The best mix of Ultimate Rewards cards

Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program is hands down my favorite loyalty program.  Through incredible sign-up bonuses, generous category bonuses, and the often lucrative Ultimate Rewards Mall, it is easy to earn oodles of points quickly.  And, with any of Chase’s premium Ultimate Rewards cards (such as the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, and Ink Bold cards), there are many ways to use points.  Here are some examples:

  • Book any travel for 1.25 cents per point value.
  • Transfer points to Southwest Airlines and use points for approximately 1.9 cents per point value (see “More value from Southwest points“)
  • Transfer points to United Airlines and book luxury international business or first class trips.  For example, a one-way first-class flight from North America to Asia costs only 70,000 miles (when saver awards are available).
  • Transfer points to Hyatt and stay at some of the top properties in the world for only 22,000 points per night.
  • Transfer to Amtrak and ride their sleeper cards at very reasonable rates (when booked with points).
  • Transfer to British Airways and use on BA partner airlines (the one’s where BA doesn’t charge fuel surcharges).  Example redemptions include short hop flights on American Airlines for only 4500 points each way; and flights from L.A. to Honolulu for only 25,000 points round trip.

A roundup of cards

The most common Chase cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points are listed below:

  • Sapphire®: 2X points dining.  No annual fee.
  • Sapphire Preferred℠ Card: 2X travel and dining. 3X dining, first Friday of each month. 7% annual dividend (bonus) on all points earned.  No foreign transaction fees.  $95 annual fee.
  • Freedom®: 5X rotating categories up to $1500 spend each quarter. 10% annual bonus on all points earned when cardholder also has a Chase checking account.  No annual fee.
  • Ink Plus® Business Card: 5X office supplies, cellular/landline/cable (up to $50K spend on 5X categories); 2X gas and hotels. Complimentary LOUNGE CLUBTM Airport Lounge Access (first two visits per year are free).  No foreign transaction fees.  $95 annual fee.
  • Ink Bold® Business Card: 5X office supplies, cellular/landline/cable (up to $50K spend on 5X categories); 2X gas and hotels. Complimentary LOUNGE CLUBTM Airport Lounge Access (first two visits per year are free).  No foreign transaction fees.  $95 annual fee.
  • Ink Cash® Business Card: 5X office supplies, cellular/landline/cable (up to $25K spend on 5X categories); 2X gas and restaurants. No annual fee.
  • Ink Classic® Business Card: 5X office supplies, cellular/landline/cable (up to $25K spend on 5X categories); 2X gas and hotels. Two free LOUNGE CLUBTM Airport Lounge visits first year of card membership. No annual fee.

All of the above cards are excellent options in their own right and each is at least slightly different than the others.  The question I intend to answer here is how to get (almost) all of the benefits with the lowest annual fees…

All of the perks with fewer fees

Without regard for sign-up bonuses, I think that the following collection of cards would give a family the most perks for the least cost:

  • Sapphire Preferred℠ Card:  Pay the $95 per year for this one since it is the only card that offers 2X (2 points per dollar) on all travel spend.  You only need to pay for one card per family, though.  Give your significant other their own authorized user card from your account for no additional fee.  Use the Sapphire Preferred cards for all dining and travel expenses (2X) and for international use.
  • Ink Cash or Ink Classic (or both):  By signing up for the no annual fee Ink Cash or Ink Classic card you can earn the same 5X and 2X bonuses available through the Ink Plus and Ink Bold cards, but without the annual fee.  If you need more than $25K of spend within the 5X categories, then get both of these free cards.  Use these cards to get 5X for all office supply purchases, cell phone and landline charges, and cable charges (internet and TV). And, use these cards to get 2X at gas stations.
  • Freedom: Get a separate account for each adult member of your household.  That way, you can spend more than $1500 per quarter on its rotating 5X categories (if you want to).  Open a Chase checking account, too, to get the 10% annual bonus on all points earned.  Also, when logging into the Ultimate Rewards Mall, always pick the Freedom card account to log into.  That way, all bonus point earnings will be inflated by 10% at the end of the year thanks to the Freedom’s 10% annual bonus!

