New To Miles and Points: There Are 2 (And Only Two) Rewards Cards to Consider

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If you’re new to frequent flyer miles, the single fastest way to rack up miles quickly is with a rewards credit card. Roughly two-thirds of miles are earned with activities other than flying and the number one way is through credit cards.

The best rewards programs are the ones that let you transfer points to your choice of airlines. You pick later where to put the miles based on,

  • Where you want to go
  • Who has the award you need
  • What points you may already have and which account you want to top off to have enough to redeem the award you want

The best transferable currencies are American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards.

There’s one classic piece of advice for people new to the miles and points hobby, and then there’s an option to consider that’s a bit newer.

The classic is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. It offers 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. The card earns double points on travel and dining at restaurants. It also offers primary collision when you rent cars. Points transfer to:

  • Star Alliance: United, Singapore Airlines
  • oneworld: British Airways, Iberia
  • SkyTeam: Air France KLM
  • Non-alliance: Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue, Aer Lingus
  • Hotels: Hyatt, Marriott, IHG


Singapore Airlines Business Class

There are several reasons this makes the best starter card.

  • Chase’s “5/24”. Chase only wants to approve people for rewards cards that have had fewer than 5 new cards in the last 24 months. So you want to start with Chase cards before getting something from other issuers.

  • Sapphire Preferred has the best bonus so racks up points quickly. There’s no personal card with a better initial bonus that’s also realistically achievable (it doesn’t have a huge spending requirement to earn).

  • The card works as a ‘Chase hub’ meaning that you can get other no annual fee cards later that earn points quickly on specific kinds of spending – even up to 5 points per dollar in some categories – but you need a card like Sapphire Preferred so you can move the other card’s points into an account that lets you transfer to airline miles. (The no annual fee cards do not permit this on their own.)

  • Positions you to get a Sapphire Reserve later. Sapphire Reserve is anecdotally difficult to get, with high credit scores and average incomes. It’s also a Visa Infinite which means Chase needs to be willing to approve you for more credit to approve you for the card. Since Sapphire Preferred seems easier to get – and has a bigger bonus, they’ll only let you get the bonus on one or the other – it makes sense to get Sapphire Preferred, wait a year, and then ask Chase if they’ll product change you to Reserve if you wish.

In general folks new to miles and points aren’t signing up for $450 annual fee cards, so a $95 annual fee starter card makes a ton of sense.

The more novel, or newer idea, is to get started with an American Express® Green Card. The card earns points quickly and comes with valuable statement credits: up to $100 towards any eligible purchase made directly with Away (luggage) in your first 3 months (offer ends 1/15/2020), up to $100 per year when you use the card to pay for your CLEAR membership and up to $100 in statement credits per year on your LoungeBuddy purchases for lounge access.


ANA First Class

The card earns 3 Membership Rewards points on per dollar on travel and at restaurants worldwide. That’s faster earn than Sapphire Preferred. And these points transfer to:

  • Star Alliance: Aeroplan, ANA, Singapore, Avianca
  • oneworld: AsiaMiles, British Airways, Iberia, Qantas
  • SkyTeam: Aeromexico, Alitalia, Air France KLM, Delta
  • Non-alliance: Etihad, Emirates, El Al, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Aer Lingus, Virgin Atlantic
  • Hotels: Choice, Hilton, Marriott

Since American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards are, in my view, the two most valuable currencies getting started in each with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and American Express® Green Card can make a lot of sense.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of any advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either. Terms and limitations apply to all offers.

Comments

  1. Bad advice. New to the game? Don’t waste a 5/24 slot with Amex Green right off the bat. Start with CSR, CSP, some other Chase card, or any biz card.

  2. I wouldn’t give up my Cap1 card for anything, either Venture or Spark. Being able to redeem for any travel purchase (B&B, small non-chain hotels, etc) and earn double on all purchases has been huge benefit.

  3. New to the game? Run while you still can. This game is rigged. Jason has it correct… get yourself a 2% cash back card and enjoy life with all of the free time you will have NOT playing the game.

  4. While I am a fan of transferable currencies like CSR, Amex and Citi TY points, they typically only earn 1 point per dollar unless you are in one of the bonus categories.
    For things like hotels, most of the large chains have had some huge sign up bonuses paired with great points per dollar earnings. They are earning 4, 5, 6 or more points. The IHG card gets you 40x points per dollar at the chain for the first year but the regular spend is only 1 ppd. Say you have an insurance premium bill due for 3k, pay with the Hilton card, you’ve got 18 in points.
    I try to gear card usage to where I want to accumulate points and only use the universal points to top off. I’d hate to use 20,000 Amex points for a hotel when it is generally more valuable when used for flights. If you know you’re going to spend your Christmas break at a Marriott, earn up the points on the Marriott credit card and save the higher value points.

