TPG reader credit card question: What are the best groups of credit cards for travel?

Jun 8, 2020

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TPG reader Brady recently emailed us asking for a recommendation for the best combination of credit cards for travel. He said:

I could really use an article to help me choose which credit card combinations to use. Do I use the Reserve in combination with an airline or hotel card? If I have a card for all three I will accrue much fewer points on the Reserve. If I just have the Reserve, I won’t gain as many airline or hotel points. But maybe that’s worth it for the 1.5x redemption? I understand everyone’s needs/goals are different but I’m sure there are some common groups.

Brady

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Frankly, this is a difficult question because the best cards for you should fit your travel goals, spending habits and lifestyle. TPG recommends a few card combinations, so let’s take a look at some of the recommended combinations and then I’ll dive into my recommendations for choosing a credit card portfolio that’s a good fit for you.

In This Post

Chase Trifecta or Chase Quartet

Earning rates Annual fee Sign-up bonus
Chase Sapphire Reserve 10x on Lyft rides through March 2022

3x on travel and dining

1x on everything else

$550 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months from account opening.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 5x on Lyft rides through March 2022

2x on travel and dining

1x on everything else

$95 100,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months from account opening.
Ink Business Preferred Credit Card 3x on the first $150,000 spent each account anniversary year on travel, shipping purchases, internet services, cable services, phone services and advertising purchases with social media sites and search engines

1x on everything else

 $95 100,000 points after you spend $15,000 in the first three months from account opening
Chase Freedom Unlimited 1.5% cash back (1.5x) on purchases None $200 after you spend $500 in your first three months from account opening
Chase Freedom

(No longer open to new applicants)

5% cash back (5x) on up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter in rotating categories

1% cash back (1x) on everything else

None $200 after you spend $500 in your first three months from account opening
Ink Business Cash Credit Card 5% cash back (5x) on the first $25,000 spent each account anniversary year at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services

2% cash back (2x) on the first $25,000 spent each account anniversary year at gas stations and restaurants

1% cash back (1x) on everything else

None $750 (75,000 points) after you spend $7,500 in your first three months from account opening

 

The information for the Chase Freedom has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Total annual fee for Chase Trifecta/Quartet: Depends on card selection, but can range from $95 to $740

The Chase Trifecta and Chase Quartet are well-defined combinations that are anchored by one or more cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points. But, let’s consider the cards that comprise these two combinations so you can choose the card pairing that works best for you.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Ink Business Preferred Credit Card all earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points and offer solid travel protections, so you need at least one of these cards.

You can add another card that also earns Ultimate Rewards points if you feel the annual fee justifies the additional earning and/or benefits. But, you’ll mainly boost your earnings by adding the no-annual-fee cards in the table above to your wallet. These cards normally earn cash-back rewards, but you can transfer these cash-back rewards to Ultimate Rewards points as long as you also have a card that earns Ultimate Rewards points.

Further reading:

Amex Trifecta

Earning rates Annual fee Welcome bonus
The Platinum Card® from American Express 5x for flights booked directly with airlines, flights booked with American Express Travel (starting Jan. 1, 2021, earn 5x points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year)

5x on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel

1x on everything else

$695 (see rates and fees) 100,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.
American Express® Gold Card 4x at restaurants and on up to $25,000 in purchases at U.S. supermarkets per calendar year

3x on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com

1x on everything else

$250 (see rates and fees) 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases on your new card in your first six months.
The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express 2x on the first $50,000 in purchases each calendar year

1x thereafter

None (see rates and fees) Earn 15,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months of account opening

Total annual fee for Amex Trifecta: $800

The Amex Trifecta carries a relatively high annual fee but provides an effective 10% return on select travel expenses, an 8% return on groceries and restaurants and a 4% return on non-bonus spending based on TPG’s valuations. Granted, these earning rates are somewhat restricted by caps on earning and only a subset of travel spending earning 5x. So, you may want to add (or replace a card or two with) the American Express® Green Card so that you’ll earn 3x on general travel spending.

The information for the Amex Green 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.

However, if you book most of your hotels and flights through eligible methods, spend a sizeable amount on dining and groceries, use the benefits and credits on these cards, and love Amex’s hotel and airline transfer partners, then this combination of cards could be a valuable choice. Note that you may be able to find better offers for some Amex cards through the CardMatch Tool.

Further reading:

Wells Fargo Duo

Earning rates Annual fee Welcome bonus
Wells Fargo Visa Signature® Card 1x points on other purchases None Earn 5x points on up to $12,500 spent on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases during the first six months
Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card (no longer available for new applicants) 3x on eating out, dining in, gas stations, rideshares, transit, flights, hotels, homestays, car rentals and popular streaming services

1x on everything else

None N/A

The information for the Wells Fargo Visa Signature and Wells Fargo Propel American Express 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.

Total annual fee for Wells Fargo Duo: None

Some TPG staffers, such as Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr, are passionate about the no-annual-fee Wells Fargo Duo. The Wells Fargo Visa Signature Card might not seem all that useful after your first six months if you simply look at the above table, but having the duo unlocks the ability to redeem your points at 1.5 cents each (instead of the normal 1 cent each) for airfare. This means you can earn a 4.5% return on many different categories.

