There are a lot of great credit cards out there. Personally I have over two dozen at the moment. 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. If you’re looking for a simple yet rewarding travel rewards credit card strategy, this is for you.
Value of the Chase Freedom Unlimited
On its own, I don’t consider the Chase Freedom Unlimited® (review) 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%. However, for new members, the card is currently offering 5x points on groceries for the first 12 months, on up to $12,000 of spending. That’s a great offer for new cardmembers.
The good news is that there’s a way to unlock a lot 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 (review), Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card (review), or Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card (review) — 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. Similarly, you go from earning 5.0 cents on groceries (for new cardmembers) to earning 5.0 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar
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%.
Freedom Unlimited + Sapphire Reserve
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 $550 in annual fees (the Reserve has a $550 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, and if you’re a new cardmember, 5x points on groceries for 12 months (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 $250 per year (in 2020 the travel credit can even be used at gas stations and grocery stores)
- 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
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.
- Through September 30 Chase is offering “Pay Yourself Back,” whereby points can be redeemed for 1.5 cents each towards grocery stores, dining, and home improvement stores
Redeeming points towards travel purchases and using the “Pay Yourself Back” feature don’t take much skill, as you’re getting 1.5 cents towards all kinds of 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, plus 8.5% return on grocery stores (assuming you’re a new Freedom Unlimited customer)
That’s an incredible return, especially when we’re just talking about two cards.
Getting approved for the cards
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.
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 FlexSM (review), 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 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 (review) and/or Ink Business Unlimited℠ Credit Card (review), which offer 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, 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 American Express® Gold Card (review) has a $250 annual fee (Rates & Fees) and offers 4x points at restaurants globally, 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 Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express (review) has a $95 annual fee 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 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 some bonus categories only apply with US retailers.
If you’re willing to add another Amex card to the mix, I’d highly recommend The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express (review), which has no annual fee (Rates & Fees) and 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 $550 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 $250 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.
Arguably the combo is even more valuable right now, between the flexibility with the travel credit, the ability to redeem rewards towards dining and groceries, and the improved bonus on the Freedom Unlimited.
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.
The following links will direct you to the rates and fees for mentioned American Express Cards. These include: American Express® Gold Card (Rates & Fees), and The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express (Rates & Fees).