It’s Time to Get Smart About Your Miles and Points

Jan 1, 2019

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Chase Freedom Unlimited, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

The world of credit cards and travel rewards can seem overwhelming when you’re just getting started. With so much information and so many options, how do you know which card to choose? Do you want transferable points? Or airline miles? Free nights at a hotel chain? Or maybe even miles you can turn into statement credits?

The key to picking the right card is to set your travel goals first. Is your dream trip an international destination like the Maldives or a ski trip to Vail? Are you comfortable traveling in economy or do you want to spend the extra time and effort to be able to fly in a premium cabin? Is the hotel important to you or are you planning to spend most of your time outside of the room? There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions — it’s all about what’s important to you. But once you’ve made your decisions, it’s important to match the right points to the right card.

With that in mind, we’ve outlined the top three starter cards to help lead you in the right direction, so you don’t waste time and end up with loyalty points that don’t match your travel goals.

Best Travel Rewards Cards For Beginners 

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best Starter Credit Card With Transferrable Points (annual fee waived first year, then $95)
  • Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Best for Hotels (annual fee waived first year, then $95)
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best Cash Back ($0 annual fee)

If you’re looking for a more premium card, offering valuable perks and benefits we would recommend:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for Travel Perks & Points ($450 annual fee)
  • The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best for Lounge Access ($550 annual fee) (See Rates & Fees)

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Bonus Offer Bonus Value** Bonus Categories Annual Fee Perks
50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months $1,000 2x points on travel, 2x points on dining $95 waived the 1st year N/A

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Bonus Offer Bonus Value** Bonus Categories Annual Fee Perks
50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 within the first 3 months $700 10x miles at Hotels.com, 2x miles on all other purchases $95 waived the 1st year N/A

Chase Freedom Unlimited

Bonus Offer Bonus Value** Bonus Categories Annual Fee Perks
$150 after $500 in purchases within the first 3 months $150 1.5% unlimited cash back on all purchases $0 N/A

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Bonus Offer Bonus Value** Bonus Categories Annual Fee Perks
50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months $1,000 3x points on travel, 3x points on dining $450 $300 annual travel credit, Priority Pass Select lounge access, $100 Global Entry application fee credit

The Platinum Card from American Express

Bonus Offer Bonus Value** Bonus Categories Annual Fee Perks
60,000 points after you spend $5,000 within the first 3 months. $1200 5x points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel. $550 $200 airline fee credit to cover incidental fees, up to $200 annual Uber credits, up to $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit, Delta Sky Club and Centurion Lounge Access. Terms Apply.

**Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer.

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred

Best For: Beginners

Current Bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. That’s $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Current Bonus Value: $1,000

Standout Benefits: 

  • Earn 2 points per dollar on all travel purchases and on dining at restaurants and 1 point per dollar on everything else
  • Transfer points to 13 different travel partners
  • Primary auto rental insurance
  • Trip cancellation coverage
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Read the full card review here.

Annual Fee: $95 (waived the first year)

Why it’s worth it: It doesn’t offer the bells and the whistles of the much more expensive Chase Sapphire Reserve card, but the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a great pick for earning bonus points on travel and dining, and for enjoying some solid travel protections in the process. I’ve utilized Ultimate Rewards points with partners such as United, which I used to book an emergency ticket home in Lufthansa first class, but you can also redeem the points directly through the Chase travel portal for 1.25 cents apiece. Whether you simply don’t want to spend $450 a year to get the Sapphire Reserve or if your credit score currently isn’t high enough to qualify for that premium card, the Sapphire Preferred remains a very solid option — and the $95 annual fee is even waived for the first year.

APPLY HERE: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

2. Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Capital One Venture

Best for: Hotels.com purchases, diversifying your transferable point currencies

Current Bonus: Earn 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.

Current Bonus Value: $700

Standout Benefits:

  • Earn 10x miles on Hotels.com purchases at Hotels.com/Venture
  • Earn 2x miles on all other purchases
  • Get a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit
  • Starting in December, transfer your miles to a selection of airline partners at a 2:1.5 ratio

Annual Fee: $95 (waived the first year)

Why it’s worth it: The Venture Card was already a very strong value proposition with 10x miles at Hotels.com and a Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee. Plus, you are able to transfer the miles you earn with this card (as well as the VentureOne card and Capital One’s two Spark Miles cards) to airline transfer partners including Avianca, Etihad and Aeroplan. The transfer ratio is 2:1.5, meaning for every dollar you spend on this card you’re getting 1.5 points or miles with a partner airline. This greatly enhances the potential value you can get with this card, as miles are no longer worth a fixed 1 cent apiece.

