LOS ANGELES — I’m set to say bon voyage soon to Madrid, on a free airline trip, my fourth in 2 years.
Courtesy of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I’ve gone to Hawaii, Japan twice, and now soon Spain.
The card is a pricey splurge–$450 a year in fees, but Chase gives you a $300 credit for dining and travel purchases once you’ve hit that number, (which includes taxis and Uber rides), 3 points per dollar spent on travel and dining purchases, or 1 point per dollar for others.
And there was that generous 100,000 points signup bonus when I joined. With that and the 3x offer, the points added up really quickly.
In a nutshell, the 100,000 points got me two free tickets to Japan. It varies with airlines, the time of year you fly and the various deals of the moment, but generally 50,000 points is good for one international flight, and 25,000 for domestic.
I don’t game the system by checking the Chase website, but I suppose if I had more free time or was more of a hardcore shopper, I would. The Chase site does note that certain stores like Sephora, ProFlowers and the Samsung online store are offering 4 points, 10 points and 2 points to the dollar, respectively, if you use your card for purchases.
I try to use my cards for everything–from insurance renewals to Uber rides, and watch the points accrue. (I went virtually cashless several years ago.)
I did add to the game by recently closing one travel card, and signing up with a new one, the Bovay card listed below, to qualify for the 100,000 miles sign up offer.
One offer that caught my eye, but didn’t hook me was 60,000 bonus miles to pick up Chase’s new Sapphire banking offer. Fine print: a deposit of $75,000 to qualify. Sorry Chase, that’s way too rich for my blood.
So how does Sapphire compare to other cards out there now? And who’s got the best bonus deals?
The Sapphire card is still generous, but it no longer has the biggest sign-up bonus. Now, Chase has two varieties of the Sapphire card–Reserve, which has more liberal benefits, or Preferred. The Preferred sports a lower $95 annual fee, plus 60,000 bonus points and 2x points on travel and dining expenses, or 1x on other purchases. The Reserve offers 50,000 points, but 3x on travel and dining and a hefty $450 annual fee. Chase lowers the fee to $150 after the $300 travel and dining credit.
Two other cards currently stick out for generous offers.
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless
Points: 100,000, after you spend $5,000 in first 3 months.
Limited time: Offer closes April 24th
Fine print: This is a card aimed at Marriott travelers, with a liberal 6x points for stays at a hotel property versus 2x otherwise. But unlike the Sapphire card, you can’t just call the Chase travel agency and set up a flight on any airline. You need to set up the card with a specific airline, and then book your flight accordingly.
American Express also has a Marriott Bonvoy edition card, aimed at Marriott travelers. It offers the same 100,000 points bonus, but carries a more expensive $450 fee. You do get a $300 credit for spending at Marriott hotels. It also offers free travel medical insurance and roadside assistance. Like the Bonvoy Chase card, the 100,000 point offer from AmEx closes on April 24th.
Chase Ink Business
Bonus Points: 80,000
Fees: $95 yearly
Fine print: You need to be a business owner, but if you are, this is an even better deal than when the Sapphire Card gave away 100,000 points. Reason: you can also get points for paying your bills. Chase promises 3x points on travel and dining, as well as advertising purchases, or your internet, cable and phone bill. Unlike the Marriott card, which requires you to choose just one airline to associate your points with, the Chase Ink (and Sapphire) cards allow you to book flights on any airline you choose from a Chase travel site. It also offers discounted fares on rental cars.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite
Bonus points: 70,000
Fee: Free for first year, then $89
Fine print: You get 2x points on all purchases plus a 5 percent mile rebate after you redeem travel. So, for instance, if you redeem 40,000 miles, you get a 2,000 mile bonus added to your account. Plus you get to choose any airline for your travel.
Capital One Venture
Bonus Points: 50,000
Fee: 0 for first year, then $95 yearly
Deals: 2x points on purchases, or 10x when used via Hotels.com through January, a generous perk for hotel guests we haven’t seen any other card come close to. (For comparison, the Marriott Bonvoy card is 6x points for Marriott stays.)
In choosing a card, “think about what your goals are,” says Sarah Silbert, who reviews cards for the Pointsguy.com website. “If you want to get free travel to Europe,” choose a card like the Sapphire card or an airline that flies to Europe. A Southwest Visa card, for instance, wouldn’t be a good choice, she notes, “because it doesn’t fly there.”
Southwest, by the way, is offering 40,000 points to sign up for its card, as long as you agree to spend $1,000 in the first three months. There’s an annual fee of $69. It offers 2x points for Southwest purchases, 1x for others.
Speaking of other airlines.
—American: 60,000 bonus miles with Citi’s AAdvantage card. Terms: Spend $3,000 in first six months and no fee for first year, then $99. Only 2x points on food, gas and American Airlines purchases, 1x for the rest. Perk: preferred boarding and first bag checked is free.
—Delta: Has four cards from American Express, offering 10,000 to 40,000 bonus points, with 2x points for Delta and food purchases, 1x for the rest.
—United: Explorer card, from Chase, offers 40,000 bonus points if you spend $2,000 in first 3 months or 60,000 if you spend $8,000 in six months. Perks include priority boarding and free checked bag. Points: 2x on food, gas and United purchases, 1x for rest.
Many of the cards offer other perks as well, including paying your TSA Pre fees, entrance to airport lounges and some travel insurance as well. Check the card websites for more details, which are the best places to sign up for the cards.
Remember that in signing up for the cards, you’ll need to have a decent credit history for approval, and that free flights are only worth it if you pay your bill on time and don’t accrue those massive interest charges.
Finally, what about gaming the system? Sign up for a card, spend the required amount, get the bonus points, take a flight, then cancel and move on to another card?
Silbert says it can be done, but be careful. Doing so could affect your credit score negatively, and alternatively, banks could flat out refuse your request for a new card, based on your history.
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.