What’s in My Wallet, and the Strategy Behind It to Earn Rich Points and Perks

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Since I offer advice on earning frequent flyer miles, often with credit cards and sometimes other financial techniques, I think it’s only fair to take an ‘open kimono approach’ with my own strategies.

And the best way to do that is to share with you my wallet. Because that will shows you what I carry with me through my daily life, and is a great opportunity to explain my thinking about each choice I make — a choice that’s constrained by space and so reveals a lot about me.

Here’s my wallet:

My wallet just shows what I’m carrying with me right now. I have cards in two other places as well — and I can address those separately. Look closely and you may notice that there are cards sitting behind cards in the wallet, one slot has as many as 4 cards in it.

Allow me to explain why each card sitting in a slot has a slot in my wallet.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

    I view this as the best card for road warriors, indeed it’s the best card if you’re spending $250 or more on travel and dining with the card — in my view the extra points-earning on the card compared to Chase Sapphire Preferred is worth the higher annual fee.

    To be sure Chase Sapphire Preferred has the marginally better signup bonus and since it has a $0 annual fee the first year (then $95) it’s great for getting started in the hobby, it has low barriers to entry. T

    In either case points are among the best you can earn because of their flexibility (transfers to airlines in all 3 alliances and more, plus hotel transfers) and you earn them quickly with a strong signup bonus (50,000 points after $4000 spend within 3 months. Sapphire Reserve earns triple points on all travel and also all dining and comes with my favorite Priority Pass Select package for airport lounge access.

Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express

    I’ve carried the Starwood card since 2001, and it remains one of my go-to’s for spending that doesn’t earn a bonus (that isn’t helping me with a signup bonus, a threshold bonus, or a category bonus). Starwood points are the one currency I never have enough of. They’re great for hotels, but they really shine for transfers to airline miles.

    Starwood has the most 1:1 transfer partners, a built-in bonus of 5000 miles when transferring points to 20,000 miles (which makes the card better for earning American miles than the Citibank American cards, better for earning Delta miles than the Delta American Express, better for earning Alaska miles than the Alaska Airlines Visa). This card is a great way to get some of the best airline currencies like Japan Airlines, Aegean, and Korean Air miles.

    Chase Freedom Unlimited paired with either Chase Sapphire Preferred is more valuable in a vacuum but I still want a stash of Starwood points.


W Union Square

Starwood Preferred Guest Business Card from American Express

    The Business version of the Starwood card is arguably better than the personal card, because it comes with club lounge access when staying at Sheraton hotels on eligible rates if you aren’t a Starwood Platinum member. For me I have it because it gives me 2 stays and 5 nights towards elite status just like the personal card does, and that’s worth a $95 annual fee.

Platinum Card from American Express

    I don’t use my Platinum card for spending other than for airfare (5 points per dollar spent). It gets me Hilton Honors Gold status and National Car Rental Executive status (I don’t need the Starwood Gold status — which matches to Marriott Gold — that it comes with since I have Starwood status anyway.)

    The reason I keep it in my wallet, though, is lounge access. If I happen to fly Delta the card gets me into Delta’s lounges. I use it most, though, to get into American Express’ outstanding Centurion lounges.


    American Express Centurion Lounge Dallas.. which like Miami has a complimentary spa

Drivers License

    I really only carry this to show to the TSA, and because I’m supposed to have it with me when I’m driving a rental car. At home my wife and I share a car. I’m much more likely to drive a car in a city that’s not my own. And yet I’m renting cars less and less with recent travel mostly to major cities and the prevalence of Uber and Lyft.

Security card for my office building, elevator, and suite

    This one is pretty self-explanatory.

Priority Pass Select Card. (That’s the card sitting behind my office security card.)

    Priority Pass developed a separate ‘Select’ card to offer to banks for their credit card customers, but there’s really no difference between Select and the standard product any longer since United Clubs withdrew from the network (bank-issued Priority Pass cards excluded United Club access because Chase had a monopoly over issuing club access to credit card holders).

