What’s in My Wallet and How I Use Each Rewards Card

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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’ll 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.

  • American Express® Gold Card: I use this to earn 4 points per dollar at restaurants worldwide and at US supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year).

    The card has a $100 annual airline fee credit and the up to $10 a month in statement credits using the card at participating dining partners.

  • Platinum Card from American Express: I use this card to earn 5 points per dollar on airfare. It gets me Hilton Honors Gold status and National Car Rental Executive status (I don’t need the Marriott/Starwood Gold status as a Platinum already).

    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. It works with Plaza Premium, Escape, and Airspace 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

  • The World Of Hyatt Credit Card: I put my Hyatt stays on the card (4 points per dollar) and my wife’s fitness classes (2x). The card gives 5 elite night credits as an ante and then 2 more for each $5000 spent so I’ve put a bunch of additional spend on the card to requalify early for Globalist status.

    The card comes with a free category 1-4 night each year, and another after $15,000 spend.

  • Chase Freedom Unlimited: a no annual fee card that earns 1.5 points per dollar on all spending.

    By transferring those points to a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card the points can then be transferred to airline miles or hotel points.

    This is where my ‘unbonused’ spending goes. That’s somewhat suboptimal because by not putting my spending on a no annual fee The Blue Business℠ Plus Credit Card from American Express (which I keep meaning to get) I’m giving up 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on up to $50,000 in purchases. As a result I’m 25,000 points poorer than I could be each year.

  • Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card has the best current initial bonus offer of any card in my view at 80,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Points transfer to United, Singapore, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue, Southwest, Iberia, Aer Lingus on the airline side and Hyatt, Marriott, and IHG on the hotel side.

    I use this card to earn 3 points per dollar on ‘other travel’ spend not covered by the cards above and on shipping purchases (I don’t really make advertising purchases on social media sites and search engines).

  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®: I use this card for American Airlines lounge access. It gives me a membership, so I don’t need to carry the card when flying American. However I keep it in my wallet because that allows me to use American Airlines clubs when flying other airlines (something that will no longer be possible effective November 1, 2019).

    Since authorized users on the account come at no annual fee, and receive lounge access as well, my wife has one of these cards in her wallet too. Currently it’s offering 50,000 miles after $5000 spend within the first 3 months of cardmembership.

    I’ve already put $40,000 spend on the card for 10,000 elite qualifying miles. That gave me a bit of extra freedom to fly other airlines while still ensuring I’d requalify for Executive Platinum status. The card’s annual fee is $450.

  • Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: I upgraded my Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express which I had since 2001 to the Luxury Card, and it’s since been renamed. Last year I spent $75,000 on the card (well, I spent it before the program changed in August last year and earning power was at its peak) converting to the new card gave me Platinum status for this year. I had the card in my wallet because I recently used its annual $300 Marriott spending credit and haven’t taken the card out yet.


    W Union Square

The cards currently in my wallet aren’t the only ones I have. Here are the ones that are in my right desk drawer.

  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®: I earned the card’s 70,000 mile initial bonus after spending $4,000 within the first 4 months of account opening. This card has a $0 annual fee the first year (then $99). I don’t use it for ongoing spend so it’s not in the wallet. [Offer expired]

  • Chase Ink Cash: this doesn’t need to be in my wallet, I use it to earn 5 points per dollar on internet and cable TV and at office supply stores.

    By transferring those points to a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card the points can then be transferred to airline miles or hotel points.

  • Chase Freedom: I use this only for spend in rotating categories which earn 5 points per dollar each quarter.

    By transferring those points to a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card the points can then be transferred to airline miles or hotel points.

  • Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card: I have had the card for some time and keep it for the annual free night (redeemable at hotels which run 35,000 points per night or less).

  • American Airlines AAdvantage Aviator Silver Card: You can’t apply for an Aviator Silver card. You have to product change an Aviator Red card. This past year I put $50,000 on the card. That earned me 10,000 elite qualifying miles, 6000 qualifying dollars, and a companion ticket. However this year the card only earns 3000 qualifying dollars for $50,000 spend rather than 6000.

So what else is in my wallet?:

  • 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 in Northern Virginia

  • Priority Pass Select Card: which I use for airport lounge access and at the airport restaurants which provide $28 dining credit.

