There are some people out there that will tell you that credit cards are bad. However, I completely disagree with them. Credit cards aren’t bad. It’s the people that misuse them and go into credit card debt that give credit cards their bad rap. When used in the right way, credit cards can be a useful tool that one can leverage in their favor. I got my first credit card when I was in college. I knew from the very beginning that it didn’t give me any more money than I had in my bank account. When it comes to credit cards, since day one I’ve always followed three simple rules:
- Don’t charge more than you have.
- Always pay your entire balance before the due date.
- Maximize the benefits of your credit cards.
With the first two rules, I’ve never carried a balance, and thus, never have had to pay interest. And because I’ve never charged more than I had, I’ve never gone into credit card debt. But the main thing I want to focus on here is my third rule in the list – Maximize the benefits.
Maximizing Credit Card Benefits
There are thousands of credit cards out there to chose from. If you do your research, you can find credit cards that have rewards that suit your personal interests. When I first started, I was mostly interested in cashback cards and I was totally against cards that had annual fees. Why would anyone want to pay a fee to use a card? That all changed a few years ago, when I came across the Chase Sapphire Preferred card with it’s $95 annual fee. I felt like the benefits and the Chase Ultimate Rewards system was worth the $95 fee. The rest of this is going to sounds like an advertisement for Chase, but their Ultimate Rewards is one of the best credit card reward systems out there, especially if you like to travel like I do. So over the last 4 years, I’ve strategically used my credit cards to maximize my travel rewards. I’ve used my points to cover my flights to Peru, Japan (see The Best Meal Ever), and New York (twice). I still have about 250,000 points. I haven’t used any points in the last year because I’ve decided to save my points for a rainy day (when I’m unemployed ha). I accumulated all these points through signup bonuses and from spending. I use my credit cards to pay for pretty much everything, except where it doesn’t makes sense or credit card isn’t accepted. My thinking has always been “if I’m going to spend money, I might as well get something back in return“. It might seem like pennies at the time, but over time those pennies add up. And before you know it, you’re flying to the other side of the world on rewards points.
My Credit Cards
I have a total of 9 credit cards. But I pretty much only use 5 of them. The other 4 are older cards that I haven’t gotten rid of because of credit history and/or provide enough of a benefit where I’ve decided it was worth a spot in one of my secret hiding places. Since this post is about rewards, I won’t go into details on the other card benefits. But they all have some sort of travel/purchase protection and rental car insurance that give me more peace of mind when I travel. So here are the 5 cards I use that help me travel better.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
This one is my favorite. It has the best rewards and protection benefits.
- 3x points(3 points per $1 spent = 3%) on travel and dining
- $300 annual travel credit – every year you automatically get reimbursed for the first $300 spent under the travel category. This happens pretty quickly, usually the credit posts the same time the purchase posts.
- $100 credit every 5 years for Global Entry/TSA Pre-check applications
- 1:1 points transfer to several major airlines (United is included, which is what I usually fly on) – I haven’t tried this, but I would seriously consider transferring all my points to Singapore Airlines to fly in their new first class suites lol
- NO foreign transaction fees
- Free membership to Priority Pass Select – this is one of my favorite perks of the card. It gives you and your guests free access to certain travel lounges in airports around the world. This makes long layovers so much better. Some lounges aren’t that great, but some are. Even if I don’t have a long layover, if I have enough time, I’ll check one out just to see what it’s like.
- 50% more value when using your points to redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals, and cruises through the Ultimate Rewards site – that’s a 33% discount on travel. I will explain this in more detail below, but this is how I’ve saved so much on flights in the past.
It has a $450 annual fee. But when it was first introduced, it had a signup bonus of 100k points (it’s now 50k). After thoroughly analyzing the benefits and the signup bonus, I decided to apply for it and I have absolutely no regrets. Since I travel a lot, the $300 annual travel credit really makes the annual fee $150. But the Priority Select lounge access is well worth the other $150. And not to mention the amount of potential savings on booking travel through the UR site.
