When you’re first learning about all the ways you can travel nearly free, it can be a bit overwhelming. That’s why on Go to Travel Gal, I focus on the simplest ways to travel free.

I am personally easily overwhelmed by too much information and so I like to focus on the tactics that work the most quickly and easily! That’s what you’ll find in my travel credit card plan and order of recommended card applications.

Applying for travel credit cards is a big part of how to earn free travel, so it’s important to have a strategy of what to apply for when. If you’re researching ways to leverage credit cards to your advantage for free travel, you’ll read about every travel credit card under the sun. But where in the heck do you start? Go to Travel Gal to the rescue :)!

First, I want to give you a few things to keep in mind when putting together your plan and then I’m going to give you a step-by-step plan that you can choose to follow (or not :)).

Note: To apply for any credit cards in this post, please start at TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS in the main menu above. My blog depends on affiliate income and these links allow me to earn a commission — at NO COST TO YOU — to support the blog, so that I may continue to bring you great information — totally free. I sincerely appreciate you taking this step!

beginner travel credit cards

3 Things to Keep in Mind When Applying for Travel Credit Cards

  • Start with a Travel Goal – Your goal could be flying everyone to Hawaii (sign up for my FREE email course on how to do that here) or Costa Rica or a trip for two to Paris (yes, please!). For me, I think the Southwest Companion Pass is the easiest way to get lots of FREE travel (more than just 1 trip). So that might be your goal: Earn the Southwest Companion Pass, which nets you 110,000 points to spend on free travel on Southwest AND lets one person come along with you!
  • Know Chase’s Rules – Chase is the bank behind a lot of the best travel credit cards and they have STRICT rules. If any Chase cards are part of your plan, you’re going to want to plan around these rules. They include: No approvals for a card if you have opened 5 or more credit cards in the last 24 months (Doctor of Credit has a good post about the 5/24 rule), no applying for more than 1 card every 30 days or you will likely be declined (you can TRY to apply for two in one day, which has worked for some, but I have not tried it), and you could be limited to a set number of cards (they have limited me to 3). Bottom line: Apply for Chase cards FIRST so you can avoid the 5/24 cap on approvals.
  • Start SlowDon’t apply for 5 cards in 30 days!! Figure out which cards you want the most in order to reach your travel goals, the best order to apply for them and spread them out by at least 30 days. You’ll need time to meet the minimum spend on each responsibly and pay them off. Don’t get in over your head!

Go to Travel Gal’s Travel Credit Card Plan

Of course, depending on your goals, your plan will be unique and incorporate different cards, but here is my recommended order and a plan you can follow if you’re not sure where to start.

Before you follow this plan, be sure that free flights in the U.S. (excluding Hawaii, though Southwest WILL be flying to Hawaii soon!) are a good benefit for you. The plan also includes the possibility of free flights to Costa Rica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island, Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas.

So it’s a good plan if you like U.S. and Caribbean travel! You can always expand from here to Europe, Hawaii and beyond… as we have done. And we still kept it simple!

Primary Goals of Go to Travel Gal’s Plan: Maximum Free Flights in the U.S./Caribbean, Some Hotel Stays, Amazing Events

Credit Card No 1: Southwest Chase Rapid Rewards Premier, Plus OR Priority personal cards (pick 1)

Travel credit card order

The Southwest Companion Pass is the quickest and easiest way to net LOTS of free flights around the U.S. for you + at least one companion for up to two years.

It is easy to earn by signing up for two Southwest credit cards, one personal and one business, and you end up with 110,000 Southwest points good for free travel + one person can fly free with you anywhere (no points or cash required).

Download my free guide below that shows you how to earn the Southwest Companion Pass quickly and easily.

Download Your FREE Guide & Start Flying FREE on Southwest!

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The first card you need in order to earn the Southwest Companion Pass is one of the Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards personal cards — either Priority ($149 a year, but lots of benefits to offset the fee for frequent Southwest fliers), Premier ($99 a year but you get 6,000 bonus Southwest points after 1 year) or Plus ($69 a year but no bonus points).

Meet the minimum spend of $1,000-$2,000 and earn 40,00-60,000 Southwest bonus points (depending on the current card offer) after your credit card closing date.

You’ll need to start with Chase cards FIRST since they have the most restrictions regarding approvals.

Credit Card No. 2: Southwest Chase Rapid Rewards Business Premier

To achieve the Southwest Companion Pass quickly (though it’s STILL possible to do without two cards; read how I earned the pass in 2017), you’ll need to apply and be approved for a second Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards card. 

The second card MUST be a business card, as Chase no longer allows you to hold TWO personal Southwest cards.

But, not to worry! You can  be approved for the business credit card even if you don’t own your own business. Any type of side income, such as owning a rental home, Uber or Lyft driving, selling crafts on Etsy, selling items on Amazon or eBay, consulting of any type – heck even babysitting and dog-walking – could qualify you for the business card. Think about any type of income for which you would file a Schedule C on your taxes.

Keep in mind, you may be declined initially, but hang in there! I was, too! They simply wanted more paperwork from me. It’s sort of a pain, but worth it when you’re looking out a plane window on your way to a beautiful beach, knowing you didn’t pay a dime for the airfare!

