Your ultimate guide to credit card upgrades
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While it’s easy to get impulsive with your credit card strategy and chase after every 100,000-point welcome bonus you see, it always helps to have a long-term plan in mind. For each card in your wallet, you should decide whether the card is a keeper or whether you’ll eventually try to upgrade or downgrade it. After all, by upgrading a card, you can enjoy increased benefits. And, by downgrading a card, you can pay a decreased annual fee or even no annual fee.
Other TPG staffers have previously considered when to downgrade a credit card and even the pros and cons of downgrading your credit cards right now. So, today I’ll take a complete look at everything you need to know about upgrading credit cards.
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What to know before upgrading a card
Before diving into each issuer’s specifics, let’s start with a few essential things to know about upgrading cards. When you upgrade a card, you aren’t opening a new account. So, there shouldn’t be a new inquiry on your credit report. Your online login information will stay the same, and while you’ll receive a new credit card number and a new physical card in the mail, your account history, credit limit and other factors that affect your credit score won’t change.
You probably won’t see the upgrade reflected anywhere on your credit report. You can use this to your advantage, as upgrading a credit card might be a great option if you’re about to close on a house and don’t want any new credit inquiries to mess up your mortgage application process.
Another great perk of upgrading a credit card is that sometimes you can earn a bonus for doing so. If a card issuer launches a new product or wants to entice people to move up to the premium version within a certain card family, it may offer bonus points for upgrading. American Express has been known to do this the most, offering upgrade bonuses from time to time for premium cards like the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card and the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card.
One of the biggest downsides to upgrading a credit card is that many issuers now base your eligibility for new welcome bonuses on which credit cards you’ve had open, not just which cards you’ve earned a bonus on. We’ll see this more when we dive into the issuer-specific rules. But, for now, just keep in mind that upgrading a card might prevent you from earning a valuable welcome bonus in the future.
Generally speaking, issuers only allow you to upgrade within a single family of cards. This means that you couldn’t upgrade from the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card to The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example. You might be able to upgrade your Delta SkyMiles Gold Amex to the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card. But, as we’ll see in a minute, that might not be the best idea.
Finally, issuers generally won’t let you product change between a personal and business credit card.
Upgrading cards with Chase
Thanks to Chase’s 5/24 rule, many people start their credit card journey with Chase. So, Chase is often the first issuer for which a consumer may attempt to upgrade a card.
Chase may allow you to product change cards within the same family, although your account generally must be at least one year old. If you want to upgrade, you can call the number on the back of your card and ask about upgrade options.
Upgrading a Chase Sapphire Preferred to a Chase Sapphire Reserve
Chase offers two of the best travel rewards cards in the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve. However, you can only have one of these cards at a time. This means you have to make a choice — but what if you change your mind after a year? This is a great example of when to upgrade or downgrade a card: to help you pick the Chase Sapphire product that offers you the right mix of travel benefits and bonus categories with an annual fee you’re willing to pay.
People who are on the fence about the Chase Sapphire Reserve now have an even stronger incentive to pick the Chase Sapphire Preferred instead. After all, the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers an 60,000-point sign-up bonus after you spend $4,000 in the first three months from account opening. Meanwhile, the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a 50,000-point bonus after the same minimum spending requirement and duration. So, you might come out ahead applying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred now, earning the 60,000-point sign-up bonus and then upgrading to the Chase Sapphire Reserve after your first card anniversary.
Upgrading a Chase Freedom to a Chase Sapphire
Another common upgrade I’ve seen people make is from a Chase Freedom (no longer open to new applicants) or Chase Freedom Unlimited to a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve. It’s generally best to wait until you can apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve and earn the sign-up bonus. But, if you’ve used up all your 5/24 slots and don’t plan to be under 5/24 any time soon, upgrading might be your best option.
You can also downgrade in the reverse direction. If you can’t justify the annual fee on your Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred, downgrading to a no-annual-fee card like the Chase Freedom Flex or Chase Freedom Unlimited is a great way to keep your account open. You generally want to keep your accounts open so they continue to age and strengthen your credit report.
Upgrading cards with American Express
American Express has some of the stricter rules around upgrades, partly because it offers a wide mix of personal, business, cobranded, credit and charge cards. As mentioned above, you can’t product change between personal and business cards or between charge and credit cards, and you have to stay within a single “family” (be it Delta, Marriott, Membership Rewards, etc.).
Amex doesn’t formally require you to wait a year to upgrade or downgrade cards. And you may be able to upgrade earlier than a year — especially if you get a targeted upgrade bonus offer. However, when it comes to downgrades, I strongly recommend waiting at least a full year.
