It’s been a long time since I took a broad look at the best overall credit card choices for your wallet.
So I thought I’d take another look, as the signup bonus offers have gotten better and more co-branded credit cards offer value-added benefits like progress towards elite status than when I last discussed the issue in 2005.
I’d love for this post to become a work-in-progress, so please hit the comments if I’ve missed anything in my analysis or if there’s a better card that I’ve overlooked.
Is a Mileage Earning Card With An Annual Fee For You?
But before you consider a mileage-earning card, take a hard look at your finances. Do you pay your bill in full at the end of each month? If not, stop. You may not want a mileage-earning card. At a minimum, miles probably shouldn’t determine what card you choose. Instead, you want a card with the lowest interest rate. Perhaps you have balances already, look for a card with 0% or close to it balance transfer offers (and then pay very close attention to the card’s terms and conditions in order to retain that teaser rate.)
Second, look at your finances to see how much spending you put on credit cards. You may want to sign up for a bunch of cards for their bonuses, for but ongoing charging decisions, if you aren’t going to put more than $1000 a month on the card on average, it may not make sense to get a card with an annual fee. For instance, many airlines have free cards that offer one mile per two dollars spent. At $12,000 in annual spending, that’s 6000 fewer miles but you’ll save $60 – $80. You’re basically buying those miles at 1 to 1.25 cents apiece. At lower levels of spending you’re buying the miles at a higher premium. The enhanced earning that comes from cards with an annual fee may not make sense unless you’re putting substantial charges on the card.
What Benefits Are Most Important To You, and What Are Your Spending Patterns?
If you’re striving for elite status on an airline or with a hotel program, and the program’s co-branded credit card offers you miles or nights towards status, that may be the end of the story. You value the elite benefits more than alternative miles earned, and the credit card helps you get there. End of story.
Or perhaps a card’s unique benefits are more important than miles — American Express Platinum’s broad lounge benefit (Northwest/Delta, Continental, and American) or Continental’s premium credit card benefit of Avis Presidents Club status (see here). Then you’d be choosing a credit card (or at least one of your cards) on a basis other than its mileage-earning prowess. I’ll discuss these various benefits below.
Finally, understand what you spend money on. Some cards bonus various categories of spend, like gas or groceries or drugstore charges. If your spending overlaps the bonus categories you may be inclined towards a card which privileges those categories. But don’t be duped into bonus mile offers for spending in categories that you don’t hit particularly hard. Double miles on gas won’t get you very much if you spend, say less than $100 a week on gas. It’s 5000 bonus miles during a year, perhaps, but the miles you’re earning may not be worth as much as an alternative card that doesn’t bonus refueling your car.
Here are the cards to consider, and the pluses and minuses of each. I will offer my final recommendations at the end.
A note on the signup bonus offers, though, they’re current and as I describe as I write this. But check the details of the offer, that they match the description I provide in this post, before moving forward. And let me know if there are any changes. Thanks!
There are five major cards on offer, not counting the lesser ones that offer less than a mile per dollar.
Visa Signature — no fee the first year, 25,000 miles after $250 in purchases
Visa Signature Gold Class – no fee the first year, 25,000 miles after $250 in purchases
Visa Signapture Platinum Class – $140 annual fee, 30,000 miles after $250 in purchases, elite qualifying miles: 5k after opening the card, 5k each year you spend $35k on the card, and up to 5k for United purchases, 1 qualifying mile per dollar spent
Visa Business Awards – $120 annual fee, 20,000 miles after first purchase, at each card anniversary 5000 miles and 2 red card club passes
Acquiring the no fee cards will yield 75,000 bonus miles (there are other offers of course, but these are good simple ones). Acquiring all five will earn 125,000 miles.
It used to be possible to churn Chase cards, getting the signup bonus over and over, and while there are occasional reports of success still on the whole you can only get the signup bonus for a given card one time.
United just isn’t a program you want to accumulate miles in. Unless you need the bonus elite qualkifying miles offered for the $140 annual fee Platinum Class Visa, there’s no reason at all to accumulate miles from sources other than flying in the Mileage Plus program.
