Credit Cards - Important Starting Info
Types of cards | My Favorite Cards
Chip and PIN cards | Credit Scores
Foreign Exchange Fees, and how to avoid them
Cautions | Cancelling a Card | Intro to My Pages
Specials for active duty military
Note: Whichever cards you decide upon, be sure to register them with an iDine program. You can read about these programs in the Dining section of my Other Programs I Like page.
Types of cards:
Most airlines offer Visa, MasterCard, or American Express credit cards that will give you miles for dollars charged to their card, typically 1 mile per dollar spent. Some points to miles programs (such as hotels and Amtrak) offer cards that give points per dollars spent, where those points are convertible to miles. Many banks offer cards which offer points or pseudo-miles which are not convertible to airline miles, but, if you accumulate enough of them within a restricted amount of time, can get you a free airline ticket. Almost all cards offer a free up-front bonus for first time use. Sometimes this bonus is quite generous.
Most of these cards charge annual fee, which I usually refuse to pay, unless they offer lots of miles for my doing so. However, they may be worth the investment, depending on the bonus for first use and how much you use the card. Often a mileage earning card is offered free of an annual fee for a year with an bonus for first use, and others are free of that fee always. I specialize in finding free offers.
Although I mention some offers for Canadians, probably the best resource for miles producing credit cards for Canadians is the Rewards Canada Bonus Mile Promotion Directory.
My Favorite Cards:
I distinguish between getting cards for the mega bonuses, and getting cards for actually using them. Below are my favorite cards for actual spending.
- Cards that offer 2% cash back on all purchases.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred (SM) Card. I won't pay the high annual fee for this card, but if I have it (first year fee waived), I would use it for foreign travel (no foreign currency transaction fee) and for the liberally defined travel purchases (2X Ultimate Rewards points). Points are transferable 1,000:1,000 to many airlines, including United, and to Amtrak points, or Hyatt, Priority Club, Ritz-Carlton, or Marriott hotel points. Chip and Signature technology.
- Ink Cash® Business Card. In addition to the nice up front bonuses, 5% cash back for on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year. 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year. You can probably stack the restaurant bonus with one from the Rewards Network programs.No foreign exchange fee. No annual fee. Note that office supply stores offer a large number of gift cards, including those from Amazon.com. Buying same gets you that 5% rebate. This is the best way to fund an Amazon account. Take a look next time you can get into a store to see what is there that is useful to you.
- Chase Ink Business PreferredSM credit card. In addition to the nice up front bonuses, 3X points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent in combined purchases at travel, shipping purchases, Internet, cable and phone services, advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines each account anniversary year, and 2X points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel each account anniversary year. No foreign transaction fees. I won't pay the annual fee for this one after I earn the mega bonus, but you might be able to get that fee waived by applying through your local branch office. Call to ask.
- The Capital One® Quicksilver®Cash Rewards Credit Card. A Visa card offering unlimited 1.5% cash back on everything, no annual fee, and no foreign transaction fee.
- InterContinental Hotels Group IHG® Rewards Club Mastercard. Every year you get a one night stay for the annual fee of $89. Such a deal, especially for rooms in pricey locations in places like Europe. There are Holiday Inns most anywhere in the world. Plus, you get Platinum Elite Status for as long as you hold the card. Platinum status provides free upgrades to the best available room upon arrival. This has been quite valuable to me for upgrading tiny European rooms into very nice suites.
- Of course, I obtain all credit cards that offer mega bonuses miles on my airlines of interest and do the minimum purchase required. But then for actual purchases I use the card I have that is best for those purchases. Sometimes that is the airline. Other times it is my 2% cash back card.
- When I am traveling, whatever card I have that does not add a rip-off charge for for foreign currency transactions and gives me points or miles useful to me. Info on that fee here.
Chip and PIN cards. Some automated gas pumps, toll roads, train kiosks, etc., in foreign countries require a Chip and PIN type credit card or cash only. Most U.S. credit cards are not issued in this manner. This flyertalk discussion provides full information on this, including listing of Chip and Signature and Chip and PIN cards on this google spreadsheet.
