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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – United MileagePlus Explorer Card, Ink Plus, Ink Bold, Ink Cash, Freedom, Starwood Preferred Guest Personal and Business
TPG contributor Jason Steele digs into the top credit card bonuses and gives us an analysis of whether the current sign-up bonus is worth getting, or waiting for a more lucrative pay-day. While no one has a crystal ball to the future, understanding past history can help you maximize the cards you get in your points portfolio.
Timing is everything. We carefully time our purchase of non-refundable airfare, and watch the markets to try to close on a mortgage when rates dip. Credit cards are no different as savvy applicants watch the market try to hold out for the most attractive sign up bonuses.
But what if you haven’t been closely following the credit card industry for years, and don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of every credit card offered? Don’t worry, here is a run-down of the major travel reward credit cards, their history, and where they currently stand:
Chase Ink Bold and Ink Plus
Current Sign-up Bonus: 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $5,000 within three months. $95 annual fee waived the first year.
Past Bonuses: The standard bonus for this card is 50,000 points, and minimum spending requirements used to be $10,0000 within three months, but were cut in half to $5,000 in late 2012. There were limited time offers for 60,000 points before in April 2012 and June 2013.
Recommendation: 60,000 points seems to be a limited time offer launched every year or so, but there is no guarantee it will happen again next year. If you are considering this card, now is the time to apply since the 60,000 point offer ends June 1, 2014.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Current Sign-up Bonus: 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $3,000 within three months. 5,000 additional points for adding a first authorized user and making a purchase within 3 months of account opening. Additional cardholders are free, so if you maximize this offer, you can net 45,000 total points as a sign-up bonus.
Past Bonuses: This card was introduced several years ago with a 50,000 point bonus and occasionally even higher- even up to 100,000 points in 2011, but that ended up being a targeted offer and quickly being pulled. It went to 40,000 points two years ago, and is occasionally brought back to 50,000 points for a limited time.
Recommendation: This is the kind of card that you don’t get just for the sign-up bonus, because it is has great bonuses for dining and travel, plus an EMV chip and no foreign transaction fees for overseas use. If you need these features for your regular spending, get it now, or if you want to hold out for a better sign-up bonus, you could wait for a targeted offer or check with your Chase banker, but I don’t think the standard public sign-up bonus will change this year.
Current Sign-up Bonus: $100 in the form of 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points when new cardholders spend $500 within three months. A further $25/2,500 points is offered for adding an authorized cardholder within thee months.
Past Bonuses: This card has seen bonuses of $150 and $200 within the past year alone, even up to 30,000 ($300) several years go.
Recommendation: $100/10,000 points is nothing spectacular. If you don’t mind waiting and missing out on the quarterly 5x bonuses
United Explorer from Chase
Current Sign-up Bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in 3 months when you sign up for this card in a Chase branch, plus another 5,000 bonus miles when you add an authorized user to your account. You can also receive this offer when you log into your United Airlines account, just look for an ad in the top right Otherwise earn 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months.
Past Bonuses: This card was introduced with a 50,000 mile bonus in 2011, which went up to 60,000 for a time in 2012. It has largely remained at currently levels since.
Recommendation:While its possible that this bonus could go up, I wouldn’t bother to hold out. Adding an authorized user is very simple and easy, and 55,000 miles is very attractive if you can apply in a Chase branch.
Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express
Current Sign-up Bonus: Earn 25,000 bonus points – 10,000 with first purchase and another 15,000 with $5,000 spend in the first 6 months.
Past Bonuses: American Express has been increasing this offer to 30,000 points each summer for several years now.
Recommendation: Wait- and this offer may go back up to 30,000 points for a limited time.
Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express
Current Sign-up Bonus: The standard offer for this card is for 25,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of opening an account.
Past Bonuses: 50,000 point targeted offers are sometimes made available, like last year via CardMatch.
Recommendation: The current bonus is pretty standard, so waiting may yield a better bonus at some point in the future.
American Express Business Rewards Gold
Current Sign-up Bonus: 25,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of opening an account.
