Points Are Better Than Miles, Dammit

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On this Independence Day, I’m going to celebrate living in a free country by planning to exercise my right to travel to other ones. It’s a pretty good way to appreciate what we’ve got here, especially after you’ve been to truly fucked up places like North Korea.

In the interest of not burying the lede, this post is about how you don’t want to earn miles on a United card, or any other airline card. You do want to earn points in the right credit card rewards program, which, if you sometimes fly United, is Chase Ultimate Rewards. Hear me now, believe me later.

I live in New York, I like to fly, I like United, so I wanted both Caroline and me to earn in their loyalty program, MileagePlus, so we could sometimes travel nicely for free. And so we did — a couple of years ago, like any good consumer slaves, we were lured by the nice person at a table in Newark airport with a draping that that declared 30,000 MILES, NO FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEE. Why, that’s more than enough for a domestic round trip! There’s two of us, so two round trips! Hooray! I filled out the form like Pavlov’s dogs at Notre Dame.

This was not stupid at all, but, as I recently learned, it wasn’t maximum smart, either. Our Chase United MileagePlus Explorer cards have served us well. They work in a simple fashion, which is spend a dollar, get a mile. (Or two miles when buying a United ticket.) You probably have some card with some airline that does this right now. I already got this highly advanced concept down because that had been what my Citi American AAdvantage card had been doing for the previous ten years. The cards also offered us some of the perks of status before we had it: free bag, early boarding. It also offers a couple of United Club passes each year, but frankly, not being an alcoholic, I think those clubs are overrated.

So, we earned, we flew, yay. Flash forward to three months ago, when I looked at the decrepitude of my wallet, and considered that our business card earns American Express Membership Reward points, our shared card earns American miles, and our individual cards earn United miles. Even the screaming child kicking my seat in the row behind me can probably figure out that this is not efficient. So I set about researching what is.

Obviously, it would make sense to play in one of the programs we were already in. American Express Membership Rewards seemed flexible in principle, since you can transfer them to various airline and hotel frequent traveler programs, but I have found, and continue to find, that they are a pain in the ass to actually redeem. This is because Delta is their main domestic airline, and Delta’s redemptions are shit — you can never seem to fly on 25K miles except when tickets are so cheap you’d pay cash anyway. Internationally, some carriers charge over a thousand dollars in fuel charges when booking award tickets. As for hotels, Starwood’s the biggie there, but it costs three Amex points to get one Starwood point, so that’s full of fail. We’ve got points with nowhere to put them. I’m holding out for a flight on Alitalia or Hawaiian to burn those fuckers.

No Amex, and it was stupid to go to back to American, so I figured let’s just get a shared United MileagePlus card and a business United MileagePlus card and be done with it. The problem is then we’re stuck on United only. And if we need 60,000 miles apiece to go somewhere, and Caroline has 90,000 and I have 30,000, we’re the proverbial screwed. (I think that was in Proverbs, anyway.)

I remember my brother Max insisting that Chase Sapphire card was the way to go. I didn’t really listen to him, because I didn’t really get it. I didn’t understand how it was meaningfully different than the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card I already had. I also couldn’t imagine that it wasn’t an also-ran to Amex, who is sort of the big brand when it comes to travel rewards.

But a billion hours of research later, Max is right. Chase Ultimate Rewards points are juicy and sweet compared to Amex’s dry and bland points, and way more flexible and lucrative than straight United miles. I will explain why tomorrow. Now we have a Chase Ink Plus for our business, a Chase Sapphire Preferred for our shared card, and a Chase Freedom Unlimited for our individual cards. We are going to fucking spend our way to someplace awesome.

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