Helping A Reader Optimize Their Credit Card Strategy

Filed Under: American Express, Chase
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A lot of people post in the Ask Lucky forum asking for guidance to help maximize their credit card rewards. User lbs57 asked the following question a few days ago:

Hi – We live in Houston but don’t always fly United – finding ourselves flying other airlines more and more overseas. My husband and I usually fly together – we both have Amex platinum cards (he is thinking that we need to cancel one and have one gold) We also have United Pres. Plus Master Card and I recently got the Mileage Plus Explorer for myself. (not sure if that was a good choice) We spread out our spending on all the cards – are we too heavy in the United card area? We spend quite a lot monthly on credit cards but never really seem to get much out of it mileage wise. Seem to not be doing something right – any suggestions?
Thank you!

While this is a specific question, I think a surprising number of people find themselves in similar situations. They spend a lot on their credit cards, but they’re not getting all that much out of their rewards. What I like about the above situation is that it’s quite easy to point at some easy opportunities for improvement.

To make this easy, let me give a few specific suggestions of how the above credit card strategy could be greatly improved:

Spend less on the Amex Platinum Card

I’m a big fan of The Platinum Card® from American Express (Rates & Fees) for the perks that it offers, including a $200 airline fee credit, $200 Uber credit, Centurion Lounge access, Delta SkyClub access, Priority Pass membership, hotel status, and more. However, just about the only money I spend on this card is on airfare, as the card offers 5x points on airfare purchased directly with airlines.

You should decide for yourself if the card is worth the annual fee to you for the perks, but you shouldn’t be using this card for your actual credit card spend, as you could be earning at least 50% more rewards.

If you want to earn more Membership Rewards points, consider the Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express, which offers 3x points at US supermarkets (on up to $6,000 of spend per year) and 2x points at US gas stations, plus a 50% points bonus when you make at least 30 transactions per billing cycle. That means you earn up to 4.5x points at supermarkets, up to 3x points at gas stations, and up to 1.5x points on other purchases. Yes, you’d legitimately be earning at least 50% more points on virtually all purchases, since you’d earn 1.5x points rather than 1x points.

If you instead want a no annual fee to complement The Platinum Card® from American Express, consider The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express, which offers 2x points at US supermarkets (on up to $6,000 of spend per year), plus a 20% points bonus when you make at least 20 transactions per billing cycle. That’s right, this no annual fee card offers 20% more points than the Platinum Card.

Lastly, it could also make sense to consider the American Express® Gold Card, which offers 4x points at restaurants globally, 4x points at US supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year), and 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines.

All of these cards should prove more rewarding than the Platinum Card when it comes to the points you earn for your spend.

You could be earning a lot more Membership Rewards points with other Amex cards

Spend on the Sapphire Reserve instead of the United Card

Lbs57 has two United credit cards, but notes that they don’t always fly United. Assuming you don’t have elite status with United and aren’t going for some sort of an elite waiver, you’re much better off putting spend on either the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card or Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card:

  • The Reserve offers 3x points on dining and travel
  • The Preferred offers 2x points on dining and travel

Why is this a better strategy? Because these points can still be transferred at a 1:1 ratio to United, though you’ll be earning a lot more points this way. On top of that, having this card gives you a lot more flexibility, as you can also transfer your points to many other programs. On top of that, you can redeem the points as cash towards the cost of a travel purchase — if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card you can redeem points for 1.5 cents each towards a travel purchase, and if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: you can redeem points for 1.25 cents each towards the cost of a travel purchase.

Personally I’d dump the two United cards (unless you’re getting value out of the perks), and get one of these cards instead.

Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to many programs other than United MileagePlus

Consider a cash back card

Since it’s mentioned above that they never really seem to get much value out of their miles, I do think it makes sense to do an analysis and decide if a cash back credit card might be more rewarding for you. You should be earning a return of at least two cents on every dollar you spend. That’s because the alternative to any of these cards is something like the Citi® Double Cash Card, which is a no annual fee card that offers 1% cash back when you make a purchase, and then an additional 1% back when you pay for that purchase.

Points can be complicated to redeem, and I’d guess that most people collecting points aren’t actually getting a return of better than 2% on their spend. So this is a worthwhile option to consider.

With a cash back card you have even more flexibility with how you can redeem your points

Bottom line

I find lbs57‘s credit card strategy to be a surprisingly common one. People have had the Amex Platinum Card for years, and assume it’s great for their spend. Furthermore, they assume that because they often fly an airline, they should get a card from that airline and spend money on it. In the above situation one could easily earn way more miles with just one or two additional cards, and possibly even canceling a few existing cards. As a last resort, it could make sense to switch to a cash back card, for the simple, no strings attached rewards that they offer.

The following links will direct you to the rates and fees for mentioned American Express Cards. These include: The Platinum Card® from American Express (Rates & Fees).

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  1. Lucky, I’m a frequent user of the Amex Platinum. I also have the AA Sliver Aviator and the CSR. I use the CSR for work travel, and I’ve basically ditched the AASA, and thus use the AmExPlat for daily spend. I do this because I routinely get $50 and $25 monthly statement credits for restaurants and pools of points (like 10K points for VS spend) thanks to AmEx offers. Should that not be factored into a card strategy?


