Do you want to know all the shit I’ve figured out about earning the best and most free travel for your everyday spending? Yes, you do, and it’s all summarized in this post.
Here’s the not-exactly-short-but-at-least-in-one-place answer. If you’re just insufferably impatient, or prefer bullet points to prose, you can instead read the shorter answer.
Unless you’re dedicated to one airline, and one airline only, you want a credit card that earns you reward points, rather than a credit card that earns you frequent flyer miles. You earn miles slowly, and you can use yours alone, on a single airline, and that’s it.
But you can use points on several different airlines, or as cash, and combine them with your family members. Compared to a frequent flyer program credit card, you earn more points for the same spending, and the points you earn are worth more, and can be used more flexibly. Get it? Points > miles. The best points are Chase Ultimate Rewards points, especially if you have household members to combine them with, though Amex Membership Rewards points are a close second. (Following those, in order, are Citi
FuckYou ThankYou points, CapitalOne Venture Points Miles, and Marriott Bonvoy points.)
You could also consider a card that earns cash back if you want something simpler, but with less potential upside. I’ll mention those too.
Chase Ultimate Rewards Points (good for United, ok for international):
Are you able and willing to fly United? Swell. Get a Chase Sapphire Reserve card, and a Chase Freedom Unlimited card. Don’t get one. Get both. Listen to me. I am right. When you use the Freedom Unlimited, you’ll earn 1.5 Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent (though they will call this “1.5% cash back”). When you combine the points to your Sapphire Reserve, each point is worth a minimum of 1.5 cents towards travel on nearly any flight on any airline, so you’re talking a minimum of 2.25% travel back on all your spending. If you want to do even better, use your Sapphire Reserve for restaurant, travel, lodging, and transportation charges (including taxi, Uber, MTA, AirBnB, parking, etc); you’ll earn 3 points per dollar spent, yielding a minimum of 4.5% travel back for those purchases. That doesn’t suck.
If you want to do really well, like scoring an international business class ticket that would otherwise cost you five grand or more, and you are blessed with patience for research, you can instead send the points from your Sapphire Reserve to frequent flyer programs at United, Southwest, JetBlue, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air France/KLM, Singapore, Emirates, Aer Lingus, and Iberia, and redeem them for a frequent flyer award ticket, possibly on a different airline who’s partnered with one of the above programs. (You can also send Ultimate Rewards points to hotel loyalty programs at Hyatt, Marriott, and IHG, where they can be redeemed for free stays, though Marriott and IHG are bad deals.)
Though the Sapphire Reserve seems to cost $450/year, it’s really $150/year, because you automatically receive a statement credit each year for your first $300 worth plane tickets, taxis, hotels, etc. The Freedom Unlimited has no annual fee. Be sure to activate the Priority Pass lounge membership for the Sapphire Reserve.
Chase Ultimate Rewards points are better than other points because you only need two cards to earn them quickly, they’re worth a lot, they’re very flexible, and it’s trivial to pool them with family members. I wish they could be transferred to a few more airlines, though.
(more details on Chase Ultimate Rewards points)
American Express Membership Rewards Points (good for Delta and international):
If you’re a Delta loyalist, or are primarily an international flyer, you might want the American Express Blue Business Plus card. (Don’t be afraid if you don’t own a business. Just say you’re a sole proprietor who earns $1,000 a year selling cigarettes on the street. They don’t care.) This card earns 2 Amex Membership Rewards points per dollar spent for the first $50,000 spent per year, and it costs nothing. Who says the best things in life ain’t free, and they’ll let you get two if you think you’re gonna hit the $50K ceiling. (If the whole business card thing puts you off, instead consider the $95/year Everyday Preferred card; if you make at least 30 charges per month on it, you’ll earn 1.5 Amex Membership Rewards points per dollar spent, or 3 points for gas, or 4.5 points for up to $6000 spent on groceries per year.)
If you’re a real points whore like I am, you might also want to think supplementing that with the American Express Gold card. You get 4 points per dollar spent at supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year) and US restaurants (unlimited), and 3 for travel when booking with airlines. It’s $250/year, which can be potentially offset by an $100 yearly credit towards incidentals on a single domestic airline and a $10 per month credit towards Seamless/Grubhub. (If you’d rather have something that’s just cheaper upfront, if not quite as rewarding, consider the American Express Green card for $150 a year; it offers 3 points per dollar at restaurants.)
