TPG parent company CEO Ric Elias describes surviving ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’

Sep 4, 2019

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On a cold afternoon in January 2009, Ric Elias was flying home to Charlotte, North Carolina, in seat 1D when he saw fear flood a flight attendant’s eyes. She had just heard the captain say: “Brace for impact.” Their plane’s engines had failed and the flight was attempting an emergency ditching on the Hudson River just moments after takeoff. What happened that day made the annals of aviation as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” with everybody surviving with no serious injuries.

Elias, a survivor of the US Airways flight 1549 with Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, is also the CEO and co-founder of Red Ventures, TPG’s parent company. He joined Talking Points to share how this near-death experience has shaped how he runs his business, his role as a father, and his life philosophy. On this episode, you’ll hear work-life balance advice, you’ll be inspired to support a cause you’re most passionate about and you’ll learn a bit more about TPG’s place in the Red Ventures ecosystem.

“I felt for a long time, I was somewhat dreaming. I would sit in places, and I would say to myself, “I’m not meant to be here.” And it gives me a great appreciation. The key is, how do you keep that feeling alive? A lot of people go through near death experiences, but they lose that urgency. And that’s been my purpose; find all sorts of ways to remind me that this is bonus time, and I have to make the most out of it.”

Elias, a Puerto Rico native, explains on the podcast how — after visiting his home for a “Rebuild Puerto Rico” campaign during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria — he realized he wanted to devote energy towards initiatives and programs that will bring talent and resources back to the island. One way he achieves this is through RV’s Forward787, a “movement focused on revitalizing Puerto Rico’s economy.” The “787” is a play on one of the telephone area codes used in Puerto Rico.

Forward787 puts individuals with a strong interest in revitalizing Puerto Rico’s economy through a 12-month program to develop business and technology skills. After the program, RV helps Forward787 graduates find business and technology roles at new or expanding high-growth companies. In this episode, Elias shares more about Forward787, as well as several other of RV’s social impact organizations like Golden Door Scholars, Road to Hire, and LifeSports.

More from this episode:

You can listen to this episode above, or find it wherever you get your podcasts! Please remember to subscribe to Talking Points, rate the show, and share with your friends. You can also follow Ric and Red Ventures on social; @ricelias and @redventures on Twitter, @_ricelias and @redventures on Instagram.


Brian Kelly: Welcome to Talking Points. I’m your host, Brian Kelly, and today, we’ve got a very special guest. He is a friend and a mentor to me, and I guess technically — actually not technically — he is my boss. Ric Elias is the co-founder and CEO of Red Ventures. And if you’ve never heard about Red Ventures, you’re about to learn exactly what we do, and they now own The Points Guy. Ric also has a really interesting past as an ultra-frequent traveler and was on one of the most historic flights in history. He was on US Airways Flight 1549 that went into the Hudson, so we’re going to hear all about that. Ric, thank you so much for joining us today. Let’s get to know you. So you were born in Puerto Rico.

Ric Elias: Born and raised. I actually moved to the U.S. to come to college and fell in love with this country, so I love two countries now.

Brian Kelly: Every Puerto Rican that I meet is ultra proud. What is it like to be Puerto Rican?

Ric Elias: You know, it is such a tiny island. It’s a 100 miles x 35 and is very insular. A lot of people think that Puerto Rico is the center of the world, and out of that comes great pride in being Puerto Rican, which is a beautiful thing. People are very passionate. They’re Latin. They wear their emotions on their sleeves. It’s just a really warm culture, and it’s a beautiful place.

Brian Kelly: You have lived across the country. You lived for a period of time in Japan. I hear you are Concierge Key for American Airlines, but they recently kicked you out.

Ric Elias: Oh, that’s a good story.

Brian Kelly: Not to embarrass you but…

Ric Elias: So I got, like,  2.5 million miles in American, and it’s because I was doing this monthly trip to Tokyo when I was in my early 20s. It was a great place.

Brian Kelly: Did you pick up the language when you were there?

Ric Elias: You know, I still struggle with English. Spanish is a lot easier. So I learned enough to be dangerous. I could order a beer and not get lost in a taxi, but that was about it.

Brian Kelly: So Puerto Rico has changed a lot I’m sure since you grew up there, especially with Hurricane Maria, which really devastated the island. Has Puerto Rico recovered?

Ric Elias: I flew in right after, and seeing Puerto Rico naked was something that I will never forget. All the trees were gone, and you could see things that you could never see before. And I had this feeling of the rebirth of Puerto Rico. If you go back now, not only does the island look back to normal, but I think finally most things, most services, are back up to speed, notwithstanding the complete political meltdown that we’ve had there in the last …

Brian Kelly: Three…

Ric Elias: … two months, three governors.

Brian Kelly: Yeah, three governors in a couple week period.

Ric Elias: And I’m not sure we’re done.

Brian Kelly: So you, as a successful Puerto Rican entrepreneur, you did a lot for the island. I think one of the most interesting things is the program 787 that you started at Red Ventures as a way to rebuild the island in a long-term form.

Ric Elias: So just quickly, when the hurricane happened, I got a lot of friends calling and saying, “Hey, we want to help, and you’re the one Puerto Rican we know, so whatever you do we’ll do.” And eventually we launched a campaign called Rebuild Puerto Rico. We built 42 homes for working families that were not going to get their homes replaced, and it was really neat to do that.

Ric Elias: But flying back from one of those trips, I realized that if I really wanted to help Puerto Rico, I needed to figure out a way to open up our platform and help talent return to Puerto Rico. You know, Puerto Rico has had a massive brain drain. There were 4 million Puerto Ricans, and now, the island has about 3.1, 3.2, so…

Brian Kelly: And is that after… Because I know even after Maria there was an even bigger rush out.

Ric Elias: Yeah, the stats are not clear. A lot of people left. Many have come back. But the population of Puerto Rico is expected to dip below 3 million over the next five years, so it’s a massive issue when you have that kind of brain drain.

Brian Kelly: And some of the key reasons for people leaving, is it mostly opportunity and jobs, or is it just the whole infrastructure that’s pretty much decrepit?

Ric Elias:  It is opportunity. It’s a long history there, but there’s really very little local industry. In Puerto Rico, there was this 936 law where it created a lot of manufacturing jobs. Those got phased out about 15 years ago. So companies stopped investing in infrastructure and jobs left. Puerto Rico’s been in a recession for over a decade. So while we have enjoyed this massive boom time all over the world, Puerto Rico has been in a massive recession. And I think because we’re U.S. citizens, when you’re born there, it’s really easy to get on a plane, and many people have family here or in Orlando or in other places, so it becomes a much easier immigration story than it will be in other countries where it’s not as easy.

Brian Kelly: So your idea to rebuild Puerto Rico is to invest in … incentivize people to return to the island, and the 787 program is the vehicle to do that.

Ric Elias: It’s been really neat. So on that plane ride I said, “You know what? If I’m honest with myself, this is the time.” And we made an announcement that we would train Puerto Ricans in Charlotte for 15 months, and we will send them back with real capital and some digital assets and start building a real digital economy there. And it’s been fabulous. The first cohort of 35 is going back this December.

Brian Kelly: And so are we employing them, or is the goal for us to get them in with other companies?

Ric Elias: So the first phase is they’re going to move back with some of our smaller digital assets that they will run out of there, and then we’re going to look at opportunities to start from there, including some stuff in tourism. I think Puerto Rico …

Brian Kelly: There’s a tech hub too in San Juan, right? Before Maria, there were a lot of crypto startups, and I remember hearing about a lot of people were moving businesses.

Ric Elias: It’s neat. There’s a startup community there. It just needs an ecosystem. A startup community that doesn’t have kind of the next layer of infrastructure and investment, it’s hard for it to grow, but I think Puerto Rico is on the right track in that dimension.

Brian Kelly: I know one of the things we keep hearing from our readers is doing TPG en Espanol, so maybe we’ll have to start that group in the Puerto Rico office once that opens. Are we taking more people in 787? Have we taken everyone? If people listening know people who are interested, is there a way to apply?

Ric Elias: The next cohort four will start in April. So right now, we’re looking for others that want to apply. It’s very competitive. It’s very hard to get in. And then we’ll have a class for college graduates in late summer.

Brian Kelly: It’s a paid position. You work at Red Ventures. I know at The Points Guy, we’ve had 787 cohorts, and the level of energy that they bring to the business is amazing. I remember even recently, your birthday, there was a whole Puerto Rican celebration, some drums. It was amazing.

Ric Elias: They’re so passionate about the island, and they’re super smart. They’re as capable as anybody that we have in our platform, but they’re super passionate about Puerto Rico. And I think that passion is what we’re trying to ignite, and going back home will be the beginning of a long journey back. I think we can become a role model of what can happen in the future, make talent, stay in the island or retain to the island. And the most important thing is this: Puerto Rico is inside of the U.S. in terms of its border, so to speak, so serving the U.S. market versus serving Puerto Rico is the key to success. How do we base digital businesses in Puerto Rico?

Brian Kelly: All right. Let’s take a quick break right here. BRB.

[Commercial break]

Brian Kelly: I highly recommend — Ric has a TED talk, “The three things I learned when my plane crashed.” And Ric was on one of the most historic flights in history. He was on US Airways Flight 1549 that went into the Hudson. So you were on that flight. Charlotte-New York was your… You had been doing that route for a long time, right?

Ric Elias: Right. So it was the ultimate gift, Brian, to basically have 90 seconds to say goodbye to your life with 100% certainty that you’re going to die. Not 90% — you’re either going to blow up or break into pieces. It’s January 15th in New York City. It’s cold as can be. I was heading back home to Charlotte. It was about three o’clock. And so you have 90 seconds. I was in a great seat because I can see the flight attendants.

Brian Kelly: You were in 1D, right?

Ric Elias: In 1D and as soon as Sully said, “Brace for impact,” it was terror in their eyes, so I knew it was over. Life was over. And it’s amazing what happens when you’re not suffering. You’re not struggling, but you know it’s over.

Brian Kelly: So you take off… Right as you’re taking off, did you hear the birds go in?

Ric Elias: Yeah. It was about 4,000 or so feet up in the air. There’s a massive explosion, almost like a pipe bomb.

Brian Kelly: So it was loud.

Ric Elias: Like, completely. We turned around immediately. There was smoke in the cabin. You can see Manhattan, right …

Brian Kelly: So you’re in the front, yeah.

Ric Elias: … you can see that we turned, so at best, everybody knew something happened to an engine. No one knew it was both engines, and no one knew that we couldn’t start it.

Brian Kelly: Being in row one, you could see the flight attendants. That was the first thing you hear from the captain.

Ric Elias: And the first thing they hear. And in their training, what you find out is that means we are not landing at a runway. So there’s about two minutes before he says anything, and when you look at all the records, they were trying to restart the engines, and they couldn’t. And they were trying to decide, do they go back to LaGuardia, so they got clearance in LaGuardia. They couldn’t land. They got clearance in Teterboro.

Brian Kelly: You have two beautiful children. I think your daughter was in, what, first grade at the time. In those minutes of fate, the number one thing you’re just thinking about is your family?

Ric Elias: Kind of as we’re coming down, and I’m counting down in my head. You travel enough, and you know when you’re going to hit even if you don’t see the runway, right? You just have this feeling. You can feel it.

Brian Kelly: Were you trying … were people trying to use their cell phones?

Ric Elias: Yeah. I was in the first row. I had a brand new cell phone, and I could not get connection. So my thing is spinning and spinning and spinning, and then at some point, I just put it down. And I remember grabbing my arm and saying to myself, “I love you,” and thinking to myself, “I just wish I could see my kids grow up.” That really was the only thing that I was going to miss. I was really sad. I didn’t want to die, but it wasn’t scary, which in itself was clarifying.

Ric Elias: And I remember calling… We were in a ferry that picked us up, and someone lent me a phone. And by then, my wife had found out that I was on that plane. She thought I was dead. She’s in the pediatrician. She can’t think straight. And I call from a strange number. She thinks it’s the police calling to tell her, “Hey, your husband,” or something, right? And I call and say, “Hey, honey. I’m okay,” and you know, massive scream, and I could hear my kids crying.

Brian Kelly: So at the TPG Awards this past year, we invited Sully, and you gave an amazing speech. What was it like to meet Sully? Because that was the first time since that day… Did you even see him on the river? He was taken elsewhere after the crash.

Ric Elias: No, I did see him on the river. So we ended up on the same side, and after a while I see him standing by himself. He still is kind of pretty dressed, pretty sharp, like he is …

Brian Kelly: You guys were in the same boat off the side.

