVE TO pay off your credit cards in full each month. The interest rates on credit cards are 18.99%+ and are usually higher on travel credit cards because of all the benefits that are offered. The people that carry balances are the ones that end up shouldering the cost of the benefits. Be good at paying off your cards and let others carry the burden. If you cannot pay off your cards each month, you need to get your financial house in order and then revisit this blog. I’m not trying to be harsh, I’m just trying to be realistic. I have heard too many stories of people drowning in credit card debt to not make this point.
- You should understand what your credit score is and how it is determined. Luckily, I have written a couple of articles around how credit score works so take a minute to familiarize yourself with the topic.
- Don’t dive in headfirst. Educate yourself and figure out what works best for you and your situation.
PointsNerd’s Strategy for Credit Cards
Almost every credit card offer out there provides a greater return on investment than the cost of the annual fee … at least for the first year. Banks and credit card issuers know that it’s more difficult to attract new clients than it is to keep existing ones, which is why you see very attractive sign-up offers. By comparison, credit card issuers do very little to retain their clients until you threaten to cancel. This is why you should be on the lookout for great sign-up offers as many of them can be quite lucrative and even offer first-year annual fee waivers.
The best use of your credit card miles and points is to trade them in for travel. Whether that be for business class seats across the world or for a suite in a luxury hotel. It’s going to be hard to find more lucrative uses for your points.
The first thing I do before I consider a credit card is ask the question “will these points help me to achieve my goal of taking X, Y or Z flight or allow me to stay in A, B, C hotel”. If the answer is no, then I’m very likely not getting the card.
The Scotiabank Scene credit card is a great example. Currently, you get 2,500 Scene points after $500 in spend. Those 2,500 points basically give you 2 free movie tickets and they don’t transfer to any airlines or hotels, so the card is completely useless to me even though I go to a lot of movies. Even though the card is a $0 annual fee card, it’s not worth the credit hit for me. I would rather use that credit hit on a card that serves my end goal of travel or at the very least provides benefits when I’m travelling.
If we are talking strictly travel programs, in Canada the choices are fairly limited with only a handful of airline or hotel programs having a co-brand card available to Canadians:
- TD Aeroplan (Air Canada)
- CIBC Aeroplan (Air Canada)
- MBNA Alaska
- MBNA Best Western
- RBC Cathay Pacific
- RBC British Airways
- RBC WestJet
- American Express Bonvoy
Due to this limitation, I often look to programs that have transferable points systems. For example, American Express’ Membership Rewards programs allow transfers to:
Below is the transfer ratio of (Membership Rewards Points to _________)
- Air Canada Aeroplan (1 to 1)
- Alitalia MilleMiglia ( 2 to 1.5 )
- Cathay Pacific Asia Miles (2 to 1.5)
- British Airways Avios (1 to 1)
- Delta Skymiles (2 to 1.5)
- Etihad Guest (2 to 1.5)
- Hilton Honors (1 to 1)
- Marriott Bonvoy (5 to 6)
These transferable programs give you many more options than the cobranded card I’ve listed earlier because you can transfer to the program of your choice based on need whereas with the co-branded cards, you are stuck in the currency they offer.
I almost exclusively concentrate on transferable currency cards and then if needed, to supplement my points totals, move to the co-branded cards.
This is why I almost always recommend the American Express suite of cards that offers Membership Rewards as a currency. In addition to being able to transfer to the loyalty programs listed above, AMEX provides incredible flexibility even if you don’t want to transfer your points. I covered off the incredible flexibility of Membership Rewards in a previous post.
My Specific Recommendations
I don’t really believe in recommending cards until I really understand what someone is trying to accomplish. Rather than recommend to you what I think you should have, I’ll tell you what I cards I would get if I were to start from ground zero.
If you do want specific recommendations, I would encourage you to write in the comments section and provide me with your end goal. Something like “I live in Winnipeg and I would like to fly my family of 4 to Japan next summer. I would prefer to fly in business class if at all possible but could live with economy class”. The more details, the better so I can help you to the best of my ability.
Best Cards for Flexibility
If you are looking to give yourself the most flexibility with the points you earn, there’s no better game in town than American Express’ Membership Rewards.
If you were to stick to the American Express family of cards, you would be able to do almost everything you want to do as it relates to travel. I fund my Aeroplan travel and Marriott stays with my Membership Rewards points and I would say the majority of Canadians will use their points for these programs.
