Getting to Europe via Flexible Rewards and Airline Miles

My recent post announcing I’m going to Europe mentioned I will be flying business class on Brussels Airlines. I booked that flight with Membership Rewards (MR) points I earned from sign-up bonuses. However, that flight is from the East Coast and I live on the West Coast of the USA.

Getting to New York could have been done multiple ways:  a long road trip; flying an early morning, direct flight from SMF to BWI then taking a bus or Amtrak to New York; swimming through the Panama Cannel; and many others. I wanted to keep things simple, and comfortable, so I chose to fly Delta from Sacramento (SMF) to New York (JFK) with a stop in Minneapolis (MSP). This splits the cross-country flight into two 3-hour flights in economy, something more bearable for someone with long legs.

However, I could have picked a flight with American Airlines using the points from the sign-up bonuses from the Aviator Red and AAdvantage Platinum cards. We would have flown into a different airport, but still in the same area a day early so it would have worked out.

Or we could have used United miles from either the United MileagePlus Explorer card or Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United’s program from the Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP). Another option could have been transferring my MR points to Alitalia and flown from SFO to Amsterdam for 80,000 points roundtrip.

What I’m getting at is there are so many options. And there are probably more than 1 that will be a great choice for any one trip.

The biggest reason I chose to fly Brussels Airlines from the East Coast is because I didn’t want to be on a flight for half a day if I flew out of California. I also wanted to try out a few different “products.” “Products” meaning the type of airplane, seating arrangement, seats, and in-flight service offered by an airline.

Flying Delta from Sacramento to Minneapolis to New York (SMF-MSP-JFK) allows me to be more comfortable flying cross-country and trans-Atlantic, while experiencing lounges (which can reduce my cost of food) in MSP, JFK, and Brussels (BRU).

My reasons for not flying American Airlines to get to New York include not being able to visit a lounge in my layover (or not having a layover), and saving my AA miles for another big trip, either with both of my parents or a solo trip in a business or first class cabin to Asia.

The biggest take-away anyone should get from this is that regardless of what points (or how much cash) you have, there are countless options, including some you may never have heard of yet.

I always check Google Flights for cash prices, and I track prices for a flight to be notified if a flight increases or decreases in price. It also gives me the flexibility to search several Departure airports and multiple arrival airports to find the cheapest flight for a trip.

What to do When Annual Fees Post

Many credit cards with annual fees waive the annual fee the first twelve months. Twelve months have passed since I got my first credit cards with an annual fees (AFs) so my twelve months of waived annual fees have ended. This means I have to decide what to do with these cards.

My three options are:

  1. Cancel the card and not pay the annual fee;
  2. Keep the card and pay the annual fee; or
  3. Keep the card, but product change the card to a no-AF version

Keeping a budget for the entire year has meant I budgeted enough money each month to be able to pay any annual fees (AF) once it came time to pay up. However, a year of use has helped me learn more about my spending habits, and how much I value each of the cards I have acquired.

So what am I doing with these cards?

The biggest reason I’m okay with signing up for credit cards is knowing I am building credit history, so I prioritize options 2 and 3 from above.

Now, I could cancel all of my cards and the accounts would continue to increase my Age of Credit History for 10 years until they fall off my credit report (10 years from now), but I’d rather keep them forever and have 30+ year old accounts. Plus, keeping as many accounts open helps me build a relationship with banks.

Product Changing

I wrote about flying to Hawaii using points from the United MileagePlus Explorer card and flying to the east coast to visit family using American Airlines miles from the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card last year. And I decided to product change these two cards instead of canceling or paying the AFs.

By product changing (PCing) these cards within 30 days of the AF posting, the $95 annual fees were refunded to my accounts. If the cards did not have fee-free versions, I would have canceled the cards and still been refunded the annual fees.

Canceling

Another card mentioned in the post about flying to Hawaii was the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card. I am still unsure of what to do with this card because it offers good category bonuses, but I’m not sure if I would benefit from earning Membership Reward points since I don’t spend enough to accumulate enough for a full trip. Fortunately, I have a couple more months to decide whether I will cancel the card or pay the AF.

