October 13, 2020
At the end of September I pondered: Are all those airline and hotel loyalty program points and miles I’ve zealously pursued for forty years still worth going after during this zero-travel period of indeterminate length, especially given how costly, not to mention elusive, airline awards have become? After reflection, I can now say with certainty: Not so much.
Which led me to consider what credit cards I should be using instead. Because all the cards currently in my wallet except Discover accumulate points or miles.
After two weeks of analysis, I’ve made my choices. Along the way I learned that figuring out the right cards for me these days is harder than I anticipated.
I thought I could easily quantify current credit card benefits and current new card offers in a side-by-side, two-bucket comparison between cards that offer rewards and those that offer rebates. My plan was then to construct a matrix of the points/miles bucket of cards to parse the benefits and assign comprehensible values to each. However, as I began to populate the matrix of the points group of cards, I realized that, for me, the mileage game has devolved into an existential morass. Because of the constantly rising cost of awards and the lost transparency of membership reward charts, I can no longer accurately quantify, compare, and contrast the relative “values” of miles and points. Thus I abandoned that approach and went with my gut: It’s time to move on.
My three everyday credit cards have for a long time been American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa, and Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage MasterCard. In other words, one of each major card type. I closed a Citi Business Platinum AAdvantage MasterCard because it was essentially redundant after I qualified for the bonus miles. Secondary cards include a Wells Fargo Visa, a Bank of America MasterCard, and Discover. All accumulate miles or points except Discover, which offers the usual cash rebates of up to 5%, depending upon special offers and retailers used.
In addition to active accounts, the present bevy of new card offers vary:
- Hilton HHonors American Express (100,000 Bonus Points after spending $1,000 in the first three months and lots of multiplied Bonus Point opportunities)
- Delta SkyMiles Amex (60,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months plus lots of Delta bennies like first bag checked free and $600-700 in future Delta flight credits)
- American Express Business Gold (35,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first three months plus 4X the points in my top two spending areas)
- Amex Cash Preferred Blue Card ($300 cash back after spending $3,000 in the first three months plus 3-6% cash back from various retail types)
- Chase Freedom Unlimited Visa ($200 cash bonus after spending $500 in the first three months plus up to 5% cash back from various retail types)
The preponderance of Amex offers in these examples is coincidental. I routinely receive similar offers from many banks. Those listed are just the most recent ones. Many dizzying card offers come almost daily, their bonus differences only a matter of degree and program preference.
I didn’t bite on any of them because the fine print revealed limitations and complexities no better after the initial bonus periods than the cards I carry already.
Most of the offers charge annual fees, some as high as $295, for the privilege of carrying the card, and all have ceilings on how much you can earn, whether points or cash. Joesentme.com contributor Fred Abatemarco detailed cashback recently, helpfully (to me) concluding that a single card won’t do it.
Fred’s probably right, but I’m getting many fewer cashback card come-ons than mileage bonus propositions. Why, I wonder, are so many of the offers landing in my mailbox and email still focused on the race for miles and points rather than on cashback schemes. In these Covid-induced travel doldrums, I’d have thought many fellow points addicts would be losing interest in accumulating ever more miles they can’t use. Whatever others are doing, I’ve made my decisions:
DISCOVER CARD SPENDING TSUNAMI
My principal takeaway until the traveling future clarifies is that I should move the bulk of card spending to Discover and add one more cashback card. In addition, I will keep at least one of each of the big three card issuers almost universally accepted worldwide: American Express, MasterCard, and Visa.
AMERICAN EXPRESS PLATINUM, BECAUSE I CAN’T BEAR TO LOSE IT
Reflecting on the ones I have already, I am loath to confess an irrational attachment to my American Express Platinum Card. I’ve had an American Express card since 1976 and have carried the Platinum version for longer than I can remember. Why does it feel somehow like I’d be chopping off an ear to lose it?
Maybe it’s because when air travel becomes routine again, I don’t want to lose the airport club privileges that come with that card: entry to Centurion Lounges, Delta SkyClubs, and the 1200-plus Priority Pass clubs worldwide. Though I wouldn’t miss some of the minor benefits like streaming service credits (Netflix, etc.) and Uber credits.
I’m going to keep my Amex Platinum despite its high annual fee ($550). Another justification: For $175 extra per year (total), my wife and two kids also carry the Platinum card, which gives them independent access to those same airline clubs. Well, when we are all flying again…
MASTERCARD AS BACKUP, JUST BECAUSE
I no longer need that Citi AAdvantage Platinum MasterCard. With AA’s extreme devaluation (by making AAdvantage awards so costly), accumulating AAdvantage Miles doesn’t work for me anymore. In addition to which, I now have 41 or 42 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades sitting uselessly in my AAdvantage account because my Lifetime Gold elite status is utterly worthless. AAdvantage Golds never get high enough on any AA upgrade list to use one. Shame, because AAdvantage is my oldest airline frequent flyer program membership (since 1981), which somehow makes me feel like abandoning an old friend. Foolish, I know. Just the same, I am closing the account.
That leaves me with just one MasterCard, the one from Bank of America. It’s a no-fee throwback that I keep in my back pocket as backup in case the primary plastic malfunctions.
VISA FLIPFLOP FROM POINTS TO CASHBACK
Today I turned my Chase Visa reward points into a credit statement. I plan to use up the balance and close that account, replacing it with a Costco cashback Visa.
The big card shuffle moves my focus from points to cashback. Although it leaves my old reliable Amex Platinum lurking expensively inert in my back pocket, I am ready to use it to fly again. Maybe I should think of it as a kind of lucky charm, like a shamrock, that will magically bring back travel. If only…