    The card gets me into Alaska Airlines lounges, The Club locations, certain Air France KLM, Korean Air, and Air Canada lounges and many more. Here are the 59 locations at airports in the U.S.. I have a Priority Pass Select from several cards. T


Priority Pass Access to Minute Suites, Philadelphia

Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard

    This card comes with an American Airlines Admirals Club membership, and that’s attached to my AAdvantage account. I don’t need to carry the card to access American lounges when flying American. Additional cardmembers on the account come with no annual fee, and each can get into Admirals Clubs — with up to two guests — using the card. (One card account can therefore leverage 33 people into a lounge.)

    A major reason I have this card is to put $40,000 in spend on it and earn 10,000 elite qualifying miles. My goal is to reduce the amount I have to fly American while still earning top tier status. That way I can earn Executive Platinum almost by chance and still make my purchase decisions based on schedule and price.

best way to get American Airlines club access
Putting Green, American Airlines Admirals Club Austin

Ink Cash Business Card.

    Most people only need one annual fee Chase Ultimate Rewards card, e.g. Ink Business Preferred Credit Card or Chase Sapphire Preferred. You can transfer points from the no annual fee cards (that themselves don’t permit transfers of points to airline miles) and make the points more valuable.

    Ink Cash earns 5 points per dollar in the same categories as the no longer available Ink Plus did, I sue it for office supplies, cable tv and internet, and cell phone bills.

Chase Freedom Unlimited.

    This no annual fee cards earns 1.5 points per dollar on all spend. Those points do not transfer to miles. However this is a great card for otherwise-unbonused spend, because you can transfer the points to a Chase Sapphire Preferred and then to miles or points (or used at greater value to buy paid travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal).

Hyatt Credit Card.

    I find the card’s annual free night for hotels up to category 4 is well worth the $75 annual fee. The card was worth it for the signup bonus, and I used to spend $40,000 on it each year to earn 5 stays and 10 nights towards elite status. I’m not spending on the card right now I just haven’t taken it out of my wallet.


Category 4 Andaz Papagayo Costa Rica

American Airlines AAdvantage Aviator Silver Card.

    You can’t apply for an Aviator Silver card. You have to product change an Aviator Red card. Aviator Silver has a $195 annual fee, and I put $50,000 on the card. At $20,000 you get 5000 elite qualifying miles; at $25,000 you get 3000 elite qualifying dollars (the Aviator Red would do this too); at $30,000 you get a $99+tax companion ticket; at $40,000 you get another 5000 elite qualifying miles; and at $50,000 you get another 3000 elite qualfiying dollars.

    By putting $50,000 on this card and $40,000 on the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard I earn 20,000 elite qualifying miles and 6000 elite qualifying dollars. I can hit Executive Platinum status with 80,000 qualifying miles and $6000 spent (instead of 100,000 and $12,000).


American Airlines Business Class, Boeing 787-9

BankDirect ATM card

    I’ve used a BankDirect checking account since July 2003. It earns 100 American AAdvantage miles for every $1000 average balance each month (no 1099 at the end of the year).

    They’ve added a $12 per month fee that you cannot avoid with a minimum balance and they’ve capped the earning at 5000 miles per month. But in a low interest environment and since I wind up with big expense reimbursements sitting in a checking account until I pay off my credit card bill, it makes good sense for me.

    There’s a signup bonus of up to 22,000 miles and they not only don’t charge out of network ATM fees, but also offer a rebate of fees that other banks charge you for use of their cash machines.

For completeness my wallet also has a few business cards, a health and dental insurance card, $85 cash, and a couple of American Airlines Business ExtrAA BXP1 upgrade certificates in it.

Ultimately the strategy here is to:

  • Use cards to access benefits, like lounges, and use spending to earn elite status faster with both airlines and hotels.

  • Earn as many transferable points as possible. I don’t want to earn airline miles as much as points that transfer to a variety of different airline (and hotel) mileage programs. I’ve got access to seven figure balances with Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards already.

