This article is part of the multi-part MTH (“Make Travel Happen”) series designed to provide beginners with all the information needed to reach their travel goals.
I think the best way to choose a rewards credit card is to choose one based on the region(s) you plan to visit. The reason is that you can begin to formulate a “game plan” to pick a credit card that will allow you to transfer points or use miles in a way that ensures maximum efficiency. In other words, you’ll be able to stand a better of chance of getting to your destination with using the fewest amount of points as possible.
I’ll show you how this would work in a hypothetical example where you want to travel from Houston to Europe. In the example, I’m going to assume the traveler knows they want to go to Europe but doesn’t know the exact destination within Europe, since many beginners will likely find themselves in a similar situation.
The steps of the game plan below can be used for just about anybody regardless of where they’d like to travel. Keep in mind that this article is still a simplification of the process and there will inevitably be factors not discussed herein that might come into play when you’re ready to apply, so use these steps for general guidance.
What class do you intend on flying in?
You don’t have to know what specific class you’re planning on flying in before applying for any credit cards but knowing which kind of fare you plan on redeeming will allow you to see exactly how many miles or points will be needed to get to your destination.
This can be important because often times business class can be double the amount of miles needed for economy. For example, United requires 60,000 miles for a round trip to Europe in economy but 115,000 for round trip in business class. That could be the difference between obtaining one or two (or even three) credit card sign-up bonuses, so it’s good to have a general idea of how you plan on flying.
So for the sake of our example, let’s assume you decide to fly economy.
Find the sweet spots to your destination
The next thing you want to do is find the “sweet spots” for getting to your destination. For Europe, you’d google something like “best ways to use points to get to Europe” and find an article detailing how to best use your points to get to there.
For example, here’s an article I authored on the best ways to get to Europe on miles and points. It breaks down different sweet spots with different airlines and discusses using miles to book on partner airlines.
Here are some of the airlines mentioned for good deals to Europe:
- British Airways Avios: 25,000 to 50,000
- American Airlines: 45,000 to 60,000
- ANA: 55,000
- Flying Blue: 50,000
- Korean Air: 50,000
- Singapore Airlines: 34,000 (from IAH/East Coast to western Europe and with online 15% discount); 55,000 with partner airlines
- United: 60,000
For the sake of making this example easier to understand, let’s say you’re interested in going with Flying Blue or Singapore Airlines.
Now that you’ve narrowed down the airline programs you’d like to transfer to based on sweet spots to your destination, you need to look up the alliance partners for Flying Blue and Singapore Airlines. You’ll find that Flying Blue is a part of the SkyTeam Alliance and Singapore Airlines is part of the Star Alliance .
These alliance relationships create tons of additional options for getting to your destination. This is important because it opens up many more possible routes for your trip, but also can save you a lot of money and make your planning much easier (as you’ll see below).
It’s an added bonus if one of the alliance partners has a hub near you since you’ll have more available routes, including non-stops. For example, in this case Singapore Airlines’ Star Alliance partner United has a hub in Houston, so you’d definitely be interested in using Singapore miles to book on United.
Now that you have a couple of options to consider transferring to and familiarity with their alliance partners, you want to check to see what the surcharges and availability might be look like.
Some airlines impose heavy fuel surcharges when you book award tickets. One infamous example is when flying British Airways to London — those surcharges can be very high. Since the goal of MTH is to travel for next-to-nothing, you want to avoid fuel surcharges.
If you check on the surcharges for Flying Blue and Singapore Airlines, you’ll notice that sometimes they can be quite high. For example, with Flying Blue you might pay $225 in total fees for economy bookings from New York to Paris. Fuel surcharges with Singapore Airlines can sometimes be high as well, depending on the route.
So what’s the solution to getting around these high fees? Look into booking with alliance partners.
If you use your Singapore Airlines miles to book a flight with Star Alliance partner United, you should not have to pay fuel surcharges and if you use your Flying Blue miles to book a flight with SkyTeam partner Delta you should have to pay much less in fuel surcharges.
To find out what the surcharges will be simply go through the booking process online for an award flight and you will often be shown what to expect in fees, which will include fuel surcharges. (Some programs will not allow you to see this for partner bookings and you may have to call in to get an estimate.) If that doesn’t work, a little online research will likely yield articles detailing surcharges.
As you search different regions to fly and discover their sweet spots you should almost always be able to find ways to minimize fuel surcharges through alliance partners so that you can fly without having to fork over a few hundred dollars for your award flight.
Next, you need to verify that those airlines have decent award availability.
When you don’t know exactly where you’re going (e.g., which city) to go this can be a bit tricky but I recommend searching for routes between a number of potential destination cities and the airport you’ll likely be heading out of to see what kind availability you’ll have. So since we’re going with the Houston to Europe example, you might search for the following flights.
- IAH to CDG (Paris)
- IAH to MAD (Madrid)
- IAH to FCO (Rome)
In this case, you might find that Singapore Airlines often requires you to be waitlisted in order to book an award (and that there aren’t any flights that go from IAH to CDG, MAD, etc.). But again since you’ve decided to potentially go with alliance partners like United, you’d be able to search for award flights with United that you’ll use Singapore Airlines miles on.
Since you haven’t even applied for a card yet you shouldn’t be trying to find specific flights that you’re committed to booking with your miles because those will probably be gone by the time your miles hit your account in a month or two. The idea is to scan a couple of months to see what the availability looks like generally for that route.
And you don’t want to just scan for any availability, you need to scan for the types of awards that you can book through alliance partners. For example, you can only book Saver Awards with Singapore Airlines and so you would only be concerned with finding Saver Awards.