What I love the most about Membership Rewards is the flexibility that they provide. While I can pretty much guess that most of my travel will be through Aeroplan redemptions, I don’t like to lock myself in until I am very sure. The way I think about it is that Membership Rewards (MRs) allow for transfers to all 3 major airline alliances; Star Alliance with Aeroplan, OneWorld with British Airways Avios, and SkyTeam with Delta Skymiles. That means that you can search for your award availability with almost any airline in the world. find the availability, then transfer your MRs to the appropriate currency.
A word of warning, the cards I would almost always carry an annual fee. There’s no sugar-coating it. These points will cost you money but the value you will receive when you redeem is worth much more. I never pay more than 1¢/point and when I redeem, as long as I redeem for more than 1¢/point, I am ahead. Typically, I have been able to redeem at 12-15¢/point, which is an incredible return. This math is called Cents per Miles or CPM. I’ll give each cards’ CPM (if applicable) when I talk about them below.
If you fall into the following categories, you should start earning American Express Membership Rewards:
- You don’t know exactly what you want to book but want to be sure the currency you collect will for sure be able to help you down the road
- You want the most flexibility possible
- You want to earn points quickly for as little cost as possible
- You want are likely to book an Aeroplan award
American Express Platinum Business
Annual Fee: $499
Points (Public Offer): 40,000
Points (Referral Offer): 75,000
Spend Requirements: $7,000 in 90 days
Additional Benefits: Priority Pass membership, which provides free access to all Priority Pass lounges for you and a guest. You also receive access to American Express Centurion lounges and 1.25 MRs per dollar spent.
The American Express Platinum Business card is the card you should definitely start with when you are venturing into Travel Hacking. While the annual fee is probably much higher than most Canadians are used to, the number of points that you would receive is a staggering 75,000. Remember, you can transfer these 75,000 points to Aeroplan at a 1:1 ratio – that’s enough for a round trip economy ticket to Eastern Europe and you could even splurge for Premium Economy to Western Europe for the same price! For those same 75,000 points, you could fly Business Class to Colombia, Ecuador (including the Galapagos Islands), Guyana or Venezuela! Pure insanity. Take a look at the Aeroplan redemption chart to get a sense of where you could fly to for 75,000 points. Even if you think within Canada, that’s 3 round trip economy flights for $499 in annual fees.
Let’s not forget that for that $499 annual fee you also get the Priority Pass Prestige membership, which grants you access to 1,300 lounges worldwide for you and a guest. That membership retails for $429 USD and that doesn’t even get your guest in for free, so essentially, your annual fee comes with a benefit that provides even more value than what you pay.
You also get access to American Express’ famous Centurion Lounges. I reviewed the Centurion Lounge at Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Airport and at the George Bush International Airport in Houston (IAH) in previous posts. I’ll admit that it’s been a minute since I’ve been there last but I fondly remember how great these lounges are so if you are travelling to any of the airports that have a Centurion Lounge, you’ll thank your lucky stars you have the American Express Platinum Business Card.
Now you may ask yourself, how can I get a “business” card without a business? Well, the good news is that American Express considers sole proprietorships to be a business. AMEX uses your personal credit history to judge whether or not you should qualify for a business card so if you have a good credit score, then use it to get yourself this card. For every business venture I undertake, I always apply for a new Platinum Business card.
So here’s where it gets interesting. If you get the American Express Platinum Business card as your first card, you can use it to refer your friends and family to the same card, the Gold Business, or the new Business Edge card. If your friends or family end up getting the card, you garner an additional 25,000 Membership Rewards points for the referral. You can even refer another business you have to the card!
American Express Business Gold
Annual Fee: $250
Points (Public Offer): 30,000
Points (Referral Offer): 40,000
Spend Requirements: $5,000 in 90 days
Additional Benefits: 2x Membership Rewards at your 3 selected preferred vendors.
There’s nothing especially sexy about the American Express Gold Business card except for its relatively low annual fee and the low CPM. The CPM is actually lower than that of the Platinum Business but without the added benefits like lounge access, the Gold Business isn’t all that exciting but it does definitely play into your card strategy.
If you got the Platinum Business Card, you would have 75,000 Membership Rewards, then if you referred your other business to the Gold Business Card, you would earn 25,000 Membership Rewards. Finally, when you get the Gold Business card, you would receive an additional 40,000 MRs.
All said and done, you would have 140,000 Membership Rewards points for $749 ($499 Annual Fee for the Platinum Business and $250 Annual Fee for the Gold Business). If you add the minimum spend requirements and the points earned for that spend you would be at 153,750 MRs for $749. That’s enough points for a round trip in Business Class to almost anywhere in the world! If I told you that you could fly Business Class to almost anywhere in the world for $749 … would you call me crazy? Well, you shouldn’t because it’s mean and also … it’s definitely possible.
