Category Archives: Recommended

Which Card Should I Get?

Around the time of Nicoleen’s and my anniversary trip to Europe this summer, got quite a lot of attention from Nicoleen’s facebook crowd.  Many friends and relatives asked Nicoleen or me how we landed such good deals on the flights, hotel, and other trip expenses.  If you want more detailed on the trip itself, check out this post outlining our itinerary.

If you’re one of those who are just curious how we did it (and maybe are curious how you too can travel for free!) in this post I’ll briefly outline the strategy we use to accumulate points and plan trips.

If you’re just starting out it’s helpful to adopt one of two strategies, to avoid accumulating what may turn out to be less than useful points.

Points and miles strategy #1: Goal first, then reverse.

If you have enough lead time, you can start with your desired travel plans and then work backwards to figure out which points and miles programs would be most useful to you, and which cards/offers are best at earning you those points or miles.

Here’s a hypothetical example to illustrate the thought process:

  1. You and your spouse want to go to Park City, Utah, for a weekend skiing get-away in March.  Your travel budget only covers lift tickets, dining, and bar tabs; so your airfare and lodging need to be free.  You’re also very demanding about accommodations so you need to stay in a luxury resort.
  2. You regularly read, so you know the best way to get free luxury hotel stays with a few month’s notice is with either the Hilton HHonors Reserve card from Citi or the Hyatt card from Chase.  Both cards offer 2 free nights as the sign-up bonus, but the Hilton free nights are only good on weekends – not a problem for your plans.  (Others, like Chase’s IHG card, only offer free nights as an account anniversary award).  If you and your spouse each get approved for your own cards, you have 4 free nights to redeem…more than sufficient for your weekend ski trip.
  3. You check availability for March 18-21 at Hilton’s luxury resort in Park City, the Waldorf Astoria, and Hyatt’s, The Escala Lodge at Park City.  Unfortunately, (for the sake of the example) you find that the Hyatt has no rooms available for reward certificate redemption.  You check the Hilton website…your heart is pounding…will there be free rooms available? …yes!  The Waldorf Astoria has plenty of reward certificate availability for that weekend!  Looks like you’ll be applying for that Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card.
    The nice round number for the room's award points price tells you it's Hilton's "standard" rate, meaning it's available for a free night certificate redemption. A $659/night room for free...not a bad deal for taking a few minutes to apply for a card and make sure you hit the bonus spending!

    The nice round number for the room’s award points price tells you it’s Hilton’s “standard” rate, meaning it’s available for a free night certificate redemption. A $659/night room for free…not a bad deal for taking a few minutes to apply for a card and make sure you hit the bonus spending!

    The Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah

    The Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah

  4. Ok, you have lodging covered.  Now on to the free airfare.  One of the keys to redeeming miles for flights is to find the “saver” level award availability.  This is the discounted rate and will allow you to maximize the value of your airline miles.  You can safely assume that at a given moment you have at least 2-3 options for cards that will earn you 40-50k airline miles or points that can be transferred to airline miles.  So for this example, we’re trying to get two flights on our desired dates (March 18-21, 2016) for under 50,000 miles.

    Let’s start with Minneapolis’s home town hero, Delta:

    slc delta search results
    72.5k miles each; 135k miles for both of you…unacceptable.

    On to United:

    united slc search results
    No saver level seats available for your dates.

    How about American?

    scl aa search results
    No dice.


    slc sw results
    Now we’re talking!
    slc sw points cost
    Two round trip flights for under 50k miles.

  5. So how do you get 48,284 Southwest miles?  Chase routinely (2x per year on average) jacks the sign-up bonus on their Southwest card up to 50,000 points.  For this example, let’s say the 50k promotion just ended and the card comes with the standard 30k bonus.  If you think you can get the bonus and quickly put another $18,284 in spending on the card to get the remaining points needed for your flights, then get the card!  But remember, seat availability for flights is constantly changing so you probably want to get your seats booked ASAP, so trying to earn the remainder of the points organically might take a few months and your seats may be gone by then.  Alternatively, you could each get the card and you’d be set, but I personally would never apply for a card that regularly has a jacked up bonus unless that promotion is running.
  6. Is there a more streamline way to get 50k Southwest points fast?  Why yes there is!  Southwest happens to be a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, meaning you can transfer UR points to your Southwest Rapid Rewards account at a 1:1 ratio, for free, instantly.  There are several cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards including Chase Freedom, Sapphire Preferred, and Ink Plus business.  After looking at all the benefits of these cards, you decide on the Sapphire preferred because the annual fee is waived the first year and it will earn you 49,000 UR points after meeting the bonus spend of $4k in 3 months.  How convenient…that’s just what you need to transfer to Southwest and get your flights for free!

