Travel Credit Cards – How to Save Thousands of Dollars and See the World

Posted By Jeremy in Planning

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I have always been suspect of the “travel hacking” movement.  That is, using credit cards and retailer bonuses as a way to boost airline reward miles.  But after much convincing from friends in the travel universe, I jumped on the bandwagon and was completely blown away with what I found.

To my surprise, the last few years have brought about many major changes to the way credit card promotions are handled, and we have found several great cards that will increase our frequent flyer miles into something amazing.  In fact, by using just one of these cards for each of us, we have increased our miles from 22,000 to a combined 135,000 in just one month; and that is just the beginning.  (Photo “Wallet” by lusi)

Chase United MileagePlus Explorer

Our leap into the world of credit card promotion came about suddenly when we received one of those spam  advertisements in the mail.  “Open a Chase Continental OnePass Credit Card – Get 50,000 Miles” it said.   We had to do a double take.  Normal credit card promotions are typically on the order of 20,000 to 30,000 miles, or about the number of miles for one domestic round-trip ticket.  50,000 miles would get two domestic round-trip tickets if booked at the right time, or even a round-trip international flight.  So we looked into the terms and conditions a bit more and found a few more perks and fees that we had to consider (accurate to the time of posting in March 2012):

  • $95 yearly fee (first year free) – Con
  • Card charges foreign transaction fees – Con 
  • Two lounge passes per year (worth ~$100) – Pro
  • Free checked bag – Pro
  • Double miles per dollar spent on United affiliated airlines – Pro 
  • 10,000 bonus miles on $25,000 spending in a calendar year – Pro, but not going to happen 
  • If you cancel, you will lose all of your miles on Continental – Con

With one of the only downsides being a yearly fee of $95, we both opened an account.  Within a few weeks we were already up 100,000 airline miles combined and even going as far as paying our monthly rent via credit card to boost the miles by an extra 1,000 per month plus other purchases.  Add in an international airfare purchase on United for two, and that is another 4,000 miles to our total for something we would have bought regardless.

Note: As of March 2012, Continental and United have merged to form one airline under the United brand.  Our card was listed as the “Continental OnePass” credit card, and is longer is offered. The United MileagePlus Explorer credit card; however, is virtually the same credit card except branded with the United name.  At the time of posting this article, the online sign up bonus for this card is listed as 40,000 miles with the same perks outlined above.

Capital One Venture Rewards Card

Capital One has always been our favorite credit card provider as they do not charge the pesky foreign transaction fees that travelers are normally faced with.  Their Venture Rewards platform is their attempt to get into the reward market for travelers and falls flat in our opinion with the exception of a certain yearly promotion that ran in 2011 and again in 2012 (currently running until May 1st, 2012 or when 1 billion miles have been redeemed). 

The Venture Rewards platform issues 1 “mile” for every dollar spent, much like the previously listed Chase credit card.  Unlike the previous card; however, these “miles” are not airline miles in the sense that they can be redeemed with a partnered airline.  In this instance, the use of “miles” can be interchanged with the word “points” like many other credit cards have.  Every 100 miles/points you have, you get $1 cash back on a travel purchase.  So if you were to spend $25,000 dollars, you would receive 25,000 points, and only be able to redeem that for $250 in travel purchases.  On the other hand, a 25,000 frequent flyer ticket could be worth $600 or more in airfare.  (Photo “Mock Credit Card” by highwing)

The current “Double Miles Challenge” promotion; however, makes the Capital One Venture Rewards card something that all travelers seeking a boost in their travel budget should consider.   This promotion only works if you had another travel credit card from the previous calendar year and earned a significant number of miles on it through spending.

The details of the promotion are to the extent of the following:

  • Those who are approved for a Capital One Venture Reward card submit their year-end miles balance from another credit card company.
  • Capital One will provide 2 “miles” for every $1 spent on that card in 2011 up to $50,000. 
  • These miles can then be redeemed for up to $1,000 in rewards on all travel purchases. Free Money!

