Which Visa or Mastercard Should You Carry?

Most of the very best rewards cards are American Express products. Take just a few examples:

  • The Starwood American Express is outstanding, with a good hotel rewards program and lots of mileage transfer partners, not to mention the 5000 mile bonus for each 20,000 miles redeemed for.
  • The more general American Express cards with Membership Rewards are incredibly flexible, they have fewer transfer partners than Starwood but in many cases points post instantly (e.g. to Air Canada Aerolan and Continental Onepass).
  • The Hilton Surpass American Express offers Diamond elite status after just $40,000 in spend.
  • Unsurprising that the most rewarding cards are frequently from Amex, since merchants pay higher fees and as a result there’s more money availablef or American Express to spend on awards.

    One of the more frequent questoins that I get is, ok, so I get an American Express card. I make it my primary credit card. But what do I do with those merchants I can’t use an Amex at?

    For me, my primary Visa/Mastercard choice is Diners Club. It has a flexible points program and still offers primary rental car collision insurance coverage. But you can’t currently apply for a Diners Club in the U.S. though I’m hopeful that will change with the recent sale of the brand by Citibank to the Bank of Montreal.

    For many readers, the primary Visa/Mastercard product is the Biritsh Airways Visa from Chase. There was a 100,000 mile signup bonus (it required $2000 in spend for the second 50,000 miles) and plenty of folks are striving for $30,000 in spend to generate a free companion award ticket. That’s a great offer, and one worth considering if you’re going to put $30,000 on the card in a calendar year and you’re willing to pay the British Airways taxes and fees on an award.

    Other than that… I’ve been more or less at a loss, and for lack of better options have tended to suggest the Citibank American Airlines co-branded Mastercard, because at least those American miles accrue towards lifetime status.

    But now there’s a new product to consider. Reader Mordy noted in response to my discussion of Asiana Club in the last post that the Bank of America-issued Asiana American Express is now being issued as a Visa.

    So the Asiana Visa from Bank of America is a real consideration. It earns 2 miles per dollar on all spend. And iwth their disance-based chart, an award traveling less than 10,000 total miles costs 80,000 miles in business class. That gets you from the US East Coast to much of Europe. And takes only $40,000 in spend to get there (compared to $105,000 in spend with the United Visa or Continental Mastercard, or $100,000 in spend with the US Airways Mastercard). Plus you get two stopovers in each direction (yes, 4 total) for a total of 5 destinations on an award.

    See also this previous discussion of Asiana club and the co-branded credit card from Bank of America. There are some interesting ways to use this program for Star Alliance upgrades, as well.

    Update: When you go to this site for the Asiana Visa it says you only earn 1 mile per dollar. Navigating through a side-door via Google I had stumbled on a page showing it offering 2 miles per dollar, but this now appears unrealiable. Mordy points out in the comments that the Asiana American Express from Bank of America is still listed on the Asiana website and can still be applied for even though it’s no longer apparent from the main Bank of American website.

    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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    1. I’ve weighed this same question, and in the end I just went with the Chuck Schwab Visa.

      I’m able to get most of my spend on my Starwood Amex, so putting the rest on this card with no annual fee, 0% forex, and 2% cash back is gravy.

    2. I’m with Chris and Vinod… the Schwab card is great and 0% forex is a nice bonus. And it’s free!

    3. The Schwab Visa is great (2% as noted, plus no forex conversion fees). But it may be on the way out. The Alaska Visa is possibly the other “best” Visa/MC – partners with Delta, American and many others. Annual $99 companion ticket.

    4. Probably the most underrated MC is the Travelocity card from Barclays. 5,000 point startup, 2 points per $1 spent. 20,000 points = $400 credit toward any travel booked on Travelocity’s website, essentially giving you .04 per $1. And its travelocity, so you can look for the best value on a multitude of carriers/chains.

      The main drawback is that to get the best value on the points you have to redeem in 20k increments ($400, $800, $1200, etc.). On the other hand though, points are available for use immediately after the purchase posts. Barclays hasn’t caught on to the US Mint yet either. And it also works for fundin Citi accounts.

    5. I have been using my CapitalOne card which gets me 1.25 miles per dollar with no annual fee. The nice thing is that you can redeem points for most anything travel related, but it is in bands: 15K for up to $150, 35K for up to $350, 60K up to $600, then 100x price over 600. Not perfect, but it gives me some flexibility. I already earn a significant number of miles on AA with my business travel. This allows me to have additional award options. For example, I used my CC points to buy a domestic ticket, but used my elite status to upgrade to first. My 35,000 CC points (from $28K in CC spend) bought a 50K miles reward seat. When I don’t have the CapitalOne points, I can use my AA miles. Are there better no fee cards? I’m open to changes.

    6. Since we are all using the BA Visa perhaps the best take-away from this post is on Amex… the Asiana 2:1 Amex that is still available per the 1st commenter sounds like a better deal than the SPG Amex!

    7. Nothing really comes close to Amex Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). I don’t see it mentioned above, perhaps it has been discontinued (?); however, the Ameriprise World Elite (non-points) MC is pricey ($150/yr) but it pays for a virtually unlimited airport lounges Priority Pass worth $400. Parenthetically, if you do much flying to vacation resorts and you too are an SPG fan and are considering Starwood Vacation Ownership (SVO) — don’t buy NEW VOs from Starwood! Buy resale (90%-50% discount) VO weeks/points (staroptions) at mandatory (Maui, Bahamas, Scottsdale, USVI, or Orlando) resorts only so you can trade in the Starwood network. If you are VERY wealthy, buy from Starwood to get 5Star elite status for the SPG Platinum benefit (1-4 Star Elite status bennies are a ripoff and are constantly being diluted).

    8. I have a Merrill+ Visa which does not require a Merrill Lynch account. Free Priority Pass membership at 50k spend per year. $500 AA flight credit for 25k miles. Most importantly, the best and most knowledgeable customer service reps that I’ve ever dealt with. Downside, B of A now owns them and I’m waiting for the inevitable degradation of service…..

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