When I decided to start getting more serious about travel rewards and focused in on the Chase Ultimate Rewards system, this was the second Chase Ultimate Rewards card that I got. Every quarter it offers a 5% cashback on certain categories like gas, grocery stores, walmart, department stores, mobile payment app purchase (like Apple Pay), etc. So I really only use this card when I can get the 5% cashback, otherwise it’s 1% back on all purchases. The cashback is pretty much the same as 1x(or 5x) points under the Ultimate Rewards system.
Chase Freedom Unlimited
This is one of Chase’s newer cards. When I got the Sapphire Reserve, I downgraded my Sapphire Preferred to the Freedom Unlimited. It didn’t make sense to have both Sapphire cards. The Freedom Unlimited offeres 1.5% (1.5x points) cashback on all purchases. I use this one whenever I can’t get more than 1.5% on a purchase. So I use this card a lot.
Chase Ink Business Cash
I originally had the Ink Plus because it offered a bigger signup bonus – 50k points and first year annual fee ($95) waived. But after the first year, I “downgraded” to the Ink Cash. The main benefits are the same, so it didn’t really matter to me, which card I had after the signup bonus.
- 5% (5x points) on cable, internet, phone, and office supply stores (ex. Staples)
- 2% (2x points) gas and restaurants
Like the Freedom cards, the cashback is essentially the same as points. I have my cell phone and internet set up to automatically pay with this credit card to maximize the 5% reward. I buy gas on this card whenever gas is not in the 5% bonus category on the Freedom card.
Chase United MileagePlus Explore
So this one isn’t a part of the Chase Ultimate Rewards system. Normally I’m against cards that have rewards tied to specific brands/stores. But I found myself traveling to Asia a lot and United had the best flights for me. In early 2017 they targeted me with a special signup bonus of 70k miles, so I decided to signup for the first year. I think I’m going to keep the credit card, since I’m flying mostly with United and the benefits are worth the $95 annual fee.
- Priority boarding – I’m usually in Group 2. I used to always be in Group 5 and on full domestic flights it was always of risk of having to check my bag at the gate. Now I don’t have to worry about overhead bin space, since I’m one of the first passengers in the cheap seats to board.
- 2x miles on United purchases, 1x on everything else
- First checked bag on domestic flights free – Normally, I pack light on domestic trips. But this came in handy when I flew out West with a bunch of camping gear. I had to check in a bag.
- Two United Club Passes per year – Before I had Priority Pass Select, I didn’t know how the other half traveled. But now I’m spoiled. So these two club passes are great 🙂
- NO Foreign Transaction Fees – this makes it my backup credit card (to my Sapphire Reserve) when I travel overseas.
So I pretty much only use this card when I book my flights through United. In the year that I’ve had it, I’ve flown on United on trips to Taiwan, Utah/Arizona, Denver, and The Philippines. I think I got my $95’s worth.
Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR)
As you can see, each credit card in my wallet has a purpose and I strategically use each one to maximize the number of points earned with each purchase I make. I’ve accumulated over 400,000 points from signup bonuses and spending. One of the things I like the most about UR is that all my cards are shown under one account and I can transfer points among my cards. So each month I transfer all my points to my Sapphire Reserve card. I do this because of that 50% more value benefit I mentioned earlier. Here’s how it works when booking a flight through UR:
One thing I forgot to mention about UR is that you can redeem your points for cash (or credit on your credit card statement). But when you do this you only get 1x value for your points – 100pts = $1, which is 1%. In the above picture, the flight costs $946.56. Here I am paying for the entire flight using points. Normally $946.56 would equal 94,656 points. But as you can see in the example, it only costs me 63,104. If I were to redeem that amount of points for cash/credit, I would get $631.04 back. So in this example I’m saving 31,552 points (or $315.52), a 33% discount on the flight when redeeming points. That’s a 1.5x value (50% more) on my points (63,104*1.5 = 94,656). So getting cash back doesn’t really make sense at 1x value, unless you’re really in need of cash. Redeeming points for travel through UR is the way to go at 1.5x value.