- Their award chart just isn’t that great a value. They really gutted their award chart in December, significantly increasing the number of miles required for awards (eg a 39% increase — from 90,000 to 125,000 — for business class awards North american to Asia)… And this is after a big increase in miles required for rewards just two years earlier.
- Even if you have the points for an award, and the seats are being offered, they may not let you book it. United, significantly and seemingly randomnly, blocks its members from redeeming award seats offered by its partner airlines. Frequently they shut down all seats on Lufthansa, occasionally all seats on Thai, many flights on Asiana, to name just a few. Every other Star Alliance member lets you book award seats offered by Star Alliance partners. US Airways, Air Canada, and ANA all are much more honest in this regard. Continental pledges to be as well. Only United refuses to pay for award seats actually on offer.
For awhile there was both a Bank of America-issued Visa and a Juniper Bank/Barclay’s Mastercard — Bank of America was the historical US Airways partner, and Juniper got the concession when they added cash to help fund the America West takeover of the airline. It’s no longer possible to acquire a new Bank of America Visa (a shame, because those were churnable). That leaves two major cards:
Premier World Mastercard — $79 annual fee, 25,000 miles with first purchase, annual $99 companion ticket and club pass.
US Airways Business Mastercard — $79 annual fee, 25,000 miles with first purchase, annual club pass.
Note these cards advertise up to 35,000 miles, the other 10,000 coming from balance transfers but in most cases it’s not worth taking advantage of the offer.
When Juniper Bank first started issuing these cards I signed up two years fee waived and a 50% bonus on all spending during the first year. That was a great offer. I haven’t seen anything like it in a long time.
In my limited experience it is possible to churn these cards, but my experience may be unique and I haven’t seen much written on the subject.
The $99 companion ticket that comes with the card does turn out to be useful, though there’s a minimum fare associated with it unlike some companion tickets it doesn’t require you to book the paid fare in a higher fare class than is otherwise offered.
The cards also offer some flight benefits: priority checkin and priority boarding, ahead of those in coach without status and without the card.
US Airways has some modest but annoying award redemption fees, in particular for international partner award redemption. But that’s exactly how you should use US Airways miles — for premium class redemptions on Star Alliance partners. They have a reasonably good award chart, in many cases better than United’s, and they don’t block award availability. Plus at least in practice their routing rules are quite liberal (and two stopovers are permitted, one in each direction, though technically only at your arriving airline’s hub cities).
I don’t actually trust US Airways to retain the value of their miles, given their customer-unfriendly practices in the past and changes without notice to their award chart. In my view this is a good program to earn and redeem in quickly, but not to store large amounts of miles in for a long time.
And ultimately while these credit card offers have nice signup bonuses, they aren’t the best for daily spend. Why not put your spending on the Starwood American Express card and transfer the points into US Airways later if you want to? Lower annual fee for that card, a 5000 miles transfer bonus when you move over 20,000 points (so you earn in effect 1.25 miles per dollar instead of 1). And at times US Airways even offers bonuses on these transfers, I just made some transfers myself under a 50% transfer bonus offer.
American offers several different cards. The standard offer for the World Mastercard and American Express is 25,000 miles after $750 in purchases, and fee waived for a year. Same for the CitiBusiness Visa.
However, they’ve recently upped the ante on the World Mastercard, American Express, and Business Mastercard to 30,000 miles after $750 in purchases within four months of cardmembership, and fee waived for a year.
Citibank cards are ‘churnable’ meaning you can apply for the same card over and over and get the signup bonus each time. Recently Citi was limiting cardholders to two applications every 60 day. Some folks have been limited to only one in that time of late, as they clamp down due to the overall credit environment. But roughly speaking it’s been possible to secure 12 cards a year with at least 25,000 miles in signup bonuses apiece or 300,000 total American miles with no annual fees.
