Chasing Ultimate Rewards

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I was bummed the other day when I logged into my Chase account and saw that my Ultimate Rewards point total had dropped to a meager 100,000 points.  In the past, I’ve earned what seemed like an unlimited supply of Ultimate Rewards points through generous signup bonuses, regular introductions of new or altered Chase Ink products, my having multiple businesses (and thus being able to sign up for the same business card multiple times – once for each business), office supply gift card deals and opportunities (in which Ink cards earn 5 points per dollar), and the once very lucrative Ultimate Rewards Mall.

Unfortunately, many of those opportunities have since fallen by the wayside:

  • For a few years, the Chase Ink cards changed in fundamental ways several times.  First, they changed the rewards structure of the Ink cards to include 5X and 2X categories.  Then, they introduced Ink Plus.  Then they changed the cards from MasterCard to Visa.  With each change, the altered products were considered new products and it was therefore possible to qualify for new signup bonuses even without cancelling the older cards.  More recently, though, the product lineup appears to have settled down, and Chase has reduced the number of Ink card options from four to two (they no longer offer Ink Bold or Ink Classic cards – we are now left with only Ink Plus and Ink Cash as options).
  • Office supply gift card opportunities are only mostly dead: you can still buy gift cards at office supply stores to earn 5 points per dollar, but the most lucrative options are gone.  You can no longer buy Vanilla Reload cards or variable load Visa cards at Office Depot with a credit card.  And, Staples has shut down most opportunities to earn portal rewards when buying $200 Visa gift cards online.  Fortunately, OfficeMax, Office Depot, and Staples continue to offer occasional deals on Visa or MasterCard gift cards, but these are limited by supply on hand and often restricted in other ways (such as “limit 1 per household”).
  • The Ultimate Rewards Mall used to be my go to option for nearly all online purchases.  They used to offer 10 bonus points per dollar everyday at Kohls (and it was easy to double dip back then by buying and using gift cards in order to get an effective rate of 20X).  They also offered deals almost every month such as 10X at Sears, Office Depot, or even the Apple Store (although, if memory serves, the latter was just a one day deal).  And, they used to offer bonus points for a number of travel related options: Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels.com, etc.  That was a great way to earn 2X to 5X in addition to the 2X points offered by the Sapphire Preferred card itself for travel bookings.  Unfortunately, over time, the best of these opportunities have dropped away.  And, as if to underscore the fact that this is no longer the “ultimate” portal, Chase changed its name to “Shop through Chase”.

ShopThroughChase

The reason I was troubled by a 100K balance was that I find that I use Ultimate Rewards points often, and 100K points won’t last long at the rate I’ve been spending them.  I use the points most often for Hyatt awards and Amtrak trips. (Note: As of 12/8/15 Ultimate Rewards can no longer be transferred to Amtrak.) Before the United devaluation, I used my points for international first class Star Alliance awards.  I’ve also used points to top off my Southwest account when needed.

I don’t use all of the transfer partners… For transfers to Singapore or Virgin Atlantic, if needed, I would use other transferable points.  Most likely I would use Citi ThankYou points since I have an extremely healthy balance there.  And, I still have plenty of British Airways points from a long ago 36X deal on their shopping portal, but if needed I’d probably pull from my Amex Membership Rewards stash, especially when Amex offers a bonus for transfers to BA (as they did recently).  I’ve never used the ability to transfer points to Korean Air, but they do have fantastic award availability so I’d at least like to have that option if the opportunity arises.  I’m also intrigued by some great deals on their partner award chart such as 45,000 miles round trip first class to Hawaii.

I also do not plan to ever transfer points to IHG.  If needed, IHG points can be bought for less than a penny each simply by booking and then cancelling points & cash stays.  Since Ultimate Rewards points are worth a penny each, at a minimum, it would be a waste to transfer them to IHG.  Similarly, Marriott and Ritz points (which are really the same thing) are rarely worth much more than a penny each so I don’t expect to transfer points to those programs.

Plan for replenishing

It turns out that I’m not nearly as poor in Ultimate Rewards points as I suggested at the start of this post.  Its true that I have only 100,000 points, but my wife has about 315,000.  And, I believe she’s willing to share.  Still, that’s not enough for comfort for me.  One big trip can easily wipe out our entire Ultimate Rewards stash.

Here are my plans for earning more…

Signup Bonuses

The Ink Plus and Sapphire Preferred signup bonuses have similar language on their offer details pages:

Ink Plus:

This new cardmember bonus offer is not available to either (i) current cardmembers of this business credit card, or (ii) previous cardmembers of this business credit card who received a new cardmember bonus for this business credit card within the last 24 months.

Sapphire Preferred:

This new cardmember bonus offer is not available to either (i) current cardmembers of this consumer credit card, or (ii) previous cardmembers of this consumer credit card who received a new cardmember bonus for this consumer credit card within the last 24 months.

The way I read these statements is that I can earn signup bonuses in the future for the same card I’ve already had as long as I first cancel the existing card and wait two years from the time I earned the bonus to signup again.  So, it should be possible to get the signup bonuses every two and a quarter years.  Between my wife and I, I can stagger the process so that we always have at least one premium card open (for transfers to loyalty programs) and we can average approximately 100,000 points per year in signup bonuses.  I could do even more if I continue to signup for Ink cards through multiple businesses.

5X Category Bonuses

Chase Ink cards offer 5 points per dollar for office supply, cellular, landline, and cable purchases.  I’ll continue to put all such purchases on an Ink card.  Specifically, I plan to signup for the Ink Cash card, which has no annual fee, and use that for all such purchases.  While I’ll open and close Ink Plus cards, I’ll keep the Ink Cash card open indefinitely.  That way, I can keep my cable and phone bills on autopay without having to update the credit card on file every year.

Between paying regular bills and buying things (such as discounted gift cards, when available) from office supply stores, I will probably generate between $10,000 and $20,000 worth of 5X spend per year.  At only $10K, that’s 50,000 points per year.  Not bad!

The no annual fee Chase Freedom card also offers 5X categories.  With this card, Chase offers different 5X categories every quarter.  The 2015 5X calendar is as follows:

Freedom5XCalendar2015

Each Freedom card is limited to $1,500 per quarter of 5X spend.  So, at most, one Freedom card could generate 30,000 points per year.  In reality, though, some categories, like restaurants, would be hard to max out.  So, let’s conservatively assume that I would earn half of the maximum: 15,000 points per year.

The way to scale this up is to get more cards.  My wife and I each already have one Freedom card each, but we can get more.  The trick is that rather than cancelling our Sapphire Preferred cards when we’re done with them, we’ll downgrade to Freedom cards instead.  In the near term, that means that we can have a total of four Freedom cards.  At 15,000 points earned per year for each card, that comes to 60,000 points per year.  And, if we get even more Freedom cards in the future, we’ll be able to do even better.

Summary

The above approach of maximizing sign up bonuses and category bonuses should result in earning at least 210,000 Ultimate Rewards points per year.  I was pretty conservative with many of the estimates though, so I think it would be fair to assume that I would do quite a bit better than that.  Will it be enough for my travel needs?  Yeah, I think so.

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