A third card I used during my Hawaii trip was the Barclaycard ArrivalPlus. This card allowed me to redeem points to zero out the cost of the GoCity Card I bought to hit all the tourist attractions. These points are very flexible, but the ArrivalPlus requires a minimum of 10,000 points ($100) to redeem against a travel expense. I could have changed the card to the no-AF version, but I had too much trouble with the card so I ended up canceling it.

Keeping and Paying the Annual Fee

At the other end of the spectrum, I am planning to keep the Hyatt and IHG credit cards from Chase and pay the annual fees because I get a free 1-night stay from each card every anniversary. The Hyatt certificate restricts use to category 1-4 hotels. However, the IHG annual certificate has no restrictions on hotel categories, so I could spend the night in Times Square for the $49 annual fee on the card.

IHG PointBreaks Official Hotel List For April-July

IHG has published their list of PointBreaks hotels after publishing a preview list on Friday.

These hotels are only 5,000 points/night but they’re also generally not the most popular hotels. One hotel I’m looking at is the Holiday Inn Express Karlsruhe City Park which is normally 20,000 points/night or about $120/night in July.

Chase offers an IHG credit card which has an offer of 60,000 points which amounts to 12 nights of PointBreak stays. If you don’t want the IHG credit card, you could transfer Ultimate Rewards points to IHG if you have either the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Sapphire Reserve.

I’d recommend getting the IHG credit card because you get that big sign-up bonus (sometimes the bonus can be found for up 80,000 points) and every card anniversary you’ll get a free 1-night stay at any hotel.

Introduction to the Chase Branded Credit Cards

Chase has a variety of name branded credit cards and all but one of them, the Slate, earn Ultimate Rewards points. Each card has its own perks and advantages and this post will compare these benefits across the Chase branded credit cards.

The Chase Slate card is a good choice for people who are looking to either build credit, pay off credit card debt with a 0% APR or balance transfer, or someone looking to get a credit card which gives a credit score on each statement. For someone looking for a rewards credit card, the other Chase credit cards are going to what you’re looking for.

Chase Rewards Cards: Ultimate Rewards (UR) Earning Cards

The Chase Freedom and Freedom Unlimited credit cards offer:

  1. Freedom
    • 5 points/$ for rotating categories (changing every 3 months)
    • 1x points on all non-category spending
  2. Freedom Unlimited
    • 1.5 points/$ on all purchases; no 5x or 1x categories.

Owning both cards means someone will earn either 1.5 or 5 points/$ spent at no cost because both cards have no annual fee. This quarter (October-December 2016), the 5% category for the Freedom is department stores, wholesale clubs (Sam’s Club or Costco), and drug stores.

Chase offers the Sapphire Preferred (CSP) with:

  • 2 point/$ on travel and dining
  • 1x on all other purchases
  • Redeem 1000 UR points for $12.50 of travel through the UR portal
  • Transfer UR points to partner airlines and hotels
  • No foreign transaction fee

This cards works well to fill the gap between 5x restaurant categories on the regular Freedom and earns more than the flat 1.5x of the Freedom Unlimited. Car rentals are considered travel expenses and the CSP offers primary rental insurance making the CSP a way to reduce the cost of renting a car by not needing to pay for rental insurance.

Chase recently released a new card called the Sapphire Reserve (CSR) and has an annual fee of $450. The perks include:

  • 3 points/$ on travel and dining (compared to 2x for the CSP)
  • 1 point/$ on all other purchases
  • $300 annual travel credit (not just airline fees)
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Global Entry or TSAPreCheck reimbursement
  • 1000 UR points = $15.00 in the UR portal
  • Lounge access through Priority Pass Select with unlimited guests for free

This card fills what I felt was a big void left by Chase for many years. This directly competes with the Amex Platinum and Citi Prestige more than the Chase Palladium did because someone had to be a Chase Private Client (available to people with at least $250,000 in Chase accounts) to apply. $300 annual travel credit is more broadly applied and greater than the $200 and $250 annual airline fee credits offered by the American Express and Citi cards.

