Personal Credit Card Choices

As noted in another post, we utilize co-branded credit cards almost exclusively. This post details those (few) cards we tend to use and why  basically the story of how we got into the points & miles game.

Even before I started playing the points & miles game I traveled internationally a couple times each year. Throughout all of it, I mainly flew American Airlines (or its partners). I believe this stems from my first "real" job after college, which sent me to Chile. While waiting at the airport (almost 30 years ago), I thought: it's a lot of miles to Santiago, I should probably sign up for their frequent flier program. I should have done it earlier of course, but didn't know what it really entailed. Nowadays it's easy to glean information from a Google search, but back then, pre-internet, it all was kind of word-of-mouth, and I was totally a cheap-ass budget traveler, and didn't travel in the frequent flyer community (or really know anything about it).

So I basically fell into being an American Airlines customer. But since then, we've always had good luck flying with them and, in fact, during our honeymoon – which we did use miles for, but very inefficiently since it was my first real attempt and didn't understand how to leverage/use them well – we flew several different airlines to get from the Caribbean to above the Arctic Circle, but were always treated the best with American and other Oneworld airlines, even though we did not have elite status with them. And it seems that we tend to fly places where Oneworld airlines fly. (Note: American Airlines is one of the founding members of the Oneworld Alliance). So, American Airlines. Unless there is a great deal on another airline, of course.

My very first credit card was a Citibank card. I got it my sophomore year in college because they were offering a free t-shirt and pizza if you completed the application. So, hey, why not?! It did take a couple years before I even used the card, however, since I was raised to believe credit cards were evil (news flash: they're not. In fact, they're almost a necessity nowadays, especially if you travel internationally). As a basically unemployed 18 year-old, they gave me a gracious $500 credit limit (it has ballooned quite nicely since then). Several years later, Citi automatically "upgraded" me to a Thank You rewards cards that earned me points, but I had no idea what that meant or really how to maximize my points for redemptions. It did jumpstart my Blu-Ray collection back in the day, however (a really poor way to redeem those points, I have since discovered).

Then, a couple years later, when I began flying more, I called Citi and asked to be upgraded to their co-branded American Airlines card (the Platinum Select) so I could earn miles instead of points. I had that for a couple years, but kept seeing advertisements in airports for their co-branded Executive card that included an Admiral's Club membership. So I called Citi and asked to be upgraded. Since I'd been a customer for more than 20 years at that point, there was no problem doing so, and we've enjoyed Admiral's Club lounge access around the world since then.

  • Of course, that card comes with a high annual fee ($450 at the time of writing), but for access to the Admiral's Club – and all Oneworld lounges worldwide for the primary card holder and a guest – it's been a great value, especially outside the US where lounges tend to have greater (and better) food and beverage selections.
  • It also allows us free checked bags, use of the business check-in counter for all Oneworld airlines, and a $100 credit for Global Entry every few years. For us, the fee is worth it if we travel internationally a few times each year, which we normally do.
  • Why is it worth it for us? Well, the Admiral's Club – especially the international ones – have great food and beverage selection, as do most other Oneworld lounges (try the lounges in Doha!) And since food and drink are free in the lounges, it saves us a lot of money. Not to mention the ability to take a shower during a long layover.

In a similar vein, we also fell into the IHG family. Traveling to Jordan several times in a row, we always stayed at the Crowne Plaza in Amman because it is nearest to the hub for getting to southern Jordan and has one of the most AMAZING breakfast spreads anywhere. The first time we stayed there, I signed up for their loyalty program because they offered 10,000 points for new members and I thought that was neat. A few stays later, I was greeted by name and thanked for being a Gold member, a status I had no idea I'd even earned – let alone what it meant. But apparently they didn't get many Gold members, and offered us an upgrade to a Club room. Cool. But the icing on the cake was, that room included access to the Executive Lounge –  which was also a new experience for us – and included free drinks and freshly-prepared Arabic snack-size foods. We were over the moon. We felt so classy. Especially on the roof overlooking the city!

And then I saw there was a co-branded IHG card (with only an $89 annual fee at the time, it has since increased to $99) that offered platinum status just for having the card, plus a free night every year – and stays at the Crowne in Amman cost more than the annual fee, so I could redeem the free night there every year, if nothing else. No brainer.

  • We've since leveraged IHG points for stays (and Executive Lounge access in some places) in Sri Lanka, Dead Sea resorts, various road trips in the US, London, Cyprus, Beijing, and a couple of amazing weeks in Japan (try the onsen at the Osaka's incredible!)
  • We also usually get upgrades and Executive Lounge access (when available) without even asking, especially outside of the US, because Platinum status (or IHG's higher, top-end "Diamond") is not often seen overseas, so we tend to be rewarded/treated positively for having it.

Living in Jordan gave us the chance to travel to Asia for a LOT fewer miles than flying from the US. So before moving there, we planned a couple trips we could do with our miles and points: two weeks in Japan staying with IHG hotels and five nights in the Maldives staying at the Hilton Conrad (since Hilton offers the fifth night free on award stays).

