Updated on September 10, 2015
This is probably the question we get asked more than any other when people find out that we use credit cards and their bonuses to get points and miles. Well, I have an answer…it depends. When I am about to apply for a credit card, besides analyzing my credit and application history I ask 5 questions:
There is a method to this madness besides the fact that it is generally good to know where you want to go and when you want to got there.
1. Where do I want to go?
Each airline and their alliance have different strengths in terms of availability of flights and award price in different areas of the world.
For example: Let’s say you live in the USA and you want to fly to Africa. You have a bunch of American Airline miles so you are pretty excited. Then you look at the routes and realize that American Airlines has no direct flights from the USA to anywhere in Africa. Well that’s OK, American has all their OneWorld Alliance partner as we learned in one of our Getting Started posts and they also have other partners like Etihad that I can fly.
What we find though is because of routes and the routing rules that American Airlines has, you only have 2 options to get to Johannesburg, South Africa on 1 award (and this is one of the biggest airports on the continent). You could fly on Etihad or other airlines/routes but you would be charged as separate flights and it would cost more.
Therefore, to make this trip all on one award booking your 2 options are on British Airways from London or Qatar Airways from Doha (after getting to these cities from the US on the same award)…that’s it. There is nothing wrong with either of these routes, but these are also the cities you need to go through to get to almost anywhere in Africa. Due to this I wouldn’t try to get an AA credit card and load up on their miles for a trip to South Africa. You never know what award availability is going to be to these cities so I want the miles that gives me the most options (and a direct flight if possible). By contrast, without even including Delta Airline’s partner network (SkyTeam) you can get to several locations such as Dakar, Accra, Lagos and Johannesburg directly from the USA without making connections on any other continent.
Check the routing and rules of the airline to see if it is the best mile currency for your trip.
What about hotels? The same holds true for hotels. I want options. If I can get a points currency that has many hotels in the city I am going to or even better, many locations in ALL of the cities I am going to then I will have a much much better chance of getting a room. To check this out I usually use Award Mapper which is by far the easiest way to see the hotel density of different chains in an area.
Check Awardmapper.com to see how many hotels a certain chain has where you want to go and what the prices are.
2&3. When do I want to go and how far in the future is it?
This is important because flight award availability can be tough to come by close in or on weekends. As much value as miles can bring (60K or less miles can get you a round trip flight to Paris) sometimes they are just not the best option.
A friend of mine wanted to fly from Atlanta (ATL) to Charleston (CHS) a few weekends in the spring last year and wanted some suggestions on how she could save money with credit cards. Seems pretty easy right? Two US cities, not far apart, several months in advance, just get some airline miles and make it happen! Well, it’s not that simple.
I am willing to bet there might be 1 or 2 other people who would like to leave after work on a Friday in the spring and fly to Charleston for the weekend. You can count me as one of them! The only direct flight leaving ATL after work on Friday to CHS is Delta Airlines, and at the time she told me about the trips the saver awards were already gone for all of her weekends. (There are usually “standard awards” available on most flight but they are much much more expensive and you lose most of the value that you gained from using points.) Therefore, this is an example where a card like the Barclay Arrival Plus Card became very useful. This card gives you a 40K points bonus after spending $3,000 and unlike airline miles they can be used for any travel. Basically 1 point is 1 cent and you get 2 points per $1 spent. So, after she was done her spend to get the bonus she had $460 in travel money. This allowed her to buy the tickets for the weekends she needed and deduct this $460 directly from her credit card bill. (It’s really easy, you can even do it on their app…there will be a separate post on this card)
By contrast, that same friend wants to go from ATL to Dallas (DFW) this summer and it is a completely different story. Dallas is the main hub of American Airlines and therefore has plenty of flights as well as a lot of availability to other major cities. Therefore for this trip (for 2) I recommended getting the Citi American Airlines Platinum Credit Card that would give her a bonus of 50K miles and allow the BOTH of them to fly to DFW and back with miles to spare.
How far out you book and the location can be especially important when booking popular international areas during their peak season. So if you would like to go to Europe in the summer you better start looking for space WAY in advance. We ran into this problem when try to plan a trip for our brother this coming summer. We ended up booking him some great flights for this coming June, but it was NOT EASY and that was getting them in November.
So, as you can see where AND when can make a big difference in determining the card you may need.
4&5. How many people and what level of luxury?
If you have several people going on a trip and/or want to travel in a business or first class cabin this can also make a difference in which miles you would like to acquire from credit cards. First of all, some airlines don’t even let you use miles to book into First Class cabins. Delta Airlines does not have First Class on their own planes (only Business) and does not allow you to use their miles to book First Class cabins on their partners (just Business). That being said, the difference between First Class and Business is nothing I would plan my trip around. Secondly, the more people you try to book onto a flight the more difficult it is going to be, especially if you are trying to get into a premium cabins. However, as with anything else there are always airlines currencies that are the best.
CLICK TO ENLARGE
The image above is of a Delta Airlines Award search for a trip from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia for 5 people in Business class on Virgin Australia (Delta Partner). As you can see there is saver level awards available for ALL 5 people on four of the 7 days of this random week in September. If you tried to find this many seat in business or even economy on other airlines you would probably have a pretty hard time, but Virgin Australia, which can be booked with Delta miles has been releasing a lot of space on each flight. I could show you lots of other screen shots of trying to find 5 seats on other airlines, but just trust me, for the most part, unless you book as soon as it opens or 2 days before the flight, they can be really hard to come by on most airlines.
So as you can see, there is no easy answer to the question of which is the best travel credit card. It depends on each person’s future needs. Before applying for a credit card for a specific trip it is really important to read and understand which card will give you the best options to maximize your value.
What if I don’t have a trip in mind yet but just want to start collecting miles?
If you don’t have a specific trip in mind it is useful to start collecting flexible currency. There are several different flexible points you can collect but the major ones that I use are Ultimate Rewards (1), SPG (2) and Membership Rewards (3). Each of these currencies can be transferred into different airline or hotel currencies and is a great way to start collecting points but keeping flexibility to still figure out where you want to go.
I have all four of the cards listed above (actually two of #3 as I have a Gold and Platinum) and I find them all incredibly useful in giving me maximum flexibility when I travel and plan my trips. The Barclay Arrival card is different from the other three as we discussed above because it allows you to erased Travel charges off your statement. This gives you another layer of flexibility as it can be used for AirBnB stays, car rentals, any hotel expense, etc.
There you have it, there is not One Card to Rule Them All unfortunately, but through research and diversity you can set yourself up to maximize your travel experience and savings.
There is much much much more to learn about these cards. If people are interested, we will be talking about a few of them in future posts as well as discuss how we have used them in our travel. If there is a specific card here that you would like a post on let us know below.