Inside an application cycle: April 2013

ike many travel hackers, I sign up for rewards-earning credit cards periodically in order to secure high signup bonuses and add more tools to my miles- and points-earning toolbox. There are a few guidelines I typically follow:

  • Wait at least 91 days between credit card applications;
  • Apply for no more than 1 card per issuer;
  • Apply for no more than 5 cards per application cycle.

This is a mixture of superstition and what I've learned from hundreds of hours studying people's experiences on the many popular credit card forums, but especially the ones dedicated to miles- and points-earning cards, like Flyertalk and Milepoint.  I don't recommend anyone else follow my guidelines, but they work for me.

This month I applied for exactly 5 cards, from 5 different issuers.  It had been a little over 100 days since my last round of applications.  I was waiting until my credit card statements cut for April, so that their low balances would be reported to the credit bureaus before I applied.  I always pay off all my credit cards before an application cycle, so that credit issuers see as low a "credit utilization" as possible on my report.

With that out of the way, the five cards I applied for were:

  • Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa;
  • Delta Business Platinum American Express;
  • Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard;
  • Marriott Rewards Premier;
  • Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express.

Today I want to discuss why I chose those cards, and the results of my application cycle.

Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa

  • Annual fee: $60, not waived the first year of card membership.
  • Signup bonus: 85,000 Gold Points after spending $2,500 in the first 3 months of card membership.
  • Ongoing benefits: Club Carlson Gold elite status; 40,000 Gold Point annual renewal bonus; last night free on all award stays of 2 or more nights.
  • Application outcome: instant approval.

Objectively speaking, I believe this is the most lucrative hotel credit card currently available.  The 85,000 Gold Point signup bonus, plus the last-night-free benefit means you have enough points for 2 free nights at any Club Carlson property in the world, since their top-tier Radisson Blu properties top out at 50,000 points per night.  The Hyatt Visa offers a similar signup bonus, of two nights at any Hyatt in the world, but offers less lucrative ongoing benefits.

dmittedly, Club Carlson doesn't have properties everywhere, and the ones they have aren't always conveniently located.  Their properties in Europe, where I travel frequently, are normally centrally located and high quality, so I'm confident I'll get more than $60 in value out of this card annually.

This is a card I plan on keeping indefinitely, thanks to the ongoing benefits, unless Club Carlson undergoes a massive devaluation, which is always a possibility in the world of hotel loyalty programs.

Delta Business Platinum American Express (see below for better offer)

  • Annual fee: $150, not waived the first year of card membership.
  • Signup bonus: 30,000 Skymiles, 5,000 of which count as Medallion Qualification Miles, after $500 in spending within 3 months.
  • Ongoing benefits: Annual economy companion ticket n account anniversary. 10,000 bonus Skymiles and Medallion Qualification Miles after spending $25,000 and $50,000 each calendar year.
  • Application outcome: instant approval.

The Delta Platinum business and personal American Express cards allow you to earn higher elite status with Delta without having to go on mileage runs, which cost time as well as money. Unfortunately I applied for this card after a higher signup bonus of 35,000 Skymiles and 10,000 MQM had already expired (the offer is still available for the personal card).

I plan on hitting the $25,000 spend threshold this year, and the $50,000 spend threshold in subsequent years.  The first year I'll earn 65,000 redeemable Skymiles and 15,000 MQM at a maximum cost of $348 ($150 annual fee and up to $198 to manufacture $25,000 in spending), or 0.5 cents per redeemable mile. In subsequent years I'll be able to earn 70,000 Skymiles and 20,000 MQM at a cost of up to $545, or 0.77 cents per redeemable mile, without taking into account the benefits of higher Delta Medallion elite status than I would otherwise qualify for.  The card also gives an economy class companion ticket on each account anniversary.

I'll keep this card as long as I continue to fly Delta regularly, since I'm getting such valuable ongoing benefits.  Starting in January I'll be keeping my eyes out for a good signup offer for the personal card, which has the same benefits as the business card, and which will allow me to almost reach Gold Medallion status each year without setting foot on an airplane.

Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard

  • Annual fee: $89, waived the first year of card membership.
  • Signup bonus: 40,000 "miles," worth $444 in travel reimbursements, after spending $1,000 ithin the first 3 months of card membership.
  • Ongoing benefits: none.
  • Application outcome: instant approval.

