Give me money to fly to my honey
January 10, 2010 9:31 PM   Subscribe

Best credit cards to earn travel reward points within the US so I can visit my beloved frequently?

My boyfriend is moving to the Bay Area next year - San Francisco to be more specific - for more graduate schooling, while I will remain in Minneapolis for the time being.

Neither of us really want to be in a long-distance relationship, but I've decided I like him enough to try and maintain our relationship. We've been dating for a year and three months now.

Ideally, I would fly out and visit him every three or four weeks on the weekends. That was a little hard to stomach financially, until I realized I could get a credit card that gives travel reward points. However, I have never owned a credit card and my Google-fu is not strong in this field. Most money blogs like the Miles by Discover Card but are there are other recommendations?

I'm somewhat concerned about my lack of credit history, but I currently have no student loans and I have a job that pays about the city average. I also expect to pay off my balance each month.

What kind of credit cards with good travel perks can I get with my current lack of credit history? And once I establish good credit, should I move to another credit card with a better reward system?
posted by mlo to Work & Money (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't a direct answer to your question, but I think it may help...

I live in Philly, she, in Chicago. Dating for a year. I'm doing more schooling. It sounds similar to what you're up to. At least for us, long distance travel is very viable economically (even on student budgets)!

We fly Southwest. It's cheap if you buy far enough in advance (I just checked, and you can get from Minnneapolis/St. Paul to SFO for ~$400 with about a month's notice.) and there's an added bonus of no luggage fees, and you can change your mind for free. Sign up for "rapid rewards" which is like a buy eight get one free deal or something like that.

Another thing to be aware of is that United (and maybe other airlines?) has super-cheap fare if you buy the same day or the day before you travel.

You should also go to a website called 'airfare watchdog,' which will send you regular emails about deals between any two airports.

I think the rewards points on credit cards will help, but really, nothing can beat a little sleuthing to find the lowest fares.


Good luck!
posted by chicago2penn at 10:01 PM on January 10, 2010

First, figure out what airline(s) is going to be the most convenient for you. For example, Southwest may be cheaper, but doesn't have direct flights from SFO to MSP. Consider alternate airports as well (OAK, or SJC), if they're convenient for you/him.

Once you get an idea of what your go-to airline will be, pop into the appropriate Flyertalk forum and skim to find the latest and greatest deals. Believe me, those guys know their stuff and will be able to tell you all about the miles programs, credit card tie ins, etc.

A decent catch-all option is a Capital One card. If you have good credit, you get a year of 1 dollars = 2 pt, and you get a $150 flight for 15k points, $300 flight for 30k, etc. Works out to about 2% back, which is about as good as it gets in terms of credit card deals.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:08 PM on January 10, 2010

$400 sounds quite steep for MSP-SFO. Look around before you buy. A quick search finds that American, Delta, AirTran, Frontier, United, US, Continental, and Midwest all offer (often substantially) lower fares than chicago2penn's Southwest quote. But, seconding chrisamiller's advice on FlyerTalk.

First and most importantly, given your situation, look around for a single airline (or single airline alliance; US Airways, United Airlines, and Continental Airlines are all part of Star Alliance, and miles flown on one of them can usually be counted in another's frequent flier program) that generally offers the most competitive prices, and try to stick with that airline when booking tickets if you can't find a particularly good deal elsewhere, so that you'll accrue miles in one place.

Then, go to the airline's website and see if there are any good credit card deals tied to their frequent flyer program. For example, American Airlines offers three separate credit cards tied to their AAdvantage program, offering a 25,000-mile bonus for each new card you sign up with after you spend a certain amount on it. That original bonus alone is enough for a round-trip ticket from MSP to SFO and back. They also offer a mile per dollar spent. And start paying attention to how you spend your money; I moved to a place where I can pay my rent through my credit card this year, and those extra credit card points certainly don't hurt.

And go to FlyerTalk if you have any questions and to see if there's any applicable deals or bonuses. They're not particularly frequent, but they do come up. For example, I get a few AA miles buying online from; I got a few more AA miles watching a minute-long ad for Bose headphones online. (More on AA: signing up with Netflix, renting a car, staying in certain motels; the list goes on ...)

Finally, take heed of additional benefits related to your status in frequent flier programs, and ways to climb that ladder more quickly. For example, American Airlines had a double elite qualifying miles promotion this past year. Considering that you're busy, you're flying far, and you're flying often, getting to that next status level to breeze through security, get free baggage check-in, and select your exit row seats online can be nice.
posted by SpringAquifer at 10:36 PM on January 10, 2010

Oh, and regarding your credit history question that I missed ... this one is trickier. is a decent site for getting nitty-gritty advice on how to build your credit.

First, know where you stand. Pull your credit report; you get one free report from the three bureaus each year -- Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax -- via While you'll have a pay a little extra to get your "credit score," you can skim the reports to make sure there's nothing wrong with your credit history that you didn't know about.

