The Best Mix of Rewards Credit Cards for My Wallet

I finally broke down on got a Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

My first reaction when I received the card was that it’s downright beautiful. It’s heavy, heavier than a standard credit card. And it doesn’t have numbers on the front, there’s nothing embossed there, the numbers are displayed on the back. That gives it a really sleek and surprising look. I want to pull that card out of my wallet. Lucky calls it the poor man’s Centurion card.

The card comes with a 40,000 point signup bonus after $3000 in spending within 3 months. The points are pretty darned useful, transferring to United/Continental, British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, Amtrak, and Korean.

You can use the points to straight up buy travel at 1.25 cents apiece, but I’m unlikely to ever do that. It has no foreign currency conversion fees, just like my Hyatt Visa.

Here’s how I’m thinking about the card and how it relates to the others in my wallet. It’s my go-to card for restaurant spend and also hotel spend where I don’t have their co-branded card, since it earns double points on both spend categories (that means Priority Club and Marriott, I do carry the Hilton Surpass Amex for Diamond status after $40,000 in spend annually, the Starwood card for the value and flexibility of their points, and the Hyatt Visa for Hyatt spend).

For airline tickets (triple points) and gas and groceries (double points) my go-to card remains the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card.

Chase has several cards which offer no foreign currency transaction fees. Others I’ve focused on in the past have been the BA and Hyatt cards. The British Airways Visa is still a better card if you are looking for BA miles (1.25 miles per dollar, rather than 1.07) or if you can make good use of the companion award ticket you’ll receive after spending $30,000 on the card in a year. The Hyatt Visa does have an annual free night, but that’s not an incentive for spend, I’ll likely only be using the card for spent at Hyatt since the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is actually better at earning Hyatt points (1.07 vs. 1) than the Hyatt card is on all other spend. This is going to be my primary card for international spend, though I’ll use the Hyatt card when staying at international Hyatt properties (I have upcoming reservations in Singapore and the Maldives, for instance) and I’ll still use the Hilton Surpass American Express at Hilton properties even though I pay a conversion fees, the 9 points per dollar are marginally worthwhile to me (I have 3 upcoming Conrad stays).

I need to look into whether Chase Sapphire Preferred’s rental car collision damage coverage is primary or secondary. I’ve long used my Diners Club card for car rentals, since their coverage is primary. The Continental Onepass Plus Mastercard has had that for awhile, and now the United Explorer Card does as well. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Sapphire did as well, it would be interesting if I was able to put the Diners Club away for awhile.

For most spend, though — outside of travel, restaurants, gas, groceries — my card of choice is still the Starwood American Express.

I do have a United Visa, it is my oldest card account and I’m not getting rid of that, I hate that I still pay an annual fee on it but can’t bring myself to dump it and I do value its contribution to the high average age of my accounts. I also have a Continental Mastercard which is now superfluous, I’m not getting rid of it though because I want to keep it for ‘horse trading’ purposes, the next time there’s a good Chase signup bonus that I want to take advantage of I’ll probably get declined for too many cards and too much credit, I’ll ring up the reconsideration line and offer to trade this Mastercard for whatever new bonus they’re offering… and my ‘reason’ for wanting the new card of course won’t be because I want the bonus, but because I now have two virtually identical cards (United and Continental) and there’s no reason for that. All will make good sense, and I’ll probably be approved for the bonus I want.

And of course there are other cards that make sense for folks to carry, or to put spend on, depending on their particular circumstance.

I love the Asiana American Express from Bank of America, it earns 2 miles per dollar spent and even though they add fuel surcharges to awards their award chart is favorable for shorter trips. Business class on Star Alliance carriers of less than 10,000 miles flown costs 80,000 miles. So an award from the East Coast of the US to much of Europe will be earned after just $40,000 in spend, and they allow two stopovers in each direction as well.

Another Bank of America card, the Alaska Airlines Visa, offers an outstanding value proposition in its $99 companion ticket, which is valid on any seat, any class of service, any Alaska Airlines flights. Buy one first class ticket to Hawaii, for instance, and the second is $99+tax. The companion books into the same fare class with the same fare rules as the paid ticket (so a first class fare is changeable without fee), and earns miles and even bonuses based on that fare.

And of course if you are trying to achieve elite status with your preferred loyalty program, you may want that progam’s credit card to the extent it offers elite qualifying miles, stays, or nights towards status based on spend. You’re even likely willing to give up some measure of value that other cards might offer in order to get that.

But to sum, for me, my primary credit cards are currently:

  • Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. Most generic spending.
  • American Express Premier Rewards Gold. Airfare, gas, groceries.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa. Restaurants, hotels (where I don’t have the hotel’s own co-branded card), international spending, merchants who don’t take American Express.