Amex has very broad language in its terms and conditions, giving it the ability to claw back your bonuses if it believes you’re gaming the system. One of the few types of abuse explicitly defined is downgrading a card within the first year. For example, here’s the relevant section of the welcome offer terms and conditions for the Delta Reserve Amex:
“If we in our sole discretion determine that you have engaged in abuse, misuse, or gaming in connection with the welcome offer in any way or that you intend to do so (for example, if you applied for one or more cards to obtain a welcome offer(s) that we did not intend for you; if you cancel or downgrade your account within 12 months after acquiring it; or if you cancel or return purchases you made to meet the Threshold Amount), we may not credit bonus miles and MQMs to your account. We may also cancel this Card account and other Card accounts you may have with us.”
Amex also has incredibly stringent rules for welcome bonus eligibility in the first place. Specifically, you can only earn the bonus on a credit card if you’ve never held that card before in your life. This means that upgrading a card, whether or not there’s any bonus involved, would preclude you from ever getting the bonus on that card again. This makes the opportunity cost of upgrading Amex cards incredibly high. As such, you might be better off just applying for a new account and canceling the card you don’t want.
Upgrading an Amex Gold to an Amex Platinum
The refreshed American Express® Gold Card is now compelling to many consumers. But for frequent travelers, it still has trouble competing with The Platinum Card® from American Express in terms of overall value-add.
I can see why many people would want to hold both an Amex Gold and a Platinum (which I personally do). But, for the reason mentioned above, I strongly suggest you not product change between these cards. Instead, it’s better simply to apply for the cards you want. After all, Amex regularly offers targeted bonuses on the Amex Platinum Card of up to 100,000 points (worth $2,000 based on TPG’s valuations) after meeting minimum spend requirements; subject to change at anytime. So, you’d be giving up $2,000 in future rewards by upgrading an Amex Gold to an Amex Platinum. The public offer is 75,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first 6 months of Card Membership.
Upgrading to the Bonvoy Brilliant or Hilton Aspire
It might make sense to upgrade an Amex card if you’re targeted for a bonus to upgrade to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Amex or the Hilton Aspire Card, the premium credit cards of each respective hotel chain. With the Hilton Aspire, we’ve seen upgrade bonuses of up to 150,000 Hilton points, which is the same as the best-ever public offer for new applicants on that card (after spending $4,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening).
In that case, upgrading and keeping your credit history is a better deal than closing one card to open a new one. It’s a bit of a tougher decision with Marriott, as upgrading to the Bonvoy Brilliant means giving up an entry-level card that comes with an up to 35,000-point anniversary free night. I can get several hundred dollars of value out of a 35,000-point free night, though. So, I would prefer to have as many Marriott Bonvoy cards as I can.
Upgrading cards with Citi
Between increased competition from other issuers and a painful devaluation of its ultra-luxe Citi Prestige® Card, Citi has lost a lot of ground in the travel rewards industry in recent years. You can upgrade a Citi credit card if you receive a targeted email invitation. You can also call the number on the back of your Citi card and ask whether there are any upgrade options.
Interestingly, Citi’s bonus eligibility requirements don’t seem to be affected by upgrades. Specifically, the landing page for the Citi Premier® Card notes:
Bonus ThankYou® Points are not available if you received a new cardmember bonus for Citi Rewards+℠, Citi ThankYou® Preferred, Citi ThankYou® Premier/Citi Premier® or Citi Prestige®, or if you have closed any of these accounts, in the past 24 months.
So, upgrading or downgrading Citi ThankYou Rewards cards without receiving new cardmember bonuses shouldn’t prohibit you from earning a bonus on a Citi ThankYou Rewards card every 24 months if you time your applications carefully. But check the language on your application before applying. Likewise, you’ll see similar language on most cobranded Citi 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.
Upgrading cards with Capital One
Capital One doesn’t offer a premium rewards card. But, Capital One does offer no-annual-fee versions of its popular products. Some Capital One credit cards, such as the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, state the following on the application page regarding the sign-up bonus:
Existing or previous Venture cardholders may not be eligible for this one-time offer.
Since even Capital One’s no-annual-fee cards sometimes offer sign-up bonuses, you may not want to upgrade or downgrade your cards. After all, doing so might make you ineligible for a sign-up bonus on the card in the future.
Capital One doesn’t seem to have a hard rule of how long your account has to be open to qualify for an upgrade. But, it’s a good idea to wait at least six months before attempting a product change.
Upgrading or downgrading a card can be a great way to manage your wallet without adding too many inquiries to your credit report. But, there are some significant implications to understand. Not only can a product change impact your eligibility for future welcome bonuses, but the rules vary by each issuer. Make sure to do your homework and wait an appropriate amount of time before making a change.
Featured image by 10’000 Hours/Getty Images.
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