I should start by saying there are people who will tell you that credit cards with airline miles are the wrong way to go. They will say that it is better, from a financial perspective, to go with a card that gives you cash back. Let me comment here, that I pay my credit cards off every month, so I incur no finance charges.
We travel enough that I prefer to use cards that give you airline miles and other perks. Generally when you apply for a card and use it once they give you enough miles for one round trip flight. My husband and I apply for the cards under our own names so we get two round trip flights when we get a new card.
Be aware that the airlines all have partner airlines. Examples include Alaska is partnered with KLM and American Airlines, among others. United is partnered with Lufthansa and New Zealand Air, among others. You can earn and use miles on these other partner airlines. You just need to make sure you enter your preferred airline miles program when you book your flights.
We just came back from a river trip in Eastern Europe. The tour provider booked our flights with KLM and American Airlines. I went online to KLM and American and entered our Alaska Mileage account numbers. The 9,000 miles each way were added to our Alaska Air Mileage balances.
It is best to limit the number of programs you participate in as transferring miles from one airline to another generally involves a fee.
Here are the cards I have and why.
United MileagePlus Explorer Card with Chase Bank: Priority boarding, one free checked bag and no foreign transaction fees.
We have had a United Mileage Card for sometime. About a year ago they offered the new Explorer Card and the offer included enough miles for a round trip ticket. We both applied and got these new cards along with our round trip miles. We then cancelled our old cards.
Alaska Airlines: I have used the Alaska Airlines card twice to get free round trip tickets to Alaska (that is four tickets in total). We applied for the card back in 2004 and used the application incentive miles for a trip to Alaska in 2009. I then cancelled the cards. When we decided to return to Alaska in 2012, we both reapplied and were given the application incentive for a second time. We used these miles for our trip in 2012. This card also gives you a coach companion ticket each year for just $111.
Chase Sapphire Proffered Card: No foreign transaction fees. This cards current application incentive is 40,000 points. I was initially skeptical about the points instead of miles.
I am no longer skeptical because I recently used our points to book a flight and hotel in Australia via the Ultimate Rewards web site. It works similar to Kayak.com (which I love). You put in your flight, car or hotel needs and it gives you a long list of choices and the number of points you will need.
I also transferred points from Ultimate Rewards to Amtrak for my husband to take a train trip coast to coast for free. Had we booked the same trip with Amtrak the cost would have been $1,200. Before I transferred the points I had to register my husband for the Amtrak rewards program, which is free. I then had to calculate how many points he would need for the trip. I then went to the Chase Ultimate Rewards site and transferred the points. It turned out I had miscalculated and we had 6,000 points left over in the Amtrak Rewards. For 6,000 points I could get a $50 gift card to several restaurants and other businesses, so I used the points for a $50 gift card to Macaroni Grill.
I am in the process of booking a 3.5 month trip to Australia and New Zealand for 2014. I have been hoarding my United Airline miles to use for this trip. I was able to book six flights for free in most cases or for a small amount of taxes that were required. I had never really used my miles, since this trip has been on the horizon for several years now. I learned a valuable lesson.
The plan had been to have enough miles for us to fly Business Class from San Francisco. The United web site is great because when you put in your selected date it gives you a calendar that highlights the dates where mileage flights are available. Flight schedules are opened 330 days prior to the date of travel. If you want something specific, like Business Class, you need to book as soon as the flights are opened. I checked and there was a Business Class flight I could have booked for our San Francisco to Auckland route, but I waited two weeks and the flights were all gone. For the return flight I booked as soon as the dates I wanted were available and got Business Class from Sydney to San Francisco. So, although booking early is not required it is advisable.
If you have any questions about this, just leave me a comment and I will respond.