Let’s recap this example:

For applying for 3 credit cards between the two of you, paying the $95 annual fee on the two Hilton cards, and paying the $22.40 in fees to the airline, you are getting:

  • $2,082 worth of lodging to stay at the Waldorf Astoria for three nights
  • $809.92 worth of airfare on Southwest for two round trip tickets to SLC
  • That’s a total of $2892 in travel expenses for paying $202, doing some research, and spending 15 minutes to apply for a couple cards.  A pretty good value if you ask me!

Points and miles strategy #2: Go all in!

If you don’t have a specific goal in mind, or would like the most flexibility when planning free travel, you could go all in and start accumulating as many points and miles as you can.  This also means diversifying.  Concentrating on highly versatile points is one facet of this strategy.  Earning points in several different competing programs is another.

This strategy can be as valuable as you want it to be.  The more carefully you plan and the more variables you look at, the more you can maximize your card applications.  It would take a whole book to look at every facet of this strategy, but I will try to get you to think about some things to consider when getting into this game for the long haul.

  • Which cards can you “churn,” getting the bonus multiple times?
  • What is each card/bank’s particular quirks when considering applications?
  • What is your current credit score?
  • Which cards earn what kind of points?
  • Which points can transfer to which other programs?
  • Are there currently any “jacked up bonus” promotions running?
  • Do you have any travel plans on the horizon, a la strategy #1?
  • How can you group applications to maximize all of the above?
  • Other than the points bonus, what other benefits does each card have?
  • Can you stretch the benefits of a card by staggering them with your spouse?
  • Are there any weak points in your points and miles portfolios?
  • Which cards will soon be phased out?

As you can see, there is a lot of thought that can go into this game if you really want to maximize the value.  Use this site and others to learn all you can about the different programs.  I promise you, the learning curve is steep but short, and 90% of the confusion will go away by the time you earn your first card bonus and book your first trip with miles and points.  If you have already been taking advantage of frequent flyer programs or hotel loyalty programs, you already have an advantage.

I recommend liking the ValueTactics facebook page and following the twitter feed to stay updated on these tactics and strategies!  I’m also always willing to help if you contact me privately.

A Hybrid Strategy

Of course you are not bound to one of these two strategies.  Realistically everyone should incorporate elements of both into their planning, regardless of how much thought you put into that planning.

I hope this little primer helped some of you understand what to think about when deciding which card(s) to apply for.  Now get out there and capture some value!

Chase Ultimate Rewards: Versatility Matters!

(This is a data recovered post, originally published on July 5th, 2015.)

How my Ultimate Rewards points have bailed me out 3 of the 4 times I have been short on points/miles

My first major credit card sign-up was the Chase Sapphire Preferred (see my full review here). I had heard and read about how great Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) points were, and if you’re a regular on points blogs you’ll know that UR points are consistently touted as the most valuable points out there. The most commonly cited reason for this value is their versatility. I didn’t really understand why this was such a big deal until I booked my first flight with rewards.

Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred, with no penalty (i.e. a 1:1 ratio), to 11 different partner programs. This means if you are short points for a purchase with one of these programs, you can back-fill your balance with transferred UR points. Or, like I did with my first ever award flight, you can fund your whole purchase with transferred UR points.

I used UR points to fund my United Mileage Plus account for a trip to Europe before I had ever earned a single United Airlines mile. My Southwest Rapid Rewards account balance was only 750 points when I discovered that Southwest was the only airline that worked with my schedule for our Jamaica trip earlier this year. For yet another flight booked through United, my wife’s United Mileage Plus account had enough mileage for the award ticket but mine was a few thousand miles short, so once again UR points saved the day as I was able to back-fill miles from my Chase UR account to book my ticket.

In each of these cases there was very limited award seat availability and the ability to quickly get the points/miles where I needed them (I should mention the transfer only takes a matter of seconds!) probably saved my travel plans.

This versatility to transfer to partner programs, $0.01 cash redemption value, and discounted travel booking redemption make Chase Ultimate Rewards a strong contender for the most valuable type of points or miles out there.  And if things didn’t already seem too good to be true, they are also some of the easiest to get.  All Chase Sapphire and Ink products earn UR points and these cards consistently have great sign up bonuses, like the current 45k bonus for the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

All the Ultimate Rewards earning cards we’ve had over the years

All the Ultimate Rewards earning cards we’ve had over the years

Building up UR points is a valuable tactic to accomplish your overall miles and points strategy.