I haven’t seen too many recent references to it, but there’s a Citibank American Airlines Visa as well, and the best offer I’m aware of is a 20,000 mile signup bonus after $750 in charges. Since it’s possible to have more than one of the same card at a time, and the limit is on total number of applications in a given period of time the existence of a Visa product is somewhat beside the point.
American Aadvantage is a generally good program to be earning miles in, American’s award availability is pretty good for a US domestic carrier. Oneworld award availability is strong, certainly compared to Skyteam airlines.
The biggest drawbacks are that the transpacific presence is limited compared to Star Alliance (and until recently premium cabin awards on Cathay Pacific were hard to come by) and program rules prevent you from redeeming with the major transatlantic partner British Airways across the US across the Atlantic. (Note that you can book transatlantic flights via Canada and Mexico on British Airways with American miles.)
The other nice feature of earning American Airlines miles via credit card spend is that such miles (and indeed, miles earned from any source) count towards million miler lifetime status with the airline. One million miles means lifetime Gold, and two million miles means lifetime Platinum.
While the Citibank American Airlines products are solid, I don’t actually recommend them even as the way to earn American miles. The Starwood American Express comes with a lower annual fee, and the transfer bonus (5000 extra miles for transferring 20,000) means that you effectively earn 1.25 miles per dollar instead of the standard 1 mile per dollar spent with the Citi products.
I do recommend churning the cards for their signup bonuses, however!
The signup bonuses have gotten quite generous, I’ve seen more lucrative targeted offers than this but the basic offer is now to get the Gold Skymiles American Express — both a personal and a business card — each waiving the annual fee the first year and offering 30,000 miles with first purchase and an additional 5000 miles for adding two more cardholders to the account.
The Platinum version of the card allows you to earn elite qualifying miles — 10,000 EQMs after $25,000 in spend and another 10,000 EQMs after you hit $50,000 in total spend during a year. And since there’s both a personal and business version of the card you can do this twice if you are able to run enough spending through the cards.
Personal version of the card offers 20,000 bonus miles with first purchase and 2500 more points for adding an additional cardholder. The $150 annual fee is waived the first year.
The Platinum business card has a $150 annual fee (perhaps a reader knows of a fee waived version?) and comes with 15,000 bonus miles after first purchase, 5,000 of which count towards status.
Last year Delta and American Express introduced the new Delta Reserve Card packaging together lounge access and giving a boost towards elite status and even offering upgrade priority for elites — after status and fare class, having the card is a tie-breaker (thus more important than time of the upgrade request). This website illustrates priority order for Delta upgrades (what I’m least fond of is that a Silver on a full fare trumps a platinum who isn’t).
The Delta Reserve American Express comes with 10,000 elite qualifying miles after first purchase, 15,000 bonus miles and elite qualifying miles for $30,000 in spend and then another 15,000 bonus miles and elite qualifying miles for hitting $30,000 in spend during a calendar year. The card includes lounge access when traveling on Delta and comes with a hefty $450 annual fee.
The Delta Reserve American Express also comes with a small business version where the offer and benefits are the same.
Note that the signup bonus of 10,000 elite qualifying miles from each card can only be earned once (per card), and if you’ve gotten qualifying miles as a signup bonus on another American Express card in the past, you are only eligible for the incremental difference between the previous bonus you received and this offer (so if you received 5000 qualifying miles as a bonus on a previous card, then this card would only earn you 5000 qualifying miles with first purchase).
If you have enough spend — $220,000 in a year — you could get the business nad personal Platinum and Reserve cards and earn 100,000 qualifying miles in a year just based on credit card spend. With Delta promising to introduce a new fourth elite tier next year this could be interesting for a small subset of people.
Note also that the elite qualifying miles earned with the Delta Reserve American Express for qualifying spending can be transferred to someone else if you wish.
These cards used to offer “always double miles” on a sleuth of spending categories, but that’s been abolished. On the other hand, holding the cards exempts you from some award redemption fees (close-in ticketing fees, and the especially bogus partner airline redemption fee).