To be eligible, you must be a new applicant to the Venture Rewards credit card line and must also spend $1,000 on your credit card within the first 90 days. 

We are not opening up a Venture Rewards credit card at this time as we did not earn airline miles last year to participate.  With any luck, this promotion will be back next year and we hope to participate and a significant amount in free travel money.

Chase Sapphire Rewards

Finally, a non-Capital One credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees!  It has been a long-time coming for a card like this to finally exist, and the Chase credit card has many of the pros of both the Continental One Pass card and the Capital One credit card rolled into one.  Unlike the previous two cards, you have the option of going with the “Preferred” card for more bonus miles and a yearly fee or the regular card with less bonus miles, less perks, and no annual fee.

The following is a breakdown of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card as of the time of posting this article (March 2012):

  • $95 yearly fee (first year free) – Con
  • No foreign transaction fees – Pro!
  • 1:1 point transfers to airline miles – Pro
  • 2 points per dollar on travel and dining – Pro
  • 50,000 bonus points for spending $3,000 in the first three months – Pro

For those who are not interested in opening an account with a yearly fee, the regular Chase Sapphire card is still pretty desirable (listing accurate to the time of posting in March 2012):

  • No yearly fee – Pro
  • Foreign transaction fees remain –  Con
  • 2 points per dollar on dining –  Pro
  • 25,000 bonus points for spending $3,000 in the first three months – Pro
  • Points must be used on Chase travel rewards site, without 1:1 transfer – Con

A special note should be made about the regular Chase Sapphire card in that the points system is much like that of the Capital One system.  In many instances these points systems will give good deals, but converting 1:1 to airline miles will always be a better value per point, especially if you are looking at traveling on some pretty obscure routes.

With these three credit cards, you would immediately obtain 100,000 bonus miles as well as 1-2 miles for every dollar spent in the future.  In addition, these cards offer many perks that are great for the seasoned traveler such as lounge tickets, checked bags, and more.   For those who are responsible with their credit cards and pay the balance off every month, a few small yearly fees could end up being big savings if you make all major purchases with your cards. 

For us, our quest for airline miles have only just begun.  With nearly 150,000 already acquired between the two of us, we’ll be looking at the next year to see just how many miles we can acquire and then figure out just how far we can make them go after that.   What will we do with them?  Who knows.  Business class to Europe?  Economy class to the South Pacific?  Both?  Stick around to find out!

Do you take part in travel hacking to obtain massive airline reward miles?  If so, tell us about it by commenting below!  

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Disclosure – This post was not a sponsored post, and we really are pursuing travel hacking through credit card deals and really did earn over 100,000 miles in one month just from the two of us opening a credit card.  We will not earn commission from you opening credit accounts with these companies and only recommend opening accounts if you are responsible with your credit cards and carry a zero balance.  In the next year (mid-2013) we will post an update on how our travel hacking went in full details and link to this post when live.

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  1. Awesome! Looking forward to checking it out. So far this year I’ve earned about 64,000 miles and my fiancee has earned about 53,000 miles from one card. Probably opening up another one in a few months so we’ll each be over 100,000 at that point. Goal is to at least 150,000 each by next year.

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  2. Jeremy, sorry I just saw your response to my comment. Thanks for linking to my post. I earned 300,000 miles last year through credit card bonuses alone and used 280,000 for two RTW tickets. I’m writing a post about how I did it and it will be up on the blog soon.

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  3. Hey Molly! That makes perfect sense on why you are doing that then. Somehow we are lucky in that most of our flights are with Continental/United or we at least have the option to use them amongst others. Unfortunately I have a company credit card so I cant charge miles to that, otherwise I’d be banking in way more miles every year. Oh well!

    For everyone else, I can confirm that Molly does not work for Chase. We went to college together. She’s legit.

