My Conde Nast Daily Traveler Piece on the Best Credit Cards for Your Spending

Links:

Over at Conde’ Nast’s Daily Traveler I wrote a basic piece on rewards credit cards.

It’s the first post of a three part series. This one focuses on the best cards to put your spending on. The other two focus on the best signup bonuses and cards with the best benefits for carrying the card (as opposed to actually using it).

The basic principles I offered were:

The first piece of advice is to pick a reward goal. If you want to fly to South America, your best bet is American miles. If you want to fly to Europe or Asia then United or US Airways miles are best, followed closely by American miles.  For Australia and French Polynesia, I often recommend Delta (because Delta’s partner Virgin Australia has the best business-class award availability down under, and Delta partners with both airlines flying from Los Angeles to Tahiti).

Second piece of advice: Ignore the “proprietary bank rewards programs” like Capital One’s, especially if you’re interested in premium-cabin international awards. In these bank programs, the points do not transfer into actual miles; instead, the banks value the points at about a penny each (at the most), and then charge you in points for the ticket, based on its retail value. That means that a $5,000 ticket will cost you half a million points.

The third piece of advice is to know your spending habits, because different cards provide bonuses for different categories of purchases, including airline tickets, hotel spending, office supplies, gas, and groceries. So, if you spend most of your money eating out, it makes sense to pay with a card that awards double points on restaurant purchases.

The fourth principle is that flexible points are best—you want to be able to pick where you will use your points after earning them.

Those principles led me to recommend, for most folks interested in premium travel rewards:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa offering 40,000 points after $3000 spend within 3 months, no fee the first year, double points on all travel and dining, and transfers to United, British Airways, Korean Airlines, Southwest, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, Ritz Carlton, and Amtrak. And no foreign currency transaction fees.

  • Starwood Preferred Guest American Express as a great all-around card with the ability to either use points for hotels (Westin, Sheraton, W, St. Regis, Le Meridien, etc.) or transfer to airline miles in a wide array of mileage programs. And with the 5000 point bonus for every 20,000 miles transferred, that’s like earning 1.25 miles per dollar instead of 1.

For folks who spend a lot on airfare, gas, and groceries, it’s worth considering the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card because that gives triple points on airfare, double points on gas and groceries, and Membership Rewards points are flexible (though many partners add fuel surcharges to awards) and they run frequent transfer bonuses as well.

In sum, my advice is:

If you’re going to pick a single credit card, it’s hard to go wrong with the Sapphire Preferred, and add the Starwood American Express if you’d like a second card. My suggestion: Use the Sapphire Preferred card whenever you’re abroad, making travel or restaurant purchases, or at a store that only accepts Visa. Everything else can go on the Starwood American Express card. If you spend a lot on airline tickets, gas, and groceries, substitute the Starwood American Express with the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card.

(Links to credit card applications in this post will provide me with referral credit, while you don’t need to use my links per se for these cards I certainly appreciate it when you do.)

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 InsideFlyer.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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Comments

  1. Hi Gary,
    I always get confused as to which cards don’t charge foreign exchange fees. Of your recommended cards, which one are f/x fee free? Thanks.

  2. @Basil of the cards in this post, the Chase Sapphire Preferred has no foreign exchange fees.

    Several Chase products charge no such fee, eg British Airways Visa, United Club card, Hyatt Visa along with Sapphire Preferred.

    The Citi American Executive card has no foreign currency fee. The Amex Platinum has none. Neither does Capital One for that matter 🙂

  3. @Gary k – currently the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a better card in almost every way compared to the Hyatt Visa, except that Hyatt Visa gives 3 points per $ at Hyatt properties instead of 2.14 Hyatt or United or BA or Marriott etc points, and the Hyatt Visa gives an annual free night up to category 4. It’s a good card, but I far prefer Sapphire Preferred.

  4. Would American Airlines be best for NY to the Carribbean? Trying to help my nephew plan for his honeymoon. Thx

  5. @Rob – I will be covering Alaska in the piece on credit cards you get for the benefits, specifically their $99 companion ticket

  6. @Kadence i do find their availability to be pretty decent, though it’s often most efficient to just buy the tickets you want eg on JetBlue, when talking about that region

  7. I am traveling to Spain and France and was planning on using my Hyatt card because it has the chip.Is it really that important to have a chip? I would rather use my Sapphire, however in Denmark it was a problem.

  8. @chris there are some places, especially machines/kiosks, that require a card to have a chip for verification but some of those also require a PIN which the Hyatt and other Chase cards do not have. Very few places in Europe won’t let you use whatever card you wish!

  9. Gary what airline program for a trip to South Africa?
    In premium class that is.

    Thanks
    Robert

  10. @Robert Weisberg — I like United (or US AIrways) because of the varied ways to get there… they partner with South Africa, lufthansa, swiss, turkish, egyptair, etc…

  11. Any concern about running up high UR balances in light of the $2B haircut Chase just took?

  12. Gary, I have a ton of Delta miles and I really wanna use them to go to Bora Bora since I’m not too keen on HA recliner seats from JFK to PPT via HNL (even in business class). However, I give up with the Delta agents always not knowing what to do or how to help me. I signed up with AF but realized that just because AF is showing availability in their business class for seats doesn’t mean Delta is showing availability in their inventory. Any insight on how to do my own research first before tackling the Delta agents? Thanks.

  13. @Gavin if Air France offers business class award seats at the low level, Delta SHOULD be able to book those. You can also use FlightStats.com and search for “O” inventory. FlightStats has the added benefit of also showing availability on Air Tahiti Nui.

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