Credit Card Sign-Up Bonus Summary 2011: Over $2,500 in Free Money

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Looking back, 2011 was a great year for credit card sign-up incentives. The major issuers rolled out some new cards and features and offered up big bonuses to get you to try them out. By picking up the tastiest offers, you could have reaped thousands of dollars in bonuses even with average incomes and without spending more than normal. If you have good to excellent credit, why not earn some money with it? Here’s what Mrs. MMB and I decided to jump on last year:

Chase Sapphire Preferred: $625 in travel
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card gives you 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. With this new card, Chase is basically trying to make a premium card that competes with American Express, with their Ultimate Rewards rivaling Membership Rewards. (It’s metal and heavy, too!) For example, you can now transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Continental/United, Southwest, British Airways, Hyatt, and Marriott. This the same system the Chase Freedom card uses now as well.

But my favorite features are the cash options and the 20% bonus towards travel. 10,000 points = $100 cash = $120 towards travel at no markup (same price as Expedia, Travelocity, etc). You can mix points and cash however you like, which means 40k points = $500 towards any airfare or hotel nights. No annual fee the first year, $95 after that.

Ink Bold Business Charge Card: $500 cash or $625 in travel
The small business version of the Chase Sapphire, this card also offers a huge sign-up bonus. The Ink Bold® Business Charge Card from Chase gives you 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points – after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months your account is open. For more details, please see my Chase Ink Bold review post, including details on what constitutes a small business.

Citi ThankYou Premier: $500 in gift card or $665 in airfare
The Citi ThankYou Premier Card is another travel-oriented premium credit card gives you 50,000 ThankYou points after spending $2,500 within 3 months of account opening. The special feature here is that it offers you a 33% premium on when used towards travel. That means those 50,000 ThankYou points can be redeemed for $665 in airfare. They also have their own airfare portal with the same prices as Expedia, and you can also mix and match cash and points if you don’t have enough points to pay for the entire amount. For more details, please see my Citi ThankYou Premier review post. (Now expired)

Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express: 30,000 miles
The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express is not a great deal for everyone, but it works out very well for us. (It’s actually our second card, I had one previously.) My wife and I both fly cross-country together to a city primarily served by Delta at least once a year to visit the parents. The sign-up incentive is pretty good – 30,000 Skymiles after just $1,000 in purchases within your first 3 months.

More importantly, the card comes with a buy-one-get-one-for-$99 companion voucher (now expired) that saved us $250+ this year since it’s usually during a holiday. We’ve used this voucher before, and the prices are comparable to online travel engines, but you do get stuck with the taxes of $50 or so. The annual fee is free the first year, and $95 after that. You also get a free checked bag on every flight for you and up to 8 travel companions (so one card gets us two free bags as a couple, a $50 value per person each roundtrip). The total one-year value of this card is at least $600 if value a mile at a penny.

Grand total: $625 + $625 + $665 + $600 = $2,515
That’s just for four cards from three different issuers, which is far less than the most cards I’ve applied for in a year on my own. This means a couple could make over $5,000, which is 10% of the 2009 US median household income of $50,221 per US Census. As for us, we plan on making good use of this money to cover future airfare and hotel expenses. This total also does not include any earnings from cash-back rewards credit cards.

If we include the Ink Bold Business Charge Card, the required spending total was $11,000. Exclude the Ink Bold, and it goes down to $6,000, which if you use time-shifting techniques like pre-paying bills such as insurance/utilities or buying gift cards for groceries/gas, works out to a reasonable $500 per month. That’s well within our normal spending anyway.

Honorable mentions go out to three other cards:

  • The Chase British Airways 100,000 miles offer came back in 2012, but both my wife and I already jumped on it previously and have already used it for a luxurious business-class trip around Europe.
  • The Southwest Airlines card offered up 50,000 points (expired) which was good for over $800 in Wanna Get Away airfare after just one purchase of any amount. The current offer is 25,000 points for a still-respectable $416 in airfare. We don’t fly Southwest all that often, so we passed on this card this year.
  • The Hyatt Card offers two free nights at any Hyatt in the world after any first purchase, which includes some rather swank hotels. There is a $75 annual fee. My sister got this card and we were pretty close to applying, but we wanted to hold off until we had firm travel plans since I believe you have a certain time to redeem.

My psychic powers tell me that some of you are wondering about this ;), so here’s the answer: How Opening and Closing Credit Card Accounts Affects Your Credit Score.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Banner 50000

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  1. Those are all tempting, but I already have three of those and I’m in the middle of a mortgage refinance!

  2. I guess it is because of the amount of expendable income that I am currently playing with, but I can’t imagine what possible benefits could be so great as to have to pay to have a credit card.

