The shortest way I can tell you what cards to get for what airlines you fly [updated Dec 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: Chase (United + int’l), Amex (Delta + int’l), Citi (int’l), 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 as of 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, or more international airlines than Chase supports, 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. Or you could, for $150/year, get the American Express Green card; it earns 3 points at restaurants per dollar spent.
  • For maximum flexibility with redeeming points for travel, consider adding an American Express Business Platinum card. It’s $595 a year, but its perks are nice, and more importantly, the minimum value of each point is 54% higher, when using points to buy an economy seat on a single domestic airline, or business/first class on any airline, because the card returns 35% of the points to you after booking. It’s also possible to offset the annual fee if you can max out its $200 travel credit, and twice-yearly $100 Dell benefit.

Citi FuckYou ThankYou points aren’t that helpful for domestic airlines, but they do have a few unique international airlines, and you can earn the points quickly with the right cards. If you want to go this route:

  • Get a Citi Double Cash card, and either a Citi Prestige or Citi Premier card (or both). The Double Cash has no fee; the Premier is $95 per year; the Prestige is effectively $245 per year (after you use its automatic $250 travel credit).
  • The Prestige earns 5 points on dining and airfare, and 3 points on hotels and cruises, and offers a twice-yearly 4th-night-free-at-hotels benefit. The Premier earns 3 points on general travel, including gas, and offers a 25% bonus when paying for tickets with points.
  • Use the Double Cash for everything. It will earn 2 points per dollar spent, after you convert its “2% cash back” to ThankYou points. You can link it to your Premier or Prestige to be able to use those points for purchasing airline tickets or transferring to airline programs.
  • If you want more points. use the Premier or Prestige (or both) for their higher earnings in their categories, like restaurants, airfare, and/or general travel. Otherwise, leave it in a drawer.

The other, not-so-good, transferrable points programs:

  • Capital One Venture Points Miles are not worth collecting, compared with the above options, unless you really want to have one single card only, and are averse to getting the Amex Blue Business Plus. If that’s you, the Capital One Venture Rewards card is the one you want, though it’s a close call with the Amex Everyday Preferred, which I’d still, well, prefer.
  • Marriott Bonvoy points can be transfered to an amazing 41 airlines, including all the major domestics, but their cards earn so slowly that I can’t recommend them. The best of the bunch is the American Express Marriott Bonvoy Business card, at $125 per year, because it at least earns double on restaurants and gas.

 

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 41 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 Capital One Savor Rewards ($95/year, first year free) or SavorOne Rewards (no annual fee) , and use it for dining and entertainment (4% cash back for Savor, 3% for SavorOne), and possibly for overseas travel (no foreign transaction fees).
    • If you hold $100K in assets with Bank Of America, forget all of the above and get a Bank Of America Premium Rewards card, which offers 2.6%-3.5% back.
    • Other supplementary cards may deserve a look depending on where you spend your money, such a specialty card from this list.

The end.

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