Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

The Top 4 Credit Cards for Maximizing Ultimate Rewards Earnings

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Ultimate Rewards points have long boasted one of the highest valuations in TPG’s monthly series, as you can redeem this transferable loyalty currency with 11 great travel partners, including Hyatt, Southwest and United. Since the premium Chase Sapphire Reserve Card hit the market with a sign-up bonus of 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points (after you spend $4,000 in the first three months), there’s been more interest in this program than ever. So in today’s post, I’ll go over the top cards to consider if you’d like to boost your account balance.

This post will focus on how to earn Ultimate Rewards points, not how to use them. If you’re interested in learning more about the various redemptions available with this currency, see TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Richard Kerr’s post, Redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards for Maximum Value.

1. Chase Sapphire Reserve

Chase Sapphire Reserve card featured
You can’t beat Chase Sapphire Reserve when it comes to the points you’ll earn on travel and dining. The 100k sign-up bonus doesn’t hurt, either.

Best for: Getting the maximum return on travel and dining purchases, along with enjoying extra perks (like a $300 annual travel credit) worthy of a $450-a-year card

Earning rate: 3x points (a 6.3% return) on travel and dining, 1x points on everything else

Sign-up bonus: 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months

Annual fee: $450

The Chase Sapphire Reserve Card nabs the top spot on this list, because since it launched earlier this summer, it’s stood out for its generous earning rate of 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on travel and dining purchases. Plus, Chase counts a huge variety of purchases as travel spending, from airfare and hotel stays to Uber rides and parking fees. Based on TPG’s valuations, 3x points equal a 6.3% return — better than the 4.2% return/2x points you get with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year.

In terms of points-earning potential, Chase Sapphire Reserve is the clear winner between these two cards, but if you don’t want to pay the $450 annual fee, Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a great choice. The CSP’s sign-up bonus is lower, but still lucrative: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months from account opening. That’s $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards. You can also earn 5,000 additional points when you add an authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months.

2. Chase Freedom

Maximizing the Chase Freedom card’s bonus categories can earn you 7,500 points per quarter.

Best for: Quarterly bonus category spending when you hold another card that earns Ultimate Rewards points

Earning rate: 5% cash back/5x Ultimate Rewards points (a 10.5% return) on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate; 1% cash back/1x Ultimate Rewards points on everything else

Sign-up bonus: $150 bonus/15,000 points after you spend $500 in the first three months

Annual fee: $0

While Chase Freedom is marketed as a cash-back card, you can redeem your cash back as Ultimate Rewards points if you hold a UR-earning card like Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Chase Ink Plus Business Card. Since cash back gets you a 1% return compared to 2.1% for Ultimate Rewards points, the latter option is definitely more lucrative. Things get even better when you maximize the Freedom card’s quarterly bonus categories, since you can earn 5% back/5x points on the first $1,500 you spend in combined qualifying purchases. Currently, you’ll earn this bonus on spending at wholesale clubs, department stores and drug stores — if you were to maximize this perk by spending $1,500 in these categories, you’d earn 7,500 Ultimate Rewards points. That’s worth $157.50 based on TPG’s valuations.

3. Chase Freedom Unlimited

Get a solid 1.5x points on every purchase with the Chase Freedom Unlimited.
Get a solid 1.5x points on every purchase with the Chase Freedom Unlimited.

Best for: Non-bonus category spending when you hold another card that earns Ultimate Rewards points

Earning rate: 1.5% cash back/1.5x Ultimate Rewards points (a 3.15% return) on every purchase

Sign-up bonus: $150 bonus/15,000 points after you spend $500 in the first three months

Annual fee: $0

Not to be confused with the original Chase Freedom, this card earns you a flat 1.5% back on all purchases, with no bonus categories but also no cap on your earnings. But as with the Chase Freedom, the Chase Freedom Unlimited’s cash back can be redeemed as Ultimate Rewards points if you have a UR-earning card. In that case, you’re essentially getting a return of 3.15% on all spending, which is excellent, especially considering that this card doesn’t carry an annual fee. Don’t use this in lieu of the Chase Freedom card if your spending qualifies for the 5x quarterly bonus; the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card if your purchases fall under the travel or dining categories; or another card if it offers a more lucrative bonus on your spending. However, in most other cases, this card is a great pick.

4. Chase Ink Cash Business Card

Get a 10.5% return on office supply purchases with the Chase Ink Cash Business Card. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Best for: Spending at office supply stores, other business-related services and gas when you hold another card that earns Ultimate Rewards points

Earning rate: 5% cash back/5x points (a 10.5% return) on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year; 2% cash back/2x points (a 4.2% return) on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year; 1% cash back/1x points on everything else

Sign-up bonus: $300 bonus cash back/30,000 points after you spend $3,000 in purchases in the first three months after account opening

Annual fee: $0

If you spend a significant amount in the 5%/5x bonus category, this card is a great choice. As with the Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited cards, you can redeem cash back as Ultimate Rewards points as long as you also hold a UR-earning Chase card. In that case, spending at office supply stores and on internet, cable and other specified services will net you an outstanding return of 10.5%. The Ink Cash Business Card isn’t your best bet when it comes to spending at restaurants (go for the Chase Sapphire Reserve instead), but it is a solid choice for gas purchases thanks to the 2%/2x earning rate.

Before you pull the trigger and sign up for this card, keep in mind that the Ink Plus Business Card offers the same 5x and 2x bonus categories but with a higher annual spending threshold of $50,000 per year. So if you spend more than $25,000 on qualifying purchases in that time frame, this card would be a better pick. The Ink Plus Business Card has a $95 fee, but it also earns Ultimate Rewards by default so you don’t need to hold another UR-earning card to redeem points with transfer partners.

Bottom Line

If earning Ultimate Rewards points to redeem with partners like British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott and Singapore Airlines is a key part of your award travel strategy, you have plenty of options for accumulating a large stash of rewards. Not only will you earn Ultimate Rewards points with all of the cards mentioned in this post, but each of them also earns you a bonus on specific purchases. Knowing when to use which card will ensure that you’re maximizing your earnings, and if you earn a card’s sign-up bonus by meeting the spending requirement in the first three months, you’ll be starting off strong with a stash of rewards to use toward a future redemption.

Featured image courtesy of the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad, California.

What are your favorite tips for maximizing your Ultimate Rewards earnings?

Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

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  • New! Earn 100K bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,500 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases such as airfare and hotels charged to your card
  • 3X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases. Plus, no foreign transaction fees
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 100,000 points are worth $1,500 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 900+ airport lounges worldwide with complimentary Priority Pass™ Select membership
  • Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre√®
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable $450 0% Excellent Credit