Carrie makes fun of me because people often ask me, “what’s the best [fill in the blank]?”, and I give them an answer like, “whatever works for you”. My thing is that it often depends, but Carrie tells me “people are just asking your advice”.
So I want to be better at being helpful, and yet I still feel it depends. This is my compromise… I call it “For What?”
“What is the best [fill in the blank] for what?” I answer. If people like this, I could say “for what?” about best programs, redemptions, etc… But I won’t get ahead of myself.
“What’s the best credit card?” you ask. Well, the best credit card for what?
I’ll start from the beginning of possible questions.
Which card should I get next?
This is really what people mean, and it depends mainly on one thing are you a big spender or not?
Let me put it this way. If you can spend $50,000 in “spending categories” (i.e. grocery store, travel, etc…) then you would earn 50,000 more points a year if you could earn even one more point per dollar on spending. In other words, you can earn more just by having the right card in your wallet instead of thinking about the biggest bonus now.
So if you are a big spender… wait until you see the next section, “Best credit card for big spenders?”, and otherwise I’ll answer the question as though we’re not talking about big spending. And otherwise, I’m assuming that since you read this blog we’re talking international flights, but we’ll discuss a lot of options.
The best credit card for me, is the one with the biggest bonus.
In general I value miles and transferable bank points over hotel points. Specifically, the miles and points I value most are:
- Chase Ultimate Rewards Points
- AA Miles
- Alaska Miles
- United Miles
- American Express Membership Rewards Points
- Citi ThankYou Points
Many people are goal oriented when they give advice, which isn’t wrong, I just tend to think that I’ll get great use out of my points eventually unless it’s Delta Miles. Right? I’m going to use my United miles as best I can, and I’m going to use my AA miles as best I can. I’m going to play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses, so I don’t give a darn about “average values” or goals.
However, goals are important for a lot of people. For example, Southwest points or British Airways Avios might be of little to no value for a trip to Africa, but could be incredible for a trip to the Caribbean or domestically.
Get an idea by reading my “best uses” posts:
All that being said, I think about the biggest bonus at the time and I think about bonuses relative to their best offers.
It makes sense, if you buy something you pick the one of the best value. When you get a credit card, you might as well get the one with the best value.
Similarly, when shopping for something that regularly goes on sale, you wait until the sale. And there are many credit cards that go up and down in bonus, so see this page which has a list of best bonuses.
Typical big bonuses are:
- 50,000 AA miles
- 55,000 United miles
- And the Ink Plus will occasionally raise its bonus to 60k, but even 50k is a good deal.
Best Credit Cards for International Flights:
The miles I mentioned as being the best above, are included because I see them as the best for international flights. Specifically United miles and AA miles (except for flights on BA) don’t pass on any fuel surcharges. This is a huge saver for me, so I focus on those two primarily.
Alaska is another sweet spot because, like AA, it has a great award chart. And like United, it allows stopovers. If any of the following cards have big bonuses, strongly consider it:
- Cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points (and thus United miles)
- United card
- AA credit cards
For specific redemptions, see my Cheapest Miles To… series.
Best Credit Card for Big Spenders?
This is super important for those who spend a lot and could be earning as much as 5% on many of those purchases instead of 1%. This obviously is an “it depends” situation, as it depends on where you are spending the money.
Luckily, there is a great resource on Frequent Miler, the Best Category Bonus – Credit Card page.
Fantastic resource. That page will show you the best card for each category. Then run the math on how much more you’d be earning per dollar on a card with a good category bonus. Also, make sure you read his thoughts on the cards he has notes on. Not all of them are simple.
First card getting into Miles/Points?
I’d get a card that you can keep forever and thus doesn’t have an annual fee, or a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred that can be downgraded to a no annual fee version. I’m assuming your credit score is good, if not, then you need to start with a card without a bonus, or even a non-rewards card.
Either way I’d focus on downgradable cards or no annual fee cards. On my first go around
- The Chase Sapphire Preferred (when the bonus is 40,000 points or more (like always))
- Or [no annual fee] Chase Freedom (especially when bonus is 20,000 points or more) if your credit score isn’t great yet
- [no annual fee] Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card (especially because the bonus is at 75,000 points)
Best Credit Card for Domestic Flights?
The Southwest Companion Pass is the single best credit card benefit for domestic flyers. It is amazing, you earn 110,000 points between two cards and one person gets to fly with you for free, for up to two years. Incredible benefit and it applies to flights booked with your points. So when you book a flight for you using Southwest points, your companion gets the same ticket but only has to pay the taxes, which in the US is $5.60.
See my post, How To Time The Southwest Companion Pass Like A Pro.
If you live in a OneWorld hub though (NYC, Chicago, Miami, LA, Dallas, Philly, and Phoenix), you can book flights using British Airways Avios for as little as 4,500 Avios. For those people and for certain routes, this could be better than Southwest points.
Best Card for Free Hotel Stays?
I recently talked about Hotel Credit Card Annual Benefits, and some of that applies for nicer hotels.
The answer of course depends on where you want to go. But also it depends if you can use a low category hotel, or if you only can use, or only want to stay in the best hotels.
For the best hotels in the world:
I actually have a page on the T&L Top 500 Hotels Bookable With Points. But as I said in the annual benefits post, the Fairmont card and Hyatt card seem exceptional if you’re planning on staying in one of the nicest hotels in the world. Park Hyatt Sydney or Park Hyatt Maldives are both super expensive/nice hotels.
The Hilton Reserve card is great as it gives two free nights and earns 3 points per dollar everywhere. The catch is that it’s only good for weekends. If you can use two weekend free nights, it’s great. Best hotels include the Conrad Maldives and Hilton Bora Bora. Hilton has thousands of hotels so plenty of options.
For most free nights:
I decided to make a chart of the most number of free nights you’d get from each of the major cards that offer points instead of free nights.
|# of nights at Category 1||# of nights at Category 2||# of nights at Category 3||# of nights at Category 4|
|Hilton 75,000 points||15 – 18||7 – 8||3||2|
|Virgin Atlantic -> Hilton = ~135,000 points||27 – 33||13 – 16||6 – 7||4 – 5|
|Club Carlson 85,000 points||9||5||3||2|
|Marriott 80,000 points||10 – 12||8 – 10||5 – 6||4 – 5|
|Starwood 30,000 points||10 – 15||7 – 10||4 – 5||3|
|IHG 80,000 points||8||5||4||3|
Remember a few things.
- View the Hotel Complete Maps to see if you’d be able to use a category 1 hotel.
- A few cards offer 2 free nights:
- Hilton Reserve
- And there are 15 credit cards that earn Hilton points
Otherwise, it’s safe to say that Hilton is the best for really low Categories.
It’s slightly unfair to lump categories next to each other as if they have the same standards. Most Marriott hotels I want to stay in are higher or closer to the middle. And that’s true with most of them except with the others I can sometimes find sweet redemptions. But Club Carlson is probably the worst on the list for hotel quality over all.
I find Hilton, SPG, and IHG to be full of sweet spots in lower categories. Especially IHG. There are some steals on the list, and I’ve been to many of their low category hotels.
See my post Unbelievably Cheap Hotel Redemptions, then compare to this chart.
What’s the best travel credit card?
It depends. :-p