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The Critical Points: The no-annual-fee cards that best the Chase Sapphire Reserve

Jan. 31, 2020
8 min read
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Editor's Note

The information for the Wells Fargo Visa Signature card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

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

The Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card is no longer open to new applications.

Each week in his column “The Critical Points” TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is an excellent credit card that can provide a lot of value to travelers, even those who only hit the road occasionally. Ultimate Rewards points are incredibly valuable thanks to valuable travel partners like Hyatt and United, and the card carries great trip protection. You'll also get an annual $300 travel credit plus 3x points on all travel and dining purchases. However, with the recent additions of DashPash and $60 in DoorDash credit per year for 2020 and 2021 along with new Lyft benefits, the annual fee for the Sapphire Reserve will now set you back $550.

While many love the card — and some find the new benefits worth the increased annual fee — I'd like to once again present an alternative: a pair of no-annual-fee cards that can yield a much better value than the Chase Sapphire Reserve. I believe with my argument, you can keep the best aspects of the Sapphire Reserve and maintain the value of the card but pay just $0-$95 in annual fees instead of $550.

Same value, no annual fee

Almost two years ago, I wrote that the Wells Fargo duo of the Wells Fargo Visa Signature® Card and the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card was a better value than the Sapphire Reserve — and that's when the annual fee was $100 lower. When the recent changes and renewed discussion about the CSR, I think it's once again time to meet these two power players.

Wells Fargo Visa Signature® Card — Enjoy a welcome bonus of 5x Go Far Rewards points at gas stations, grocery stores and drug stores for the first six months on up $12,500 in spending. That equates to 62,500 points if you’re able to spend the entire amount. You earn 1x points on all spend after that and pay no annual fee. Go Far Rewards earned with this card are worth 1.5 cents each towards paid airfare booked through the Wells Fargo Go Far Rewards travel portal. If you spend $50,000 on the card in a year, the redemption value increases to 1.75 cents each toward flights.

Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card — This card earns the same Go Far Rewards as the Visa Signature card but comes with a sign-up bonus of 20,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first three months. On an ongoing basis, the Propel Amex earns 3x points on travel — which includes flights, hotels, homestays, car rentals, taxis and rideshares — along with dining (referred to by Wells Fargo as “eating out and ordering in”), gas stations and popular streaming services. The card also earns 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. Points redeemed with the Propel Amex are worth 1 cent each toward cash back, gift cards, donations to charity and travel, including airfare.

You may only get one Wells Fargo sign up bonus every 15 months. However, you can combine points with any other Wells Fargo cardholder. This means you can get one of these cards and have your significant get the other one and then combine your points.

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Now that you've been properly introduced to these cards, let's look at why I'd recommend this pair of no-annual-fee cards over the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Same Value (Or Higher) Towards Paid Flights

As noted above, if you and your spouse/significant other hold these two cards between you, you can combine your balances into a single, Wells Fargo Go Far Rewards account. (If you personally hold both cards, this will be done automatically.) This means that every point you earn with both cards is worth 1.5 cents towards paid airfare. If you can spend $50,000 on the Visa Signature card in a year, that value jumps to 1.75 cents apiece, or 17% higher than what you'd get booking through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal as a Sapphire Reserve cardholder.

Just like when booking plane tickets through Chase, tickets booked through Wells Fargo will earn elite-qualifying and redeemable miles, and these tickets are clearly marked if you're buying a basic economy ticket.

You Can't Transfer, But there's a low-fee option

Wells Fargo Go Far Rewards are not transferable to travel partners, which is a significant hit against their value compared to Ultimate Rewards points. However, there's a way to maintain this ability. For the low annual fee of $95, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card allows you to access a healthy welcome bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months after account opening (though existing Sapphire Reserve cardholders aren't eligible until 48 months have passed from earning that card's bonus). This card provides the same ability to earn transferable Ultimate Rewards along with the same travel protections as the Sapphire Reserve, including trip delay coverage and primary rental car insurance.

Besides transferring to travel partners, the real value for many in Ultimate Rewards is the ability to redeem towards paid flights and avoid the restrictions or lack of award space. This same value can be had for no annual fee with the Wells Fargo Visa Signature and the Wells Fargo Propel cards.

If you're considering canceling your Sapphire Reserve when your next annual fee comes due, consider downgrading to the Sapphire Preferred instead. You'll keep many of the same benefits but (most importantly) maintain the ability to transfer your points to partners.

Added values

There are three additional areas where the no-annual-fee Wells Fargo Propel card stands above the Chase Sapphire Reserve:

  1. Broader 3x earning categories — The Wells Fargo Propel card earns 3x points on a greater amount of spend categories than the Sapphire Reserve. The two cards are equal on travel and dining, the Propel card covers those categories but also earns 3X points at gas stations, additional homestays like VRBO and streaming services.
  2. Go Far Rewards Earn More Mall — While Chase does have an online shopping portal, the earn rates on the Go Far Rewards Earn More Mall often exceed whats available through Chase, sometimes to an outrageous degree — like 40x points on in-store purchases at places like CVS, Kohls and Home Depot. These offers come and go and typically have spending caps, but don't be surprised to see to tremendous earn rates. 40x points is equivalent to a 60% discount using the base value of 1.5 cents for each Wells Fargo point.
  3. Cell phone protection — The Wells Fargo Propel card carries cell phone insurance of up to $600 per claim with just a $25 deductible (subject to a maximum benefit of $1,200 per 12 months). All you need to do is pay your cell phone bill with the card. The Sapphire Reserve doesn't have this benefit despite the $550 annual fee.

Bottom line

With the Wells Fargo duo, you have a power couple that can (for many) exceed the value you can get from the Chase Sapphire Reserve. You earn 3x points on more bonus categories, get the same redemption value of 1.5 cents when booking paid flights, enjoy cell phone protection and have access to a more generous online shopping portal, including potentially lucrative in-store bonuses. These perks are available with no annual fees.

Of course, the main value in holding Ultimate Rewards points lies in the ability to transfer them, but you can get that with a $95 annual fee Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. If you don't find the new DoorDash benefits worth an extra $100 in annual fees on the Sapphire Reserve, go with the Wells Fargo duo (and a side of Sapphire Preferred) instead and enjoy the same — or perhaps better — value.

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

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How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
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