Which Credit Card To Use When?

Filed Under: Advice, American Express
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We frequently discuss how different credit cards can best be leveraged in a given situation, but sometimes it can still be difficult to pinpoint exactly which cards make sense for you. Reader Matt H. posed this question last week on the Ask Lucky forum:

I am sure this has been asked in a previous question, but I am having a problem finding exactly what I am looking for. I carry the following cards: Delta Reserve Amex, Delta Platinum and a Marriott Reward Visa Signature. I tend to just use my Delta Reserve for everything and the Delta Platinum and Marriott Visa for minor things. I am sure I am not getting the most benefit with how I am using them today and so I guess I am looking for maybe an ‘optimal’ way to use these cards. I really don’t want to get rid of any of them, but an open to considering it. Also, I travel to Europe A LOT for work and would love to get a chip and pin card. I really have problems in places like Amsterdam paying for train tickets at kiosks and POS terminals at shops and such when it calls for a chip/pin card. Any suggestions for that, as well, would be appreciated. Thanks!!

We’ll get into the Chip + PIN and train kiosk question in a future post, because that has several components beyond just getting the most benefit from a certain card. To really come up with the best card strategy here we need a few more details on Matt’s travel goals, and how he anticipates using the miles:

Hey, Tiffany. I guess my travel goals would be to maximize airline points first and foremost and then hotel points second. Currently, I almost exclusively fly Delta and stay at Marriott properties mainly because I have status with both of those. I am Diamond on Delta and a Platinum on Marriott. As I get older and have more time to travel, I am looking to be able to travel around the world in Business and First Class, when possible. Let me know if you have more questions or need more clarification. I am not opposed to getting other cards, I guess I am looking for the best way to maximize airline and hotel points. Thanks!!

If the goal is to maximize earnings, there are a lot of points being left on the table with the current strategy, so let’s dig in a bit.

Current points earning

With the cards Matt is currently holding, he’s pretty limited on the types of points he can earn, and in the categories he can earn them with. Pooling all three cards together, the potential earning rates are as follows:

While those are decent returns on areas with significant spending — it sounds like Matt is booking much of his own work travel — there are a lot of missing categories.

Nothing in his wallet gives him bonus points on general travel, including rental cars and trains, or flights and hotels beyond his preferred brands. He’s also earning 1 point per $1 on categories that can have lucrative bonuses, like dining, fuel, groceries, phone bills, and more.

I tend to think that if you’re not earning 2x points for each dollar you spend, you might be better off switching to a cash-back style card. so let’s look at what we could do to optimize points accrual.

Potential points earning

Right off the bat, there are a few things that jump out to me.


For his airfare purchases, Matt would be far better off switching his spend to The Platinum Card® from American Express. Rather than earning 3x SkyMiles on his Delta flights, he could be earning 5x Membership Rewards points for those same purchases, and could still transfer those points to Delta.

Earning bonus points on all carriers can be better than being limited to your home airline

Even better, the 5x points earning isn’t limited to a particular airline — on the occasions where Matt has to book away from Delta, he’d still be earning 5x points for each dollar spent directly with airlines, so could effectively earn 5x SkyMiles no matter which airline he’s flying, rather than the 1x he’s currently earning.

So if he’s currently spending ~$10k per year on Delta flights, he could go from earning 30,000 SkyMiles to 50,000 Membership Rewards points. The Amex Platinum also provides SkyClub access, along with a slew of other benefits, so this one seems like a no-brainer to me.

Other travel

Right now, Matt is only earning bonus points with purchases made specifically with Delta and Marriott. That’s better than no points at all, of course, but isn’t quite “maximizing” the way we like to do at One Mile at a Time.

Depending on how much “other travel” Matt has, he might want to look at a card that gives broader bonuses across the travel category. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® and Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offer 3x points and 2x points towards travel, respectively, and include the following as “travel” purchases:

Merchants in the travel category include airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, campgrounds and operators of passenger trains, buses, taxis, limousines, ferries, toll bridges and highways, and parking lots and garages. Uber and Lyft count too.

Beyond that, both cards offer multiple points towards dining as well. I think it’s safe to assume that most people who are traveling internationally for work are spending a fair amount on restaurants, so earning 3x points with the Chase Sapphire Reserve® or 2x points with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card could add up quite quickly.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® has the greater earning power, but since The Platinum Card® from American Express already has a high annual fee of $550 (Rates & Fees) (and I think that card makes the most sense for Matt of these two luxury cards), the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is a good alternative.