The above collection of cards will give you almost all of the possible Ultimate Rewards perks for a minimal annual cost.  To get the most out of your points, with this configuration, transfer points from your Freedom and Ink accounts to your Sapphire Preferred account so that you can then use points in the valuable ways outlined above.

If you use your cards regularly for business purposes, there might be an argument to be made to keep the Ink Plus or Ink Bold.  With my plan, above, you would miss out on the following:

  • Ink Plus / Ink Bold primary rental car insurance in the U.S. when car is rented for business purposes.
  • Ink Plus / Ink Bold 2 free Lounge Club visits per year.
  • Ink Plus / Ink Bold 5X and 2X earnings internationally.  Both cards have no foreign transaction fees, but the Ink Cash and Ink Classic cards do charge foreign transaction fees.

A fictional example

Imagine a couple named Jack and Jill.  After learning to avoid the hazards inherent in going up hills to fetch pails of water, they create a successful pail fetching service and they sign up for a few credit cards.  Let’s now assume that they get the combination of cards shown above and they spend as follows (this is completely made up):

  • Restaurants and travel: $500 per month.  With the Sapphire Preferred 2X earnings and 7% annual dividend, they would earn 12,840 points per year.
  • Office supplies, cell phone service, cable, and internet: $500 per month.  With the Ink cards’ 5X earnings, they would earn 30,000 points per year.
  • Gas: $400 per month.  With the Ink cards’ 2X earnings, they would earn 9,600 points per year.
  • Feedom 5X categories: $3000 per quarter ($1500 per Freedom card).  With the Freedom card’s 5X earnings and 10% annual bonus, they would earn 66,000 points per year.
  • Ultimate Rewards Mall: Let’s say they earn 2000 bonus points per month and always log into their Freedom account when shopping.  With the Freedom card’s 10% annual bonus, they would earn 26,400 points per year.
  • Miscellaneous 1X spend: Perhaps Jack and Jill have about $500 per month in spend outside of the categories listed above.  In that case, they should use their Freedom cards so as to earn the 10% annual bonus.  In total, they would earn 6,600 points per year.

In total, without counting sign-up bonuses, Jack and Jill could earn 151,440 Ultimate Rewards points each year.  That’s a nice haul!

Sign-up bonuses

This post is not about maximizing sign-up bonus points.  There is no question that the Ink Plus and Ink Bold card bonuses are among the best available across all banks.  So, it still makes sense to sign up for these cards to get the bonus and the first year free. Then, you have a year to assess whether the cards are right for you.  If not, you can always sign up for the no fee Ink cards instead.

Converting from current state

Let’s say you already have a mix of Ultimate Rewards cards that does not match the mix shown above, but you want to move to this configuration.  One option is to simply sign up for each card that you want, and cancel each card you no longer want.  Another option, in some cases, is to call to downgrade from one card to another.  For example, if you and your spouse each have your own Sapphire Preferred card, it is trivially easy to call and downgrade one of them to the Freedom card.  Similarly, one could downgrade the Ink Plus to one of the no annual fee Ink cards.  Unfortunately, the Ink Bold cannot be downgraded because it is a charge card (which must be paid in full each month) whereas other cards in this roundup are credit cards.

The advantage of applying anew is to get the signup bonuses.  The advantage of calling to downgrade cards is that you can keep your prior account number and do not incur a hard inquiry on your credit report.  It really depends on your own situation as to which is better.

Other cards

With the mix of cards I outlined above, I purposely ignored the fact that you may do better in some categories of spend with other non-Ultimate Rewards cards.  For example, there are cards with better earnings at gas stations, grocery stores, etc.  For some great examples, please see “Best Category Bonuses.”  And, there are cards that do better than 1.1X for non-category spend.  Please see “Best rewards for everyday spend.”  So, one could certainly do better than the mix of cards I outlined above, but I think that what I presented is an excellent strategy for anyone who wants to focus primarily on earning Ultimate Rewards points.

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  1. FM, is the Freedom’s 10% annual bonus available to only existing (prior to the recent changes) Chase Exclusives customers, or to any new Freedom cardholder? I am unclear about this, and have not been able to find an adequate answer yet on the web.

