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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here: Citi ThankYou Premier Card, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN, Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
What goes in my wallet and why? The cards I use every day get there not just because they offered a great welcome bonus, but because they allow me to maximize every single dollar I spend, too.
People always ask how I travel so much and how I’m able to redeem lots of miles for trips (like my recent Singapore First, Korean First, JAL First and Virgin Atlantic Upper Class flights). I do it with a mix of welcome bonuses, maximizing my spending in bonus categories and even buying miles from time to time. Fortunately, I’m able to charge a large amount of business and personal spending to my cards, which helps me earn lots of miles and points that I can redeem for my frequent travel.
Here are the cards I use, along with the lowdown on when I use each to maximize my spending :
Current Bonus: 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months. You will earn another 5,000 bonus points when you add an additional cardholder and make a purchase within the first three months.
Benefits: 2x points on travel and dining, no foreign transaction fees, primary auto rental insurance and the ability to transfer points to 11 transfer partners including British Airways, Southwest, United, Hyatt, and Marriott.
Annual Fee: $95, waived the first year.
When I use it: I charged more to this card than any other in 2014 because of the 2x Ultimate Rewards points I received on all travel and dining, but that may change in 2015 now that other cards have increased their value propositions. (For example, see the new bonus categories on the American Express Premier Rewards Gold and Citi’s ThankYou Premier). But for now, I charge all of my dining to this card for its 2x rewards (and 3x on first Fridays), along with all of my international hotel stays (except when booking an Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts property, in which case I need to use my American Express Platinum to receive benefits). Even here at home, I use my Sapphire Preferred for hotels, except when staying at Starwood or Hilton hotels, since I can earn more rewards with branded cards.
2. Citi ThankYou Premier
Current Bonus: 50,000 ThankYou points when you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
Benefits: With this card, you now earn 3 ThankYou Points per dollar spent on travel including gas, and 2 ThankYou Points per dollar spent on dining out and entertainment. Citi ThankYou Rewards also now has 12 transfer partners, including Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer and Hilton HHonors. This card also features EMV chip technology, no foreign transaction fees and Citi Price Rewind.
Annual Fee: $95, waived the first year.
When I use it: I’m using this card a lot for its 3x on gas and 2x on entertainment. The latter category includes all sorts of things, such as:
- Sports, theater, and concert promoters — and I love concerts!
- Movie theaters
- Amusement parks (including zoos, circuses and aquariums)
- Museums and galleries
- Record stores
- Video rental stores (these still exist?)
Current Bonus: Earn 25,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $2,000 in purchases within your first three months of card membership.
Benefits: Earn 3x points on flights (booked directly through the airline), and 2x at US gas stations and US supermarkets. Membership Rewards points can be transferred to 16 different airline partners.
Annual Fee: $195, waived the first year.
When I use it: This has become my go-to card for buying airline tickets, even if I’m just paying for taxes and fees on award bookings, as it gives me 3x on all airfare purchases and 4x when booking via Amex Travel. When I buy flights for me and my employees, I put it on this card (except for American Airlines and US Airways flights). I also use this card to get 2 points per dollar at US supermarkets, although I admit that I rarely buy groceries since I’m always on the road!
4. Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express
Current Bonus: Earn 25,000 points when you spend $3,000 in purchases within your first three months of card membership.
Benefits: Double points on charges at Starwood hotels, and the ability to transfer points to more than 30 different transfer partners. Earn Starwood Gold Status after spending $30,000 in a calendar year.
Annual Fee: $95, waived the first year.
When I use it: Putting all my charges at SPG properties on this card is a no-brainer, at least domestically. I earn 2x Starpoints, plus the 4x I earn from having SPG Platinum status after spending 100 nights at Starwood hotels last year.
5. Chase Ink Plus
Current Bonus: 60,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first three months.
Benefits: Earn 5 points per dollar at office supply stores, cell phone, land line, internet and cable TV services (on up to $50,000 in spending annually), and 2 points per dollar spent at gas stations and on hotel accommodations (again, on up to $50,000 in spending annually). Waived foreign transaction fees. Ability to transfer points to 11 travel partners, including British Airways, Southwest and Hyatt.
Annual Fee: $95
When I use it: I love earning 5x Ultimate Rewards points at office supply stores, even if I don’t buy too many paper clips. I do buy gift cards for myself and giveaways for the site, up to the $50,000 per cardholder maximum each year. I also like getting 5x on my mobile phone, internet and cable TV service.
Current Bonus: $150 after spending $500 on purchases in your first three months from account opening, plus another $25 after you add your first authorized user and make a purchase within this same three-month period.
Benefits: This card offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent in combined purchases at featured merchants that change each quarter.
Annual Fee: $0
When I use it: The only the other way to earn 5x from Chase is to maximize Freedom’s rotating 5x categories (currently restaurants; Bed, Bath, & Beyond; H&M and Overstock.com), and I always try to maximize the 5x categories each quarter. Chase has already announced that the bonus category for the third quarter (July-September) will include gas stations, and that the fourth quarter (October-December) will feature Amazon.com, but I’ll be excited to hear what other categories and retailers will be included as part of the bonus categories.
