There have been tons of posts both on my site and other similar blogs recently trumpeting the marvels of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. Probably just for the sake of time and simplicity, most of those posts assume that everybody and their Grandma already is pretty well-versed on the Ultimate Rewards program and how it works. While I know that many of you are indeed already well versed in Ultimate Rewards, I want to give everyone else the chance to learn some of the basics and decide if it might be the right program for his or her family to focus on. I know from some of the comments and the emails that I have been receiving that not everyone understands how the Ultimate Reward program works or with which credit cards it works. If you are a UR expert, feel free to chime in with some tips in the comments section!
I’m going to try to break this down into a step-by-step guide, but please feel free to ask questions or let me know if I leave out an important step. Ultimate Rewards is hands-down the program that my family is focusing on the most right now. We have earned tens of thousands of points doing some holiday (and household) shopping in the last couple months, and I really want to make sure that everyone who is interested has a chance to understand what the fuss is all about!
1. Learn about some Ultimate Rewards basics.
Ultimate Rewards are points that are earned based on the amount of money you charge on your Chase Ultimate Rewards earning credit card. The base earning rate is one Ultimate Reward point per one dollar charged. There are many bonus categories that we will get to in a minute, but one point for one dollar is the base earnings rate. When your statement closes each month, those points get deposited into your Ultimate Rewards account. With the Sapphire Preferred card you also get a 7% bonus points payment annually based on all of the points you have earned this year. I am very much looking forward to that bonus that should be coming in the next couple of months for 2011!
What makes these points so great is that they can transfer on a 1:1 ratio to many of the top airline and hotel programs. The transfer partners include: CUnited, British Airways, Korean Air, Amtrak, Hyatt, Marriott, and Priority Club. For most people, United and Hyatt will give you the most “bang” for your point, however it is great to have so many transfer options to choose from.
If you want to transfer points, you simply go to the transfer points tab in Ultimate Rewards and type in the amount of points you want to transfer to any of your accounts in one of the transfer partner programs (in increments of 1,000). Mine usually post very quickly – under an hour (and often under 2 minutes). This is great since you don’t have to transfer the points out until you know for sure what award you want to use them for. So far, I have also been able to transfer points into other people’s hotel and airline accounts without any problem.
While transferring to airline and hotel programs is typically the best redemption, you can also use UR points for gift cards, to “pay yourself back” for any purchase of $20.00 or more, or to pay for travel. This can be a good option if you are low on cash and are flying on a very inexpensive ticket. The tickets are treated as if you paid with cash by the airlines, so you will earn both elite qualifying miles and redeemable miles on those airline tickets with your respective carrier. I have done that once or twice for tickets under $200.
2. Get a card that earns Ultimate Rewards.
There are two cards that will earn Ultimate Rewards that can transfer to airline and hotel partners as a stand-alone product. The first is the Chase Sapphire Preferred®. The second is the Ink BoldSM with Ultimate Rewards. I personally have both cards, but the Sapphire Preferred is the logical card for most people to start with. If you have some type of business, the Ink Bold is a great option as well. The Sapphire Preferred comes with a 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points bonus after spending $3,000 within the first three months and the Ink Bold comes with a 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points bonus after spending $5,000 within the first three months.
The Sapphire Preferred gives 2 points per dollar for hotels, restaurants, and transportation expenses and 1 point per dollar for everything else. The Ink Bold Business gives 5 points per dollar at office supply stores, on cable and wireless service, and landline communications (up to the first $50,000 annually). It also gives 2 points per dollar on gas and hotels (up to the first $50,000 annually) and one point per dollar on everything else.
Both cards have no foreign transaction fee and have the $95 annual fee waived the first year.
3. Consider supplementing your primary Ultimate Rewards earning card with a secondary Ultimate Rewards earning card.
This is where some people get confused, and rightfully so. The Chase Freedom® MasterCard earns Ultimate Rewards points as well, but alone doesn’t have have the ability to transfer the Ultimate Reward points to the airline and hotel transfer partners. You could only redeem for things like “cash back” or gift cards. That works for some people, but that is certainly not a good use of valuable Ultimate Reward points the majority of the time. You need to also have a Sapphire Preferred or Ink Bold in order to use the points earned by the Freedom or Ink Classic to their fullest potential. The Chase Freedom has no annual fee.
What makes the Freedom a great compliment to the Sapphire Preferred is that it has some strong earnings potential in certain bonus categories. Each quarter the Chase Freedom will have certain categories that earn an additional 5 points per dollar, limited to the first $1500 spent in that category per quarter. They advertize it as 5% cash-back, but if you have the Sapphire Preferred then you can actually be earning an extra 5 Ultimate Reward points per dollar. Here are the 2012 categories.
You do have to activate your earning bonus each quarter for it to apply to your account.
4. Use the Ultimate Rewards Shopping Portal.
When you click through to a retailer from the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal, you will earn up to 20 extra UR points per dollar. It is insane how quickly it adds up. I’d say the average bonus is in the 2x – 5x extra points per dollar range, but they have had some awesome holiday promotions and one-day bonus points specials in the past month that have been amazing. Some examples of historical UR point bonuses are: Home Depot 5x, Sears 6x, Groupon 12x, Baby Gap 3x, Walmart 2x, and Pottery Barn Kids 3x. Bonus points display very quickly (usually in 1-2 weeks) in the Ultimate Rewards Mall & Travel Earnings section of the UR website. They don’t actually post to your UR account until your statement closes, but you can see them there as pending rather quickly.
Sometimes you will see different bonus amounts depending on the Ultimate Rewards card that you used when you logged into the portal. For example, the Ink Bold may display 5x for Kohl’s, but the Freedom displays 10x. There is no card that is consistently the best to log-in with as it varies from retailer to retailer.
You are encouraged to use a Chase credit card when you shop in the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal, but in practice any credit card seems to work just fine most of the time. Just be aware you are more likely to get support if something goes wrong if the purchase is on your Chase card.
5. Enjoy the heck out of your earned points!
Let me know if you have questions about any this – I really want to make sure that everyone has as much info as they need about Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program. All of the links included in this post are to the best UR sign-up offers I am aware of. Some of them are my own affiliate links, and some aren’t.