  • 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, a AAA card, and $80 cash in it.

Ultimately the strategy here is to:

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

  2. 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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Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of any advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either. Terms and limitations apply to all offers.

Comments

  1. You really got to get the AMEX BBP. I’ve really toned down my Chase spending. With the loss of Korean and the United devaluation the only unique worthwhile transfer is Hyatt.

  2. So which card do you use to put your monthly cellphone bill on? I hope it is the Chase Ink Preferred with the $600 (minus $100 deductible) cellphone benefit.

  3. Thanks for this review, Gary. It reminded me of a perk or two I’d forgotten about for my own cards.

    Agree with @Jack that the Amex BBP is great. For my own personal calculations of Amex MR points utility, it made paying my taxes with that card worthwhile, despite the extra fee involved.

    A very minor question: Might it be worthwhile to carry both of the Priority Pass cards (from both the Amex Plat and Amex Marriott Brilliant accounts) with you, to double dip under certain circumstances?

  4. did you cancel the Citi prestige before it was updated? I tend to prefer 5 Citi points/$ + insurance on airfare vs. 5 Amex points (most of the time), but totally understand others valuing Amex higher.

  5. Good grief. How thick is your wallet? Which card do you use to pay the chiropractor bill from sitting on that monstrosity? Hopefully, you don’t keep it in your hip pocket ,though.

  6. I prefer the Schwab debit card due to reimbursed ATM fees worldwide and no foreign transaction fees. We stay in SE Asia for 5 months a year so the Schwab card really helps. We use the Sapphire reserve for travel expenses and just about everything else when in Asia

  7. If you want to live on the edge, you can let your BankDirect account go dormant and avoid the $12 monthly fee. However, you’ll need some account activity every 3 years or the funds will be transferred to the Texas state comptroller. I luckily withdrew my funds near the deadline, but only because I preferred interest rates that had risen to over 2% elsewhere. They told me I’d dodged a bullet.

  8. Gotta love those rewards cards b/c you get lots of $ gUaP $ back in travel rewards points. That’s good for “travel blogging” discussion as a “side hustle millionaire” in the making.

  9. Two notes on BankDirect.
    1. You still do earn miles on balances over $50K, but it’s at a 25% rate (25 miles per $1000).
    2. ATM fee reimbursements are limited to $2.50/transaction, and 4 reimbursements/month.

  10. Gary:
    Would you consider Marriott points a transferable currency on part with Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards? On the one hand, Marriott has a lot of transfer partners. On the other, it doesn’t have the same incentives as Chase and American Express to maintain the same value of its currency.

    I find myself debating between 3x UR on the CSR and 6x Marriott on the Marriott Boundless card for Marriott stays. What are your thoughts?

  11. Thank you this was very helpful. It’s hard to keep all the benefits straight when travelling or even at home.

  12. How poorly does one need to be treated by the new Marriott/SPG before forgoing their cards? Just had them cancel an award stay after being assured all was well- because they upgraded the hotel and my certificate no longer covered that category hotel- they didn’t care in the least that two folks had assured me all was well, then lost the recordings of the conversations I had with those Marriott employees, so it was my problem, not theirs. They declined to explain why they cashed in my certificate if it didn’t cover the 7 day stay. Are others experiencing horrible customer service from the new Marriott too?

  13. Useful, as always. Since you have the Bonvoy Business Amex, do you put your cellphone bill on that? It’s 4 times points, TPG & OMAAT value that at about 3% return. No insurance though; I notice that Jim has made a case for Chase Ink. Perhaps that is better?

  14. #Dirk Woods experience is really telling. These kind of clunky customer service glitches used to be routine in the 1970s when IT systems were crude. Nowadays there is no excuse. His complaint has simply never reached the people who decide what Marriott intends. I.e. what they stand for. It is mired in the reams of jobsworths in Marriott’s lower ranks.

    If he brought a small-claims case for fraud in his local court they would offer to settle immediately, simply because the case would reach the level where intelligence was brought to bear and Marriott would see their error.

  15. You’ve spent now wayyyy more time blogging that you should get a BBP than it would take to make four clicks to apply.

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