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Credit cards offer big bonuses for travelers

Scott McMurren
Motohide Miwa / cc via flickr

News flash: Air fares are high in Alaska. Rates are particularly spendy if you start somewhere other than Anchorage. From Kodiak to Seattle, for example, the lowest fare is $846 round-trip. Fly from Nome to San Francisco for $875 round-trip. Just to get to Anchorage from Dutch Harbor costs $1,000 round-trip. 

There are tips and tricks to trim the cost of a ticket. But if there’s just one airline -- or lots of demand for the seats -- you’re going to pay a lot for a seat on the plane. 

That’s when you start to realize the value of your frequent flyer points. Both Nome-San Francisco and Kodiak-Seattle itineraries are available for as little as 25,000 Alaska Air miles. The Dutch Harbor-Anchorage itinerary is available on limited dates for 25,000 miles -- more often for 35,000 Alaska miles. That flight is operated by PenAir. You can even go to the Alaska Airlines website and purchase the miles you need. For example, 25,000 miles costs $688 -- significantly less than the cost of a regular ticket. 

Consider, too, that there are no advance-purchase restrictions on frequent flyer tickets. If you want to purchase a ticket at the last minute, it will cost you a fortune. At that point, the mileage deals look more attractive. 

To be sure, each and every Alaska traveler should have a healthy relationship with Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to affordable air travel in Alaska, to the Lower 48 and around the world. And the most aggressive cat-skinners these days are the big credit card issuers: Chase, American Express and the 50-shades-of-Visa cards. Some of the card issuers (American Express) even allow you to transfer points to your Alaska Airlines itinerary. 

There is an active community of travelers who scan and analyze cards in terms of the bonus miles you can receive. Travelers like Chris Guillebeau, Gary Leff and Rick Ingersoll are in the air more often than they are on the ground. They and their followers encourage travelers to look differently at your transactions -- and document how a little planning can yield free airline tickets, free room nights and a new attitude on what it takes to travel better. 

Let’s take a look at some of the most rewarding credit cards and why it makes sense to apply:

1. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card. This card costs $95 per year, although the first year’s fee is waived. 

• 40,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. Those points are worth $500 in travel when you book it through Chase’s rewards desk.

• Earn 5,000 additional points when you add an authorized user and make a purchase within three months.

• No foreign transaction fees (unlike the 3 percent levy imposed by the Alaska Airlines Visa card). This is huge.

• 1:1 point transfer to United Airlines/Star Alliance frequent flyer plan, plus several other programs (but not Alaska Airlines).

• Earn double points on travel purchases and restaurant dining.

• Earn a 7 percent annual points dividend.

• Excellent 24/7 customer service. I have never had to wait more than five minutes on hold. 

• Earn airline miles on the tickets you redeem through Chase’s rewards desk.

You can earn additional bonus miles by applying for the Chase Ink Bold (50,000 mile bonus) and Chase Ink Plus (50,000 mile bonus) business credit cards. All of the bonus miles will accrue to the same Chase rewards account. Both of these Chase cards also have a $95 annual fee which is waived for the first year. Both also mandate a $5,000 minimum spend within three months. 

2. The Starwood Preferred Guest from American Express. Starwood is the group that owns Westin, Sheraton, W Hotels, St. Regis and a host of other brands -- more than 1,100 hotels around the world. This card costs $65 per year with the first year waived. 

• 25,000 bonus points. You get 10,000 after your first purchase and 15,000 after you spend $5,000 in the first six months. 

• 5,000 miles added to every transfer of 25,000 points or more to Starwood’s airline partners (including Alaska Airlines). That means your initial 25,000 bonus points can equal 30,000 Alaska Airlines miles. That’s enough for two in-state Alaska Airlines award tickets. 

• You can redeem your points at any Starwood hotel -- there are no blackout dates.

• Since this is an American Express card, you can charge all your Costco purchases! 

This is a great card if you stay at hotels when you’re traveling. Lodging costs can quickly eclipse the amount you spend on air fare. So you can earn points quickly when you stay at Starwood hotels and redeem them either at hotels or on more than 350 airlines. 

3. The American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card. Point chasers love this card because it offers TRIPLE bonus points (“Membership Rewards”) on airline tickets. This card costs $175 per year with the first year waived.

• 25,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $2,000 within three months. You’ll get an additional 15,000 points after you spend $30,000.

• Triple points for flights booked with airlines, double points at U.S. gas stations and U.S. supermarkets.

• Access to Amex benefits, including baggage insurance, extended warranty and return protection.

• Book two consecutive hotel nights using Amex Travel and receive $75 at checkout.

• Costco-compliant.

4. The American Express Platinum Card. This is a high-roller’s card, to be sure. There’s a $450 annual fee, but they try and make it up with some hefty benefits, including:

• 25,000 Membership Reward points after you spend $2,000 in three months.

• One year of Amazon Prime for expedited shipping. A $79 value.

• $200 annual statement credit that you can use on any airline.

• Reimbursement for your Global Entry application ($100), which also allows you access to the TSA’s “pre-check” line. 

• Priority Pass membership, which features airport lounge access around the U.S. and around the world ($399 value).

• A host of Amex benefits, including VIP concert packages and concierge service with reservations.

4. None of my go-to credit card experts even bother with my favorite travel rewards card, the Alaska Airlines Visa card from Bank of America. But I have two of the cards (one of business and the other for personal expenses). Here’s why:

• 25,000 bonus miles on approval (enough for a free ticket).

• Annual $114 coach-class companion fare ($99 plus tax—which can add up to $141 for travel to Mexico).

• Triple miles for Alaska Airlines purchases

• Great tie-in for award redemption on American and Delta. For example, I just redeemed 25,000 for a ticket from Anchorage to Montgomery, Ala. The cash value for that ticket: $924. 

• Caution: Bank of America charges an extra 3 percent for all foreign transactions on the Alaska Airlines card. This is an important reason to have another rewards card for travel outside the U.S. I use the Chase Sapphire card for international travel.

There are many other specialty bonus components on these reward cards, including primary collision damage waiver for domestic and international car rentals, special non-travel reward options and so forth. 

Important tip: All of these bonus offers involve credit cards. If you cannot pay off the credit card each month, the high interest rates will likely negate the generous rewards. Once, I missed a payment on my Alaska Airlines Visa card, and Bank of America started charging me the “default” interest rate of more than 34 percent. The banks make more money off of sloppy money managers like me. Don’t make that mistake. 

Online resources:

Cardsfortravel.com This credit card comparison site is run by Chris Guillebeau, who also offers programs to become a Frequent Flyer Master.

FrugalTravelGuy.com Rick Ingersoll is a former mortgage banker who drills down deep on how to get the most out of credit card bonuses. He is a big proponent of churn-and-burn credit card usage and cancelation. Accordingly, he encourages travelers to pay close attention to their credit scores.

View from the Wing.  Gary Leff is a good resource for frequent travelers. His blog offers advice on credit cards, mileage bonuses and other general interest bargain-hunting. 

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.