Building Your Core Credit Card Collection
Most people will want to build up a core collection of credit cards, which provide a worthwhile set of benefits and/or earn the best reward rates on your purchases.
For example, someone living in Seattle might put together a core credit card collection that includes the Freedom Unlimited Card to use for most of their spending; the Sapphire Reserve Card for airport lounge access, even better rewards on travel and restaurant spending, and primary rental car insurance; the IHG Credit Card for a free hotel night certificate each year; and the Alaska Airlines Credit Card for free checked bags on Alaska and an annual companion certificate.
There are dozens of interesting cards that provide some added travel or other benefits. However, almost all of them have annual fees. You only want to choose cards whose benefits outweigh their annual fees. Focus on the cards that will give you the most value, based on the ways that you travel and spend your money.
Cards almost everyone should get
There are a small number of credit cards that almost everyone should get.
- A great general-purpose reward card, which earns a high reward rate on everything you buy. You are going to be earning rewards on all your credit card purchases. You should take the time to choose a card that has the most valuable reward rate. For most people, this should be the Chase Freedom card. But, for some people, there are better options. The Best General-Purpose Reward Card.
- One (or more) premium credit cards, which provide airport lounge access and other valuable benefits. There are several “premium” cards on the market that have very high annual fees, but provide the most valuable benefits and reward rates.
- The IHG Rewards Card, and perhaps one or two other hotel credit cards, to receive extremely valuable Free Night Certificates, every year. Several hotel credit cards give you a certificate, good for a free night at one of their hotels, each year you have the card. You can use the certificate to get a free hotel room that might normally cost hundreds of dollars. Of these cards, almost every traveler should get the IHG Card. Depending on your travel patterns, you might want one or more of the other cards as well. Everyone Should Get the IHG Credit Card.
- One or more airline credit cards, for the airline(s) you fly most frequently, to take advantage of free checked bags and other benefits. Most airline-branded credit cards will let you check your first bag for free, board the plane early, and take advantage of other airline benefits. If you sometimes check bags, it makes sense to get the card for any airline that you fly frequently enough, to justify the annual fee. This is especially true, if you frequently fly as a couple or family and need to check multiple bags. You could easily save $50-100 each trip. Get Free Checked Bags via Airline Credit Cards.
One of the main benefits of these cards is free access to a network of over 1,000 airport lounges—for both you and your traveling companions. Rather than waiting for your flight by the gate, you can hang out in the lounge, enjoying free food and drinks, until its time to board.
Each high-end card also has several other valuable benefits. For example, the Citi Prestige Card will give you the 4th night free on almost any hotel reservation, the Sapphire Reserve Card helps you earn the best possible rewards for your credit card spending, and the Ritz Carlton Credit Card will rebate $100 on every domestic coach airfare purchase for two or more people.
The annual fees for these cards are around $450 per year. However, each card offers “credits” that help to offset this fee. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card will refund the first $300 that you spend every year on travel. This makes your out-of-pocket cost “only” $150 per year, rather than $450.
For most travelers, the airport lounge access, and other benefits that you can get from these cards are usually worth their effective $150-200 annual cost per year. As a matter of fact, it usually makes sense to get more than one of these cards, to take advantage of their unique benefits. Which Premium Reward Card is Right for You?.
Depending on your individual circumstances, some other cards that you might want to add to your collection
- A card that gives you automatic Gold status with Hilton and/or Marriott—which entitles you to free breakfast or hotel club access. Many hotel-branded credit cards provide automatic elite status in their loyalty programs. Usually this status doesn’t include their more valuable benefits—like free breakfast, club access, or suite upgrades. The key exceptions are for Hilton and Marriott. If you frequently travel to these hotels, it can be worthwhile to get a credit card that automatically entitles you to breakfast and/or club access, plus a set of other nice benefits. Get Free Breakfast or Club Access by Having the Right Credit Card.
- One or more cards that gets you a valuable companion ticket for air travel. Several airline-branded credit cards provide access to companion certificates. These can be used for free (or reduced) airfare for a second passenger on an airline reservation. If you fly Alaska or Delta every year, it is easy to get good value from the certificates you get from their cards. There are some additional options, but for various reasons, they tend to be harder to take advantage of. Get 2 for 1 Airplane Tickets using Credit Card Companion Certificates.
- A card that gives you gives you great benefits and rewards with Amtrak. If you frequently travel on Amtrak, you’ll definitely want one of their credit cards. They offer a very generous reward program. Amtrak Rewards Guide.
- (Possibly) a card that gives you primary rental car insurance. Many credit cards provide rental car insurance. However, in most cases it is “secondary” insurance. This means your regular car insurance is on the hook first, and the credit card insurance only covers anything that your regular insurance doesn’t. A few cards offer "primary" rental car insurance instead, which works without involving your regular car insurance. You might consider making sure that you have at least one card that provides this benefit, and use that card for all your car rentals. Credit Cards That Provide “Primary” Rental Car Coverage.
If you fly multiple times per year on Southwest Airlines, one of the most valuable travel benefits you can get is the Southwest Companion Pass. It lets a companion fly for free on every trip you take with Southwest, including award trips—essentially giving you half-priced travel, all the time. The best way to qualify for the pass is via Southwest Airlines credit cards. 2 for 1 Travel with the Southwest Airline Companion Pass.