Top 10 Cards In My Wallet And What I Use Each For

Oct 22, 2013

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here. 

One of the questions people ask me all the time is how many credit cards I have and which ones I actually use. While the fact that I have nearly 20 open and active credit cards scares some people off, having that many has actually helped boost my credit score over time by lowering by debt-to-credit ratio (I have a lot more credit!) and each card I carry is a strategic choice – whether it’s for a sign-up bonus, the kind of miles or points it earns me, what bonus spending categories and spending threshold bonuses it offers, and a host of other reasons.

So for today’s Top 10 list, I thought I’d talk about the 10 credit cards I use the most and what I get out of them. When it comes to credit cards, I always try to think beyond flashy sign-up bonuses to the long-term benefits of each card and how I can maximize them, and as you’ll see in my list below, each of the cards I use the most has several unique benefits that make it one of my top earners.

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred: Probably the card I use the most all-round, the Sapphire Preferred is among my all-time top travel credit cards because it offers really lucrative category spending bonuses including 2.14X points per $1 on travel (including the 7% annual points dividend) – which includes not only airline tickets, hotel rooms and things like that, but also parking garages and meters, taxis, metro transit like the Subway and a host of other transportation options – as well as on dining (and 3.21X points per $1 on dining the first Friday of each month through 2013). At the end of the year, the card also offers a 7% dividend on all the points you accrue during the year (not including the sign-up bonus). The sign-up bonus is currently 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in 3 months and the first year’s annual fee of $95 is waived. The card also has some other valuable benefits including Visa Signature perks and it waives foreign transaction fees, so it’s a great card to get if you travel internationally.

In terms of redemptions, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer at a 1:1 ratio to 10 travel programs: British Airways, Korean Air, Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, IHG Rewards, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and Amtrak, and I personally maximize them by transferring them to United for high-end redemptions such as Lufthansa first class, or to redeem award nights at top-tier Hyatts around the world, which are only 22,000 points.

For more information check out these posts:
Details on the Sapphire Preferred 2X on Travel
The Sapphire Preferred 7% Annual Dividend
Ranking the Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners
Top 10 Ways To Maximize Each Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partner
Why I Love Chase Ultimate Rewards

2. Mercedes-Benz Platinum Card from American Express: Like the regular personal Platinum card and the Business Platinum, the Mercedes-Benz co-branded Platinum card offers a slew of value-added perks that more than justify the $475 annual fee in my opinion, including an annual $200 airline fee rebate, lounge access to American, Delta and US Airways clubs as well as Priority Pass Select membership, reimbursement of the $100 Global Entry application fee and more. It also has some great purchase and return protections up to $10,000 for any one incident and up to $50,000 during a calendar year, so I use it for large purchases as a safety net in case something goes wrong with what I buy. Right now, the card is offering a 50,000-point sign-up bonus when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.

For more information, see these posts:
The Amex Platinum Card Review
Is the Amex Platinum Worth the $450 Annual Fee?
Maximizing the Amex Platinum $200 Annual Airline Rebate
Understanding the Amex Platinum Lounge Access Benefit
The Amex Platinum Fine Hotels & Resorts Program
My Experience Getting Refunded for the Global Entry Application Fee With My Amex Platinum Card

3. Chase Ink Plus: Like its charge card counterpart, the Ink Bold, the Ink Plus’s true strengths come in the form of category spending bonuses that can mean up to 5X points per $1. With this card, I earn 5 points per dollar at office supply stores (including on retail gift cards I purchase for other merchants), cellphone, landline, internet, and cable TV services – so I put my communications expenses on it to maximize that category as well – and 2X points per dollar spent at gas stations and on hotel accommodations, up to $50,000 annually. I also receive complimentary LOUNGE CLUB membership and 2 free lounge visits each year with access to over 350 VIP airport lounges. The card is also a Visa Signature with all the perks and benefits that come along with that including access to Visa Signature Hotels, wine-tastings in Sonoma and various trip and rental insurance coverage. The card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points when you spend $5,000 in 3 months.