Ric Elias: We ended up in the same pier. I’m not sure we were on the same boat. So I went to him and said… I didn’t know his name at the time. I said, “Captain,” I introduce myself, and I said, “I just want to thank you for saving our lives.” And he said something to me that I say to myself all the time when someone thanks me for something. You know what he said? He said, “I was just doing my job.” And I often think if we just viewed our success as a responsibility to do our jobs and not as a privilege, I think life will be a little better for everybody.

Brian Kelly: That’s great. And you actually got on a plane that night.

Ric Elias: It’s so funny because a lot of people are like … I went up and said, “Hey, when is the next flight?” And they’re like, “Oh, my God. He got hit in the head. What happened to him?” And I said, “The way I figured out was really simple is, if I don’t get on this flight, I may never get on a flight. And if I get on this flight, and it goes down, it was me God was coming to see, so what are the odds? And if I get on this flight, and it goes down, and I survive again then Oprah Winfrey’s got nothing on me.”

Brian Kelly: Did you really go from the Hudson back to LaGuardia?

Ric Elias: Oh, yeah. They took us to a hotel, and then at the hotel, I’m like, “When’s the next flight?” And they’re like, “Holy cow. Okay, great.”

Brian Kelly: So you get home that night. How do you … Did you go to work the next day?

Ric Elias: I did. I did the next morning. I needed to see my extended family, which was work, and it felt cleansing, and I just needed to go and realize… I felt for a long time like I was somewhat dreaming. I would sit in places, and I would say to myself, “I’m not meant to be here.” And it gives me a great appreciation. The key is, how do you keep that feeling alive? A lot of people go through near-death experiences, but they lose that urgency, and that’s been my purpose, (to) find all sorts of ways to remind me that this is bonus time, and I have to make the most out of it.

Brian Kelly: Would you say that this played a role in Red Ventures and what it is today, being a behemoth? Would you say that there’s a correlation there about the way you do business and thinking less fearfully in the way you do business?

Ric Elias: Yeah, for sure. I thought that Red Ventures, we would grow it and then sell it. And I realized I wanted to live the rest of my life out of this platform, and that I could do all the things that meant something to me around making a difference for others inside of the company and not even have to retire, do it after this life. So integrating all of it for me was very clarifying.

Ric Elias: And I realized that it doesn’t matter. Red Ventures one day will go to zero. Drive out of Facebook right now, and on the sign, you see Sun Microsystems. It’s a privilege for me to work with people like you, to have the kind of opportunities we have to learn and grow, and to be in a time, in a place, where there’s so much… Regardless of what the media says, these are the greatest of times to be alive.

Brian Kelly: And so it’s been an amazing gift to get that second chance. And so did that change the way that you parent? How did you change as a dad after that?

Ric Elias: You know, a lot. There’s been no more humbling role in my life than being a dad because so many things that you think are right and so many things that you take as true facts are not. And as a father, you learn more about yourself than you learn in any other role, and it’s been wonderful. I have two amazing teenagers that I love to tears.

Brian Kelly:  And an amazing wife Brenda, who…

Ric Elias: Yeah, she’s the best.

Brian Kelly: … is an amazing person.

Ric Elias: But it took a while for me to realize that that was my job in this world first and foremost. I have many, many other jobs. But first and foremost, the role of a father, and doing my very best to help my kids be the best version of themselves, was my role.

Brian Kelly: Being a successful entrepreneur, a lot of times you’re always grown up. You can either give your life to work or give your life to family. What would you say to someone like me who wants to do both things?

Ric Elias: Why is it an or and not an and? It shouldn’t be an or. A lot of people ask me, a lot of our employees, “So how do you think about work/life balance?” And I said, “There’s no such thing. There’s the integration, the harmony. You’ve got to live in harmony between what you do for a living and how you live your life, and you have to mix them together.”

Ric Elias: But I tell you, there were lots of great stories of just amazing people in New York City just giving everything. We got pulled into Pier 32, the bulk of us were there waiting. And they’re thinking it’s terrorism. They think it’s all this thing. So they’re interviewing all of us. And this first responder is amazing. You’re sitting there. It was super cold, and there’s a guy that had a concession stand, and he opened it up and said, “Take whatever you want,” to everybody. So we wiped him out.

