Chase Ultimate Rewards are the gold standard in any travel hacker’s arsenal. Some might say it’s American Express Membership Rewards, but I haven’t dabbled in those yet, and I think Ultimate Rewards is the best program to get your feet wet.
Chase’s 5/24 Rule
Chase has made it a bit harder to do what’s called “churning” of their cards, where you get a card simply for the bonus, cancel it, and then get another one as soon as you can. I’ve not done this either, but I still have to live with the new rules that Chase has put into place, which is you can’t have opened more than four new cards in the past 24 months with any lender. So this changes the strategy for opening new cards, and I don’t know if Chase intended this result, but it puts a higher priority on getting Chase cards first.
Get Your Credit Score
The first consideration in the credit card game is your credit score and credit utilization. Find out your credit score, and if it is low, spend some time building it back up before you dive in. You’ll most likely need a “very good” to “exceptional” rating for the premium cards. Opening new cards may have an impact on your score temporarily as your new accounts start to outweigh the old. One way to balance this is to keep old accounts open as long as you can. In the long run, though, it will improve your score over time as you have higher amounts of credit, but lower utilization.
Consider Your Credit Habits
Before you decide to apply, you need to consider how you use credit. Any credit card strategy is going to be completely derailed if you end up paying interest on your balances or late fees on your payments. You have to be sure you have the diligence and cash to pay off your balances each month on time. Take some time to set up a system to pay your bills automatically and never spend more than you have cash on hand.
Start with Freedom
If you have a less-than-stellar credit score, I recommend starting with Freedom. You could go with the Unlimited version which pays 1.5% cashback, or the standard version which pays 5% on rotating quarterly categories, like gas, groceries, and restaurants. We’ve had a Freedom card for many years and used it for everything before we realized its potential for earning if you maximize each quarter’s $1500 cap on the 5x category. Now we each have one in our Chase accounts, effectively doubling our quarterly earning potential. The Freedom Unlimited is good for when you have expenses that don’t fit into an earning category, but there are ways around that, which is why we don’t have the Unlimited yet.
Ultimate Rewards Earning Cards
Once you start earning rewards on your Freedom, you may be tempted to redeem them for statement credits or gift cards, but I recommend you hold off until you can apply for one of Chase’s premium cards, either a Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve (if you really want to dive in head first). These are the cards that allow you access to the fullness of the Ultimate Rewards travel portal. You can book travel using your points or transfer points to airline and hotel partners. I find the greatest value is transferring my points to Southwest and Hyatt. I’ve gotten Southwest flights for as little as 3500 points, and Category 1 Hyatt hotels are only 5000 points. You can even transfer the points from your Freedom card to the Sapphire product in order to earn lots of points on the rotating categories, and then redeem them for those great travel benefits.
Chase Ink Business Cards
If you own a small business or are thinking of starting a side hustle, you could add one of Chase’s business cards to your wallet. The Ink Business Preferred is not as great of an earner as the now defunct Ink Plus version that we have, but you could get the opening bonus and then downgrade to the Business Ink Cash so long as you have another premium card in your account like one of the Sapphires. I love using my Ink card to buy gift cards at Staples and OfficeMax, especially the Visa gift cards, and I can really rack up the Ultimate Rewards points in a hurry.
Maximize Your Spending
I try to maximize my spending so that every dollar I spend earns 5x rewards, and it’s much easier to accomplish that with gift cards. If you use your Chase Ink card to buy gift cards at an office supply store, you can get 5x UR at Target, Amazon, and other stores by buying gift cards at face value. Visas and MasterCards have an activation fee, but go on sale often which waives the fee. I especially like when Visas are on sale because I can use them at Walmart to buy money orders for anything I would normally have to write a check, like our church pledge, electric bill, or school field trips. 5x on all of that spending really adds up and is worth a lot more than 5% cashback.
If you are thinking of getting into the travel rewards credit card game, any of the links in this post are referrals for cards we have in our wallets, so I would appreciate it if you used them. However, be sure to check the offer my referral gives you versus the public offer, because you may get a better deal using the public offer. Check the Referrals page for more Chase credit cards. Again, be sure you can pay off any balances you rack up so that you are not paying interest or it will negate the benefits.