Lessons Learned at the FTU Credit Card Tournament of Champions

One of the events at Frequent Traveler University was a Credit Card Tournament of Champions, the goal was to get a large amount of information out comparing credit cards in a short period of time while having fun doing it.

Credit cards represent a plurality of all mileage earning. Signup bonuses represent an incredible way t earn a large number of miles quickly. And there’s a ton of clutter in the space. So we staged short debates, two cards faced off and after a short presentation the audience voted for a winner. Then the winners of each flight faced off at the end, and an overall winner was declared. The top card based on voting by Frequent Traveler University participants was the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card.

These were the brackets:

Mommy Points wrote about the debate she and I had over United vs. British Airways, two Chase products. I argued for the value of the bonus offered by the British Airways Visa — the richest bonus in the market, up to 100,000 points (the standard offer is 50,000 points with first purchase, 25,000 more after $10,000 in spend, and 25,000 more after the next $10,000 in spend… some folks have luck making a dummy booking on the BA.com website, getting all the way to the purchase phase, and getting offered 50,000 points after first purchase and 50,000 more points after a year without a minimum spend requirement).

I’ve written in the past about leveraging this offer through family accounts (multiple people signup for the bonuses, one person spends all the points) and through the companion award ticket after $30,000 in spend in a year (you get to spend the points twice on a travel companion).

Ultimately I won the debate based on audience voting, with the argument that this is the richest signup bonus of any credit card currently on offer. The line that stuck though, since British Airways adds fuel surcharges onto awards where paid tickets also have them, is that my willingness to pay those dubbed me “Mr. Fancy Pants.” I was, however, wearing jeans… and she has finally booked her own premium cabin award trip

Audience members made two good points that didn’t come through clearly enough in the compressed format. We were debating specific cards, which meant that the discussion was over the British Airways Visa versus the United Explorer. How would the BA Visa have done against the United Club card? Based on several questions I’ve gotten I’ll re-analyze that shortly, it’s an important question since that card earns 1.5 miles per dollar on all spend, not even as a promotion and not just for a subset of spending categories.

The other key point, and something I’ve emphasized here many times in the past, is that different cards have different uses. I think of three main categories:

  • Cards you get for the signup bonus alone. It’s a great offer, you get the card, but you don’t want to put more spending on the card than necessary to obtain the bonus. That’s how I think about the British Airways Visa, despite its earning 1.25 points per dollar and offering no foreign currency transaction fees.

  • Cards you get for the benefits. You don’t necessarily want to put (much) spending on the card, but having the card is useful. The American Express Platinum is the very best way for most U.S.-based non-United flyers to secure lounge access, worldwide, in my opinion. It has other benefits like no foreign currency transaction fees. But spending on the card earns just one Membership Reward point per dollar. You can do better. There are also cards which offer help towards elite status based on spend. You may value that, and put spending on the card for that reason, but don’t want to put more spending on it than necessary to obtain the benefits. This is how I view the Hilton Surpass American Express, which is how I get my Hilton Diamond status.

  • Cards you get to actually put spending on. That’s my one-two punch of Chase Sapphire Preferred (for travel and dining expenses which earn double points, for merchants that don’t accept American Express, and for foreign currency transactions since the 3% conversion fee is waived) and Starwood Preferred American Express for most other charges.

And here’s how I prioritize spend. First, to meet minimum spend thresholds for whatever cards I’m currently seeking signup bonuses on. Then, for everything else. And whether or not you have enough spend on ‘everything else’ determines whether an annual fee card is even worth it for you.

Another important point — an argument I advanced in favor of the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express which earns 2% cash back on all spend — is that whenever you are putting spend on a points-earning credit card, you are buying those points for 2 cents apiece. That’s because the opportunity cost is 2 cents cash back from this card.

I asked folks in the audience how many people buy points at 1.87 cents apiece when US Airways offers a 100% bonus on purchased miles. Very few hands shot up. Folks were surprised when I told them every time they were putting purchases that only earn one point per dollar on their card they were buying points for 2 cents.

Now, I actually think the US Airways offer is a good deal, so points cards make sense for many. But it’s important to understand the tradeoffs and not underestimate the value of cash…

At the end of the day, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card was voted Best Credit Card in the Universe. It’s certainly a versatile card, I’ve been a cardholder for 11 years. It doesn’t have much in the way of bonuses but one Starpoint is worth more than any other currency in my view. The only real drawbacks are that category bonuses makes other cards better for specific spend, the foreign currency transaction fees, and the length of time it can take to transfer points to some airlines (versus the speedy transfers with American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards).

(As is often the case, some of the links above offer referral credit to me, however since I want to share the best available offers many of the links in this post do not. When you use my links I genuinely appreciate it, but want my advice to be the best it possibly can be.)

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 Milepoint.com, 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. Oh Gary, you know I love ya, but you are indeed Mr. Fancy Pants whether you are in a tuxedo (as in just 72 hours prior) or jeans. You are also my first call when it comes to getting info on premium cabins, so being friends with a “Fancy Pants” does have its advantages. Great re-cap of the debate. Let’s do it again some time, maybe LA in December? ­čśë

  2. I particularly like the analysis on cash back cards. I am a long-term cash back card user and have never bought miles, the for both in indeed equivalent and the cash back approach works for my needs.

  3. After maximizing bonus card spending which gets top priority, my 1-2-3 punch for daily spend is Chase Sapphire Preferred (T&E >$10); Chase Freedom with Exclusives (10 pts+ 10%) for 5x categories and non-T&E spend $90. I also buy through Chase UR Mall whenever attractive. Currently on a Chase timeout but I will be looking to get Ink Bold for 5x office supplies opportunities. Fully agree on need to avoid paying two cents for points.

  4. I was surprised to find that I really liked the smackdown format in terms both of the sheer amount of information imparted and the amount of fun everyone seemed to have doing it. I was expecting not to come away with any new information; instead the format crystallized some important issues for me.

    Also, I really got a sense of the value of the Alaska TundraMiles (or whatever their program is called) card, and that card didn’t even come close to winning its bracket. That card will probably take me and my family to Hawaii this winter, so thanks, Mr. Fancy Pants!

    The only thing I would recommend (as indeed, I did after the session) is bullet-pointed printouts of the major points raised for and against this card (I do recognize that you’ll have to give the presenters more than a few minutes warning of their participation for this to happen!)

    I’d love to see this format repeated for mileage programs (including some of the less well-known ones like Alaska, Turkish, Air Baltic, Signapore, Korean, etc) and hotel programs.

  5. I am interested in this card for use in Europe using the chip technology. I have seen it mentioned that BA card is chip and signature not chip and pin. Will I have a problem at a train station or subway kiosk without the PIN portion? Thanks

  6. Any insight on applying again for the BA card after previously cancelling it at the 1-year anniversary? Got the card last year when the 100k offer was live but didn’t use it much and didn’t want to pay the $95 so I cancelled it.

    Anyone have luck re-applying for this (or any other cards) and banking the bonus again?

  7. I figured this crowd would be a little more sophisticated than to fall for a bunch of not-so-free upgrade points on BA’s Adios. Must have been a rather lackluster showing by the other party. I tried to type her cutesy-till-it-hurts nickname but it made me gag.

  8. @Dax I was clear that some people consider them “discounted coach tickets with an upgrade” but a BA first class award is a three cabin upgrade. Not so bad IMHO, obviously YMMV.

  9. MrFancy Pants. You did a wonderful job presenting your cards. I also, did not have the alaska card on my radar. Since I work in banking, I didn’t think I was going to get anything from this session. Instead, the format was
    1. FUN
    2. Informative
    3. Engaging
    I was completely surprised I enjoyed this format. I thought is was going to be “Hokey” at best, boring at worst. A recommendation for Los Angeles; take a stronger look at the brackets. For example, the SPG card shouldn’t be up against the Sapphire card in the first round. Get rid of the cash back cards and add more points cards like the Marriott rewards card. After all, this is about the points and miles. You clearly must have been a member of the debate club in high school! Regardless, you are now permanently a member of the FANCY PANTS CLUB. I think for the next megado there should be the following classes.
    Coach, Tommy class and, of course, Fancy Pants class. Tip of the hat to Mommypoints for coining the phrase!

