The Credit Card Points “Game” for the rest of Us

When Mr. Los Angeles told me he wanted to start getting into the credit card points “game,” I was a little annoyed. It sounded like a lot of work trying to figure out which card to use when and for which purchases. At the time, I had my one solitary Visa that I used for everything. The fact that it had a points program (and and not a very good one, as it turns out) meant nothing to me. And then to redeem those points seemed even more daunting. Honestly, I don’t have the patience for that kind of minutia.

Honestly, when you look at how my time is spent, there’s not a ton of time left over to become a credit card Points Pirate:

30% working in an office
30% beauty sleep
20% being awesome (blogging is included in this category)
10% figuring out what I want on my breakfast burrito
5% laundry
5% FREE TIME.

There are plenty of people who have made credit cards points a hobby, even going so far as to bend or violate the rules of the credit card terms, usually at their own peril. Sometimes they’ll sign up for the hefty point bonus and then get rid of the card, known as “card churning.” This might work a few times but banks are hip to this scheme and are cracking down. Everyone wants something for nothing, I suppose, and initially that seemed like what I’d be getting into.

But then Mr. Los Angeles framed it to me like this: we could get first class tickets, hotels and travel basically for free.DING DING DING sign me up because I am on BOARD.

We went through all the different options and settled on the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. There are several choices within their program but we selected the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Chase Freedom card. It’s fairly simple to use and there are plenty of opportunities to ear points besides your day-to-day, 1 point to 1 dollar purchases.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred offers the following:
  • 40,000 point signing bonus
  • an addional 5,000 points when you add the first authorized user (I think they’re trying to cut down on spouses signing up for two cards as opposed to one joint account)
  • Double points on restaurants and travel
  • 1:1 point transfers on travel partners. That list currently includes British Airways Executive Club, Korean Air SKYPASS, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Amtrak Guest Rewards, Hyatt Gold Passport, Marriott Rewards, IHG Rewards Club and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards. The list becomes broader when you factor in that many of the frequent flyer programs will transfer (example: Korean Air SKYPASS points will transfer to Delta, BA Executive Club can transfer to United, etc). It’s a complicated redemption but more on that later…
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Chip and Signature enabled (which is still not the Chip and Pin we’re looking for when we travel. Try using a chip and signature card at a gas or train station in Europe. Good luck!)
  • $95 per year
The Chase Freedom offers the following:
  • Note: I’m going to be speaking about this card in terms of points, although the default reward is cash back. By redeeming your rewards through UR, you are then able to combine your points on both cards
  • $100 signing bonus
  • 5x points on rotating spending categories
  • 1 point per dollar on all transactions
  • When combined with your Chase Sapphire Preferred, you are able to redeem your points on all the aforementioned travel partners
  • No annual fee

So I use the Chase Sapphire Preferred on almost everything, and the Chase Freedom when there’s a spending category that’s relevant to me.Simply earning a point per dollar and calling it a day is the easiest way to go. But I wanted my Paris tickets and I didn’t want to wait years to earn enough points.

But I am not willing to cut into my breakfast burrito time in order to play this game. Below are the easiest ways to earn points that don’t sacrifice time spent discussing the virtues of Tapatio*:

  • Took advantage of signing bonuses: back in the day, they were offering as much as 50,000 if you signed up. Those can fluctuate greatly. Take note of the terms of the signing bonus, which usually means you have to spend a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time. For my husband and I, that wasn’t difficult as we had committed to putting as many transactions as possible on our cards. It’s become such a regular thing that I hesitate when entering my PIN number because I use it so infrequently.
  • Use the Ultimate Rewards Mall: Think of the UR Mall every time you shop. I buy a ton of stuff within the Gap family (Banana Republic, Gap, Old Navy and Athleta). While you usually earn 1 point per 1 dollar on purchases, the UR Mall contains links to your favorite online retailers where you can get anywhere from 1-50 additional points per dollar. That means when Banana Republic is having a sale, my $100 purchase will earn me 300 UR points as opposed to 100 (that means I get the normal 1-1 points plus the 2 additional points per dollar as described in the UR mall). Even at Apple.com you can earn one additional point per dollar, which means my laptop purchase racked up over 6000 points. Of course, not every major online retailer is in the UR mall but there are enough to make a difference and earn you some serious points.
  • Take advantage of the Chase Freedom categories: each calendar year, the Chase Freedom card offers five extra points per dollar on specific categories and/or specific retailers. At this moment, they’re offering this bonus on gas stations and Kohl’s (yawn, especially since I have a Prius) but starting in September they’ll have Amazon! Your bonus points max out at $1500 per category and there are some options for both the lazy and the ambitious:
    • Lazy Mode: Take a look at the spending categories. Mark your calendar to remind yourself to use your Freedom card. Do you have an extra 10 minutes? Do you see a retailer or category that you frequent? Set a reminder to buy some gift cards in that category** (maximum of $1500) so you can earn the 5x bonus and use them later. Call it a day.
    • Ambitious Mode: Do the Lazy stuff, then take a look at the spending categories for the year. Figure out which retailers sell gift cards besides their own. For instance, I saw gift cards for grocery stores at gas stations. I definitely won’t max out the gas category in the time allotted, but I can get some gift cards at a gas station and take advantage of the 5x bonus.
Does this seem like too much work? Maxing out a category means an extra 7000 points.

Redemption:

Navigating the redemption process was giving me a headache. For instance, if I wanted to redeem for a flight on Delta, I’d have to book it through Korean Air. As an airline, they’re antiquated at best and interacting with them was difficult at best.

 

If you have time on your hands, it can be an interesting experience to learn how to navigate the confusion process of redeeming your points to get you where you want to go using the handful of airline transfer partners that UR offers. Personally, my time is becoming more and more precious (see graph above) so I enlisted the services of AwardPlanners.com. They specialize in booking business and first class tickets using award points which is exactly what I was looking for. I worked with Dennis and he was very patient and although we had an email chain about a mile long, Dennis got me tickets to Paris on business/first (the domestic flights were in First, the transatlantic flights were in Business) for about 200,000 points plus about $300 in taxes. The fee for this service was about $250.
That means, for about $550 and 200,000 UR points, we got two business/first flights from Los Angeles to Paris.

 

Finally, we get to the part about value. If you’re starting your foray into the points game, you’ll see people talking about their increased value in points, saying they received 7 cents per point or more (as opposed to the standard a penny a point). You might see someone sneer at a cash redemption vs a travel redemption simply because your money-to-point ratio is better. My Paris redemption was incredible, but not everyone would see travel as worthwhile (sigh).

 

I think people confuse monetary value with overall value. Had I redeemed my points for cash, I’d receive roughly $2000. Instead, I redeemed for over $10,000 worth of business/first air travel. Therefore, I quadrupled the value of UR points. However, if I had a financial crisis and needed to pay my bills, redeeming for cash seems like a great idea.

 

For us, our whole credit card point endeavor was meant to get points to redeem for travel. Not everyone values first class air travel, but it makes our vacation much more enjoyable when our 6-foot+ bodies can sleep comfortably on a 12-hour flight. The point is: value is relative. Choose what you want. Get a little something for nothing.

 

If you think you’re ready to get into this game, there are a few blogs out there: The Points Guy and Million Mile Secrets are both great. FlyerTalk is a great forum but it is incredibly vast and the commenters can be hostile on a good day and militant towards the newbies. No thanks.
*Hot Sauce + Los Angeles = Everything. When you go to a restaurant, there’s hot sauce on the table next to the ketchup and salt shakers. Before I met mi marido I couldn’t handle anything above mild salsa. Now I’m rocking spicy curries and hot sauce, including Tapatio (Tabasco tastes like boiled cats in coffee—no thanks). My awesome coworker put Taptatio in a bag of nacho cheese doritos and shook them up. Heaven. I saw Doritos started making Tapatio Dorritos. Don’t get them. They’re bullshit.
**Please double and triple check the gift card option. It seems like it’s working for the Chase Freedom categories, but it doesn’t work on Chase’s Ink card. There’s a huge bonus for purchases at Office Supply stores and people were abusing this option like crazy, so Chase closed that loop pronto.

One Comment on "The Credit Card Points “Game” for the rest of Us"

Got something to say? Go for it!

 
%d bloggers like this: