New to travel rewards? Here’s the perfect beginner card combo

Apr 28, 2022

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Getting started with credit card rewards can be incredibly overwhelming. Should you start with cash back or points and miles? Which card family should you choose first? Or should you try cards from different families? Will the annual fee on cards be worth it?

It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of research and questioning to determine which card is truly the right one for you.

When beginners ask for help building a card portfolio, we always recommend looking at card programs that can scale — meaning cards that can be paired with others later to build a comprehensive card strategy without sacrificing the old card to the sock drawer.

You’ll find that transferable points are incredibly valuable for avid and aspiring travelers because rewards can be redeemed across a wide variety of airline and hotel partners. But those travel credit cards generally have stricter approval requirements, so they aren’t always an option as a first rewards credit card. The good news is that some issuers offer certain families of credit cards that allow you to start with a no-annual-fee credit card that can pair with a higher-tier card later on for maximum value.

The straightforwardness of Chase Ultimate Rewards — along with Chase’s 5/24 rule — make this program a good place to start for points and miles newbies. And when choosing credit cards to earn Ultimate Rewards, the Chase Freedom Unlimited and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card make a powerful duo.

Currently, the Sapphire Preferred is offering a welcome bonus of 80,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening — making now a great time to apply.

Read on to learn how these two cards can jump-start your award travel.

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In This Post

Why these two cards?

We’ll break down the full benefits of each card below, but here’s a quick explanation of why you’ll want to start with these two in particular. The top reason is that Chase limits the number of credit cards for which you can successfully apply. This is due to the issuer’s 5/24 rule.

In short, if you’ve opened five or more personal cards across all banks in the past 24 months, it’s unlikely you’ll be approved for most cards in Chase’s portfolio, including the Freedom Unlimited and Sapphire Preferred.

If you’re starting out, it’s best to cover the most important bases first. If you already have a solid credit score, you’ll likely want to apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred first because it earns those valuable transferable points. But if you are newer to the rewards credit card game, the Chase Freedom Unlimited is also a great place to start to earn cash back.

The best part? The Freedom awards points that can be later be transferred to the Sapphire Preferred when you apply for it down the line.

Related: What credit score do you need to get the Chase Sapphire Preferred card?

Overview: Chase Sapphire Preferred

Current bonus for Chase Sapphire Preferred: Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.

Earning rates: Earn 5 points per dollar on travel booked through the Ultimate Rewards Travel portal; 3 points per dollar on dining as well as select streaming services and online groceries (excludes Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs); 2 points per dollar on all other travel; and 1 points per dollar everywhere else.

Perks: The Sapphire Preferred comes with no foreign transaction fees, and cardholders can can enjoy perks like a 10% points bonus on your cardmember anniversary and a $50 annual hotel credit for reservations made through Chase Travel. The card also includes numerous travel protections like primary auto rental insurance, baggage delay reimbursement, trip delay reimbursement, trip cancellation and trip interruption insurance, extended warranty protection and purchase protection.

Annual fee: $95.

Reasons to get it: TPG values the bonus of 60,000 points at $1,200, based on maximizing the points with hotel and airline transfer partners.

The great thing about this card is that a wide variety of items fall within the travel category — from airline purchases, taxis and tolls to parking lots and travel agencies. So even if your day-to-day travel is limited to transportation, you can rack up Ultimate Rewards points quickly. You’ll also get excellent travel protections on these purchases.

As for using those points, you have multiple travel partners to choose from. You can also redeem Ultimate Rewards points directly for a number of eligible purchases through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal at a rate of 1.25 cents apiece.

Related: After 12 years, why the Chase Sapphire Preferred should still be your first rewards card

Overview: Chase Freedom Unlimited

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

Current bonus for Chase Freedom Unlimited: Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) – worth up to $300 in cash back.

Earning rates: Earn 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% on dining, 3% at drugstores and 1.5% on all other purchases; 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 15 months from account opening (after that 15.74% – 24.49% variable APR applies).

