Better together: An ultimate guide to the best credit card pairings
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One common misconception among people new to the world of points and miles is that this hobby only works if you dive in headfirst and open up dozens of credit cards.
You don’t need to open one card for every year you’ve been alive like I did in order to reap some serious credit card rewards. By being strategic about using the right two or three cards together, you can increase your return on spending exponentially.
We’ve written extensively about two of the most popular card groupings — the so-called Chase Trifecta and Amex Trifecta. If you’re not familiar with these holy trinities of credit cards you should check out the links. You may already have this combination and not even realize it.
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One thing you’ll notice as you read those guides is how much flexibility is allowed. For Chase, you can swap a Chase Freedom Flex in for a Chase Freedom Unlimited if that better suits your spending patterns, or even swap in an Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card instead to achieve a similar effect.
With Amex, you have to pick which flavor of the Platinum Card® to anchor your strategy around, and you also have to decide whether the bonus categories on the American Express® Gold Card or American Express® Business Gold Card make more sense for your life.
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 exact 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 personal credit card strategy, whether you stick to a tried and trusted trifecta or invent something new that works even better for your specific circumstances.
Complementary or diverse points earning
If you only have 60,000 points in a single currency, you could probably book a round-trip economy award to Europe and net yourself anywhere from 1-3 cents per point in redemption value.
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.
This is true even if you have no interest in fancy first- or business-class awards. If you’re trying to book a family vacation for four or more people, you’ll need 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 that “the least valuable mile is the one you never redeem.” 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) where 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 choosing a new rewards card
If you’re early on in your points journey, concentrating on a single program like Chase Ultimate Rewards is probably 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.
You should 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 some other role?
- Does this card offer new or better bonus categories that line up with the areas where I spend the most money?
The Chase Freedom Unlimited is one of my favorite all-around credit cards, as the 1.5% earning on purchases is a great way to rack up Ultimate Rewards points. It’s even better now that you also earn 5% on travel booked through Ultimate Rewards and 3% back on dining and drugstores.
I even recommend this as a starter card to a lot of my friends, especially 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 open an Ultimate Rewards-earning card — the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card — so your earnings from the Freedom Unlimited can be redeemed as fully transferrable 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.
If you have multiple Amex cards, hundreds of thousands of Membership Rewards points and no history at all with Chase, that strategy might not be the best choice for you. The Freedom Unlimited card’s 1.5%/1.5x rewards on purchases can be incredibly powerful, but if you’re starting your Chase balance from scratch, it will take a long time to accumulate a meaningful number of points. However, if you already have 60,000 points sitting in your Chase account, the Freedom Unlimited might be the push you need to take that first business-class trip.
Mix-and-match bonus categories
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve are great starter cards because they offer double and triple points, respectively, in the broadly defined travel and dining bonus categories, 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 dining and grocery spending there. Maybe you pick a card with a bonus category for gas purchases, business expenses or some other category you spend heavily in.
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.
Both the Chase and Amex trifectas are great examples of how to balance your bonus categories. Each of these options features:
- A premium travel rewards card with strong bonuses: The Platinum Card® from American Express with 5x on airfare when booked directly with airlines or through American Express Travel (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), or the Chase Sapphire Reserve with 3x on travel and dining.
- A midrange card that dives into some more specific bonus categories: Amex Gold with 4x at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year, then 1x) and on dining at restaurants, or the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card with 3x on select business categories (on up to $150,000 in combined purchases each account anniversary year).
- A no-annual-fee card with a strong return on everyday spending: The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express (see rates and fees) with 2x on your first $50,000 spent each calendar year (then 1x), or the Chase Freedom Unlimited with 1.5x on purchases.
The right perks at the right cost
Once you have one, 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.
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 required for select benefits.
After accounting for the annual statement credits, much of my decision to open (and keep open) the Platinum card comes from the Centurion Lounge access it offers.
This also means my bar for opening a new premium credit card is set much higher. That’s why I held off on applying for the Citi Prestige® Card — with its $495 annual fee — for so long. The value proposition was undeniable, but I already had a lot of what it was offering through other cards. The information for the Citi Prestige 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.
Related: Citi Prestige credit card review
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) but 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.
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.
This will probably be a transferable points-earning card for most people, but you could also anchor around a hotel card, and use the rest of your wallet to diversify the points you’re earning.
Here are a few top choices:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months from account opening.
- The Platinum Card from American Express: Earn 100,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Plus, earn 10x points on eligible purchases on the Card at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S., on up to $25,000 in combined purchases, during your first 6 months of Card Membership.Terms apply.
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: 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.
- Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: Earn 150,000 Hilton points after spending $4,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.
- American Express Gold Card: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $4,000 in purchases in the first six months. Terms apply.
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.
Valuable bonus categories
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.
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.
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Earn 2x miles on every purchase.
- The Blue Business Plus Credit Card from American Express: Earn 2x Membership Rewards points on your first $50,000 in annual spending (then 1x).
- Chase Freedom Unlimited: Earn 1.5%/1.5x on purchases.
One of the biggest mistakes people make early on in their points journey is to jump on what looks like a large welcome bonus without having a clear strategy in place.
While it’s fine 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 in the long run as well.
Additional reporting by Chris Dong.
Featured image by The Points Guy staff.
For rates and fees of the Amex Blue Business Plus Card, click here.
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Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn a $200 statement credit after your first Delta purchase within the first three months. Offer ends 7/28/21.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
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