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. (Updated June 2018)
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). 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.)
- Spend $4,000 on the Sapphire Reserve within three months of applying.
- Spend $500 on the Freedom Unlimited within three months of applying.
- 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.
- 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 love Delta, for some reason, or you can’t spend $3K-5K in three months, 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.
- 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 (up to the first $6000 in groceries per year) . It comes with a 25,000 point bonus when you spend $1,000 in the first three months.
- For maximum flexibility with redeeming points, consider adding an American Express Business Platinum card. While it’s $450 a year, its perks are nice, but more importantly, it makes each point worth 54% more when using points to buy an economy seat on your yearly selected domestic airline, or business/first class on any airline. (It’s also possible to effectively reduce it to $250/year with a little effort.)
If you insist on American or Alaska, you don’t have great options:
- You can get one of their cards, 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 branded Starwood or Marriott card, whose points you can send to 45 different airlines, including American and Alaska…but you’ll earn the points even more slowly (starting August 2018) than with an airline branded card, so it’s hard to recommend.
- You might want to just do the Chase combo above and use it to buy cash tickets on American or Alaska, while keeping a lot of flexibility for other airlines.
If you are a JetBlue fan, you can do really well for your spending with a Barclays JetBlue Plus or JetBlue Business card, but all you’ll get is JetBlue travel. If you want more flexibility, do the Chase combo above and buy JetBlue tickets with the points.
If you just want a simple life and are content with 2% cash back on all your spending, get a Citi Double Cash, and call it a day. If you want to do a little better, add in a Barclays Uber Cash, and use it at restaurants (4% cash back), and for airfare and travel (3% cash back), and for overseas travel (no foreign transaction fee). Both cards have no annual fee. Cash back is a perfectly legit option for when tickets aren’t expensive, but you’re not going to get any big business class scores this way.