What is the Best Travel Rewards Credit Card?

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Dear Tim—

I recently became aware of the Chase Sapphire card, and am wondering whether to make a switch to it from my other Chase credit cards.

I use a United Mileage Plus card (for personal purchases) and a Marriott Rewards card (for business purchases). I happen to like these travel companies, and if I have the chance to blow some points on travel, I am happy to use United and Marriott. But I am not dedicated to these companies to the exclusion of others.

Chase Sapphire seems to give me more flexibility to choose multiple airlines and hotels. They also offer a straight exchange of points for dollars, so that if I want to buy an airline ticket for $500, it costs me 50,000 points. But, for domestic travel, United would charge me 25,000 (saver award) or 50,000 miles (standard award). I find that when I book United Mileage Plus travel, it must be booked way in advance in order to get the flights I want, which means I might have been able to find a low fare. So, I might be getting a better deal sticking with the United Mileage Plus program.

Any thoughts?

Marc in Maryland

Dear Marc—

What you've described is a dilemma faced by a large and growing number of travelers.

Where once the choice was between competing airline or hotel cards, today's consumers increasingly find themselves torn between two categories of rewards cards. On the one hand, there are the credit cards uniquely affiliated with a single airline or hotel program, like the United Mileage Plus Visa or the Marriott Rewards Visa. On the other hand are the cards with no particular affiliation—what I call proprietary bank rewards cards—represented by the likes of the Chase Sapphire card and the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card.

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Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between the categories is by comparing and contrasting their strengths and limitations in both earning points and redeeming them for rewards.

Earning

The great strength of program-linked cards is the ease with which miles can be accumulated. In a program like United's Mileage Plus, members can earn miles for hundreds of partner companies, ranging from other airlines to hotels to mortgage companies to online retailers to Netflix.

Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards

By contrast, bank card users generally earn miles when and only when they make purchases charged to their cards, and only for the amount of the transaction. So they would, for example, earn 450 miles for purchasing a $450 cross-country ticket from United. But the actual flight miles—around 5,000 of them—cannot be applied to their bank card accounts.

Using a bank card, in short, means you'll have to carry at least one additional card, or else forego potential mileage-earning opportunities only available with airline and hotel cards.

Redeeming

It is on the redemption side of the ledger that traditional airline programs have run afoul of consumers. For all the opportunities to build up significant account balances, the most-requested reward—a round-trip domestic ticket—has been in exasperatingly short supply as the profit-starved airlines have focused on filling flights with paying passengers. And miles that cannot be readily redeemed aren't worth much, whether they're earned for using a credit card or for something else.

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