Even if you get both of the above Amex cards, you might still also consider the American Express Business Platinum card. With this card, when you pay with points for any flight in economy on a single domestic airline, or business class on any airline, you get 35% of those points back. That makes each point worth 1.54 cents per point rather than 1 cent per point. The card is pricey at $595/year, which you might be able to lower via its $200 yearly incidentals credit for a single domestic airline, and its twice-yearly $100 credit for various electronics brands sold at Dell.com. If you do buy a plane ticket with actual cash (rather than points) at AmexTravel.com, you’ll get 5 points per dollar spent. You can also enjoy the very nice Centurion lounge, if you’re in one of the nine airports that has one; or you can use the Delta SkyClub when flying Delta.
If you don’t have a Business Platinum, buying tickets with Amex points is usually 1 cent per point, which is not a great deal. It’s often better, if more effort, to transfer your Amex points to frequent flyer programs for Delta, JetBlue, British Airways, Air France/KLM, Virgin Atlantic, Alitalia, Air Canada, ANA, AeroMexico, El Al, Emirates, Etihad, Hawaiian, Iberia; or hotel loyalty programs for Hilton, Marriott, and Choice. Again, you may be able to fly additional airlines who are partners with these airlines. Most of these transfers are decent deals, but not all (El Al and Marriott are especially bad).
Amex Membership Rewards points are nice to have, because they earn quickly and are flexible, but I don’t like them as much as Chase points, because to get the most from them, you need more kinds of cards, at greater expense. And the points themselves are more difficult for family members to pool, and aren’t quite as flexible or valuable (especially when using points as cash for a ticket), plus Amex charges a small but dickish fee when sending points to domestic airlines programs. But Amex points do transfer to more airlines than Chase points do, and United’s historic award pricing advantage over Delta is eroding, so Chase’s lead has narrowed.
(more details on Amex Membership Rewards Points)
FuckYou ThankYou Points (fair for domestic, good for international):
ThankYou points can’t be sent to a major domestic airline program, so, at least for me, they’re not as useful as Chase and Amex points. But you can earn the points quickly — their cards earn more points in some categories than anyone else’s — and they have a few international airlines the others don’t, and, depending on the cards you hold, paying with points may be a better deal than what Amex (but not Chase) offers. You can send ThankYou points to Avianca, AeroMexico, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, EVA, Air France/KLM, JetBlue, Malaysia, Qantas, Qatar, Singapore, Thai, Turkish, Virgin Atlantic. And you have access to other airlines who are partners with these ones.
If you get a Citi Prestige card, at $495 per year (easily lowered to $245 via a yearly $250 airline credit), you’ll earn 5 points per dollar spent at restaurants (higher than anyone else offers) and at airlines, and 3 points at hotels and cruise lines. It also offers a twice-yearly 4th night free perk at hotels. You’ll want to supplement it with and link it to the no-fee Citi Double Cash card, which offers an unlimited 2 two points per dollar spent on everything when you convert its “cash back” to ThankYou points. If you anticipate regularly wanting to pay with points for any plane ticket on any airline, you might also want the $95 per year Citi Premier card, because the points become worth 1.25 cents, rather than 1 cent; it also earns 3 points per dollar spent on general travel, including gas.
Capital One Venture
Points Miles (bad for domestic and international):
The Capital One Venture Rewards card is pretty shitty. It costs $95 per year, and earns 2 points per dollar spent on everything. But there’s no way to earn them more quickly, they can’t be sent to a major domestic airline, their transfer ratio to international airlines is mostly inferior, and nearly all of those airilnes are available with the cards above: Aeromexico, Air France/KLM, Air Canada, Alitalia, Cathay Pacific, Avianca, Emirates, Etihad, Eva, Finnair, Hainan, JetBlue, Qantas, Qatar, and Singapore. You can also pay for travel with points at 1 cent per point, and while it’s more flexible than with the others, it’s not as flexible as just using a 2% cash back card and calling it a day. There is a promo where you can get a fantastic 10 points per dollar spent on bookings at Hotels.com, but sadly it expires on January 31, 2020. I vote pass, unless you really want to possess only one single card, and you’re averse to getting a business card (because if you’re not, the Amex Blue Business Plus is the one to get); though even that scenario, I’d personally, wait for it, prefer the Amex Everyday Preferred.
Marriott Bonvoy points (fair for domestic and international):
Marriott has the worst named rewards program in existence, so let’s just get that out of the way. The points are too slowly earned for me to recommend, but they can be transferred to a whopping 41 airlines — far more than anyone else offers, which provides a lot of opportunity to get somewhere in style for free.