For more information, see these posts:
Ranking the Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners
Top 10 Ways To Maximize Each Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partner
Why I Love Chase Ultimate Rewards
Ranking the Top Chase Travel Credit Card Offers


4. Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express: Although this card currently only comes with a sign-up bonus of 25,000 points when you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months, it has a few other valuable benefits that make it one of the cards I use the most. First, it has some lucrative category spending bonuses including 3X points per $1 on flights booked directly with airlines and 2X at US gas stations and US supermarkets – those are three major spending categories in any household (and airfare is especially a big one for me for obvious reasons) so racking up bonus points happens fast.

For more information on these cards and Amex Membership Rewards, check out these posts:
The Ultimate Guide to American Express Membership Rewards Airline Transfer Partners
Analyzing Amex Membership Rewards Star Alliance Transfer Partners
Top 10 Lesser Known Amex Membership Rewards Airline Transfer Partners


5. Citi Executive AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard: I recently got this card because the bonus went up to an all-time high of 60,000 miles when you spend $5,000 in 3 months, but more importantly, each calendar year when you spend $40,000 on your card you will earn 10,000 AAdvantage elite qualifying miles which makes this card a powerful tool to help me requalify for top-tier Executive Platinum status. It also earns me 2X miles per $1 on American fares, which I purchase a lot as it’s my main airline program, so that brings in quite a few bonus miles, and then there are other money-saving benefits including 25% off in-flight purchases, and no foreign transaction fees. It does come with Admirals Club membership (hence the $450 annual fee), but since I already get that thanks to my Platinum Amex, I don’t really count that as a huge advantage to this card. It’s really all about earning those valuable elite qualifying miles.

While $40,000 might seem like a lot of spending for just 10,000 miles, those 10,000 miles to me might mean the difference between requalifying or not for top-tier American AAdvantage Executive Platinum status, which comes with a ton of perks including unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades (no more banking on 500-mile upgrade requests), 8 annual EVIP systemwide upgrades on any published paid fare – which can equate to thousands of dollars per flight in value – a 100% elite mileage bonus (Platinums get this as well), waived fees on ticketing and award mileage reinstatement.

6. British Airways Visa Signature Card: I’ve had this card for a few years now (I got in on one of the periodic 100,000-mile sign-up bonuses a few years ago) and though I do put my BA Avios to good use on redemptions like expensive short-hauls and premium travel on partners like American and Cathay, One of the main reasons I keep this card around is that when you spend $30,000 in a calendar year and receive a Travel Together Ticket good for two years that equates to gettingtwo award tickets for the price of one, no matter which class of travel you book (hello 2 first class award seats!). The card also earns 2.5 Avios per $1 on BA fares and 1.25 points per $1 on everything else, which puts its earning potential higher than a lot of other cards out there. The one other benefit I focus on, however, is the 10% discount it offers cardholders on British Airways tickets – and that 10% isn’t just off the fare, it’s off the taxes and fees, too, which can mean huge savings. The current sign-up bonus is 50,000 Avios with $3,000 spend in the first 3 months

For  ideas on how to maximize British Airways Avios, check out my series. Posts include: Distance-Based AwardsHousehold AccountsUsing Avios to Upgrade Paid TicketsThe Avios and Cash OptionSave Money on Fuel Surcharges by Transferring British Airways Avios to IberiaUsing Avios For Non-Flight RedemptionsUsing Avios to Book Domestic First Class FlightsDirect Flights, London Stopovers and UK DestinationsHow to Redeem British Airways Avios Without Huge FeesUsing British Airways Avios on Aer Lingus to Avoid Huge Fees.

7. Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express: I have both the personal and business versions of this card because I applied when the sign-up bonus on each was 30,000 points for spending $3,000 in 6 months, which usually comes around once a year. The bonus has dropped back down to 25,000 points for the same spending requirement, but it’s still a great card and one I use all the time not only to earn 2 extra points per $1 when I use them at Starwood properties (not only on the room rate, but also incidentals like room service, restaurant bills and spa treatments), but because each automatically gives me 2 stays/5 nights credit towards elite status each year, making requalification easier, and automatic Gold status for spending $30,000 in a calendar year. However, the main reason I keep this card (and concentrate much of my travel at SPG’s properties) is the opportunity both to redeem Starpoints at great properties all over the world as well as the fact that the program has 31 airline partners you can transfer points to at a 1:1 ratio (a rarity with hotel points) and you receive a 5,000-point bonus when transferring 20,000 points to an airline, all of which make this a great program for my travel needs both in terms of hotel stays and topping up frequent flyer accounts on occasion.

8. Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card: I got this card during a round of applications I made last spring because it came with a
sign-up bonus of 85,000 Gold Points, 50,000 of which will be earned after your first purchase, plus 35,000 more points once you spend $2,500 within the first 90 days and its other benefits include automatic Gold Status. I don’t use it that much even though you earn 10 points per dollar spent at participating Carlson Rezidor hotels and 5 points per dollar spent everywhere else – but that’s because the Club Carlson credit cards’ most valuable perk is a bonus award night on any award redemption of 2 nights or more, which means that on two-night award stays, you are basically getting a points discount of 50%, which doubles the value of my Club Carlson points.

For more information on the card, check out these posts:
Details on the new Club Carlson Credit Cards from US Bank
The Club Carlson Credit Cards’ Bonus Award Night Benefit

9. Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card: Although Hilton majorly devalued its HHonors program earlier this year, I still keep this card around because it came with a valuable sign-up bonus of two free weekend nights after spending $2,500 in the first 4 months, and it earns 10X points per $1 at Hilton, 5X points per $1 on airline and car rental purchases and 3X points per $1 on all other purchases, so it’s earning power is solid. However, the two reasons I actually spend on this card are that I get an additional free weekend night certificate to use at any Hilton when I spend $10,000 annually and if I spend $40,000 in a calendar year, I get Hilton Diamond status. I tried it out this year, and while it definitely improved some of my Hilton stays thanks to upgrades like the one I got at the Hilton Cape Town in January, I find I haven’t been maximizing my status, so I might just go for the $10,000 free night threshold next year.

For more information on the card and Hilton, read my full review of the card here and check out these posts:
Hilton Announces Major Devaluation
Top 10 Ways To Get Value Out Of Hilton Post Devaluation
Hilton HHonors Double Dipping: The Basics

Screen shot 2013-10-21 at 3.19.51 PM
The Chase Freedom’s 5X category spending bonuses make it a fixture in my wallet.

10. Chase Freedom: (No longer open to new applicants) While this might not be the flashiest card on the market and only carries a current sign-up bonus of 15,000 points when you spend $500 in 3 months, the Chase Freedom card is one of the most solid credit cards in my wallet for a few reasons. First, it has no annual fee, so keeping it open is a no-brainer and improves my credit score by lengthening my credit history. Second, although it only earns 1 Ultimate Rewards points per $1 on most purchases, each quarter you can activate your Freedom card to maximize category bonuses of 5X points per $1 at certain merchants up to $1,500 per quarter. In Q4 of 2013 you’ll earn 5% cash back at select department stores (including Macy’s, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Barney’s, Sears and more) and purchases made from October 1 – December 31, 2013, so that’s a great way to maximize holiday gift shopping. Earning 5X Ultimate Rewards points per $1 on up to $6,000 per year (for a total of 30,000 points) is a great way to top up my Ultimate Rewards balance, and since I have a few of Chase’s premium Ultimate Rewards cards including the Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus that I mentioned above, I can transfer the points I earn with my Freedom to Ultimate Rewards’ travel transfer partners and maximize them on redemptions like airline tickets and hotel award nights rather than just for cash back.

For more information on long-term credit card strategies and maximizing your cards, check out these posts:

How Many Credit Cards Do You Have Open and How Does it Affect Your Credit?

How to Keep Earning Credit Card Points Beyond Sign-Up Bonuses

Ranking the Top American Express Credit Cards

Ranking the Top Chase Credit Cards

Ranking the Top Citi Credit Cards

Ranking the Top US Bank Credit Cards

How to Check Your Credit For Free

Maximizing Bonus Spending Categories

Maximizing Calendar Year Spending Threshold Bonuses

The Top 25 Cards With the Lowest Minimum Spending Requirements

Top Current 50,000+ Point Credit Card Sign Up Bonus Offers

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.