Smash and Grab: The Best Travel Card Strategy Now
SATURDAY, JANUARY 28, 2023 -- Since travel loyalty is dead and the nation's airlines and hotels now treat every transaction as transactional, it's a reminder to turn the metaphoric tables.

Don't be loyal to them--or their credit cards.

Get a new credit card, score the increasingly large acquisition bonuses, then get the next card for its acquisition bonus. Assuming you don't roll over and pay interest, the strategy is the best and cheapest way to roll up masses of miles and points. It's the equivalent of found money since you're not spending anything you otherwise wouldn't spend and you earn far more miles and points than you would by flying and staying in hotels--or charging to your existing cards.

Let's not go into background here except to say that airlines and hotels increasingly depend on revenue from credit card issuers and they repeatedly squeeze banks for more cash every time a contract is up for negotiation. Delta Air Lines, for example, racked in $5.5 billion from American Express last year. In order to justify the growing billions they pay to airlines and hotels, banks have to convince us to take more cards and spend on them. The banks' best weapon remains a blunt instrument: huge upfront "acquisition" bonuses of miles and points.

Let's not even talk about scary realities: Airlines don't have a back-up plan for the day when the credit card cash gravy train ends (and it will). Meanwhile, banks are dealing with card fatigue as the pace of new sign-ups slowed during the pandemic.

If we play our cards right, right now, we win and they lose. And they deserve whatever financial drubbing we can inflict on them. Let's get ours and leave them to pick up the financial pieces later.

And don't think I'm talking about mindlessly earning miles and points and banking them. I'm not. Earn the points--and then spend them. Fast. There's no benefit in holding on to miles and points because, when this bubble bursts, values will plummet. Earn now, burn now.

Yes, I also practice what I preach: I've got a Europe holiday coming up next month and it's all paid for with acquisition bonuses from credit cards. Business class flights and hotel nights all underwritten by credit card bonuses. Not a single mile or point was earned by flying the airlines or lodgings involved.

The most costly option on this list is the most lucrative: Depending on what your browser serves up, Amex offers 100,000, 120,000, 150,000 or even 170,000 Membership Rewards points for an American Express Business Platinum. You need to spend $15,000 on the card in the first three months for the full bonus. The big catch: a $695 annual fee, much of which is amortized by airport lounge admissions and relevant statement credits. Too rich for your blood? The Venture X card is offering 75,000 Capital One Miles when you spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months. The $395 annual fee is more than covered considering club-access offers and travel statement credits. (Capital One has just launched a preferred hotel program, too.) The other big hitter in this category, the $550-a-year Chase Sapphire Reserve, frankly isn't a smash-and-grab option now. Why? You'll get the same bonus, 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points, for taking a $95 Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Given the flexibility of Chase points--they transfer on a 1:1 basis to United, Southwest, Hyatt, Marriott, InterContinental and many other travel programs--this could be the smash-and-grab winner of the year.

Even with several recent improvements, the IHG One Rewards program is very weak. IHG points have limited value and awards are always limited to the smallest, least-impressive rooms in any participating hotel. Yet it's impossible to overlook a 175,000-point acquisition bonus currently offered on the Chase IHG Rewards Premier Card. The spend requirement is modest enough ($3,000 in the first 90 days) and the annual fee of $99 is de minimis. Smash, grab and then treat the family to a few nights at a Holiday Inn Express. Meanwhile, the Hilton Honors program has been inflating award prices rapidly in recent years, but that does not dull the luster of the American Express Hilton Surpass Card. The current offer of 130,000 points when you spend $2,000 in the first three months is excellent on its own merits, but the $95-a-year card has an unmatched perk: 10 annual free visits to Priority Pass airport lounges. It may be the best value in hotel cards.

It's not just Big Three carriers who have made their award prices a cruel joke. Even once-dependable Alaska Airlines has snuck in notable devaluations in its new "simplified" award chart. But that doesn't substantially tarnish the appeal of the 70,000-mile acquisition bonus offered by Bank of America for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card. That's because the annual fee ($95) is low and the required spend ($3,000 in first 90 days) is manageable. If you must deal with the Big Three there is no better option than the Barclay Aviator Red card tied to American Advantage. Its 60,000-mile bonus requires no minimum spend. You're only on the hook for a $99 annual fee and making a single purchase during the first 90 days. Finally, an oddball choice. The Air France/KLM Flying Blue plan has some notable advantages for travelers who desire international business class awards. Prices up front are often as low as 55,000 points each way with modest co-pays and Flying Blue is a 1:1 transfer partner of all of the big banks. That makes the Bank of America Air France/KLM World Elite Mastercard a worthy contender. You'll earn 50,000 acquisition points when you pay the annual fee ($89) and spend $2,000 on the card in the first 90 days.

Notice that I did not discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various cards or their long-term perks and earning potential. That's not what this is about. This is all about the "churn," scoring acquisition points, then moving on to the next card and the next opportunity. While it's always wise to segregate spending and use the most rewarding card for each particular purchase, you surely have a chunk of general spending that isn't earning a category bonus. That's why you should always have a card in your wallet strictly for the acquisition bonus.

Once upon a time--in this case, about ten years ago--the banks didn't worry about travelers chasing an acquisition bonus and moving on. It was a rounding error, they claimed. No more. As our loyalty to any hotel or airline waned, our willingness to swap out cards for tactical advantage increased dramatically. Banks were beginning to get dinged financially, so now there are some limits to our movement.

Chase, for example, has a policy called 5/24. It essentially bars you from a new Chase account if you've opened five other credit cards (from any bank) in the past 24 months. Citi's rules are "family" oriented. It limits the number of cards you can have in the American Airlines or ThankYou Points categories.

There are also safeguards against serial smash-and-grab travelers who open the same card more than once. Amex generally limits you to one acquisition bonus per card type for seven years while Chase and Citi tend to forbid bonuses if you've had the card in the past 24 months.

A final note: This list isn't exhaustive and acquisition bonuses tend to come, go and change in the blink of an eye. In other words, this is a constantly moving target. Act now and act accordingly.