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Starting out in the points-and-miles world can be confusing with a capital C (so much so that I put together a new Beginner’s Guide). One of the questions I get asked all the time — on Instagram and in person — is, “What credit card should I get?” This guide should answer that question.
Having a credit card that earns you valuable points and miles is the first step to being able to travel the world for free. By using a debit card or cash to make purchases, you’re throwing a valuable investment in your next trip down the drain.
But first, keep in mind the cardinal rule: Pay your bills on time and in full every single month. Having a credit card is not Monopoly money in your pocket, and by not paying off your credit card in full, you’re negating the value of any points you earn. In short: Spend what you can afford. Period.
Now once you get your fancy new credit card, the points or miles you’ll earn are valuable. The majority of what you’ll earn will be from everyday spending and from a sign-up bonus or welcome offer: The card issuer is saying, “Now that you have a credit card, if you spend a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time, you’ll get a certain amount of points.” A lot of these cards also offer bonus points for spending on certain categories of purchases. For example, if you get 3x points on dining and your dinner cost you $15 dollars, you’d earn 45 points. These points really do add up over time.
Just remember that you’ll want to put them to use to pay for your next vacation, not your Amazon or food-delivery order. Also, the value of points and miles varies from program to program, so check out our monthly valuations guide to determine if you’re getting a good deal.
And now to the fun part. Are you ready?
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
This card is what I usually recommend to people just starting out or those looking to upgrade their points game. The card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you have it; those 60,000-points are worth about $1,200, according to TPG valuations. Better yet, they’re known as “transferable points,” which is a fancy way of saying these are points you can use for free flights or hotels from Chase’s various partners, which include Hyatt, JetBlue, Marriott and Southwest, to name a few. It also earns you 2x points on all dining and travel purchases, plus travel perks such as baggage and trip-cancellation insurance. And it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. The card currently has a $95 annual fee, but these perks easily outweigh it. It’s the perfect middle ground for people who travel a few times a year, or want to travel a few times a year.
American Express® Gold Card
The Amex Gold Card came back with a splash this year thanks to its significant dining perks (not to mention a limited-edition rose-gold version that’s no longer available). It currently has a welcome offer of 35,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months — worth $700 based on our latest valuations. It’s not the most impressive bonus out there, but the earning potential of the card makes up for it. That is, it will pay you 4x on dining worldwide, 3x on travel booked directly through airlines or amextravel.com and 1x on everything else. Oh, and those transferable points we mentioned with the Chase Sapphire card? Amex has them too. You’ll be able to use your Amex Membership Rewards points on 19 airline and three hotel partners, including Aeroplan, Delta, and Marriott, plus many more. The card has a $250 annual fee, but that is offset by a $100 airline statement credit and a $120 yearly dining statement credit. Bottom line: If you like to eat, you need this card.
Venture® Rewards From Capital One®
This was another buzzy card of the past few months, thanks to the addition of airline transfer partners — a benefit that Capital One cards lacked for a long time. It’s currently offering a 50,000-mile bonus after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The buzzy perks include 2x miles on purchases, but the biggest kicker is 10x miles when you book through hotels.com through January 2020. It also has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year and no foreign transaction fees. If you have a lot hotel stays coming up, this is definitely one to look into.
Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express
This is a credit card for points-and-miles beginners. It has no annual fee and earns 2x at US supermarkets (on the first $6,000 spent each year) and 1x on everything else — plus you get a 20% bonus if you swipe it 20 times or more in a billing cycle. In fact, it’s actually the first credit card I got to boost my credit score before I took the jump into more premium cards. You’ll get 10,000 Amex Membership Rewards points after spending $1,000 in the first three months, which isn’t going to get you anything fancy. But when you consider the fact that you can transfer your Amex points to Delta, and that Delta frequently has flash sales to the Caribbean starting at just 12,000 miles round-trip, you’re looking at an easy way to jump-start your free travels.
Chase Freedom Unlimited
The Chase Freedom Unlimited doesn’t look enticing at first glance but has a ton of tricks up its sleeve. It doesn’t have an annual fee and earns you 1.5% cash back — which comes in the form of 1.5x Ultimate Rewards points — on all purchases. But then the magic happens. If you also have the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, you can transfer your Freedom Unlimited points to Chase’s partners, including high-end options like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. You can fly at the front of the plane … for free. Yes, really. You can read more on that here. It’s currently offering a sign-up bonus of 3% cash back on all purchases in your first year up to $20,000 spent. If you’re just starting out and want to start racking up the points ASAP, this card should be at the top of your list because of its easy earning potential on your everyday purchases.
No matter how you start your points and miles journey, these cards will help you get started without getting overwhelmed. There’s no need to go straight to the big leagues. Start off small and build your credit, and we promise those points will add up faster than you can say, “Award redemption.”
Samantha Rosen creates travel and credit-card focused packages and content, particularly with a beginner spin. For over two years, she managed TPG's social media strategy and audience engagement efforts. There's a good chance she's talking about how much she loves New Orleans or planning her next meal as you read this.