Do you want to take a vacation, but cash is a little tight right now? If you're willing to do a little legwork, you could get a vacation for next to nothing, thanks to the healthy competition between the credit card companies. Here's how you can get a nearly free vacation simply by signing up for products from American Express (NYSE:AXP), Citigroup (NYSE:C), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) and others.
There are no shortage of airline-branded credit cards to choose from, and the right one for you depends on your favorite airline, how much you travel, and what perks matter to you. Virtually all airline cards offer a generous "welcome gift", so for our purposes, let's focus on those cards with low annual fees.
The Delta Sky Miles Gold American Express card has a $95 annual fee, but it's waived for the first year. After you make $1,000 in purchases within the first three months, you get a 30,000 mile bonus, which is more than enough for a free flight. The card also entitles you to free checked bags. So, for no upfront annual fee, your flight is covered.
Most other airlines have similar offers. USAirways' credit card products are issued by Barclays, and offer an even sweeter welcome bonus than Delta. The USAirways Premier World MasterCard offers a 40,000 mile bonus after your first purchase and the payment of the $89 annual fee (unfortunately not free for the first year). You also get the free bags perk.
American Airlines and United both have similar offers, issued by Citibank and JPMorgan Chase, respectively, so no matter what airline you prefer, a free round-trip ticket and checked bags could be as easy as filling out an application.
Where to stay?
All of the major hotel chains offer credit cards, and many have very generous welcome bonuses. For example, the Club Carlson Rewards Visa Signature Card, issued by U.S. Bank, charges just a $50 annual fee, and gives you enough bonus points after your first purchase for up to five free nights at such hotel brands as Radisson and Country Inn and Suites.
Hilton offers credit cards issued by either American Express or Citibank, and both offer cards with absolutely no annual fee that come with enough points for a couple of free nights and HHonors Silver status for as long as you have the card.
The IHG Rewards Club Select card, issued by JPMorgan Chase, offers enough welcome points for up to six free nights at hotels like Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, and InterContinental Hotels. It comes with a $49 annual fee, but it's free for the first year.
Rental cars and more
There are several cards available with flexible travel perks that you can use for rental cars and other transportation expenses, and a great example is the Capital One Venture card. The card has a $59 annual fee (free for the first year) and earns double miles on every purchase. Each "mile" is redeemable for $0.01 in travel expenses like flights, hotels, rental cards, and even gift cards.
The current bonus offer is 20,000 miles after $2,000 in purchases, which is good for $200 in travel expenses. This should more than cover a rental car for a four or five day vacation in most parts of the country.
But don't I have to spend a lot of money?
Not as much as you might think. Most of these cards have pretty low annual fees, ranging from nothing to $89 per year. As far as the spending requirements are concerned, as long as you use your cards for things you would have bought anyway with cash or a debit card, then pay the balance off in full each month, it shouldn't cost you a dime other than annual fees, most of which are waived for the first year anyway.
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Matthew Frankel has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends American Express. The Motley Fool owns shares of Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.