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March is usually all about melting snow, spring break and college basketball. But did you know it’s also a great time to get the wheels turning toward a free summer trip? By signing up for the right rewards credit card now, you can position yourself for a great getaway in a few months.
Most credit card sign-up bonuses require you to spend a certain amount of money within the first few months of opening the new card to qualify for the bonus. Once you hit the spending threshold, it might take another few days or even weeks for the rewards to land in your account. Then you need to build in some time to book the trip.
None of these steps are particularly difficult, but there’s probably a longer lag than you would expect between signing up for a new credit card and taking the free trip you earned in the process. That’s why it pays to start searching for the right card now, several months before the summer trip that you’re hoping to schedule.
Here are five of my favorite options on the market right now:
The Platinum Card from American Express
This card has serious cachet among travelers along with a myriad of everyday benefits. The Platinum Card® from American Express provides top-notch airport lounge access and hundreds of dollars in annual credits for everything from airline fees and hotel stays to rideshares, food delivery, a Walmart+ membership, gym memberships, Saks purchases and more.
The annual fee ($695) is steep, but the Amex Platinum offers a long list of benefits and one of the most lucrative sign-up bonuses you’ll find. You can earn 80,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $8,000 in your first six months with the card. According to Bankrate points valuations, this sign-up bonus is worth up to $1,680 toward high-value Amex transfer partner travel, or 2.0 cents apiece.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
A straightforward rewards structure is the primary appeal of this popular travel credit card. With the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, cardholders earn 2X miles on almost every purchase (the exceptions are hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, which earn 5X miles).
When it comes time to redeem, you can cash in your miles for 1 cent each to offset a wide variety of travel purchases, or you can transfer to Capital One’s airline and hotel partners to potentially obtain even more value. The introductory bonus is 75,000 miles after spending $4,000 in three months. That’s worth at least $750 in travel, though Bankrate estimates each mile is worth up to 2 cents toward transfer partner travel. That makes this bonus worth a potential $1,500 — incredible for a card with a mere $95 annual fee.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
When it was introduced in 2016, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® changed the credit card rewards landscape by appealing to millennials and their affinity for experiences, namely travel and dining. A long list of benefits — ranging from airport lounge access and a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck waiver to a $300 travel credit, compelling transfer partners and high-end travel and dining rewards — continues to make this one of the most popular credit cards for travelers.
Its current sign-up bonus (60,000 points after spending $4,000 in three months) is well off its all-time high, but it’s still worth at least $900 toward travel, and perhaps even more if you utilize Chase transfer partners. Bankrate values each Ultimate Rewards point earned with the Sapphire Reserve at up to 2.0 cents a piece toward transfer partner travel, making the bonus worth up to a cool $1,200.
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card
Co-branded credit cards such as the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card* work best if you’re loyal to a particular airline or hotel chain. I generally advise people to keep their options open with a transferable points card such as the three mentioned earlier. But since Marriott is the world’s largest hotel chain with more than 8,000 properties located in 139 different countries and territories, you have a ton of redemption opportunities with this card.
Wells Fargo Autograph Card
If a no-annual-fee card is more your speed but you still want to earn a generous return on your travel spending, the Wells Fargo Autograph℠ Card might be the best choice for you. It offers 3X points on travel (broadly defined as airfare, hotels, car rentals, cruises and more), transit, gas station purchases, restaurants, phone plans and popular streaming services. The welcome bonus is 20,000 points (worth $200 cash redemption value) after spending $1,000 in the first three months.
This card doesn’t have any transfer partners; it’s basically a cash back card with solid rewards on travel spending. And while it’s not as flashy as its aforementioned rivals, this card offers plenty of mainstream appeal. Cash back is Americans’ favorite credit card feature, after all.
The bottom line
The key to any good credit card rewards strategy is to pay your bills in full and avoid interest every month. As long as you can do that, rewards represent free money. Travel redemptions are often more lucrative than cash back, but they can also be more complicated. Annual fees can be well worth it for some cardholders, since they often come with premium benefits such as airport lounge access and various everyday credits. At the end of the day, it all comes down to your personal preference.
If travel rewards are what you’re looking for, consider signing up for one of the cards mentioned above to get you closer to a free (or at least discounted) summer getaway. Inflation is hitting travel budgets hard — especially airline fares, which are up 26 percent over the past year, according to the latest Consumer Price Index. Used properly, credit card rewards are an excellent way to travel in style while staying within your budget.
Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at email@example.com and I’d be happy to help.
*The information about the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.