Your own situation may suggest a different combination of go-to cards, but I thought sharing my own current thinking would be worthwhile.

As they say, what’s in your wallet?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I love the Chase SP card. Bonus points on restaurants is just a huge part of my spend. I also have the same top 3 cards as you. Hard to beat them, really.

  2. Thank you for the helpful credit card review. I believe the rental car collision damage coverage from the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is secondary since the agreement states, “this benefit is supplemental to and in excess of, any valid and collectable insurance from any other source.”

  3. I have moved all my spending from SPG Amex to Chase Sapphire. Why ? Because the conversion rate for SPG to UA/CO is 2:1 and that is what I am trying to accumulate right now. And I dont stay at SPG hotels, so I carry Marriott Visa and PC Visa and use those when staying at those places. When I need AA miles, I will probably go back to SPG Amex.

  4. Nice post, but all these cards means a lot of annual fees and a lot of minimum purchase thresholds, no? 40K on Hilton, 30K on BA, 40K on Asiana, etc. Plus another $300+ in annual fees alone?

    It feels to me the spend thresholds make carrying the full portfolio unattainable for most as we wouldnt hit the spend thresholds for the top-end benefits, and the fees take away from the overall value proposition. Is there something else to it such as first-year fee-waivers?

  5. I have the SPG Amex as well, but don’t you find that Costco Amex True Earnings card is a bit better? Thanks, have a great weekend!

  6. If you stay at a Starwood property internationally, do you use the Starwood card? Or one that doesn’t charge a foreign exchange fee?

  7. I thought you had the AMEX Plat too?

    Does the definition of ‘churning’ also include / assume that you cancel cards at a certain point? What are your criteria for canceling?

    It sounds like your annual total combined credit card spend is pretty high. Do you mind sharing what your total annual cc spend is, and if you have annual spend goals (beyond earning the initial bonus) on each of your cards? (For example, you like to spend $40K on your Hilton Surpass AMEX to achieve Hilton Diamond. Any other cards that you have this kind of target / incentive for?)

    Our annual CC spend is about $70 – $80K. Like you, I have ended up with a lot of cards… Most of them for the sign up bonuses, but now I still have them.

    I am planning to simplify in 2012. I’d really like to cut down to four or five cards, even if that means I’ll forgo the extra bonus points for using a specific card at a specific hotel.

    My thinking:

    1) I like cash back cards… Discover and my Costco AMEX earn me a fairly substantial cash back bonus. I definitely use the Discover when they are running the 5% cashback promos for certain categories of spend (eg Gas). Costco AMEX I just use for our Costco trips. No annual fees…

    2) AMEX Plat – I am really enjoying the travel benefits that this card offers… Especially now that I have been flying DL and AA a little more. However, without UACO as a partner, this card loses a lot of value for me. I will probably cancel it, and then apply for the PRG card a month or two later. Hopefully I’ll be able to score some bonus points with the new PRG!

    3) MP Visa – I will keep this, at a minimum to spend $5K on UA to earn 5,000 EQM. As a 1K, $60 of the annual fee is refunded to me… 3X RDM’s for UA spend is also attractive.

    4) Marriott Rewards Visa – I’ll probably keep this, due to the 15 elite nights you get with the card.

    5) I’ll probably apply for the Chase Sapphire soon, after I cancel a few of the cards below… 50,000 point sign on is attractive.

    Of the above cards, PRG and Sapphire would be my day to day spending cards, with the other ones just used situationally. I do value the fact that both of these cards offer flexibility in the programs you can transfer to…

    So, that means that these are the cards I would have to cancel: Chase OnePass Plus MC, Hyatt Visa, Hilton Surpass AMEX, Paypal Plus card, BofA rewards card, and my new Citi AAdvantage Plat Visa (signed up for this just under the wire and got the 75K AAdvantage mile offer, plus can use spend on this card to reactivate my 65K expired miles. Once these miles are in place, I’ll cancel)

    So, I’d end up with 6 cards while cancelling 6. This seems about right to me. Plus, I’ll be well positioned to apply for some more cards in the future when the big sign on bonuses are offered!

  8. @Jeanine – I can’t speak for Gary, but I use the Sapphire card at Starwood internationally, since Amex has the f/x fee. I still use the SW Amex for domestic stays.

  9. Chase Freedom is earning 5 points/dollar at restaurants/cafes/other eating establishments in Q4 — and I can move those points into my Sapphire Pref’d account & then transfer to CO/UA/KE/BA. In short, I’m getting 5 miles/dollar. (Take that, Amex!)

    Gas/groc/drug, including Amazon gift cards, goes on the Hilton Amex (6 pts/dollar.

    Tolls/cabs/other travel costs go on the Saphire Pref’d (2 pts/$).

    And the rest goes on whatever card (Citi AA, Citi Hilton Visa) I have a spend-for-bonus target to meet.