Business owners can apply for either the Chase Ink Cash or Ink Plus business credit cards. Both cards earn:

  • 5 points/$ on select business purchases
    • office supply stores
    • cell phones
    • landlines, internet, and TV
  • 2 points/$ at gas stations and hotels
  • 1 point/$ on everything else

The major differences between these two cards is the Ink Cash has a maximum category bonus of the first $25,000 spent in each category and no annual fee whereas the Ink Plus maxes at $50,000 in each category with a $95 annual fee which is not waived.  Also, the Ink Plus has no foreign transaction fee and the Ink Cash has the 3% foreign transaction fee, the same as the Freedom cards have.  Both cards earn UR points and can be switched (product change) to the other after at least 12 months of the card being open.

Ultimate Rewards Points

Like American Express Membership Rewards points, Chase’s Ultimate Rewards (UR) points have a variety of uses, but better with better redemption rates. I will go into detail on how the UR points can be used in a later post, so stay tuned.

 

You can apply for the Chase Freedom from this link and earn 15,000 Ultimate Rewards points (worth $150 in cash back or more) after spending at least $500 in the first 3 months of the account being open.

Benefits of Opening A New Credit Card

Credit cards are usually synonymous with debt and other negative thoughts and feelings, but they shouldn’t. Yes, you spend money that isn’t directly yours when you use a credit card, but that’s just one benefit to credit cards. A credit card company will fight to reclaim their stolen money if your card information is used fraudulently but a bank will probably say “sorry, but at least we tried” if someone steals your debit card.

Banks typically offer a bonus for signing up for opening a new credit card.  These bonuses can be as simple as Discovers “we’ll double the cash back you earn in your first year” to something like the 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points for signing up for a Chase Sapphire Reserved credit card.

Discover sign-up bonus.PNG
Discover’s “we’ll double whatever you earn in your first year”

I had my wisdom teeth pulled out in March and I used my new United MileagePlus Explorer  (MPE) card to help meet the minimum spending requirement for the sign-up bonus. Small daily expenses added up and eventually I had spent enough to get my sign-up bonus.

Most credit cards offer at least 1 point/$ spent, some have categories which give 2 or 3 or more points for each dollar spent (1%, 2%, 3%, etc.) so using a cashback credit card means whatever you buy is effectively giving you at least a 1% rebate.  Sign-up bonuses come in and increase that rebate or point earning power by a lot.

The United MPE card had a sign-up bonus for 50,000 (currently only 30,000) for spending $2,000 which means I earned:

  • 25 points/$ (50,000/$2,000)
  • 1 point/$ on all purchases (2 if I bought things from United)
  • Total: 26 or 27 points/$ for the sign-up bonus

However, to get another 50,000 points I would have to spend no less than $25,000 and up to $50,000 unlike the initial $2,000 sign-up bonus.

Let me give a few more examples: Say you spend $200/month in each of these categories

  • Restaurants;
  • Supermarkets (groceries, toiletries, cleaning supplies, etc.)
  • Movies, concerts, theme/amusement parks
  • Travel (gas stations, public transit, airfare/bus/train tickets, etc.)
  • Fixing up or redecorating your place (Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc.)

This amounts to $1,000/month in spending. You could use a Chase Sapphire Preferred for the restaurants and supermarkets, a Citi ThankYou Premier for entertainment and travel, and a Discover it for home improvement. At the end of a year you would have earned:

  • 7,200 UR points ($72.00 cash or $90+ in travel);
  • 12,000 TYP ($60 cashback, $90 statement credit, $120+ travel); and
  • $96.00 in cash back (Discover doubles the 1st year)

Or you could have earned several sign-up bonuses by putting all of your spending on a single new card every few months. Most sign-up bonuses require somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000 spent in 3 months time like the Citi AAdvantage Platinum or Executive cards earning 30,000-60,000 American Airlines miles (good for a round trip ticket within the US or to Europe). The Chase Freedom and Freedom Unlimited cards offer $150 (15,000 Ultimate Rewards Points) after spending $500 which is more attainable for people who spend less.

Applying for a new credit card can add some more complications to your financial situation, but it can also get you a free flight you were going to take to visit your family. Like anything regarding money, make sure you have a good sense of your finances (e.g. budgeting) and do what is right for you at the time.

 

You can apply for a Discover It credit card by clicking this link. You’ll receive a bonus of $50 and after 12 months your cashback earnings (and the $50 sign-up bonus) will be doubled.