During the time I’ve been writing reviews of credit cards, I sometimes come across a card that’s just totally random – a card that won’t make Top-10 lists but deserves to be on them.
I consider these cards the misfits, a band of financial products that have great value for the average blue-collar American. These are the cards suited for those who don’t put on a suit for work, for the travelers who get out maybe once a year. They want flights and nights, not luxury.
Choice Privileges Visa: Seven free nights a year
Look, I know Choice Hotels aren’t going to battle it out with Starwood, Hyatt or Marriott for the world’s best hotels. The popular rewards sites may scoff. Regardless, the Choice Privileges Visa packs a very mighty punch for a card with a featherweight reputation.
For me, it’s purely a numbers game and here’s why:
- 32,000 bonus points for spending $1K in the first 90 days
- More than 1,500 hotels can be booked for 8,000 points
- 8,000 bonus points for spending $10,000 in a year
- Double points on all non-Choice Hotels purchases
Whenever I’m trying to figure out how many points a person can earn – a very important part of understanding a card’s value – I default to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Every year they calculate the average American budget and, based on those numbers, I believe the average family can spend at least $24,000 a year on their credit card.
I’ll use that number throughout this article. As for the Choice Privileges Visa, $24K in spending equals a base rewards total of 48,000 points plus the 8,000 bonus – that’s 56,000 points a year, or seven free nights at more than 1,500 hotels.
Now, I’ll admit that Choice Hotels properties don’t have the wow factor of Starwood hotels, nor do the 8,000-point properties match the simple style and generous space of a 5,000-point Hyatt Place room.
However, consider that even Choice properties in cities like New York have some reasonable offerings. For example, you can book the Clarion Hotel on Park Ave. for 12,000 points on the weekends. It’s a few blocks from the Flatiron Building and the Empire State Building.
One more added bonus: Free Gold Elite status, which means you’ll get a 10 percent bonus on the points you redeem for your stays and the choice between 250 points or a welcome gift each stay.
Frontier Airlines World Mastercard: Two free round trips and $100
One quick search of the best airline credit cards will turn up all kinds of results.
Sadly, the Frontier World MasterCard is left out for a variety of reasons. If you’re seeking luxury – such as business-class upgrades – then Frontier is not the choice. But if you want to get the most possible flights out of your intro bonus and yearly points, it’s time to consider this budget carrier.
And when I say budget, I mean it – you’ll pay for any baggage you bring and Frontier has a limited route map.
Here are the numbers for this card:
- 40,000 EarlyReturns miles bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months
- $100 flight voucher if you spend $2.5K in a year
- $69 annual fee
- One mile per dollar on purchase outside of Frontier (2 miles per dollar on Frontier purchases)
Now, let’s say you spend about $24,000 on your card the first year. You’ll get 64,000 EarlyReturns miles (40K bonus, 24K spending) and the $100 flight voucher.
Sounds pedestrian when you consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred gives you 50K points up front and spending bonuses.
Think about it in terms of flights, though. Frontier seats for domestic flights are 10,000 per flight (20K round-trip) no matter where you fly. In my experience, only Southwest and Virgin America have cheaper rewards flights.
By the end of your first year, you could get three round-trip flights and, considering that a flight from Orlando to San Diego costs as little as $99, your $100 flight voucher could pay for half of a cross-country trip.
Remember, though, this is a lean card. You aren’t going to get free baggage, priority boarding or lounge access.
U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa
If the recent release of U.S. Bank’s Altitude Reserve is the first time you’ve heard of or considered a U.S. Bank credit card to fund free travel, you’ve been missing out.
The FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa is the best travel card you haven’t heard of for one simple reason: this misfit card can double the value of your points when you’re booking airline tickets.
The card’s numbers are simple: 20,000 “FlexPoints” if you spend $2,000 in the first three months. You can use those 20K points to book a flight through U.S. Bank’s booking engine.
Now, instead of using a straight 1 point-per-$0.01 value system, U.S Bank uses a tier system:
- 20K FlexPoints: Up to $400 in airfare
- 30K FlexPoints: $401-$600
- 40K FlexPoints: $601-$800
- 50K FlexPoints: $801-$1,000
The average price of a domestic airline ticket, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, was $349 in 2016. Based on that, you can book a flight just about anywhere with 20,000 points.
When you add in the points you can earn over the course of the year, this card gets even better.
U.S. Bank will credit double points to your account based on the category in which you spend the most out of gas, groceries and travel.
You’ll also get double points on cell phone bills and charity donations made after Dec. 2017. All charity donations made with your card before Dec. 2017 will get you triple points.
Based on my calculations, this card can earn the average family around 36,000 FlexPoints each year without charity giving. If you make some generous donations throughout the year, then you could easily get 40,000 points.
Those 40K points can pay for two separate flights up to $400 each or one flight between $602 and $800.
Note: This card’s rewards structure is changing in 2018 to a flat redemption rate, rather than a tiered one.
Wrapping Up the Misfits: Free stays, free flights from unlikely sources
In the world of credit card rewards, it helps to think unconventionally.
Most travel rewards sites will laud the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner) and the Chase Sapphire Preferred. While those are excellent cards, they aren’t the best fit for everyone.
For those who have only basic travel needs and don’t want to spend their points on flight upgrades or fancy international resorts, the Choice Privileges Visa, Frontier Airlines World Mastercard and U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa are great choices.
Each one has its own set of competitive benefits. The Choice Privileges can get you seven free nights in one year – that’s amazing if you want a free stay during your family vacation.
Both the Frontier Airlines and U.S. Bank FlexPerks cards can get you two round-trip flights the first year, with the Frontier card throwing in a $100 flight voucher.
Are these the most luxurious hotels and airlines in the world? No. However, for many of us, value is a luxury unto itself and these cards provide plenty of it.
HighYa’s J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores and bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest and his advice has been featured in MSN and Fox’s money sections.