Last Updated on April 21, 2021 by Jeremy
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When we tell people we travel the world for free (well, mostly for free), they often look at is with a bit of incredulity.
Those who know us instantly assume it is because of this travel blog and that we bounce around from press trip to press trip. But we often shock them when we say that is not our scene and we go on few, if any, hosted trips. In fact, when we travel we don't even pitch brands to work with.
It is something that we never enjoyed doing, so we don't do it.
Our travels are instead primarily paid through points which we acquire in a mix of Angie's travels for her day job and travel rewards credit cards.
In the past we've published a detailed travel hacking guide to how we've acquire nearly a million points in any given year (link above- highly recommended to read in tandem with this article). But today we want to dive down deep into the cards that we have in order to make this happen.
All cards featured herein are cards we personally have in our wallets right now (both of us in most cases- double the rewards!), and we will do our best to update this guide as we open or close cards in the future.
A Few Upfront Disclaimers
Before getting into it, a few disclaimers are necessary.
We were not requested to publish this article in any capacity. Some links within this post do contain referral codes, however. If you sign-up for a credit card via our links we may receive additional points into our accounts.
In addition, please note that sign-up perks, requirements, and fees are based on the offering at the time of publication and are prone to change without notice. We will update this post from time to time to reflect any changes, but we cannot guarantee that what you see below will be what is available when you click.
Finally, please review all T&Cs before signing up for a card. If you spot a discrepancy from anything posted below, please contact us and we will update this post accordingly.
Alright, now that those are out of the way lets get to the cards that we currently use to gather up points to travel with!
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Sign-Up Bonus: Generally 50,000 points after spending $4,000 in 3 months
Other Perks: $300 in annual travel credit, 3x points on travel and dining, 50% bonus redemption on Chase's portal, Global Entry credit, Priority Pass Select lounge access, specials with car rentals, points transfer to major hotel and airline alliances (we do United), and more.
Annual Fee: $550 annual fee
We signed up for this card right before a planned points devaluation when you could still get 100,000 points on the same minimum spend (plus a $450 annual fee at the time). While the reward offering of 50,000 points is far less than what was previously available, it does get you well on your way to a round trip ticket to Europe which is nothing to scoff at (especially so if most of that $4,000 spending is on travel and dining for the 3x multiplier).
Factor in all the bonus earnings on travel and dining, plus other credits and perks, and the sign-up fee practically pays itself off in the first year if you travel a few times.
Pay for a vacation to Europe and get your next Europe flight for free? I'll take that return.
Will we keep the card? While the perks for this card pay for the vast majority of the fee every year (and the 3x points on travel and dining adds up fast if you spend like we do), we may not hold onto this one long-term as it still requires a hefty out-of-pocket cost all the same- especially now that it is $550 per year.
We are holding for now for a few simple reasons- the travel spending we do have right now is timed well with the annual fee (so its mostly shifting money around vs a big out-of-pocket expense) and we really like the 3x points on dining since we eat out multiple times a week.
Chase United MileagePlus Explorer
Sign-Up Bonus: 40,000 points after spending $2,000 in 3 months
Other Perks: Free checked bag on United, Priority Boarding, Two United Club Passes a year, 2x miles on United per dollar spent.
Annual Fee: $95 annual fee, first year free.
This was our very first rewards credit card, and is one we've kept on hand for many years now purely because the free checked bags pays for itself in just a few flights and the lounge passes are an added bonus (not to mention our long history on this one helps our credit score).
The typical sign-up bonus when meeting minimum spending is 40,000 points and gets you 2/3 of the way to a round-trip ticket to Europe. Not bad for a $2,000 minimum spend! This one is a great middle-ground card for those who cannot hit the $4,000 minimum spending requirement like with the above Chase card but want a bit more than what free cards offer.
Will we keep the card? We have no intention of canceling this card as long as the lounge passes and checked bags are included. We fly with United often enough to make this one worth it even when factoring in that Angie is platinum and gets some of those perks automatically (I have no status, however, making this great for when I fly solo).
Admittedly, the spending bonus of 2x per dollar on United with this card vs 3x per dollar on travel with the Chase card above (that can then transfer to United at a 1:1 value) means we very rarely use this card for airfare purchases despite being United loyalists.
