What is the best travel rewards credit card?
It’s a pretty straightforward question, but the reality is, it’s not that simple. Every person has slightly different spending patterns and different travel aspirations, so there isn’t a single best answer.
However, there are some general concepts that apply to most people, especially business travelers. The most basic of which is to take the time and do a little research so you can be smart about what credit cards you own and when you use each one.
To be a little more direct, if you are a frequent business traveler and have not spent the time to think through your credit card spending strategy, you are missing out on one of the easiest and biggest opportunities to travel at close to zero cost that has ever existed.
If you happen to be one of these people… don’t worry, this guide is written for you. I have spent countless hours stewing and thinking about this and will tell you exactly what cards you need to have and how you should allocate your spending to get the greatest benefit!
Before going further, I need to caveat a couple of things…
- If you do not pay off your credit cards each month don’t read any further. The fundamental principal when using any travel credit card is that you pay it off each month. If you are not able to do that, the high interest costs of carrying a balance far outweighs any benefit you would receive from using a travel rewards credit card.
- What I am about to explain is solely based on using the right credit cards for your normal, existing spending patterns. I will not be getting into things like “credit card churning” for sign up bonuses or using “manufactured spending” techniques. There are people out there that do this, and do it well, but most people don’t want to be burdened with all the effort and abnormal behaviors associated with those techniques.
- If you sign up through a referral link, I will get some bonus points added to my account. I only say this to be completely transparent, it has no influence on my advice, as these are currently the exact cards I use for all my spending.
Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, let’s get to it.
The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards for Frequent Business Travelers
If you are a business traveler (or the spouse of a business traveler), here is the plan for you.
- Use 1 credit card for business expenses –
- Put all business travel expenses on the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card
- Use 2 credit cards for personal expenses –
At the highest level… that’s it!
Keeping reading and I will explain why these are the best cards and how you should use each to maximize their value.
The Best Credit Card for Business Travel Expenses:
The Chase Sapphire Reserve Card
Step 1: Use the Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card for ALL Business Expenses.
As a general rule, you should not to mix your personal and business spending. Keep your personal spending on personal credit cards and your business spending on a separate credit card. Most businesses have their employees use their own credit card for business expenses, then provide a reimbursement each month, so it is very easy to dedicate a separate card for business expenses only.
While the Chase Sapphire Reserve is not classified as a “business credit card”, it is the best card on the market for people that travel for business, so make this your “go to” business credit card.
Why the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best card for Business Travelers
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is the by far the best credit card on the market for business travelers. Here is why:
- You earn 3X points on “travel and dining” related expenses. If you are a business traveler, this is perfect because these are the two areas where all of your money goes. Flights, Rental Cars, Hotels, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Coffee, and Entertaining.
If I look at my Sapphire Reserve summary each month – over 90% of my business expenses are classified as travel or dining and get the 3X bonus!
The Chase Dining Classification is fairly obvious and straightforward – any establishment that serves food or drinks and has classified itself as a restaurant will get the bonus:
“Merchants in the restaurants category are merchants whose primary business is sit-down or eat-in dining, including fast food restaurants as well as fine dining establishments. Please note that some merchants that sell food and drinks located within larger merchants such as sports stadiums, hotels and casinos, theme parks, grocery and department stores will not be included in this category unless the merchant has set up such purchases to be classified in a restaurant category.”
The Chase Travel Classification is very broad. Chase classifies the following charges as “travel”:
“Merchants in the travel category include airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, campgrounds and operators of passenger trains, buses, taxis, limousines, ferries, toll bridges and highways, and parking lots and garages.”
- Chase Ultimate Rewards points are the most flexible and valuable points on the market. They can either be redeemed for travel through the Chase Travel Portal or the can be turned into frequent flyer miles and hotel points with Chase partner airline and hotel programs.
- When you use Chase Ultimate Rewards Points to book travel through the Chase Travel Portal, you get a 50% redemption bonus. This means 50,000 points will get you $750 in free travel. No other card gives a bonus anywhere close to this.
Chase Sapphire Reserve Sign up Bonus:
There is a 50,000 point bonus when you sign up and spent $4,000 in the first 3 months of having the card. This only applies for the first year you have the card, as it is an initial sign up bonus, not an annual bonus.