  3. infamousdx says:

    For people who want to travel the world in the best of conditions like myself, then the ‘only’ realistic way this can happen is by leveraging “pay” credit cards with high rewards and sign-up bonuses like the ones mentioned. Then again, most of the ones mentioned come with a $0 annual fee in the first year so if you know how to maintain your credit, you won’t get hit with any fees.

    Jonathan, did you have to pay the uber fuel surcharges on the BA redemption through Europe? I assume you had to actually redeem on British Airways. My fiancee and I are using both of our 100k miles (and more) on Cathay Pacific – first class to Bali via HK.

  4. yeah matt, i used to operate that way, and i see that perspective, however there is another side to it–playing this credit card bonus game is easy, can be reasonably profitable, and it can serve to build your credit score should you ever desire to qualify for a Loan in the future.

  5. Aaron, I could also easily see this really hurting someone looking to get a loan after having recently applied for and received multiple credit offers. Lenders (ie. underwriters) will often look at these sceptically with thoughts of “why are these people suddenly applying for all this credit?”

  6. Richie Rich says:

    In 2011 I got bonuses for the freedom, sapphire (which gave a total of 100k in points) ,southwest—all chase cards. I recently applied for the chase marriot that gives 50,000 points after 1st purchase. A couple take aways from this little game:

    -It is quick!
    -Multiply by your tax rate and compare the bonus to how many hours you’d have to work to earn the same.
    -Chase allows to change cards after a year to get away from paying the annual fee i.e. change from the sapphire preferred to regular sapphire.
    -Closing a newer card doesn’t have the same affect on your fico score as one you have held a long time.

    ***This isn’t for everyone though, I’d recommend not opening new credit if you are in the process of taking out a loan for a house or car*****

    Thanks again Jonathan for making/ saving me thousands going back to the Sprint SERO plan!!

  7. @Matt, these offers don’t cost anything as they generally waive the annual fees for the first year. You _do_ have to qualify for these big offers, which usually means perfect credit and high income.

    I jumped on the Sapphire Preferred and the Citi ThankYou Premier deals this past year too. I am using the accumulated rewards to take me and the girlfriend to New York for Valentine’s. The flight and accommodation will be completely paid for with rewards.

    I already canceled the Citi ThankYou, but Sapphire is a dang good card actually, so I guess their marketing worked on me. No foreign transaction fees, so I can dump my otherwise lame CapitalOne card, and using the rewards for travel is so much easier than worrying about miles.

    I also love the reactions I get from tellers when they first hold the Saphhire card because it’s metal (and somewhat heavy). They tend to assume it’s something exclusive like an Amex Black.

  8. I saved thousands with the AARP card. I’m self employed and prepaid all my estimated taxes for the year using the card. It costs 2.5% via but I was earning 5% from AARP. I essentially lowered my tax rate by 2.5% not to mention getting 5% back on all my purchases those 6 months.

  9. I wonder how 2012 will compare on the credit card front, it will be interesting to see how offers/APR match up.

  10. That chase southwest visa was the best one for me. Got $625 in amazon giftcards, which covered all my xmas shopping and then some, and I cancelled the card quickly enough to get the $99 annual fee refunded. Amazing.

  11. I want to sign up for one of these but I can’t figure out how to spend $1,000/month to hit the bonus. Our groceries and gift cards get a 6% bonus with AMEX so I don’t want to use it on those, Amazon gets me 5% with CITI so that is out the window. I don’t buy much else and my utilities don’t take credit cards.

  12. Dude – Chase AARP 5% cashback for six months, 0% interest for 12 months, no need to actually be an AARP member. Crazy good card.

  13. Frankie,

    Jonathan had an article about opening up a perkstreet account awhile ago. They charge you 2% or so to fund by credit card but that 2% should be more than offset by any bonuses you qualify for with youur credit card.

  14. If you’re flying international (especially first class), the Chase Sapphire Preferred lets you transfer to many airlines at a 1:1 point ratio. This can end up being more valuable than the 25% bonus you’d otherwise get. Of course you’re more subject to the award flight availability, but can often get 2-3c per point that way.

  15. Frankie,

    I have the AMEX preferred blue cash card as well. Though you get 6% back from there, if you spend 3000$ (or 2500 for Citi’s card) you will make 16.7% back (20% from Citi’s) which is at least 10% more. Also, though can’t confirm this, I’d assume you’d get your standard 1% back on your purchases as well which would make that 17.7 (21%). So you maybe reluctant cause you already pay $75 a year for AMEX, but your AMEX will still be justified with spending 9 months out of the year plus 3 months for one of these. Then you can go back to buying your groceries and gas gift cards at 6%.

  16. Opted for the SWA card. No fee, plus chase had an awesome deal where the points were 4000 = $50 card. I already canceled the card but man those gift cards were nice.

