I’m noticing a lot of handwringing in the points blogosphere lately about whether or not the Chase Sapphire Reserve is still anything special. Lucky, over at One Mile At A Time (the one big blog I very consistently read and enjoy) has the latest meditation on this important matter, and Greg at the always excellent Frequent Miler has his own contemplation. But, what do I think? I don’t fucking know. I usually just want to lie down.
But, it turns out I can both lie down and think, so, after careful consideration:
- YES. The Sapphire Reserve is still my personal champion of cards, when paired with the no-fee Freedom Unlimited, despite now earning less on some spending than competing cards.
- The Reserve’s value when paying with points, which is sometimes desirable or necessary, is excellent, and better than any comparable card.
- United is a more valuable transfer partner for me than any other airline.
- Being able to pool points between family members is awesome.
- Your needs may be different, so you might want a card that earns more Amex or Citi points than you’d get in Chase points for the same spending on the Sapphire Reserve. But I do not care about your needs. Your needs suck. My needs rule.
The argument against the Reserve goes something like this: It rocked our credit card worlds in 2016, with its then unheard of 3 points on dining, and all kinds of travel. But, since then, other cards have leapfrogged it. Amex Platinum offers 5x on airfare. Amex Gold offers 4x on US restaurants. Citi Prestige offers 5x on airfare and dining. If you like cash back, then Barclays Uber offers 4% on dining. Etc. Furthermore, Chase lost Korean Air, a highly valuable transfer partner. So, who needs a Sapphire Reserve?
Look, life is complicated, and so are credit cards. Different ones offer this, others offer that, what’s valuable depends on who you fly, circumstances vary, blah blah, yeah yeah, none of this will matter when we’re all dead. With that said, here’s why I’m still into the Reserve.
First off, sometimes it just makes more sense to pay with points, rather than transfer to airlines for award tickets. When you have a Sapphire Reserve, each point is worth 1.5 cents for every airfare and hotel booking, which is more than any comparable card, which usually offer 1 to 1.25. Getting 1.5 cents per point is weak compared to what an award ticket might offer (I recently spent 20,000 points when the cash roundtrip would have been $1,200, so that was 6 cents per point). But knowing you can get max value when you do want or need to pay with points means you have max options. It makes sense to pay with points when:
- I’m short on time, and don’t want the headache of looking for award tickets in nine different frequent flyer programs.
- I want to earn elite status qualifying miles (in my case, United PQM’s).
- The cash price is low enough that fewer points are needed than would be for an award ticket on the same flight.
- I need to get on a particular flight for which there is no award ticket, e.g. on some airline I don’t typically fly.
So having a card that performs well for me when I need to pay with points is a pretty big win. The other card that offers something comparable is the Amex Business Platinum, which lets you buy tickets at 1.54 cents per Membership Rewards point, but only after you’ve received a 35% rebate, a month after booking at 1 point per cent. And you only get the rebate with one yearly chosen domestic airline, or business class on any airline. Not nearly as convenient as the Reserve.
The other big reason I love my Reserve is because it’s got United as a transfer partner. I fly United domestically all the time. Of all the domestic carriers, United has, overall, the cheapest award tickets, and on top of that they don’t charge the huge fuel surcharges for partner flights that some of the other airlines do. Their worldwide route network is redonc. Their Star Alliance partners makes it even more redonc. (We just used United miles to fly Ms. X in First on ANA to Tokyo and return in First on Asiana from Osaka via Seoul. I am fucking jealous.) By contrast, Amex has Delta, with their ludicrous award prices, as a transfer partner, and Citi has no major domestic airline at all (and their JetBlue transfers are usually at a poor 1:0.8 ratio). I could also consider replacing the Sapphire Reserve with the cheaper Sapphire or Ink Preferred, but those cards only offer 1.25 cents per point when you pay with points, in addition to earning less.
Then there are also some minor reasons. I like JetBlue too, and you can transfer to JetBlue 1:1, which Amex and Citi only offer during promotional periods. JetBlue points are closely fixed to the cash price at around 1.3-1.4 cents per JetBlue point, so I would usually just pay with Sapphire Reserve points because at 1.5 cents per point, it works out better. But sometimes it’s nice to have the option to top up, and sometimes you do better with an award ticket, especially if you have a JetBlue Plus or Business card, which will reward you with 10% of your points back.
Not to be overlooked on the Sapphire Reserve is being able to pool Ultimate Rewards points between Ms. X and myself. You can’t do that easily with Amex or Citi.
When you have a Reserve and you call Chase, they just answer the phone, rather than going through a rage-inducing voicemail tree. (Getting someone on the phone at Citi is enough to make you throw things.)
Having a single card that gets 3 valuable, flexible points for every dollar spent on every kind of travel, transportation, lodging, and dining,for effectively $150/year, is fab. I mean, every taxi, every subway, every parking, every hotel, every meal, I get 3 points.
By contast, for sort-of $150/year (assumes you normally spend at least $100/year on American or Delta), Amex Gold gets you 4 points on dining (but only in the US), 3 points for airfare, and does nothing for any other kind of travel, transportation, or lodging. Amex Platinum, for sort-of $150/year (assumes you normally spend at least $200/year on American or Delta, and $15/month on Uber), gets 5 points on airfare, but that’s it. Citi Prestige, for effectively $245/year, gets 5x on dining and airfare, which is pretty nice, but doesn’t cover any other kind of transportation. And, again, in my view the uses of those points, from both banks, are more limited.
There’s probably some other shit too that makes the Reserve nice, but the above are what’s significant for me. I happen to have a Reserve, plus an Amex Gold, an Amex Business Platinum, and a Citi Prestige, because they all offer me something that I think is valuable, but if I had to choose only one, I’d take the Reserve (with, of course, the Freedom Unlimited to go with it).
I’m not everyone, though. If you only ever want to use points for business class international travel via points transfers for award tickets, Amex or Citi might get it done for you, and you might accumulate the points more quickly, or more cheaply (e.g. with an Amex Blue Business Plus, which has no annual fee, and which gets you 2 points per dollar on everything for the first $50,000 spent in a year). If you spend $25,000 per year at grocery stores, the 4 points per dollar you get on Amex Gold might appeal. Maybe you eat out all the time, and really like Garuda Indonesia, to which neither Chase nor Amex transfer, so the Citi Prestige, with its 5x on dining, is your jam. I dunno. Whatever. You’re you, which is not my problem. Figure out your own life.
Me, personally, I think the Sapphire Reserve (in tandem with the no-fee Freedom Unlimited) is excellent because it earns well, and Chase Ultimate Reward points are so fucking flexible, between a high value when paying with points, and transfers to United. It’s still the winner. Sure, most of my spending lately goes on my Amex Blue Business Plus and Gold, but that’s because I’ve got plenty of Chase points. If I didn’t, the Sapphire Reserve + Freedom Unlimited would get all the love.