I never leave home without the 5 credit cards that help me earn free and discounted travel as quickly as possible

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I consider myself a credit card travel hacker, and one of my keys to success is using multiple credit cards to get the most for every purchase.

I have some airline, hotel, and store-specific cards that I keep on standby at home, but I never leave home without my core five cards that earn me points in the Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards programs.

I have a handful of cards from each issuer as part of my collection of more than a dozen cards, but I never leave home without these five cards, which put me on track for free and discounted travel as quickly as possible.

Keep in mind that we’re focusing on the rewards and perks that make these cards great options, not things like interest rates and late fees, which can far outweigh the value of any rewards.

When you’re working to earn credit card rewards, it’s important to practice financial discipline, like paying your balances off in full each month, making payments on time, and not spending more than you can afford to pay back. Basically,

treat your credit card like a debit card


Chase Sapphire Reserve

The most important card in my arsenal is the Chase Sapphire Reserve. I really only use it for 3x reward points on travel purchases, though it offers an impressive 3x points at restaurants as well. If I were going to have only one card, this would be the card.

While it has a $US450 annual fee, which is steep compared to many other travel cards, it is well worth it. For the first $US300 I spend on travel each year, the card wipes the costs away with an automatic statement credit. That makes the annual fee effectively $US150 for me.

It also has excellent travel and purchase protections and includes a Priority Pass Select membership. This gets me and two guests into a large number of airport travel lounges around the world.

American Express® Gold Card

If you want to know why I don’t use my Sapphire Reserve’s 3x rewards at restaurants, it’s the gold-coloured card in my wallet.The AmEx Gold Card had a huge refresh not long ago, and it made it my first choice for all food-related purchases.

The Gold Card gives me 4x points at restaurants in the US and 4x points per dollar at US supermarkets up to $US25,000 per year, then 1x. It also offers 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or at amextravel.com, though I usually use the Sapphire Reserve for travel purchases.

The card also has some valuable credits to help offset the $US250 annual fee. Those include $US10 per month for Grubhub and some partner restaurants and up to $US100 in credit for airline fees light baggage charges or in-flight meals.

AmEx points are very valuable, and you can’t beat a consistent 4x points per dollar on virtually all US restaurant and US supermarket purchases. That makes me feel a little better about those expensive sushi dinners.

Chase Freedom Unlimited

Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited are both listed as cash back cards from Chase. But if you have one of these cards and an Ultimate Rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can convert cash back into points at a 1 cent = 1 point ratio. Because a point is worth more than a cent when used well, that’s a great deal.

My wife has a Chase Freedom Unlimited card that gives us a flat rate 1.5% cash back (1.5 points per dollar) on all purchases. This is our “everything else” card that we use when we can’t get a bonus elsewhere. When I combine them with my Sapphire Reserve balance, which we can do because we are in the same household, that puts on on the fast track to a low-cost trip.

This card has no annual fee, so there is no harm in holding onto it for the long haul even if something better comes along. The card is currently offering 3% cash back instead of 1.5% for the first $US20,000 spent in your first year with it. That’s an incredible value.

Chase Freedom

One of my oldest credit card accounts is Chase Freedom, not to be confused with its cousin Chase Freedom Unlimited. This card gives you 5% cash back, which is worth 5x points per dollar, on rotating categories that change every calendar quarter. I use this card for the bonus and skip it on the “everything else” 1% back purchases.

The annoying thing about the card is that you have to click to activate the 5% bonus every three months. But after you do that, you can get the 5% back on up to $US1,500 in quarterly purchases. Recent bonuses have included gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, home improvement stores, and Amazon.com purchases.

If you max out this opportunity, you’ll get up to 30,000 points per year from bonus category spending. That’s more than enough for a free plane ticket when transferring Ultimate Rewards points to United or Southwest.

Chase Ink Business Cash

To round out my Costanza Wallet, I carry the Chase Ink Business Cash card. I recently converted it from the Chase Ink Business Preferred card to save on the annual fee.Ink Cash gives you 5% back, which converts to 5x points just like the Freedom cards, at office supply stores and telecommunication purchases up to $US25,000 total per account anniversary year. It gives you 2% back at gas stations and restaurants and 1% everywhere else.

As a small business owner, I need to keep my business purchases separate from my personal ones. I used to have the The Platinum Card® from American Express for this purpose, but after it raised its annual fee I decided the Sapphire Reserve had me covered for most of those benefits with a lower cost. Adding Ink Business Cash gives me good rewards on popular business categories with no annual fee.

Learn more about the Chase Sapphire Reserve from our partner The Points Guy »

Learn more about the AmEx Gold Card from our partner The Points Guy »

Learn more about the Chase Freedom from our partner The Points Guy »

Learn more about the Chase Freedom Unlimited from our partner The Points Guy »

Learn more about the Ink Business Cash from our partner The Points Guy »

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