Opportunity Cost. Because you can always get 2% tax free cash back on a number of credit cards (I list seven of them here), there is always an opportunity cost to acquisition of miles via credit cards. For mega bonuses, this is usually trivial compared to the value of the miles, unless there is a large spending requirement, where it gets more interesting. For miles for purchases, I consider the cost too high unless I am purchasing in a special category offering more that 1 mile//$1 spent. But this varies on how you would spend the miles. See my article on the Value of Miles for help on this. Some examples:
- Up front miles bonuses:
- As of this writing, the standard Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card offers 40,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus earn an additional 20,000 after you spend $12,000 on purchases within your first year of account opening. It has a $69 annual fee, not waived the first year. Spending that $1,000 on a 2% cash back card would net you $20, Spending it on the SWA card nets you 41,000 points (remember the 1 point/$ spent). So those 41,000 points cost you $69 + $20 = $89, meaning 0.2225 cents/point. Probably well worthwhile for anyone who flies SWA. However, the additional 20,000 points cost $240, as that is what you would receive spending $12,000 on a 2% cash back card. Compare that to the dollar cost of a ticket you would buy from SWA. Be sure to include the value of the flight points you would receive for actually purchasing the tickets. Also compare to the 50,000 points bonus for spending $2,000, if it is still available.
- As of this writing, the United Airlines personal credit card offers 40,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Plus, an additional 25,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months from account opening. It has an annual fee $95, waived the first year. So the 42,000 miles costs $40, which is well worth it for anyone who flies on its metal or that of any of it's many partners. But the extra 25,000 miles cost $200. The decision is much closer here. Compare that to the dollar cost of a ticket you would buy from United or its partners. Be sure to include the value of the flight miles you would receive for actually purchasing the tickets. Also compare to the 50,000 points bonus for spending $3,000, if it is still available.
- Miles for spending:
- The standard offers give 1 mile or point per $1 spent. This means you would be paying 2 cents for each of those miles or points. For me, that is way too expensive. Others who would pay full price for a business or first class ticket, this might find this to be a good value. In my younger, poorer days I would simply fly cattle cattle class a day early and stay the extra day in a nice hotel to recover from the experience. Now I simply won't do an overnight trip on anything less than a flat bed seat, which I can almost always get for miles. But for bonus miles for purchases in special categories, the math gets interesting.
- Example I have the Chase Ink Business PreferredSM credit card. The initial bonus 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points well well worth the opportunity cost of $100. I convert the points to United Airlines miles, which has the most extensive access to most anywhere in the world on its flights and those of its partners. The standard 1 point/$1 is too little for the 2 cents I could receive on my 2% cash back card. But the 3 points/$1 spent in certain categories - 2/3 cent per point - is worthwhile to me. So I restrict my use of it to those types of purchases. Most of those purchases are automatic monthly charges. Easy.
- Another example: I have the American Express Gold card. I no longer list it, as it has become too expensive, but at the time it gave me a very good American Express Membership Rewards Points bonus for a small opportunity cost. Then it added special categories for 4X points for purchases. But I use these points only for conversion to Delta Airlines miles. With a few outstanding exceptions (like a recent business class flat bed seat ticket to Hanoi on China Air for 90,000 miles, or the recent last minute miles sales I tell you about on my What's New page), the Delta miles cost of award tickets are incredibly expensive (usually 200,000 miles or more for what I need). So I usually won't pay much of anything for them. This time I made those types of purchases only to get me to a multiple of 1,000 points, as those points convert to miles in multiples of 1,000. But others with different needs will disagree with me about this. Domestic cattle class ticket users living in a hub city like Atlanta, for example might find the 1/2 cent per mile to be a very good buy. You have to do the math.
Credit Scores. Acquiring credit cards does affect your credit rating, sometimes positively, and sometimes negatively. Here is some excellent information on the subject:
Foreign Exchange Fees,and how to avoid them
When making purchases outside of the U.S., a few U.S. mileage earning Visa and Mastercards will charge a fee of about at least 1%, up to 3%. The fees are for no reason except they think they can get away with it. It is just sneakily added into the conversion rate. Fortunately most cards now do not have that fee. But beware!
There is a very sneaky process some merchants will use to screw you with FOREX fees. It's called Dynamic Currency Conversion. The merchant will offer to charge you in U.S. dollars. They do this (it shows U.S.D on the form you sign), but then they convert this to local currency at an unfavorable rate (to you, but very favorable to the merchant), then your credit card company converts the local currency back to U.S. dollars, perhaps adding a FOREX fee. To avoid this scam, always insist that the charge be stated in local currency. Never sign a charge form stated in U.S. dollars when in a foreign country. Of course, you would be using a card that has no foreign purchase fee.