While the cards offering elite qualifying miles can be huge for Delta flyers with high spend (and the upgrade priority suggests that any Delta elite counting on an upgrade ought to carry at least the Reserve card), the Delta miles themselves are among the less valuable of currencies. You may get your upgrades with the Platinum card, and the signup bonuses are generous, but in the end you have a big stash of Delta miles.
Delta (and Skyteam partner) award available is tremendously inferior to their Star Alliance and oneworld competitor offerings in my experience. And other than Singapore First Class redemptions (which are virtually impossible at the moment during the changeover to new first class 777 flying on almost all routes formerly served by 747s), there aren’t any truly luxurious redemption options left. Sure, business class on Air France, and if that’s all you’re looking for it will be available on rare occasion…
Bank of American issus the co-branded Alaska Airlines Visa and Business Visa cards.
The Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program is useful because you can earn and redeem miles across several partners in both the Skyteam (e.g. Delta, Korean, Air France) and Oneworld alliances (e.g. American, British Airways), as well as with Alaska.
The Visa Signature comes with an annual fee of $75, 25,000 bonus miles (20,000 miles upon approval and 5,000 more after $750 in spend), 2 club passes on approval, and an annual $50 companion ticket.
The latter comes with 20,000 miles with first purchase and an annual $99 companion ticket.
I don’t remember the last time I saw a Bank of America fee waiver offer on a mileage credit card, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such an offer with the Alaska Visa. You pay for the card, but the signup bonus miles are more than worth the fee.
As a matter of pure mileage-earning, the Starwood American Express is better — with the transfer bonus of 5,000 miles with every 20,000 mile redemption, you earn more Alaska miles per dollar with the Starwood Amex than with the Alaska Visa.
However, the reason to have this card is for the companion ticket. It’s the single best companion ticket offer that I’m aware of.
The only meaningful restriction is that you have to stay entirely on Alaska Airlines (or Horizon)-operated flights. That means you have to want to travel on routes Alaska flies. But beyond that, this is a true $50 companion ticket. You buy one ticket, and the companion is treated exactly the same as the paid ticket as long as the two are traveling together. So if you buy an upgradeable coach fare, the companion is upgradeable. If you buy a first class ticket, the companion has a first class ticket. Period. And the companion ticket earns miles, and even class of service bonuses when buying a first class fare. (By the way, paid first class really is a great use for these.)
In my experience these cards are churnable, I’ve certainly seen folks earn the signup bonuses multiple times. But there’s not a lot written on others’ experiences with this. I’ve also seen those bonuses post without the cardholder evening activating the card, suggesting to me that the bonus is automatic rather than triggered by actually making a purchase on the card.
Both cards offer first checked bag fee waiver and two Presidents Club lounge passes each year after your cardmember anniversary date.
There’s also a similar small business card offer.
Good bonuses, but an $85 annual fee, and not the best bang for your buck because you’re earning Continental miles — historically these have been difficult to use as Continental is notoriously difficult with award availability, and their Skyteam partners have been as well. I do expect things to open up a bit at the end of october, 2009 when continental joins Star Alliance but I also expect a pricey award chart. I wouldn’t be banking my credit card spend with a Continental card.
Continental elites, though, and especially those that otherwise would pay for lounge memberships, should really consider getting the premium Presidential Plus Mastercard. The annual fee is a whopping $375, but the benefits are:
- Presidents club lounge membership (which runs $325 a year even for Platinums)
- 25% mileage bonus on Continental-operated flights.
- Avis Presidents Club status, which means a two-category upgrade, guaranteed car availability, and generally better ervice.
- Hyatt Platinum status (which gets you free internet, at least).
- Even non-elites benefit from ELiteAccess (basic elite status without the ugprades) and first and second checked bag fees waived. But really, this card is just good for elite members who reap the benefit of flown mileage bonuses and packaging their paid lounge memberships, and double up the benefits with Avis and Hyatt status.
I wouldn’t actually spend money on the card necessarily, because Continental isn’t my program of choice for accumulating miles, but if you choose if for flight benefits (because of the Platinum upgrades or because you live in, say, Houston) then you should carry this card.
Starwood offers a co-branded American Express card in the U.S. market that is my favorite all-around credit card.