The next step really depends. If you can't get a decent credit card at first, it might be worth looking at some debit cards associated with your bank account. I've had both Chase and Capital One checking accounts, and they both offer rewards checking accounts that earn points via Visa debit cards. I haven't seen any great debit cards out there with the major banks, but they're better than nothing.

Alternatively, if you want to start building history with credit cards, you might be able to apply for a student one. Most of the major credit card "brands" -- Visa, Discover, etc. -- all offer student cards for people in your position. Also consider what your bank offers; I got my first student credit card through Bank of America. If you have some negative credit history, look into getting a "secured" credit card, in which you leave a certain amount of money deposited into a bank account, and you get a credit card through that bank with a credit limit equal to whatever you deposited. Of course, there are all just option -- see where you stand first, and get some help at for more details.
posted by SpringAquifer at 10:45 PM on January 10, 2010

Agh ... clearly, I need to read your question more closely. Scratch all that student stuff, since you're not the one in school. But most of the above advice still applies.

Just be a little cautious when you apply. Talk to your bank and read through Each application usually requires a "hard pull" of your credit report, which stays on your record for a year or two and temporarily lowers your score. Not a big deal; just don't apply to too many cards at once.
posted by SpringAquifer at 10:50 PM on January 10, 2010

I am in a LDR, and fly to visit my honey once a month.

I hate to break it to you, but you have to spend a LOT of money to get rewards flights. Rule of thumb: no-fee cards will net you 1% back of redeemable points at most, and cards with an annual fee of $100+ might get you 2% back. Which means you have to spend upwards of $25,000 ($50,000+ with a no-fee card) to earn enough points for a flight worth $500. And taxes etc are not covered.

The people who make real use out of the rewards cards are those who charge business expenses to their card. E.g. I travel about twice a month for work, so my flights, hotels and other business expenses result in a monthly credit card bill of $3000-$4000 . My company reimburses me and lets me keep the rewards points for myself.

It doesn't sound to me like you will be dealing with that kind of monthly cashflow, so frankly, you shouldn't get too excited about rewards cards (especially those with a hefty annual fee). There's hundreds of convoluted loyalty schemes out there and figuring out how to earn maximum points (with double-dipping, gas stations, grocers, etc) becomes very tedious.

Qualifying for elite status is a nice perk, but again it requires quite a bit of flying (and they have the be flown miles always on the same airline, not points earned through other rewards schemes). E.g. MSP-SFO is about 3100 miles round-trip -- so you'd have to make 8+ trips to hit the 25,000 mile threshold.

All in all, loyalty rewards are hard to earn with your own money. You rake them in much more quickly if you're spending someone else's money. Take all the hype (especially in the "mileage run"-obsessed Flyertalk forums) with a grain of salt.
posted by randomstriker at 1:51 AM on January 11, 2010

Most consultants I know swear by the Starwood Hotels American Express. I believe you can transfer 20,000 card points for 25,000 airline points at the airline of your choice.

However, I agree with randomstriker; estimate how many dollars you will be spending on the card in order to figure out how many points you will get from the card. If the points aren't worth the amount of the annual fee, don't get the card.
posted by dgc at 6:05 AM on January 11, 2010

My experience has been that *any* credit card rewards are hard to earn with my own money. I consider them a nice perk that I will make some effort to maximize, but they don't really offset my spending and don't make new spending seem any more palatable (for me).

When I was using AmEx I always ended up paying more in annual fee dollars than I ever got back in rewards. With Discover I don't pay any annual fee and I get a very modest cash back - I think 1% and sometimes with special promos maybe up to 5%, and some extra percentage if you shop online through their portal.

I am not familiar with creditboards, but I can tell you the flyertalk people know their stuff. I would agree with checking those out for deals and ways to maximize the miles.
posted by KAS at 8:01 AM on January 11, 2010

You need FlyerTalk. You can read up about earning rewards, and you can ask questions about your specific situation. These folks will tell you how you can get flights for way, way less than randomstriker and others have suggested. A friend of mine is going to Australia on a $20k vacation package, and he spent less than $2k to earn it.
posted by decathecting at 8:08 AM on January 11, 2010

Response by poster: Hi all, thank you for your suggestions. The Flyertalk and CreditBoard forums sound like a good way to go.

I asked about the credit cards because I thought they would be a great way to get some points, but it sounds like monitoring forums is better, due to my low-powered spending habits.
posted by mlo at 11:21 AM on January 11, 2010

A friend of mine is going to Australia on a $20k vacation package, and he spent less than $2k to earn it.

If you are willing to spend several hours a week reading every single Flyertalk post, scouring the 'net for deals, building spreadsheets to track your loyalty programs, etc...then deals like the one your "friend" found can be had.

For the rest of us who don't have time for that shit, we have to be realistic about what rewards the credit card gods will bestow upon us.

As always, there ain't no free lunch.
posted by randomstriker at 9:10 PM on January 11, 2010

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