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“Reader Questions” are answered twice a week — Tuesdays and Fridays — by TPG Senior Writer Julian Mark Kheel. Note that this is an update of the Monday and Friday schedule we have run until now.

Ever have that feeling that you’re using the wrong credit card? That’s the feeling TPG reader Forrest has about his current card combo, and he wants to know if it’s time to switch things up a bit…

I generally charge $25,000 a year on the United card to receive the additional 10,000 miles, and $30,000 on SPG Amex to receive Gold status at Marriott/SPG. I believe I would be better off charging everything to Chase Sapphire Reserve but old habits are hard to break. Do you have the data to convince me my hunch is correct?

TPG Reader Forrest

Well, Forrest, if you’re looking for data on travel rewards, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s take a look at this situation and see if we can determine if it’d be a good idea in this case to switch all spending to the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

First, as we’ve said many times before, when it comes to travel rewards, it’s not just how many points you’re earning, but how much those points are worth. So let’s start our analysis there by looking at the value of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, United MileagePlus miles and SPG Starpoints, based on TPG’s latest monthly valuations.

Point Type Current Value (as of January 2018)
Ultimate Rewards 2.1 cents each
United MileagePlus 1.4 cents each
SPG Starpoints 2.7 cents each

As we can see, the value of Ultimate Rewards points falls roughly halfway between the two other currencies, which means at first glance, moving all your spending to the CSR would seem to be roughly a wash. But we also need to remember that by spending $25,000 on the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, you get a bonus 10,000 miles, so you’re earning more overall points and miles with the two-card combo.

By adding up the actual points and miles earned in this scenario, we come up with this:

Point Type Current Value ANNUAL SPEnding points/miles earned annual value earned
Ultimate Rewards 2.1 cents $55,000 55,000 $1,155
United MileagePlus 1.4 cents $25,000 35,000 $490
SPG Starpoints 2.7 cents $30,000 30,000 $810

The combined values of the United card with the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express come to $1,300, which is almost $150 better than the Chase Sapphire Reserve. So that means our reader should stay with his current two-card arrangement.

But hang on! We haven’t taken into account any category bonuses yet. Since the CSR earns 3x points on all travel and dining expenses, it’s likely Forrest will earn more than 1 point per dollar on at least a portion of his spend. Based on the same survey data that TPG Contributor Nick Ewen used in his “One Year of Earning and Burning with Chase Sapphire Reserve” analysis, travel and dining expenditures come to roughly 14% of overall average household spend, so we can recalculate our values again using 14% of the overall $55,000 in annual spend at 3 points per dollar.

Point Type Current Value annual spending points/miles earned annual value earned
Ultimate Rewards (everyday spend) 2.1 cents $47,300 47,300 $993
Ultimate Rewards (travel/dining) 2.1 cents $7,700 23,100 $485
United MileagePlus 1.4 cents $25,000 35,000 $490
SPG Starpoints 2.7 cents $30,000 30,000 $810

Now when we add the two sets of numbers together, the return on the Chase Sapphire Reserve comes to $1,478, easily beating out the $1,300 of the United/SPG combo. So the CSR is the actual winner, right?

Except we’re not done, because none of these cards are free. The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with a significant $450 annual fee, while the United and SPG cards only cost $95 each for a total of $190. However, the CSR fee is partially offset by the $300 annual travel credit that comes with the card, which makes the effective annual fee only $150.

As long as you can fully utilize that credit — and Chase defines travel broadly so there’s a lot of opportunities to do so — the net $150 cost of the CSR is $40 better than the combo of the other two at $190 total.

Point Type Current Value annual spending points/miles earned annual value earned (AFTER ANNUAL FEE)
Ultimate Rewards (everyday spend) 2.1 cents $47,300 47,300 $843 ($993-$150)
Ultimate Rewards (travel/dining) 2.1 cents $7,700 23,100 $485
United MileagePlus 1.4 cents $25,000 35,000 $395 ($490-$95)
SPG Starpoints 2.7 cents $30,000 30,000 $715 ($810-$95)

Finally, by putting $30,000 in spend on his SPG Amex card, Forrest is earning Gold status at both Starwood and at Marriott hotels as well, thanks to status matching available from the Marriott/Starwood merger. The combination of those two statuses are worth a whopping $2,670, but that’s only if you really use them on a regular basis. If you only stay at a Marriott or SPG properties a few times a year, you won’t get anywhere near that amount of value from them. And the Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with its own set of travel benefits — including a Priority Pass membership, up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry/TSA PreCheck and more — but you don’t have to put any additional spending on the card to get those benefits.

Where does all that leave us? It’s actually pretty simple. Without the SPG/Marriott status, the CSR beats the other two cards by roughly $220. So if you stay at Starwood or Marriott properties enough times each year to get that much value from elite status at those chains, you should continue putting $30,000 in spend on the SPG Amex card.

However, if you’re going to hang onto the Chase Sapphire Reserve for all its benefits and pay its annual fee, you may want to consider shifting the remaining $25,000 in annual spend from the United card to the CSR. Even though you’re earning 10,000 extra points on the United card, the Ultimate Rewards points are worth more, enough so that you’ll get a slightly better overall return with fewer of them — especially if you focus all your travel and dining spend on the Sapphire Reserve.

As you can see, doing all the calculations can be complicated, but you can certainly do the same math for yourself as we’ve done here for Forrest. Thanks for the question, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

This is one of the top premium cards out there since you earn 3x on all travel (excluding $300 travel credit) and dining and have access to great perks like a $300 travel credit each cardmember year, 50% more value when you redeem points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards and you get elite travel benefits like Global Entry application fee rebate, Priority Pass Select and special rental car privileges.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 50K bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named "Best Premium Travel Credit Card" for 2018 by MONEY® Magazine
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • 3X points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit. 3X points on dining at restaurants & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. $0 foreign transaction fees.
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,000+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select
  • Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
17.99% - 24.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$450
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each balance transfer, whichever is greater
Recommended Credit
Excellent Credit

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.

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