First of all, it’s great for hotel stays. Starwood Preferred Guest isn’t especially generous awarding points for in-hotel spend, it takes shelling out quite a few dollars to earn free nights, promotional bonuses notwithstanding. The fastest way to free nights with Starwood is through American Express spend.
The card comes with no fee the first year, $45 thereafter. The signup bonus is 10,000 points with first purchase, plus another 15,000 points for spending $15,000 on the card within 6 months. (It’s like double points on your first $15,000 in spend — if you reach that threshold.) There’s also a small business version of the card offering the same bonus, and many individuals get that card after reaching the spending threshold on the personal card.
Simply having the card yields “Preferred Plus” status in the program, which should help you avoid the worst room in the house. For all intents and purposes, Preferred Plus is Gold status without the 50% bonus points for in-hotel spend. But the card also gives you Starwood Gold status as well after spending $20,000 on it in a year.
The real leverage in the program, though, is the breadth of airline partnerships. You can transfer to most frequent flyer programs at a 1:1 ratio, and then they give you 5000 bonus miles for each 20,000 increment that you transfer. That means if you’re transferring points to an airline program where the ratio is 1:1, you’re really earning 1.25 miles per dollar spent instead of just 1 mile per dollar like most cards. There are even a couple of programs, such as LAN’s, where the ratio is 1:2 — 20,000 Starwood points convert to 50,000 kilometers in that program (because the bonus is doubled as well).
Starwood’s list of partners is simply more extensive than you’ll find with other programs that have a transfer option. The only real caveats here are that United and Continental transfer at 2:1, meaning you only get half as many points with those programs. So the Starwood Amex is not a good way to top off a United or Continental account. This seems to be the result of pressure from Chase, which issues both airlines’ co-branded credit cards. After all, it’s awkward to have the Starwood card providing so much better earning with a lower fee than their own in-house products.
This is the single best all-around mileage earning card. Unless you need a specific card benefit like a companion ticket, or the boost a given card may provide towards elite status, this is the card you should seriously consider.
American Express Platinum
The benefits of the card are primarily travel-related, you get
- lounge access with American, Continental, and Delta (inclusive of Northwest) when flying same-day on the carrier. That goes a long way towards the $450 annual fee.
- Starwood Gold status (not worth a ton)
- the Fine Hotels and Resorts program (if you stay at one of their properties and make the booking through them you may get a discount but will generally get some add-on amenities like free breakfast and a single category room upgrade – similar to what any Virtuoso travel agent can get you)
- their Concierge service, provided by Circles which is a step above VIPdesk (which provides service for several less expensive cards)
the fine dining program, only occasionally useful but they do appear to get a single table at a handful of difficult to reserve restaurants so you might luck out
- a smattering of less useful benefits (not to mention roadside assistance, extended warrantys, etc).
- spending on this card counts towards qualifying for an American Express Centurion (Black) card if that’s your cup of tea, though I don’t view the Black card benefits as nearly worth the cost fo the card.
Spending on the card earns American Express Membership Rewards points, which are up there in my list of most valuable points. Their best use is transfers to airline mileage programs. They have plenty of partners but not as many as Starwood does, so Membership Rewards points aren’t as valuable as Starwood points and spending on a Membership Rewards card isn’t as useful or lucrative then as spending on a Starwood American Express card. Membership Rewards has several transfer partners within Skyteam and Star Alliance (notable in particular are Air Canada Aeroplan and ANA). They’re sorely lacking in oneworld (Mexicana and Iberia are options for redeeming with oneworld carriers but their award charts are quite expensive).
One unique aspect of Membership Rewards is that you can link a mileage account — anyone’s mileage account — online to your Membership Rewards account and make transfers. In the case of airlines like Delta, Continental, and Air Canada the transfer takes place instantly. It’s great for topping up accounts for redeeming airline awards, especially with carriers like Air Canada that do not permit placing awards on hold before you book. And the ability to transfer to anyone you wish online (not technically permitted under the program’s rules, but possible in practice online) is great for topping off friends’ accounts to prevent expiration or even trading miles.