    • Larry Ordway: Yes! Thank you for the reminder. I’ve updated the post to state that a checking account is needed.
      Ben: The Freedom card used to have a different bonus structure for people with Chase checking accounts that rewarded making very small purchases, but now it is simple: 10% annual bonus on all points earned. This is available to everyone. People with the old bonus structure have been (or will soon be) switched over.

  2. I had the same question about the 10%. Is it available for me if I were to get the card today? Also, I dont have a chase checking account. Thanks!

    • Joseph Jimenez: Yes, if you get the Freedom card today and get a Chase checking account then you will qualify for the 10% annual bonus.
      Larry Ordway: I wasn’t aware that the Chase checking account was only available in certain areas. Sorry to hear that.
      Chimmy: The Ink Bold is not downgradeable because it is a charge card (vs. a credit card).
      Robert F: Yes, that’s a good point.

  3. You mentioned about downgrading from the Chase Ink Plus to the Chase Ink Classic. I currently have the Chase Ink Bold and it’s annual fee time. Do you know if that one can as easily be downgraded?

  4. Yesterday I tried to book a hotel room (a business trip) through the UR portal but neither the portal or the first two partner sites showed availability for any hotel I wanted.

    However, I found inventory on two hotel web sites. So I wasted 15 minutes trying to multiply my $600 reservation into thousands of UR points.

    My point is that it ain’t always “easy to earn oodles of points quickly.”

    • Tom: Chase does market the Freedom card as a cash back card, but it really earns Ultimate Rewards points which can be redeemed for a penny each. If you then transfer those points to a premium card (Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, Ink Bold) you can then use them in the ways I described.
      leana: Yes, Jack and Jill do quite well. There is a lot of demand for pail fetching.
      EggSS4: That makes sense too.

  5. Interesting post! Obviously, Jack and Jill are a well to do couple. They have to be, to maximize Freedom’s bonus categories in that manner! Also, they do a ton of shopping through ultimate rewards mall, more than regular folks. And not everyone is comfortable using business card for non- business expenses, like cable, cell phone et cetera. So that is also something to consider. Otherwise, a nice haul indeed!

  6. FM, good post as always. I decided to downgrade my Sapphire Preferred to a Sapphire and hold onto my Ink Bold, in part because no one ever gets retention bonuses on the SP while it seems like the Bold retention offers are quite lucrative.

  7. @EggSS4, that is exactly what I did too. Pretty good retention bonus for the Ink Bold. Wanted to go from CSP to Freedom, but Chase would not allow it, so I went to CS instead.
    @Chimmy, from personal experience, Chase will not let you downgrade/convert Ink Bold to any other ink card. You have to apply for the new card you want.

  8. Are there any consequences to UR points for downgrading from Ink Bold to Ink Classic? Or from Sapphire Preferred to Sapphire or Freedom? Will I still be able to transfer and use all my points?

    • Rachel: when you downgrade, you can no longer transfer the points to airline, hotel, or train programs, nor can you use the points for 1.25 cents each toward travel. That is, unless you (or your S.O.) have another premium card. You can then transfer the points to that premium card (Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, Ink Bold) and then get more value from the points.

  9. Hi Grant,
    I’m planning to apply for 1 chase business, 1 chase personal and citi forward (my first aor). I am not sure if I should go for the Ink Plus and CSP or for the southwest RR currently being offered (I saw from slickdeals). I have excellent credit from CRedit karma, good credit from Sesame. I already have freedom and amazon rewards card.

    Thanks in advance!

    • Monacutest: If you plan to try for the Southwest Companion pass, then go for the SWA cards. Otherwise, the Ink Plus and CSP cards will give you more flexible points.
      Nate: The Ink Bold does not offer the option of running a balance. While I’d never recommend running a balance, you might want the Ink Plus just in case you need to do so at some point. I don’t think timing matters relative to the Ink Bold (as far as I know). Sign up when it works for you.

  10. It seems like the Ink series is still the way to go for initial sign up bonuses, with the CSP being the ‘one card’ to always have. My question is, how do you ‘justify’ opening an Ink Plus after having an Ink Bold open. When is the best time to do this? After the Ink Bold has the yearly annual fee (and retention bonus)? Or before?