Between the initial sign up bonus and ongoing 3X travel and dining category, you can rack up points faster on the Chase Sapphire Reserve card than any on any other card on the market. On top of that, the flexibility of Chase Ultimate Rewards Points redemptions make this card an absolute “no-brainer”.
Redemption options with Chase Ultimate Rewards
Chase offers a variety of ways to redeem Ultimate Rewards points; ranging from amazon.com and Apple purchases to cash back, gift cards and travel rewards. While I have used the cash back option once or twice, travel rewards are without question the highest value for your points so let’s just focus on them.
There are two types of travel rewards that can be redeemed from the Chase Ultimate Rewards Portal:
- Ultimate Rewards Point transfers to a Chase Airline or Hotel Partners or,
- Ultimate Rewards Point redemptions for travel via the Chase Travel Portal.
Using Ultimate Rewards Points with Transfer Partners
Chase Ultimate Rewards Points can be transferred at a 1:1 ratio to many airline and hotel programs such as United, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, Hyatt, Marriott and IHG.
The airline transfer partners typically offer the best value, especially for international and premium cabins. As far as hotels go, World of Hyatt offers the best value of the hotel partners. Marriott, Ritz Carlton and IHG transfers can be good if you need to add a few points to an existing balance for an award trip, but otherwise, by themselves, they are not that great.
The transfer process is actually very fast and efficient. Below are the transfer ratios and the amount of time the transfer takes to show up in your account
|Chase Airline Partner||Transfer Ratio||Transfer Time|
|Air France/KLM – Flying Blue||1:1||Instant|
|Singapore Airlines||1:1||Same Day|
|Marriott (Starwood)||1:1||2 days|
Using Ultimate Rewards Points to Book Travel Through the Chase Portal
The Chase Travel Portal is where the hidden value and flexibility comes into play, specifically with the added breadth of hotel options and the ability to use points for lower cost airfare.
Chase has partnered with Expedia to power their booking engine. This partnership allows you to book travel with Ultimate Rewards Points, Cash or a combination of the two.
In the case of airlines, the Chase Ultimate Rewards program lets you to book a “paid” ticket with your points. The process is exactly the same as when you book any flight through Expedia, but you are using your Chase points to pay instead of cash (and each point counts as 1.5 cents). So, for example, a $600 flight will cost you about 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points. As a bonus, you will earn frequent flyer miles on the flight since the airlines consider it a paid ticket. This is not the case when booking award travel with frequent flyer miles.
On top of that, if you have tried to book a flight with frequent flier miles in the last couple of years, you know that finding decent availability of award flights is really tough, especially around peak travel periods and holidays. Using your points to purchase airfare through the Chase portal is a great way to get around that problem.
Here are a couple of examples of both airfare and hotel redemptions to demonstrate the value and flexibility of Chase points:
- Airline Example – I just tried booking a flight on Delta over Spring Break from DTW to LAX. Naturally, Delta knows this is prime vacation time so they have jacked the airfare during this time to $840 per ticket. Typically, this would be a great time for using Delta SkyMiles, but…. they were running at 80,000 SkyMiles per ticket! You would need 160,000 SkyMiles to book a flight for two.
However, with my Chase Ultimate Rewards points, I can book that same flight for 56,000 chase points per ticket and will earn frequent flier miles for the trip. This is still going to take a lot of Chase Points, but it will be a lot easier to get to 112,000 Chase points than 160,000 Delta SkyMiles, especially with bonus categories we are talking about in this guide.
- Hotel Example – I also like using Chase Ultimate Rewards points when I am taking a special trip with my wife. As a frequent business traveler, I have a ton of Marriott Rewards and World of Hyatt points at my disposal, but sometimes we want to stay somewhere different and unique.
In these situations, I have booked hotel rooms with my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to stay at some amazing hotels like the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo, The Rosewood London, The Hotel Georgia in Vancouver and The Hotel Yountville in Napa Valley, just to name a few. These are incredible properties that are not part of a major hotel loyalty program, but I still have access to them (for free) with my Chase Ultimate Rewards Points!
Chase Sapphire Reserve Annual Fee:
This card does come with a $450 annual fee, but don’t be scared off by that. I know it sounds like a lot, but if you break it down, it is really not bad at all because of all the credits that off-set the fee.