Other expenses

To give the best recommendation here, we’d need to know more about Matt’s spending patterns, but let’s assume about $30,000 per year in non-travel-related expenses. Right now, he’s only earning (at best) 30,000 points here, but could be doing much better.

If he eats out frequently, a card with bonus points on grocery purchases probably isn’t going to be worth his time, whereas those bonus points on dining will skyrocket his points balances. Similarly, if he’s like me and drives fewer than 5,000 miles a year, bonus points on fuel aren’t terribly useful.

But if he has large telecom bills, the Ink Business Cash® Credit Card would be a good option, with 5x on internet, cable and phone services & office supply purchases. If he spends $200 a month on internet, cable, and phone that’s potentially 12,000 points, versus the 2,400 he’s earning currently.

The Ink Cash could also cover his fuel and restaurant purchases, with 2x points in those categories.

If there aren’t significant expenditures in a particular bonus category, then I’d pick up a card that is great for everyday spend — ideally one that earns either Membership Rewards points or Ultimate Rewards points, to pair with whichever luxury card he chooses. He could easily earn twice as many points on his every day purchases as he is currently.

And they all add up.

Consider the benefits of the current card portfolio

For the most part, the main reason to hold a co-branded airline credit card is for the benefits the card offers when flying that carrier. As we discussed above, other cards often offer a better return on spend, and more flexible points currencies.

But those benefits still have a tangible value, and it’s worth considering whether or not to keep them.

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card

This card and the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card have a couple of compelling benefits that might be valuable to Delta flyers:

  • Complimentary access to Delta Sky Club® and a discounted rate of $39 per guest for up to two guests when flying on Delta
  • The ability to earn up to 60,000 Medallion®Qualification Miles (MQMs) each calendar year based on your spending — you earn in increments of 15,000 bonus MQMs after spending $30,000, $60,000, $90,000 and $120,000. In 2021, you’ll earn an additional 25% bonus MQMs at each threshold, for up to a total of 75,000 bonus MQMs.
  • A companion certificate that is valid for a ticket in Domestic First Class, Delta Comfort+® or the Main Cabin

With spend on the Reserve cards you can earn a Medallion Qualifying Dollars waiver, but now that Diamond Medallion waivers require $250,000 in co-branded card spend, that’s less useful for most people.

So whether or not it makes sense to keep this card comes down to the value being found in the companion certificate, and whether or not Matt needs the additional MQMs from reaching those spend thresholds.

The Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Like the Delta Reserve products, both this card and the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card from American Express have some specific benefits for Delta flyers:

  • The ability to earn up to 20,000 Medallion®Qualification Miles (MQMs) each calendar year based on your spending — though you have to spend $50k on the card to get the full 20,000 MQMs (10k MQM after $25k in spend and a further 10k MQM after $50 in spend). In 2021, you’ll earn an additional 25% bonus MQMs at each threshold, for up to a total of 25,000 bonus MQMs.
  • A companion certificate that is valid for a ticket in the Main Cabin

Unless Matt is earning the majority of his MQMs through his credit card spending (which is theoretically possible, but sounds unlikely in this case), I’m not sure it makes sense to keep both of these cards.

Personally, I would probably keep the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card and replace the Delta Reserve with The Platinum Card® from American Express.

The Platinum Card® from American Express provides Delta SkyClub access

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Card from Chase

This card now offers 6x points on Marriott hotel spend, which if you use Ben’s values, gives you a return of 4.8%.

That’s a fine return on Marriott stays, though Matt could do a bit better by switching his hotel spend to the Chase Sapphire Reserve® or the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card.

Either would give him an effective 5.1% return on hotel stays, and would also allow him to diversify his points. He could still transfer those Ultimate Rewards points to Marriott if he wanted, but would also have the option to use those points with a variety of other partners:

Aer Lingus Aer ClubIHG Rewards Club
Air France/KLM Flying BlueMarriott Bonvoy
British Airways Executive ClubWorld of Hyatt
Emirates Skywards
Iberia Plus
JetBlue TrueBlue
Singapore KrisFlyer
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
United MileagePlus
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

If he’s not eligible for a small business credit card, or doesn’t want to add another high-annual fee card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is worth considering. This card offers 2x points on hotels rather than 3x, so it’s a lesser return at ~3.4%, but you still get the benefits of diversifying your points with a much more flexible currency.

But continuing to use the Marriott card at Marriott properties isn’t a bad choice, particularly if he’s earning more in other categories.

Bottom line

It’s smart to evaluate your travel patterns and goals every so often, just to make sure your earning habits align with how you ultimately want to use your points. Changing up your credit cards can be an integral part of that.