    Transferable points let me put miles in the right place at the right time for the right award. They’re also a hedge against devaluation of airline frequent flyer programs. And earning miles in a portfolio of transferable currencies is a hedge against devaluation of those currencies.

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. That’s too much in a wallet. And please leave your debit card home, unless you don’t have much of a balance in the account…that’s a theft waiting to happen and no one but you is on the hook to cover it.

    I’ll adjust what’s in my wallet based on any trips I take, but for the most part my wallet stays the same while I’m at home:

    Chase Sapphire Reserve (dining)
    Chase Freedom Unlimited (everything else)
    Citi Costco (Costco and any gas spend)

    That’s it. I follow the KISS method, Keep It Simple Stupid. The rest just messes me up and I rarely have any use for it anyway.

  2. Do points transferred from the Chase card to Marriott Rewards count toward lifetime status. I have enough nights but am short on points. What about transfers from SPG to Marriott?

  3. It’s hard to evaluate your card strategy in light of my own spending habits without knowing a bit about yours (how much you spend in total on credit cards, how much on airfare, etc). I suspect that you have relatively enormous amounts of spend both from everyday life and your side businesses.

    I doubt you have any interest in sharing the particulars of your spending and don’t expect you to, but (as an example) the value proposition for the Platinum card looks different if you spend $5000 a year on airfare or $500,000.

  4. I’m curious about a few decisions.

    What would you calculate as the opportunity cost to your $90K of AA spend? It has to be at least $1,350, no? Is that worth it?

    Then how do you decide to earn 1 SPG (1.25 airline miles) versus 1.5 UR? Are you really getting 20% more value out of SPG vs UR just by having the flexibility?

  5. @Stvr – I value the executive platinum status that highly relative to platinum pro (systemwide upgrades, higher on upgrade list so i actually clear domestically) over the course of a year. and i value my time enough so i don’t have to fly 20,000 miles and of course i’m also getting 6000 qualfiying dollars.

    As far as why I spend some on my SPG Amex vs all unbonused spend on Freedom Unlimited, it has to do with my decent 7 figure balance with chase versus small six figure balance with spg. so i do get 20% more value out of the MARGINAL spg point versus the MARGINAL chase point not just due to flexibility but also time preference (will i ever even spend my last chase point?)

  6. I find the I already passed membership card that I can keep on my smart phone works enough so I don’t have to keep the physical card in my wallet just in my carry-on somewhere

  7. @LarryInNYC – I haven’t totaled all my spend but it’s not just life and side businesses but also my full time job, I spend a lot more than $5000 on airfare but it’s certainly not $500k!

    I’d say that I am able to run > 500k through my credit cards in total in a year, it skews heavily towards travel and dining but especially air and hotel spend is going to be mid-5 figures at least. There was a time when hotel spend was six figures thanks to work.

  8. Thanks for this info, Gary. I picked up a few useful nuggets that I’d never known about or had forgotten about, such as the BankDirect and Ink Cash Plus options plus a couple of features of the Priority Pass.

  9. @Gary: Thanks, that’s more info than one would have a right to expect you to share.

    I have what I imagine to be a relatively high amount of credit card spending but boy, my “points and miles life” would definitely be different if I were spending more than a half million dollars a year on 2x and 3x categories.

    For instance, even acting as an occasional travel agent for a few friends (that is, buying their tickets and having them reimburse me) I doubt I exceed $8-10 K per year on airfare (the expensive trips are already on points). Yeah, getting 5x AMEX points would be nice (as opposed to 3X Chase points) but it’s harder to justify the additional fee (and the headaches regarding incidental fees, etc) of the Platinum card for 20K points a year. If I were spending $100K a year on airfare, however, that would be a benefit of 200K points, or a couple of roundtrip business class tickets to somewhere fun.

  10. Gary— I have both the Starwood personal and a Starwood business. I am thinking about dropping one. Recommendation and rationale? Thanx.

  11. @LarryInNYC to be clear the half million was all spend not all bonus spend though I do skew heavily towards bonus categories.