Past Bonuses: In the past we have seen limited time 50,000– 75,000 point sign-up bonuses.
Recommendation: 25,000 is a standard bonus- I’d personally wait to see if something better comes along.
American Express Platinum
Current Sign-up Bonus: There are two main version of the personal card, the regular and the Mercedes-Benz. The regular card currently offers is 40,000 Bonus Membership Rewards points after spending $3,000 within three months. The Mercedes-Benz version offers 50,000 points after making $3,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening.
Past Bonuses: 75,000 point offers are common, and some people have reported receiving 100,000 point and even 150,000 point targeted offers.
Recommendation: I wouldn’t try to hold out for 150,000 points, but there seem to be plenty of 75,000 and 100,000 targeted offers out there. Rather than accept the current public offer of 50,000 points, log into your account or just call American Express to see if they have any special offers for you.
US Airways Premier World MasterCard
Current Sign-up Bonus: 40,000 miles after making your first payment and paying the annual fee ($89) within 90 days of account opening.
Past Bonuses: This card really isn’t known for sky-high sign-up bonuses, and the typical offer tends to be around 40,000 miles plus up to 10,000 additional for balance transfers. It is not a good idea to transfer a balance juts to earn bonus miles, due to the 3% balance transfer fee. A more attractive offer earlier this year was for 35,000 miles, but no annual fee the first year. In the past Chairman’s Preferred Members (and many who were able to apply via those targeted links) were offered a 60,000 mile sign-up bonus card that came with anniversary bonuses, but US has announced that benefit will go away, so I don’t anticipate them offering it again.
Recommendation: Since US Airways miles are now worth about the same as American miles, and the programs will be merged in the future, cardholders should first tap out other cards from American with higher sign-up bonuses. Nevertheless, this card is attractive to those who wish to avoid minimum spending requirements and those who are still mining the values exclusive to the US Airways award chart.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World MasterCard
Current Sign-up Bonus: 40,000 bonus miles when new cardholders spend $3,000 within 90 days.
Past Bonuses: This card has held steady at 40,000 since its creation a year ago, though recently they added new benefits, like Chip + PIN and World Mastercard
Recommendation: My hunch is that Barclaycard feels they have found a sweet spot at 40,000 miles and it won’t change anytime soon.
Bank of America:
Alaska Airlines card from Bank of America
Current Sign-up Bonus: The current bonus is for 25,ooo miles upon approval, and a further 15,000 after spending $10,000 within six months.
Past Bonuses: 30,000 miles was common offer in recent years, and a 50,000 mile offer appeared last December for making just $1,000 in purchases within 90 days. It has been possible to get better offers while browsing for flights (including $100 statement credits), so go through the flight booking process to see if you are targeted.
Recommendation: Unless you need to top up your Alaska account right now, I would hold off for the chance to earn 40,000 or 50,000 miles, but you can get this card numerous times (they don’t limit it to one sign-up bonus like many credit card companies), so getting the 25,000 mile sign-up a couple times might make sense.
Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard
Current Sign-up Bonus: Their standard offer of 60,000 miles after $5,000 in purchases within 3 months is still on their web site, but they have also been offering 100,000 miles after making $10,000 in purchases within three months, plus a $200 statement credit after spending $200 with one year.
Past Bonuses: 60,000 miles is the standard offer for this card, although 75,000 miles has been seen before.
Recommendation: This is one of the best offers ever seen from a major U.S. carrier. Considering the card’s $200 statement credit, applicants are still only paying an effective $250 annual fee the first year, while receiving some outstanding benefits as well.
Citi ThankYou Premier
Current Sign-up Bonus: Earn 50,000 points, 20,000 after $2,000 in purchases and an additional 30,000 points after another $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of your second year.
Past Bonuses: This card has offered bonuses of either 50,000 or 30,000 points most of the time since 2011. However, the current offer withholds the majority of the sign-up bonus to the second year.
Recommendation: I think this bonus is fairly stable at 50,000 points, so there is nothing to wait for, but also little chance that it will go down either.