Travel Hacks

Best Credit Cards for Maximizing Points

There are so many great ways to utilize credit cards to your advantage. I’ve saved thousands of dollars by booking airfare and hotels strategically through credit card rewards program, along with extensively used other credit card benefits such as free global entry, free club lounges in airports, trip delay reimbursement, and rental car coverage (luckily I haven’t actually had to USE the rental car coverage). 

Some of the best ones below are listed, along with those offering higher bonuses than usual. I almost always sign up for cards when there is a special promotion offering additional points. One example is the Southwest card, which normally offers 30,000 points and often has offers in which the points bonus doubles to 60,000. 

Caution: Credit cards points earned are only valuable when you are smart with your cards. Carrying a balance is definitely not a smart financial move in any case and especially with rewards cards. Not only will it negate any value earned but rewards cards often carry a higher interest rate as well. Additionally, credit card companies continue to increase 

 

Chase Sapphire Reserve

The Chase Reserve card is often considered the gold standard of rewards cards, and in many cases it is. The Reserve comes with a steep $450 fee but a laundry list of great perks, one of which is a $300 travel credit effectively reducing the amount of the annual fee significantly if you spend $300 on anything travel related (It took me all of two weeks having the card). Currently, it is offering 50,000 points as a bonus when you spend $4000 on it within the first 3 months. This is their standard bonus offering. Some of the other perks of the card include free priority pass, which gets you access to hundreds of airport club lounges around the world. You also get a Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit for up to $100 every four years, primary rental car insurance coverage, trip delay coverage, and purchase protection. 

The Reserve card has a great points earning potential, particularly on dining and travel with 3 Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent in these categories. Travel booked through the Chase travel portal (powered by Expedia) is worth 1.5 cents per point. For example, 50,000 points is worth $750 in redeemed travel. This is pretty valuable, but you can often get even better value by transferring points to travel partners and then redeeming them. Popular transfer partners include United, Southwest, Hyatt, Marriott, and IHG.  

Sign up bonus: 50,000 points after spending $4000 within the first 3 months

Annual fee: $450

Earnings potential: 3 points per dollar spent on dining and travel, 1 point on everything else. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is an excellent option as well. It comes with a much lower annual fee of $95 as compared to the Chase Sapphire Reserve, but also with lower earnings capabilities as well, earning 2x Ultimate Rewards points at restaurants and on travel. Right now the Chase Preferred has a higher bonus than the Reserve despite the lower fee which makes it an excellent option.

The Preferred card also comes with an array of perks. Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred on a 1:1 basis to travel partners (same as Reserve). If using rewards points in the travel portal, Points are worth 1.25 cents per Ultimate Rewards point. For example, 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points are worth $625 in travel spend. 

 There is still primary rental car insurance coverage, which I have used on many occasions when booking rental cars which gives great peace of mind while avoiding sky high car rental insurance rates. There is no travel credit, but there is purchase protection and trip delay coverage still. 

Pro tip: If you prefer the Reserve but want to maximize your rewards points, sign up for the Preferred card first to get the 60,000 point bonus and then upgrade it after the first year to the Reserve. I did this myself to maximize award points earned. 

Sign up bonus: 60,000 points after spending $4000 within the first 3 months

Annual fee: $95

Earnings potential: 2 points per dollar spent on dining and travel, 1 point on everything else. 

Platinum Card from American Express

The Amex Platinum card  is another great option and is one of the most well known credit cards. It does have a higher annual fee than the Sapphire Reserve but also comes with more benefits. For flights, it’s a great option as it offers 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar on flights booked directly with the airline. 

Just like Chase Ultimate Rewards points, American Express points can be used to purchase travel, gift cards, or products directly through from the issuer, or they can be transferred to different airline and hotel loyalty programs. If you redeem points by using them to book travel through Amex, you’ll get around 1 cent per point.

The Platinum Card does have better lounge benefits than the Sapphire Reserve. It offers standard Priority Pass access, but additionally allows Delta Sky Club and their own excellent Centurion Lounges. 

