New Year. New credit card?

Time for a new credit card? (Chris McGinnis)

Time for a new credit card? (Chris McGinnis)

I bet nearly everyone who reads The BAT has resolved to travel more in 2014. Right? Well, why not start off the year banking some big bonuses by getting a new credit card? If you have good credit, and plan to pay your bill off every month, playing your cards right can really pay off with free or discounted trips.

For example, I signed up for a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card last year, spent $3,000 in the first three months and earned a tidy 40,000-point bonus.

Then I used the card frequently for the rest of the year, eventually earning 65,000 points. This week, using the Chase Ultimate Rewards booking tool, I redeemed those points for an Air Canada trip to Ottawa for my mom’s big 80th birthday party. Flying to Canada during the summer is expensive, and that ticket would have cost me dearly—about $800. But since I played my cards right, it didn’t cost a dime. (Except that Air Canada wants $35 for a specific seat reservation.)

Late last year, I signed up for the popular new Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard. I spent $1,000 in the first three months and earned another 40,000 sign up bonus. I’ll use the card frequently for the rest of this year, and will likely use the points for a trip at Christmas (maybe I’ll go back to Puerto Rico). I can do that because when redeeming credit card points (vs. airline miles), there are no blackout dates.  If a seat is available, you “buy” the ticket with your points. The number of points you use is based on how much the ticket costs. Easy!

There is no such thing as the “best” credit card for frequent flyers. But there is a best one for YOU based on your travel and spending habits. (Here’s our list of top credit card picks.)

But if you resolve to update the cards in your wallet this year, here are two of the best general purpose cards to get right now due to their generous signup bonuses, reasonable spend requirements, and waived fees for the first year.

>Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Chase Sapphire W PinThis is probably the best choice for Bay Area Travelers because of Chase’s close ties to United and ability to easily transfer points. (Plus, the card is made out of metal and has a nice heft to it!)

  • Annual fee of $95 waived the first year.
  • Points can be transferred to airline partners including United, Southwest, British Airways, Korean Air, and or hotel partners like Hyatt or Marriott among others.
  • Redeeming points for travel (instead of transferring them to airline mileage programs) gives a rate of 1.25 cents per point. With a signup bonus of 40,000 points, that equals $500 worth of travel. (Hello! No brainer here. Sign up!)
  • The card now comes with a built in microchip that makes it easier to use overseas where chip cards are more prevalent
  • Earn TWO points per dollar spent on travel (fares, fees, inflight purchases, hotel, taxi, rental car, tolls, etc.) and dining, and one point for everything else. On the first Friday of each month, you earn three points per dollar spent on dining.
  • Book your trips via the Ultimate Rewards website and you earn three points per dollar spent.
  • No foreign transaction fees—a savings of 2-3%, which means a savings of nearly $100 on an overseas trip where you spend $3,000.
  • On your annual anniversary holding the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Chase rewards you with an additional 7% bonus based on the points you earned during that year

>Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard

This is one of the best of a new crop of cards that came out last year, with many of the benefits of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, plus, it offers two points per dollar spent on ALL purchases. The Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard also made Nerd Wallet/Money Magazine’s list of best credit cards for 2013-2014.

  • barclaycardAnnual fee of $89 waived the first year.
  • Earn two “miles” per dollar spent (on everything).
  • Spend $3,000 in first 90 days and earn 40,000 miles (which equates to $440 toward travel purchases)
  • Redeem miles via the card’s program for travel (one mile equals one dollar), and also receive a 10% mileage rebate on points spent on travel during your first year.
  • In an unusual twist, miles earned are redeemed for statement credits on almost any travel related purchase such as airline tickets, cruises, rental cars, and hotels. Basically, you buy travel using your card, then use statement credits to reduce or eliminate the travel charge.
  • The Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard offers a free subscription to TripIt Pro (typically $49), which helps you to organize boarding passes, travel itineraries, and flight notifications in one convenient app.
Card Watch Dog's Geoff Whitmore

Card Watch Dog’s Geoff Whitmore

Worried about keeping track of all of the points you have earned? Numerous apps and software programs make it much easier to manage multiple cards. Last summer I met Geoff Whitmore at a travel conference in Colorado. He’s the creator of Card Watchdog, a free online service that helps organize and manage all of your cards and point balances in one place—very helpful for those playing the travel credit card game!

Features include emails to alert you of an upcoming annual fee (in case you don’t want to renew it) or other special notifications that you can set yourself. It is easy to sign up by using a Facebook account or Gmail log-in, and it does not take long to load all of your credit card numbers and expirations into the system.

Geoff wrote a guest post for BAT readers here about how the service can help out.

What cards do you carry in your wallet? Why? Please leave your comments below. 

(Please note that The BAT earns a small commission when you sign up for credit cards via links posted here. So please use those links! It helps us help you.)

- Chris McGinnis

And just in case you missed it, here’s what else you need to know about Bay Area Travel over the last month:

American & US Airways at T2 + Sonoma airport expands + UberX + Delta/Virgin + EVA expands

United transcon bonus + United 787 domestic + Fewer 747s + Delta vs Alaska

*How to earn a quick 40,000 United miles*

Anticipating T3E + Google Int’l + New Virgin Visa + More Southwest nonstops

Southwest: Blackfish backlash

United: T3E & UA500 & 49ers-Seahawks Game fares

What to do if pulled over by the police [Infographic]

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Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.
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