The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season

Post originally Published December 10, 2023 || Last Updated December 11, 2023

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The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Earn Bonuses for Opening New Cards

One of the best ways to rack up rewards this holiday season is by opening new credit cards and earning the signup bonuses. Most cards offer generous bonuses like 50,000 points or miles just for spending a certain amount within the first few months. Since the holidays involve higher spending, it's the perfect time to knock out minimum spend requirements and collect those big bonuses.

For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred currently offers 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months. That's worth around $750 in travel booked through Chase if you redeem for flights and hotels. The Capital One Venture card gives you 50,000 miles (worth $500 in travel) after spending $3,000 in 3 months. Even no-annual-fee cards like the Wells Fargo Propel American Express have nice bonuses, like 20,000 points ($200 in cash/travel) after $1,000 spend.
The key is applying strategically for 1-2 new cards at a time so you can meet the minimum spend. It also helps to target cards that offer bonus categories on your typical holiday purchases. The Citi Custom Cash Card gives 5% cash back on up to $500 per month in your top spending category. Gas, dining, grocery stores, select travel and more are options.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bank Altitude Connect Visa pays 4 points per $1 on travel and gas. You'll earn 50,000 bonus points worth $500 after spending $3,000 in the first 120 days. That's an easy way to maximize rewards on holiday airfare and road trips to visit family and friends. Just make sure to pay your balances off in full each month to avoid interest charges.

While tempting, try not to apply for too many cards at once since each application dings your credit. Space out applications by 2-3 months so you can meet spending requirements without getting overwhelmed. Check your credit score using a site like Credit Karma so you go into applications with optimal approval odds.

What else is in this post?

  1. The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Earn Bonuses for Opening New Cards
  2. The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Maximize Category Spending
  3. The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Transfer Points to Airline Programs
  4. The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Use Points for Holiday Airfare
  5. The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Book Free Hotel Nights
  6. The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Splurge on Airport Lounges
  7. The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Upgrade Your Rental Car
  8. The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Redeem for Gift Cards

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Maximize Category Spending

Everyone loves bonuses and accelerated point earning, so maximizing category spending is a prime way to amplify your rewards this holiday season. Most travel rewards credit cards offer higher earn rates - from 3x to 5x points - on specific purchases like dining, groceries, gas, travel, rotating categories, and more.

By targeting these bonus categories for your holiday expenses, you can quickly build up points for free flights, hotel nights, and other redemptions. For example, let's say you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. It offers 3x points on dining, so if you spend $1,000 on holiday meals out with family and friends, you'll earn 3,000 points instead of just 1,000 with non-bonus purchases.
Same goes for the Citi Premier which offers 3x on groceries, gas, restaurants, air travel and hotels. If you put all your holiday supermarket runs, fill-ups, meals out and travel on that card, you can easily net thousands of extra points. The Capital One SavorOne Rewards gives 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, grocery stores, and streaming services. Perfect for maximizing movie nights, holiday hosting, and more.
Aside from ongoing category bonuses, also keep an eye out for special holiday offers. Issuers like Chase and American Express often run promotions for extra points at department stores, online shopping portals, airline gift cards, and other seasonal purchases. Register your cards for these deals and add them to mobile wallets to have them top of mind when you're out spending.

Many issuers also let you activate rotating 5% quarterly categories, so check if you have any activated that align with holiday spending. Monitoring your credit card accounts for bonus opportunities takes a bit of time up front, but maximizing category spend can quickly translate into piles of additional points so it's well worth it.

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Transfer Points to Airline Programs

Transferring points from credit cards to frequent flyer programs is one of the most valuable ways to boost your rewards balance. While some cards allow redemptions for any travel purchase, transferring to miles opens up access to premium cabins and aspirational awards you could never afford to pay for with cash.

For example, blogger One Mile at a Time managed to fly first class suites on Emirates and Etihad for pennies on the dollar by transferring American Express Membership Rewards points. A one-way Abu Dhabi to New York ticket in the Etihad Apartments normally sells for around $10,000, but he redeemed just 85,000 transferred points. That’s getting over 10 cents per point in value instead of the usual 1-2 cents from direct card redemptions.

The key is holding cards that earn transferable points currencies. Flexible programs like American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, Capital One Miles and Marriott Bonvoy allow transfers to multiple airline partners. This gives you options to move points wherever they can get you the most value for a specific trip. Say you want to fly home for the holidays on American. Transfer Membership Rewards to British Airways to book American flights at a lower mileage rate.
Reddit users on r/churning and r/awardtravel share tricks for sweet spots like using Virgin Atlantic miles to fly Delta One business class to Europe for only 50,000 miles each way. Or leveraging LifeMiles to snag Oneworld business class awards that American and British Airways charge more for.

Transfer bonuses also periodically crop up, like Capital One's current 50% bonus when converting miles to Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles. Even a standard 1:1 transfer can net huge savings compared to revenue rates. Be sure to compare transfer costs to cash fares and only transfer when it makes sense. Pro tip - hold your points until you have a specific redemption in mind to avoid transfer regret.
While fixed programs like Southwest Rapid Rewards and JetBlue TrueBlue don't offer transfers, you can still move flexible currencies to book their flights for potentially fewer points. Just do the math to see if it makes sense vs. redeeming directly through the airline.