  10. I really enjoyed your speaking at the FTU. When you discussed AMEX 2% (Fidelity) vs AA card there “winner” or better card is crystal clear. I have the AA card for many years. Since it is so old I havent tossed it. I maximize points for business and personal. Until recently the AA card had very few cardholder benefits. They did add some not. I have AA Life Plat and do fly them. I charge large volume. Which is better- I charge 25K and get 25K AA points which I can use for a coach ticket or $500 cash to buy a ticket and get the miles. THe choice is clear. And AA does have pretty good availability. Now 125K on Aa will get you a First class ticket or 100K business with a fair redemption (IMHO) but a 2% cash card is pretty good. Cap One has several 2% cards and some have zero annual fees. Cap One is also aggressive at retention offers. Thanks for reminding me about the Alaska card. I had one many years ago but didnt realize the true value of that card. I did talk to Mommy Points and she was nice. I told her about my bad experiences with Chase. I dont know how you found inexpensive Hawaii First tix on Alaska. I checked some fares from FLL and they came out at 4K.

  11. And I also love the fancy pants nickname. I am more like Fancypants myself as I like First travel and luxury hotel upgrades etc.

  12. I also LOVED the debates! But when I was ready to apply for some of the cards I realized that the Alaska card had a fee that is not waived which I don’t think was mentioned. As I was taking notes I also thought it would be helpful to have a pre-printed grid to use, listing the attributes down the side and the cards across the top. This way the audience can really compare the same costs/benefits side by side.

  13. I just have to speak out a little bit about the SPGAmex card. I’ve had it for the better part of a year now, and I’ve received little to no benefit from it. The miles was really sold to me (by bloggers) as an awesome card because of its cash and points. By August, I would have taken two extended trips that were planned for months in advance but I never was able to use those cash & points to stay at any of their properties. Why you may ask?

    Because there are so many blackout dates for Cash&Points that booking is extremely difficult. All of those great hotels are rarely applicable for cash & points stays. You can check for yourself. So what use does it have to me.

    Second, I think we are overestimating the value of these points. Point for point SPG may have a better point value. But that’s ignoring the fact that other cards (See Chase Ink or Sapphire) have either spending bonus category or a spending bonus due to the UR mall.

    So really if I earn one point on an purchase using SPG, might be, 3-8 pts with Chase. So its not a 1 to 1 comparison but instead a 1 to 3-8 point correspondence.

  14. Robert Weisberg – the Cap One card had few friends at FTU. Beware of devaluations and abysmal customer service. (They’ve also had some very nasty redemption rule “gotchas” on cards in the past which could cost you big time….not sure if this is still an issue.)

    Gary – how about adding the Southwest card next time? I like it cuz Rapid Rewards points bookings are de facto refundable for everyone (not just top tier elites), and I often need this level of flexibility in my travel plans. But I suspect it may have even fewer friends at FTU than Cap One. (Guess I’m a “semi fancy pants” – I’ve also flown BA new First to Paris on an AA award, complete with fuel surcharges….)

  15. And I also love the fancy pants nickname. I am more like Fancypants myself as I like First travel and luxury hotel upgrades etc.

  16. I am replying to DC guy comments. Frankly I rarely see cash and points on most of my stays. THat is one reason I dont mention them to others much. They tend to be in cat 3 hotels, although I have seen them in 4s. While they are not common a 10K point redemption for a cat 4 is a decent deal. Even 12K for a room that goes for $350-300.00+ is a fantastic deal. Try checking the award charts of mariott for example. I think Hilton are very hgh also. Not to mention you can book a flight directly with spg points and get the miles. For a card used to actually charge for points SPG is the best travel oriented card. I deal with all cards and have high credit and business/personal use. Chase is miserable to deal with and I have encountered some amazing issues with them over the years. They are stubborn to resolve. The SPG hotel awards are very fair. In the cat 2-3 areas I have seen rooms as low as 3K a night.

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