The shortest fucking way I can tell you what cards to get for what airlines you fly [updated Apr 2019]

If the previous cheat sheet was the fucking Cliff’s Notes, this one is the scrawl on your palm. If you want to effortlessly earn the most and best free travel, just do this. Your life will be better.

Click to skip to what kind of rewards you want: United, Delta, American, Alaska, JetBlue, cash back. If you have no preference, just read the whole dumb thing. Cash back deserves a closer look than  you might think, due to how airline miles have devalued in 2019.

If you can fly United sometimes, or aren’t loyal to any particular other airline, then you want Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which can be converted to United miles, as well as those of several other airlines. Note that for flights on or after November 15, 2019, United award ticket prices have no upper ceiling, so this might not be as good a deal as it used to be. Still, accumulating Chase points, as described below, has its advantages. So:

  • Get a Chase Sapphire Reserve card and a Chase Freedom Unlimited card. It will cost you $150 per year for both. (Well, $450 up front, but you get $300 credit back for travel purchases every year.) Make sure to hit the spending minimums on both to get your bonuses.
  • Use the Freedom Unlimited for everything; you’ll earn 1.5 points for every dollar spent. You can combine these with the Sapphire Reserve card on the Chase web site. And all your Chase points can be combined with other people in the same household.
  • If you want 3 points per dollar spent when you can get them, use the Sapphire Reserve for restaurants, travel, transportation, and lodging. If you don’t want the hassle, throw it in a drawer.

If you have a thing for Delta, then you want American Express Membership Rewards points. So:

  • Get an American Express Blue Business Plus card. It costs nothing, and earns 2 points per dollar spent, on everything, up to your first $50,000 per year. (If you spend more than that, get two! They’ll let you.)
  • Alternatively, if you are disinclined towards a business card, get an American Express Everyday Preferred card. It will cost you $95 per year, and, if you put 30 charges on it a month, it earns 1.5 points per dollar spent, or 3 for gas, or 4.5 for supermarkets.
  • If you want more points to go with either of the above, get an American Express Gold card, and use it for restaurants and supermarkets (4 points per dollar spent), and airlines (3 points per dollar spent). It’s $250 per year, but if you max out its $100 travel credit and monthly $10 Grubhub/Seamless benefit, it’s $30 per year.
  • For maximum flexibility with redeeming points, consider adding an American Express Business Platinum card. It’s $595 a year, but its perks are nice, and more importantly, due to its 35% rebate feature, the minimum value of each point comes worth 54% more, when using points to buy an economy seat on one yearly selected domestic airline, or business/first class on any airline. It’s also possible to effectively reduce the annual fee to $195 if you can max out its $200 travel credit, and twice-yearly $100 Dell benefit.

If you insist on American or Alaska, you don’t have great options:

  • You can get an American or Alaska branded card, but then you won’t earn as quickly, or have points you can use as flexibly, as the above Chase or Amex cards.
  • You could also get a Marriott branded card, whose points you can send to 45 different airlines, including American and Alaska…but you’ll earn the points even more slowly than with an airline branded card, so it’s hard to recommend.
  • I would personally get the Chase Sapphire Reserve + Chase Freedom Unlimited combo mentioned up above. When there are saver-level award tickets available on American or Alaska, you can usually book them by transferring your Chase points to British Airways, and then booking an award ticket with BA. When you can’t do that, you can still use the Chase points to buy cash tickets on American or Alaska. (And, of course, the points can also be transferred to tickets on several other airlines.)

If you are a JetBlue fan:

  • Get a Barclays JetBlue Plus or Barclays JetBlue Business card, which earn really nicely as airline branded cards go, and provide a rebate on award tickets.
  • Or, if you want flexibility beyond JetBlue awards, do the Chase Sapphire Reserve + Chase Freedom Unlimited combo mentioned above, and buy JetBlue tickets with the points, or transfer the points to JetBlue for an award ticket.

If you just want a simple life and are content with cash back on all your spending, knowing that your rewards are fixed and you may or may not be able to get an international business class trip since you won’t have award miles:

  • Get a Citi Double Cash or Synchrony PayPal Cashback for 2% cash back on everything, with no annual fee. (The Synchrony card has the benefit of no foreign transaction fees.)
  • Or, get an Alliant FCU Visa Signature for 2.5% cash back on everything (3% first year), with a $99 annual fee (waived the first year). No foreign transaction fees.
  • If you want to do a ittle better with any of those, add in a Barclays Uber Cash, and use it at restaurants (4% cash back), and for airfare and travel (3% cash back), and possibly for overseas travel (it has no foreign transaction fees)
  • Other supplementary cards may deserve a look depending on where you spend your money, such as the Capital One Savor, or a specialty card from this list.

The end.

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