My usual suggestion is that if you’re interested in the Platinum card, to first get a Gold card and then wait for special bonus offers for Platinum card signup to roll in.
The personal American Express Gold card with Membership Rewards comes with 10,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $500 on the card in 3 months and waives the $125 annual fee the first year. The Business version of the Gold card waives the primary cardholder fee the first year and gives 25,000 bonus miles each year you put $50,000 in spend on the card.
American Express offers two co-branded credit cards with Hilton.
The standard no fee Hilton American Express earns 3 points per dollar spent, plus 6 points per dollar in specific categories (Hilton hotels, grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations, home and wireless phone, cable and satellite TV, and Internet service providers). After $20,000 in spend on the card you’ll earn Gold status in the HHonors program. The signup offer is 20,000bonus points after first purchase and 2,500 bonus points for each of your first four eligible stays at Hilton hotels (when you pay with the card, and stay within 10 months get getting the card).
The new Hilton Hhonors Surpass Card from American Express comes with a fee of $75. The real benefit to this card is that after $40,000 in spend in a year you earn Diamond status in the HHonors program. Hilton is the only program that actually lets you earn top tier elite status based on credit card spend alone, and does so at a relatively modest spending threshold. You also get free Gold status your first year (thereafter you earn it with $20,000 in spend) and free basic Priority Pass membership. The signup offer is 40,000 points with first purchase, and 2500 bonus points per Hilton stay put on the card up to 8 times in the first 18 months of cardmembership.
The no fee Hilton Visa is a weak card, earning only 2 HHonors points per dollar spent. Do not even consider it.
HHonors points used to be difficult to use at times, but they’ve matched Starwood’s ‘no capacity control’ policy so for the most part if there’s a regular room for sale at a hotel you can redeem for it on points. With that change to the Hilton program, it makes collecting their points worthwhile.
While Hilton properties are ubiquitous, for my tastes they don’t have as many ‘nice’ properties as Starwood — hotels that I actually want to redeem my points to be at. I value Starwood points more highly just because I prefer luxury hotel redemptions, and there aren’t as many comparable properties in the Hilton portfolio. Moreover, Starwood points have far greater value when rransferred into airline miles.
But I fully intend to hit the $40,000 spending threshold on the Hilton American Express Surpass card in order to add Hilton Diamond to my travel wallet, for those times I do wind up staying at Hiltons.
Whether or not this makes sense as your primary card really depends on your travel and redemption habits — if you need hotels everywhere, then Hilton may be for you, and if you’re happy with Hilton hotels for your award stays then this is a great option. But if you want to transfer points to miles, or if you want high-end luxury stays, then it may not be.
(Note of course that I am not saying there aren’t luxurious Hiltons. There are several nice Waldorf and Conrad properties of course. But even some of those don’t compare to the top end of other chains, and and those make up a relatively small proportion of Hilton’s offerings.)
The personal card offers 25,000 bonus points with first purchase, a free night certificate valid at any property up to category 4, and 10 nights towards elite status every year. The card is free the first year and then $30.
The small business card offers 15,000 bonus points with first purchase, a free night certificate valid at any property up to category 4, and 10 nights towards elite status every year. The card is free the first year and then $30.
These cards earn 3 points per dollar spent at Marriott, and one point per dollar otherwise.
The only reason to consider this card is the nights towards elite status. Earning one Marriott point per dollar spent is simply mediocre given the Marriott Rewards award chart. If you sign up for this card, make it just because you want the signup bonus. If you carry this card, it’s purely for the boost towards elite status.
Update: I completely forgot about the Marriott Premier Visa Signature card and Marriott Premier Visa Business Card (thanks to reader Mike in the comments). In addition to the signup bonuses and free stay certificates, you get 15 nights towards elite qualification rather than just 10. Earning is 5 points per dollar at Marriott, and 2 points per dollar on airline, dining, and rental car spend. It’s still one point per dollar for everything else. The annual fee is $65, which is well worth it for the nights towards elite status. The card is worth using at Marriott hotels for the five points per dollar. Some will like the 2 points on travel and dining expense, though I won’t find it quite worthwhile myself. And still stay away from the card for all other spend.