- You get a $300 credit for travel purchases each year. This includes airfare, hotels and rental cars. Any business traveler will be able to knock this out with one trip, effectively dropping the annual fee to $150.
- TSA and/or Global Entry Credit – If you don’t already have TSA Precheck, you need it! Pay with your Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and get a $100 credit.
- Priority Pass Lounge Access – This is a great feature that is totally underestimated by most card holders. Not only can you have access to 1,200 airport lounges, but they now have a deal where you can get a $28 credit each, for you and up to 2 guests at a bunch of airport restaurants. That’s up to $84 of free food at the airport. Here is a list of the airports with participating restaurants.
- 50,000 point sign up bonus. If you don’t use the TSA Credit and are still concerned about the remaining $150 annual fee, consider that the 50,000 point sign up bonus could also be converted into a $500 statement credit. The combination of these this plus the travel credit will effectively give you 3 years of owning the card without any fee at all. (Personally, I think you would get better value out of leveraging these points for travel rewards, but this is a way to essentially wipe out the annual fee if you want to.)
The Best Credit Cards for Personal Expenses:
While there is only one card you need to use for business travel expenses, you need to consider using two separate cards for your personal expenses, especially if you spend a lot on groceries and dining out.
As with many people, my highest expense is my mortgage payment, but I can’t put the mortgage payment on my credit card (actually there are ways that you actually can, but I don’t think it is worth the effort and fees). That leaves groceries and dining as the next two highest categories I spend money on each month, so I need to have a card that rewards that type of spending.
American Express Gold Card – the Best Card for Dining and Grocery Charges
American Express recently re-branded the American Express Gold Card and updated the bonuses categories. The biggest and best change is that you now will get 4X membership rewards points for charges associated with dining out and buying groceries!
This is the card you need to use for all spending at supermarkets and restaurants. (You can also use this for personal airfare booked directly with the airline or through amextravel.com as that gets a 3x bonus). These are the only personal charges you should put on the Amex Gold Card, the rest should go to one of the Chase Freedom Unlimited card.
Before going further, there is one term I wanted to clarify. I have used the word “groceries” several times to describe the category. However, for purposes of the bonus, Amex uses the term “supermarket”, which does disqualify many places where you may buy your “groceries” from the bonus.
Amex specifically states that qualifying stores must be in the U.S. and
“Superstores, convenience stores and warehouse clubs are NOT considered supermarkets”.
This mean you WILL get the 4x bonus at stores like Kroger, Meijer, Whole Foods, Shoprite, freshdirect.com, etc. You will NOT get the 4x bonus at stores like Target, Costco, Sam’s Club and small specialty food stores.
Redemption options with Membership Rewards
While American Express has multiple ways to redeem your points for things like gift cards, Amazon and pre-paid travel, none of them are a good value for your points. The only thing you should use your Amex Membership Rewards points for is transfer partners.
American Express Membership Rewards Transfer Partners
By using this card for all of your charges associated with dining and supermarkets, you will get 4x membership rewards points on all of those charges plus 3x points on any airfare charges purchased directly with an airline or through amextravel.com.
Similar to Chase Ultimate Rewards, the partner transfer process for Amex Membership Rewards is very fast and efficient. Below are the transfer ratios and the amount of time the transfer takes to show up in your account
|AMEX Airline Partner||Transfer Ratio||Estimated Transfer Time|
|Air Canada||1: 1||Instant|
|Asia Miles||1:1||48 Hours|
|Flying Blue (Air France / KLM)||1:1||Instant|
|Iberia||1:1||1 to 3 days|
|Singapore Airlines||1:1||1 to 2 days|
As a general rule, the best value for using Membership Rewards points is to turn them into frequent flyer miles with the airline transfer partners. The hotel point transfer value and the pay with points value are not strong.
Membership Rewards Pay with Points
The Membership Rewards “Pay with Points” option is a terrible deal, especially when compared to what Chase Ultimate Rewards has to offer. Pay with Points provides a value of 1 cent per point toward airfare, and roughly 0.75-0.85 cents per point for cars, hotels, vacations or cruises.
