The 3 Most Important Cards For Your Wallet

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Lee asks,

Gary, if you limited yourself to three in-your-wallet cards, what would they be?

The answer varies a lot based on:

  1. reward goals (what you want to do with the points you earn)
  2. type of spend (because different cards will earn differently based on the kind of spend you do)

However in simple terms:

Here I’m assuming ‘in your wallet’ means for regular spend. So I’d want to earn 3x on flights, 4x on dining and groceries, 4x on my Hyatt stays and then 2x on everything else. I wouldn’t earn less than 2x on anything. And outside of Hyatt points (which I use regularly) I’d be earning transferable points.

If I want a card in my wallet that includes lounge access, I’d do Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card instead of Venture, since that not only gains access to Capital One lounge it also gets Plaza Premium lounge access and a Priority Pass. (The single best card for lounge access is still Amex Platinum, which also comes with Amex and Escape lounges plus Delta lounges when flying Delta, though its Priority Pass is hobbled with no credit at Priority Pass restaurants.)

I think the biggest takeaways here are:

  • Don’t lose out on earning up to 50,000 points per year on rent (at no extra cost) from the no annual fee Bilt Rewards card

  • The Amex Gold card may be the single most underrated rewards card, and in my view is the best points-earning American Express card

  • Earning transferable currencies whenever you can makes the most sense. That way you can move your points where you need them – based on where you want to go and who has availability – and you get to decide later. (Since I work with a 7 figure balance with both Chase and Amex I like to diversity further.)

  • Cards serve other functions, too. The most leveraged spend is earning an up front bonus. Your spend can earn you credit towards status with some programs. And then there’s benefits from just having the card (and it may not need to be in your wallet for that). A compelling up front bonus may be a reason to get a card. Compelling benefits may be a reason to keep a card. But neither is a reason to spend money on the card on an ongoing basis.

For rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, click here.

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 »

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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 advertisers Citibank, Chase, American Express, Barclays, Capital One or any other advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either. Terms and limitations apply to all offers.

Comments

  1. One of your cards should be in your Apple Pay or other phone wallet, and that’s the US Bank Altitude. It’s 4.5% on mobile payments when your points are applied toward travel expenses. Don’t bother to carry it in your actual wallet most of the time, unless you’re renting a car.

  2. #1 Venture X for lounge access (Plaza Premium, Priority Pass, & Cap One lounge) and 2X on everything.
    #2 Citi Premier for 3X on gas, groceries and restaurants.
    #3 World of Hyatt
    After that I just go after the sign-up bonus with 2 or 3 new personal or business cards a year and dump 2 or 3 cards a year.
    Keeps me in the front of the plane.

  3. I would caution against Amex card for centurion lounge access. Lines on lines. I was at dfw yesterday and the airport terminals were pretty empty but the centurion lounge had a line out the door. I went to the admirals club instead.

  4. Steve, imagine going into (say) Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus to buy your wife a Loro Piana winter coat. Or, you want to buy her some earrings. Etc. I had the Altitude Reserve Card. Every purchase I made with the card was a bona fide purchase. No funny business. Every large purchase was declined. Fraud alert. Card locked. Because the Altitude Reserve Card is a “specialized” product, only US Bank’s “CAFE” unit could unlock it. The CAFE unit is not a 24/7 office. It’s M-F, normal business hours, Central Time. And, when one calls the CAFE unit, it typically involves transferring between four customer service reps.

    I can’t tell you how many times I had to call or how many hours I spent on the phone just to unlock my card. On my very last call, the CAFE unit representative was downright rude and said he was going to cancel my card because of all the fraudulent charges . . . in spite of me validating every single charge . . . and all of my points would be forfeited. Then, a week later, I received a letter from US Bank saying that my checking account was now closed due to suspicious activity . . . the only activity being payment of my credit card bill.

    What makes this story particularly strange is that I was also a wealth management client. The epilogue to this story is: “was.”