Annual fee: $0.

Reasons to get it: This card underwent a significant refresh in 2020, and it now offers arguably better everyday earning categories than the Sapphire Preferred. What really makes the Freedom Unlimited worthy of a slot in your wallet is that, if you have a full-fledged Chase Ultimate Rewards-earning card (such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card), you can redeem your cash back as Ultimate Rewards points.

And even if you don’t have one of those cards right now, you can always apply for one later and then combine your points into the Ultimate Rewards account of the more-premium card.

TPG’s latest valuations peg the value of Chase Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents each. That means the 1.5% cash back you’ll earn on non-bonus purchases becomes 1.5 points per dollar spent (for a return of 3%).

If cash back is ultimately what you’re after, consider some other of the best cash-back credit cards, such as the Citi® Double Cash Card that gives you a better return on everyday purchases. With the Citi Double Cash Card, you’ll get 2% cash back (1% when you buy and another 1% as you pay down your balance). You can also convert the cash back earned on the Citi card to ThankYou Rewards points via a linked ThankYou account.

Using the cards together

As mentioned above, the rewards earned by the Freedom Unlimited (and its sibling, the no-annual-fee Chase Freedom Flex) become a lot more valuable when you also hold a higher-end Chase card. This is because you can only convert your cash back into transferable points with a card that earns Ultimate Rewards points outright.

So, to redeem rewards earned with the Freedom cards as points that can be transferred to partners, you need to hold a higher-tier card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Another option is the premium Chase Sapphire Reserve for those who think the $550 annual fee is worth the card’s better earning, additional benefits and $300 annual travel credit.

Read more: Chase Sapphire showdown: Sapphire Preferred vs. Sapphire Reserve

The Ink Business Preferred Credit Card can also be a great alternative — or addition — for small-business owners.

Even if you don’t plan on transferring points to travel partners such as United, Hyatt, Southwest, British Airways and more, these cards guarantee 25% to 50% in extra value when redeeming points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for travel at a fixed value. In other words, rather than redeem each point for 1 cent each with just a Freedom card, you’ll be able to redeem them at a rate of 1.25 or 1.5 cents apiece by also having the Sapphire Preferred or Reserve card.

Additionally, these cards offer broader categories for the Pay Yourself Back redemption option.

If you simply want cash back and never plan on pairing your cards, you should check out some of our other best cash-back credit cards with higher returns. But those looking to build a card strategy long-term can utilize the Chase Freedom Unlimited pairing capabilities with a card that unlocks Ultimate Rewards redemptions.

Related: The best Chase credit cards for 2022

Using these two cards strategically puts you in a good position to earn and redeem travel rewards for maximum value.

For starters, all travel purchases not made through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal (e.g., Uber rides and Airbnb stays) should go on the Chase Sapphire Preferred to earn bonus points and get excellent travel protections. You should also use the Sapphire Preferred for dining, streaming services and online grocery purchases to earn 3 points per dollar. And, since the card waives foreign transaction fees, you’ll want to use it for all purchases outside the U.S.

Then, use the Freedom Unlimited for drugstores and all other everyday purchases.

When it’s time to redeem your hard-earned points, see this guide to getting the maximum value out of your awards and this guide for finding sweet spots in the Ultimate Rewards program.

Bottom line

The Chase Freedom Unlimited and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card make a great Ultimate Rewards points-earning team. While the latter isn’t always the best option for your spending, it opens up some great transfer-partner options on the redemption side. Plus, with its current 80,000-point sign-up bonus, the Sapphire Preferred can give a boost to your Ultimate Rewards points balance — perfect for those just starting in the world of rewards travel.

If you’re starting to earn travel rewards with credit cards, these two cards should be your top priority when it comes to applications — but make sure you pay attention to the issuer’s 5/24 rule to optimize your chances for approval.

Additional reporting by Ryan Wilcox and Madison Blancaflor.

Featured photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy.

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