Although this combination doesn’t provide lounge access or more than a 1.5% return on groceries and other non-bonus spending, it can be a reasonable option if you’re looking for straightforward redemptions and only want to carry one card.

Further reading:

How to choose your credit card portfolio

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

As I mentioned earlier in this guide, as well as in how to assess and build your credit card portfolio, the perfect card mix is different for each person. When deciding which cards to carry in your wallet, you’ll want to consider the following questions:

  • What type of rewards do you want to earn? (cash backtransferable currencies or airline/hotel points and miles)
    • If you choose transferrable currencies, airline miles or hotel points, do you want to earn multiple currencies or focus on one?
  • How many cards do you want to carry?
  • Do you want some cards primarily for the benefits they offer (such as elite status or lounge access)?
  • Are you willing to pay annual fees if the earnings and benefits provide enough value?
  • What categories do you spend the most in each year?

Brady specifically wondered whether he should focus his efforts on earning Chase Ultimate Rewards points or whether he should also use hotel or airline cards. If you’re mainly interested in the earning aspect when selecting cards, you should calculate your expected return on spending for common expenses such as hotels and flights.

To calculate your return, you can use TPG’s valuations. But, you should adjust your valuations if you plan to redeem your rewards for a higher or lower value. For example, Brady seemingly uses his Chase Ultimate Rewards points to redeem for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal instead of by transferring to hotel and airline partners. So, he should use his expected redemption rate – 1.5 cents per point – instead of TPG’s valuation of 2 cents per point when comparing potential returns.

Since Brady will likely redeem his points for 1.5 cents each, his return using the Sapphire Reserve on travel or dining purchases is 4.5%. So, when he’s considering whether to use a different card for travel and dining purchases, the card should get more than a 4.5% return.

Further reading: How to assess and build your credit-card portfolio

Which cards should you use?

Brady told us that he travels for work domestically more than 100 nights each year. Assuming he is allowed to use his credit card when paying for work trips, but that most of his work-related expenses are travel and dining, I’d recommend the following combination:

As someone who travels for work 100+ nights each year, Brady is well-positioned to get top-tier status with one of the hotel chains, if he’s allowed to book eligible rates and can mostly stay with one chain. Depending on his preferences, he may want to consider one or more of the following cobranded hotel cards to provide elevated earnings and benefits while he’s earning status:

Card earning rate with the hotel brand Annual fee Welcome bonus Notable benefits
Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express 14x (8.4% based on TPG’s valuations) $450 (see rates and fees) 150,000 Hilton points after you spend $4,000 on the card within your first three months of card membership Top-tier Hilton Diamond status

One weekend night reward with your new card and every year after renewal

$250 Hilton resort statement credit each year of card membership

Enrollment required for select benefits.

Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card 12x (7.2%) $0 intro annual fee (see rates & fees) for the first year, then $95 (see rates & fees). Offer ends 8/25/2021. Earn 130,000 Hilton bonus points after you spend $2,000 in purchases on the card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 8/25/2021. Hilton Gold status
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card 17x $95 Earn 3 Free Night Awards (each free night award has a redemption value up to 50,000 bonus points, that’s a value of up to 150,000 total points) after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Plus, earn 10X total points on up to $2,500 in combined purchases at grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations within the first 6 months from account opening. Free Night Award worth up to 35,000 points every year after your card account anniversary

Marriott Bonvoy Silver Elite status

15 Elite Qualifying Night credits each calendar year

Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card 6x (4.8%) $450 (see rates and fees) Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months.​ Plus, earn up to $200 in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants within the first six months of card membership. Up to $300 Marriott Bonvoy statement credit for eligible purchases at Marriott properties

1 Free Night Award worth up to 50,000 points every year after your card account anniversary

Complimentary Marriott Gold elite status

15 Elite Qualifying Night credits each calendar year

Enrollment required for select benefits.

World of Hyatt Credit Card 4x (6.8%) $95 30,000 Bonus Points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.

Plus, up to 30,000 more Bonus Points by earning 2 Bonus Points total per $1 spend on purchases that normally earn 1 Bonus Point, on up to $15,000 in the first six months of account opening.

World of Hyatt Discoverist status

1 free night at any Category 1-4 Hyatt hotel or resort every year after your cardmember anniversary

5 qualifying night credits toward your next tier status every year

Earn 2 additional qualifying night credits toward your next tier status every time you spend $5,000

IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card up to 25x (5%) $89, waived for the first year Earn 150,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. IHG Platinum Elite status

Fourth award night benefit

Anniversary night worth up to 40,000 points on your account renewal anniversary date each year

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.

And, he may also want to consider whether to chase airline status or remain a free agent. If he goes the free-agent route, some cobranded airline cards might prove useful for priority boarding, checked baggage allowance and even lounge access.

Further reading: The best credit cards for airfare purchases

Related reading

Featured image by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy.

For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors Amex Surpass, please click here
For rates and fees of The Platinum Card from Amex, please click here
For rates and fees of the American Express Gold Card, please click here
For rates and fees of the Blue Business Plus from Amex, please click here
For rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant, please click here

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.