  11. @ Nate- Many times you do not have to justify why apply for Ink Plus after Ink Bold (like my case) since they do not ask. In case if they do ask then you can tell them that you want to separate two different business charges for your convenience so you need two separate cards. At least that was my defense if needed.

  12. Very nice write up by FM but my only issue is that I do not want to put all my eggs in one basket. I want to spread my charges into at least three different banks. So despite I totally agree with this post, I will not follow it exactly.

  13. FM, one of these days I want use UR points to fly first or suites on Singapore Airlines. Aside from booking cash tickets at 1.25 cents per point, you’d have to transfer points somehow. The best ratio I know of for UR transfer partners is Hyatt. You can get 1 mile for every 2 points above some minimum. Is it possible to do better?

  14. @monacutest, going for the SWA CC offer depends if you are going for the SWA Companion Pass. If you are, I would get a business SWA CC instead.

    Alternatively, I would recommend the Ink Plus for its ability to be downgraded easily over the Ink Bold. The

  15. Does the Chase Sapphine (not the Preferred) limit the dining bonus to a certain dollar amount each year? Currently I use my Ink to get 5x on almost everything, including gas via Exxon gift cards. The only hole in my earning strategy is dining (since gift cards are difficult to use due to the “gratuity” hold) so am seriously considering scrapping my Chase SWA signature card and applying for the no fee CS to complete the strategy and save $99/yr in fees.

  16. Hi FM, I’m just wondering out of the 4 ink cards could you apply for all four and get the sign-up bonuses totaling 140k points or is the most you could do is 100k with a Bold and Ink Plus? Thanks in advance

  17. @Brian, you could get all 4, but not at the same unless you have different employee identification numbers (EIN) for different business. Your best bet is to go for the Ink Bold and Plus, then apply for the other cards later on or try to downgrade.

  18. I am going to Russia what is the best credit car to bring? I have all the citibank . Amex SPG. Barclay (Us airways and ) chase sapphire and chase Marriott as well as MC Hyatt.

    • dora: If you have the Sapphire Preferred, then take that. If it is the regular Sapphire (not “Preferred”) then leave it at home. The key is to use a card with no foreign transaction fee. That should be true of both your Marriott and Hyatt cards. One or both may also have chips (chip and pin) which may come in handy.

  19. Obi-Wan Kenobi……….On first Friday use the SP to buy monthly gift card at restaurant/bar of choice and rake 3 miles per $ instead of pedestrian 2 miles and then cry in your beer why you can’t get 5 miles………….

    But great post…….may the million miles be with you………..and I know Jack is raking some manufactured miles in order to impress Jill as she sits in international First Class………..

  20. And wouldn’t they buy gas cards and Starbucks cards at Staples or Office Depot and earn 5 points per $ as opposed to the measly 2……….
    After reading the post I am wondering if there is not a frequent flyer priest where you go to confess that you were not able to earn 5 miles per $ on spend…….earning 2 miles per $ makes one feel so soiled….so impure………….

  21. Hands down you are the best of Boarding Area IMO. How dare you write this post!!! :)
    You don’t dare. You analyze, think, post and the results follow your way. I’ve said in the past, sent you an email and I still hold the same. YOU ARE MY INK BOLD HERO.

  22. Are you sure you can keep the same account number if downgrading an Ink Plus to an Ink Classic? I have a lot of recurring business expenses set up with my Ink Plus, and it would be a pain to have to change to a new account number. Thanks.

  23. If you downgrade a card (say the sapphire preferred to a sapphire or freedom), can you apply for the sapphire preferred later on and get the 40k bonus again? If not, wouldn’t it be better to just cancel the SP card and get a new freedom card, at least you’d get the 10k bonus from the new card right?

    • Ying: No, in general with Chase you cannot apply for the same card again and get the bonus again unless the card has changed in some way in the meantime. The reason I prefer to downgrade to the Freedom card is that I can generally get much more than 10K points from a new credit card signup, so to me, it’s worth giving up 10K points in order to avoid the hard pull of a new application.

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