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The 4 Best Credit Cards for a Houston-Based Traveler

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card

There are plenty of great rewards-earning credit cards to choose from, but depending on where you live and which airlines best serve your hub airport, some of them are better choices than others. Below, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen takes a look at the top options for travelers flying out of Houston.

If you’re like me, you take a number of things into account when deciding which travel rewards credit cards to add to your wallet. Some are attractive thanks to limited-time sign-up bonuses, while other cards offer lucrative bonus categories for a variety purchases. Where you live can also play a key role in this decision, and today I’ll continue my series that identifies the best cards for residents of certain cities. After covering New YorkAtlanta, ChicagoWashingtonLos Angeles and Seattle, I’ll now move to the Lone Star State and its largest metropolis: Houston.

To answer the question of which cards are best for a Houston-based traveler in today’s post (as well as future posts for other major cities), I’ll be following a straightforward format that looks at the following characteristics of a given card:

  • Sign-up bonus
  • Earning rates
  • Other benefits
  • Annual fee

I’ll then detail out why that particular card would appeal to Houston residents. Finally, I’ll note another one or two similar options any highlight the key difference(s) you’d notice.

Before getting into the analysis, a few disclaimers. For starters, this list is aimed mainly at leisure travelers who are interested in maximizing their rewards on credit cards. If you regularly travel for business and earn elite status, the calculus may change significantly, as you have additional ways to earn points and miles, and some of the benefits I tout below may be included. Fierce loyalty to a single airline may also lead you away from cards offered by a competitor, though I would strongly encourage you to diversify in the event of a mass-scale devaluation (like we saw with American in March).

In addition, this list represents just one way of looking at the situation and is geared mainly at free flights. You may simply want a card that offers solid everyday value for other rewards (like the Citi Double Cash Card for cash back or the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card for free hotel stays). As always, feel free to adjust the list based on your own situations.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, which cards are best for a Houston-based award traveler? In no particular order:

1. United MileagePlus Explorer Card

united - featured
Houston’s Intercontinental Airport (IAH) is dominated by United, making the Explorer Card a terrific choice.

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open plus 5,000 bonus miles when you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months.
Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar spent on United tickets; 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases
Other benefits: Free checked bag; priority boarding; 2 United Club passes each year; no foreign transaction fees; 10,000 bonus miles when you spend $25,000 each calendar year
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport is one of United’s major hubs, with nonstop service to 120 destinations around the world. Several other Star Alliance carriers serve Houston as well, including Air New Zealand (to Auckland), ANA (to Tokyo) and Turkish Airlines (to Istanbul). While United did significantly devalue its award charts back in 2014, there are still some great ways to make the most of your United redemptions.

The Explorer Card earned the top spot on Jason Steele’s post, The Best 5 Cards for Flying United, and for good reason. You’ll enjoy a variety of perks when traveling on United, including priority boarding and a free checked bag (though you’ll need to purchase your ticket with the card to gain access to this benefit). The two annual United Club passes can come in handy during a lengthy delay, and you can choose from five different locations in Houston. Many would argue that the best benefit of the card for United travelers is the additional award inventory that cardholders can access, expanding your ability to use your MileagePlus miles for future flights.

Other option(s): United MileagePlus Club Card (United Club access and additional perks but a $450 annual fee)

2. Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card

Southwest plane on ground Las Vegas 2 featured
Southwest is the primary carrier at Houston-Hobby, making its Premier Card a great option for residents of the city and its suburbs.

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months.
Earning rates: 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest purchases and Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases; 1 point per dollar everywhere else
Other benefits: 6,000 points after your cardmember anniversary; no foreign transaction fees; 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) for every $10,000 spent in a year (up to 15,000 TQPs per year)
Annual fee: $99

Analysis: Another great option for Houston-based travelers is the Rapid Rewards Premier Card. Southwest is the primary carrier from the city’s other airport (William P. Hobby Airport), with nonstop flights to 55 destinations. Houston-Hobby actually serves more international airports than any other Southwest city (10), including flights to Aruba and Belize. Of course, Southwest is also a terrific option for domestic travel, especially for those of you in the southern suburbs of Houston who may not want to journey out to Houston-Intercontinental.