Ric Elias: So on my way out, I said, “Listen, sir, I would like to send you some money. I don’t have my wallet. I don’t have anything. But you’ve been incredibly generous.” And you know what he said to me, Brian? He said, “Don’t worry. I was going out of business, so it doesn’t matter.” So here’s a guy, has nothing left…

Brian Kelly: … but gave it all.

Ric Elias: … and basically probably his last of his savings, and he gave it to other people. And it reminds me of, we are at a best as a country when crises hit. And I don’t know why do we lower ourselves to settle into what party are we from, what race are we from. Why does it take a crisis to be Americans above other things? And that moment to me was so pure. I felt the compassion of others and all of that.

Brian Kelly: Did you ever hear from him again?

Ric Elias: You know, I tracked him down. We’ll leave it there.

Brian Kelly: All right. We’re going to take a quick break right now. I’ll see you in a minute.

[Commercial break]

Brian Kelly: So I sold The Points Guy in 2012 to Bankrate, which was a publicly-traded company. And so it’s been over 18 months now that Red Ventures bought Bankrate, which … I didn’t even know Bankrate was for sale, and one day, I get a call saying, “Hey, Brian. We need you to talk to Ric Elias, the CEO of Red Ventures.”

Ric Elias: You were in Mexico.

Brian Kelly: I was in Mexico. We were filming some video content for the Citi Prestige that was about to relaunch. And I remember they were just like, “In 10 minutes, you’ve got to talk to this guy, Ric.” And I was furiously Googling you and Red Ventures, and everyone’s saying, “Oh, it’s like the Google of the East Coast.” I’m like, “That doesn’t narrow it down. What exactly do they do?” So you co-founded it in 2000. It’s been almost 20 years. I know there’ve been a lot of lifetimes, but how do you explain today what Red Ventures does?

Ric Elias: What is really fun is digitization of every industry’s just starting. And we believe that there’s going to be a few winners in every big industry out there that aggregates consumer interest by providing value to the consumer. So we own about 30 different kind of digital properties, The Points Guy being one of them. We do deep integrations with our partners so that we can provide a much better customer experience. And over time, the bet is that we will have a data repository that will give us a competitive advantage giving consumers what they want in our own network. So we’re early in our journey. We’re 19 years into this, and every 18 months it feels like we’re doing something different, and it’s super exciting. And we have 200 employees in London and 100 in Brazil and 2,000 in the U.S. We have offices everywhere, so a bit of a mess, but a fun mess.

Brian Kelly: And this year I know we’ve acquired two big brands, Healthline and

Ric Elias: Probably never has been more true that you can die of indigestion as well of starvation. I think we got plenty going on right now.

Brian Kelly: And so Red Ventures made a name for itself really working with DIRECTV and having sales centers, basically connecting online to offline sales, right?

Ric Elias: Yeah. 2008, 2009, 2010, that was the value proposition. And we helped a lot of brands kind of become digitized in their acquisition. And what we realized is that it was better to own the brands and then connect deeply to the partners than just to work on behalf of the partners.

Brian Kelly: How have you seen the culture evolve at Red Ventures, and how would you describe our culture to someone who is an outsider?

Ric Elias: I know you had Danny Meyer here recently, and I’m friends with Danny. And I heard Danny once said about culture that it’s like a shark. If it stops swimming, it dies. Our culture has changed a lot. And the key, I think, for leadership is to make sure that the culture is swimming in kind of the right direction. Our fundamental belief is culture is a competitive advantage. It is hard work. It’s thousands and thousands of decisions over many years. And if you’re not careful, you can ruin it quickly. But if you get the right culture, you can go through a lot of evolution and change and come out on top, and I think that’s our bet.

Brian Kelly: And in terms of the future, where do you see Red Ventures in several years? So we have provided tons of value to our partners, huge brands. You now own brands like The Points Guy and Bankrate and Healthline. Is the future all about our own properties, or is it still finding more strategic partners to work with?

Ric Elias: I think it’s the integrated marketplace driven by our own brands. And I think, today, we have 30 brands. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have 50 brands. We’re incubating a bunch of brands, as you know, and we have lots of plans and ideas. But an important element is we’re a private company, we have no desire to go public, and that gives us a level of freedom to do things that other companies can’t do. We’re not preparing ourselves for a photo op moment when we’re going to go public. We are going to do this and continue to do this for a long, long time. So we have this very long clock, and what is unique about that is that it allows us to behave differently.