  10. I thought about simplifying but love this game. I have so many darn cards – active and not. With the exception of the cards I’m working at any given time, I keep them semi-organized in a small zip lock (actually it’s a quart-sized bag). I use a black sharpie and write right on the cards “2x gas” “50k w/ 10k spend” “cancel 1/2012” etc. I can only imagine what waiters and clerks think, but who cares? When I cancel a card, I write a cancel sign on the front of the card with the date cancelled. I even thought of making a Chicago Do Halloween costume out of the 50+ cards. I won’t even guess how many elite hotel/airline cards I have. Why I keep the old cards, I don’t know. Oh, I have a zip lock for my husband’s cards too. He has no interest in churning, so I do it for him. Of course I’m on top of our credit scores. He digs the perks and is game to switching cards whenever I need him to. I’ve got about 12 Amex cards (maybe more?) waiting for Small Business Saturday. Do most of us churn for our spouses while churning for ourselves? It does get a bit complicated though, no?

  11. I don’t use the SPG Amex internationally, even at Starwood properties. I’d use Chase Sapphire Preferred with no foreign currency transaction fees and 2 points per dollar for hotel spend.

    I do have an Amex Platinum. And indeed annual credit card spend is quite high.

    Cards where my primary interest was signup bonus, where annual retention or benefit offerings aren’t sufficiently high to justify the annual fee, get cancelled before the annual fee comes due. Though the last time I cancelled a Citibank American Airlines card they offered me an $85 statement credit after five purchases. So I didn’t cancel the card right away.. I made 5 purchases. They gave me the $85 statement credit, the same amount as the annual fee. And I cancelled the card. All before the fee posted. :)

  12. Similar to my post today. I carry these five:

    citi forward for dining earns five points
    citi preferred for groceries and drugstores earns five points
    Chase Sapphire Preferred for foreign transactions and hotels where I don’t hold a co branded card.
    SPG for all other spend
    Platinum card for lounge access

  13. This is an excellent suggestion, a sign of a truly addicted churner! :)

    ” I use a black sharpie and write right on the cards “2x gas” “50k w/ 10k spend” “cancel 1/2012″ etc. I can only imagine what waiters and clerks think, but who cares? When I cancel a card, I write a cancel sign on the front of the card with the date cancelled.”

    Gary – Thanks for your insights regarding cancelling / timing. That is kind of what I was thinking too. Love the $85 score!

    At $450 / year, what do you get from your Plat that makes it worth this fee? Lounge access? Status symbol? :)

    I recently used FHR (through AMEX Plat travel) to book a hotel and got some nice amenities. Does Sapphire have an FHR like program?

  14. My wife was in a similar situation with her UAMP visa. Oldest card and a huge credit line. I asked chase to downgrade her card to the no fee version and they said that the credit history on the account would remain on her credit so it was a win win. Now she gets to keep the history and doesn’t have to pay the annual fee. Then we transferred most of the credit line to her new sapphire proffered card.

  15. @Lark Amex Plat gets lounge access with AA/US/DL and comes with Priority Pass Select that adds AS lounges and many international lounges. I’ve used the FHR program. Though it’s not meaningfully better than booking through a VIrtuoso agent. Biggest reason to keep it is that they’ll approve bigger purchases than my other cards will :)

  16. Gary,
    Take a look at CitiForward. It offers 5x Thank You points on restaurants, books, movies. There is no annual fee. Thank You points can be redeemed 1:1 for travels or 1.33:1 if you have Citi Premier card.

  17. @Gary – for the Amex PRG, do you get 3x points when booking airfare via Expedia? Also, if you book airfare via Amex Travel, is it 4 points?

  18. Gary,

    Great choice of the cards! All three happen to be on my Top List (see my website). I suppose you haven’t paid the annual fee on PRG (or did you already?) Do you still want to keep all three once you have to pay annual fees on PRG and Sapphire P? I can see you keep Sapphire P due to the lower annual fee and your dining/travel and foreign spending. However for PRG, it is harder to recover the $175 annual fee unless you spend big on groceries and gas. For airlines, you will still get 3x from Sapphire P if you shop thru UR or 4x if you use Travelocity through UR. Of course the other important factor is how you value MR points vs. UR points. Thanks for sharing!

  19. @Carl: yes you always get 3x on airfare using PRG, no matter how you book. For the extra 1 point thru Amex, a service fee will be charged – mostly not worth it.

  20. @Gary – I don’t know if you do a lot of driving but don’t forget that the Sapphire Preferred earns double points on all travel. This includes taxis, tolls, rental cars, etc. It is a cool perk that not everyone remembers.

    @Lark – Your a ex platinum will still get you into lounges until its expiration date – even after it is canceled. A ex does immediately cancel the priority pass though.

