Hello. Remember me? I’m not dead, at least yet. I figured it was time for a boring overview post, especially in light of the diminishing treats being given to us by banks and airlines.
HOW HAVE WE BEEN FUCKED?
Let me count the ways. United is moving to dynamic award pricing for flights after November 15. Amex jacked up the price of their Platinum cards and is no longer counting airline gift cards for their travel credit. Citi cranked up the price of the Prestige while slashing its insurance and 4th night free benefits. Chase increased their Sapphire welcome bonus restriction from once every two years to once every four and lost Korean Air as a transfer partner. Marriott, who has the most airline transfer partners of any transferrable points system, now only has cards that earn too little to be worth spending on. Etc, etc. It is what it is. But it’s still a game worth playing.
I’d say the best news over the last year or two are the rebooted Amex Gold and that Capital One Venture points can now be transferred to airlines.
WHAT ARE THE GOOD CARDS?
Same players as always, man. Nothing has come along and changed my world.
First off, there are still huge wins to be had by just opening a fuckton of cards and making sure you hit their welcome bonus spending minimums and pay them in full on time. Just because some of the bonuses aren’t what they were doesn’t mean that they’re not worth getting, and good promos do still show up. So, go get your points. What’s covered here is more for everyday spending.
Chase Sapphire Reserve + Chase Freedom Unlimited is still the best general purpose combo going, particularly if you dine out a lot, earning 1.5 to 3 points for all spending. It’s not as good as it used to be, because United is fucking us on award tickets, and Korean Air’s gone as a transfer partner, but the Reserve is still the only card in the universe that gives you an unrestricted fallback option of 1.5 cents per point when applied to most flights, hotels, or car rentals. When award options aren’t there for you, you can always get at least 2.25%-4.5% towards flights for your spending. At functionally $150/year, that’s still a massive winner for me.
Amex Blue Business Plus is the best no-fee option around, with 2 points for all spending on your first $50,000 per year — and, if that’s really an issue for you, they’ll let you apply for a second one. (If you blanche at the idea of getting a business card, you can spend $95 on the Everyday Preferred instead to get 1.5 to 4.5 points for all spending as long as you have 30 transactions per month.) Amex has more transfer partners than Chase, but if you want to use Amex points as cash, they’re only worth 1 cent per point (unless you also have an Amex Business Platinum, which I can no longer justify the cost of without airline gift cards counting for travel credit). Amex points might be better for you than Chase points if you’re Delta centered, or if you mainly want points for transfers rather than points-as-cash, or you are more supermarket oriented than restaurant oriented. Mixing in the Amex Gold, which earns 4 points per dollar spent at restaurants and supermarkets (the latter up to $25,000 per year), makes for an excellent combo.
Citi Prestige, Premier, and Preferred (
FuckYou) ThankYou points earning cards, and Capital One Venture, aren’t as good as the above cards, but are still better to earn on than most airline-specific cards. The Venture has a possible niche as the only card with no foreign exchange fee that earns flexible travel points worth 1.5 airline miles (or 2 cents) per dollar spent; all other cards that waive the fee earn 1 point per dollar spent when not spending in categories like dining, travel, etc. (The United Club card earns 1.5 miles on everything, if you don’t mind having United miles and spending $450/year on it.)
United Explorer and Club offer a lot of benefit if you don’t have Premier status on United. And if you do have status, having either of these cards entitles you to potential upgrades on award tickets. At a minimum, downgrading either of these after their first year to the no-fee MileagePlus card still entitles you to otherwise unavailable award tickets and 20% discounts in Newark Airport iPad Restaurant World.
American and Delta and JetBlue branded cards are can be useful if you don’t have status and check bags a lot. For American, you don’t have a lot of other ways of earning miles, though I personally would rather earn Amex or Chase points at a faster clip, and hope for AA flights via British Airways saver awards. JetBlue’s paid cards earn well if you fly a lot of JetBlue, though again I’d prefer the flexibility of just being able to transfer them from Chase.
For cash back rather than points or miles, the best no-fee option is Synchrony PayPal Cashback, because it earns 2% with no foreign transaction fee. If you don’t care about the fee, you could instead get a Citi Double Cash, which also earns 2%, without fucking around with a PayPal account. If you’d rather earn 2.5% (3% first year) and that’s worth $99 per year to you, get the Alliant Visa Signature. I’d also suggest adding in the Barclays Uber card (4% back on dining) and Chase or Amex or Synchrony Amazon cards (5% back at Amazon) if you can get benefit from those things.
WHAT ARE THE GOOD DOMESTIC AIRLINES?
Trick question. There are no good domestic airlines. I’m still partial to United, though less so than I used to be. I have flown a bit of Delta lately and have seen that they often simply are a bit classier than United in their service and small details. But those award ticket prices, holy fuck. And you can’t change or cancel award tickets 72 hours before a flight. United has opened the doors to sink to Delta’s demonic levels on these fronts, so if they do, I’ll re-evaluate. For the moment, the quasi-friendly skies still get most of my business. Meanwhile, I’ve come to despise American, though their cross country planes are nice. I still like JetBlue, but the fact that you can’t use their points even on partner airlines is limiting, so I don’t get excited about them.
WHAT ABOUT HOTEL CHAINS?
I’ve said fuck it to hotel chains. Hotels are not like airlines; there are a million cool independent ones out there, plus AirBNB, etc. Getting a free breakfast at a Marriott isn’t enough to get me to be loyal to them. If I want to pay with points, that’s where the beauty of the Sapphire Reserve’s 1.5 cents per point comes in.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER GOOD WAYS OF EARNING LOTS OF POINTS?
Of course there are, but I’m lazy and have enough, so I don’t know what they are. But there’s a big wide world of blogs, bulletin boards, Facebook groups, Reddit subs, and who knows what else, full of people who do nothing but try to answer that question. Go start at Doctor Of Credit and Frequent Miler, and if you really want to go pro, attend Chicago Seminars or Frequent Traveler University. You’ll be traveling in style in no time.