6 Credit Cards for Award Travel Beginners

If you’re new to award travel and you’re ready to start applying for credit cards, a Chase card that earns transferable Ultimate Rewards should be your first priority.  There are three cards that earn transferable Ultimate Rewards points:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • Chase Ink Preferred (business credit card)

I can think of very few scenarios one scenario in which one of these cards shouldn’t be your first choice.  The main exception would be anyone trying to earn the Southwest Companion Pass.  In that case, you would want to get the Chase Southwest cards needed first.   Then, one of the Chase Sapphire cards mentioned above should be your next move.

But what about after that? After opening a Chase Ultimate Rewards earning card, there are some other Chase credit cards that you should consider opening before you apply for credit cards issued by other banks. This is due to the Chase 5/24 rule.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please familiarize yourself with the Chase 5/24 rule rule before applying for any cards!

In short, a beginner with 0 zero credit cards is starting at 0/24.  You have 5 ‘spots’ to fill before you reach 5/24.   Ideally, you want to fill all of your spots with Chase 5/24 cards before moving on to cards from other banks.  Other banks aren’t as strict as Chase, so you should be able to open cards from other banks after reaching 5/24 (provided you are otherwise qualified).

Some of the cards on this list may not necessarily be my first choice if 5/24 wasn’t a factor.  The problem is, if you do not open them before you get above 5/24, you either miss out on valuable sign up bonuses and card benefits or you have to wait to get yourself back under 5/24.  If you have to wait a year or more to get yourself under 5/24, you are missing out on a year of valuable sign up bonuses from other banks!

If you want to play the miles and points game long-term (trust me, you will after your first redemption!), planning around the 5/24 rule is critical.

Your #1 application should go to 1 of 2 cards

The #1 spot depends on this: are you trying to earn the Southwest Companion Pass?

If the answer is no, a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve and/or an Ink Preferred business card should be your first choice(s).

What if I want the Companion Pass?

If you are going for the Companion Pass, the Southwest business card and a Southwest personal card should be your first 2 cards.

  1. Southwest Business card (you will not be approved if you are over 5/24. But once you are approved, it does not count against your 5/24 score).  So basically you’re back at 1 after this card.
  2. Southwest personal card

If you’re working on the Companion Pass, you’re going to be at 1/24 after getting the cards needed since the business version doesn’t count against your 5/24 status.  You would have 4 spots left for other Chase 5/24 cards.  The Chase Ink business card and/or the Sapphire Preferred or Reserve should be your next moves.

The order in which you should prioritize applications for your remaining spots may vary depending on your travel goals 

This is the order of applications in which the average person would benefit most.  Basically, it is a list of the Chase 5/24 cards with the most valuable sign up bonuses.

If you have a specific trip in mind, the best plan for you may deviate from this general plan.  I am happy to help you come up with a strategy based on your individual situation and goals.  Email me.

This is is the order of applications in which the average person would benefit most after opening a Chase Sapphire card.  Basically, it is a list of the Chase 5/24 cards with the most valuable sign up bonuses. The order that is best for you could vary:

Southwest personal cards (if you don’t already have it from working towards CP). You can only have 1 personal version of the card.
    • United Explorer card
    • World of Hyatt
    • Marriott Rewards Premier Plus
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited (yes, I realize this would be 6/24 which isn’t possible.  I’ll explain.)

A little patience is required if you want to use all 5 of your 5/24 spots on Chase cards.  It is suggested that you wait at least 30-60 days between applications on Chase-issued cards.  Some data points are even suggesting 3 months is safest.  There is nothing illegal about opening multiple credit cards, but too many cards opened in a short time span is a red flag for Chase.  Since Chase issues some of the best reward cards for travel, you do not want to get shut down by Chase.

6 Chase cards to consider (while you’re still under 5/24)

If you qualify for business cards, apply for the Chase Ink Business and any other business cards you want while you’re still under 5/24.  You will not be approved for a business card once you’re at 5/24, but any open business card doesn’t count against your 5/24 score.

Here are some details about each of the Chase 5/24 cards you may want to get while you still can.  In other words, get them while you’re still under 5/24.

The most important card long term is a transferrable Ultimate Rewards earning card.  If you do not open this card while under 5/24, you would have to wait until you are under 5/24 to be approved.  For that reason, it is number one on the list.  But remember, if you want the Southwest CP, do that first.

I’ll also discuss why you may or may not want to keep each card after the first year.

