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There are a lot of great credit cards out there. Personally I have 22 at the moment, and have four cards that I most use for my everyday spend. While I know some people are like me in terms of how many cards they have, I know other people say “I don’t want that many cards, I could never keep track of them. Give me a simpler strategy.”
In this post I wanted to share what I’d consider to be the single best credit card duo that earns you big rewards and gets you great benefits, all while keeping annual fees to a minimum (this is an update on a previous post). If I could just have a total of two credit cards, these are the ones I’d get.
The key to unlocking value with the Chase Freedom Unlimited
On its own, I don’t consider the Chase Freedom Unlimited® to be that great. The card earns 1.5x points per dollar spent, and each point can be redeemed for a penny, so it essentially offers a return of 1.5%. If that’s how you’re using the card then there are better options, like the Citi® Double Cash Card, which offers 1% cash back on every purchase, plus an additional 1% cash back when you pay for those purchases.
But there’s a way to unlock more value from the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. If you have the card in conjunction with a card that accrues Ultimate Rewards points — specifically, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card, or Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card — then you can convert the points earned on the Freedom Unlimited into Ultimate Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio. This can easily be done online for free, and it’s an instant process.
Using this method you go from earning 1.5 cents per dollar spent on the Freedom Unlimited to earning 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent. I value Ultimate Rewards points at ~1.7 cents each, so to me that’s like increasing the value of the points you earn by 70%.
The perfect card duo
With that in mind, what’s the perfect card duo? As far as I’m concerned, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card and the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. You’d pay a total of $450 in annual fees (the Reserve has a $450 annual fee and the Freedom Unlimited has no annual fee), and you’d earn:
- 3x points on dining and travel (with the Reserve)
- 1.5x points on everything else (with the Freedom Unlimited)
Earn 3x points on dining with the Sapphire Reserve
But then you’d receive all kinds of other perks that make this a fabulously well rounded combination:
- The Reserve comes with a $300 annual travel credit that’s automatically applied, so assuming you spend at least $300 on travel per year, that lowers the real “out of pocket” on the card to $150 per year
- You get a Priority Pass membership, which gets you and two guests access to 1,200+ lounges around the world
- You get a Global Entry fee credit every four years
- You get no foreign transaction fees, making this a great card for international purchases (especially since you’ll largely be earning triple points on purchases abroad)
- You get great travel protection for lost baggage, delayed flights, car rental coverage, etc.
Access Priority Pass lounges with your Chase Sapphire Reserve benefits
Essentially between those two cards you’ll get just about all the most valuable benefits offered by credit cards.
Crunching the numbers on this combination
There are two ways to redeem points earned on the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card most efficiently:
- You can transfer them to any of the Ultimate Rewards airline & hotel transfer partners, where you can get outsized value by redeeming for first & business class travel
- You can redeem Ultimate Rewards points for 1.5 cents each towards the cost of a travel purchase, including flights, hotels, etc.
The latter redemption takes no skill, but rather you can redeem points for 1.5 cents each towards the cost of all kinds of travel purchases. Given that, you’d be earning the following return (as credit towards travel) with this setup if you have both of these cards:
- 4.5% return on travel and dining spend
- 2.25% return on everything else
That’s an incredible return, especially when we’re just talking about two cards.
Getting approved for the Sapphire Reserve & Freedom Unlimited
The Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card and the Chase Freedom Unlimited® are both subjected to the 5/24 rule, meaning you can’t be approved for the cards if you’ve opened five or more new card accounts in the past 24 months. That’s another reason that these are cards you’ll want to acquire early in your credit journey.
You’re not eligible for the welcome bonus on the Sapphire Reserve if you currently have any Sapphire Card, or if you’ve received the new cardmember bonus on any Sapphire Card in the past 48 months.
Meanwhile you’re not eligible for the welcome bonus on the Freedom Unlimited if you currently have the card, or if you’ve received a new cardmember bonus on the card in the past 24 months.
When it comes to general restrictions on Chase approvals, Chase will typically approve you for at most two cards in a 30 day period, and you can potentially be approved for two cards on the same day.
Potential complements to the card combo
If you want to keep things simple then skip this section, but for those who want to take this strategy one step further, there are a few other additions I should mention:
- You could complement the above two cards with the no annual fee Chase Freedom® Card, which offers 5x points in rotating quarterly categories, and similarly allows you to convert points into Ultimate Rewards points
- If you wanted a business card to maximize Ultimate Rewards points, you could get the Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card, which offers a huge welcome bonus of up to 80,000 Ultimate Rewards points, and offers triple points on travel, shipping purchases, internet, cable, phone services, and advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines
- You could also complement these cards with the no annual fee Ink Business Cash℠ Credit Card and/or Ink Business UnlimitedSM Credit Card, which offer welcome bonuses of up to 50,000 points, plus useful bonus categories
- If you don’t want to pay the $450 annual fee on the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card, you could instead get the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which has a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), and offers double points on dining and travel
I love the Ultimate Rewards card “ecosystem” that you can create
The Amex duo alternative
Personally I think the above Chase combo is the most well rounded, though if you prefer to earn Amex Membership Rewards points, there are also some good options available to you.
I’d say the most well rounded Amex duo would be the following:
- The new $250 annual fee American Express® Gold Card, which offers 4x points at U.S. restaurants, 4x points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 in purchases annually), and 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com; the card offers a $100 annual airline fee credit and $120 annual dining credit
- The $95 annual fee Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express, which offers 3x points at U.S. supermarkets, on up to $6,000 of purchases per year, 2x points at U.S. gas stations, and a 50% points bonus when you use your card 30 or more times per billing period, less returns and credits
In other words, between the two cards you’d earn up to 4.5x points at U.S. supermarkets, 4x points on U.S. dining, 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines, up to 3x points at U.S. gas stations, and up to 1.5x points on all other purchases.
That’s a great return, though not ideal if you travel a lot internationally. That’s because Amex doesn’t have the same global acceptance as other cards, and also the bonus categories mostly only apply with US retailers.
If you’re willing to add another Amex card to the mix, I’d highly recommend the no annual fee The Blue Business℠ Plus Credit Card from American Express, which offers 2x Membership Rewards points on the first $50,000 spent every calendar year.
If you’re new to miles and points, it’s tough to beat the combination of the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card and the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. While you’d pay a total of $450 in annual fees, the way I see it the $300 annual travel credit is more or less worth face value, so I tend to think the real “out of pocket” on this combination is $150 per year.
For that you’re getting triple points on dining and travel, 1.5x points on everything else, a Priority Pass membership, incredible travel coverage, no foreign transaction fees, a Global Entry fee credit, and the ability to redeem points for 1.5 cents each towards the cost of a travel purchase.
Best of all, if later on you wanted to expand your portfolio of cards that potentially earn Ultimate Rewards points, you could add the no annual fee Chase Freedom® Card, Ink Business Cash℠ Credit Card and Ink Business UnlimitedSM Credit Card.
I don’t think there’s a better card duo out there. For more on Ultimate Rewards, see The Ultimate OMAAT Guide to Ultimate Rewards.