7. Aviator Silver
Current Bonus: This card is not offered to new applicants.
Benefits: Earn 3x miles for every dollar spent on eligible US Airways and American Airlines purchases, and 2x miles for every dollar spent on eligible hotels and car rentals. 5,000 bonus Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) when you reach both $20,000 and $40,000 in annual spending. Free checked bag, priority boarding and a 25% savings on in-flight food and beverage purchases. Companion certificate for up to two guests at $99 (plus taxes and fees) each when you spend $30,000 or more in purchases. 10% of your redeemed miles back. $100 Global Entry application fee credit. No foreign transaction fees.
Annual Fee: $195, billed on 2015 anniversary date.
When I use it: As a holder of the US Airways Dividend Miles card, I was invited to upgrade to their new Aviator Silver card, which offers 3x miles on all my American Airlines and US Airways purchases. Finally, I am also happy to receive 3x miles when I buy miles from American. Unlike US Airways, American processes its own miles transactions, which count toward airline spending bonuses.
8. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard
Current Bonus: 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days.
Benefits: Earn double miles on all purchases; miles are worth one cent each as statement credits toward travel purchases. 10% rebate on miles redeemed. Chip and PIN compatibility and no foreign transaction fees. World Elite MasterCard benefits.
Annual Fee: $89, waived the first year.
When I use it: This card offers double miles on everything (plus a 10% bonus on miles redeemed) and has no foreign transaction fees. This makes it especially useful when I am in a foreign country or shopping somewhere that doesn’t fall under a bonus category on another card. Plus, this is the rare card issued in the United States that is compatible with the Chip and PIN system, which I often need at train stations, gas stations and toll booths in Europe. I also like having the ability to use Barclaycard miles awards where I can’t use any other points or miles, like when I stay at a bed and breakfast or when I’m paying for train tickets. So basically, I use this card for any non-bonus category purchases — the miles I earn are perfect for funding travel expenses not covered by my other points and miles, such as the taxes and fees on award tickets.
Current Bonus: Not offered to new applicants.
Benefits: Earn Delta miles from your purchases.
Annual Fee: $75.
When I use it: This is one of the few remaining debit cards that offers rewards, and you can’t even get it anymore. I still earn one mile per dollar spent, which is great when I need to spend money somewhere that doesn’t take credit cards, or charges a huge fee for doing so. In fact, I have been using this card to pay my taxes online, for just a flat fee of $2.59-$3.50 per transaction. I can earn 1 Delta mile per dollar, up to $35,000 per transaction. Sadly, the fun is about to end as Suntrust just announced that starting on July 25, you will only be able to earn miles on 2,000 miles every 30 days, and the earning rate will drop to one mile per $2 spent. Oh well; it was great while it lasted.
10. Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve
Current Bonus: Two weekend night certificates plus a $100 statement credit — each certificate is good for one weekend night (standard room, double occupancy) at most hotels and resorts within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio — after spending $2,500 in the first four months. In addition, you’ll earn a $100 statement credit when you spend $100 or more on a Hilton stay within the first three months of account opening
Benefits: Earn 10 HHonors points for every dollar spent on hotel stays within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio, 5 points for every $1 spent on airline and car rental purchases and 3 points per dollar on all other purchases. Automatic Hilton HHonors Gold status; Diamond status with $40,000 annual spend. No foreign transaction fees. SmartChip technology. Visa Signature benefits. Cardholders who spend $10,000 annually (starting on your annual fee date) get an anniversary free weekend-night certificate that can be used at any property.
Annual Fee: $95.
When I use it: I use this card for my Hilton stays, as I earn 10x points at the hotel. I sometimes use it for rental cars as well to get 5x. I also look forward to the the free yearly night at any Hilton property, which I receive after spending $10,000 in a cardholder year. Finally, it’s always great to get Gold status — or top-tier Diamond if I spend $40,000 on the card in a calendar year.
11. Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express
Current Bonus: 25,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $5,000 in purchases on the card within the first three months of card membership.
Benefits: 3x points on 1 of 5 different spending categories, plus 2x points on the remaining 4. Membership Rewards points transfer to 16 different airline programs. Ability to transfer points to 11 travel partners, including British Airways, Southwest and Hyatt.
Annual Fee: $175, waived the first year.
When I use it: This card lets you choose a specific category for receiving 3x points (online advertising purchases, in my case) and offers you 2x points on other categories, including:
- Airfare purchased directly from airlines
- U.S. purchases for advertising in select media
- U.S. purchases at gas stations
- U.S. purchases for shipping
- U.S. computer hardware, software, and cloud computing purchases made directly from select providers
For me, this means 3x on all of my Facebook, Twitter and Google advertising, and 2x when I inevitably buy my next Apple gadget.
Summing It Up
Now you have a glimpse into my crazy world (and my bulging wallet full of cards). Sure, my situation is unique in many ways, but I know that everyone else has some particular spending requirements and priorities. Hopefully, some of my examples will help you figure out which cards make the most sense for your wallet, so you can maximize the rewards you earn, too. With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game. Here are the top 5 reasons it should be in your wallet, or read our definitive review for more details.
With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game. Here are the top 5 reasons it should be in your wallet, or read our definitive review for more details.