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.
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 :)).
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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 Slow – Don’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)
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.
- Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card ($149 a year, but lots of benefits to offset the fee for frequent Southwest fliers; read my full review of Priority)
- Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier personal ($99 a year but you get 6,000 bonus Southwest points after 1 year)
- Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card ($69 a year, 3,000 bonus points after 1 year).
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
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:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Business Premier (currently 60,000 points after a $3,000 minimum spend in 3 months, $99 annual fee; click the tab on this link to choose the business card you want)
- Southwest Performance Business (currently 70,000 points after $5,000 in purchases in the first 3 months, $199 annual fee; click the tab on this link to choose the business card you want)
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
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.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve? Which Card Is Right for Me?
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
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 has a low $89 annual fee (currently waived for the first year!) and a HUGE 140,000-point bonus after a $3,000 minimum spend.
You can book a LOT of hotel room nights with 140,000 points + you get your fourth night free when booking with points to stretch it even further. You can alternately opt for IHG Rewards Club Traveler, which offers 75,000 points after a $2,000 minimum spend in 3 months with NO ANNUAL FEE.
Your options include:
- IHG Rewards Club Premier – 140,000-point offer after a $3,000 minimum spend in 3 months and annual fee waived the first year; read my full review
- IHG Rewards Club Traveler – 75,000 points after a $2,000 minimum spend in 3 months; NO ANNUAL FEE! Read my full review
- Marriott Bonvoy Bold (read my full review) – 30,000-point bonus after a $1,000 minimum spend in 3 months
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless (read my full review) – 75,000-point bonus after a $3,000 minimum spend in 3 months
- World of Hyatt Credit Card – 25,000-point bonus after a $3,000 minimum spend in 3 months and then an additional 25,000 points after you spend a total of $6,000 in 6 months.
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.
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.
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!
Credit Card No. 6: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus Offer: Earn 60,000 bonus points 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
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. But really this is my favorite hotel card 🙂
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.
These cards include:
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express (personal card)
Bonus: 75,000 points after a $3,000 minimum spend in the first 3 months
Annual Fee: $450
Bonus: 75,000 points after a $3,000 minimum spend in the first 3 months
Annual Fee: $125
Other Travel Credit Cards Popular With Go to Travel Gal Readers
- Chase Freedom Unlimited
- Chase Freedom
- Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card
- The Platinum Card From American Express
- Chase Ink Business Cash
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!
- Credit Doesn’t Have to Be a 4-Letter Word: Using Credit Cards to YOUR Advantage
- How to Quickly Improve Your Credit Score
- Reader Question: Do Points From Chase Sapphire Preferred Qualify for the Southwest Companion Pass?
- Reader Question: Can I Refer Myself to Apply for a Southwest Card?