The number one way I stretch our travel budget is by leveraging points and miles I earn through credit card use. I’ve earned over $10,000 in free flights, hotels and more from my points and miles hobby, so we aren’t talking about chump change here!
If you are interested in traveling for free with points and miles, you might be a little overwhelmed when you start learning about all of your options. There are HUNDREDS of cards out there, and there is so much to learn about the differences among them.
So today I’m sharing my top five favorite cards for earning points and miles for free travel. I have personally held all of these cards and they stick out as offering the best rewards for the least amount of hassle!
While these are the cards that I’ve found work the best for my type of travel, so they may not work the best for everyone. These are the criteria I used for selecting my top cards:
- A sign-on bonus worth at least $500 in free travel
- No high annual fee (under $100)
- Realistic minimum spending requirement (about $1,000 per month for us)
I also have to mention that I don’t suggest using credit cards to earn points and miles unless you have a solid history of using credit responsibly. If it would be hard for you to control your spending with credit cards and you would be prone to carrying a balance on these cards, then this isn’t the right pursuit for you.
With no further ado, here is my short list of the best credit cards for earning free travel with points and miles, in no particular order!
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard
A great card for free travel with points and miles is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus Mastercard. Here’s what’s nice about this card:
- You earn $560 in travel statement credit after meeting the minimum spend
- The $3,000 minimum spend in three months is doable just by paying bills and buying groceries
- The $89 annual fee is waived the first year
- You earn a respectable 2X miles on ALL purchases with the card
I’ve had a version of this card in my wallet for years. I like that you can redeem your miles for any hotel stay, flight, or other qualified travel purchase over $100. You basically “erase” the travel expenses with miles up to 120 days after your purchase. This is a great card to help fund a Disney World trip, since you can use your miles to help pay for your hotel stay at a Disney resort.
If you decide at some point that you don’t want to pay the $89 annual fee, you can downgrade to the no-annual fee version of the card.
Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Visa
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Visa is an incredible card for earning free flights and one I’ve held for years. The 50,000 point bonus you earn for opening an account and meeting the minimum spending requirement is worth about $850 in airfare!
The minimum spend is $2,000 in three months, which is easy for us to meet just through our daily living. There is a $99 annual fee which is NOT waived the first year. However at each card anniversary you will get 6,000 points deposited into your Rapid Rewards account, which are worth more than the $99 fee. So if you are going to fly at all with Southwest, the annual fee pays for itself. You can read more about why I recommend the card in this post.
I’ve earned the coveted “Companion Pass” from Southwest by opening both this card and the business version of this card. You can find lots of solid advice on earning Companion Pass from Lynn at The Go To Travel Gal. I estimate that between both cards (and I’ve actually earned the bonus from the personal card twice) and the Companion Pass I’ve earned over $4,000 in free flights from Southwest.
It is important to note that Chase’s “5/24” rule applies to this card. This means that if you have opened five new credit cards in the past 24 months you will likely not be approved for this card, regardless of your credit score.
IHG Rewards Club Select Mastercard
The Chase IHG Rewards Club Mastercard has a nice sign-on bonus, but that’s not actually why I got the card in the first place. It was for the perk of one free night at any InterContinental Hotel Group hotel each year that you keep the card and pay the modest $49 annual fee.
We use our free night certificate to stay in an oceanfront room at the Holiday Inn Wrightsville Beach that costs $350 per night during the summer. It is a total bargain for $49!
The sign-on bonus usually hovers around 60,000 points, though I got the card years with an 80,000 point bonus that still comes around from time to time. You can easily get over $500 of value out of these points if you use them wisely. IHG Rewards Club is my favorite hotel loyalty program because of how generous they are with points and the quality of their properties around the globe.
Two other advantages of this card is that it is NOT currently affect by the Chase 5/24 rule and the minimum spend is a modest $1,000 in three months.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa and it’s big-spender cousin, Chase Sapphire Reserve, are common cards in frequent travelers’ wallets. That’s because they earn Chase Ultimate Rewards, which are desirable because of their high value and flexibility. You can read all about the Chase Ultimate Rewards Program in this post from NerdWallet.
The sign-on bonus for this card is a hefty 50,000 points, plus you’ll earn at least 4,000 points from meeting the $4,000 minimum spend. You can redeem these points for a $540 statement credit. Or you can take advantage of the 20% bonus when you book through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal and get $675 worth of free travel.
The downsides of this card are a higher-than-ideal minimum spending requirement of $4,000 in three months and an annual fee of $95 that doesn’t give you much in return. It also only earns 1% back on purchases other than travel, which earns 2% back. Both my husband and I have held this card for about a year then decided to downgrade to the standard Chase Sapphire card with no annual fee.
If you own a small business, you might consider the Chase Ink Business Preferred Card with an even better sign-on bonus of 80,000 points. Keep in mind that the 5/24 rule does apply to all of these Chase cards.
Capital One Venture
The Capital One Venture Card offers the least value in terms of a sign-up bonus, but it is still a solid card for earning free travel. When I opened mine a few years back there was a 50,000 mile bonus, but the current offer is for 40,000 miles. These miles plus what you earn from the minimum spend are worth $460 in statement credit for any travel purchase, making them flexible and easy to redeem.
The minimum spend for this card is $3,000 in three months and it has an annual fee of $59 that is waived the first year. You can downgrade to the no-annual fee version of the card if you decide you don’t want to keep it beyond a year.
Well, that wraps up my five favorites cards for free travel with points and miles. Do you have a favorite card? Please leave a comment below!