American Express Platinum Personal
Annual Fee: $699
Points (Public Offer): 50,000
Points (Referral Offer): 60,000
Spend Requirements: $5,000 in 90 days
Additional Benefits: Priority Pass membership, which provides free access to all Priority Pass lounges for you and a guest. You also receive access to American Express Centurion lounges, 3x MRs for every dollar spent at restaurants and 2x MRs for travel. $200 Travel Credit
CPM: 0.83 if considering the $200 travel credit of 1.17 if you don’t.
There are two schools of thought on this card. If you can use the $200 travel credit each card year, then you can effectively “reduce” the annual fee to $499 rather than $699. If you don’t think you would use the credit, then the annual fee is $699. Depending on where you land, and if you believe in my rule of keeping your points accumulation under 1 CPM, this may or may not be the right card for you.
I consider the Platinum Personal to be a good card and one to get if you need the points to get to your goal but if you are a couple and you want to travel in Business Class to almost anywhere in the world, I would strongly suggest you each get a Business Platinum and a Business Gold.
Best Cards For Western Canadians
I’ve written extensively about Alaska Airlines and the incredible value you can derive from their Mileage Plan program if you redeem those miles for partner airline flights. One of my all-time favourite redemptions was Cathay Pacific’s First Class flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Hong Kong (HKG) and then onto Auckland (AKL) in Business Class (only because Cathay doesn’t have a First Class cabin down to Auckland). We did that for 80,000 Alaska Miles each and I booked myself, my wife, and my daughter.
What was great about this redemption is that it was mostly done through credit card sign-up bonuses and churning the card. For those that don’t know what churning it, it’s basically signing up for a card, meeting the minimum spend requirement, collecting the miles/points as part of the sign-up, cancelling the card and then repeating the process.
When you redeem Alaska Miles, you are allowed to fly Alaska + a partner airline. That means that you want to be in a city that is serviced by Alaska Airlines. Unfortunately, there are only 5 cities in Canada with that distinction: Victoria (YVR), Kelowna (YLW), Vancouver (YVR), Calgary (YYC) and Edmonton (YEG). For the rest of you Canadians, you’re a bit out of luck, unless you can position to the United States or any of the airports that Alaska’s partners service.
MBNA Alaska World Elite
Annual Fee: $99
Annual Fee (Referral): $39 – Apply through Great Canadian Rebates and receive $60 cashback, thus reducing your annual fee to $39.
Points (Public Offer): 30,000
Spend Requirements: $1,000 in 90 days
Additional Benefits: Annual Companion Voucher ($121 USD) and Free First Bag
To me, this card is a real no brainer if you live in Vancouver, Kelowna, Victoria, Calgary or Edmonton. The card is churnable and the annual fee is very low, especially if you apply through the cashback site, Great Canadian Rebates. If you aren’t familiar with how cashback sites like Great Canadian Rebates work, check out my article on it here.
Best Card for Free Benefits
There are quite a few cards out there that have a $0 annual fee with some decent benefits. You often see cashback cards that offer a 1% return in this category as well as “introductory” cards that are used to get you hooked into a bank. Most of these cards don’t warrant your attention but there’s one card that I have been very impressed with.
Brim Financial Credit Card
Annual Fee: $0
Referral Bonus: Receive 1,000 points (good for $10 against any charge placed on card).
Spend Requirements: None
Additional Benefits: Free Boingo wifi including on airlines that support Boingo such as WestJet and EVA, 0% Foreign Exchange Fee, 1 point per dollar spent (1% return)
I wrote about the Brim Financial credit card a few weeks back under the article title “How to Get Free Wifi on WestJet and Other Airlines“. The card provides some excellent value for a no-fee card and it’s a card that I actually keep in my wallet. It has grown to be my go-to card for foreign transactions because of the true 0% Foreign Exchange (FX) fees.
I really like this card for almost everyone in Canada because there isn’t a better 0% FX card in Canada in my opinion. When you consider you get free airline wifi on planes that support Boingo, 0% FX and a points program, you kinda scratch your head and ask how they can afford to provide all these benefits. I honestly don’t know what the answer is but what I do know is that you should get you this card.
Credit cards are a very personal decision and your choice should be made with some thought behind it. I’ve laid out the cards I would get if I were to start from scratch but these cards may or may not be the right choice for you. I would encourage you to provide me with your specific goals so that I can help recommend the cards that make the most sense for you. Just write in the comments section and I will do my very best to provide a meaningful recommendation with my rationale for why.
Next up, we’ll take a look at category bonuses and how you can start earning the most points possible.