Oanda's FXConverter - 164 Currency Converter is my favorite online currency converter. Not only will it provide the interbank rate on the day of your departure (for comparison to bank conversion rates upon arrival), but it will also provide that rate for past dates so you can check the conversion rate your credit card gave you on the day they posted the charge. (Alas, it will not provide the rate for future dates...)
Cancelling a card:
- Bankrate.com has some excellent articles on how credit cards are not particularly altruistic. They describe how a bank might try to get more of your money than you expect. They are well worth reading.
- I am hearing that Citibank is sending something called a "yearly summary" to card holders and billing them $15 for it. Readers are complaining that they did not order and did not want this summary. They tell me the fee is reversed when complaint is made, but I suggest you tell Citibank up front that you don't want the summary.
- Some airline cards offer a discount on a purchase of a ticket. These discounts are usually worthless, because they apply only to fares higher than those you can get on the airline's web site or through a consolidator. Even the free companion tickets sometime offered are not worth much, for the same reason.
- Before acquiring a card, you might want to see if any opinions have been expressed on it on Epinion's page on credit cards.
If you are considering cancelling a card because you don't want to pay the annual fee that is about to become due, you may be able to reduce or avoid the fee, or get a worthwhile number of miles for paying it, or get some other good offer.
- Most miles and points programs will cancel all of your miles or points if you do not have activity on your account for a certain period of time (usually 1½ - 3 years), and the trend is that this time period is getting shorter. So, charge something on the card so that it will post on the last statement before you close the account, thus giving you activity on your miles or points account as late as possible.
- Before the fee is posted on the account, call customer service to see if you can wait until you see the fee on your bill before you decide to pay it. Most credit card companies will allow you to cancel the card and will refund the fee within 30 or so days of its posting. Find out that time limit. I call about 10 months after receiving the card, as sometimes I am offered a multiple miles/$1 spent for a month or so, just for keeping the card. Then I cancel it anyway.
- If you can wait for the fee to post, do so, and call to cancel just before your deadline. By that time miles for renewal may have been sent to your airline, and may not be retrieved if you cancel.
- Call the customer service number and tell them you do not want to pay the fee. They will send you to a special unit that will try to convince you to keep the card. Be politely insistent that you will not pay the fee. Wait for the offer you want - miles and/or no fee. Expect to be offered a not very useful free card that offers 1 mile per $2 spent. Refuse this, telling them that you can get a free card with 1 mile per $1 spent. (Be ready with the names of some. The Starwood card is always a good one to mention.) Your success will depend on how valuable a customer they think you are. Don't bluff. Be prepared to allow the card to be cancelled if you don't get what you want.
- For many cards, it is possible to cancel them, wait awhile, then get them again, with the up front bonus again.
Many credit card companies will waive the annual fee for active duty members of the military. Read this article from The Military Frequent Flyer. This implies that if you are first sure the annual fee will be waived, it could be quite lucrative to apply for the high annual fee cards with mega-bonuses and perks. I usually don't list these on this website (note its title), but a search on each issuers site would help you find them. Also, many of the bloggers push them, as they pay high commissions to them at no additional cost to you.
Intro to My Pages
First I list some credit card offers that are actually free of annual charges. Get any card that offers miles up front for just qualifying for it - there is no reason not to (unless you are concerned that it might affect your credit rating - see above). If they are free for only a specified period of time, just close the account just before that time is up, telling them you refuse to pay an annual fee. Do this by a telephone call to the customer service center for the card. You may be offered an extension of the free time, or you may be offered another free card that earns miles.
Then I then list some offers I have found that are not free, but, due to the up front bonus, may be a cheap way for you to buy miles, depending on how you value those miles. Quite often the annual fee is waived for the first year, so grab the bonus, then cancel before the fee comes due. This list is by no means complete. Please tell me about any other good deals you find. Some airlines offer both free and annual fee cards. I describe these in the annual fee section, with a link to that description in the free section. Many of the annual fee cards offer very good up front bonuses and waive the fee for the first year. These are one of my major sources of free miles. So look carefully at my Annual Fee Cards page.
Lastly, I will list dedicated bank travel credit cards. These programs earn points or pseudo-miles per dollar spent on the cards. Most have no other way of earning those points or miles, but a few allow transfer of points to miles, and are a really good deal. Some that do not transfer points to miles seem worth considering, anyway, but heed the cautions at the top of the section.