The ultimate guide to credit cards! Which cards to have and how to get the best travel rewards

I love hacking credit cards and airline points. A bunch of friends have been asking me for my recommendations so I wrote up this post.

Updated December 17, 2019

The credit card game has changed. A few years ago, if you were getting a 2% return on your purchases you were doing quite well! Now it’s possible to get a 4.5% return with very little effort, and 10% or more with some work. I’ll show you how.

Summary

  1. The best cards to hold are the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the American Express Platinum, and the Amazon Prime Visa.
  2. Get the best return on your points by transferring them to airline frequent flier programs and using the points to book international business class flights directly with the airlines.
  3. Most premium credit cards give you a sign up bonus that more than makes up for the annual fee. So it costs nothing to try a new card for a year.
  4. If you apply for an American Express Platinum card, please use my referral link.

Why?

Why would you even bother dealing with fancy, premium credit cards?

  1. Save money. If you spend a lot money on your credit cards (and you should be putting as much on your cards as possible!) the value you’ll get back is significant. We aren’t talking about peanuts here.
  2. Free insurance. Using a credit card protects you against fraud, but it also gives you insurance in the form of purchase protection, extended warranties, rental car insurance, flight delay insurance, and more.
  3. An elevated travel experience. This is the most important one for me. Saving some money is nice, but what I love is flying business class, getting free hotel upgrades, drinking champagne in airport lounges. Premium credit cards are your path to enjoying travel.

The basics

  1. When you use most credit cards, you accumulate points in the rewards program with that bank. Every bank has its own program. Basic cards give you 1 point per dollar spent, other cards give you 2, 3, or even more points for each dollar. Goal: use the credit card that gives you the most points for each dollar you spend.
  2. Once you’ve accumulated points, you can use those points for various types of rewards or purchases. This could be cash back, a gift card, or free travel. Different rewards have different exchange rates. Goal: use your points for the rewards that have the best exchange rate.

The best credit cards to have

1. The Chase Sapphire Reserve will earn you the most points on everyday purchases. It also offers the best travel insurance and other perks.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

  • $450 annual fee, but you get $300 reimbursed on travel expenses. So the fee is actually only $150
  • 3 points for every dollar spent on travel and dining
  • Transfer points to many airline partners including United
  • The best rental car insurance of all cards. It works worldwide and is primary, not secondary to your other insurance.
  • Purchase benefits: 120 days of purchase protection against damage or theft (ie dropping an iPhone), 1 year extra warranty on purchases,
  • Travel benefits: $500 if your flight is delayed by 6 hours, $100 if your baggage is delayed, free emergency evacuation insurance, and more
  • Priority Pass Select, so you can get into airport lounges for free
  • Free Global Entry
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 60,000 points when you sign up

If you only get one card, this is the one to get.

2. Get the American Express Platinum for status on a bunch of hotel programs, free upgrades, and access to the best lounges. You will travel like a king.

American Express Platinum

  • $550 annual fee, but you get $200 reimbursed on one airline, $200 reimbursed from Uber, and $100 reimbursed from Saks. So the fee is really only $50
  • 5 points for every dollar spent on airlines, 1 point on everything else
  • The most airline partners to transfer points to
  • Access to a bunch of lounges including the Centurion lounge (the one in SFO is amazing)
  • Gold status on Starwood, Marriott, Hilton, Hertz, Avis, and other programs. This gets you upgrades, free breakfast at hotels, and more
  • The Amex Fine Hotels program gets you a bunch of perks when you book a hotel through Amex (upgrades, late checkout, free breakfast, free spa)
  • Purchase benefits and travel benefits are similar to Chase Reserve, but not quite as good.
  • Free Boingo internet
  • Free Global Entry
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 60,000 points when you sign up

This card isn’t about making purchases and getting points (other than the 5x for airlines). This card is about upgrades, perks, and traveling in style. The main benefits of this card are totally different from the Chase Reserve, so they compliment each other well. It’s also the coolest card (way heavier than even the Chase Reserve!)

3. If you shop at Amazon, the Amazon Prime Visa is a no brainer.

Amazon Prime Rewards Visa

  • No annual fee
  • 5% back on Amazon purchases
  • Note: this card doesn’t have any of the purchase protections (theft, damage, warranty) so I wouldn’t use it for anything that you will own for a long time and might break. For example, I wouldn’t buy a MacBook Pro with this card.

