There's a simple reason why I am so skeptical of signup bonuses and recurring annual benefits. I receive e-mails and comments every day from readers who say the same thing: "I signed up for this credit card before I found your site, and now I have no way to use these points/certificates/companion tickets." If you don't get those e-mails and comments, there's no reason for you to realize just how widespread the problem of orphaned and expiring loyalty benefits is. You may even think you're the only one who has trouble redeeming Membership Rewards points (you're not).
I don't have anything against signup bonuses. But if you chase signup bonuses, rather than focus on how to pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take, you're unlikely to get the most value from your travel hacking budget, whether that budget is in the form of time or money.
Last week I applied that skepticism to the new Chase Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card. But just because I don't chase signup bonuses doesn't mean signup bonuses are worthless or bad! On the contrary, the right signup bonus at the right time can help you achieve your travel goals at the right price.
With that in mind, here are 3 ways I would use the new Ritz-Carlton credit card signup bonus of 3 free nights at a Tier 1-4 Ritz-Carlton property after spending $5,000 within 3 months.
A 3-night vacation
Sometimes you just want to go away for a long weekend. Nothing wrong with that! Without flying halfway around the world, you could spend 3 nights at Lake Tahoe, in downtown Boston (where hotels, even on points, are shockingly expensive), or in Puerto Rico. Slightly farther afield, there's a Tier 2 Ritz-Carlton in Santiago, Chile.
Those aren't all properties where you'll get outsize value from your redemption, simply because there are other, cheaper properties nearby. But you'll still save the money or points you'd otherwise pay, and you'll get to stay in a class of property you might not otherwise be able to afford.
A leg or side trip during a vacation
If you're planning on a multi-week trip like the one I took to Europe this summer, it would be easy to book one of your stops at a Ritz-Carlton property. The Ritz-Carltons in Budapest and Geneva both look lovely and are centrally located.
Likewise, if you are planning a long stay in a single location, you might want to make a side trip to see more of an area. While planning a trip to Kauai, you might decide to take a side trip to stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, or while visiting Tokyo you might plan a few nights in Okinawa or Osaka as well.
Extending a stay
There are a few ways you could use the Ritz-Carlton signup bonus to extend a stay.
First, if you are relentlessly focused on maximizing the value of your points, there are certain inevitable obstacles to doing so. For example, Hilton HHonors points are most valuable when redeemed for 5-night stays, since the fifth night is free. If you want to stay more than 5 nights, but less than 10, that benefit is correspondingly less valuable.
But if you are staying in an area with both Hilton and Ritz-Carlton properties, you can use Ritz-Carlton free night certificates to extend your stay. For example, you might redeem 320,000 HHonors points for 5 nights at Hilton's Grand Wailea, then head around Maui for another 3 nights at the The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, maximizing the value of your HHonors points and enjoying an 8-night Hawaiian vacation.
Second, you could extend a stay at a Ritz-Carlton property. For example, for 350,000 Marriott Rewards points you could book 7 nights at the Tier 3 Ritz-Carlton Vienna (plus 55,000 United MileagePlus miles or 50,000 miles in other loyalty programs), then redeem your Ritz-Carlton free night certificates to extend your stay to 10 nights. Note that if you're transferring Ultimate Rewards points to Marriott Rewards, this is only a marginal play since the Park Hyatt Vienna costs just 25,000 Gold Passport points per night.
Third, you might try to achieve something similar to my experience with Hyatt Gold Passport suite upgrade awards. Since the Ritz-Carlton credit card comes with 3 "Club Level" upgrades annually on paid stays, you could book one paid night, apply a Club Level upgrade, and see if you're allowed to keep the same Club Level room on subsequent nights paid for with your free night certificates. There's no guarantee that would work every time, but it's virtually certain to work at some properties, some of the time.
The right time to sign up for a new credit card is when you already have a redemption in mind, and your research indicates that a new card's signup bonus or earning and redemption structure make it the cheapest, easiest, or fastest way to achieve that redemption.
The wrong time to sign up for a new credit card is when bloggers are salivating over temporarily raised payouts on their affiliate links.