Chase usually wants to see paperwork with your name on it, the name of the business (even if that’s just your name) and your business address (even if it’s your own address ). This is MOST easily accomplished by applying for a free Employer Identification Number, or EIN, from the IRS. You’ll get “official” paperwork with everything they want to do.

Wait more than 30 days, ideally 40 days between applications. Otherwise, you will very likely be declined for applications that are too close.

If that happens, again not worry. It’s happened to a gazillion people, including my husband and I. If you applied for the cards too close to each other, wait until at least 40 days have passed, call the Chase Reconsideration Line, and usually after you provide them with some additional information (read this post for what to expect), you’ll be all set.

You got this!

Credit Card No. 3: Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve

Travel Credit Card Plan

Again, you’re going to want to knock out all the Chase cards you want before you hit that 5-opened-cards-in-24 months rule. So, next up is my very FAVORITE TRAVEL CREDIT CARD, Chase Sapphire Preferred, or the higher annual fee Chase Sapphire Reserve. You can only hold ONE of these cards, but your spouse or loved one could certainly hold the other!

AND, you can each be authorized users on each other’s cards, which I recommend for the perks and additional bonus points.

I LOVE Chase Sapphire Preferred, because it has a reasonable annual fee of $95 (compared to Reserve’s $450 annual fee, though that can be a good deal if you travel a lot!), which is WAIVED the first year, earns DOUBLE points on dining and travel and points can be transfered INSTANTLY to Southwest (and other airlines and hotel groups) at a 1:1 ratio.

Folks, this card is a no brainer! If you want to travel free, YOU NEED IT!

You can instead opt for Chase Sapphire Reserve, which has a higher annual fee of $450 (not waived the first year), but if you are a frequent traveler, its benefits will offset most of this cost. I recommend it for more advanced travel hackers.

Be sure to read my posts below on each card to see which one is right for you. Generally, Preferred is better for those just ramping up their free travel.

Credit Card No. 4: Pick a Chase Hotel Card – IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card, Marriott Rewards® Premier Business Card or Hyatt Credit Card

Hotel credit cards

Next, to help reduce the cost of hotels when traveling, I’d suggest applying for your favorite Chase hotel credit card. You can earn their sign-on bonus and use the points for free stays on your travels. Again, you want to knock out any Chase cards early on!

These include:

If you don’t like any of these hotel brands, no worries. You can instead opt for a Hilton card or the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express down the line, but get your Chase cards first.

You may also want to consider the Chase Disney Premier Visa® Card or Disney Rewards® Visa® Card if you like to travel to Disney parks frequently.

Credit Card No. 5: Chase Ink Business Preferred

If you can get approved for business cards and Chase hasn’t limited you to three of their cards, go for Chase Ink Business. You’ll also need to have enough business expenses to meet the $5,000 minimum spend within three months without going into debt.

This card typically offers 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after a $5,000 minimum spend in 3 months, and these points, like those of Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve, can be transferred DIRECTLY to Southwest (and other programs) for instant FREE FLIGHTS.

travel blogging basics

It also earns 3 points per $1 on travel, shipping purchases, Internet, cable and phone services, and on advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines

This card really helps you stretch your Southwest miles!

Credit Card No. 6: Discover it Miles

Discover it® Miles - Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card

I also like the Discover it Miles travel credit card, especially for beginners. You can read my complete Discover it Miles review.

In summary, I recommend it because there is NO ANNUAL FEE, you earn 3X miles or points on everything you purchase the first year you hold it, and you simply charge your travel expenses to the card and get a credit back.

You also get a $30 WiFi credit — always helpful! Super easy, great for beginners and no out-of-pocket cost.

Credit Card No. 7: Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Cards

SPG Credit Card

Credit: Starwood Preferred Guest

The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Cards are hands-down my FAVORITE hotel credit cards, but guess what? I don’t use them to book hotels! Instead, I use them to book AMAZING EXPERIENCES through their SPG Moments program, like watching a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field in a luxury suite and seeing a Broadway show in New York City from the second row.

Note: I put this AFTER any Chase hotel cards due to the Chase 5/24 rule. But really this is my favorite hotel card 🙂

You can only earn the bonus points, called Starpoints, once a lifetime on the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Cards.

Starpoints can be used to book hotel rooms, transferred to airlines — and Starwood lets you earn 5,000 bonus miles for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer (We transferred Starpoints to British Airways for our trip to Europe and found it tremendously helpful), and, my favorite, bid and purchase experiences through the SPG Moments program.

SPG Moments include things like attending a concert, NBA game or MLB game, watching a taping of a live TV show or booking Broadway tickets. AND it usually includes some awesome perk like a luxury suite with free food and drink. Read about our experience in the SPG Suite at Wrigley Field.

I would suggest applying for both the business and the personal cards to maximize the number of points you can earn for amazing experiences. These cards include:

  • Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express (personal card)
  • Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express

That’s it! That’s my travel credit card plan. I hope it’s a helpful starting point as you begin your amazing journey to traveling almost entirely free!

Thanks again for using my TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS link to apply for any cards in this post! I am SO grateful for your support!

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