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Play your (credit) cards right to score a free vacation

| Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 8:45 p.m.

A free vacation could be in the cards.

Banks are competing fiercely for new credit card users — especially those with good credit. To entice new customers, several major banks are throwing in enough frequent flier miles for two free tickets anywhere in the United States.

Charge the groceries, a night out at a restaurant and the kids' new spring outfits, and you might even earn enough rewards to also get a free hotel or car rental.

But before you rush out to get a credit card, make sure that the airline — and the type of card — best suit your vacation needs.

Which card suits you

The first thing to do is start with a travel goal, says Gary Leff, who offers advice about free travel and credit cards on his blog, View from the Wing. See which airlines fly to the city you want to visit. If, for example, Southwest is the only airline, get its card.

The other option is to get a credit card with flexible points that can be transferred to several airlines.

American Express Membership Reward points can be transferred to 15 airline and five hotel partners. Chase Ultimate Rewards can be transferred by cardholders to four airline and three hotel partners. The most flexible transfer option, however, might be through Starwood hotels and its American Express card. The company, which includes the Sheraton and Westin chains, allows points to be transferred to 29 airline partners.

Several banks are currently offering bonuses of 25,000 to 50,000 miles for spending anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 in the first few months of having a card. Domestic coach tickets start at 25,000 miles while tickets to Europe are usually 60,000 miles. Business-class tickets generally require twice as many miles.

“There's no better, easier, quicker way to get free flights than signing up for a couple of strategic credit cards,” Leff says. “It really seems like the banks want us to fly around the world in a premium class of service pretty much for free.”

Miles or cash

That might be what the banks want, but the airlines aren't always so charitable. Airlines limit the number of seats available to travelers using miles. During holidays and other peak travel periods, there might not be any seats open for mileage redemption.

In some cases, miles aren't even the best option. If you want to fly domestically in coach, the best bet isn't an airline card, but one offering cash back. (Those looking for international business-class seats should stick to miles.)

Fidelity has an American Express card that gives a 2-percent rebate. Priceline has a Visa that offers 2 percent cash back.

With airline cards typically offering one mile for every dollar charged, it would take $25,000 to earn enough miles for a free flight. With a 2-percent cash-back card, that same amount of spending would earn a $500 rebate, enough to purchase most domestic flights and without the hassles of trying to redeem miles. Additionally, you will be able to earn miles for the flight.

“Cash trumps free anything, because you can do anything with it,” says Tim Winship, publisher of, an advice site for travelers.

So, instead of saving miles for that dream vacation, just get enough cash back to pay for it yourself.

Is loyalty worth it?

Winship says there has been a gradual erosion of the value of these miles and points and that award-ticket availability is getting harder to find.

“I'm not saying loyalty programs are worthless. I'm saying they are worth less today than they were five years ago and will be worth less in five years,” Winship says.

Many hotel and airline cards come with annual fees, typically ranging from $50 to $100 but sometimes as high as $450. Those fees are only worth paying if you are charging a few thousand dollars each month.

There is one exception: some hotel cards, such as the ones for Hyatt, Marriott and InterContinental Hotels — which includes Holiday Inn — come with a free night at certain level hotels each year. The cost of the annual fee is often less than one night's hotel bill.

Hotel points are typically easier to redeem than airline miles.

But be warned: all of these cards often charge with higher interest rates — some as high as 24.99 percent — and are best only for those who pay off their monthly bills in full.

“These cards are definitely not the way to go,” Winship says, “if keeping your head above water is your first priority.”

Scott Mayerowitz is an AP airlines writer.

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