1. Chase Ultimate Rewards earning cards

There are three cards that earn transferable Ultimate Rewards points:

Chase UR points earned from these cards can be transferred to 10 different airlines and 3 hotel programs.  UR can also be redeemed in Chase’s redemption portal.  More on that in this post.

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred

  • Bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $4,000 in 3 Months
  • Annual Fee: $95, but waived the first year
  • Bonus Categories: 2 points per dollar on travel and dining

2. Chase Sapphire Reserve:

  • Bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $4,000 in 3 months
  • Annual Fee: $450
  • Bonus Categories: 3 points per dollar on travel and dining
  • Notable benefits: $300 travel credit per calendar year, $100 reimbursement for TSA or Global Entry enrollment, airport lounge access

3. Chase Ink Preferred (business):

  • Bonus:80,000 Ultimate Rewards points
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $5,000 in 3 Months
  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Bonus Categories: 3 points per dollar on the first $150,000 spent in combined purchases on travel, shipping purchases, internet, cable and phone services, and on advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines each account anniversary year

You can have an Ink Business Preferred card and a Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred open, but you cannot have the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve open at the same time.

I usually suggest the Preferred to beginners since the annual fee is waived the first year.  Then after the first year, the fee is much lower than the Reserve.  But the Reserve comes with lots of benefits that may offset the annual fee.  If you’re torn between Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred, click here for more information and a comparison.

Is this an everyday spending card? Yes

Transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards, the currency earned with these cards, is one of my favorite currencies for award travel. For that reason, I suggest keeping this card open and possibly using it for everyday spending.

The other card that I would suggest for everyday spending, Chase Freedom Unlimited, is most valuable when paired with one of these 3 cards.  More on that in a moment.

2. Southwest Rapid Rewards cards

There are 4 Southwest cards.

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority credit card
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card

3 are personal cards and 1 is a business card.  You cannot have more than 1 personal version of a Southwest card at the same time.  This is a new rule, so even if you have been able to have both in the past, it’s not allowed anymore.

You can have the business card and one personal card.  In fact, that is now the only way to earn the Companion Pass with credit card sign up bonuses.

Personal cards

  • Annual fee on personal cards: $69-$149. None are waived the first year.  Priority is the highest AF, but it also has the most valuable benefits.
  • Bonus on all three personal cards: 40,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months.  Then you can earn 20,000 more points if you spend a total of $12,000 in 12 months.  This a potential total of 60,000 points.
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $1,000 in 3 months, total of $12,000 in 3 months to get the 2nd tier bonus.
  • Bonus Categories: 2 points per dollar on Southwest airfare
  • Extra Benefits on the Priority card: $75 annual Southwest credit, 4 upgraded boarding positions per year

Business card

  • Bonus: 60,000 Rapid Rewards points
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $3,000 in 3 months
  • Annual Fee: $99
  • Bonus Categories: 2 points per dollar on Southwest airfare

Meeting the min spend on the business and personal card (at the lower tier) puts you at 100,000.  Then you would need only 10,000 more points to get the Companion Pass.  There are plenty of ways to do this.  You also have a whole year to spend the amount required for the second tier of the bonus.

If you have earned a sign up bonus from any of the Southwest personal credit cards the past 24 months, you are not eligible for a bonus offer on a different personal version.

Is this an everyday spending card? No (unless you are still trying to earn the Companion Pass)

Southwest credit cards earn Southwest Rapid Rewards points.  You can only redeem Rapid Rewards points for Southwest flights.  Ultimate Rewards points transfer to Southwest at a 1:1 ratio.  For that reason, I’d rather earn 1 Ultimate Rewards point than 1 Southwest point per dollar on my everyday spending.  When I need Southwest points, I can always transfer from Ultimate Rewards.  But having other options with Ultimate Rewards makes those points more desirable for me.

The exception is if you’re trying to earn Companion Pass qualifying points.  Transfers from Ultimate Rewards do not qualify for the Companion Pass.  Points earned from Southwest cards (sign up bonus points and everyday spending points) do count.

You have a whole year to meet the second tier of the sign up bonus on the personal cards, but you also have to consider the fact that you could be earning Ultimate Rewards or another currency that is more valuable than Rapid Rewards points with that amount of spend.  I would only continue to spend on these cards if you’re going for the companion pass.

Sock drawer card? Maybe

Of the 3 personal cards, the Priority card is probably the best one despite the annual fee.  The annual fee is $149 and it is NOT waived for the first year.  One of the benefits is a $75 annual credit for Southwest.  So if you use that, your fee is effectively $74.

