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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi ThankYou Premier Card
Every purchase is an opportunity to earn travel rewards, and to boost your loyalty account balances, it’s important to maximize your return on each dollar. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr explains how you can rack up points and miles at gas stations with credit card bonuses and more.
While gas prices have gone down in the last year, the average US household is still expected to spend around $2,000 on fuel in 2015, so it’s important to make sure each dollar spent at the pump is earning you some kind of bonus points. In this post, I’ll look at several different strategies you can use to make sure you’re getting the most out of your fuel purchases and other gas station expenses.
1. Your own strategy for maximizing fuel purchases will depend somewhat on where you live, how far you commute and the fuel efficiency of your vehicle. Start by calculating how much you spend each month on fuel, as this will give you a sense of the potential returns. If you only drive occasionally and spend about $20 per month on gas, maximizing fuel purchases may not be worth the effort compared to someone who fills their tank on a weekly basis.
2. Know the limits of your particular rewards, both in terms of earning and redeeming. Is your credit card bonus capped (like the $1,500 quarterly limit for 5% bonus categories on the Chase Freedom card)? Do your fuel rewards only apply to a certain number of gallons per purchase? Can you use all the rewards you’ve earned before they expire? Do diesel, marine and jet fuel purchases count? Knowing the rules will help you determine your best strategy.
3. Never override common sense. I have a particular family member who is obsessed with paying the cheapest price for gas and will drive far out of the way to find it, which burns up any savings by using extra fuel just to reach the station. Ten years of me explaining this conundrum hasn’t helped, but I remain hopeful. If you’re burning gas and time to achieve 5 bonus points per fill up, you’re not maximizing your efficiency.
4. The merchant category code determines whether a particular purchase will earn you bonus points. If you’re uncertain, I recommend testing it with a small purchase. You can then check your card statement to see whether that merchant codes properly.
5. Many stations around the US are now charging separate prices for cash and credit cards. The difference is usually marginal, but you should run the numbers to make sure the higher amount won’t wipe out the value of the points you earn.
Credit Card Strategies
Multiple cards from many issuers earn bonuses for purchases at gas stations. Here’s my list of the top options:
The American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card earns 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar at all US gas stations. Amex recently updated the benefits on this card to include 2x points on dining, a $100 airline fee credit and no foreign transaction fees. I’m a fan of Membership Rewards thanks to the program’s transfer flexibility, and any chance to earn more Avios for short-haul flights or KrisFlyer miles for Singapore Suites gets my attention. However, if your goal is to maximize gas purchases, you have better options even within the Amex family.
The Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card is still a relatively new option that earns 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar on all purchases at US gas stations. What sweetens the deal is the 50% bonus you earn on all purchases when you have 30 or more transactions on your monthly statement. If you can meet that threshold, earning 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar on gas is a great deal!
The Mercedes-Benz Credit Card from American Express — not the platinum version, but the regular, less popular variety — earns a flat 3 points per dollar on all US gas station purchases. I still rank the Amex EveryDay Preferred card ahead, since the 50% bonus after 30 transactions applies to all purchases for the statement, not just gas.
Chase Freedom usually includes gas stations as one of its rotating quarterly bonus categories, and 2015 is no exception. This quarterly bonus will be available in July, August and September, earning a massive 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar (though it’s capped at $1,500 in purchases). Even if you’re not likely to spend that amount on fuel, many gas stations sell other items (like gift cards to third-party merchants) that can help you maximize the bonus.
The Ink Plus Business Card earns 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on the first $50,000 of spending on gas purchases and hotel accommodations. That’s pretty good, but Ink Plus can do even better. Take advantage of the 5 points per dollar this card earns at office supply stores (on up $50,000 of spending) to purchase gas station gift cards.
The Citi ThankYou Premier Card earns a solid 3 points per dollar on all travel purchases, including gas. Even better, this card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months of account opening.
The PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature Card has no annual fee, and earns 5 points per dollar on gas station purchases. PenFed points used to be worth one cent apiece, but the redemption rates have declined so that each point is now worth about 0.84 cents. Still, the card offers a return of about 4.2% when you redeem for gift cards. Note that you must be a member of the credit union in order to be a cardholder, and joining may incur a one-time $20 fee.
The Sallie Mae MasterCard earns 5% cash back on purchases at gas stations, though this is capped at $250 in spending per month. A few readers have reported that they were able to circumvent this cap by opening more than one account.
Discover it Card — I saved the best for last, if we get lucky in the first two quarters of 2016. Much like the Chase Freedom card, Discover it has rotating quarterly bonuses that offer 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases. However, the big opportunity here is that Discover recently announced all earnings for the first 12 months of card membership will be doubled! That means 10% cash back on quarterly bonus categories. Gas was a category in the first quarter of 2015. If you get the card now with the bonus campaign, you could get lucky with gas purchases being offered in one of the first two quarters of 2016.
Gas Station Rewards Strategies
In addition to co-branded credit cards, some gas stations offer their own fuel rewards programs, creating a great opportunity to double dip and earn a greater overall return.
BP Driver Rewards — By just signing up for the loyalty program, between now and September 1, 2015 you can earn a discount of 25 cents per gallon for every $100 you spend on BP fuel. After September 1, the discount will drop to 10 cents per gallon for every $100 spent. The rewards are good for a single fuel purchase of up to 20 gallons. This is a pretty easy way to save between now and September for doing nothing more than signing up for a program.
The BP Visa credit card is (in my opinion) the first decent co-branded gas station card. You get 25 cents off per gallon for every $100 you put on the card for all purchases in the first 90 days. After that, you get 25 cents off per gallon for every $100 spent at BP, 15 cents off for every $100 spent on groceries, travel and dining, and 5 cents off for every $100 spent elsewhere. If you’re paying $3 per gallon (above the national average), then spending $1,200 on the card in the first 90 days will get you a free 20-gallon tank of gas.
My only objection is the opportunity cost of not putting all that spending toward what I consider more valuable rewards cards, like the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express.
Shell Fuel Rewards — This program allows you to link a payment card to your account in order to earn savings toward a gallon of gas by making purchases at a wide variety of retailers. There are sometimes lucrative bonus offers, but it seems to require quite a bit of work for not a lot of savings. For a more thorough explanation of how the program works, check out this video.
Many gas stations are connected to grocery stores, which opens up lots of opportunities to earn bonus points and miles with other cards and rewards programs. I’ll be looking at ways to maximize those purchases next week.
As I said in last week’s post on Amex Travel, your rewards-earning strategy should focus on your next award travel goal. Points are a bad long-term investment, and hoarding is rarely a good strategy. Pick whichever of the offers above best fits your upcoming travel plans, and use it to get you to the finish line quicker.
What are your strategies for maximizing gas purchases? It's a stellar Cash Back card on its own, but when paired with the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Freedom's 5x Category Bonuses let you rack up Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, transferrable to partners or redeemable via the portal.
It's a stellar Cash Back card on its own, but when paired with the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Freedom's 5x Category Bonuses let you rack up Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, transferrable to partners or redeemable via the portal.