Thinking of grabbing this card? Click here to sign up for the Chase United card.
American Express Hilton Honors Ascend
Sign-Up Bonus: 75,000 Hilton points after spending $2,000 in 3 months and an additional 25,000 for another $1,000 in 6 months.
Other Perks: 12x on Hilton Purchases, 6x on restaurants, gas stations, and super markets, 3x on other purchases, complimentary gold status, weekend night certificate after $15,000 spending in a calendar year.
Annual Fee: $95 annual fee
We originally signed up for this card when it was under Citi Bank and the rewards were a bit different, and as of early 2018 the card was migrated to American Express with somewhat downgraded perks. That being said, this one is still a great deal for those who travel on Hilton often and can hit the $15,000 minimum spend for the weekend certificate every year.
The latter is not a great use of that amount of spending when you can hit the minimum spend for a few other cards like we do, but we really love the certificates when we both get them. We've used these certificates in tandem with the complimentary gold status to receive upgrades to a three room suite at the Hilton Dubai Jumeira, a luxury room at the Hilton Dubrovnik, and a mini suite at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica to name a few!
Our next trip involves a few beachfront Hilton properties in the Seychelles and we're looking forward to seeing if our luck will continue now that Angie has Diamond status through her work travels. Fingers crossed!
Will we keep the card? As we are Hilton loyalists in our personal travels odds are good we'll cancel this card and upgrade to the premium, $450 annual fee version in the near future (swapping with the Chase Sapphire Reserve as our premium card). That card offers 14x / 7x / 3x points respectively (an extra night on Angie's Hilton spending for work alone), Diamond status, 100,000 bonus points for spending $4,000 in 3 months (roughly two nights in a base room at most hotels), one weekend night certificate a year outright, and $250 in Hilton Resort statement credit.
As long as we stick with Hilton we'll come out ahead handily for that fee every single year.
Thinking of grabbing this card? Click here to sign up for the American Express Hilton card.
Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless
Sign-Up Bonus: 75,000 Marriott points after spending $3,000 in 3 months.
Other Perks: 6x per $1 spent at Marriott properties, 2x per $1 on other spending. Free night on anniversary up to 35,000 points. 15 night credit on account to higher status.
Annual Fee: $95 annual fee
On its own, I'd say that the Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card is only a decent hotel card. The anniversary night more or less covers the annual fee (and then some) and the 6x multiplier plus 15 night stay count towards status makes this a solid card for Marriott loyalists.
For me, I actually have this plus the business Marriott card on American Express which has very similar bonuses and perks as well. But why have two when they both have the same perks? Well, with Marriott cards you can double up the night credits to get closer to a higher status (as opposed to the Hilton cards which confer status outright).
With one card, the 15 night credit will get you automatic silver status, and with a second card an additional 15 nights will get you into gold (25 night threshold). From there, it is just 20 more nights to get to platinum status which is where some really fun perks come into play (think suite upgrades, lounge access, etc). 50 nights is a bit of a stretch for us, but 20 a year is doable and most certainly worth targeting to get that upgraded status.
Will we keep the card? My two Marriott cards are primarily used as a means to reach platinum status much quicker and then reaping the rewards of upgraded stays when we travel. As the free night certificates on both cards more or less cover the annual fee, we see no reason why we'd get rid of these cards any time soon.
Thinking of grabbing this card? Click here to sign up for the Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card.
A Few Notes About Opening Credit Cards
When it comes down to it, we love opening and using credit cards to help us out in accumulating a massive amount of points to travel the world for free (or close to it).
But we have to provide a word of caution in say that just because we can open several cards and keep them open, that does not mean it is the best course of action for everyone.
The reasons for this are simple, and boil down to the fact that we can simply afford the fees, can easily meet the minimum spending requirements, never pay interest, and even when factoring in all of that still come out ahead over simply paying for our trips outright.
We cannot tell you if that would be the same for your situation.
As such, if you are looking at opening credit cards for their sign up rewards we urge you to strongly look at your financial situation and see if it is practical.
If it isn't, many of the above companies offer free cards that have no annual fee but still provide some rewards upon opening or meeting a lower minimum spending limit (typically $1,000 to $2,000). We started with these and as our income and spending grew, we upgraded. As far as maintaining good credit, there is no shame in going slow.
About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.