Ric Elias: We believe that social impact out of our platform is as important as the revenue that we produce. Forward787 is only one out of four massive social impact initiatives we have, and we’re super proud of that. And there’s more to come there, too.

Brian Kelly: I mean, I think part of our culture is giving back; we say, “Leaving the woodpile higher than we found it.” So some of the other programs that we have, like the Golden Door Scholars, I think these are really amazing programs. How did they come about?

Ric Elias: They usually start with a phone call on a Saturday where I call somebody who goes, “I have an idea.” And the great thing about our culture is a movement takes a follower. And once you get somebody to say, “I like the idea,” all of a sudden, we get a movement. So Golden Door Scholars, which you mentioned, is a scholarship and mentorship program for undocumented kids, DACA kids. And we have about 350 of these kids now over the last seven years, and our graduation rate is 99%.

Ric Elias: And it’s a payback model. So they don’t have to get a loan. They don’t have to do anything other than put someone else through an education that needs it in the future, right? So it’s all pay it forward. And we believe in high bars. This is not a hand down. This is hand up. So they have to perform. They have to keep a 3.0, and they have to be super committed. And it’s fun to see. It’s about 70% females and all minorities and all studying really valuable fields for the future of our country.

Brian Kelly: Who should work at Red Ventures, and maybe, who shouldn’t? If someone’s listening saying, “Oh, this Red Ventures company sounds really exciting,” we’re on the forefront, we’re very profitable and innovative, what is the mentality of someone you want to hire entry-level at Red Ventures?

Ric Elias: In many ways it’s lot of the people we have here in your office — it’s super ambitious people, but for something greater than themselves. Our belief is that people stay in a company if they’re growing, and when they stop growing is when they leave. So our responsibility is to make people uncomfortable by keep putting opportunities in front of them. So someone that wants to get in that kind of training, I think that we have thousands of these people now that are doing amazing things at a much younger age than they would do anywhere else.

Brian Kelly: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned by acquiring The Points Guy? We’re not exactly a digital media enterprise. Our business model’s different. We’ve got a very active reader base, but we spend a lot of money on brand. And a lot of things we do don’t necessarily make money right off the bat, but we’re into this long-term brand game and giving our readers tons of value. And to do that, we need really smart people.

Ric Elias: The Points Guy to me is at the forefront of the consumer brand in our portfolio. And I know we’re super excited about some of this stuff that you’ve got coming out on your app and all these things. And what we’ve learned is that if you create value for your consumers, you can build a great business, and that’s, I think, the epitome of what The Points Guy is.

Brian Kelly: What do you see in five years, The Points Guy brand?

Ric Elias: We’re just getting started, dude. I bet you five years from now we have… Really, I love the romantic notion that we unite through travel. We unite through discovery. We unite through experiences. And I think The Points Guy really is a platform to unite but also help us dream. And we think that there’s many other ways we can take this brand, and you will be leading this effort. But this is just the beginning.

Brian Kelly: Just the beginning, I can vouch for that. Ric, I just want to say thank you for, like I said, being a mentor and a friend to me and truly breathing a lot of fresh new life into The Points Guy. I was proud of what we built before, but I think being a part of Red Ventures has given us new purpose. And to be working with the smartest people in so many different industries, what you’ve created, I’m honored to be a part of. So thank you for joining Talking Points Podcast today.

Ric Elias: Thanks for having me. And you know the feeling is mutual, and I’m just excited about the journey ahead.

Brian Kelly: Likewise. Safe travels, Ric.

Ric Elias: Thank you.

Brian Kelly: That’s it for this episode of Talking Points. Please make sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcast. Tune in weekly and tell your friends — we love our listeners. And many thanks to our guest, Ric Elias, co-founder and CEO of Red Ventures. For more information on RV and Ric’s work with Forward787 and other organizations, visit Thanks to my amazing production team at TPG and for Ric’s awesome assistant Alexandra Garrison, and to Margaret Kelley and Caroline Schagrin of our podcast team. I’m Brian Kelly. Safe travels, everyone.

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