Sapphire Reserve remains king of the Ultimate Rewards wallet

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On Monday Chase rocked the rewards world with news of a brand new card, Chase Freedom Flex, and the additional of powerful new bonus categories for the Chase Freedom Unlimited card.  Coming September 15th, the Freedom Flex will be very similar to the current Freedom card, but it will be a Mastercard instead of Visa and it adds 3X dining and drugstores, and 5X travel booked through Chase.  Also on September 15th, the 1.5X everywhere Freedom Unlimited card gains the same category bonuses: 3X dining and drugstores, and 5X travel booked through Chase.  Click here for complete details.

In response to these changes, Nick argued that Chase’s $550 Sapphire Reserve card has lost its place in the ideal Ultimate Rewards wallet.  The Sapphire Reserve card offers 3X for travel and dining.  In Nick’s ideal wallet he would earn 3X for travel with the $95 Ink Business Preferred and 3X for dining with the new, fee-free, Freedom Flex card.  He conceded that you’d lose some valuable perks by giving up the Sapphire Reserve card, but argued that $550 in savings more than makes up for that loss.  I disagree.

As an aside, Nick also suggested that the Freedom Unlimited card is an optional addition to the ideal Ultimate Rewards wallet.  I disagree with that too.  In my ideal Ultimate Rewards wallet, the Freedom Unlimited’s 1.5X everywhere is the anchor for all un-bonused spend.  Nick says that you can do better by earning 3X buying Visa gift cards at drugstores with the Freedom Flex card, and then use those cards to pay for things that wouldn’t otherwise qualify for a bonus category.  That’s technically true (but a big hassle), but you can do the same with the Freedom Unlimited.  To me, the additional bonus categories of the Freedom Unlimited have cemented its place in this wallet.  With that card in place, the addition of the Freedom or Freedom Flex is just additional opportunity to earn 5X in their rotating categories on up to $1500 spend per quarter.  That’s a very nice perk, but not one that I consider essential in the ideal Ultimate Rewards wallet.

Greg’s Ultimate Ultimate Rewards Wallet

For those committed to earning Ultimate Rewards points, here’s what I think is the ultimate combo:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve: 3X travel & dining; $300 Annual Travel Credit; Points worth 1.5 cents each towards travel; Best in class travel protections; Priority Pass Select lounge access; $60 annual DoorDash credit in 2020 & 2021; Free DashPass for up to 2 years upon activation; No foreign transaction fees.
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited (starting 9/15): 3X drugstores & dining; 5X travel booked through Chase; 1.5X everywhere else.
  • Chase Ink Business Cash: 5X office supplies and 5X cellular/landline/cable (on up to $25,000 in total purchases in 5x categories annually) ⚬ 2X gas and restaurants

Plus this optional add-on:

  • Chase Freedom or Chase Freedom Flex: 5X in rotating categories on up to $1,500 spend per quarter.  The Freedom Flex adds 3X drugstores & dining and 5X travel booked through Chase, but these categories are equally offered by the Freedom Unlimited card (starting 9/15).

Justifying $550 vs $95

Nick’s ideal Ultimate Rewards wallet contains the $95 per year Ink Business Preferred, and the fee-free Freedom Flex, Ink Business Cash, and (optionally) Freedom Unlimited.  Once you add in our optional cards, our wallets look identical except for one key difference: I chose the $550 Sapphire Reserve over the $95 Ink Business Preferred.  Both cards offer critical capabilities: 3X for all travel; the ability to transfer points to airline and hotel partners; and no foreign transaction fees.

On the surface, it looks like Nick’s wallet is $455 per year cheaper.  And that’s true, but it’s important to consider the Sapphire Reserve card’s annual rebates: $300 travel + $60 DoorDash.  There are multiple reasons why you shouldn’t give full value to these credits, but I won’t go into those now.  Instead, let’s just agree for the sake of argument to conservatively value these rebates at 85% of face value: $360 x 85% = $306.  The net cost, then, for the Sapphire Reserve is $550 – $306 = $244.  After considering the rebates, Nick’s wallet is still cheaper, but by a smaller amount: $244 – $95 = $149.  The question then is whether the Sapphire Reserve card’s advantages over the Ink Business Preferred are worth $149 or more per year.

The Sapphire Reserve card’s primary advantages over the Ink Business Preferred are as follows:

  • Best in class travel protections (the Ink card’s protections are similar to the lesser $95 Sapphire Preferred. Also, the Ink card’s primary auto rental coverage is for business travel only).
  • Priority Pass Select lounge access
  • Points worth 1.5 cents each towards travel or Pay Yourself Back (vs the Ink Business Preferred where points are worth 1.25 cents each towards travel).

The first two items may be hard to give much weight to right now while most of us aren’t traveling, but they are valuable during normal times…

Thanks to the Sapphire Reserve card’s travel protections, I know people who have been reimbursed thousands of dollars.  For example, our own Stephen Pepper wrote about his successful rental car claim for $2,797.07.  And my mom was reimbursed over six thousand dollars for a non-refundable tour that she had to cancel due to a temporary health issue (to be fair: she had to fight for this reimbursement, but she did get it in the end).

The value of Priority Pass depends heavily on your travel patterns.  Many airports now have restaurants where meals are reimbursed by Priority Pass.  If you frequent one of these airports, then the Priority Pass card has obvious real value.  The value of access to Priority Pass lounge access is similarly dependent upon your travel pattern.  Many airports, especially in the United States, don’t have any Priority Pass lounges.  But if you frequent ones that do, you can easily get a lot of value.

Both of the above perks (travel protections and Priority Pass) are valuable only if you don’t have other cards that match or exceed these perks.  That’s true, but consider that the thought exercise here is to determine the ideal Ultimate Rewards wallet.  The idea is that you can have a great wallet with no other cards at all.  Therefore, for the purpose of this post, it makes sense to assume that there are no other options in play for credit card travel protections and Priority Pass membership.

During normal travel years, I don’t think it would be unreasonable for some to say that it’s worth paying $149 more for great travel protections plus Priority Pass.  This year, that’s a tough sell.  But Chase had made the Sapphire Reserve $100 cheaper this year for those renewing (see this post for details).  So, this year, for those renewing their Sapphire Reserve, if we assign no value to travel protections and Priority Pass, we need to find $49 in extra value from the Sapphire Reserve vs the Ink Business Preferred.

1.5 vs 1.25 redemption value

It all comes down to this.  For those who exclusively transfer Ultimate Rewards points to airline and hotel partners there’s no difference in the value of points whether you hold the Sapphire Reserve card or the Ink Business Preferred.  Both allow point transfers.  The difference is when you use points to pay for travel through Chase or when using Chase’s Pay Yourself Back feature.  Pay Yourself Back is not yet available for the Ink Business Preferred, but that’s rumored to be coming soon.  Either way, Chase lets you redeem points with the Sapphire Reserve card for 1.5 cents each or with the Ink Business Preferred for 1.25 cents each.

60K Points Per Year

Those who redeem 60K points per year or more by paying for travel or through Pay Yourself Back will come out ahead with the Sapphire Reserve even if we give no weight at all to the travel protections or Priority Pass benefits.  Here’s the breakdown:

  • Value of 60,000 points redeemed at 1.5 cents each: $900
  • Value of 60,000 points redeemed at 1.25 cents each: $750
  • Difference: $150

To get to this year’s $49 difference between the Sapphire Reserve renewal and the Ink Business Preferred, we only have to redeem 20,000 points:

  • Value of 20,000 points redeemed at 1.5 cents each: $300
  • Value of 20,000 points redeemed at 1.25 cents each: $250
  • Difference: $50

Overall, this year for renewals we only have to redeem 20,000 points at 1.5 cents in order to justify the Sapphire Reserve over the Ink Business Preferred.  And, in future years (if/when the Sapphire Reserve’s renewal fee goes back to $550), we’ll have to redeem 60,000 points per year to justify the Sapphire Reserve.

With people earning more points than ever before thanks to the drugstore 3X category, I think that it is reasonable to assume that most people will redeem 60,000 points or more each year.  If you believe that you’ll redeem fewer points in most years, and if you don’t highly value Priority Pass or best in class travel protections, then Nick’s ideal wallet makes sense for you.  My guess is that most people, though, will find better value with my proposed wallet.

Granted, Nick’s argument was contingent on “those primarily interested in transfer partners.”  That was his way of avoiding the extra value that the Sapphire Reserve offers over the Ink Business Preferred for these types of redemptions. And it’s true that it’s often possible to get better than 1.5 cents value by transferring to partners.

But consider too that Nick recently argued that cashing out Chase points at 1.5 cents via Pay Yourself Back was the rational thing to do: Is it now irrational to hold Ultimate Rewards points? (on Nick’s mind).  Also consider that many of us are stuck with many miles and hotel points that we transferred before COVID-19.  For us, cashing out excess Ultimate Rewards points is even more rational than usual.

Player two considerations

Sapphire Reserve Couple

One issue that we used to have with the Sapphire Reserve is that Chase charges an additional fee for authorized users.  So, a couple would have to pay $550 plus $75 for the authorized user card.  And if the couple often travels separately from one another, that’s still true.  Both then would need a good travel card in their wallet.  If you usually travel together, though, you can share a single card for travel purchases.  And, if you sometimes dine out separately, you can now each get 3X for dining without adding an authorized user card.  That’s because the new Freedom Flex and the enhanced Freedom Unlimited cards offer 3X for dining.  One person can use the Sapphire Reserve to pay for dining and the other can use the Freedom Flex or Freedom Unlimited.  Due to foreign transaction fees, I wouldn’t use those cards outside of the United States, but within the US it’s a workable solution.

Conclusion

This year, with the $450 renewal fee, you would only have to redeem 20,000 points at 1.5 cents per point to make the Sapphire Reserve a keeper for your wallet when compared to the Ink Business Preferred.  In future years, assuming the card’s renewal fee goes back to $550, you’ll have to redeem 60,000 points at 1.5 cents if you don’t highly value the card’s other features.  My bet is that most people, but certainly not all, will find that they get enough value from the Sapphire Reserve to justify its expense over the Ink Business Preferred.

How about you?  Which ideal Ultimate Rewards wallet fits your circumstances best?

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