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Record-high bonuses mean it’s an excellent time to sign up for a travel credit card

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This week, three popular travel credit cards increased their welcome bonuses. I’ve been waiting for this to happen. In fact, I’ve been wondering what took so long!

We saw many compelling offers around this time last year, which made sense because there was a lot of optimism about travel rebounding after COVID-19 vaccines became widely available. Credit card issuers were looking to grow again after being hunkered down for much of 2020 and early ’21 due to pandemic concerns. They wanted to capture as much of the rebound in consumer spending as possible.

However, the best deals petered out in late 2021 and early 2022, and the past several months have been surprisingly quiet. We haven’t seen nearly as many lofty bonuses or new card launches as we saw during the summer and fall of 2021.

Yet consumers have continued signing up for cards in large numbers. Banks originated a record 73.5 million credit card accounts in 2021, according to Equifax, and the momentum has carried into 2022. Despite lower sign-up bonuses, this January and February marked the busiest first two months of any year for bankcard originations.

That’s part of the answer right there—if consumers are signing up for new cards anyway, card issuers don’t need to knock themselves out by offering juicy incentives that cut into their profit margins. But that said, it’s a competitive market, and sometimes it only takes one domino to fall in order for copycats to follow. You can play this trend to your advantage by signing up for one of the following cards soon. I’d suggest moving fast because you never know how long an elevated offer will last.

American Express Gold Card

In mid-June, the American Express® Gold Card briefly advertised a record-high 100,000-point bonus that involved spending $4,000 in your first six months with the card. That link is no longer working for me, but when I log into my American Express account (I have a different Amex card), I’m seeing a targeted offer for 90,000 points after signing up for the Gold card and spending $4,000 in six months. The standard offer is 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in six months.

This is arguably the best card for foodies since it gives 4 points per dollar at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 in annual purchases, then 1 point per dollar after that). The Amex Gold also gives 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines or at amextravel.com, 2 points per dollar on rental cars reserved via AmexTravel.com and 1 point per dollar on everything else.

The annual fee is $250, which can be almost entirely offset by a $120 annual Uber Cash credit ($10 per month) and a $120 annual dining credit (also $10 per month) which can be used at Grubhub or participating restaurants.

In terms of how to redeem your points, travel is likely the best deal, especially if you use one of Amex’s 20 transfer partners. Examples include Delta, Hilton and Marriott.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

For existing Chase customers, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® also has a special link offering a higher-than-usual 70,000 bonus points after new cardholders spend $4,000 in their first three months with the card. Note that you must have a Chase login to access this promotion. It’s a great deal, even though it’s a bit shy of the record 100,000 points that Chase offered when the card first came out in 2016. The standard offer is 60,000 points after meeting the same spending requirement (which recently increased from 50,000 points).

Sapphire Reserve cardholders earn 5 points per dollar on air travel and 10 points per dollar on hotels and car rentals purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Other travel earns 3 points per dollar and most dining is also 3 points per dollar (it’s 10 points per dollar via Chase Dining). Everything else earns 1 point per dollar spent.

This card is beloved for its airport lounge access, Global Entry/TSA PreCheck fee waiver and strong travel insurance benefits. Its $300 annual travel credit trims more than half off the $550 annual fee.

The best way to extract maximum value from your points involves transferring them to one of Chase’s many airline or hotel partners, including JetBlue, Southwest, United and Marriott. If you’d rather keep it simple, Sapphire Reserve cardholders can get a solid 1.5 cents per point in value when they redeem for travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards or—through June 30, 2022—if they use their points to offset eligible Airbnb or dining purchases.

Citi Premier

New cardholders get 80,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in their first three months with the Citi Premier® Card. This ties a record high. This is a versatile card that gives 3 points per dollar at restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations and hotels and on air travel. Other purchases earn 1 point per dollar.

Points are worth 1 cent apiece when redeemed via Citi’s travel portal or for gift cards. They can potentially be worth much more if you utilize a Citi transfer partner. Options include Avianca, Emirates, JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and more.

There’s also a $100 annual hotel credit off a single stay of $500 or more (excluding taxes and fees) booked through ThankYou.com. That exceeds the $95 annual fee.

The bottom line

Travel is roaring back and you can take advantage by signing up for the right credit card. The points and miles you earn through your sign-up bonus and ongoing spending can fund amazing trips at incredible discounts. That’s especially important with inflation at its highest level in more than 40 years.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at ted.rossman@bankrate.com and I’d be happy to help.