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When to Apply for a Travel Credit Card to Get the Biggest Sign-Up Bonuses

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The recent 50,000-point drop in the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s sign-up bonus shows how important timing can be when applying for a new card. One day can make the difference between getting a great sign-up bonus or none at all. And nearly all of the major rewards programs and many airlines had cards with fluctuating sign-up bonuses last year.

A little patience can go a long way toward getting the biggest bonuses. That’s true whether you want a card that’s part of a flexible program with transferable points or if you’re interested in a co-branded airline card. Citi ThankYou, Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, as well as American Airlines, Delta, United, Alaska and Lufthansa, all offered cards with variable sign-up bonuses last year.

In some cases, sign-up bonuses dropped to zero before eventually bouncing back to 15,000, 25,000 or even 40,000 points. Other cards saw modest increases of 10,000 miles or points for limited periods, while some jumped 20,000 or more miles or points during promotions. Many cards even saw 100 percent increases and drops in bonuses during the year.

The net change in sign-bonuses from the beginning to the end of last year was only about 15 percent, or roughly 4,000 miles or points for all the cards we looked at. That means that most of these special offers only lasted a short period of time. You have to act quickly when a big bonus is available. They don’t stick around long.

Let’s take a closer look at specific cards and their sign-up bonuses throughout 2016 to help you know which offers to look for in the coming year and how big of a bonus you can expect.

Travel Cards With Transferable Points

Below is a chart showing the biggest and smallest sign-up bonuses offered in 2016 by cards that are part of rewards programs with transferable points. As a quick reminder, with these programs you can transfer the points you earn directly to airline partners, giving cardholders a lot of flexibility and the ability to get the most value out of their points with carefully planned redemptions.

Credit Card Best BonusWorst BonusDates of Best Bonus
Chase Sapphire Reserve100,000 points50,000 pointsAugust-December
Chase Ink Cash Business30,000 points20,000 pointsSeptember-current
Amex Business Gold50,000 points25,000 pointsSeptember-current
Amex Business Platinum40,000 points100,000 pointsOctober-current
Citi ThankYou Preferred15,000 points0 pointsDecember-current
Citi ThankYou Premier40,000 points0 pointsJanuary-March; November-current
Citi ThankYou Prestige50,000 points40,000 pointsJanuary-June; October-current
SPG Amex75,000 points0 pointsMarch
SPG Business100,000 points0 pointsMarch

We included the months when the best offers were available for each card. It’s possible that issuers will bump bonuses this year around the same time as last year’s increases, but there’s certainly no guarantee. It’s safe to assume that the card companies improve sign-up offers when they need more cardholders. That said, with the exception of SPG, fall and winter appear to be more common times for increases.

The good news is that many of the offers are still available from last year. If you’re interested in those cards, you should consider getting them now. They include the Chase Ink Cash Business, any of the Citi ThankYou cards, and the Amex Business Gold and Business Platinum.

The Amex cards are a particularly good deal at the moment, offering some of the biggest bonuses over their typical offers among all the cards we looked at. However, you’ll have to meet a pretty steep minimum spend in order to get the Business Platinum’s full 100,000-point bonus.

The first 50,000 points takes $5,000 in purchases during the first three months, and the next 50,000 takes an additional $10,000 during the same time period. That might be doable, particularly if you’ve been putting off some big purchases, but $5,000 a month is notably more than the usual spend required which is usually $1,000 a month.

The Citi ThankYou cards have returned to their standard bonus levels. The midrange Premier card did drop to zero for nearly half of 2016. If you’re interested in that card, I’d probably apply sooner than later for fear of it dropping again. The card’s a solid option with a $95 annual fee and 40,000-point bonus. Without that bonus, though, there isn’t much reason to get it.

The Sapphire Reserves’ phenomenal 100,000-point bonus may never return. Chase offered that bonus to make a big splash when they first introduced the card. But who knows, the current bonus is equal to that of the cheaper Sapphire Preferred card, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they increase the Reserves’ bonus again, even if it’s not to the full 100,000 points.

The Starwood Preferred Guest cards’ current bonus offers stand at 25,000 points. That’s seems to be the standard for these cards. For whatever reason, SPG bumped the bonus up to 35,000 in March, and then dropped it to zero in September and October. If you’re not in a hurry to get one of those cards, you might want to wait and see if it goes back to 35,000 points in the spring.

Co-Branded Airline Cards

All three of the major domestic carriers—Delta, United and American—offered cards with sign-up bonuses that fluctuated in 2016. Alaska and Lufthansa also took part in the changing bonus game. Here are the details:

Credit CardBest BonusWorst BonusDates of Best Bonus
Gold Delta SkyMiles personal and business50,000 miles30,000 milesJune; September-October
Platinum Delta SkyMiles personal and business70,000 miles30,000 milesSeptember-October
Delta Reserve for Business10,000 miles0 milesApril-current
United MileagePlus Explorer Card50,000 miles30,000 milesJune
United MileagePlus Explorer Business50,000 miles30,000 milesNovember-current
AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard60,000 miles50,000 milesJune-current
AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard personal and business50,000 miles30,000 milesJanuary-February; December-current
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature30,000 miles25,000 milesMay-current
Lufthansa Miles & More World Elite MasterCard50,000 miles35,000 milesMarch

Delta had the best offers with the personal and business Gold and Platinum SkyMiles cards. The midrange Platinum card saw an impressive 133 percent increase from its lowest offering to its highest. Its 70,000-mile sign-up bonus only lasted a couple of months during the fall of last year, but Delta’s known for increasing sign-up bonuses from time to time. If you’re interested in any of Delta’s cards, it’s probably worth waiting for a bigger bonus.

Both the United MileagePlus Explorer personal and business cards saw a solid 20,000-mile increase last year. Unfortunately, only the business card still offers the 50,000-mile bonus. The personal card’s best bonus was only available briefly in June of last year, so grab it quickly if it comes up again.

The AAdvantage Platinum Select personal and business cards currently have a nice 50,000-mile bonus. Last year that bonus dropped down to the standard 30,000 miles in February, so look for that one to disappear soon.

Alaska Airlines is a perennial favorite among frequent flyers due to its excellent service, solid redemptions on its own metal, generous stopover policy and some outstanding awards on partner airlines. One of its best features of the carrier’s co-branded card is its annual companion fare at just $99. The sign-up bonus for that card went up to 30,000 miles from 25,000 in May. This may be the new standard bonus for the carrier.

Lufthansa Miles & More isn’t the most popular program among U.S.-based travelers, but it has some redemption bright spots. In particular, booking through Miles & More is one of the easiest ways to get an award ticket in Lufthansa’s fabulous first class cabin. That’s a great option if you like luxurious travel and you’re planning a trip to Europe. It’s also a good program for booking first class domestic flights on United.

Lufthansa has traditionally offered a 50,000-mile bonus for its World Elite MasterCard a few times a year. However, last year only saw the offer come up once, and that was briefly in March.  Jump on it the next time you see it come around and start booking some first class flights.

When Should You Apply for a New Card?

Sometimes you need to get a new card fast, particularly if you have a trip coming up in a few months and you need a quick infusion of points for an award ticket. If you’re in that situation, you probably can’t wait for the best bonus offers.

But if you’re planning ahead and stockpiling miles for the future, why not wait for the best offers. Card issuers keep adding more and more restrictions to make it increasingly difficult to get more cards. So if you can, save those applications until you can get the maximum points or miles.

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