My Favorite Blogs could never be complete if I didn’t write a post about my favorite sources.  Anyone blogging about credit cards, points, miles, etc. is truly standing on the shoulders of giants.  I figured it might help my readers to learn where I get much of my info.
If you’ve been in this game for any amount of time, these websites will be familiar to you.  In our little corner of the blogosphere these are the heavy hitters, and without their influence, I would not have had the motivation to start my own website.  So, without further introduction:
Probably the best well-known blog of its type out there.  Brian Kelly, the site’s founder, definitely has the charisma and marketing knack to keep the site at the top of most google searches.  He and his team keep the site up-to-the-minute with new cards offers, airline and hotel news, and points strategies.

The Points Guy isn’t my favorite blog, but oddly enough it tends to be the first one I check when I need to get myself updated after a few days off.  I guess that’s a testament to google’s influence, and the site’s branding itself.  The blog just got a major styling overhaul, making it much more device-friendly, although the full version got a bit slower and resource-heavy.  Although The Points Guy is a good source for up-to-date offers and news, the frequency of more general interest travel posts often buries the headline blog posts.  Recently I’ve been doing more skimming than reading on The Points Guy.
Another giant in the points blogging world, Million Mile Secrets is run by Daraius Dubash and his wife Emily.  Like The Points Guy, this blog is a sure bet to find breaking points and miles news, and with about the same amount of filler posts.

I have always found the site’s visual style to be disruptive, but the content is quite good.  I especially appreciate that the primary author usually travels with his wife.  Their flight reviews are especially helpful to me, since I usually travel with Nicoleen.  Like The Points Guy, Million Mile Secrets is heavily focused on funneling readers to commission-earning credit card application pages. But, to both sites’ credit, they provide ample disclaimers that they do earn profit off your card applications; and both sites will usually inform you if there’s a better offer than their affiliate-linked one for a particular card.
Milevalue is my go-to site for anything related to the airline miles side of things.  The author, Scott Grimmer is an expert at finding available award seats, planning itineraries, and generally maximizing  airline miles.  I especially like how deep his analyses are.  Milevalue gets more into detail on the best current flights and how to get on them for free.  I appreciate that it’s a bit more focused than other sites.  These isn’t nearly as much post filler as the aforementioned blogs.  As much as I enjoy and utilize the content, the recent revamp of the sites theme grinds on me and I find it much harder than the old site to navigate and to read articles.

Oh, and did I mention Scott Grimmer lives in Hawaii?  Yeah, he’s pretty much on vacation all the time; that’s borderline cheating 🙂
This is another great site to stay up-to-date on every little policy change, point devaluation, and card offer out there.  Founded by Rick Ingersoll, the site has a small team of writers, with Howie Rappaport the most conspicuous.

Frugal Travel Guy has by far the best looking and clutter free site design of the group.  (I’m quite envious actually.)  What I especially love about this website are the posts that are more reflective and mature than the average points and miles blog post.  There are many posts and articles here that are useful long after a particular deal is expired, because they offer a lot of good tips on overall strategy and decision-making.  For in-depth, non-time specific reading, Frugal Travel Guy is my favorite.

There are many other websites that offer different approaches and tips on points, miles, cards, etc.  Some of the honorable mentions are: Deals We Like (I recently studied up on the Chase IHG card here), Mommy Points, and Travel Summary.

All of the above blogs (and of course!) are great resources on saving money, getting free money, and traveling in style for free.  However, the undisputed champion of detailed info on card offers and miles programs is not a blog at all.  It’s a forum:   Flyertalk.
Flyertalk is basically the raw data whence the bloggers derive their content.

I use Flyertalk (I’m a major lurker) to find data regarding people’s most recent experiences with whatever I’m trying to do.  In the forum you can usually find daily reports of results from people trying to do whatever tactical moves you are interested in; be it applying for a card, fishing for a retention bonus, having offers matched, etc.  Whenever I find something I want to pursue in a blog post, I usually go to Flyertalk for further details.

Many of the sites I discussed in this post contain links to card applications and other services that earn the site’s authors commission.  After you’ve confirmed the link goes to the best available offer, consider using these affiliate links for your purchases and card applications.  Bloggers are people too, and need financial support to do what we do!  Although I don’t have much for advertising, I would appreciate it if you check out my current promoted card links, found in the left column (located beneath the posts on smaller devices) and using these links to apply to your card.  In any case, give your clicks to those referring websites which you think added some value to your endeavor!