    I have a separate post coming where I walk through 5x Amex Plat vs Chase 3x for airfare. I argue that less expensive tickets go on Reserve, more expensive tickets on Amex Plat because of trip delay coverage on the Chase card that’s missing from Amex. Coming in a few days.

  12. I sincerely hope your wallet never gets stolen because it will be a PITA to report and replace all those cards!

    Personally I only carry the following (I have a card wallet that is a lot smaller):
    (1) Corp. Amex (2) JPM-R (3) ATM card (4) Chase Hyatt (to use for 2x dining at swipe locations) (5) CrapOne (mainly for use at more sketchy merchants) and (6) JCB. When traveling internationally I ditch JCB and add Fidelity debit card for ATM use as I find it works everywhere.

    Unfortunately JCB is exiting US consumer market so I will have to find a replacement. Maybe BofA Fidelity (2 cash back%) though BofA has a hair trigger on fraud alerts. It’s not critical as the bulk of my spend goes on JPM-R.

    The AAviator, BofA Alaska, Chase WN and Intercon generally stay in my safe deposit box though the perks normally offset the AFs.

  13. On the Chase Sapphire Reserve, what’s this about “$250 or more on travel and dining with the card”? Per transaction, in a certain time period, or did you mean another figure?

  14. BankDirect sounds HORRIFIC.. 100 AA miles per thousand$ is roughly a 0.15% interest rate. That is crap..

  15. @Justin – that’s on top of interest, and it’s a checking account, as interest rates rise it may become uncompetitive but it’s been fantastic in the era of the zero lower bound. and of course it’s better than monetary interest because there’s been no tax reporting on the miles..

    but you’re doing the math wrong. it’s 100 miles per $1000 *per month* so you need to multiply your 0.15% by *12*. It’s a 1.8% interest rate (at 1.5 cents per AA mile) that isnt reported to the IRS. On a checking account. How much does your current checking account earn after tax?

  16. Question – my husband and I both have the Chase Sapphire Reserve and aside from the $300 travel credit, we won’t be taking advantage of its other perks this year. Would it be better for one of us to downgrade to a preferred and then transfer points to the reserve account? Or is there another option you’d recommend or a reason we should both keep it? Thanks!

  17. Gary-How does the strategy change if you are airline captive? For example, I am in Dallas so stuck with AA and a number of the card you mention do not transfer to AA. What do you recommend in this situation?

    Thank you!

  18. @David just because you need to fly American doesn’t mean you should be earning American miles for your OTHER non-flight activity. In fact given American’s award availability challenges I’d argue even more strongly in favor of diversifying (though I’d point out that the SPG card does transfer to AA)

  19. @Alyssa – I don’t think you both need to keep reserve, in fact you’d even save money just getting an authorized user card for one of you which would retain priority pass privileges and 3x earning. ($75)

  20. @Mike. Yes, Ultimate Rewards points transferred to Marriott do count for lifetime. I am in the same situation as you and tested it with 1000 UR points a few months ago. SPG points transferred to Marriott do not count for lifetime.

    @Gary. Finally found someone else who does BankDirect. Combine checking with a CD and earn 110000 AAdvantage miles every two years. Everyone needs to run the math but based on my numbers on an after tax basis it is worth it.

  21. Chase Sapphire Reserve is my most used card (travel, restaurants, etc); however for items where I only get 1 point, I use my Amex Business Blue Plus where I get 2X on everything. So those are my main two cards. I use my Amex Business Plat for stuff that have Amex Offers. Sometimes for airline tickets if I fly on my current airline choice. Though Amex should modify that since I’ll use CSR for all other airlines. I don’t always fly the same one all year. I also use the Hilton card for Hiltons, the Marriott card for Marriott’s, and the SPG card for those hotels… I have Amex Gold, and Chase Ink for office stores, internet, cable bills, etc. I use the Citi double card less and less because I get more from the Amex Bus. Blue +.

    Of course, all this changes a bit every year. New cards come out, and old cards have their benefits changed.

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