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With hundreds of rewards credit cards available, how do you know where to even begin to start in the travel rewards game? Here’s a look at which rewards credit card to get first, and why it makes sense as a logical first step to travel more of the world for less…
Some people reading this have likely been in the miles, points, and credit card rewards game for longer than I’ve been a parent or have been running this site. However, there are also people brand new to this way of traveling for less that still make their way here every single day. I have conversations with people out in the ‘real world’ who are still paying for their everyday purchases with checks, cash, debit cards, or credit cards that earn them virtually nothing in return several times a week. This post is not for the miles and points ‘old timers’, but for those who are just finding their way here…or maybe for the friends of the ‘old timers’, just in case you need a little help getting a loved one to explore a new way of travel.
Travel and credit cards don’t have to be expensive or scary
If you think travel is expensive and credit cards are for suckers who like to waste money on paying interest to banks, you are right from a certain perspective. But, more often than not for those who have unlocked this way of living, you are also very wrong. That’s okay though, many of us started from somewhere near that perspective.
My family has been able to travel the world, often by staying in nice resorts and sometimes even flying in first class, not because we won the lottery or roll around in tons of money, but because we have figured out how to earn and maximize airline miles, hotel points, and credit card rewards.
We can get 50,000 to over 100,000 miles or points simply by obtaining a new rewards credit card and meeting the minimum spending requirements. Do that two or three times a year, and perhaps have your partner do the same, and you can easily earn around half a million miles and points just from those actions alone.
Miles and points can unlock the world for (much) less
You can do a lot of travel when you have that many miles or points at your disposal. To give some recent examples, we just stayed at the beautiful Andaz Costa Rica Resort for 15,000 Hyatt points per night. This morning I wrote about how to fly to Hawaii and back for a little over 25,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points if you have the Sapphire Reserve Card. A few weeks ago we booked round trip business class tickets to Europe for 88,000 points each. Last week my parents booked Spirit Airlines tickets to Las Vegas for 2,500 miles each direction, just as they have done so many times in the past. Next month, Josh and I are staying at a world-renowned wellness spa that sells for $1,000 per night for nothing out of pocket.
I could go on, and on, and on, but you hopefully get the idea. I’m not special in what we are able to put together using our miles and points. In fact, by some measuring sticks, we are pretty conservative with what we do. The majority of those miles and points were not earned from travel but from our rewards-earning credit cards. We charge absolutely everything possible to our credit cards and then typically pay off the balance every month. Often, we are earning 2, 3, or even 5 points per dollar charged by utilizing various bonus categories on our cards. By using our cards instead of cash, we earn points, have some built-in purchase protections, and are not racking up piles of debt or interest charges since we pay the bills each month.
This sounds too good to be true at first, but even my super financially conservative parents have baby-stepped their way into this world of rewards credit cards over the last few years and now they travel more than they ever dreamed possible. For the record, they still pay off their balances every month, too.
If all of this sounds interesting, you may be wondering where in the world to start. There are, quite literally, hundreds of rewards credit cards available and dozens that can be very good choices for those who like to travel.
The best rewards credit card to get first
Which rewards credit card you should get first depends on a number of things such as your travel goals, your preferred hotels and airlines (if any), how much you spend each month, what categories of spending are the heaviest for you, and whether or not you want to invest some time in learning at least a few basics about airline award charts.
In other words, there is no one best first rewards credit card for every single person. I’m more than happy to chat about your specific situation, if that will be helpful, or here is a slightly more in-depth beginner’s guide.
All that said, sometimes people just want a simple answer to the seemingly simple question of which rewards credit card should be obtained first. In my experience, the most common answer to that question these days is the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is not the newest or flashiest card on this scene, but it remains a rewards credit card work-horse for many families. There are a few versions of the welcome bonus out there, but a standard offer online is for 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months. With that version of the offer, there is an introductory $0 annual fee the first year and then $95 in subsequent years.
The Sapphire Preferred earns 2x Ultimate Reward points per dollar charged on travel and dining, 1x elsewhere. In the travel category, this includes not only 2x points at airlines and hotels, but also on train tickets, cabs, and more. In the dining department, you can earn 2x points per dollar at nice restaurants, fast food joints, coffee shops, bars, and more. The points earned by this card can then be used in two primary ways. First, you can use them at a value of 1.25 cents each towards travel booked through Chase. This means that your 50,000 welcome bonus points are worth $625 in travel if used in that straightforward manner.
Why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a family favorite of mine
However, what makes the Sapphire Preferred a favorite of mine, is that you can also transfer the points at a 1:1 ratio to several different popular airline and hotel loyalty programs. When you do this, you can utilize the various loyalty programs awards charts to book awards rather than at a fixed 1.25 cents per point if you book through Chase.
The Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners include:
- United MileagePlus
- Southwest Rapid Rewards
- World of Hyatt
- Marriott Rewards
- Ritz Carlton Rewards
- IHG Rewards
- British Airways Executive Club
- Aer Lingus AerClub
- Iberia Plus
- Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
- Air France Flying Blue
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
- Korean Air SkyPass
Some of these programs are extremely simple to use, such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards program, and others require a little more research to truly maximize. Still, having the option to use your points at a fixed value to book travel through Chase and having the option to transfer them to more than a dozen different programs makes this card a perfect match for beginnings and ‘old timers’ alike.
Why the Sapphire Preferred card should come first
A specific reason that the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a card I recommend to get first is because with Chase you can only get approved for some of their cards, such as this one, if you have four or fewer credit card approvals in the last 24 months. This is commonly referred to as the Chase 5/24 rule in miles and points circles as having five or more new credit card accounts in the last 24 months across all banks will be an automatic decline for many Chase cards.
It is worth a mention that you can only get approved for the Sapphire Preferred Card if you do not already have any other Sapphire card. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is another similar and very popular rewards credit card that I personally enjoy. You can only have either the Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve, but not both. If you think you are going to deep-dive into the world of miles, points, and travel then the Reserve may be the better choice. However, for those brand new to the hobby, I think the $450 annual fee that comes with the Reserve may be too large of a turn-off, even though the math truly does make it worth it when you factor in the $300 annual travel credit, lounge access, 3x points earning potential, and more.
Again, there is no one best ‘first’ rewards credit card for every single person and every single situation, but if you have good credit and want to use your points to travel near and far, then the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is probably a solid place to start.
Do you remember your first rewards credit card? Which credit card do you recommend to your friends just getting started in the world of miles and points?
With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game. Here are the top 5 reasons it should be in your wallet, or read our definitive review for more details.
- 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®
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® named a 'Best Travel Credit Card' by MONEY® Magazine, 2016-2017
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- 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