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Which Sign-Up Bonuses Offer the Most Bang for Your Buck?

Aug. 05, 2015
10 min read
Which Sign-Up Bonuses Offer the Most Bang for Your Buck?
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Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele examines the welcome bonuses offered by a variety of airline, hotel and other rewards cards to see which ones offer the best return.

Sign-up bonuses are an important factor to consider when looking for a travel rewards credit card. While big spenders can easily afford to go after bonuses with high minimum spending requirements, most award travelers must be more selective. Missing out on a bonus is a costly mistake, so it pays to know exactly what level of spending your budget can accommodate, and choose your card(s) accordingly.

With that in mind, in this post I'll look at current welcome bonuses for popular travel rewards cards, and help you figure out which ones offer the most value per dollar spent.

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These cards all offer lucrative sign-up bonuses, but how do those bonus points and miles compare to the respective spending requirements?

Comparing Welcome Bonuses

I looked at card bonuses and spending requirements for a variety of travel rewards cards from the major card issuers, and sorted them by the type of rewards they earn (i.e., airline miles, hotel points, transferable points or bank rewards). Each of these cards has a bonus period of three months with the exception of the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Card from American Express, which gives cardholders six months to meet the minimum spending requirement.

I then calculated the total number of points or miles you would receive after reaching the threshold, taking into account the rewards earned from base spending, not bonus categories. Finally, I calculated the total value of the rewards earned based on TPG's latest valuations, and the value returned per dollar spent. I didn't include every single travel rewards card out there, but I covered a selection of popular cards within each category. Also, I didn't necessarily link to the most rewarding version of each card — several of these cards offer higher bonuses from time to time, but the method is easy to follow for whatever offer you're considering. Finally, to get a complete picture of the value you can expect from a card in the first year, you'll need to account for the annual fee (which may or may not be waived).

Here's what I found:

CardWelcome bonusMin. spendPointsValue/point (cents)Total valueValue/$
Airline miles
Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard75,000$7,50082,5001.7$1,403$0.19
Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard50,000$3,00053,0001.7$901$0.30
CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard50,000$3,00053,0001.7$901$0.30
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express30,000$1,00031,0001.2$372$0.37
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card50,000$2,00052,0001.3$676$0.34
United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card50,000$2,00052,0001.5$780$0.39
British Airways Visa Signature Card50,000$3,00053,0001.6$848$0.28
Hotel Points
Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card85,000$2,50097,5000.4$390$0.16
IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card60,000$1,00061,0000.7$427$0.43
Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card 75,000$2,00079,0000.5$395$0.20
Hilton Honors Surpass Card from American Express60,000$3,00069,0000.5$345$0.12
Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card80,000$3,00083,0000.7$581$0.19
Wyndham Rewards Visa Card45,000$1,00047,0001.2$564$0.56
Transferable Points
The Platinum Card from American Express40,000$3,00043,0002.0$860$0.29
American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card25,000$2,00027,0002.0$540$0.27
The Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card15,000$1,00016,0002.0$320$0.32
The Amex EveryDay Credit Card10,000$1,00011,0002.0$220$0.22
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card40,000$4,00044,0002.1$924$0.23
Ink Plus Business Card50,000$5,00055,0002.1$1,155$0.23
Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express25,000$3,00028,0002.4$672$0.22
Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express25,000$5,00030,0002.4$720$0.14
Citi Prestige Card40,000$4,00044,0001.6$848$0.28
Citi Premier® Card40,000$3,00043,0001.6$688$0.23
Bank Rewards
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard40,000$3,00046,0001.1$506$0.17
Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard20,000$1,00022,0001.1$242$0.24
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card40,000$3,00046,0001.0$460$0.15
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card20,000$1,00021,2501.0$213$0.21

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card and CitiBusiness Platinum card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

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The AAdvantage cards from Citi are a good place to start, since they illustrate how much the sign-up bonus and spending requirement affect the return. The 75,000-mile offer for the AAdvantage Executive card represents the largest bonus, but only yields 19 cents in value per dollar spent due to its lofty $7,500 minimum spending requirement. In contrast, the CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard offers 50,000 miles for just $3,000 in spending, which boils down to a whopping 53 cents in value per dollar spent. In addition, the $450 annual fee for the Executive card (which includes Admiral's Club lounge access) is quite pricey, while the other two cards waive the $95 annual fee for the first year.

Among hotel cards, the Wyndham Rewards Visa Card and IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card both deliver strong value of 56 and 43 cents per dollar spent, respectively. On the other hand, the Hilton, Marriott and Club Carlson cards each offer 20 or fewer cents in value per dollar spent, and aren't really competitive from this standpoint. That doesn't necessarily make them bad cards — for example, the Hilton Honors Surpass Card offers automatic gold status, which is perhaps the most valuable mid-tier hotel elite status out there.

When it comes to cards that offer transferable points, most seem to offer a return in the range of 20-30 cents per dollar spent. The furthest outlier is the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Card due to its higher $5,000 minimum spending requirement. However, that requirement is spread out over six months.

Finally, the entry-level options from Capital One and Barclaycard outperformed their higher-end counterparts thanks to lower $1,000 minimum spend requirements. While they only offer half as many bonus miles, (20,000 vs. 40,000), they only require you to spend one third as much. While there are plenty of cards that reward you with bonuses for high spending, a higher minimum requirement doesn't necessarily equate to a greater return per dollar spent.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Don't wait until the last minute to complete a minimum spending requirement. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Other Factors to Consider When Earning a card Bonus

Check the fine print for eligibility — Many credit card issuers have recently added restrictions on earning welcome bonuses, in particular if you have recently earned a bonus for the same product. For example, Amex will not offer a bonus to anyone who has ever had the same consumer card, ever. Thankfully, this Amex restriction does not apply to its business cards.

Note when the clock starts on minimum spending requirements — You typically have three months or 90 days to earn your welcome bonus by meeting a credit card's minimum spending requirement, and this period begins when your account is opened, which is usually when your application is approved. That occurs before your card is mailed, received, activated or used the first time, so in practice, you effectively have less than the full three months (or 90 days) to meet a card's minimum spending requirement.

Be careful as the deadline approaches — Since charges can take a few days to process, don't try to meet the minimum spending requirement at the last minute, as charges made before the end of the required time period may not post until afterwards. American Express even goes so far as to warn applicants that "purchases may fall outside of the 3 month period in some cases, such as a delay in merchants submitting transactions to us or if the purchase date differs from the date you made the transaction. (For example, if you buy goods online, the purchase date may be the date the goods are shipped)." It's no fun to miss a bonus because of a transaction that took too long to post, so finish your spending early.

What do you look for in a welcome bonus: maximum total value or maximum return per dollar spent?

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How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
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