In this case, there are at least 50,000 points per year being left on the table — and that’s assuming pretty average spending, and not factoring in any potential welcome bonuses from the new cards. Once you factor those in, there’s an additional 160,000+ points that Matt could be earning this year (depending on the cards he chooses), just from mixing up his credit card portfolio.

Which cards would you choose in this situation?

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. I hope you do get into the chip and pin issue soon, and especially for the train kiosks in Amsterdam. Those particular kiosks seem to be the only place in the world where I still cannot complete a purchase.

  2. I didn’t know there are so manu Delta fans out there! Good luck with burning your Skypesos… I am not going to waste 150,000 miles for a business class roundtrip to Europe.

  3. The trouble with the chip + pin is that while cards like B of A’s Visa cards supposedly offer “chip + pin for purchases” they do not work in Dutch Railway ticket machines.

    In London, they say that ApplePay works, but I tried both an AMEX and a B of A Visa and neither worked. I tweeted at TfL and someone (not them) responded that American cards will only work if they support “offline verification” and that maybe MasterCard could work.

    It would be nice if someday if this all gets straightened out.

  4. @Sj: To be very honest I have no complains about Delta. Is it at the same level as an Emirates, Cathay, Singapore or ANA? No way. But for a US airline it is pretty good. Living in a Delta hub it serves me pretty well. I get almost 200 non stop flights a day to almost anywhere I need to fly. I am fortunate to be able to fly for business so paid international business class actually gives me a ton of miles based on cost of ticket. As a DM I get upgraded almost every time on domestic flights. Their flights are always on time and I am treated well. Regarding Skypesos, it depends on your needs and how you manage your bookings. I am taking my family of 4 to Europe on peak summer for 55,000 Skymiles each round trip on economy. It is a $1,760 per person flight on the itinerary and dates I want so in my mind that is a pretty good deal. Thus, while not perfect it works for many people. Just curious what other US airline that is not Delta you believe it is better?

  5. @SJ: It’s been a lot easier for me to burn my Skypesos for decent premium travel value than it has been to burn my AAdvantage miles for decent value. Maybe it’s not 2010 anymore?

  6. @ Another Steve @ SounderTID — Exactly. Even options that work in other situations aren’t Dutch-Railway-friendly, so need to do a bit of research there.

  7. I wouldn’t recommend anyone transfer UR to Marriott. That’s setting money on fire. Starwood is currently selling Marriott points for 0.75 cents each. Literally go buy the points, then take the UR as a 1 cent per point cash statement credit (if you must). You will get 90,000 Marriott points and you will have spent 68,250 UR (less… because you will have earned 682.50 UR from the purchase on the CSR). To recommend any other course of action is the equivalent of points guru malpractice. Oh, and don’t forget to start at Topcashback! (Taboo?)

  8. My Barclays AAviator Red MC has worked with chip and pin in both London and the Netherlands at unmanned train kiosks. I used it in London in November 2015 and in the Netherlands in September 2017. It also worked in French highway tollbooths in September 2017, but I can’t remember if we had to key in a pin for those.

  9. Although it may not solve the train kiosk problem, my solution to the pin and chip problem is to use Apple Pay via iPhone. I run into those little terminals that waiters or sales people use, point my phone in their direction and bang the sale is recorded. And since it so easy to have a bunch of credit cards in my Apple Pay wallet, it’s super simple to pick whichever card I want to use.

  10. U should mention there’s a fee for this:

    “Rather than earning 2x SkyMiles on his Delta flights, he could be earning 5x Membership Rewards points for those same purchases, and could still transfer those points to Delta.”

  11. For international chip+pin, just get a no annual fee Barclay Arrival. It makes a great general back up too if you need a MasterCard for some reason and don’t have anything with a higher return on points to offer.

  12. Putting $250,000 on a delta card to earn a Diamond MQD waiver is probably a big mistake. Flying cheap, long-distance business-class fares on certain delta partners is easier, more fun, and a great way to rack up the necessary MQDs without spending $18,000 or more out of pocket. Furthermore, as this post points out, there is a huge opportunity cost when compared to the more valuable points and miles that could be earned if $250,00 in spend was put on other cards.

    Also, I’d advise using a card you always carry when purchasing airfare. That should avoid the problems that could arise if you are asked to produce the card at check in and you don’t have it.

  13. The regular Amex Platinum Card includes Delta clubs, but as is always true with Delta, there are severe restrictions.

    You can only access their lounges the day you fly, so it’s an almost worthless perk, given that most readers of this blog who would use Delta would have a Delta Reserve Card!

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