There are many ways to redeem the 50,000-point sign-up bonus on the card, and the 6,000 points you’ll get when you renew the card cover most of annual fee, and are worth $90 based on TPG’s most recent valuations. In addition, every point you earn on the card (including the sign-up bonus) counts toward the Companion Pass, one of the most lucrative perks in the frequent flyer world. This card can put you well on your way toward earning the pass, and if you time it right, you can wind up with a pass valid for almost two years.

Other option(s): Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Card (same sign-up bonus and lower annual fee, but no TQPs and smaller anniversary bonus)

3. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

chase sapphire preferred featured
If you want some added flexibility with your redemptions, consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. That’s $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Plus, earn an additional 5,000 points after you add an authorized user and they make a purchase in the first three months.
Earning rates: 2x points on travel and dining at restaurants and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide
Other benefits: $0 in foreign transaction fees; primary car rental insurance
Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95

Analysis: If you happen to be both a Houston resident and a commitment-phobe (when it comes to airlines at least), the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is a terrific option. Ultimate Rewards points are among the most valuable out there, due in large part to the valuable transfer partners. This includes both United and Southwest, the two airlines with the largest presence in Houston. You also have the option of transferring the points to Singapore’s KrisFlyer program, and you can fly to Moscow and then on to Singapore from Houston-IAH, ideally in one of the carrier’s fantastic premium classes. That’s also to say nothing of the valuable hotel partners as well; my personal favorite is Hyatt Gold Passport.

In addition to these redemption options that are particularly appealing to Houston residents, the Sapphire Preferred offers one of the best all-around value propositions of any card out there. The travel bonus category is quite expansive and includes things like Uber and street parking, and I’ve even earned double points on purchases at bars without any food service whatsoever. I also use the card whenever I rent a car thanks to the primary car rental insurance that helps avoid high deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses in case of loss or theft. Just keep in mind the application restrictions that Chase recently started imposing on Ultimate Rewards-earning cards when planning out your applications.

Other option(s): Ink Plus Business Card (higher sign-up bonus and 5x bonus categories, but the 2x category only applies to gas stations and hotel accommodations)

4. The Platinum Card from American Express

houston centurion lounge amex featured
The newest Centurion Lounge is in Houston, making the Platinum Card a solid option.

Sign-up bonus: 40,000 Membership Rewards points after you use your new card to make $3,000 in purchases in your first three months (be sure to check the CardMatch Tool and alternate browsers to see if you get a targeted offer of 60,000 or 100,000 points).
Earning rates: 1 point per dollar spent
Other benefits: $200 airline fee credit; airport lounge access; no foreign transaction fees; Global Entry fee credit; automatic SPG and Hilton Gold status
Annual fee: $450

Analysis: A final option for Houston residents is the Amex Platinum card. While this premium credit card does carry a $450 annual fee, you’ll enjoy a variety of valuable perks. One of the best for Houston-based travelers is access to American Express Centurion Lounges given the newest location in Houston-IAH that just opened in June. This is in addition to locations in Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Las Vegas McCarran (LAS), New York-LaGuardia (LGA), Miami (MIA), Seattle-Tacoma (SEA) and San Francisco (SFO). You’ll also enjoy access to Priority Pass lounges, giving you another two options when traveling out of Terminal D in Houston-IAH.

The points you earn on the card are also quite valuable, as you can transfer Membership Rewards points to one of 17 airline partners to then redeem your points, and many offer nonstop flights from Houston. Since you have an array of international flights from both Houston area airports, you can hopefully put the $100 Global Entry credit to good use, and it should also be easy to get the $200 fee credit each year.

Other option(s): American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card (3x points on airfare but few added travel perks)

Bottom Line

There are a number of factors that should help you decide which credits cards to carry in your wallet, and where you live can be a big part of this analysis. Houston-based travelers will likely lean toward United or Southwest options given the extensive services the two carriers offer, but as always, you should analyze your own spending patterns and redemption goals to identify the best card(s) for you. Hopefully this post has given you an idea of how geography can help guide that decision!

For the Houston-based TPG readers out there, what’s your favorite credit card for award travel?

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95 0% Excellent Credit