The best credit card for earning points toward free travel
If you want to earn points toward free travel, spend more than a couple thousand dollars a month, and travel more than a few times a year, the first card I recommend to almost everyone is the Chase Sapphire Reserve. If you already have one, feel free to skip ahead — I’ll be back next issue with some tips on how to get even more out of it. Otherwise, read on.
Perhaps you’ve heard about this card because of its popularity with millennials, its amusingly hefty metal construction, or its seemingly high ($450) annual fee. But it’s also an excellent value, especially if you spend money on dining and travel.
Its main benefits include:
- A $300 credit on travel spending per year
- 3 points per dollar earned on travel and dining purchases, plus 1 point per dollar on everything else
- No foreign transaction fees
- Up to $100 in credit to apply for Global Entry or TSA Pre√
- Access to some airport lounges via the Priority Pass program
- Travel cancellation and interruption insurance
Chase is also currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in your first 3 months — worth at least $750 in travel.
The annual travel credit simply means that your first $300 spent on travel — including airfare and airline fees, Uber and taxi rides, hotels and Airbnbs, etc. — are credited back to your card. Since you’re going to spend that $300 per year anyway (or you definitely don’t need this card) you can think of this as effectively lowering the annual fee to $150.
The real value of the Sapphire Reserve comes from its points program. Chase points are called Ultimate Rewards points, and with the Sapphire Reserve, you earn 3 points per dollar spent on dining and travel, plus 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. If you travel or eat at restaurants frequently, the points can multiply quickly.
As I’ll repeat over and over, the value of a points card is only partially based on the rate at which you earn points. The other important factor is the rate at which you redeem points — and this is where Chase offers a particularly good deal.
For starters, the Sapphire Reserve lets you redeem points for airfare and hotel bookings via its travel website at 1.5 cents per point. This isn’t the best rate, but you have total flexibility and no blackout dates, and these flights generally count as revenue flights toward airline status, so I sometimes book them here when I’d rather not spend cash.
So your minimum return from dining and travel purchases — the amount of free travel you can book via this portal — is 4.5% back: 3 points per dollar spent, multiplied by 1.5 cents per point redeemed. That’s pretty good, especially if you spend a lot at restaurants. Your return from “everything else” purchases is a minimum 1.5% back.
I say minimum because Chase also lets you transfer points to 13 partner points programs, such as United Airlines, British Airways, Southwest, Air France, Hyatt, IHG, and Marriott hotels, and more.
These let you book award travel — including international business- and first-class flights and expensive hotel rooms — at a rate that’s potentially much higher. That’s why many points experts value Chase points around 2 cents per point. That rate implies a return around 6% on dining and travel spending and 2% back on “everything else” spending — an even better deal.
As an example, if you spend $1,000 a month on travel and dining and $1,000 per month on everything else, you’re earning roughly $700 to $900 worth of Chase points per year.
I’ve used the Chase Sapphire Reserve as my primary card — particularly for dining and travel purchases — since it launched two summers ago, and have already earned several free flights and hotel nights. I’ve booked American Airlines “revenue” flights to Hong Kong and Los Angeles, transferred points to Hyatt for nights at the Andaz Tokyo, and converted them to British Airways Avios for short flights in Europe and North America.
(You can also redeem Chase points for “cash back” statement credits or gift cards at a lower rate of 1 cent per point, and apply Chase points to Amazon purchases at an even lower rate. I don’t recommend this, because it’s a less-good deal than travel booking. But if you insist…)
And I’m hardly alone in recommending it. The Wirecutter, which did its typically exhaustive analysis, also calls it the best travel rewards credit card “for serious travelers or high spenders.” It also won The Points Guy’s “battle of the premium credit cards.” While everyone has their own points needs and wants, the Chase Sapphire Reserve is my favorite all-around premium card.
You can apply here.