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  4. Jeremy,
    It’s Molly again. I do not transfer my points over to an airline from the Chase Sapphire card mainly because out of Kansas City I use mostly Delta (lots of trips to NY and always seems to be the cheapest option going elsewhere). The card looks fantastic if you can transfer your points to United though. To redem my points, I just use their travel site, which is actually pretty good and similar to expedia (I sound like a commercial; I swear I don’t work for Chase). I’ve been recently looking up flights to Central America on the site and between Greece/Turkey, and they have major American and foreign carriers so I’m pretty happy with the card. Maybe you run into this at work, but sometimes I’m putting A LOT of expenses for work on a credit card so it’s pretty easy for me to get points. I wish there was a way to combine my Delta Skymiles AND Chase points cause I’ll be at over 25,000 miles by June with Delta.
    Good luck with getting to 300,000 miles/points! That seems such a high amount; it seems like I’m cashing mine in for domestic tickets fairly often.

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  5. Hi Lisa,

    If you are looking for fast miles, the United card is the one to go. I will be honest and say that I am not sure if you would be eligible based on the fact that you had a Continental branded card before. I had another Chase card before (non-airline) and was still eligible for the points. We were approved for our cards instantly and had our points transferred to our FF accounts in only 3 weeks or so. The points were applied after the first purchase. The other perk is the free lounge passes at many of the airport lounges. Although they are supposed to arrive within 6 weeks of your account opening, we have not received ours yet and they had to reissue them.. so we’re hoping we get them before our honeymoon in May!

    The Chase Sapphire card would be a good one to have because it is no foreign transaction fees, which would be good if you make credit card purchases while in Indonesia. The preferred account would get you double miles on the airfare, but you have to spend the $3,000 first before getting the miles posted to your account.

    Keep in mind that both of those cards will have a $95/year fee after the first year too. Although if you spend over ~$8,000/year on your card the fee balances out quickly when you redeem for a FF ticket.

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  6. Fantastic post, Jeremy. Truly useful! And I love the fact that it wasn’t sponsored. I know I can trust what you have to say (although I would anyway since I know you’re the real deal).

    Anyway, I do have a couple questions. I may be going to Indonesia in late May/early June. I’d love to score some serious points and get my flight for 1/2 price or something like that. Is it possible to pull this off that fast? It seems that you usually need to have the card for a certain amount of time before “cashing in.”

    And if it is possible, which card would you recommend to me? I currently have a MasterCard–with very basic rewards. I had the Continental card (non-business and now part of United) for a while. Not sure if I could get that again.


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  7. Hey Molly! I totally missed your follow-up comment. Are you changing your miles in for 1:1 airline miles or using them on the Chase travel site? We’re shooting to have about 300,000+ miles between the two of us by next year.

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  8. Travel hacking is the main reason we are on our round-the-world trip right now. We also signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card for the no foreign transaction fees right before we left. There is a post on our blog about which credit and debit cards we chose to travel with. Keep earning those miles!

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  9. Haha, Jeremy, this is Molly from UD. Sorry to post under Anonymous. I have the preferred account, but the $95 fee was waived for the 1st year. The 50,000 miles is actually $650 worth of airfare, which is amazing! And the airfare can be used on every major airline (at least that I’m aware of) except Southwest. Also, having no transaction fees should be great for my 2 upcoming international trips! Good luck travel hacking.

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  10. Hi Anonymous – Thanks for sharing your input on the Chase Sapphire card. Do you have the Preferred account or the regular? I’m looking at the preferred one for the miles bonus and the free foreign transaction fees. For that $95 is a small price to pay, especially for a 50,000 mile boost.

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  11. I have a Chase Sapphire, and I actually really like it. I already used our initial points to buy 3 domestic RT tickets with just one card. Also, it’s actually more like 1.2 miles per dollar because when you book your flight, they give you a 20% “bonus.” Essentially, a $250 flight costs 20,000 worth of points…so nice, but maybe I’ll ditch it next year and continue to travel hack.

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