- Over the years, writer Caroline Lupini has chosen the best credit cards to fit her lifestyle. She always carries a travel card, a dining card, and a cash-back card.
- She gets so much value from her cards that when she sees a friend pay with debit instead of credit, she cringes at the lost opportunity.
- The cards she always carries with her include the Chase Freedom and the Chase Sapphire Reserve — and while she doesn't keep them on her person, the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card is always in her sock drawer.
I probably shouldn't, but I still cringe when I see a friend pull out a debit card and enter their PIN to make a purchase. No rewards. No purchase protection. None of the benefits that I receive on any of my purchases!
Recently this happened, and it led to a pretty deep conversation over all of the cards I carry in my wallet. It might seem ridiculous, but to me, leaving points on the table is leaving money on the table.
Admittedly, I carry more cards than most people. I carry a lot of cards, and three of them with eye-popping annual fees.
However, this is for a very deliberate reason: I optimize my spend for bonus categories so I can earn the maximum possible points for every purchase. I travel about six months out of the year, so I actually use all of the benefits of these cards. The value I'm receiving is far greater than the annual fees paid in my case.
Should everyone do this? Obviously not, but anyone who can use credit cards responsibly and settle their balances on time shouldn't be paying for purchases with a debit card that doesn't pay any rewards. That's just leaving money on the table.
Here are the cards I always keep in my wallet to use every day:
I buy a lot of airfare, and I eat in a lot of restaurants. The Citi Prestige earns an unbeatable 5x ThankYou Points on this spend. These transfer instantly to some of my favorite award programs, including Avianca LifeMiles. This card does have a steep annual fee: $495, of which $250 is rebated.
And one of its best benefits, 4th Night Free, is now limited to twice per year — and you have to book it directly through Citi, rather than through the hotel (so you miss out on hotel loyalty program benefits). Still, the 5x bonus categories are — for me — unbeatable, and the value I get from this is well worth the annual fee.
Chase charges a hefty $450 annual fee for this card, but your first $300 of travel purchases are refunded as statement credits. For an effective $150 annual fee, I get a second Priority Pass, which is handy when I'm traveling with people who pay for things with debit cards. I also get 3x Ultimate Rewards points on non-airfare travel.
I use my Citi Prestige for airfare (some people recommend using the Chase Sapphire Reserve instead for trip interruption coverage Citi doesn't have, but Chase makes this coverage hard to claim and won't pay to re-route you on an alternate flight).
However, I use my Chase Sapphire Reserve for all other travel purchases. Chase has an expansive definition of "travel" including bus fare and passes, road tolls, and even parking meters. Excluding the $300 travel credit, I earn 3x points all of these purchases worldwide!
The Ultimate Rewards points I earn can be transferred to seven different award programs (including all three flavors of Avios) or redeemed for 1.5 cents per point on the Chase travel portal.
This card pairs perfectly with my Chase Sapphire Reserve. There is no annual fee, and by optimizing my spend for bonus categories, I earn a ton of points. The Chase Freedom card earns Ultimate Rewards points, and Chase allows transferring these points between cards meaning I can get a minimum 1.5 cents per point in value when spending the points on travel (you can also get a cash rebate at 1 cent per point).
Given that Chase has rotating quarterly bonus categories that return 5% on spend at specified merchants (up to $1,500 each quarter you activate), you can earn an eye-popping minimum 7.5% return with this card. This quarter, the bonus categories are grocery stores and home improvement stores.
One of my best friends just bought a house, and it's her birthday next week. You can probably guess what her gift will be, and what card I'm paying with.
Discover it® Cash Back
This no-annual-fee card is almost exactly like the Chase Freedom, except that instead of earning points, it earns cash back. There are quarterly rotating 5% bonus categories (currently gas stations, Uber and Lyft; up to $1,500 each quarter after activation) which are usually different than the Chase Freedom categories.
While this card isn't as attractive to use for other spending (which only returns 1%), the rebate is hard to beat for bonused spend.
Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Card
This card is about as simple as it gets: You get 2% back on all purchases in cold hard cash, with no annual fee. For what would otherwise be non-bonused spend on my other cards, I use the Fidelity Rewards card.
What makes this deal even sweeter? There is currently a $100 bonus when you sign up.
I can't carry every card with me, though — here are the cards I keep in my sock drawer, to use regularly but not every single day:
The IHG Premier card has a sign-up bonus of 80,000 bonus points after $2,000 spend in the first three months. With only 1 point per dollar spent, this isn't a card to use beyond the minimum spend for a signup bonus. However, it's worth keeping for the automatic Platinum Elite status you'll receive. You also get your fourth award night free, and one free night per year at an IHG hotel listed at the 40,000 point level or below — solid value for the $89 annual fee.
For a $95 annual fee, this card provides a welcome bonus of up to 50,000 bonus points after a steep $6,000 minimum spend in the first six months. While Hyatt points are more valuable than other hotel programs, this card probably isn't worth using for non-bonused spend.
However, the card is worth using for bonused spend because $15,000 in spend allows a free night in a Category 1-4 hotel annually, and every $5,000 in spend gets you two World Of Hyatt tier qualifying night credits. You'll receive an additional free night annually when you renew the card. This card automatically confers Discoverist status in the World Of Hyatt program.
This card has a steep $450 annual fee. However, $300 of it is returned as a statement credit when booking Marriott properties, so for me, it's really only $150.
What do I get for the (effective) $150? A welcome bonus of 75,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months, a $100 discount on every two-night-or-greater St. Regis or Ritz-Carlton booking I make, 15 elite night credits, an annual free night award at up the 50,000 point level, and Gold Elite status.
The Bonvoy Brilliant still comes with a free Boingo Wireless subscription, a benefit that has been dropped from the Platinum Card® from American Express. I use this card to buy anything I might want to return, because it still has Amex Return Protection (a benefit being cut from an increasingly large number of cards). It also comes with a Priority Pass (my third card that provides a Priority Pass), but that's fine — it makes a great gift for my parents at Christmas.