It also offers similar perks like purchase protection and up to a $200 annual credit on incidental airline fees. This includes things like checked baggage, drinks on flights, upgrades, etc. The Uber credit of $200 per year is great, though it is split up at $15 per month and $35 in the month of December. Cardholders also earn Gold elite status with Hilton and Marriott as well. 

The $550 annual fee is quite steep but $200 in annual airline fee credits help, although since it is limited to incidentals it makes it much more difficult to use than Chase’s very broad travel credit. Some people have found that buying gift cards from the airline of your choice counts as a qualifying purchase. The $200 Uber credit is also nice but it is also limited by its monthly limit. 

The bonus spending categories on this card are less generous than on the Sapphire Reserve unless you are booking lots of flights. The spending requirement in the first three months is higher than most other cards as well. Additionally, Membership Reward points are worth only 1 cent per points when booking travel as compared Chase’s Ultimate Rewards (1.25-1.5 cents per point).

Even so, the card remains extremely valuable if you can make good use of the benefits. I particularly have found that their airline and hotel transfer partners are better overall than Chase’s.

Signup bonus: 60,000 points after spending $5000 in the first 3 months. 

Annual fee: $550 

Earnings potential: 5 points per dollar on airfare booked directly through the airline’s website. 5 points per dollar on airfare or hotels booked at amextravel.com. 1 point per dollar everywhere else. 

Capital One Venture Card

The Capital One Venture Card has been around for quite some time, and is a solid and straightforward rewards card. The Venture Rewards card earns 2x miles per dollar on all purchases, effectively earning a minimum of 2 cents back for every dollar spent. It earns 10x points on purchases at hotels.com, a very generous earnings offer. You will also earn through Hotels.com’s own rewards program at the same time. The annual fee of $95 is waived the first year.

Capital One recently expanded the card’s benefits such as adding airline transfer partners. These aren’t quite as valuable as transfers with Chase or Amex, but Capital One miles are easy to earn and easy to use and this addition has added some flexibility to their rewards program. 

Miles can be redeemed as retroactive credit on travel purchases. For example, if you buy airfare for $250, you can use 25,000 points as a statement credit for the full amount.

As mentioned, transfers to travel partners are now possible. Most are at a 2:1.5 ratio, and a few are 2:1. This transfer ratio is less than both Chase and Amex, but strategic transfers can be more valuable than both such as from earning 10 points per dollar via hotels.com. For example, you could earn 5-7.5 airline miles per dollar from hotels.com purchases, based on the transfer ratios.

Sign up bonus: 50,000 points after spending $3000 within the first 3 months

 

Annual fee: $95 but waived the first year

 

Earnings potential: 2 points per dollar spent on all purchases, 10 points per dollar on hotels.com purchases. 

American Express Gold Card

The Gold card earns an impressive 4 points per dollar at restaurants and US supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year and 1 point per dollar after), 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly through the airline, 2 points per dollar on hotels booked and prepaid through Amex Travel, and 1 point per dollar on everything else.

Membership rewards can be particularly valuable when you transfer them to travel partners, so this card can be lucrative for food spending. 

The card also offers up to $10 in dining credits per month for purchases through food delivery services Seamless and GrubHub, or at The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, or Shake Shack.

Additionally, just like the Amex Platinum the Gold card offers an airline incidental credit of up to $100 per year.

If you maximize the dining credits and the airline credit you will come close to matching the annual fee ($220 in credit versus the $250). This is before factoring in any of the value of the points earned. Overall, the Amex Gold Card is a great card and is a reasonable balance between annual fee and benefits provided, and while the bonus offered isn’t as high as some other options, Amex points do tend to have higher value compared to other rewards programs and can easily be worth 2 cents per point, which would value the sign up bonus at $700 when used strategically. 

Sign up bonus: 35,000 points after spending $2000 within the first 3 months

 

Annual fee: $250

 

Earnings potential: 4 points per dollar spent on dining and at supermarkets, 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly through the airline, 2 points per dollar on hotel bookings through Amex Travel, and 1 point on everything else. 

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