I think I’ve made my case that you want a points-based rewards card rather than a frequent flyer miles card, because the points are more flexible, and are worth more, and can be combined with family members, and you can earn them faster. And you know I think Chase Ultimate Rewards are full of win and rule the Pointsdom. But here’s a quick rundown of what else is out there, which you can contemplate if you aren’t well served by United, or Chase disses you because you’ve opened more than five cards in two years.
SPG points: The American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card, at $95 per year, is pretty solid and has lots of fans, because you can transfer the SPG points you earn into thirty-five airline frequent flyer programs, including American and Delta. Do you fucking hear me? Thirty-five! Almost all airlines besides United transfer at an excellent 0.8 points per mile when you transfer 20,000 points, so you should always transfer in that amount if possible. You can also use SPG points as cash for any ticket at 1 point per 1 cent, but with that many transfer partners, you probably don’t want to, except to get better value on United. Needless to say, Starwood hotels are the only place you can use the points for lodging. The card earns one point per dollar spent; so, earning points is slow, but they’re valuable once you have them. Since airline cards also earn miles at about a point per buck, you could instead earn SPG points, so you can transfer to whatever airline you need, at an advantageous rate. Points hoarders like to use this card for purchases when they can’t earn more than 1 point per dollar on other cards, since that point goes farther.
One sucky thing about SPG points is that the transfers to airlines won’t happen any faster than a day or two at soonest, meaning that if you’ve got your eye on an award ticket, it might be gone by the time you have the miles in your account; also, the points expire in a year if you stop using the card and don’t stay at a Starwood hotel. And who knows how the program might change, or if this card will even continue to exist, now that Starwood and Marriott have gotten hitched; points watchers seem to be saying you should use the points now, before Marriott, who has a mediocre frequent guest program, has a chance to fuck them up. And I can’t get that excited about only one point per dollar spent, even with the advantageous transfer rate for a panoply of frequent flyer programs.
American Express Membership Rewards: Though plenty of Amex cards earn these points, the only two cards that earn well are the Everyday Preferred and the Premier Rewards Gold. You can transfer the points to various airlines and hotels, including Delta, or use them to buy tickets on any airline, where each point is worth 1 cent. Unfortunately, the airline transfer options are such that great redemptions are really only available for international travel. And for hotels, the Starwood transfer ratio (3 points to get 1) blows, and the other choices are also uncompelling. So Membership Rewards does let you transfer points to more airlines than Chase Ultimate Rewards, though not to as many as SPG points do, not always at advantageous rates, and not to United or American. And taking points as cash back pays off badly too. So I don’t find this program that rewarding.
People like the perks (or perceived status) of the $450 Platinum charge card, but if you want to actually earn points rather than impress a retail wage slave, the $95 Everyday Preferred credit card is the smart play, because it earns 1.5 points per dollar spent (and 3 for gas, and 4.5 for supermarkets), as long as you have 30 total charges each month — much better than the Platinum, which earns 1 point for everything. The Premier Rewards Gold may make a good complement; it gets 3 points for airfare and 2 for restuarants.
Amex probably does offer better actual travel related service and support than the others do, for what that’s worth. But I just never seem to be able to get as much out of Membership Rewards points as I want. The program might work for you; less so for me.
FuckYou ThankYou: This is a stupid program designed to compete with Amex and Chase. What makes it stupid and full of fail is that there’s no major domestic carrier to transfer the points to, not even American, for whom Citi issues the AAdvantage card. And there’s only one hotel transfer partner (Hilton). You can use these points to buy travel on any airline at between 62.5 and 100 points per cash price dollar, depending on which card you have and what airline you’re flying. That ain’t terrible, but unless you have the $450 per year Prestige card and you’re buying a ticket on American, it’s hardly better than you get with Chase Ultimate Rewards, and without the transfer flexibility. You can earn the points a little bit faster, but the points are less valuable, so color me unimpressed.
If you want to use points to buy tickets rather than transferring to frequent flyer programs, you’re better off with a 2% cash back card, or an “any airline, no blackouts” travel card that earns at 2%, like the ones below. Or just get yourself a nice Sapphire Preferred and Freedom Unlimited; you’ll earn Ultimate Rewards points almost as quickly, which you can use either for purchasing tickets or for transferring into frequent flyer programs when there are excellent award redemptions. (Caveat: While the ThankYou program itself sucks, the Citi Prestige card is pretty good.)
CapitalOne Venture Rewards, Barclaycard Arrival Plus, and any other “travel rewards” card that doesn’t earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Amex Membership Rewards points, Citi
FuckYou ThankYou points, or SPG points: These “double miles, any airline, any date” type cards are really cash back for travel cards. They earn points more quickly than the rewards cards above, but there are no frequent flyer programs to transfer them to; you can only use the points for purchasing tickets. So these are decent for moderately priced tickets; you’re just not going to redeem any crazy expensive travel, since the points are pinned to the cash cost. I’ll say a lot of words about these cards in tomorrow’s post, only to conclude, “meh.”