Since Amazon purchases only get you 1 point per dollar with other cards, use this card instead. I don’t use it for anything else. I don’t even carry it.

4. The Citi Prestige MasterCard was my #1 pick until recently when the revamped the card and removed some benefits. It still has some unique perks that are worth calling out.

Citi Prestige MasterCard

  • $500 annual fee, but you get $250 reimbursed on travel expenses. So the fee is actually $250
  • 5 points for every dollar spent on flights and restaurants, 3 points on hotels and cruises
  • Transfer points to many airline partners
  • When you book 4 nights at any hotel, you get the 4th night free. On our trip around the world, we did this about 40 times, saving us over $8000. Unfortunately this is now limited to two uses per year.
  • Two year added warranty on all purchases
  • Free insurance on your cell phones if you pay your monthly bill with this card
  • Priority Pass Select, so you can get into airport lounges for free
  • Free Global Entry
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 75,000 points when you sign up with this link

There are three perks where this card stands out (in bold). Are those three worth $250 per year? I think so. They mean I never buy an extended warranty on anything, and I don’t buy AppleCare for my phone. I have 5 lines on my TMobile account, and all phones are covered for no additional cost because I pay the bill on this card. That saves me hundreds per year right there.

Which card to use:

The goal is to optimize your return. Here’s how I decide:

  1. If it’s an Amazon purchase, use the Amazon Visa (you get 5% back)
    • Exception: if I’m purchasing something where I care about the extended warranty, I’ll switch to the Citi card instead. Losing some % back is worth it here.
  2. If I’m buying flights, use the Amex Platinum (you get 5 points per $1)
  3. If I’m booking 4 nights at a hotel, use the Citi card (you get the 4th night free)
  4. For all other travel and dining purchases, use the Chase or Citi card
  5. For everything else, use the Amex platinum (you get 1 point per $1)

With this strategy I end up with points scattered across a few programs, which is fine since they each have different partners to transfer to.

Redeeming points

Essentially there are 3 ways to use your points:

  1. Trade in your points for gift cards. For example, most credit card programs will give you a $100 gift card to Amazon for 10,000 points. Each point = 1 cent. This is the worst way to use your points.
  2. Use your points to book travel directly through your credit card’s travel portal. Redemption rates vary, but with Chase, each point = 1.5 cents. So you can buy a $750 plane ticket for 50,000 points. This isn’t a great return, but it’s very easy.
  3. Transfer your points to an airline frequent flier program and book directly with the airline. This is how you get the best return on your points. I recently booked a $750 domestic economy ticket (last minute) for 25,000 points. Therefore each point = 3 cents. I’ve gotten redemption rates of 4 or even 5 cents per point when booking international business class travel on Singapore, Emirates, Etihad, Air France, and other airlines.

When you earn 3 points per dollar on your purchases, and redeem those points for 4 or 5 cents in value each, you can see an overall return of 12-15%!

All this takes a bit of effort, of course, but I save thousands of dollars per year so it’s worth it. More important than the money, all the upgrades and lounges make flying and traveling super fun. I don’t dread going to the airport, I show up early.


Appendix/FAQ

1. The annual fees are insane! Are they really worth it?
Remember that with these premium cards you get several hundreds of dollars back each year on travel spending. You should deduct that from the annual fee. The fee ends up being $150-200 per card, not $450.

2. How do you transfer points to airline frequent flier miles?
You log in to your credit card’s site (ie membershiprewards.com), put in your frequent flier number, and enter a number of points to transfer. Usually it happens instantly.

Here’s a handy chart showing where you can transfer points:

Pasted Graphic

3. I don’t travel or eat out. What should I do?
This post probably isn’t relevant to you. Get a basic free card that gives you cash back, like the Apple Card. The Costco credit card is great too.

4. I loved my Starwood Preferred Amex card. Is the new Bonvoy card good?
Marriott really crippled the program so I don’t think the card is worth it anymore. The Amex Platinum gives you instant Starwood/Marriott Gold, so it’s the card to have if you stay at those hotels a lot.

5. What about debit cards?
Debit cards are the worst. Not only do they not give you the same perks and benefits as credit cards, they are not safe to use. They don’t have the same level of fraud protection as a credit card. I literally don’t feel safe having one (and I don’t).

6. Should I be worried about my credit score?
If you’re about to get a home loan or refinance, don’t apply for any new cards. But other than that, go for it. Your credit score might go down a bit when you apply for a new card, but it will eventually bounce back assuming you use the card and are in good standing.

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