  17. I tried all 4 of these, although for some reason I got turned out for Ink… For those a bit more aggressive, there was an Am. Ex. gold rewards card deal where you could 100K for a business card, and 75K for a personal. Took a little bit more work, but it worked for the 3 of us that die it, and we got 525K points, or close to $5000 in free money. Another good deal was a capital one deal, where they matched up to 100,000 worth of miles with almost any airline (and you could do it for business account too)I made over $9000 in credit card/bank account openings.
    For those always wondering about their credit score…could a higher credit score have saved you $9000? My last official credit score was actually higher than before I started all of this anyway.
    I wonder what 2012 will bring. Nothing much so far unfortunately.

  18. Jeff Crews says:

    I just signed up for the Chase Freedom. Got a free $200 for sign up. Not bad Any of you tried the FREEDOM?

  19. Mortgage Free Mike says:

    I’ve taken advantage of Sapphire and Ink. Both are great. And Chase pays the rewards faster than anyone else!
    I prepaid condo fees and other expenses to meet the sign-up bonuses.

  20. I applied for and got the bonuses for the Southwest, Citi ThankYou and Chase Sapphire Preferred cards, that was a great year. I have to agree that I do love the Sapphire card and have had so many people tell me how classy it is, but sadly that’s not worth the annual fee.

    Since I’m going to start cancelling these cards soon, does anyone have any tips on how to do that quickly and painlessly? I hate having to argue with reps about that kind of thing, is there anyway to do this online or via mail? Thanks for any advice.

  21. Richie Rich says:

    @Mike–Why don’t you transfer the credit to another Chase card that doesn’t charge an annual fee. You just have to hold a card for 1 year and do it within 90 days and they will refund the annuals fee. That way you won’t have any impact to your credit.

  22. infamousdx says:

    @Richie Rich – Lately, Chase will not let you downgrade a co-brand cc (Southwest, Continental, British Airways) to an in-house fee free card. Though your idea is perfect for the Sapphire Preferred, just have them change that one to a Freedom.

  23. Jaison Norton says:


    Nothing is free! These banks will hook you and suck you dry. Use cash and be smart!

  24. Jonathan,

    The link to your Chase Sapphire Preferred review post in the first paragraph is actually to your Chase Ink review.

    Also, I believe you have 1 year to use the free Hyatt nights. I just signed up for that card recently, and it is a great deal.

  25. Let’s not forget the amounts you have to spend in order to get the benefits in cash and travel savings 🙂 Thanks for the post!

  26. @Jaison: I disagree with what you said. If the only change made is to spend money you would have normally spent, except on a new credit card, the only additional cost to you is a very minor and temporary cost to your credit score. Properly done, it is virtually free money.

  27. Hi Jonathan, Do you plan to cancel any of your cards you signed up in 2011? Which ones will you keep and pay the annual fee?!? If you were a current or previous cardholder of 1 of them, would that disqualify you from getting any bonuses in 2012 or in the future?!?

  28. FYI to those that make charitable contributions. That’s a great way to get to your thresholds. Many charities accept credit cards. Although, if you are like Newt Gingrich, you’re only giving a very small portion of your income to charity, so it might not work to meet the threshold.

  29. Justin, they said the same thing about small political contributions when Al Gore was running–so I hope this was not just meant to be a political slam on one party. I had not yet heard about Gingrich’s contributions.

    BTW, I do agree that a credit card would be a very good way to contribute to charities if they accept them.

  30. howard_roark says:

    Can somebody walk me through the exact steps to setup the amazon payment scheme to transfer $1000 a month to use as purchases? I enrolled last night but my only options was to email money to my wife? I am not following how it works.

  31. Citi Premier lowered the sign-up bonus to 30000 thankyou points as of last week.

  32. playcentric says:

    I enjoy reading this blog and all the responses daily. Thanks to Jonathan for a great job (I learned and have benefit from your blog over the years.)

    My southwest card is due for renew this month $99. I got mine last year with 50k points and have not used yet.

    I do plan to fly Southwest in the future (not know when yet).

    Any advice to renew or not? Will the miles expire for inactivuty?
    What will I get in miles for renew? Or what will happen if I cancel the card?

  33. @playcentric – You don’t need to keep the card, as Southwest points don’t expire as long as you have flight or Partner earning activity every 24 months. So I would put one last purchase on the card (activity) and then you’re good for 24 months.

  34. I’m confused. You wrote, “If we include the Chase Ink Bold, the required spending total was $11,000. Exclude the Ink Bold, and it goes down to $6,000…”

    But the Chase Ink Bold requires $10,000 to be spent in the first 3 months in order to get the full bonus. What am I missing here?

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