Other benefits also offset the annual fee if you fly Southwest often. Click here for more info about the Priority card.

3. United Explorer card

United Explorer card 

  • Bonus: 40,000 United miles
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $2,000 in 3 months
  • Annual Fee: $95, waived first year
  • Bonus Categories: 2 points per dollar at restaurants, United, and hotels

The sign up bonus on this card makes it worth considering while you’re still under 5/24.  Same page link to Offer DetailsYou can redeem United miles for United flights and for flights on United’s partners.

For some people, it may also be a card you want to keep even if you don’t use it for everyday spending.

Is this an everyday spending card? No

I prefer to earn transferable points such as Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards.  I can earn Ultimate Rewards with Chase Sapphire cards.  United happens to be a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.  By earning Ultimate Rewards, you can still transfer those points to United if needed.  Flexibility makes 1 Chase Ultimate Rewards point more valuable than 1 United mile.  If you only earn United miles, you can only redeem them with United’s frequent flyer program, United Mileage Plus.

Even if an airline credit card was my go-to for everyday spending, United wouldn’t be my choice because I live in an AA hub city.

Sock drawer card? Maybe

Are the benefits worth the annual fee of $95?  One valuable benefit on this card is a free first checked bag for yourself and one other person traveling on your reservation.  So if you and your spouse/partner take one roundtrip on United in a year, the annual fee is already covered.  If you take 2 roundtrips on United by yourself, it is also covered.  Each checked bag is $30 each way, so that’s $60 roundtrip per person.  2 roundtrips would be $120, which is more than the $95 annual fee.  On this particular card, you also get reimbursed the $100 for the Global Entry fee.

4. World of Hyatt credit card

World of Hyatt credit card from Chase

  • Bonus: 25,000 Hyatt points if you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months, then 25,000 additional points if you spend another $3,000 in the first 6 months (so 50,000 total if you spend a total of $6,000 in the first 6 months)
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $3,000 in 3 months
  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Bonus Categories: 4 points per dollar at Hyatt, 2 points per dollar at restaurants, airfare purchased directly from airlines, local transit, and gym memberships
  • Notable benefits: Annual free night at category 1-4 properties (this can be more valuable than the $95 annual fee, so many people choose to keep this card even if they do not use it on a regular basis), Hyatt Discoverist status (benefits include free premium internet and late checkout)

The sign up bonus for the World of Hyatt card is tiered.  Total possible bonus is currently 50,000 Hyatt points.

Is this an everyday spending card? No

Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio.  If I use the WOH card, I only earn Hyatt points.  If I use an Ultimate Rewards earning card, the points can be transferred to Hyatt, plus they can be transferred to other airlines and hotels.

Sock drawer card? Yes(YMMV)

For me, this is definitely a keeper.  One benefit alone has great potential to be worth more than the annual fee.  You get a free night at a category 1-4 property.  The Andaz Costa Rica is a category 4 property.  Those rooms easily go for $500 or more per night.  To determine if this card is worth keeping, consider which properties you could book with that certificate.

chase cards 5/24 policy

Andaz Costa Rica

5. Marriott Rewards Premier Plus

Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus credit card from Chase

  • Bonus: 75,000 Marriott Rewards points
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $3,000 in 3 months
  • Annual Fee: $95
  • Bonus Categories: 6 points per dollar at Marriott and SPG properties, 2 points per dollar on everything else
  • Notable benefits: Annual free night worth up to 35,000 points per night (this can be more valuable than the $95 annual fee) if you keep the card after the first year, Marriott Rewards silver status

The bonus of 75,000 points is enough to consider getting this card while you still can (meaning while you’re under 5/24).  75,000 Marriott points can be redeemed for the following:

  • 1 night at a top-category hotel (plus you would have points leftover)
  • 30,000 airline miles on certain airlines
  • 2 nights at a category 5 property

Amex now issues a Marriott Bonvoy card that earns Marriott Rewards points.  So basically 2 banks issue Marriott cards: Chase and Amex.  The Amex Marriott card is the former Amex SPG Luxury card.

Yes, you can have both, but both banks have now placed restrictions on sign up bonuses. To put it simply, once you open either the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus card from Chase or an Amex Marriott card, there is a waiting period before you can get the sign up bonus from the other bank’s card.