Unfortunately, for most airlines you exchange 3 Bonvoy points for 1 airline mile, and Bonvoy branded cards earn only 2 points for most purchases, so that’s like getting 0.67 miles per dollar spent (or 0.83 when you factor in the 25% bonus you get when you transfer 60,000 points in one chunk), which is even worse than an airline-branded card. Pretty terrible for daily spending, considering you can get a minimum of 2 miles per dollar spent from Citi and Amex, and 1.5 from Chase. But If the idea of 41 airlines appeals, I think the best option is the American Express Marriott Bonvoy Business card, for $125 per year, because it offers 4 points (so, 1.33 airline miles, or 1.66 when transferring 60,000 points at one shot) on restaurants and gas.
For completeness’ sake, here’s the full list of airlines to which you can send your Bonvoy points: Aegean, Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Air Canada, Air China, Air France/KLM, Air New Zealand, Alaska, Alitalia, American, ANA, Asiana, Avianca, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, China Southern, Copa Airlines, Delta, Emirates, Etihad, Frontier, Hainan, Hawaiian, Iberia, Japan, JetBlue, Korean, LATAM, Qantas, Qatar, South African, Saudia, Singapore, Southwest, TAP Air Portugal, Thai, Turkish, United, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia.
American and Alaska: boo
If you primarily fly American or Alaska, your options for earning free travel are kind of sucky. You could get a branded credit card, of course, but then your miles are stuck at American or Alaska, and can only be used for award tickets on them, or one of their partner airlines, giving you many fewer options. The points also earn fairly slowly, and can’t be pooled between family members, and can’t be used as cash-equivalent for any airline at any time. So I’m not that much of a fan, though if what you really want from life is American or Alaska miles, then it is what it is.
You do have a few options. You could instead earn Chase or Amex points on the cards above, at a faster clip than you’d earn with an airline branded card, and then use the points as cash to buy American or Alaska tickets. Further, both Chase and Amex let you send points to British Airways, and when there are saver-level tickets available, it’s often possible to fly American or Alaska domestically via a BA award ticket. (It’s a super pain for Alaska, though, because you have to search on AA.com to see what Alaska flights are available, and then call BA to book, because the Alaska flights can’t be seen or booked directly at BA.com.) Personally, if I were stuck with one of these airlines, I’d do the Chase combo.
But I really just think you should fly other airlines that are compatible with Chase or Amex points. If you already have some kind of elite status on American or Alaska and that’s what’s keeping you there, you may be able to get United or Delta to match it, if you call and ask. If you’re near an American hub, consider moving. You don’t want to be in Phoenix or Charlotte anyway.
(more details on Alaska and American)
If you fly JetBlue (their Mint business class is sick! Try to sit in row 2 or 4, where you get your own pod with a door!), you can earn their points really quickly from their branded credit cards, though then you have JetBlue points, which you can pretty much use only use on JetBlue. I’d rather just earn Chase points from the Chase cards above, and buy JetBlue tickets with them. (In fact, that’s what I do.) But if you really want maximum free JetBlue travel, then you probably want a Barclays JetBlue Plus or Barclays JetBlue Business card.
If you just want something that’s easy and not tied to any one airline, consider a Citi Double Cash card. It costs nothing, and gives gives you 2% cash back on everything, which is pretty dece for moderately priced tickets, but won’t get you kick ass deals if a ticket is expensive, like an award ticket will.
An alternative is the Synchrony PayPal Cashback card, which also earns 2% cash on everything, but, unlike the Double Cash, it doesn’t have a foreign transaction fee when used overseas. The downside is that, rather than getting a statement credit, you have to claim the cash back to your PayPal account, from where you can transfer it to your checking account.
For higher earnings, you can jump through a few hoops to get the Alliant Visa Signature card, which yields 3% on everything cash back the first year, and 2.5% thereafter, for a $99 annual fee (waived first year), or the Bank Of America Premium Rewards card, which offers 2.6%-3.5% back, but only if you hold $100K in assets with them.
If you can manage two cards in your life, consider also getting the Capital One Savor Rewards card ($95 annual fee, first year free) or SavorOne Rewards (no annual fee) card, and put dining and entertainment (4% cash back for Savor, 3% for SavorOne) only on that. Neither has a foreign transaction fee. If you have a Double Cash, use the Capital One card when overseas to avoid foreign transaction fees. Other supplementary cards for specific spending categories may deserve a look depending on where you spend your money, such a specialty card from this list.