This is a good example of a card that's only worth getting for the signup bonus.  I discussed it in detail at the end of this post in February.  I plan on using the signup bonus for paid hotel stays, since this card allows you to use your "miles" for a statement credit against charges made with the card, allowing you to earn points and stay and night credit with your hotel chain of choice, unlike hotel reservations made with points through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal.  If I don't end up using all of the card's signup bonus on hotel stays I'll use it to cover other travel expenses, like airline or rail tickets, which I buy constantly.

The Arrival World MasterCard's earning rate of 2 miles per dollar (worth 2.22 cents) spent on the card means that it may be worth manufacturing some spending on the card as well, if I don't have any higher spending priorities, like meeting the $25,000 spend threshold on the Delta Business Platinum card.

Marriott Rewards Premier Visa (see below for signup links)

  • Annnual fee: $85, waived the first year of card membership.
  • Signup bonus: 1 free night at any Category 1-4 Marriott property on account approval, and 50,000 Marriott Rewards points after spending $1,000 within 3 months of card membership.  $75 statement credit after first purchase.
  • Ongoing benefits: 1 free night at any Category 1-5 Marriott property on each account anniversary.  However, the certificate expires 6 months after being issued. Additionally, the card annually gives credit for 15 nights towards elite status qualification, which is enough to qualify for Silver elite status every year without any paid stays.
  • Application outcome: decision pending.  I called the Chase reconsideration line at 88-245-0625, gave the account representative my name and Social Security number, and was approved over the phone in about 90 seconds.

have an upcoming stay this summer in Portland, Oregon and I'd like to stay downtown. I'll use the free night certificate that comes with account approval and 40,000 points to book 3 nights at the Courtyard Portland City Center, which would cost $684 after tax, and leave me 10,000 Marriott Rewards points from the signup bonus left over, plus a $75 statement credit.

The biggest complaint people ave about this card is the 6-month expiration of the annual free night certificate. I travel to a lot of mid-sized cities which have Category 1-5 Marriott properties, so I'm fairly confident I'll be able to use the free night certificate to get enough value to justify paying the $85 annual fee after the free first year.

There are three slightly different offers currently available. This public offer is for 50,000 Marriott Rewards points and the free night certificate.  To get the offer that includes the $75 statement credit, begin making a reservation through the Marriott website, until you get to the "Review Reservation" screen, where you'll see a banner with the credit card offer:

There is another, possibly better, offer of 70,000 Marriott Rewards points, a free night certificate, but no statement credit, which is available through this application page, although it doesn't have a landing page describing the offer, and I tend to avoid non-public offers out of an abundance of caution, so use that link at your own risk (there have been plenty of reports of success though).

Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express

  • Annual fee: $0.
  • Signup bonus: none.
  • Ongoing benefits: 2% cash back on all purchases.
  • Application outcome: Decision pending.  Fidelity said they'd mail me the application decision within 30 days. I'm in no hurry to get this card (since there's no signup bonus, minimum spending requirement, or bonused spending categories), so I'm going to wait to receive their decision through the mail.

This is the card I recommend to anyone getting started in the travel hacking game, because it's the best no-annual-fee straight cash back card available.  Unless you're meeting a minimum spending requirement or have a specific redemption in mind, I think 2% cash back is worth more than a dollar of non-bonused spending on virtually any other card.  But in order to make that comparison, you first need to have a 2% cash back card, which is why I decided to apply for it as the fifth card of this application cycle.

I plan to keep this card indefinitely, since it has no annual fee and as it ages on my credit report it will increase my average age of accounts, thereby increasing my credit score overall.

Conclusion

After spending $5,000 on these cards, I'll have earned a total of:

  • 97,500 Club Carlson Gold Points (almost enough for two 2-night stays at any Club Carlson property in the world);
  • 30,500 Delta Skymiles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles;
  • 42,000 Barclaycard "miles," worth $466 in travel reimbursements;
  • 51,000 Marriott Rewards points and a free night certificate good at any Category 1-4 Marriott property.

Meanwhile, I'll have spend $210 in annual fees, and received a $75 statement credit. If I manufacture the entire $5,000 in spending at 0.79 cents per dollar (unlikely, but possible), I'll pay an additional $40, bringing my total cost to $175.