  21. For united airfare, gas, and groceries, I use my United Select Visa, which i am not sure they are still marketing. 3x airfare on 1x eqm up to 5,000) and 2x on gas, groceries, dining, home improvement. As a 1K, annual fee is only $35 plus 5,000 anniversary miles.

    Does not have the versatility of Membership Rewards, but the loss of CO, the devaluation of Aeroplan, and the new ANA fuel surcharges have minimized the value of MR to me, except for the occasional transfer bonuses to Delta and BA.

    For the mileage malls, I use my Amex Platinum, since MR does have very good bonuses for retail merchants on their site. However, I still check EVreward for the best deal.

  22. Gary —

    1. Why don’t you do the affiliate thing like your lodge brothers?

    2. And thanks for YOUR unbiased opinion on this. Very very helpful.

  23. @Sean,

    Re: Travelocity through Ultimate Rewards offering 4X points: don’t they exclude all taxes and fees which can be considerable on International tickets (YQ)?

  24. I have the same roster in my wallet! I teased you a bit in my post, but I have the utmost respect for ya! I wouldn’t have 90% of my knowledge without your blog. :)

    By the way, Chase Sapphire does NOT provide primary car rental insurance. I learned that during the claims process after I got rear-ended in my Dollar rental car. Their reps seem pleasant enough though.

  25. @Sean @Carl

    No you WILL NOT get 3x points for booking through a third party site–you have to go through the airline itself (read the T&C)

  26. @JA: Yes you are right Travelocity is before taxes and fees – so in reality it does not truly return x4. Lets assume x3.7 (of course you may assign a different value here) and if we value a UR point at 2 cents then that is 7.4% return.

    I think Gary also likes Big Crumbs’ 6.4% cash back for Expedia on top of PRG’s x3. If we value a MR point at 2 cents that is a total return of 12.4%. This may be a reason to use PRG on airfare instead of Sapphire P.

    @Mark: mostly 3rd party booking of airfare will show as airline purchases (no difference from booking directly from airlines) thus still earns 3x.

  27. I used a companion card from my wife’s Sapphire account last summer to meet the $3K spend, and now I’m using my own. I DON’T like how the card is different! Invariably, it triggers a conversation between me and the person swiping the card (“Wow — this card is heavy. And look at how they do the numbers. Where did you get it. There must be some huge annual fee for this baby!”

    I’m not anti-social or anything, but I’m not usually looking to chat when I make a credit card purchase. I just want to make the purchase. After I get to $3K, I’ll be happy to put it away.

  28. I got the CO MC about two months ago, and also got the BA 100k bonus around the end of April. I really want to get the Sapphire Pref card, but not sure if Chase will approve a 3rd hit in less than 6 months… Any thoughts…?

    Also, my oldest card (I’m young…) is a UA MP Visa, WITH the annual fee… I called up chase to try and downgrade it to the ‘no-annual fee’ version. But they seemed to say that the only have the UA Explorer now, which of course has an annual fee. I really don’t want to cancel this card, but I also don’t want to keep paying the $70-odd annual fee for a card that only has a limit of maybe $800 (like I said, one of my first cards)… Has anybody faced a similar issue like this recent with Chase?

  29. please report back if you confirm more on this!

    “I need to look into whether Chase Sapphire Preferred’s rental car collision damage coverage is primary or secondary. I’ve long used my Diners Club card for car rentals, since their coverage is primary. The Continental Onepass Plus Mastercard has had that for awhile, and now the United Explorer Card does as well. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Sapphire did as well, it would be interesting if I was able to put the Diners Club away for awhile.”

  30. SPG Amex is at the top of my list, for buy-4-get-1 hotel awards, late check-out via SPG gold status, and various Amex perks.

    For gas or groceries (pick one each month), I go to US Bank’s FlexPerks VISA. It nets a 4% return since purchases in one category earn double points that can be redeemed for travel close to 2:1. Plus they give triple points on charitable contributions – a 6% rebate. I’d make this my primary card if they didn’t require the use of the absolutely pitiful, virtually worthless Travelocity booking engine to redeem points for award travel.

    Assigned to my permanent dustbin of credit cards are Discover (for lousy rebate levels and permitting merchants to require ID for use), the Chase BA card (for generously providing me with 300K miles and 2 companion certificates but in a program that won’t let me redeem them for anything worthwhile) and the SkyMiles Amex (’nuff said.)

  31. When you transfer points into miles from saphire preferred card to Continental/United is there a fee?

    Is there a limit on the number of pints you can transfer?

  32. Thanks for the tip on using Diner’s Club for primary coverage. I’ve always assumed that all cards had secondary coverage, but pleased to find out that isn’t always the case. Are there other cards that provide primary coverage that you know of?

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