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Our Recommended Travel Credit Card Plan: Which Cards in What Order

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


My family saves more than $8,000 every year flying free and I can show your family how to make flying free a LIFESTYLE too! Join my Families Fly Free program to learn my simple process so you can start making more priceless travel memories before your kids leave home. Learn more below…

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I’m 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 :)).

beginner travel credit cards


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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 or Costa Rica or a trip for two to Paris (yes, please!).
    • For me, I believe 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 125,000 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; keep in mind AMEX, Citi and Chase business cards DO NOT count as 1 of the 5), no applying for more than 1 card every 30 days or you will likely be declined, 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!


Our Recommended 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. (including Hawaii!) 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, Los Cabos 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 and beyond… as we have done.

And we still kept it simple!

Primary Goals of Our 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 125,000 Southwest points good for free travel + one person can fly free with you anywhere (no points or cash required).

The first card you need in order to earn the Southwest Companion Pass is one of the Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards personal cards.

Choose from:

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 Premier and/or Performance Business


southwest performance business card

To achieve the Southwest Companion Pass quickly (though it’s STILL possible to do without applying for two new 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.

Southwest currently only has TWO business card options:

Get a complete breakdown of these cards and their benefits HERE.

Currently, Southwest is allowing applicants to hold BOTH Southwest business cards, so that is an option for you, but just keep the 5/24 rule in mind, as that will be one more card toward your total of five.

And keep in mind, because this is a Chase business card, it does NOT count against you for the 5/24 rule, as Chase does not report business cards to the credit bureaus. 


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 (read my full review on Chase Sapphire Preferred), OR

The higher annual fee Chase Sapphire Reserve (read my full review on 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 $550 annual fee, though that can be a good deal if you travel a lot!), earns DOUBLE points on dining and travel and points can be transferred 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 $550, 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 beginners just ramping up their free travel.

And please note that Chase Ultimate Rewards points, the points earned on these cards, CAN be transferred to Southwest Airlines for FREE travel but DO NOT qualify for the Southwest Companion Pass.


Credit Card No. 4: Pick a Chase Hotel Card — IHG® Rewards Club Premier or Traveler, Marriott Bonvoy Bold, Marriott Bonvoy Boundless 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!

My No 1 recommendation is now IHG Rewards Club Premier, because it currently has a low $89 annual fee (currently waived for the first year!) and a HUGE 150,000-point bonus after a $3,000 minimum spend.

You can book a LOT of hotel room nights with 150,000 points + you get your fourth night free when booking with points to stretch it even further.

Your options include:

If you don’t like any of these hotel brands, no worries. You can instead opt for a Hilton Honors Credit Card From American Express or the Marriott Bonvoy American Express cards down the line, but get your Chase cards first.

I DO also like the Marriott cards not JUST for free hotel nights, but because they are a great option for transferring points to miles at a 3:1 ratio to airlines like Southwest, Delta and British Airways.

Plus, they kick in a BONUS 5,000 miles for every 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points you transfer, which is a GREAT deal.

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

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 Preferred.

You’ll also need to have enough expenses to meet the $15,000 minimum spend within three months without going into debt, though according to The Points Guy, you don’t really HAVE to only put business expenses on business cards.

This card typically offers 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after a $15,000 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 on the first $150,000 spent each year, and on advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines

This card really helps you stretch your Southwest miles!

Read our full review on Chase Ink Business Preferred


Credit Card No. 6: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Capital One Venture Rewards

Bonus Offer: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months

Annual Fee: $95 

Capital One Venture Rewards is a great travel credit card to cover expenses other than flights on Southwest or by using hotel points for accommodations.

The card reimburses you for nearly ANY travel expenses, and many of my readers like to use it for vacation rentals with Airbnb or Vrbo; car rentals; train travel; boutique hotels without major loyalty programs; attraction tickets (think Disney or Universal Studios) or flights that can’t be covered by Southwest or by using Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

You’ll earn 2X points on every purchase every day


Credit Card No. 7: Marriott Bonvoy American Express Credit Cards

Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Card

The Marriott Bonvoy American Express Credit Cards (formerly the SPG cards) are, along with the Marriott Chase cards, 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 Marriott Bonvoy Moments (formerly 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: You can no longer use Marriott points to book Broadway shows…

I put this card AFTER any Chase hotel cards due to the Chase 5/24 rule. 

You can only earn the bonus points, called Marriott Bonvoy points, once a lifetime on these credit cards, and it’s the same for all American Express cards, so before you apply, ensure they have a very high bonus!

Marriott Rewards can be used to book hotel rooms, transferred to airlines — and you can earn 5,000 bonus airline miles for every 60,000 points (points transfer at a 3 points to 1 mile ratio) you transfer (We transferred Starpoints to British Airways for our trip to Europe and found it tremendously helpful; I’d rate this second to the Southwest Companion Pass in terms of added miles value), and, my favorite: Bid and purchase experiences through the Marriott Bonvoy Moments program.

Marriott Bonvoy Moments include things like attending a concert, NBA game or MLB game or watching a taping of a live TV show. 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.

Here is my full review of these Marriott Rewards Card offers.

These cards include:


Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express (personal card)

Bonus: Read my full review to see the current offer

Annual Fee: $450

See Rates and Fees


Marriott Bonvoy Business American Express

Bonus: Read my full review to see the current offer

Annual Fee: $125

See Rates and Fees


Other Travel Credit Cards Popular With Go to Travel Gal Readers


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 our CREDIT CARDS link in the main menu above or any links in this post to apply for any travel credit cards! I am SO grateful for your support!


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9 thoughts on “Our Recommended Travel Credit Card Plan: Which Cards in What Order”

  1. I work a lot with the PR folks at Marriott and SPG for various stories I write and so far they have kept the two programs pretty separate. So I would be surprised to see them do away with it, though I know everyone else is saying otherwise. They even have a PR firm who focuses on promoting the SPG card specifically! I don’t see why they would make that investment if it’s on its way out… But just my two cents 🙂

  2. I was told by a Chase Credit card rep that if one refers someone for a SW Chase Credit Card, the new applicant can only qualify for 40,000 miles if signing up vs. 60,000 miles if not going through the referral process. Yes the referring party receives 10,000 miles but the new applicant falls short of what they could have received, ie 60K vs. 40k miles. Any way to improve this?

  3. I earned the companion pass in 2018. Do I meed to keep my Chase SW RR personal cards open? The annual $99 and $79 fees are up for renewal in January.

    • Hi Kari-
      So you do not need to keep them open. The reasons to keep them open would be to get your anniversary points (they do count toward the Companion Pass if you’re looking to earn it again in 2019) and to use the cards on spending to earn more companion pass-qualifying points. Also, by keeping them open you can earn referral points — also qualify for the Companion Pass :). Otherwise you can close them. You can’t earn the bonus points for opening a card again though until 24 months have passed since you last earned them. Hope that helps!

  4. Hope you can help me.
    Husband applied for Chase SW Priority card and was denied due to the fact he already had a chase plus card. A card we did not realize we had as when the AirTran/Southwest merger happened, they automatically changed out AirTran card to SW. We have not used it in 5 years.
    I cancelled that card a week ago.
    How long should we wait until we reapply another time.
    Credit score excellent, over 870 and have applied for the Chase Saphire Reserve 11/1/2017.


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