One of the rewarding aspects of a serious running hobby is that it gives you an excuse to travel. There are great marathons and races all over the world, and you can easily plan years of travel around your running goals.
Of course, the downside is that travel can be expensive. It’s tempting to stick with races close to home to avoid airfare and hotel costs. And that’s ok for your bread and butter races – but if you’ve never gone on a trip for a goal race you’re missing out.
I’m a big fan of the credit card points game, and I’ve been lucky enough to use credit card points, miles, and rewards to pay for much of my marathon travel tourism.
Let me share what credit cards I use most often and how they’ve helped me travel for some fun races and running.
What Credit Cards Do I Use For Travel Rewards?
Let me start with the quick overview.
To maximize your credit card and travel rewards, it helps to commit to a particular brand. For me, those brands are Chase, United, and Marriott.
I have an assortment of Chase credit cards. These all help me collect Ultimate Rewards points, which I can use to cover any kind of travel costs:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve – Redeem points for 1.5x value
- Chase Freedom Unlimited – Everyday spending
- Chase Freedom Flex – 5x Bonus Categories
- Chase Business Unlimited – Everyday business spending
- Chase Business Cash – Bonus Categories
For hotels, I have two Marriott cards:
- Chase Marriott Boundless – Free Night Award and Hotel Spending
- Amex Marriott Bonvoy Business – Free Night Award and Business Spending
Finally, I have a United Card:
- United MileagePlus Explorer Card – United Flights
All of these cards have great sign up bonuses, and you can probably score a free trip just from signing up. And then from year to year, I’m able to accrue enough points to cover another trip or two – depending on how extravagant they are.
Let me break it down for you a little bit.
Chase Ultimate Rewards
The vast majority of my spending goes on my Chase cards. That’s because Chase Ultimate Rewards offers some great value in redeeming points, and I also have the flexibility to transfer points to Marriott and to United if I can find a good deal there.
The reason I have so many cards is that they all work together to maximize my spending and points.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve card is the king of them all. By having this card, every point I earn is worth 1.5 cents. This is a huge boost.
You can redeem these points directly through Chase’s travel portal for hotels, flights, rental cars and more. When I went to Delaware for the Coastal Delaware Running Festival, this is how I booked my hotel. But recently, they’ve allowed you to redeem your points at full value to “Pay Yourself Back” for various categories – including dining. Effectively, this lets me cancel out any other travel charge I might have – like a hotel I booked and paid for direct.
The Sapphire Reserve does come with a hefty annual fee. You get a decent amount of value back in direct benefits, and it’s definitely worth getting this card to get maximum value from the various sign up bonuses. But long term, if you don’t spend a lot of money, you might want to downgrade to the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
The other Chase cards play supporting roles here. Chase Freedom Flex has a rotating group of 5x categories. I keep this one in my wallet just for the rotating categories – like gas and groceries. Most of my other everyday spending goes on the Chase Freedom Unlimited – which also gets bonus points (3x) at drug stores.
Finally, I have two of the business credit cards. I don’t use the Chase Business Unlimited much, since it basically overlaps with the Freedom Unlimited. But it serves the same purposes for business purposes. But the Chase Business Cash gets 5x points at office supply stores. I’m not into hardcore manufactured spending, but if you are – this is a must have card.
Besides the ongoing earnings, each of these cards has a heft sign up bonus – 60,000 pts ($900) for the Sapphire Reserve; 20,000 pts ($300) for the Chase Freedom Unlimited and the Chase Freedom Flex; 90,000 pts ($1,350 !) for the Chase Business Unlinited and Chase Business Cash.
Marriott Bonvoy Rewards
After the Chase cards, my second most useful cards are the Marriott Bonvoy cards.
The first Marriott card I got was the Marriott Bonvoy Business Card by Amex.
At the time, this came with a heftier sign up bonus, but you currently get 75,000 points at sign up. That’s good for 2 or 3 nights, depending on where you stay. The card does have a small annual fee ($125), but it comes with a free award night every year. I find that I can usually use these award nights in major cities where the hotels would cost $2-300 per night.
I also do a fair amount of spending for work which gets reimbursed. This is typically dining out, and the Marriott Bonvoy Business Card gets 4x points for dining.
Recently, I picked up the Chase Marriott Boundless card as well. By having two cards, I automatically qualify for Gold Elite status every year and it puts Platinum Elite status within reach. I’ll hit Platinum this year – and there’s no way that would have happened without the bonus from the card.
But I was really motivated to sign up because of the current bonus. As a new cardmember, you get three free nights (up to 35,000 pts). These free nights covered my stay at the Element in Philadelphia in Center City for the Philly Marathon. Those two nights easily would have cost $5-600. I was also able to combine one of the free nights with my annual free night on the other card to stay in downtown Portland, Maine for a weekend. That was in June, when the rooms would have cost a mind boggling $4-500 per night.
I’ve found that in some cases it’s not worth using points to get free nights. But in high demand locations, like big cities hosting marathons, you can get some amazing value out of your Marriott points and your free award nights.
If I’m not booking a hotel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, I usually book it through Marriott so I can earn the additional points. Combined with a few business trips each year, I’m earning enough points to get me at least a weekend away if not a longer stay.
United MileagePlus Explorer Card
The final card in my arsenal is the United MileagePlus Explorer card.
This card comes with a small annual fee, but it also gets you free checked bags on United flights. My wife’s family lives in Florida, so we travel at least once a year. The annual fee more than pays for itself in savings for checked bags.
I don’t spend a lot on this card, but it does net me extra earnings any time I have to book a United flight – whether it’s for business or pleasure. At this point, I’m saving up my miles and I’ll probably use them for a transatlantic flight. I plan to run the London and/or Berlin marathons in the next few years – and I’ll use these miles for a free flight overseas. The other option I’m looking at is to use these miles to get me a first class ticket home from Minneapolis when I run the Twin Cities Marathon. We’ll see …
But I initially got the card because of the sign up bonus. 60,000 miles is good for one or two round trip flights, depending on where you’re going. If you fly on a regular basis, and you live by an airport that United services, you should definitely get this card. If you fly a lot, you might even splurge for one of the bigger and better cards.
A Word About Signing Up and Churning
Now that we’ve gone over all the cards you should have in your wallet, let’s talk for a minute about some of the pitfalls of churning credit card sign ups.
Chase has a rule – the 5/24 rule. They (usually) will not approve you for a credit card if you’ve already opened five cards in the last 24 months.
What this means is that you need to plan ahead.
Spread your sign ups out, and leave a few months in between new cards. If you get one of the business credit cards, they usually don’t count against your 5/24 status, so it pays to get them early on.
This is also a reason not to sign up for every credit card you can willy nilly. There are tons of credit card offers and bonuses out there, but if a card is only going to net you $50 or $100 as a bonus – do you really want to forego the option to get $300, $900, or even more with one of these Chase cards?
Where Do You Plan on Traveling First?
Now that you know how to rack up tons of points for free travel – where do you plan on going first?
Recently, I’ve used points to travel to New York City; Philadelphia; Rehobeth Beach, Delaware; and Portland, Maine.
Next up on my list of places to travel are Minneapolis, Boston, and Chicago.