If you’re in the US, are eager to be able to afford your next trip faster, and you know how to use credit responsibly, Travel Hacking can take you places.
New to travel hacking? Find out what it is and don’t apply for any cards until you’ve read our top 15 Tips on Travel Hacking.
My husband and I tap into early spend bonuses about 4-6 times per year by signing up for new credit cards and meeting their minimum spend required. We use these points to book our family of four free flights and hotel rooms.
Below I’ve shared the cards offering the best welcome bonuses without having sky high spend minimums. Read to the end to find an example of how we used our points to book a trip.
The links to credit card details are referral links. If you apply using one of my links, I may get bonus points on my credit card as well with no impact to you. Thank you in advance for helping my family travel farther and create more content!
Key Benefits to Look for When Choosing a Card
- No foreign transaction fee
- Travel insurance/lost luggage insurance/trip protection, etc.
- Rental Car Insurance
- Annual Fee delivers value you can use
- High welcome incentive / early spend bonus
- Achievable minimum spend to get the bonus
Notice I didn’t mention about APR because you ARE NOT going to carry over any balances and end up paying interest. If you read my Travel Hacking Tips you know this is a cardinal rule of travel hacking.
Our Favorite No Fee Credit Cards
Chase Freedom Card
My favorite no fee, cash back card is the Chase Freedom card. Each quarter they offer 5% back on a different type of expenditure. For example, one quarter might be groceries, another gas or department stores.
You can take the rewards back in cash as a statement credit, or redeem them for travel via the Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal. In the future, if you choose to open more of the premium (paid) credit cards, this card pairs wonderfully with Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, and the Chase Business Ink cards.
There is currently a $200 cash back bonus if you spend $500 in the first 3 months on a Freedom Card. This is a low-maintenance travel hacking starter card that I’ve held for 15 years now.
American Express Hilton Honors
The Hilton Honors card is the only hotel or airline card we’ve used that does not have an annual fee which makes it an appealing travel hacking starter card. I called this a no brainer on my Travel Hacking Guide as the minimum spend was low to achieve enough points for a few nights in Hilton Hotels. Read more below.
Chase Business Ink
If you own a business or have a side hustle, you can apply for a business card even with minimal earnings (I’m talking just $500 in a year). This could be something as simple as selling things on Facebook Marketplace.
Of all the points incentives out there, this is the BEST. After spending $6,000 in the first 3 months with Chase Business Ink, you get $750 cash back or ,000 points to redeem in the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.
Our Top Hotel Credit Cards
World of Hyatt
Hands down my favorite Hotel branded credit card is the World of Hyatt card. I’m wowed by the value you get for very little points (We’ve seen nights as low as 7k). Its welcome bonus is two tiered, with the opportunity to earned between 30,000-60,000 points in the first 6 months.
Hyatt has an annual fee of $95, but with the free night reward certificate you get annually, that is more than worth it!
Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless
After spending $3,000 in the first 3 months from account opening, they’ll deposit 100,000 points into your account. We stretched this to four nights in hotels! Apply here.
The annual Fee is $95. After the first year, you’ll receive 1 Free Night Award for each Card account anniversary. I keep both my Marriott and Hyatt cards year over year with the $95 fee because of the annual free night reward. I make sure to redeem this free night at the highest class hotel I’m allowed and in ‘high rent’ locations. For example, I booked a $350 room in NYC with my Marriott cards’ free night credit.
American Express Hilton Honors
Since the Hilton Honors card is a no fee card with a low spend welcome bonus, this was a quick win for us and I think you’ll like it too. Spending $2,000 in the first 6 months earns you 100,0000 bonus points. While that sounds more amazing than Marriott or Hyatt, their individual nights cost 30k-50k points so you’ll only get about 2-3 free nights with this bonus.
It’s also important to note not all places will accept AmEx as a form of payment.
Our Preferred Airline Credit Cards
The Airline Credit Card you choose should be prioritized by the airline with the most routes from your home airport OR can get you to a dream destination that led you to research travel hacking tips in the first place.
Delta American Express Gold SkyMiles
I’ve had my Delta American Express Gold SkyMiles card for 2 years now. Within 3 months of account opening, I earned 70,000 miles for spending just $2,000.
My favorite perks are the free checked bags for up to 6 people on your reservation, the 15% off point redemption toward flights, and the $100 flight credit after spending $10,000 in a calendar year. It has a $95 annual fee.
(American Airlines) Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
The $99 annual fee is waved for the first year and you earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,500 within 3 months of opening. This got us a round trip ticket to Europe from Chicago. Apply here.