  5. Yeah DO NOT APPLY FOR US BANK CARDS UNLESS YOU WANT FRIVOLOUS CARD DECLINES AND A HIGH ANNUAL FEE that wipes out the value of the 4.5% back from Apple Pay transactions.

    US Bank is not a big player in the credit card business. That is to the detriment of you the consumer. Stick to chase and Amex. And if you are racist then stick your cards up your ass.

  6. Gary, your mention of the Bilt card makes me think: if someone was a renter, one would not need to *carry* the Bilt card to capture points on rent. Set rent and five recurring bills to auto-pay and you’re done. But, one would not necessarily need to carry the Bilt card. So, the Bilt card would seem to be a freebie . . . it’s a “sock drawer” card.

    Along this, one could have another sock drawer card whose only purpose is to (say) book hotels . . . or book airfare . . . or whatever . . . but, one would not necessarily need to carry it. For example, the Amex Platinum. One can book prepaid hotels and airfare but one doesn’t need to carry it. One might have some other premium travel card to gain access to 10X on prepaid hotel bookings but the card stays in the sock drawer. Etc.

    So, if you limited yourself to three “sock drawer” cards, what would they be? And, given these three sock drawer cards, does your choice of in-your-wallet cards change? Hmmm.

  7. Fauci, regarding your credit card conclusions, agreed.

    (I don’t think you were directing the “racist” comment to me. But, just in case . . . I’m mixed race and the shoe doesn’t fit.)

  8. Could I use the Bilt card to pay my country club dues (cash-only)? It would be awesome if Bilt would send them a check each month for dues; I could send an additional check for everything else.

  9. NO YOU CANNOT PAY COUNTRY CLUB DUES or anything other than bona fide residential rent. Bilt employees manually review transactions. Don’t forget Bilt has also paid Gary Leff for an island vacation to promote the card. It’s a decent card but beware that it is run by a startup. And you had better hope nothing goes wrong because there is no online dispute process like with chase or Amex.

    USE BILT ONLY FOR RENT AND INDISPUTABLE TRANSACTIONS like buying condoms from cvs. Do not use Bilt at shady merchants or merchants with bad customer service. I had a $3000 dispute last year with Tempur Pedic. The company repeatedly said they would refund my card, but never did. Thankfully I paid with Amex and in a few clicks I was back to business. Bilt would have made me call in and open a lengthy investigation.

  10. For those out there who have not seen others ask the question in other articles, to emphasize Fauci’s comment: you cannot earn Bilt points when paying commercial rent.

    Dr Fauci, is there a particular brand at CVS that you recommend? Of course, buying them with one of the Freedom cards.

    Courtney, you could use a third-party payment service to cut a check to pay your country club dues. Those payment services impose a service fee between 2.5 and 3 percent. Typically, the level of this service fee guts the value of the credit card points earned. That being said, in the context of meeting a sizable sign-up bonus, the service fee is dwarfed by the value of the sign-up bonus. So, there’s a strategy for you.

    Separately, speaking of frivolous application declines, throw in Capital One. Just ask Greg at FM.

  11. If value Amex MemRewards as least as much as Cap 1 points–which has fewer transferable airline partners–must include AX Business Blue, which pays 2x on everything, with no annual fee.

  12. @ Gary — AMEX Gold is always a one and done card for us. For a net AF of $130 ($250-12x$10 uber; I assume the dining credit is of zero value), we need to spend $350 per month on dining and groceries just to break even. We shop at Costco (except maybe $150-$200 per month at Kroger) and rarely dine out, so we never renew this card in year 2. For the Gold AMEX card to be “the best points earning AMEX card,” you must not buy much airfare (find that hard to believe) and/or spend $1,000/week on grceries and restaurants. Why on earth would you charge airfare to this card when the Plat AMEX gives 5x? We spend about $30,000 per year on airfare, so we would lose out on 60,000 MR points (about $930) by using the Gold card vs the Plat card. For those reasons, I think the Gold card is relatively useless.