There are interesting signup bonuses for the card, especially since those bonuses (and all points earned in a year in a Priority Club account) count towards elite status — 60,000 points yields Platinum. For instance, this offer gives you 45,000 points after first purchase and 15,000 more points after spending $3000 on the card. It also promises 10,000 additional points after spending $15,000 on the card, however the incremental spend isn’t worth it after $3000. The card comes with a $59 annual fee. $3000 in spend gets you Platinum status (which isn’t worth a ton outside of Crowne Plaza properties).
Priority Club cards offer 3 points per dollar spent with Intercontinental Hotels Group, and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. The earning on regular spend is downright awful. You earn one point per dollar spent, but Priority Club is a relatively inflated currency. A night at an Intercontinental hotel property generally costs 40,000 points. That’s $40,000 in spend. A night at the median equivalent property with Starwood would run $10,000 to $12,000 in spend. With Hilton, $10,000 to $15,000 in spend.
Priority Club is a nice program for earning bonuses from hotel stays, but the earning power of the co-branded credit card is just too weak to merit consideration.
This offer will give you 30,000 points with first purchase and a first year fee waiver, after that $29. In the past it also offered a $20 statement credit, and it might still but that no longer appears on the website. There’s a similar offer for the small business Visa as well.
This used to be the “poor man’s United Visa.” It came with no fee and you could transfer points out of Amtrak to United, Continental, Hilton, or Midwest Airlines.
In fact the Amtrak program was great for laundering points between Continental and United, you just move points from Continental to Amtrak to United with no devaluation along the way (and they only checked last names on the accounts for matching). Then without notice they imposed a limit of 25,000 points transferred out of an Amtrak account per year (50,000 for Amtrak’s elite members). They dropped United as a partner altogether, and now you have to spend $200 on Amtrak tickets on the card in a year before they’ll let you transfer points to Continental or Midwest or Choice hotels (and from there you can transfer to other airlines albeit with some devaluation).
Given that the program has a history of making significant changes with no notice to its members whatsoever, I don’t recommend building points here except crediting actual train travel or transferring points as needed to top off for a train travel reward. And the card itself isn’t that lucrative, since there aren’t very many outstanding redemption options other than sleeper cars on long-haul train travel if that happens to be your thing.
The standard offer is 5000 points after first purchase and no annual fee. I frequently see offers of up to 16,000 points for the signup bonus.
Ultimately I recommend against much spending on this card.
I still carry a Diners Club card, but you can’t currently apply for a new one in the U.S. The benefits of this card have been pretty well gutted the past four years. It used to offer at least 60 days to pay, they’ve lost points transfer partners like United and Continental, they’ve killed the restaurant savings program (there’s no more dining benefit with the Diners Club!). There have been other significant devaluations as well.
And yet I keep it because of the primary insurance coverage on rental cars and because as a secondary card that’s now a Mastercard it’s accepted where American Express is not, and the points earned are transferrable albeit with a more limited set of partners than in the past.
And they do still regularly offer transfer bonuses, for instance to British Airways, and they have unique partnerships that Starwood and Membership Rewards do not. It’s a specialty card for sure, and one you can’t currently apply for, but let’s not forget the Diners Club — the one that started it all!
Other Miscellaneous Cards of Note
The Asiana Airlines American Express from Bank of America offers 5000 bonus miles with first purchase and two miles per dollar spent on all purchases. The annual fee is $99. That’s an intriguing proposition, until you look at their award chart which is somewhat expensive all on Asiana metal and very expensive for long-distance Star Alliance awards in premium cabins.
The $90 annual fee Virgin Atlantic American Express Black Card offers 20,000 Flying Club miles after first purchase and 2,500 Flying Club miles for each of the first two authorized users added to your Card. Then you earn 1.5 miles per dollar on all spend, an additional 7,500 Flying Club miles when you spend $15,000 and an additional 7,500 miles when you spend $25,000 each year.
