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Great credit cards to get for (nearly) free travel

Traveling can be pricey, but it doesn't have to be.

Many financial institutions, including Chase, American Express and Barclays, offer co-branded credit cards with hotels and airlines, enticing customers with lucrative sign-up bonuses worth hundreds of dollars in free travel just for making their everyday purchases on credit rather than debit or cash.

Using these points, a $600 round-trip flight to the West Coast can instantly be reduced to just $11 (the cost of tax on the flight). Hotels that would cost $450 per night can be had for no more than the cost of a credit card's annual fee.

Of course, it's important to note that any financial benefit from points or perks can be completely wiped away by interest payments if you keep a balance, so it's important to pay off your credit card bills in full each month. It's also a good idea to always read the fine print on credit card offers to identify when introductory rates may increase or any other conditions that might limit a particular card's appeal.

Want to get started traveling for next to nothing? Here are eight great credit cards to start with.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending
Photo Credit: John Callegari

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first three months after opening (plus 5,000 points for adding an authorized user)
Earning more points: 2 points per dollar spent on dining and travel, 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
Annual fee: $95, waived for the first year
Bank: Chase
Chase's Ultimate Rewards points are some of the most versatile rewards around, being able to transfer to various airlines and hotel programs, including British Airways, Air France, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt. Cardholders can also redeem their points instantly at an exchange rate of 1 cent per point -- which makes the sign-up bonus worth $500 on its own -- but users will usually get more value out of Ultimate Rewards points by using them to redeem flights or hotels through affiliates.

Starwood Preferred Guest American Express

Sign-up bonus: 25,000 Starpoints after spending $2,000 in
Photo Credit: John Callegari

Sign-up bonus: 25,000 Starpoints after spending $2,000 in the first three months after opening
Earning more points: 4 points per dollar spent on purchases made at participating Starwood properties, 2 points per dollar spent on purchases made at participating Marriott properties, 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
Annual fee: $95, waived for the first year
Bank: American Express
Starwood Hotel & Resorts owns several upscale hotel brands, including Sheraton, Westin, Four Points by Sheraton, St. Regis and Le Meridien. The Starwood Preferred Guest credit card may appear to carry a lower sign-up bonus than other hotel credit cards, but Starwood's lower scale for redemptions of free nights means fewer points are enough for stays at lavish hotels, such as Le Meridien in Bangkok, Thailand (pictured above), which costs just 10,000 points per night to stay.

Platinum Card from American Express Exclusively for Mercedes-Benz

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 Membership Rewards points after spending
Photo Credit: American Express

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $3,000 in the first three months after opening
Earning more points: 5 points per dollar spent on select Mercedes-Benz products and flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel, 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
Annual fee: $475
Bank: American Express
Yes, that's a hefty $475 annual fee, but there's also a long list of perks you get for that. In addition to the 50,000-point sign-up bonus, Platinum Card holders receive a $200 airline credit each year. In addition, like Chase Ultimate Rewards points, American Express' Membership Rewards points are extremely flexible, able to be transferred to 17 airline reward programs, including Delta, JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines and AeroMexico, and three hotel brands, including Choice Hotels, Hilton and Starwood. And like Chase's points, American Express' points also can be redeemed for cash on a 1-cent-per-point basis.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000
Photo Credit: Barclays

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months after opening
Earning more points: 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases
Annual fee: $89, waived for the first year
Bank: Barclays
While the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard doesn't allow direct transfers to other rewards programs, it does provide a straight cash reimbursement for any travel-related expenses at an exchange rate of $100 for every 10,000 miles. That makes this credit card's sign-up bonus equal to $500 in travel. And since cardholders aren't locked into specific reward programs, they can use that cash as reimbursement for anything from flights and rental cars to Long Island Rail Road tickets.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier and Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 Rapid Rewards points after spending
Photo Credit: Chase

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 Rapid Rewards points after spending $2,000 in the first three months after opening (applies to both cards)
Earning more points: 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest Airlines purchases and certain hotel and car rentals, 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
Annual fee: $99 for the Premier, $69 for the Plus
Bank: Chase
For Long Islanders looking to avoid LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, MacArthur Airport is king. While MacArthur may not have as many airline options as the New York City airports, it does have a large presence by Southwest. Enter the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier and Plus credit cards. Both options allow users to acquire 50,000 Rapid Rewards points through a sign-up bonus. That's enough for five one-way flights from Long Island to Fort Lauderdale.

Wyndham Rewards Visa

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 Wyndham Rewards points after making
Photo Credit: John Callegari

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 Wyndham Rewards points after making your first purchase, and another 15,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months after opening
Earning more points: 5 points per dollar spent on purchases made at Wyndham properties, 2 points per dollar spent on eligible gas, utility and grocery store purchases, 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
Annual fee: $75
Bank: Barclays
Wyndham is the company behind such hotel brands as Days Inn, Ramada, Super 8, Howard Johnson and Wingate. The interesting thing about Wyndham's rewards program, however, is that there's a flat rate of 15,000 points per night to stay at any hotel in its portfolio. That means it costs the same number of points for a free stay at the Days Inn Copiague as it does the Viva Wyndham Dominicus Palace all-inclusive resort in La Romana, Dominican Republic (seen above). And with a 30,000-point sign-up bonus, the Wyndham Rewards Visa card provides users enough for two nights at either.

British Airways Visa Signature

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 Avios after spending $3,000 in
Photo Credit: Chase

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 Avios after spending $3,000 in the first three months after opening
Earning more points: 3 Avios per dollar spent on British Airways purchases, 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
Annual fee: $95
Bank: Chase
A British Airways credit card may sound perfect for those planning a trip to Great Britain, but what about everyone else? Actually, the British Airways card is perfect for short trips around the United States, as it can be used to book reward flights through Oneworld partner airlines like American Airlines using a distance-based point chart. Flights under 650 miles are only 7,500 Avios each way, much less than what would be needed booking a similar flight through American Airlines' own platform. For example, with 50,000 points, cardholders could get three round-trip tickets from JFK to Bermuda and still have 5,000 points left over.

Hyatt

Sign-up bonus: Two free nights at any Hyatt
Photo Credit: John Callegari

Sign-up bonus: Two free nights at any Hyatt hotel or resort worldwide after spending $2,000 in the first three months after opening (plus 5,000 points for adding an authorized user)
Earning more points: 3 points per dollar spent at Hyatt properties, 2 points per dollar spent at restaurants, on airline tickets purchases directly from the airline and at car rental agencies, 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
Annual fee: $75, waived for the first year
Bank: Chase
Hyatt owns more than 650 hotel properties in 54 countries, meaning there's probably a Hyatt hotel wherever you're looking to vacation. Unlike other hotel-branded credit cards, the Hyatt Visa card provides two free nights at any Hyatt properties, including upscale properties like the Andaz Napa (seen above). This credit card also provides holders with a free night each year on their card member anniversary.

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