When using ‘wrong’ credit card is the right thing to do
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
Opening and using travel rewards credit cards can help quickly boost your stockpiles of points and miles across a variety of loyalty currencies. While some travelers prefer to focus on just one or two cards, I prefer a wallet chock-full of plastic — including airline cards, hotel cards and my personal favorite: transferable-point cards. For every purchase I make, I strive to select the best one.
Except for those times when I deliberately choose what many would describe as the "wrong" one — but for a good reason.
Here are some examples of when the seemingly sub-optimal credit card is actually a better choice.
When you're pursuing a welcome bonus
One of the quickest jolts to your loyalty program account balances can come through welcome bonuses on top credit cards. If you've just opened a new card, you almost certainly have to spend a set amount of money in a defined amount of time to take home that massive haul of points or miles (unless you open a card with a bonus after a single purchase). If you're worried about falling short of that spending threshold, it's absolutely worth it to swipe the new card, even if the earning rate is lower than another card in your wallet.
As an example, in June I was targeted for an upgrade offer to the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express (which matched the current welcome bonus of 150,000 points after you spend $4,000 on the card within your first three months of card membership). I wasn't too worried about spending that amount, but I wanted to make sure of it. As a result, I shifted some non-bonus-category spending from my Chase Freedom Unlimited to the card.
The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Here's why that might appear to be a bad idea based on TPG's most recent valuations:
- Hilton Aspire: 3 points/$ x 0.6 cents per point = 1.8 cents (or a 1.8% return)
- Freedom Unlimited: 1.5 points/$ x 2 cents per point = 3 cents (or a 3% return)
Sacrificing 1.2 cents in value seems like a pretty poor decision — until you factor in the welcome bonus.
Think of it this way. If I spend exactly $4,000 before the three-month window ended (and all those purchases were at merchants that wouldn't otherwise earn a bonus), I'm not just earning three Hilton points per dollar spent. I need to consider that every dollar gets me that much closer to the 150,000-point haul. And when you allocate those 150,000 points across the $4,000, you get 37.5 points per dollar.
In other words, for every non-bonus-category dollar I spent on the Hilton Aspire (up to $4,000), I effectively took home 40.5 points. That boosts my return to 24.3% — over eight times as lucrative as the Freedom Unlimited.
When you're booking a United flight
There are many reasons to carry airline cobranded cards in your wallet — from waived checked bag fees to companion tickets to in-flight discounts. However, one carrier has a slightly-more-restrictive policy when it comes to accessing these benefits: United. In order to enjoy a free checked bag on a domestic, United-operated flight by holding a card like the United Explorer Card, you actually need to purchase the ticket with that card:
"The primary cardmember and one companion traveling on the same reservation will each receive their first standard checked bag free — calculated as a $30 value for the first checked bag, each way, per person — on United-operated flights when purchasing tickets with their United Explorer Card."
That isn't a terrible value proposition, since it awards two United miles per dollar spent on these purchases. However, I also have the Chase Sapphire Reserve in my wallet, and this card gives three Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on a variety of travel purchases. I can also transfer those points directly to United, so by using my Sapphire Reserve, I could be effectively earning 3 United miles for every dollar I spend. Seems like a much better option, right?
Not so fast, because doing so will likely prevent me from checking my bag for free.
Let's put this in a concrete example and say that I'm booking a round-trip flight from my home in Florida to Chicago-O'Hare (ORD). The total price of the ticket is $400, so here's a snapshot of how much I'd earn by swiping the two cards above:
- United Explorer Card: 2x miles x $400 = 800 miles (worth $10.40)
- Sapphire Reserve: 3x points x $400 = 1,200 points (worth $24)
However, if I need to check a bag on the flight, using the Sapphire Reserve is the wrong choice, since I'm now on the hook for that additional $30 fee each way. Suddenly, that extra $13.60 worth of points is costing me $60 out of pocket. No thanks!
When you want added protection
We focus a lot of time on travel rewards here at The Points Guy, but some of the less-obvious benefits can come to your rescue when things go wrong. This is why you should always think about things like trip cancellation/interruption coverage, baggage delay insurance or trip delay protection whenever you're deciding which credit card to use on your next trip.
As an example, The Platinum Card® from American Express offers an incredible 5x points on flights purchased directly with the airline — a return of 10%. This seems like a much better option than the Chase Sapphire Reserve's 3x points (6% return). However, selecting the Amex Platinum won't currently include any of the above perks.
(Note that this is changing as of January 1, 2020, when the Amex Platinum adds new travel protection for flights purchased on or after that date.)
I encountered this very situation earlier this year on a flight back from Chile. I had transferred Chase points to Singapore's KrisFlyer program to book one-way, business-class flights on Avianca from Santiago (SCL) to Lima (LIM) to Miami (MIA) — before KrisFlyer's Star Alliance partner award chart devaluation. Unfortunately, Avianca's check-in systems were down in Lima, so the agents were writing out boarding passes and bag tags by hand (see above picture). They then held the flight for everyone to board, so we were 90 minutes late, missed our connecting flight and were rebooked for the following morning.
However, because I had paid for the taxes and fees on the award tickets with my Sapphire Reserve, I knew we were covered for up to $500 per ticket in "reasonable expenses" thanks to the trip delay protection on the card. I booked a room at the JW Marriott for me, my wife and my daughter and submitted a claim to Chase's Card Benefit Services when we got home. After providing documentation, I was reimbursed for the hotel plus our Uber rides from the airport to the hotel and back — a total of $383.26.
Had I swiped my Amex Platinum for the taxes and fees, I would've earned some extra points but would've been left with two (less-desirable) options after missing the connection: 1) Ask Avianca to provide a hotel, which almost certainly wouldn't have been as nice as the JW Marriott, or 2) Book a hotel and arrange transportation entirely out of my own pocket.
When you're using an offer
A final time when you'd want to swipe a less-obvious card is when you're using a discount or promotion — like Chase Offers or Amex Offers. In many cases, the bonus points or dollars off you'd enjoy with these offers will more than make up for any points or miles you missed out on by using the "wrong" card for the purchase.
As an example, last month we saw an Amex Offer for 20% cash back (up to $50) on your cell phone bill. This appeared on one staffer's Business Platinum Card® from American Express, a card that typically offers just one Membership Rewards point per dollar spent on these purchases. A better option would be a card like the Ink Business Cash Credit Card, which awards 5% cash back (or 5x Ultimate Rewards points if you have the right combination of cards) on up to $25,000 in combined, yearly purchases at office supply stores and on telecommunications purchases.
Here's how this normally breaks down for a $200 cell phone bill:
- Business Platinum: $200 x 1 point/$ = 200 points (worth $4)
- Ink Cash: $200 x 5% = $10 (or 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $20)
However, when you factor in the Amex Offer, you'd enjoy another $40 off by swiping your Business Platinum card, making this a much better option.
As you can see, there are a number of scenarios where the "wrong" card is actually right for a given purchase. It may appear that you're sacrificing some points — or you may actually get fewer points — but in many cases, it's worth it. Whether you're working toward a welcome bonus or trying to ensure you're protected on your next trip, it's critical to carefully consider all aspects of a credit card before deciding which one to swipe.