The card also helps towards elite status, with one tier point per $2,500, up to 2 points per month and thus 24 per year. It takes 15 tier points to qualify for Silver, and 10 to renew. It takes 40 tier points to qualify for Gold, and 30 to renew — so a heavy spending Gold member can make 80% of retaining Gold just with the card.
Proprietary Rewards Cards
Most of them are junk. The median card gives you at most the equivalent of a 1% cash rebate that you can spend only on travel, why not just get a cash rebate card? And since you’re only earning points through credit card spend, you can’t use all the various partnership as with an airline program to reach the miles you need — no rental car points, hotel points, miles for mortgages, dining for miles, etc.
What’s more, most of these programs only offer coach redemptions or make business class redemptions exorbitantly expensive. To my mind, that’s not the best value on the redemption side, either.
There have been proprietary programs that offered value in the past. Probably the best was the Citi Thank You Network. A fixed number of points could be redeemed for a specific ticket, regardless of cost.
Folks were getting $7000 flights to Tokyo, when all that was left was full fare inventory. (And the trick was that a nonrefundable segment would be inserted into the ticket, making the whole thing nonrefundable, then the ticket would be cancelled and the program member would retain a massive flight credit.)
Thank You Network cracked down on this by fixing the value of tickets you could redeem for, but business class redemptions generally were valued at 3 cents a point and the cards themselves could earn several points per dollar. The rewards were further leveraged again by booking the max value nonrefundable ticket, cancelling, and retaining a very large flight credit.
That option went away earlier this year, you can now no longer ever do any better than one cent a point on your redemptions, making the Thank You Network cards generally unattractive (relative to the best mileage cards, but still decent compared to most proprietary programs).
Bottom-line, the programs co-branded with major airlines and with some hotel chains offer far more value in general, though the occasional award chart loophole can leverage the proprietary offerings.
A word about churning: Whenever you apply for a new credit card there’s what’s known as a “hard pull” on your credit file. Whenever you’re requesting credit (or even other things like insurance or new bank accounts) that’s viewed as a potential negative, and your credit score can be affected.
In my experience each hard pull has dropped my score a couple of points, but this varies by individual. The hard pull shows up on your credit report for a couple of years before it will ‘age off.’
For the most part this is a non-issue, but if you’re going to be going for a mortgage in the near-term it’s advisable to lay off credit card applcations, since any increase in mortgage interest rate will likely be a greater burden than the benefit derived from new card signup bonuses.
That said, I’ve also increased the sum total of my available credit by churning through credit cards and holding several cards. And having more available unused credit is good for your score, it shows you’re responsible with credit. So on net my approach to cards has likely given me a higher score than I would otherwise have.
You have to decide whether or not you’re in a position to sign up for several cards or not, my advice is to go for it unless you have a marginal score to begin with or unless you’re likely to be in the mortgage market soon.
RECOMMENDATION: If your preferred airline for travel offers a card with elite qualifying miles based on spending, and you need those miles to requalify for elite status or reach the next level, then by all means get that card and put the requisite spending on it.
Similarly, if nights towards elite requalifying with Marriott is helpful then get that card. And consider the Hilton American Express because it allows you to reach Hilton Hhonors top tier status after $40,000 in spend during a year.
But for general all-purpose points earning, I still favor the Starwood American Express card for the flexibility of its points and the large number of points transfer partners the Starwood Preferred Guest program has.
I also suggest carrying at least one Visa and one Mastercard as well, just to be able spend money at those few locations where American Express isn’t accepted and to be ready for one of those odd promotions that require payment with a specific kind of credit card (Hyatt’s Faster Free nights requires payments with Mastercard, for example). But depending on how much spend you put on a Visa or Mastercard, and again whether you’re looking for elite benefits from such a card, you may just want a plain ‘ol vanilla free card… or a card for its features alone, not as a place to put much spending (as I do myself in carrying the Diners Club card which is now a Mastercard, but throwing only a few thousand dollars a year on it).