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There are so many details with earning and redeeming travel rewards that it is possible to lose the forest for the trees. At the end of the day this is about taking your miles and putting them to use for memorable travel award redemptions.

Don’t get us wrong: the details matter and they matter a lot, but the fact remains that the single most important way to earn big miles is through a large credit card sign up bonus.

With that in mind we wanted to cover in broad strokes the considerations that go into designing an effective credit card strategy.

How to Build Your Strategy

Essential Rule:

Chase ‘5/24’: Chase will deny you if you’ve been approved for more than 5 personal cards across ALL issuers in the last 24 months. Business cards are generally excluded from adding to the total except those from Capital One, Discover and TD Bank. Being an Authorized User on another person’s account does count for your 5/24 tally.

So let put 5/24 into action in a couple different scenarios

You’ve applied and been approved for the following cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve  in October 2019
  • United Explorer in February 2020
  • Chase Ink Cash (Business card) in May 2020 

So let’s say it’s September 2020:  Your status would be 2/24 for the Sapphire Reserve and United Explorer opened in the last 24 months. Remember business cards generally don’t count towards your 5/24 count. 

Your spouse applied and was approved for the following cards:

  • Chase Ink Business Unlimited (November 2018)
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited (July 2019)
  • Home Depot (October 2019)
  • Lowes (November 2019)
  • The Platinum Card from American Express (January 2020)
  • Wayfair (February 2020)
  • Bank of America Alaska Business (May 2020)

If it’s September 2020, your spouse would be over ‘5/24’ and would not be able to successfully apply for a Chase card until they were back under 5/24. Remember business cards generally don’t count but all personal cards do.  They would not be back under 5/24 until 24 months after the Freedom Unlimited application — so not until July 2021.

Because of 5/24, we highly recommend including a Chase Sapphire Preferred and a Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card among your first 5 card applications. These are some of the very best cards available and you want to maximize your chances of getting approved.

General Principles:

  1. For domestic travel with more than one traveler you simply cannot do better than the Southwest Companion Pass.
  2. For international travel flexible point options (transferable points from Chase, Amex, Citi and Venture points with multiple airlines) are the greatest thing since sliced bread.
  3. Chase Ultimate Rewards points and American Express Membership Rewards points are extremely useful and there are multiple cards that offer these points. Citi ThankYou points are also valuable in certain instances, though their transfer partners are not as great as UR and MR.
  4. Look for Saver Level space on airlines whenever possible.

Size matters:

As a general rule of thumb, a sign-up bonus should be worth $500 or more to be considered of good value.

Quality matters:

Despite the size factor, since miles are not interchangeable you cannot simply compare the bonus size from one offer to another. (ie. Since Delta miles are so hard to use for “Saver Level” seats, 50,000 Delta miles are not as valuable as 50,000 United miles.)

Cost matters:

The entire point of this is to travel for as little money as possible, so the more you spend to earn your signup bonuses the further away from your goal you are.

This means when you start applying for cards your goal should be to spend almost no money on credit card fees (interest, etc.). Once you exhaust this low hanging fruit, then you can turn your attention to the cards without the first yearly fee waived.

Limited time offers:

Periodically fantastic offers will pop up for big bonuses that are out of the ordinary. In recent memory the 100,000 Ultimate Rewards bonus for the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the 100,000 American mile bonus for the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite MasterCard® come to mind.

Sometimes it makes sense to jump on these offers if and when they coincide with your personal travel goals, even if it means sacrificing 5/24.

Category bonuses:

Some cards allow you to earn extra points for using your credit card at certain types of retailers. This can be very valuable, depending on your spending habits.

A good example would be the Chase Ink Business Cash. This no annual fee card offers 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores (including gift cards), Internet, Cable and Phone Services (including T-Mobile, Verizon and Netflix). You also get 2X at gas stations and restaurants while earning 1X on all other purchases.

Let’s say your monthly credit card bill looks like this:

  • $100 cell phone bill (5x = 500 Ultimate Rewards points)
  • $75 on cable and Internet (5x = 375 UR)
  • $15 for Netflix (5x = 75 UR)
  • $50 on gas (2x = 100 UR)
  • $100 at restaurants (2x = 200 UR)
  • $500 on everything else (1x = 500 UR)

You earned 1,750 Ultimate Rewards points on $840 of spending, instead of the 840 UR if there were no category bonuses!

Taking Action:

So while it may seem complicated to pick out your next card, don’t fear, as our goal is to make this as easy for you as possible, and we’re pretty confident that we will be able help you succeed in designing your strategy from soup to nuts.

Travel Miles 101 has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Travel Miles 101 and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.