    You probably don’t want cards in every single hotel program but look toward where you want to go and see what hotel options are available. IHG may be a great chain but if they don’t have one in Iceland, it may not fit your needs. If you do a lot of traveling in rural areas, your best chains may be something like a Choice Hotels card or Best Western (they’ve really upped their game in a lot of places) so do some spot checking before you go earn a bunch of points where you won’t use them or get cards that may not have locations to earn where you travel to.

  5. It seems to me that rather than pick the best starter cards, picking a goal and then designing a strategy around the goal is simpler. My family and I (5 people) take one or two large overseas trips on points. Given that there are five of us, that we live in a UAL hub, and that business class is preferred, the United Club card is absolutely my first choice. 1.5 miles on every dollar spent is a huge bonus. Last summer the 5 of us flew to Amsterdam on UAL and back on LH, for a total of 650k miles. There’s no way I could accumulate that many miles at a 1 for 1 ratio with any other card, even with the occasional bonus from a new UR card. So I stick with the Chase United Club card for everyday spend and the Sapphire Preferred for the travel benefits.

  6. Only these two cards out of the entire universe of CCs are to be considered? Please.

    What if you are about to spend $100K on internet ads next month? Or about to spend $25k in at supermarkets/restaurants? Or you are having an enormously expensive wedding at a Hyatt on1/1/20?

    Or you fly weekly with your wife on Southwest and could use a Companion Pass for 2 years starting 1/1/20 and save THOUSANDS of dollars?

    Silly, silly absurd advice. Whoever wrote this needs to learn some things.

    Any time anyone in this hobby says “always” or “never,” it’s inevitably crap advice.

  7. The referral revenue must be highest on these cards, and potentially approval ratings. Seems like good advice at first pass (transferable currencies are best), but there should be a string buyer beware for folks that are new expecting ANA FC to just be randomly available.

  8. My ideal “spending” wallet is:
    – Amex Gold
    – Citi Premier
    – Citi Double Cash
    – Citi Rewards+
    – Chase Bonvoy Boundless
    – Chase United Explorer
    – A bunch of no-fee cards; the Chase Freedom, Discover it, and 2 BoA Cash Rewards (MC and Visa) being the most important.

    Tack on the Amex Hilton Surpass for PP, and I’m golden.

    That’s pretty far from anyone’s recommendation. Because what works for me won’t work for you, or him, or her. There’s no universal answer, and the time one could spend reading every blogger’s opinion of what to start with or what to aim for would be better spent figuring out their spending and what cards will maximize their ongoing earnings and benefits.

  9. Perfect Trifecta for beginners or pros alike:
    — the CSR for 3x on VERY broadly defined categories of dining and travel, with easy to claim $300 travel credit yearly,
    — the Chase Ink Business cash for 5x on large recurrent bills like internet and phone services,
    — and the CFU for 1.5x on everything else.

    The Aspire for Diamond

    I throw in there the AMEX Biz Plat just for showoff or as a “status symbol”, but my wallet is very light

  10. @toomanybooks That’s why I generally stop reading after I see “no-brainer.” I wish someone would claw back that term.

  11. I agree with Gary, because these 2 are the overall most useful & flexible cards. After using both for a few months, a person can then decide which currency is most useful to them for their needs & easily tag on a CFU or EDP/BB+ to also maximize non-bonus spend.

    A person’s individual habits & tastes will dictate what to fill in from there but getting started with stashes of URs & MRs provide the best expedient options for travel use.

  12. Speaking of blanket bad advice, I respectfully disagree with the comments recommending a simple 2% cash-back approach to credit card spending. Like Gary and numerous other members of the points and miles blogosphere, I view credit card use as my “ticket” to otherwise unaffordable long-haul premium air travel. A cash-back card is almost useless for this type of goal (see below), so like others posters have effectively said, different strokes for different folks.

    Quick sample math:
    Last two overseas trips, all business class, were DC-TLV for 130,000 points R/T for one and DC-MAD for 230,000 points R/T for two. Using a combination of Amex Gold, Amex Blue Business Preferred, Chase Ink Business Preferred and Chase Ink Business Cash (two of which have no annual fee), I’m probably generating an average of ~2.5 points per dollar, so it took $144,000 of credit card spending to generate the points for these two trips. The cash fares for the same flights, conservatively, would have totaled about $10,000, necessitating $500,000 in spending on a 2% cash-back card.

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