APPLY HERE: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

3. Chase Freedom Unlimited

Best For: Cash back

Current Bonus: Earn $150 cash back after $500 in purchases within the first 3 months

Current Bonus Value: $150

Standout Benefits:

  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 16.99-25.74%. Balance transfer fee is 3% of the amount transferred, $5 minimum
  • Unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase – it’s automatic
  • Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
  • No minimum to redeem for cash back
  • Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open
  • Free credit score, updated weekly with Credit Journey℠
  • No annual fee
  • Read the full card review here.

Annual Fee: $0

Why it’s worth it: You’re not likely to get approved for a more premium card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve if you’re just starting out or only have a single credit card to your name so far, but a good alternate entry point into the Chase ecosystem could be the Chase Freedom Unlimited. Aside from the $150 cash back bonus, the real beauty of the Freedom Unlimited is if you hold off on redeeming your cash back and instead get a Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve down the line once your credit is more robust, all your cash back from this card can be turned into much more valuable Ultimate Rewards points that can be redeemed at a higher rate for travel, or even transferred to Chase’s airline and hotel partners.

APPLY HERE: Chase Freedom Unlimited

4. Chase Sapphire Reserve

Chase Sapphire Reserve
(Photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy)

Best For: Travel perks and points earning on travel and dining

Current Bonus: Earn 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months.

Current Bonus Value: $1,000

Standout Benefits: 

  • Earn 3 points per dollar on travel (excluding $300 travel credit) and dining at restaurants and 1 point per dollar on everything else.
  • Redeem points directly through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal at a rate of 1.5 cents apiece
  • $300 annual travel credit
  • Priority Pass Select lounge access
  • Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee credit
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Trip cancellation coverage
  • Primary car rental insurance
  • Read the full card review here

Annual Fee: $450

Why it’s worth it: The Sapphire Reserve won our battle of the premium credit cards for a reason: It offers a stellar selection of perks, from a $300 annual travel credit that can be used toward a wide variety of purchases, to the ability to redeem points for 1.5 cents apiece through the Chase travel portal. Best of all, if you have this card, the Ultimate Rewards points you earn on other Chase cards can also be redeemed at the 1.5-cent rate. You also get an impressive 3x points on travel (after $300 travel credit exhausted) and dining purchases, which equates to a 6.3% return based on my valuations. This card is a prime example of benefits more than making up for a steep annual fee.

APPLY HERE: Chase Sapphire Reserve

5. The Platinum Card from American Express

american express platinum credit card
(Photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy)

Best For: Lounge Access
Current Bonus: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first three months.
Current Bonus Value: $1,200
Standout Benefits:

  • Earn 5x points on airfare booked directly with the airline or Amex Travel and prepaid hotels purchased through Amex Travel. You can transfer the Membership Rewards points you earn with this card to a total of 20 airline and hotel partners.
  • $200 annual airline rebate for incidental fees
  • Up to $200 in annual Uber credits
  • Up to $100 in credit at Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Rebate for the Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee
  • Centurion Lounge and Priority Pass lounge access, plus Delta Sky Club access when you’re flying Delta.
  • Terms Apply
  • Read the full card review here.

Annual Fee: $550

Why it’s worth it: As you can see in the chart above, a ton of factors contribute to this card’s overall value and it’s not just the 60k bonus. But even apart from the $200 annual airline fee credit, the $200 in Uber credits awarded each year, the recently added $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit and the various lounge access options, the Amex Platinum is a stellar premium card that can pave the way to some amazing award flights and other redemptions. Among the Membership Rewards program’s 20 travel partners is Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, which is your only option if you want to book the ultra-premium Singapore Suites using miles. Other highlights include an amazing 5 points per dollar on airfare (equal to a 9.5% return on these purchases), complimentary Hilton Honors Gold and SPG Gold status and the ability to add three authorized users for a total of $175.

APPLY HERE: Platinum Card from American Express

Featured image by Ryan Forbes.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.