How to Fly for Peanuts: Choosing a Rewards Card
Every credit card company, hotel, and airline has a travel rewards program. And, this weekend, I spent 15 hours researching them for this e-letter.
Not all rewards credit cards are created equal. So, if you’re looking for one that gives you free flights or hotel stays based on how much you charge to the card, here’s what you need to know…
First off, a general rule of thumb when comparing reward programs: If credit card companies give you one point for every dollar you spend on the card, then every point with that company is worth $0.01 (a penny a point).
That said, every reward program is different in terms of WHAT and HOW they offer rewards. And that’s where things get tricky.
The American Express Starwood card, for example, gives you one “Star Point” for every dollar you spend. Then you can transfer those points into any frequent flyer program you choose. Want to take a U.S. Airways flight across the U.S.? That’ll cost you 25,000 U.S. Airways Dividend Miles.
If you’ve accumulated over 25,000 American Express Star Points, you’d simply ask them to transfer 25,000 of them into your U.S. Airways Dividend Miles account, and you’d book the ticket through U.S. Airways.
The American Express Blue Sky Travel card, on the other hand, gives you points that are exchangeable for travel dollars. With this card, you simply buy your airline ticket as usual and charge it to your card. Once the charge goes through, you call the number on the back of the card and tell them you’d like to use your Blue Points to pay for that ticket.
Blue charges 7,500 points for every $100 reimbursement. So, if your ticket is $300 and you want your Blue Points to cover the whole thing, they’ll deduct 22,500 points from your account.
With the penny-per-point ratio as our guide, you can see that both of these cards are a pretty good deal. Your 22,500 Blue Points equates to $225. So, you’re essentially getting a $300 ticket for $225 worth of points. And 25,000 Star Points equates to $250. Yet the cheapest U.S. Airways flight I can find from here to my in-laws in Alabama is $648. So, I’m getting a $648 ticket for $250 worth of points (Note: This will always be true if the ticket you’re redeeming costs more than $250 on the market. If you can find the flight you want to take for less than $250, it’s not worth cashing in your points to buy the ticket).
Here are a few other factors you should consider before choosing a card that’s right for you:
1.) Annual fee. The Starwood card has a $45 annual fee and most other cards don’t.
2.) Hotel stays. The Starwood card gives you a GREAT deal on hotel stays if there’s a Starwood property where you’re traveling. Starwood properties include Sheratons and Westins among others. They’re generally nice hotels that are divided into categories.
You’re not likely to stay in a Category 1 Sheraton because they’re in remote towns across the U.S. But Category 2 hotels start in places like Orlando, Quito, Shanghai, and Dubai, and they’ll only cost you 2,000 to 3,000 points ($20 to $30 a night).
Category 4 hotels (usually priced around $200 per night online) are more widespread, but even they’ll only cost you 10,000 points a night. Compare that to say, the Elite Rewards Mastercard from Bank of America that charges 7,500 points for one night at a Super 8 Hotel or Days Inn, and you’re getting a pretty good deal.
3.) Tiers. Some cards like the Capital One No Hassle Miles operate on a tier system. Thirty-five thousand points buys you a ticket between $150 and $350. The nice thing about Capital One is that they offer you 1.25 points for every dollar you spend. The downside is that 35,000 points for a $151 ticket is an awful deal. And it gets worse as you progress up the ladder, with a $400 ticket costing you over 60,000 points.
4.) Blackout Dates. When you transfer miles into a frequent flyer program, your tickets are subject to blackout dates. There are only so many free seats available on each flight.
With the Starwood card, for instance, it’s not likely I’d get a free seat on Delta around Christmas time to a popular destination like Orlando.
Whereas with the Blue Card, I might pay an exorbitant amount to get to Orlando on those busy days (maybe $600 for my ticket as opposed to $300 any other time of year), but I’d be able to use my points to get a reimbursement to offset some of that fee.
5.) Special deals. Every card has its own unique marketing strategy for getting you to apply. Some offer you 10,000 points on your first purchase. Others, like the Maximum Rewards Platinum Visa, offer you triple points on everything you charge that’s travel-related (hotels, rental cards, flights – a great deal if a good portion of what you charge to your credit card is travel-related). And the Starwood card offers you an extra 5,000 points every time you transfer 20,000 points or more to a frequent flyer program to purchase a flight (a great deal if you consider the penny rule, because they’re essentially giving you $50 worth of points every time you earn enough points for a flight).
6.) Interest rates. If you plan to carry a balance on your card, interest rates should be your first and foremost guide when you’re deciding which card is right for you. Don’t let any of these other things cloud those waters. Remember, you’re only gaining a penny for every dollar you spend here. You’ll spend much more than that if you carry a balance and are charged interest even once.
And, of course, you should also consider what I like to call “the Visa factor.” A Visa credit card is more widely accepted than American Express. And I wouldn’t even consider the Miles by Discover card, no matter what kind of reward points they offer, simply because it’s not as widely accepted as Visa or MasterCard.
If you normally charge $20,000 worth of expenses to your credit card each year, then it’s likely that all $20,000 can be charged to your Visa, earning you 20,000 points. With American Express, you can only charge $15,000 or so to your card, earning you only 15,000 points at the end of the year. All because AmEx isn’t so widely accepted.
So which card is right for you?
Oh, if only it were that easy.
I can tell you that these cards aren’t worth their salt when you compare them to the others:
** Capital One’s No Hassle Miles Rewards card
** Miles by Discover
** Elite Rewards World Master Card
And that these are the cards I recommended to the girls here in the office (each person a different card):
** Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card by American Express
** Blue Sky by American Express
** Maximum Rewards Platinum Edition Visa
** Delta’s Platinum American Express card (though my reasons for this apply to all airline-specific cards)
So, tomorrow, as an end to our Flying for Peanuts series, I’ll tell you why I recommended these cards to each of our staff based on their individual needs, and you can decide which one fits you best.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]