By comparison, The Chase Sapphire Reserve card provides a value of 1.5 center per point toward travel related items booked through their portal.
Don’t use this feature, but just so you know what it is, here is a quick summary of how Pay with Points works:
To use Pay with Points, you must charge your eligible purchase through American Express Travel to a Membership Rewards® program-enrolled American Express® Card. Eligible purchases through American Express Travel exclude car reservations and non-prepaid hotels. Points will be debited from your Membership Rewards account, and credit for corresponding dollar amount will be issued to the American Express Card account used. If points redeemed do not cover entire amount, the balance of purchase price will remain on the American Express Card account. Minimum redemption 5,000 points.
American Express Gold Card Annual Fee:
The Amex Gold Card does have a $250 annual fee. Which again, sounds like a lot, but if you break it down, just like we did with the Chase Reserve Card, it is really not too bad.
- $100 airline fee credit. This is much more restrictive than the Chase Sapphire Reserve travel credit, but if you are a frequent business or leisure traveler, you will probably find a way to use this credit. The biggest restriction to be aware of is that the credit only applies to incidental charges on one airline and you will have to choose the airline in advance. Charges for airline tickets, upgrades, frequent flyer mile point purchases, frequent flyer mile transfer fees, gift cards, duty free purchases, and award tickets will NOT be considered for the credit. The type of fees that are eligible are considered “incidental flight fees” and must be charged directly to the airline and include:
- Baggage fees
- Ticket change fees
- Seat selection fees
- In-flight amenities and entertainment (excluding wireless internet, because it’s not charged by the airline)
- Airport lounge day passes & annual memberships
- Phone reservation fees
- Pet travel fees
- $100 Dining Credit. Receive 20% back as a statement credit at U.S. Restaurants with The American Express Gold Card within the first 3 months of Card Membership, up to $100 back. Note that this is a limited offer available to new Card Members who apply by January 9, 2019.
- $120 Dining Credit. Earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with The Gold Card at participating partners. Participating partners are Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth's Chris Steak House and participating Shake Shack locations. Excludes Shake Shack locations in ballparks, stadiums, airports and racetracks.
American Express Gold Card Sign Up Bonus:
American Express offers a public sign-up bonus of 25,000 Membership Rewards points. However, they have taken a little different approach to the bonus offer. If you register via the American Express website or any other public offer, the sign-up bonus is 25,000 membership rewards points after you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months of membership. HOWEVER, if you are referred by a friend or associate the sign-up bonus goes up to 50,000 membership rewards points. Check is out.
- Here is the Amex Gold Public offer on the American Express website with a 25,000 point bonus
- Here is my Amex Gold Referral link which will give you the 50,000 point bonus
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card
Step 3: Use the Chase Freedom Unlimited Card for ALL Other Personal Credit Card Charges
This card choice may have surprised you, but it is key to getting the most out of your Chase Ultimate Rewards. The Chase Freedom Unlimited card is a $0 annual fee credit card that provides 1.5% cash back on all purchases. You can use the 1.5% cash back for either a statement credit, direct deposit into your checking account or (and most importantly) turn it into Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
By itself, the Chase Freedom Unlimited card is not that different than any other cash back credit card. But, when you “pair” it with the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card you can turbo charge it!
Chase has a great “combine points” feature that allows you to combine Ultimate Rewards points between the cards that you personally hold, as well as the cards of any other household family member.
To get the most out of the spending on this card, I take all the points I earn on the Chase Freedom Unlimited card and move them over to my Chase Ultimate Rewards Card. Now I can use the points to either transfer to one of the transfer partners or use the Chase travel portal where they count as 1.5x for travel booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.
If you just used the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card alone, you would get 3x points on dining and travel charges and 1x on all other charges. By pairing these two cards together you will get 3x on dining and travel charges and 1.5x on all other charges – effectively giving you a 50% bonus on all non-travel and dining spend, with no additional annual fee.
That about sums it up, I just laid out the credit card spending strategy I use to earn as many points as I possible can to take my family on some great trips at a fraction of the cost. Hopefully you learned something from this and can leverage this approach to take some great vacations!
As a final reminder….
- Use 1 credit card for business expenses –
- Put all business travel expenses on the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card
- Use 2 credit cards for personal expenses –