Don’t bother with Barclay Arrival Plus, or similar “travel anywhere” cards. They earn points which are cash-equivalent for travel, but that’s not as good as actual cash, and the points can’t be sent to frequent flyer programs. These cards also have annual fees, and don’t earn better than cash back cards. So, fuck ‘em.
I’m not particularly excited about cash back or travel back cards, but they’re simple and flexible, like this girl I once knew. Thank you, I’ll be here all week.
(more details on cash back cards)
You still might want a United or Delta branded card, even if you shouldn’t spend on it
If you’re flying United regularly, for many of the perks of elite airline status without having to actually fly enough to earn it, get a Chase United Explorer card or Chase United Club card. You get more options for award tickets if you have one of these, even if you don’t have elite status, as well as other status-like perks. And if you do have elite status, having one of these cards makes you eligible for cabin upgrades on award tickets. Because these cards earn miles rather than points, don’t use them for purchases, except to maybe to buy tickets on United (which is required to get free bag check). Be sure to enjoy the gnashing of teeth of the various wannabe George Clooneys who resent your crass appropriation of their hard-flown privileges. (more details)
Same goes for Delta branded cards from Amex if you regularly check bags, and don’t have elite status. Some of the more expensive Delta branded cards also let you earn elite status qualifying miles, if that’s something you want to go after.
Flying airlines to which you can’t send your points:
If you can’t transfer your points directly to the airline you want to fly, and you’ve got nothing better to do with your life, you might be able to figure out how to book the same flight indirectly, via airline partners. For example, if you wanted to use your Chase or Amex points to fly American, you could send the points to British Airways, once BA confirms they can do it. Or you can use Air France miles to fly Delta. Or Air Canada to fly United. My brother says this doesn’t work, but I say it does, so who are you going to believe? I’ve made some of the above plays, as well as shit like flying SWISS, by transferring Amex points to Air Canada and booking the flight as an Air Canada ticket.
In a lot of cases you can’t actually see or book an award ticket on a partner airline from the web site of the airline where you can send your miles. A great (but paid) resource for finding these tickets is at Juicy Miles; I found a route to Vietnam flown on Vietnam Airlines via an Air France award ticket that I absolutely would never have discovered otherwise, and was able to book it over the phone.
Sometimes an airline’s web site will lie and say a seat is available on a partner airline when it isn’t (Air France once fucked me about this on Delta availability, and when I called them, the guy breezily said that their web site is wrong about partner availability all the time). So call the airline to where you can send your miles, and confirm availability before you move your points from Chase or Amex or Citi or Capital One or Marriott, because there ain’t no moving them back. Also keep in mind that some airlines have a transfer delay, especially so from Citi, Capital One, and Marriott, so don’t be shy about asking the airilne to hold the award booking for you until the miles arrive in your frequent flyer account — some airlines will do it, and some won’t.
Signup bonuses: hooray
Most of the above cards come with major signup bonuses, worth up to $750 or more, if you spend some amount of money, usually $3,000-$5,000, in the first three months. Don’t be an asshole and blow it. Time your application before you have to spend a bunch of dough on dental surgery so that you feel like you’re getting something for your pain.
If you haven’t spent enough, buy an Amazon gift credit — it won’t expire, so you’ll eventually burn through it.
If Amazon credit doesn’t appeal, then check out Plastiq, which charges you 2.5% for using your credit card to write checks to businesses. Some cards are limited to paying certain kinds of businesses, so check the site. I’ve used Plastiq many times when the signup bonus is large enough to make it worth it. (more details)
And always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always pay your dumb credit cards on time and in full. If you don’t, the interest and/or late fees nuke whatever benefit you got from your rewards, and the bastards win. If, like me, you’re shaky on this kind of thing, set up each card to pay itself out of your bank account automatically, or every Sunday just log in and pay the cards off, wherever they’re at. Hint: get the apps for the cards. Makes it easy and painless.
I AM DONE HERE, BUT THE HELLHOLE IS DEEP
That’s all you really need to know, but if you don’t savor every last word I write in the future, you may live the rest of your life vaguely haunted by wondering what you still don’t know. So come back later, or subscribe via email, and spare yourself the worry.
(Note: if there are links for the cards above, they’ll take you to the card application page, and I’ll get a referral bonus. I appreciate it!)