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Use Points for Holiday Airfare

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season

Holiday airfare is notoriously expensive, so using your hard-earned points and miles is one of the best ways to cut costs and fly home in style. This allows you to splurge on first or business class seats that would normally blow your budget. Even economy redemptions during peak periods represent huge savings over cash fares. Just make sure to book as early as possible since award space is limited.

Matt from ThePointsGuy managed to fly his family of four round-trip from New York to LA over Christmas in Delta One suites for only 120,000 Skymiles transferred from American Express. Cash prices were well over $2,000 per person, so he estimated saving $10,000 with points. Similarly, Reddit users share success booking “free” premium cabin awards over the holidays by stockpiling flexible currencies all year.
You can also use fixed-value points earned from cards like the Capital One Venture to erase holiday travel charges. Each mile redeems for 1 cent towards the cost, so a 50,000 mile bonus equals $500 off. While not as aspirational as transferring to airlines, this option offers a simple statement credit that applies to any airline. Families pooling points can redeem towards an entire trip’s airfare.

If award space gets snapped up, keep checking right up to departure as seats often open from cancellations. Set up alerts on ExpertFlyer to get notified when partner award seats are released on your routes. Avoid surcharges but take advantage of free stopovers offered on award tickets through programs like Aeroplan, Avianca LifeMiles and Singapore KrisFlyer.

Another trick is looking at nearby alternative airports that may have better award availability than your home airport. Be willing to depart from or fly into a different hub if it opens up the flights you need. Many programs like British Airways Avios allow you to build in a free stopover visit on a round-trip award.

While some programs like Southwest Rapid Rewards Points and JetBlue TrueBlue don’t offer transfers, you can still book flights with their fixed value points currencies often at lower rates than revenue tickets. Compare costs to pay with cash or use flexible points transferred in.

No matter what program or points you use, always crunch the numbers to make sure you’re getting at least 1-2 cents per point in value. This ensures you’re maximizing your redemption. Never transfer points speculatively without a set redemption plan as programs often devalue without notice. Saver level economy awards generally offer the best per point value if you don’t have enough for business or first.

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Book Free Hotel Nights

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season

One of the best parts of travel rewards is scoring free hotel nights. While airfare tends to eat up most budgets, hotel costs shouldn't go overlooked. Thankfully, the same flexible credit card points that get you airline tickets can also unlock an almost limitless supply of free lodging if played right.

Let's break this down into fixed value and transferable currencies. Cards earning fixed points values can wipe out hotel charges via statement credits. For example, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card offers 75,000 bonus miles after spending $10,000 in 6 months. Those 75k miles redeem for $750 in travel erasing. Say you book a 3-night hotel stay over Christmas that costs $600. Simply use 60,000 Capital One miles to cover the charge. Straight cash value.
Meanwhile, transferable programs open up aspirational redemptions at luxury hotels that would blow any budget. Perpetual traveler Nomadic Matt managed to stay at high-end hotels like the Park Hyatt Vienna and the W Taipei using Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferred to Hyatt. A free night redemption at the Category 7 Park Hyatt Vienna would normally require 30,000 World of Hyatt points but only 25,000 Ultimate Rewards transferred in. That's over $500 in value per night.

Aside from Hyatt, other transfer partners like Marriott Bonvoy offer outsized value from converted points on redemptions at top-tier Ritz Carltons, St. Regis, W Hotels and more. Marriott's no blackout off-peak pricing also makes it easier to use points on holidays. Flexible Amex Membership Rewards transfer to Marriott to book higher category hotels that may be unattainable through earned stays alone each year.

The key is maximizing value per point on hotel redemptions whenever possible. Comparison shop rates if redeeming fixed value points. And don't transfer points speculatively without a redemption plan since programs often devalue unexpectedly. While tempting, avoid spending large amounts of points on lower category Hampton Inns or Holiday Inns when those rooms often cost less than $100. Unless you're really scraping to cover budget lodging that would otherwise bust your bank.
Also keep an eye out for promotions offering 25-100% point rebates and bonuses on paid hotel stays. For example, World of Hyatt periodically runs bonuses to earn a free night faster on revenue bookings. Stack these with elite status perks and credit card category bonuses and those "paid" hotel stays can essentially become free nights too. Just make sure to crunch numbers and avoid redemption regret.

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Splurge on Airport Lounges

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season

Airport lounges used to be an exclusive privilege reserved for first class flyers and elite status road warriors. But these days, more travelers are getting access to decked out lounges through premium credit cards - and you should too. Not only do lounges make travel more enjoyable, they offer a calm oasis to maximize your points and miles.
As Samantha from TravelUpdate found, having a lounge to retreat to makes navigating cancelations, delays and long layovers infinitely more bearable. When her flight home for Thanksgiving got cancelled last minute, she headed straight for the Centurion Lounge to regroup in comfort. Comfy chairs, gourmet meals, premium drinks, showers, and quiet nooks for napping or working turned her travel nightmare into a minor inconvenience.