Carrying this card has elevated my status and gets me free checked bags for my whole family. With two little ones in tow, it’s nice to be more hands free during boarding.
I cannot speak to Southwest Airlines, United, or Frontier as we have not tried their cards nor do we fly them often enough to justify the cards.
The Ultimate All-Around Credit Cards
While you may get free bags or some trip protection with an airline credit card, these cards have you covered far beyond the airport.
Paid cards are not the enemy. Depending on how you will use them, you often times are getting more value than you’re paying.
Capital One Venture X
The Venture X Capital One Card is $395 per year. A key perk is that each year you get $300 back as a statement credit for transactions spent on travel. If you use $95 worth of value from its other benefits, this card is amazing.
In 2022, I got the $300 back, I received $100 back for my global entry renewal application (TSA Precheck is also reimbursed), and it covered me for international rental car insurance so I didn’t have to buy it at my destination. On top of that I had access to airport lounges for my whole family with a Priority Pass, lost luggage insurance, trip delay and trip interruption insurance and more.
The early spend bonus for the Venture X is 75,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.
Capital One Venture
The Venture X’s little brother. With a $95 fee this card still holds immense value with a fraction of the annual fee. The main perks you are losing are the $300 travel credit and you only get two one-time visit passes to Capital One lounges each year compared to having access for you and 2 guests to all Priority Pass lounges.
Even with this card you have the potential to earn 75,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
The perks of the Sapphire Reserve card are on par with the Capital One Venture X. I’d called them equals if it weren’t for their hefty annual fee of $550. I cancelled this card when they increased their price from $395.
I keep it on this list though, as it offers a great welcome bonus that is attractive to those who have already exploited the Venture X one. My suggestion is to hold this for 1 year and then downgrade it to the Preferred or cancel it.
Another reason to consider this pricey card is if you have a lot of Chase Ultimate Rewards points collecting dust and you’re ready to use them. This cards makes them worth a whopping 50% more in the portal.
The welcome incentive for the Sapphire Reserve card is 60,000 points after spending $4,000 within 3 months.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
We hold onto the $95 Chase Sapphire Preferred card for two main reasons. First, because it comes with international car rental insurance and second because we like the points redemption value it gets us in the Ultimate Rewards portal.
It pairs great with other Chase cards like the Freedom or the Business Ink because those points can be transferred to this card and redeemed for 25% more value.
The welcome incentive for the Sapphire Preferred card is 60,000 points after spending $4,000 within 3 months. You cannot earn this incentive more than one time in a 48 month period on either the Preferred or Reserve cards.
Example Points Redemption with Travel Hacking Starter Cards
In 2022, we paid for an entire trip’s lodging and airfare with a few card card sign up incentives. We achieved the minimum spend requirement of $15k across the cards used. If you spend at least $15k on cards in a year, you can replicate this free trip without changing much of your usual spending behaviors!
Here’s how our points redemption broke down:
We didn’t have enough points in a single place to book four plane tickets so we got creative.
2 round trip tickets via 78k Chase Business Ink points (out of the 90k points from welcome bonus)
2 round trip tickets via Venture X Capital One Card points (from the 75k welcome bonus plus points earned from normal spend)
This may sound like a lot of moving around, however, we like to explore multiple cities so switching hotels is the norm for us.
1 Free Night Annual Reward Marriott (A $320 room was covered by this reward and I pay $95 annually for the card.)
3 Nights with Welcome Bonus points from Hyatt
2 Nights with Welcome Bonus points from Hilton
2 Nights with Chase Ultimate Rewards Points earned from normal credit card spend
I also booked a couple domestic flights with American Airlines and Delta points. You cannot pay for taxes with points, so make sure you use the right card to cover that payment.
Paying with the airline credit card would likely get you free bags. You could also pay with a premier card like the Venture X or Sapphire Reserve for lots of travel protection benefits.
What is a Point Worth?
The beauty of points is that their value is in the eye of the beholder. Over analyzing your point value can take all the joy out of getting free travel! So if you’re happy with the fact that you’re getting an extra trip like I am, that’s awesome! If you’d rather use the points to splurge on upgraded airfare that’s one hell of an experience too!
So, that said, these numbers are a guide but in no way should you ONLY make bookings that match these Cost Per Point (CPP) numbers. Book what makes you happy.
Overall, American Airlines has the highest value for airlines, Hyatt for hotels, and Chase Ultimate Rewards for a travel portal (especially when pairing with a premium credit card’s elevated redemption.)
What do you think? Does this sound like something you could try out for your family? Let us know your thoughts and questions in the comments below. Pin for Later!