    Bilt is almost completely usesless for non-renters. Do bloggers get paid just to MENTION this card? It is the #1 most over-hyped, least-useful credit card EVER.

    The VentureX is a great card (significantly better than the regular Venture card).

    Ink Preferred (3x hotels), Plat AMEX (5x airfare), Hyatt personal (4x Hyatt), and AMEX Blue Biz (2x on everything else) are good keepers.

  13. I don’t see cost seriously discussed.

    Is this a joke post? Doesn’t look like anything an expert would want to have his name associated with.

  14. Why is the Hyatt card good for homeowners? I use the Freedom Unlimited for all unbonused spend, such as paying homeowner’s insurance.

  15. 1st Bilt for no af and 3x for dining transferable to Hyatt, AA, etc. 2nd Any 2x card like Capital one or BBP from Amex. 3rd Citi Custom for 5x at supermarkets (requiere to have Citi Premier also). Anyways…all this math go to trash IF you need to spend for SUB or if you need to spend to help achieve status (Hyatt, AA, Delta, etc)

  16. Amy, the annual fees of the cards that Gary selected are nominal and would not be a material factor. If your “cost” comment relates to something other than annual fees, please expand on your comment. Please note that the question was about Gary’s circumstances and Gary’s choices, not about what Gary would recommend in general or for any other person in particular.

  17. Gary, another plus for the Bilt card is the double-points promotion on the first of the month, up to 10k extra points per month. Some complain the Bilt has no sign-up bonus. But, in addition to the 50k of “free” points on rent, Bilt kicks in up to 120k points per year on the promotion. I don’t see why a person would forego that only to hold out for a sign-up bonus.

  18. I don’t rent, but I find the points game arduous and worthless now. I don’t see the reason in dealing with transfer partners getting removed (Korean Air), miles being devalued into nothing (Delta), or just any of the bs when it comes to trying to redeem anything anymore (BA fuel surcharges).

    Take your cash back, put it into a brokerage account and laugh at others spending 4 hours on the phone trying to argue with an agent over award space.

    Citi Double Cash
    Citi Custom Cash
    Chase Freedom
    Discover It

    All you need. Sock drawer an airline/hotel card for the perks, but I don’t see any co-branded card outside of Hyatt worth the spend. (until those points get nuked)

  19. Cool. My 3 are similar. Venture X, AmEx Platinum,Citi Premier then NEW Yet to arrive Citi AA Biz for signup bonus

  20. @ Gary — The Gold card + Bilt is great for someone who rents a kitchenless shoe box in NYC for $4k per month. For those who own their house and eat at home, they are horrible choices of cards.

  21. The VentureX really doesn’t cut it anymore since Cap1 nerfed the PP restaurant benefit. The better choice is a CSR, which also offers stellar travel insurance & primary car rental (another reason to keep in your wallet).

    Query whether the Amex Gold is worth $250 AF for those who don’t spend much on groceries/ dining as CSR, CSP and numerous others offer 3/$1 dining.

    Personally I prefer Amex Blue Biz+ for 2x spend because the Amex extended warranty and consumer protection team is stellar. Crap1 is fine for everyday spend where you know you won’t need to invoke a warranty or chargeback

  22. @Gene – what a strange life you must live. IMHO the Gold Card is best Amex card (and I have 6 including the Platinum one). I fully value the $120 Uber and $120 dining credit (do Grubhub pickup for a sub sandwich for lunch once a month) and do out all grocery and restaurant spend on it. Net is $10 out of pocket for great value. Then you add Amex offers and other perks.

    You must really be tight if you churn a card over a few hundred AF! I spend around $2000 in AFs and get value from every card I own.

  23. @ AC — I spend more than $2,00 on AF, and at renewal, every card is up for the chopping block. Genrally, step #1 in churning a aproduct is to close the card. That’s why it always best to cut your losses quickly. In this case, that means cutting the AMEX Gold every renewal.