In the image below, you can see plenty of Saver Award availability from IAH to CDG. That means that you should feel good about your chances of finding availability when it comes time book.
Finding the right credit card
So now, you’re okay with using Singapore Airlines and/or Flying Blue to get you to Europe. You’ve just got to find the right credit card to make it happen. This is actually the easy part.
First, simply find which programs transfer to the airlines that you’re trying to book with.
For Singapore Airlines you’ve got:
- Citi ThankYou Points
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- American Express Membership Rewards
- SPG Starpoints
For Flying Blue you’ve also got:
- Citi ThankYou Points
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- American Express Membership Rewards
- SPG Starpoints
Thus, it’s an easy call. No matter what transfer program you choose, you’ll be able to transfer your points to Flying Blue or Singapore Airlines. Note: this is rare, most partners will not be available with every major program.
The “problem” is now you have a ton of different cards to choose from. To narrow down your chances, you’d want to consider a few things. Ideally, you’d get a card that will:
- 1) Cover the miles needed for your trip with a great sign-up bonus
- 2) Allow you to earn bonus points on categories that you will you likely be spending most of your money
- 3) Offer good benefits
- 4) Won’t screw you out of opportunities to get valuable cards later on.
1) Cover the miles needed for your trip
Since you’d be booking this trip with 50K to 55K points, you’d need a card with a sign-up bonus of at least 50,000. There could be a number of options but here are three of the premier cards from the “big three” banks that would have you covered for at least 50,000 points/miles for your trip.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card (Incognito offer)
- Citi Prestige (high annual fee of $450)
Let’s assume you’re not interested in getting a high annual fee card right now like the Citi Prestige. So that narrows down your list to two. (Of course, you can always plan on doing some additional spending to meet your points requirement, but if you are going to be a few thousand points short, make sure you factor in the additional waiting time for those points coming from spending to hit.)
2) Bonus earning potential
The next thing you’ll be concerned about is getting a card with bonus earning potential that will benefit you the most. I’ll have a lot to say about this in a later article but the key is to find the card that your specific spending habits will be best suited for.
Here’s a look at the bonus earning potential for the cards just mentioned.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
- 2X on Travel (include airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, campgrounds, car rental agencies, cruise lines, and a lot more)
- 2X on Dining
Premier Rewards Gold Card
- 3X on Airline Tickets
- 2X on Dining, Groceries, and Gas
Let’s say most of your expenses are on travel, gas, and dining. With that in mind, you might not be able to differentiate between the cards. For the sake of this example, let’s just say that you’re not able to narrow down the card you want to just one.
Note: If you’re planning on eventually obtaining multiple rewards credit cards, then getting the card that will maximize your bonus earning potential right off the bat isn’t as important. For example, let’s say the Premier Rewards Gold Card offers you more earning potential than the Sapphire Preferred but you can’t get the 50K Membership Rewards offer to show up for you. In that case, it might be worth it to go after the Sapphire Preferred for its 50K sign-up bonus and then wait around for the 50K Membership Rewards offer to eventually show up for you.
In an effort to keep this article short, I’m not going to get into an actual comparison between the benefits of the two cards. The point here is that before deciding between two cards that offer similar sign-up offers and similar bonus earning potential, you should consider the (often overlooked) benefits offered by the card. For example, many people might choose the Sapphire Preferred over the Premier Rewards Gold Card because of the primary car rental insurance offered by the Sapphire Preferred.
If you’re interested in comparing the two cards then you should read my Chase Sapphire Preferred vs the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card article. For other cards, I recommend researching a few comparison articles because they really help highlight the key differences between the cards.
4) Credit card rules
The final factor you’ll want to consider are the credit rules.
If you’re a beginner you probably don’t have to worry too much about rules like the Chase 30 Day Rule, the Citi 8/65 Rule, or American Express application rules. However, there’s one rule that is vital to be aware of when beginning: The Chase 5/24 Rule.
This rule does not allow you to be approved for a number of Chase cards (including the Sapphire Preferred) if you have opened up 5 or more accounts within the past 24 months — there is very little wiggle room around this rule. Thus, this rule makes it important to go after Chase cards before you start racking up applications with other banks.
In this example, I think the 5/24 Rule should persuade many people to go with Sapphire Preferred first and look into other cards issued by Chase. The other cards from American Express and Citi will still be there but your opportunity to get on board with Chase may not always be there.
So, finally, after going through all of those factors, you’d be able to choose to apply for the Sapphire Preferred knowing that you’re making a well-informed decision and that you’ll have multiple airlines to transfer to for your trip to Europe.
So to recap, here are the steps you’d take for finding your card based on your desired trip destination:
- Determine desired class
- Find “sweet spots” for destination and alliance partners for those airlines
- Determine fees and availability for airline programs you’re interested in and find out booking possibilities with alliance partners to get around fees/lack of availability if needed.
- Find credit cards that will earn points for those airlines
- Narrow down cards based on size of sign-up bonus, bonus earning potential/benefits, and credit card application rules
After you go through those steps, you’d have considered enough factors to make a smart and informed decision regarding which credit card to apply for. If you applied for the Sapphire Preferred and met the requirements for the sign-up bonus and added an authorized user, you’d have over 55,000 Ultimate Rewards and be able to transfer those out to Singapore Airlines Krisflyer or Flying Blue and book your roundtrip to Europe!
Keep in mind that these are general steps that can be used to find the right card for just about any destination. Also, some people may value certain benefits and point earning potential in different ways and may come to different conclusions because of that. The main point for this approach is to make sure that you obtain a sign-up bonus that will work for your specific travel plans and allow you to redeem your points with maximum efficiency in the sweet spots.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.