For the Japan excursion, we used American Airlines miles and IHG points, and flew from Amman to Tokyo via Doha:

  • I found award tickets flying us first class on Etihad for the Amman to Doha leg (a couple hours), and then Qatar Airways QSuite from Doha to Tokyo (~10.5 hours and the same on return). That was a very posh experience to say the least! Emirates first-class lounge in Doha is nothing short of phantasmagorical – for some reason we had our own "butler"(?!) and a private car from the airplane to the terminal while we were there!
  • While in Japan, we spread out IHG stays across Intercontinental hotels in Tokyo and Osaka (which is truly delightful!), a Crowne Plaza in Fukuoka and Okayama (which was surprisingly amazing), and a Holiday Inn resort in Miyazaki (which was a neat little gem with a superb onsen, and right on the beach).

For the Maldives trip, we used American Airlines miles, Hilton points in the Maldives, and IHG points for our overnight layover in Sri Lanka, where we were upgraded to an executive room which came with Executive Lounge access (amazing snacks and aperitifs throughout the day). We flew from Amman to Doha to Malé on the way there, and then Malé to Sri Lanka (overnight) and onto Doha and Amman for the return:

  • The award tickets I found allowed us to fly first class on Etihad for the Amman to Doha leg (again), and then Qatar Airways QSuite from Doha to Maldives (~5.5 hours). From the Maldives, we flew business on Sri Lanka airlines from Malé to Sri Lanka, then Qsuite from Sri Lanka to Doha, and first-class on Emirates from Doha to Amman. Again, a very, very nice experience all around in terms of flights. 

As for staying in the Maldives themselves, I had done a bit of research and found over-the-water villas at the Conrad (a Hilton property) for 95,000 points/night between Christmas and New Years, when the same room cost more than $1500/nt. But, we were a bit short of the required 380,000 points for four nights, since we had only been earning Hilton Honors points here and there over the years. I wanted to use the reward nights, because Hilton offers the fifth night free on reward stays, basically giving us a $1500/night room free for one night. Then, I saw an offer for a co-branded Hilton card with a ridiculous sign-up bonus we could easily meet before moving to Jordan. It was a "premium" rewards card (the Aspire card), which came with top-end Hilton elite status, and a hefty $450 annual fee. But, the card also offered (and still does, as of writing) unlimited Priority Pass membership (for lounge access around the world...nothing like having an 8-hour layover internationally and being able to visit three different lounges!), $250 resort credit, free breakfast at all Hilton properties, a $250 airline incidentals credit, and a free (weekend) night each year. So, I signed up. (Side note: the Priority Pass network is best outside the US...Priority Pass lounges in the US are usually mediocre).

All that to say, we ended up staying at the Conrad for five nights on points (though next time it will be longer!) And, to top it all off, because I had signed up for promotions along the way, we actually earned more points while in the Maldives than it cost us to stay for five nights (food is REALLY expensive at Maldivian resorts, and I had a couple of triple-points promotions that stacked). Without points there would have been no way we could have afforded first-class airfare, paid full price for our villa, have and 6-course dinner in an underwater restaurant, and bought food at the resort. In the end, we spent ~$5000 total for that trip, FOR EVERYTHING – including our airfare, food, in-country transport, and activities (my wife did two SCUBA dives and we went whale shark scouting). It was for sure a splurge, but an extremely great value given the level of travel and service throughout the trip.

Since that time, I always check all our loyalty brands for point promotions (like "stay at three brands, earn 30,000 bonus points") every few days, and sign up for every one of them, even if I don't think I'll be able to complete the promotion. You never know. Generally, we've been diligent to utilize our "credits" (e.g., the $250 airline incidental credit) with our everyday/normal travel routine, so we're not spending extra money to earn points or take advantage of the credits. And along the way, we've also enjoyed the elite statuses with Hilton and IHG since, and recently got upgraded on separate stays at the Hilton Resort in Barbados to a corner suite and their Ixora room which comes with a butler! Totally worth it.

So, brand loyalty can have its perks. As long as you utilize them and don't have to spend anything extra, the annual fees are off-set. That is, since we buy food and petrol regularly and travel a bit, why not get rewarded for those everyday, normal expenses? For us, the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard, IHG Club Premier, and the Amex Hilton Honors Aspire cards have been wonderful, though we also have Chase's World of Hyatt card, since our professional conferences often occur at Hyatt hotels. We also like to stay with the Small Luxury Hotels of the World program occasionally, which partners with Hyatt, giving rewards members special perks. Hyatt and American Airlines have a nice partnership as well.

All that to say, you don't need a lot of credit cards to maximize value. In a nutshell, we use hotel cards when staying at the respective hotel brands, whichever card has the best travel insurance at the time for purchasing flights, train tickets, and rental cars, and whichever card earns the most points/miles for everyday purchases. It's worked rather well for us.

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