Another great things about UR is that you can use points to redeem a portion of the flight cost. This helps when you don’t have enough points to cover the entire cost or for some reason you want to save some points for future travel.
Here I’m only using 50,000 points and it takes off $750 from the total cost (50,000 *1.5 = 75,000 = $750). I can pay the remaining balance due with my Sapphire Reserve and get 3x points.
Tips and Tricks
I’m always trying to find ways to maximize my points even more. Here are some ways that I’ve been able to do it:
- When the Freedom is giving 5% back on groceries, I will buy gift cards at the grocery store I usually shop at when the quarter is almost over. I know that I’m going to spend money on groceries at least once a week and I can’t do any better than 1.5%. So this is a great way to continue to get 5% back when the quarter is over.
- Getting 5% back on Amazon purchases – I buy a lot of things on Amazon, like my protein and my bcaa’s. So I go to Staples and purchase Amazon gift cards with my Ink Cash card and get 5% back.
- MileagePlus X App – this app allows you to buy gift cards to some stores, restaurants, and online stores. This doesn’t get me any extra UR points. But it does help me get extra United miles on top of the UR points I would normally get. Also, since I have the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card, I get 25% bonus miles on my purchases. When you buy a gift card on this app, it goes on your credit card as a purchase in that specific category. So if you buy a Panera card, it shows up as a restaurant/dining purchase. So for awhile I was using this app to purchase Staples gift cards at 3miles/$1 spent using my Ink card. So I got 5% back because its falls under Office Supply purchase. Then I would go into Staples and buy Amazon gift cards with the Staples gift card lol. Then one time the guy at the register said I couldn’t use a gift card to buy a gift card. I guess I missed that in the fine print. Fortunately I was able to use it at a different location. But I stopped doing that because I didn’t want to risk getting stuck with a Staples gift card. I’ve used this app to get Airbnb and Uber gift cards to get 2x United miles + 25% and receiving my 3x points on my Sapphire Reserve. Normally, I won’t buy a gift card on here unless I know I’m about to make a purchase at one of these places. Then I can easily go on the app and quickly buy the gift card. The gift cards work immediately.
- Using the Ultimate Rewards site – They have a big list of online partners that give extra points back. Two of my favorite online stores Backcountry and Moosejaw are on there. So whenever I need to buy something from them, I link through Chase to get the extra points.
It might sound like a lot of work just to get a few extra points or miles. But for me it’s worth the extra effort. Once I made it a habit to do these things, it hasn’t felt like work to me. Like I said before, these points add up over time.
So that’s how I have saved so much on flights in the past. It definitely pays to play the rewards game. I enjoy it and I’ve benefited from it tremendously. I’m not rich and I don’t buy many material things. Most of the money I spend goes towards travel, food, experiences, and the normal monthly bills. But I’ve been pretty deliberate and strategic on how I use my cards to get the most value from them. I figure if I’m going to be spending money on these things anyways, why not squeeze as much value out of it as I possibly can on it. There might be other rewards systems out there that fit you better, but for me Chase Ultimate Rewards continues to work well for me. I hope my explanation on the points system wasn’t too confusing. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Or if you have any tips to add, please let me know.
**Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Chase, so I don’t get any sort of commission or payment for talking about their products (except where I have provided a referral link). However, I do own stock in JPM Morgan Chase (JPM). Also, I am not a financial expert and I’m not advising anyone to go out and do what I’m doing. This system works for me and I thought others might find value in it. Keep in mind that the benefits/rewards and the Ultimate Rewards program could change at any time. Therefore, I would advise that you go to Chase Credit Cards for the most up-to-date information.