Cutting to the Chase

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What makes Chase Ultimate Rewards so fucking great? Thought you’d never ask. These reasons:

  • If I’ve got both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Freedom Unlimited cards, I can earn close to 2 points for every dollar I spend, which I can transfer to United frequent flyer miles (versus about 1.1 mile per dollar spent on my United MileagePlus card).
  • If I don’t feel like flying United, I can transfer the points to six other airline programs and four hotel programs.
  • If none of those programs do it for me, or redeeming United miles doesn’t pay off, I can buy tickets with points, for whatever airline I want to, at a very advantageous rate (67 points per cash price dollar).
  • Caroline and I can freely consolidate our points.
  • I can just claim the points as cash, at a better rate than other points cards offer (100 points per dollar back) if there’s some travel thing I can’t book through Chase or a frequent flyer program.

Since math hurts, let me put this all another way: We’re now getting at least twice as much bang for our buck from our credit cards without having to do anything or pay significantly more. That means business class instead of economy, or two trips instead of one. And if United doesn’t cut it, we can fly someone else. Because I can always convert the Ultimate Rewards points to United miles anyway, there is no downside. And there ain’t no other rewards program that provides all of the above as favorably. It’s like my MileagePlus or Amex card on roids.

If you just want to know what you need in order to earn Ultimate Rewards points, because you’re too lazy and impatient to read the rest of this: Get a Chase Sapphire Reserve card, and a Chase Freedom Unlimited card. Spend $4,000 in the first three months on the Sapphire Reserve, and $500 on the Freedom Unlimited. Once you’ve hit those, use the Freedom Unlimited for everything; you’ll get 1.5 points per dollar spent. Or, if you’re more ambitious, use the Sapphire Preferred specifically for restaurants, travel, lodging, and transportation (including taxi, MTA, AirBnB, parking, rental car, etc); you’ll get 3 points per dollar spent. The end.

You’re still here? Ok, here are all the Chase cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points. At minimum, you want the combo of the Sapphire Reserve (or the Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Plus), and the Freedom Unlimited. If you want to wring out every last Ultimate Rewards point, you can consider the others, too.

Sapphire Reserve: $450/year (but really $150), 100,000 point (!) signup bonus if you spend $4,000 in the first three months. You earn 3 points per dollar spent on restaurants (the whole gamut from McDonalds to Per Se), travel, lodging (including AirBnb, etc), and transportation (including taxi, subway, Uber, tolls, parking, rental car, bridge tolls, etc); 1 point per dollar on everything else. It’s really $150/year because you automatically receive a yearly credit for the first $300 that you spend on travel, transportation, or lodging. This card also lets you buy tickets on any airline at 67 Ultimate Rewards points per cash price dollar.

Sapphire Preferred: $95/year, first year free, 50,000 point signup bonus if you spend $4,000 in the first three months. This is a lower-cost alternative to the Sapphire Reserve that has a lower bonus and earns less well. Where you get 3 points on the Reserve, you get 2 points on the Preferred; and where the Reserve lets you buy airline tickets at 67 points per dollar, the Preferred costs 80 per dollar. (In case you care, both cards are made of metal, but the Preferred looks much nicer.)

Ink Plus for Business: $95/year. 60,000 point signup bonus if you spend $5,000 in the first three months. Additional 10,000 point bonus and first year free if you apply in person at a Chase branch through August 2016. You earn 5 points per dollar, up to $50,000 spent, on phone, cable, internet, and office supply stores; 2 points per dollar, up to $50,000 spent, for hotel and gas; 1 point per dollar for everything else. This card also lets you buy tickets on any airline at 80 Ultimate Rewards points per cash price dollar.

The following three cards are all nominally cash back cards, but they actually earn Ultimate Rewards points. The trick is that you also need the Sapphire ReserveSapphire Preferred, or the Ink Plus to use the points for travel; otherwise, the points are only good for cash back and shopping.

Freedom Unlimited: No fee. $150 (15,000 point) signup bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months. You get 1.5 points per dollar spent on everything, and that’s that. Using this card for most or all purchases is how you get at least 1.5 Ultimate Reward points per dollar spent.

Freedom: No fee. $150 (15,000 point) signup bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months. You get 1 point per dollar for most things, but 5 points per dollar, up to $1500, on quarterly rotating categories. This year, it’s gas, groceries, restaurants, and holiday shopping; you have to “activate” each category at the start of each quarter. If that’s not too much headache for you, you could add this card, and use it when and where you can earn 5 points per dollar spent.

Ink Cash for Business: No fee. $200 (20,000 point) signup bonus if you spend $3,000 in the first three months. This is a no-fee alternative to the Ink Plus, with a lower signup bonus, $25K limits instead of $50K, and 2 points per dollar spent on restaurants, rather than hotels.

You could also consider holding (but not spending on) the United MileagePlus Explorer or MileagePlus Club cards. If you have one of these, you can get some United elite status benefits without actually having to earn elite status.

So, boom: you get the Sapphire Reserve, and the Freedom Unlimited, and pick your spots. Or if you don’t want to think about it, you leave the Sapphire Preferred at home and just use the Freedom Unlimited all the time, which at least gets you 1.5 points per dollar spent. (But I’d rather get 3 points when I can get 3 points, because points mean travel.)

Chase is apparently picky about their approvals — they allegedly won’t give you these cards if you’ve had five credit cards opened, with anyone, in the past 24 months, though there seem to be occasional exceptions. You should probably start by asking for the Sapphire Reserve, then wait at least a month, then get the Freedom Unlimited. Also, don’t be a dick on the phone. One way around this “5/24 rule” seems to be going into a branch and asking not for the card you want, but instead if you are pre-approved for any credit cards, then applying if they tell you that you’re pre-approved for the card you’re looking for.

I also would wait until you hit your spending requirement before getting the next card because it would be stupid to take on two spending requirements at once. If you find yourself short near the end though, buy yourself an Amazon gift card, ideally using the MileagePlus X app for your phone; that way you’ll get a minimum of 1 United mile per dollar spent, plus the Ultimate Rewards points you get for the charge. Points and miles mean travel, dammit. And I know you buy shit on Amazon. Everyone buys shit on Amazon.

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