How Earning More Points Cost Me Money — Reader Mistake Story

Nov 14, 2018

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Lea, who neglected one important benefit when deciding which card to use:

I recently booked a vacation rental on VRBO for a family trip to Montreal. I paid the deposit with my Chase Sapphire Reserve in hopes of getting a 3x travel bonus. Unfortunately, my card statement revealed that our booking did not qualify for the extra points.

When the time came to make the final payment, I decided to use my Chase Freedom Unlimited card. Since the rental did not qualify for the Sapphire Reserve bonus, I thought the next best thing would be to get the 1.5x bonus with Freedom Unlimited. What I neglected to include in my calculation was the foreign transaction fee I was charged because the rental was in Canada.

Despite not getting the bonus points, I should have stuck with the Sapphire Reserve for this rental. My points strategy should have included all aspects of the transaction, not just how to maximize points.

Lea’s last remark is spot on: it’s best to take a holistic approach to rewards. While you should generally use whichever card gives you the best return on each purchase, that isn’t always the card that earns the most points or miles. In addition to avoiding foreign transaction fees, you should account for benefits like purchase protection or free checked bags you might get by using one card versus another. You might also lean toward a card with a mediocre rewards structure if you’re working on a spending bonus or sign-up bonus. In short, look at the big picture.

On that note, paying a fee to earn more points isn’t always a bad idea. For example, you may be able to get a positive return from paying taxes with a credit card despite incurring a fee of around 2%. The key is to make sure you’re getting more value than you’re giving up. The Freedom Unlimited card charges a 3% foreign transaction fee and only earns an extra half point per dollar over the Sapphire Reserve card (for non-bonus spending). Based on my valuation for Ultimate Rewards, paying the fee was not a good trade-off in Lea’s case, but it could be in others.

Purchases with VRBO and other homesharing sites do sometimes code as travel when using the Sapphire Reserve, so you can’t blame Lea for hoping she would earn 3x points. From reader reports, it appears that individual owners renting their properties will fall into the travel category more frequently than property management companies responsible for multiple dwellings. As the saying goes, “Your miles may vary.”

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Lea a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to info@thepointsguy.com, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured photo by Pedro Szekely/Flickr

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