  2. With the Sapphire Preferred and then paired with the United Club card (1.5x on everyday purchases) is nice as a United/Star Alliance FF but where I really get fantastic value is when I utilize these cards in the Mileage X app from United for everyday spending. I just bought shoes for my wife and I, utilized the Mileage X app at DSW and received ~1200 points on a ~$220 purchase since DSW offers 4x/dollar spent then matched with United Club card 1.5x points. It can payoff even more when I dine out with a participating restaurant and use the sapphire with the app.

  3. Generally, since they are in Houston, I don’t think it’s “unwise” to keep one United card for perks and expanded award availability, but if they are not flying United much they could downgrade to a no-annual fee version to retain access to expanded award availability.

    I agree to earn on CSR because of the multipliers and ability to transfer to United as needed vs. having miles “stuck” on one airline.

    Keeping the Amex Platinum and selecting United as the airline for the $200 reimbursements would allow them to be “covered” for the occasional United flight fee should they need it to cover baggage fees or lounge fees.

  4. As someone who has the United MileagePlus Presidential Plus Mastercard, I’d personally hold on to that card as it’s the only United card that allows you to earn PQMs when used. United discontinued the card a while back and replaced it with the MileagePlus Club, so those grandfathered in should definitely hold on to it in case you end up making United your primary airline.

  5. @FLD, This is one reason why I keep Amex in general, but in my case, I find that the offers appear on my no-annual fee Amex credit cards and never on my Platinum charge. FYI: all cards are tied to my MR account. Based on this, shifting to a non-Platinum card should not result in losing good Amex offers.

  6. Pleeeease do a post like this but on Canadian credit cards.

    I have a Corp and personal SPG Amex, the bmo world elite mc, the Marriott visa (its closing down next month) and the rbc visa infinite privilege.

    What do you recommend I get?

  7. @Bob

    I would suggest the Amex Business Gold Card – it’s first year free and comes with 40,000 MR points as a welcome bonus through select links. Bad card for everyday spend though.

    For that I would keep using SPG if you have a good use for them – they are by far the most valuable point currency in Canada, IMO.

    You could also consider the personal gold card from Amex or the cobalt card for everyday spend, as they have good category bonuses. The cobalt card has more limited redemption options, but can still be transferred to SPG and therefore Marriott at a very decent transfer ratio.

    I like the RBC card for my primary visa spend, and transfer those points to BA for short haul flights and trips to Hawaii from the west coast.

    Personally not a fan of the BMO cards. For MasterCard I use the MBNA Alaska card, which is a program I use a lot for partner award travel.

    I’d be happy to help you with a Canadian credit card strategy based on your personal travel goals!


  8. I hold the AA Red card since I occasionally fly AA for work and I like the perks there. I hold the AMEX plat for either Centurion Lounge or Skyclub access. Both of those cards could easily go away in a pinch or if my work travel plans change. I put all other spend, strategically, on either my CSR, Biz Ink Preferred (not sure if I’ll keep this one), Freedom Unlimited, or Freedom cards. Easier to manage, very good value from either transferring to partners or spending for $.015/point, or even $.01/point to pay off a card balance in bad times. All other cards are less valuable to me.

  9. @tyler
    Thanks for the write up. I actually had the Amex gold and also the platinum, but I cancelled them around 1 year after getting them and the bonus points.

    The BMO I have as a favor to my banker at BMO, I don’t really use it.

    I use the SPG for everyday spend and the RBC VISA at any place that doesn’t take AMEX. RBC really screwed me thiigh, I had over 2 million points with them and wanted to transfer them over to AA as I usually redeem them for EY F, and I was waiting for an RBC to AA bonus as they typically have a few times a year. Then one day I find out that they significantly reduced the points transfer rate to AA without any prior notice. Got screwed out of hundreds of thousands of miles.

  10. There’s a benefit to a United card — it gives you extra award availability (typically, but not always, on UA-operated flights) when booking award travel. This has helped me out a few times on complicated international business award routings.

    In my case, I have AmEx Plat for the benefits (hotel status in particular) and all my airfare charges go on it; CSR for everything else; then a United MileagePlus Explorer card ($99/year) for the United award availability. What I do is give my wife the Explorer card (no fee for authorized user, unlike the other two cards I have) and she charges some things on that. Since adding her as an auth user on AmEx or CSR would be $75-100 anyway, might as well just have an Explorer for $99 and have her use that.

    You also get 2 United Club passes per year with the card, which in the past were on paper and I’d give to my wife or colleagues when they traveled, but now the passes are in-app so I’m not sure how that will work out — haven’t had time to figure that out yet.

  11. A flowsheet might be created but maybe too complex. First question would be if you can use miles. If not, then a cash back card.

    Further down could be a gas question. People in Manhattan don’t drive and don’t need a high gas back card, like the 4% earned with the Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi. Also people who don’t shop at Costco don’t need that card.

    Thanks, Lucky, for introducing me to the wonderful world of credit card strategy. I started a strategy only last month. Before that, I was using a Capital One Quicksilver Visa, which is a no annual fee, 1.5% cash back card. Lucky showed me that I can do better.

  12. You really need to ask these people how much they spend. They say “We spend quite a lot monthly on credit cards”, but no idea what that means.

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