Lounges also provide insider opportunities to snag better flights, according to Ben from One Mile at a Time. As a top tier elite, he relies on early boarding from lounges to grab preferred seats. And when flights are disrupted, he works directly with lounge agents to get rebooked on alternatives before the main airport crowds. Access can make the difference between getting home the same day or being stuck overnight during the holidays.

Of course, unlimited complimentary food, alcohol and other amenities make paid airport dining and shopping obsolete. As Chris from Points With a Crew explains, having lounge access keeps his family fed on long layovers without breaking the budget. Hot breakfasts, custom omelets, ice cream sundaes, premium liquor...lounges can easily save $50 or more per person per visit.

The best part is certain premium travel credit cards grant complimentary entry. The Platinum Card from American Express offers access to Amex's own Centurion Lounges plus Priority Pass Select and Airspace lounges. Meanwhile, the Chase Sapphire Reserve provides a Priority Pass Select membership with visits to over 1,300 lounges worldwide. Even no-annual-fee cards like the Capital One VentureOne have limited lounge perks.

Just beware busy holiday times often lead to overcrowding. Based on TPG Reviews, some lounges limit entry at peak periods or strictly enforce guest limits. Visiting off-peak helps avoid waitlists and turned away travelers due to capacity cutoffs. Regardless, TPG still insists lounge access makes airports more tolerable - especially when you'd otherwise be paying an arm and a leg for snacks and drinks at the gate.

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Upgrade Your Rental Car

Scoring complimentary upgrades makes rental cars more enjoyable, but elite status isn’t the only trick. Savvy renters leverage credit card perks to ride in style for the same price as an economy sedan. Despite blackout dates, upgrading your holiday rental car is surprisingly doable with the right strategy.
According to Kyle from Calculated Travel, premium cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve offer elite status with National Car Rental and Avis. This unlocks perks like free upgrades to any car class, skipping rental counter lines, and bonus earning on rentals. For just a $95 annual fee, he estimates the Reserve has gotten his familySUVs and minivans instead of compact cars for the same cheap reservation rate.

Even better, Reddit users on r/CreditCards discover authorized user cards also grant National Executive Elite Status. By making someone else an authorized user, they score complimentary upgrades too at no extra cost. Talk about gaming the system!

Per perpetual renter Spike from Million Mile Secrets, premium cards like the Platinum Card from American Express offer elite status with Hertz, Avis and National. This lets him upgrade to nicer cars with extra space, Bluetooth and premium audio. Airport Hertz lots even let elites grab vehicles from the Premier aisles. He suggests checking executive lots to compare amenities between classes and choose the best incremental upgrade.
However, Zach from TravelZack warns bonuses from credit cards may not work for exotic or specialty vehicles. For his Hawaii trip, he hoped Amex Plat status would score a convertible or Jeep but upgrades only applied to basic sedans and SUVs. Instead, he recommends reserving the ideal car from the start for bucket list driving adventures.

For simple status, Deb from Zero to Travel opts for the no annual fee Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi which includes a free upgrade coupon with most rental companies. She suggests combining with retail bonus programs like AAA and warehouse clubs for additional elite tiers and discounts that stack. Even bare bones cards can unlock savings when layered strategically with other benefits.

The Top Travel Cards to Rack Up Rewards This Holiday Season - Redeem for Gift Cards

Among the most overlooked yet easiest redemptions are turning points into gift cards. While less glamorous than luxe travel, gift cards offer unbeatable flexibility that maximizes value for many families.

As budget savvy mom Becka from Rebels With A Cause explains, stretched holiday budgets make it hard to splurge on experiences or cash in points for aspirational trips. For her family, converting Capital One miles into gift cards for home improvement stores, restaurants, and Amazon gives them options to cover practical expenses. Though not the highest value, she appreciates cash equivalents that simplify holiday costs.

Millennial money expert Priya from Bliss Beyond Wealth also loves redeeming gift cards to save on budget accommodations. For a recent babymoon she wanted luxury hotels that points couldn't cover. But gift cards earned from her Capital One Savor card let her wipe out the costs of an affordable road trip hotel so more cash could go towards nice dinners out.

corporate road warrior Sean from Latitude Credit advises combining fixed value points with online shopping portals when redeeming for e-gift cards. Many programs like American Express Membership Rewards offer bonuses for purchasing gift cards through their portals. Stack that with site-wide discounts, cash back, coupons and credit card category bonuses and each point nets higher value. His savvy tips can convert 100 Marriott points into a $13 gift card to annihilate a Dunkin' Donuts bill.

Though food gift cards may not get you to Bora Bora, The Points Couple blogger explain they make perfect stocking stuffers to delight picky teenagers, college kids, newlyweds and any foodie. And combining bonuses when buying gift cards means splurging on family with points while pocketing cash for yourself. Pragmatic yet creative.

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