The Best Mileage Credit Card for Beginners

Key Link: Chase Sapphire Preferred

If you’re already an expert, stop reading this post now. You already know everything in it, and I don’t want you to waste your time. You won’t be able to get your 45 seconds back. If you have 6 or more credit cards open, this post is not for you.

When I’m asked for frequent flyer advice, I have to resist the temptation to give an oral dissertation defense. I can easily run off at the mouth. I tend to be really quite earnest and feel like it’s important to qualify, to offer precise recommendations. But too much advice can be overwhelming. It’s probably why many of the people I work with think that this ‘crazy frequent flyer thing’ (jetting off in premium cabins around the world multiple times a year) is complicated, something I can do but beyond their reach.

And no doubt this blog isn’t written with the broadest audience in my. My writing, my interests, and my recommendations aren’t always the most accessible.

But I’ve tried to work on that at least where co-workers are concerned (and a dozen or so have likely flown international first class now as a result). Sometimes it’s best to give a simple, concrete recommendation rather than the perfect recommendation — because it’s easily actionable, and because it’s much better than what they were doing before.

And in the credit card space that recommendation is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card which has been probably the all-around most lucrative credit cards in the market for the past two years. Back in November 2011 I called it the king of credit cards.

At 40,000 bonus points after $3000 in spending within 3 months, it has one of the richest bonuses of any card. It earns some of the most valuable points. And has some of the best spending bonuses as well.

Why the Expert Recommends This Card , and Why Beginners Can Take Advantage of It

I frequently talk about the different kinds of value that a credit card can provide. There are three different reasons for getting a credit card. There are:

  1. Those you get just for the signup bonus, but you don’t want to keep spending on them after you’ve earned the bonus
  2. Those you get for the benefit of having the card, it’s not great for putting spend on
  3. Those that are rewarding for your spend

This card has one of the strongest signup bonuses and also offers some of the strongest points-earning. You get double points on all travel and dining, Visa acceptance (so you can use it pretty much anywhere even the dry cleaners), no foreign currency transaction fees (so you don’t have to swap out for a different card when you leave the country), and the points are as valuable as any currency out there.

Since it’s more or less tops in two of the three areas that a credit card can generate benefits, and since it’s versatile enough to be one of the best choices anywhere and everywhere, it’s a good card that passes the ‘expert’ analysis … and an easy card to use and benefit from as a beginner, too.

A Very Strong Card for Earning Points

In addition to the standard points-earning, you also get:

  • Double points on travel and restaurant spending
  • Visa acceptance, so even my dry cleaner takes it
  • No foreign currency conversion fee
  • Additional points for your online shopping through access to the Chase Ultimate Rewards mall, a mileage-earning shopping portal that often has the most lucrative opportunities to earn extra points for the online purchases you’d make anyway. I love the 2 extra points per dollar on Travelocity purchases, extra point per dollar at Expedia, and I love it when gets up to 10 points per dollar spent.

Making the Most of the Points You Earn

Chase advertises that you can redeem these points at 1.25 cents apiece towards paid travel, that’s not their best use. You want to hold onto them and transfer them to frequent flyer programs most of the time.

I value ‘flexible’ points the most, points where you can choose where to point them at the time you’re ready to redeem for an award. If you accumulate miles in an airline program, then you need that program to have the award you want at the time you want to fly. But with points that transfer to your choice of programs, you increase the odds substantially of getting the award you want — if one program doesn’t have the award, another one likely will.

The transfer options with this card are:

  • Airlines: United, Korean Airlines, Southwest Airlines, British Airways
  • Hotels: Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Priority Club
  • Train: Amtrak

The best hotel transfer value is Hyatt in most cases, but it’s really valuable to be able to top off an account towards an award no matter which account of yours that winds up being.

Usually I think of United as the best value for points transfers, since the award chart is reasonable and available on Star Alliance partners is really pretty good in business class to Europe and Asia.

But transferring to British Airways Avios can be a good use of points, especially for short-distance non-stop flights (think as low as 9000 points roundtrip for a coach award). And while many awards on BA involve fuel surcharges, if you use those points to fly American Airlines or Alaska Airlines domestic or American or LAN to South America, there are no fuel surcharges. (Also quite reasonable intra-Asia on Cathay Pacific and Aer Lingus Boston or New York to Ireland.)

Meanwhile, not only do you get Star Alliance awards via United and oneworld awards via British Airways, you have coverage of the third alliance — Skyteam — as well. You get access to the same Skyteam award space as if you had Delta miles. And in some cases there’s a favorable award chart.

Plus the ability to redeem for international first class through Korean and not just business class, something Delta doesn’t allow. And one-way awards, also not offered (except at the same price as roundtrip!) by Delta.

I actually value these points the most, probably for transfers to Korean since I used Chase points for Korean first class one-stop back from Kuala Lumpur on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year. (I also want to fly first class on the China Southern A380 and first class on Saudia Airlines as well.)

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers referral credit to me if you apply and are approved using my link, which I greatly appreciate.

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. Except for the signon bonus, I still cannot tell why this card is the king. This card has $95 annual fee. I don’t travel a lot and I have 5% cash back card for dining all year round. All I need is a good grocery/gas rebate card. I prefer Amex Blue cash. (5% grocery and gas after $6500 spend)

  2. @Gary,
    Thanks for the post and insightful tips!
    I am a newbie to the hobby and only got as far as getting a Barclay Arrival+ CC to load my Serve card with.
    I also recently opened up an American Express Gold card because of their promotion (50,000 points for 1k spent in first 3 months).

    Do you recommend me still opening up a CSP CC? Also, if you could, could you please state the date in your future posts? It’d be nice to know, due to CC policies and promotions changing frequently!
    Thanks much!

  3. @Irina – Serve will stop permitting visa/mastercard loads soon. Chase Sapphire preferred is still a great card. The site redesign coming soon will show dates. 🙂

  4. Oh yes, that’s another question that I had, as I have received the email notification from Serve for that.. Once the ban in enforced, how do you recommend I load my cards to achieve the spending requirements needed to get the promotional miles?
    Also, this is part of the email notification that I received from Serve:

    Beginning April 16, 2015, if you want to use a credit card to fund your American Express Serve® Account, you will only be able to use an American Express® Card.

    Do you know if I can continue to load money to my Serve card with my American Express Gold card without getting charged a cash advance?

    Thanks for the redesign 🙂

  5. I wish I could, but I live in MN, and they don’t have them here :/

    Any idea of how I can get it while still living here, and without needing to fly there?

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