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The signup bonuses (SUB) are what makes most credit cards worth getting. These offers go up and down throughout the year, so it is always good to check out how the offer compares before applying. This goes for any of the travel credit card. One of the hardest parts of earning a SUB is the required spend amount, but that is where it is easy for SoCal patients. The program fee or a lab visit will knock out most credit card minimum spend requirements. You might as well be earning money toward air travel, hotels, or even rental cars with each of those major spends.
SOUTHWEST Airlines Rapid Rewards CC
We were very lucky we had sort of started our travel hacking with Southwest before we got into the program. We started with the Southwest cards in 2017 when we had to replace our air conditioner. We signed up for our first card and got a 40k point bonus that we used to fly to Costa Rica on the cheap. The biggest perk of the Southwest SUB is that they help you earn towards getting a Companion Pass (CP), so essentially getting to take your kid (or whoever you designate) free on any flight. The only cost is the $5.60 per one way flight, or $11.20 roundtrip per person. That means if you pay for the flight with the points you get from the SUB and have a companion pass, that is 2 for the price of 1 tickets and $22.40 in fees. I have done roundtrip out of Denver to Long Beach (LGB) for 4500 points for me and my son and just the $22.40. When using that card for monthly expenses we were earning more than that each month in points. With that we were able to maintain our points and have been flying for "free" for the past few years (over 20 trips). Amarillo is not the best market for Southwest flights, so we drive to Albuquerque and Denver to get direct flights to LA. Look at all different ways of getting there, and you may find cheaper routes as opposed to booking directly out and back. A little drive can make the points extend much longer.
The SW personal card SUB range from 40k to 80k, depending on exactly which level card you get. You can only get 1 personal card, so to get to the companion pass you will normally need to get a business card as well. It seems daunting, but there are plenty of examples of how to get these with even the tiniest business (like $500 income level). To get my business card I had to sign for an EIN with the IRS for my photography business, but was approved quickly after I got that. Currently with SW, the threshold for the CP is 135k points. They spot you 10k points for holding a SW card, so it is only 125k points. That makes the CP pretty hard to earn with a single card even with an elevated bonus, but it can be done. Hotel stays and rental cars can help earn bonus points that add in as well, if done through the SW travel page. You will pay a premium for book through there though. Avis, Alamo, Budget, and Hertz are all partners with SW, which will get you a 600 point bonus with each rental if you put in your SW Rapid Reward (RR) number at booking. You get the 600 point bonus when booking direct through the rental car pages, if you add you RR number there as well. Also getting family and friends to sign up with referrals go towards your CP status. Multiple times I have used referrals to get me over the top.
You can earn a new SUB every 2 years to help replenish the points stash in your account as well. The card just needs to be paid off and the card be closed before applying for the SW card again. Be sure to wait 30 days before reapplying. Between my wife and I, we have earned 4 companion passes since 2017.
The cards have a number of benefits that you just have to weigh against the cost of the card. Annual fees range from $69 to $149 on the personal and $199 on the business, but my favorite are the most expense ones due to the benefits included. The business card is the only gives you free internet on flights, which is my favorite to have because of that. The included travel credits and annual bonus points really help even out the cost of the high priced cards. That goes for any credit card. Always look at the travel credits and be sure you use them. They are very easy to track in the Chase app as seen below.
Some may not have Southwest as an option, but it is our go to due the ability to earn companion passes. Research other airline cards if Southwest doesn't work for you as they all offer some type of card. Be sure to read the section about the CSP card below, as it is the ultimate all-around travel reward card. Rewards on the CSP can be used across airlines, hotels, and even car rentals.
Hotel Cards & Travel Cards
After reducing your you flight cost, you may start to try and reduce other major costs like the hotels. That is what we did and signed up for a number of cards, that included Marriott, IHG, and Hyatt as we use those hotel brands the most.
2023 Update: Just wanted to share what my daily spend card is and what transfers I use the most. The CSP is used for everything when I am not trying to reach a signup bonus or there is a really good bonus, like 5x or 10x for groceries, on another card. For hotels, unless I have a free night certificate, I transfer points from CSP to Hyatt. The Chase Ultimate Reward (UR) points transfer 1:1 to transfer partners like Hyatt. Hyatt having a 1:2.8 redemption rate makes it a great transfer destination. Category 1 redemptions are as low as 3,500 points, which I have even found $200 Hyatt Place in Cat 1. 3,500 points in UR is only worth about ~$35 bucks on the Chase Travel portal, so it is a no-brainer to transfer the points to Hyatt for redemptions. Most Hyatt's fall at the 5k-12k price per night, but that is a steal too. The redemption rate with Hyatt is almost unbeatable. It is something I wish I knew about years ago.
Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) - I want to mention this card first before the hotel branded cards. I didn't learn about the Chase Sapphire Preferred until after I got the other cards, but when it comes to earning and rewards it is the top tier. The benefits of the card when booking are some the the best too. Car rental protection and travel interruption coverage are some of the best of any card. This card bonus is one of the best, even when it is not at it highest SUB. At a 60k SUB, that is worth $750 worth of travel through the Chase Portal. When they bump that offer to 100k, that is $1250 in travel. You can book airlines, hotel, and even rental cars through the portal. The portal can be used to book without the credits as well, and spending with the card gets you 5x bonus on any travel booked. The Reserve card will get you a 10x bonus, but it's annual fee is a bit high for my taste. If you are considering a travel credit card, this would be my first choice behind the Southwest card.
Other cards and very important information
If these cards don't match your needs or are not the brands you use, shop around and find one that works for you. At minimum you are missing out on free travel when you pay the program or lab fees by not putting these on a rewards card. Even if you don't need to use the rewards on trips to LA, they can be use towards vacations at other times. As with any credit card though, be sure to keep the balances paid or the benefits can be out weighed fairly quickly. All the cards above are under Chase and are subject to the 5/24 rule. 5/24 means you can not open 5 or more Chase cards in less than 24 month period. As you jump into travel hacking just be sure to pace yourself and stay aware of your 5/24 status. Being listed as an Authorized User on a card will count against your 5/24 status as well. You can double up your points by having your spouse open cards too, so don't waste their 5/24 spots as an authorized user. After you get a card you can have your spouse use the referral link for the card. That way you get the referral bonus.
If you found this information useful, please use the above referral links as a thank you for compiling the information. If you have any questions or any of the links don't work, reach out on here, Facebook, tag me in the Travel Tipster group or even X (Twitter), I will be happy to help.