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Better together: An ultimate guide to the best credit card pairings

Sept. 24, 2021
13 min read
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.


You don’t need to open one card for every year you’ve been alive like I have to reap some serious credit card rewards. By being strategic about using the right two or three cards together, you can exponentially increase your return on spending.

We’ve written extensively about two of the most popular card groupings — the Chase Trifecta and Amex Trifecta. Like most elements of travel rewards, these card strategies are designed to be flexible and not dogmatic. What works well for one person may not work for you, and vice versa. In every case, it’s less about the cards themselves and more about their benefits — such as sign-up bonuses, bonus categories, perks, and more — that work so well together.

Today, we’ll take a look at the different factors you should focus on when building your credit card strategy, whether you stick to a tried and trusted trifecta or invent something new that works even better for your specific circumstances.

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Think about the types of points and miles you're earning

Singapore Airlines A380 Business Class
Use your points to splurge on a business-class seat on Singapore Airlines. (Photo by Agent Wolf/Shutterstock)

If you have 60,000 points in a single currency, you could likely book a round-trip economy award to Europe and net yourself anywhere from 1-3 cents per point in redemption value.

But if you have 300,000 points, you can book a business-class award instead and probably get a redemption value of 4-7 cents per point. Yes, you’re spending more of your miles, but each mile is worth more because you can spring for premium seats. This is a strong argument in favor of accumulating points within a single loyalty program.

Even if you have no interest in fancy first- or business-class awards, let's say you’re trying to book a family vacation for four or more people. You’ll still need to amass a lot of points with one program in order to get any value at all. When I was just starting out collecting points and miles, a friend poignantly told me:

[pullquote]"The least-valuable mile is the one you never redeem."[/pullquote]

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If you never build up a large enough balance to actually book an award, then the miles you do have are essentially worthless.

There does come a point (right around the time you hit 5/24 for most people) when diversifying your points starts to become important. Diversity gives you access to new loyalty programs, meaning you have a better chance at finding award space on the days you need to travel, but it also gives you access to more programs within a single airline alliance. Having both Chase and Amex points increases the value of each currency, as you can choose between United, Singapore, Avianca, and Air Canada to book Star Alliance awards for the fewest possible miles.

Questions to consider before opening a new card

If you’re early on in your points journey, concentrating on a single program like Chase Ultimate Rewards is likely the smartest move. But when you’re looking for a new credit card, you should always evaluate how the points fit into your existing wallet. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this card help me reach an award I’ve been saving for?
  • Does this card unlock a new loyalty program I can get value out of, or does it serve another role?
  • Does this card offer new or better bonus categories that line up with the areas where I spend the most money?

Example

The Chase Freedom Unlimited is one of my favorite all-around credit cards and is the starter card I always recommend to my friends. There's a fantastic rewards rate to rack up Ultimate Rewards points on everyday purchases: 5% on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% on drugstore and dining purchases, and 1.5% on all other eligible purchases.

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

This card is also a great first pick for those who might not have enough credit history to apply for a Chase Sapphire card outright. That recommendation is based on the assumption that you’ll continue to build your card strategy around Chase, and eventually a Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card — so that your earnings from the Freedom Unlimited can be redeemed as fully transferable points. TPG values Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents each, so you can double your return by waiting to redeem this way instead of opting for cash back.

Mix-and-match bonus categories

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve are dynamic starter cards because they each earn 3 points per dollar on dining (up from 2x for the Sapphire Preferred), but the Sapphire Reserve happens to also earn 3x on travel. The travel and dining bonus categories are broadly defined and these are areas where people tend to spend a lot of money. As you look to add your second and third cards, you should consider those that offer strong bonuses in other areas you spend in.

Maybe you get the American Express® Gold Card for its 4x points at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year at U.S. supermarkets, then 1x), and shift some of your restaurant spend and U.S. supermarket spending there. Maybe you pick a card with a bonus category for gas purchases, business expenses or some other category you spend heavily in.

Related: The best travel rewards credit cards for each bonus category

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Most people will find that a significant chunk of their spending isn’t covered by any credit card bonus category that’s currently available. Most online purchases, for example, fall into this catch-all category of everyday, non-bonus spending. This isn’t a problem, but it’s important that you have a plan in place to earn the maximum number of points on these purchases. We’ve ranked the cards that offer the best return on everyday spending, and in general, you should do your best to always earn at least 1.5x points on every purchase you make.

Example

Both the Chase and Amex trifectas are great examples of how to balance your bonus categories. Each of these options features:

The right perks at the right cost

For many people, an additional Priority Pass Select membership or Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee credit has little or no value. Once you have one benefit, you don’t get any value out of getting a second or third one from a new card. Rather than continuing to pay money for perks you don’t need or won’t use, you should focus on getting a good return out of the cards you decide to keep long-term.

What this means in practice is that even though most people will benefit from having at least one premium credit card in their wallet, adding a second, third or fourth gets more challenging. You could choose to read this as an argument against holding too many premium credit cards at once, though it’s certainly possible to get a worthy value from several premium credit cards at the same time.

Example

When I chose to open my Amex Platinum card, I had to do the math: I already had a Priority Pass Select membership and a Global Entry application fee credit (up to $100) courtesy of my Chase Sapphire Reserve; I never stay at Hilton properties; and I was already Marriott Titanium (the Platinum card gives complimentary Marriott and Hilton Gold status; enrollment is required for select benefits).

HONG KONG - SEPTEMBER 29: American Express celebrates the opening of the Centurion Lounge at Hong Kong international airport on September 29, 2017 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. (Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images For American Express)
The American Express Centurion Lounge at Hong Kong International Airport. (Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images for American Express)

After accounting for the up to $1,400-plus annual statement credits, much of my decision to open the Platinum Card comes from the Centurion Lounge access it offers. Since I travel often, I can justify the $695 annual fee (see rates and fees) — but this may not be the right decision for everyone.

Building blocks

Now that you’re thinking about this high-level approach when building a new credit card strategy or fleshing out your existing one, let’s talk about the tools that can help you get there.

In the beginning, you might feel like your hand is forced because of Chase’s 5/24 rule (the issuer won’t approve you for most of its cards if you open five or more accounts in the span of 24 months). However, the truth is, even without considering this restriction, Chase still offers some of the best cards for anyone to start with. You'll notice that the Chase and Amex trifectas both include at least one card from each of the following categories to help maximize perks and bonus categories while keeping your out-of-pocket cost down.

Anchor cards

I like to think about my anchor as the credit card I would keep if I had to choose just one. For me, that’s the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which covers most of the bases, including luxury perks and great bonus categories.

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Here are a few top choices:

The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex 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.

Obviously, your choice of an anchor card will determine what other bonus categories you need to account for, but most of the choices above offer some sort of bonus on travel spending. When looking to diversify your bonus earnings, popular options include business expenses, dining, and gas.

Everyday spending

(Photo by Wyatt Smith / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Depending on how much of your budget is non-bonus everyday spending, you might use this opportunity to double down on earning transferable points or to diversify into a new currency.

Bottom line

One of the biggest mistakes people make early on in their points journey is to jump on a sizeable welcome bonus without having a clear strategy in place. While it’s OK to deviate from your plan when a great opportunity arises, having a clear understanding of how and why your rewards credit cards work together will help you make better decisions in the short term and the long run as well.

Additional reporting by Stella Shon and Chris Dong.

For rates and fees of the Amex Blue Business Plus Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum, click here.

Featured image by (Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
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.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day

Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023
Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023