The Top 4 Credit Cards for Maximizing Ultimate Rewards Earnings

Sep 29, 2016

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.

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

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.

2. Chase Freedom

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

(The Chase Freedom is no longer open to new applicants)

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

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 Business Cash Credit 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: $500 bonus cash back/50,000 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 Business Cash 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?


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.