The Ultimate Guide to 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 head first and open up dozens of credit cards. You don’t need to have 20 credit cards like The Points Guy does in order to book award travel. 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 above. You may already have this combination and not even realize it.
One thing you’ll notice as you read those guides is how much flexibility is allowed. For Chase, you can swap a Chase Freedom 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.
These card combination strategies are flexible and not dogmatic, and that’s by design. In every case, it’s less about the exact cards themselves and more about their benefits — such as welcome 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. If you’re trying to fly in a premium cabin or 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.
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 Aeroplan to book Star Alliance awards for the fewest possible miles.
Questions to Consider Before Choosing a New Rewards Credit 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 you reach an award you’ve been saving for?
- Does this card unlock a new loyalty program you can get value out of, or does it serve some other role?
The Chase Freedom Unlimited is one of my favorite all-around credit cards, as the 1.5% earning on all purchases is a great way to rack up Ultimate Rewards points. 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 so your earnings from the Freedom Unlimited can be redeemed as fully transferrable points (1.5x vs. 1.5% cash back).
If you have multiple Amex charge cards, hundreds of thousands of Membership Rewards points and have 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 all purchases is powerful earning, but if you’re starting your Chase balance from scratch it will take a long time to accumulate a meaningful number of points. If you already have 60,000 points sitting in your Chase account, however, 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 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 Amex Gold Card for its 4x points on dining and US supermarkets (up to $25,000 a year at supermarkets; then 1x), and shift some of your dining and grocery spend 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. This isn’t a problem, but make sure you have a plan in place to cover this everyday non-bonus spending. We’ve ranked the cards that offer the best return, 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 or the Chase Sapphire Reserve with 3x on travel and dining)
- A mid-range card that dives into some more specific bonus categories (Amex Gold with 4x on dining and at US supermarkets; up to $25,000; then 1x or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card with 3x on select business categories up to $150,000 in combined purchase 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 & fees) with 2x on your first $50,000 spent each year, then 1x, or the Chase Freedom Unlimited with 1.5x on everything)
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. Rather than continue 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.
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 courtesy of my Chase Sapphire Reserve; I never stay at Hilton; and I was already Marriott Platinum (the Platinum card gives complimentary Marriott and Hilton Gold status).
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. I travel to or through Hong Kong about 10 times a year now, and the Centurion Lounge there has become a second home to me while I’m on the road.
This also means my bar for opening a new premium credit card is set much higher. That’s why I held off the on applying for the Citi Prestige Card for so long. The value proposition was undeniable, but I already had a lot of what it was offering through other cards.
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. At 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.
I like to think about my “anchor” as the one 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 reset of your wallet to diversify the points you’re earning.
Here are a few top choices:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Earn 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in 3 months
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months of account opening. Terms apply.
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Earn 75,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.
- Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express: Earn 150,000 Hilton points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months of account opening. Terms apply.
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.
- American Express® Gold Card: Earn 35,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $4,000 on purchaes within the first 3 months
- Ink Business Preferred Credit Card: Earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
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 all non-bonus purchases
- 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 all 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.
For rates and fees of the Amex Blue Business Plus Card, click here.
WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200
CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners
*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
- Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
- Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.