If you want a co-branded Marriott card, I’d prioritize this over the Amex because of 5/24. And because of the annual fee on the Amex version.  As of February 2019, the only Amex version of the Marriott card available has an annual fee of $450.

Is this an everyday spending card? No

The earn rate is 2 points per dollar, but the redemption chart is inflated, so don’t let 2 points per dollar fool you.  I find Ultimate Rewards points and Amex Membership Rewards points more valuable, therefore I use cards that earn those points.

Sock drawer card? Maybe

Because of the free night, it may be worth keeping.  You would have to look at the properties available for 35,000 points to make that determination.

Ritz Carlton Tokyo

6. Chase Freedom Unlimited 

Chase Freedom Unlimited

  • Bonus: $150 (15,000 points if you also have a transferable UR card)
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $500 in 3 Months
  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Bonus Categories: None, but earn rate is 1.5 on everything!

I wrote about why the Chase Freedom Unlimited is a great card for everyday spending if you also have a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve card.  Alone, the Chase Freedom Unlimited is just another cash back card.  But when you have the Freedom Unlimited AND a card that earns transferable Ultimate Rewards (such as Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve), you can transfer points earned from the Freedom to the card that earns the transferable Ultimate Rewards.

This is important because the Freedom unlimited earns 1.5 points per dollar on everything.  The CSP and CSR earn only 1 point per dollar on non-category bonus spend.  So using the Freedom earns 50% more points!! So why is Chase Freedom Unlimited at the bottom of my list? The sign up bonus isn’t that impressive, which makes me hesitant to suggest this as one of your cards to fill your 5/24 spots.  Plus, the everyday spending earn rate is the most appealing thing about this card, but a beginner most likely wont be needing it for the first year.  The reason for that is because you’ll likely be working toward minimum spending requirements on other cards.  In other words, you may not have much spending for an everyday card just yet. The problem is, if you do not open this card while you’re still under 5/24, you will not be able to get it.  And the whole point of this post is to strategize for the long term.  Eventually, you will want a card for everyday spending with a good earn rate such as this one.   You will either have to find another card for your everyday spending or wait until you are under 5/24. If you have the Chase Ink Preferred business card, you could downgrade the CSP or CSR to the Freedom Unlimited as long as you keep the CIP open.  But if you do not have the CIP, downgrading the CSP or CSR won’t work, because you have to have one of these open in order to be able to transfer the Ultimate Rewards earned on the Chase Freedom Unlimited. You can only choose 5 out of the 6 5/24 cards in this list (unless you wait to get back under 5/24), and choosing this card over one of the above cards is certainly not the worst move. My situation would allow me to hold off on this card though, because there is a solution if you’re in 2 player mode.
If you’re in 2 player mode, there may be a solution.
2 player mode is when you and a spouse, friend, partner, etc are working together towards an award travel goal (or multiple goals).  In two player mode, each person should be opening his or her own credit cards so that you have double the points between the two of you. If both players open a Chase Sapphire Preferred (or Reserve), each person earns the 50,000 point sign up bonus. After the first year, here is the plan (assuming both players are now at 5/24 or more):
  • Player 1 keeps the Chase Sapphire Preferred (or Reserve) open
  • Player 2 downgrades to the Chase Freedom Unlimited

Player 2 won’t earn a sign up bonus, but also wont have a credit inquiry for the downgrade.

Chase’s current policies make it possible to transfer Ultimate Rewards between members if either of these situations apply:

  1. Player 2 makes player 1 authorized user on the Chase Unlimited Freedom or
  2. If player 1 and player 2 are spouses or domestic partners

Player 2 can transfer Ultimate Rewards earned on the Freedom Unlimited to player 1’s CSP or CSR.  Doing so makes the points earned from the Freedom Unlimited useable the same way you use Ultimate Rewards earned from the CSP or CSR (transferable or use booking portal).  Chase’s current policies make it possible to transfer Ultimate Rewards between household members.

In 2 player mode, you would be able to open of the first 5 cards in this list.  That means at least 5 sign up bonuses (times 2!) PLUS you could reap the benefits of having the higher everyday spending earn rate with the Chase Freedom Unlimited card after the first year.

Is this an everyday spending card? Yes

This is the card (along with an Amex MR earning card) that I would suggest using for non-category bonus everyday spending (as opposed to the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve) because it earns 1.5 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar.

But remember, you must have a Chase card that earns transferable Ultimate Rewards points to be able to use the Freedom points as UR rather than cash back.  In other words, you need to keep a CSR, CSP, or CIP open.