What’s the best…?
I’ve tried to consolidate a bunch of answers to common questions I get about the best credit cards, airlines, mileage programs, etc into one place. Let’s go!
Destination I’ve been to
I cannot list just one, so in no particular order, I’d say New Zealand, particularly Queenstown and the surrounding areas on the south island, for its stunning natural beauty; Turkey, particularly Istanbul, for its unparalleled quality, high level of service, and affordability of food, accommodation, and travel options, and Norway, particularly Bergen, for its panoramic vistas, highly developed and seamless tourism infrastructure, and outdoorsy culture.
The answer is highly dependent on where you live and where you want to go. For U.S. domestic travel, all the options are pretty awful; it’s a matter of choosing which carrier will abuse you the least. I fly Delta when they’re affordable because of their reliability and consistent onboard experience, and Southwest when I need two checked bags or know I might have to change my trip (no change/cancel fees; fully refundable if you’re using points, refundable to a voucher otherwise). JetBlue is good choice as well thanks to free wifi and snacks. I pretty much only fly American or United when they offer a superior price or schedule than any other carrier, or if I have some sort of upgrade instrument to fly in business/first class in one of their wide-body aircraft.
For international trips, I typically fly SWISS, Lufthansa, or SAS to Europe; Qatar Airways, Emirates, or Turkish Airlines to the Middle East or Africa; Cathay Pacific, Singapore, ANA or EVA Air to Asia. You really can’t go wrong with any of these airlines; they are all fantastic choices, especially if you can book a premium cabin.
The best hotel chain is Hyatt, mainly because of its very generous World of Hyatt loyalty program. Benefits for elite members are consistent across the chain; for Globalists, this means guaranteed free breakfast, waived resort fees, Club access, and suite upgrades (when available) at all hotels worldwide. Many people complain about Hyatt’s limited footprint, but they are rapidly expanding and the hotels they do have are generally very good. Hyatt does not have any “bad” hotels - there is a baseline quality standard you can expect even at a “low-end” brand like Hyatt Place or Hyatt House. The same cannot be said of Marriott, Hilton or IHG. And with Hyatt’s Guest of Honor program, you can even book a stay for someone else and they’ll receive all these benefits as if they were Globalist members themselves. There’s no extra charge to do this, and you can do it as often as you want, which is absolutely nuts!
Travel credit card
I always recommend people get at least a few credit cards in order to avail of benefits which are not all found on a single card. No single card is good enough to deserve all of your spending! I do not recommend any airline or hotel co-branded cards as a primary credit card1. It’s perfectly reasonable to open one of these cards to get a sign-up bonus – and only when it’s a high number of points/miles – but there is rarely a good reason to be putting ongoing spending on any airline or hotel card. This is because these cards usually only offer 1 point per dollar on most spending, which is roughly a 1-1.5% return. Most people would be better off using a card that earns transferable points with useful bonus categories, like groceries or dining, of around 3-5 points per dollar spent. Because these points can be transferred to several different airlines, you’re hedged against future devaluations (negative changes the airlines can and will make to their programs).
Such cards include:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve ($550/yr), which famously offers 3 Chase points per dollar spent on travel and dining, $300/year in automatic travel spend rebates, and grants you an unlimited Priority Pass membership granting airport lounge access for yourself and up to two guests with you, a must-have for any frequent traveler;
- Pairs well with the Chase Freedom, Chase Freedom Unlimited, and/or Chase Ink Cash, all of which are free.
- American Express Platinum ($695/yr), known for granting access to Amex Centurion lounges as well as the Priority Pass described above [although restaurant “lounges” are excluded], 5x points on airfare spend, a $15/month Uber credit, and $200/year in automatic airline fee rebates;
- The American Express Gold Card ($250/yr), which offers 4 Amex points per dollar spent at any restaurant in the world, and at U.S. supermarkets.
Lastly, I recommend ALSO carrying a cash-back card that earns at least 2% back on all spending, and which does not charge foreign transaction fees if you’re an international traveler. A number of banks offer such cards, and you can find a nice list of them here. Churning Discover It Miles (3% for the first year) is a favorite of mine; many people also like the Citi Double Cash card.
Way to redeem my miles
Tricky question, but I’ll try to simplify it based on what sort of miles you’ve got.
|Air Canada Aeroplan||Sweet spot: 55k miles for business class between Europe and North America. Make sure you avoid fuel surcharges by flying either flying the specific airlines (e.g. Swiss, Turkish, EVA, Scandinavian, Singapore), or originating your journey in a country that bans or limits fuel surcharges (e.g. Australia, Japan, Philippines).|
|American Airlines AAdvantage||“Web Special” awards can offer fantastic value on AA flights, especially on last minute travel. Middle East to Asia for 40k miles in business, or 50k miles in first is a sweet spot, particularly when redeeming for travel on Qatar Airways and Etihad.|
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines first class from USA to Asia, Africa, or Middle East for just 70K miles is probaby the best mileage redemption in the world. Make sure you utilize the free stopover available to you in each direction of travel. Nest trips to Alaska hubs (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles) by flying A-hub-B as a (potentially cheaper!) multi city itinerary.|
|Delta SkyMiles||Oof, tough one. Domestic economy flights for 5K miles? Ripe for hidden city opportunities.|
|British Airways Avios||Short domestic flights on American can be a great value, especially for elites looking to get a free upgrade to first class. Qantas, Qatar or JAL short haul flights as well. Usually best to avoid redeeming on BA themselves; transferring BA Avios to Iberia Avios (1:1, free to do as often as you like) can reduce the amount of fuel surcharge and sometimes mileage.|
|Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer||KrisFlyer Escapes can be a great value for travel on Singapore’s own flights.|
|United MileagePlus||United recently removed their partner award chart, but reasonable value can still be had in redeeming for premium tickets. United never passes along fuel surcharges, making them a bargain compared to other Star Alliance programs that do.|
Way to get cash internationally
Don’t bring your Wells Fargo debit card to Ireland, don’t convert dollars to kroner at your local Chase branch before your trip, and don’t even think about changing money at a Travelex booth, or sticking your credit card into an overseas ATM. Just talk to Chuck, he’ll hook you up. Charles Schwab’s Investor Checking account offers one of the only debit cards that does not charge a fee to use any ATM in the world, AND they reimburse any fees that might be charged by the ATM operators, with no limit. Fidelity offers something similar2 as well.
For example: Delta, United, American, Southwest, Marriott, and Hilton often have compelling sign-up bonuses on their cards, but all of them have weak earnings for anything other than spending at that one travel brand. Hyatt’s cobranded card offers 2 qualifying nights per $5000 spent on the card. If you stay enough at Hyatt to make achieving elite status worth it, this card is an exception. ↩
Per Fidelity’s terms and conditions, they reserve the right to charge “up to 1%” foreign transaction fee even if most customers report being charged no such fee. ↩
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