    After 30 years of doing it, churning is still the way to go with credit cards. Contrary to poular belief, cards can still be churned easily, so why worry about a $10 per month discount to eat soemthing I may or may not want that month. It is a waste of time and brain power.

  24. Citi Premier for 3x on a wide variety of everyday spend. Uncapped, transfer to partner are useful if one understands how to do so and can cash out at 1cpp if they don’t.

    Citi Double Cash (or any 2% or more cash back card) for a general purpose/catch all card.

    Bilt Rewards for 3x on dining and travel with the same travel protections as the Sapphire Preferred without the annual fee or having to put up with Chase’s 5/24 application rules. Points transfer decent variety of partners. And double points on the 1st of the month which is very nice.

    Would never pick an airline or hotel card if I could only select 3 because programs devaluate all the time and no need to be stuck with a card in the event that they do. Transferrable currency allows me to move about many programs…and cash allows for any program I choose.

    Amex annual fees are too high, they don’t have a decent cash out option without picking up another high AF card to do so, none of their cards offer travel protection that doesn’t require round trip booking and the ones that do have…you guessed it…high annual fees so Amex is out when it comes to a 3 card setup.

    Anyone who is willing to hold a Sapphire Preferred after the sign up bonus and then craps on the Bilt card is just a fool because the Bilt card is just better.

  25. @ 2808 — Yes, but AMEX will allow you to sign up for a new 150,000 Plat Biz card offer every 3-4 months, so who cares? Churn, baby churn (disco inferno).

  26. @Gene Stop being foolish. That works for those willing to play the game and you know it. Trying to sound cool because you MS via NLL on the Biz Plat doesn’t impress anyone here because most already know about it and are playing or have played the game.

    The average consumer isn’t signing up for a $695 AF Biz card that has a $10-$15k min spend within 90 days.

    Now go and use that your energy to try and convince Dell to let those Xbox gift card order through or shake your fist at the heavens when they cancel your order for the umpteenth time.

  27. @ 2808 Heavy — I couldn’t agree more that the Dell credits are a PITA to use. I’ve managed to use them for purchases I would value at about 60%-70% so far. Going forward, I am going to start using alot of them for gifts for family and friends. I only value the Dell credits at 33%, but this is still the best game in town. Works out to about 520k MR per spouse per year at $.00725 per point, assuming you renew each card once (which I usually do on all AMEX cards to keep AMEX happy).

    I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I was simply pointing out that one’s energy is better spent on churning AMEX Plat Biz cards than on trying to use credits at Shake Shack, etc.to justify the AMEX Gold AF.

  28. @ 2808 Heavy — I re-did my calcs after some sleep, and a single AMEX Plat Biz card, renewed once, costs $1,390 in AFs and $116 in opportunity cost ($15,000 x 0.5 MR x .0155) and returns $400 in DL fees, $267 in Dell credits (at 33% valuation) and 172,500 AMEX points. Net = $0.0048638 per MR. That is an amaing deal, and one I will take as often as possible.

    I use mine to pay quarterly estimated taxes. Even adding in a 2.10% (a ballpark fed + state avg) fee on $15,000 = $315, brings the MR cost up to $0.00669 per MR, which is still a great deal.

  29. @Gene. Your post is just noise in the background to the average consumer.

    The person posing this question to Gary is probably an average person in this space.

    Did you not notice how almost everyone except you, commented with a reasonable response that the average consumer could understand and execute?

    Your response, calculated averages, and cent per point works for YOU. The average consumer doesn’t know and probably doesn’t care about “liquidation” and “opportunity cost”.

    You’re speaking from a MS/churner perspective and I’d be willing to bet the person who asked this question of Gary isn’t…which means that all you’ve spelled out is just GIBBERISH and means nothing to them and the rest of us in the space are well versed, and again, unimpressed, by all that you’ve rambled about.

    You really need to read the room and know your audience. The person you’re trying to flex for doesn’t know what you’re talking about and those of us who do, don’t care.

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