If you primarily fly economy class within the United States, it’s hard to get even 1.5 cents of value per traditional airline mile because domestic economy flights are often cheap. Most miles cards earn 1 mile per dollar, meaning they get economy flyers 1.5 cents of travel per dollar spent–if that.

While not all domestic economy flyers are families, many of them are. And families have something else working against them when redeeming miles: It’s tough to book four capacity-controlled award seats on the same flight, and they usually have little date flexibility since they want to travel over school breaks.

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Photo by Christian Haugen, taken from Flickr Creative Commons

Moral of the story? If you find yourself in at least one of categories above, you should be earning either:

  • cash back,
  • rewards that can be redeemed for a fixed value towards cash flights.

There’s no point subjecting your travels to the fickleness of award space if you’re not getting at least a 2% return as you can earn that any day, on all purchases, for no annual fee with the Citi Double Cash Card. YMMV of course, but if you’re flying economy domestically, it’s unlikely you’re squeezing 2 cents of value out of each mile. But you can do even better than 2% back by utilizing travel cards that earn rewards (at a higher rate) redeemable for a fixed value towards the actual purchase of flights/other travel expenses like hotels.

The simple answer for those who don’t want to bother with multiple credit cards or switching out cards to maximize category bonuses is the Citi Double Cash Card. It earns 1% cash back for all purchases immediately, and you’ll get the other percent back when you pay your bill, for a total return of two cents per dollar. The card has no annual fee, but don’t charge foreign transactions on it or the 3% fee will swamp your return.

If you’re game to open multiple cards for sign up bonuses and maximizing category bonuses, then keep reading.  If not, open a Citi Double Cash Card and call it a day.

If you’re still with me:

These are the cards to open and keep open.

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • Freedom
  • Ink Business Cash
  • Freedom Unlimited

These are the cards to open for the sign up bonuses.

  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus
  • Capital One Venture Card
  • Bank of America Premium Rewards Credit Card
  • Chase Ink Business Preferred*
  • Chase Ink Business Unlimited
  • Capital One Spark Miles for Business

*Could be worth keeping open longterm, depending on the type of business spend you have.

Below I’ll explain the reasoning behind those lists. Make sure you read Issuing Banks Rules for Approvals and New Bonuses before applying for any of the cards above to make sure you are eligible. If you’re new to miles and points and that/this post overwhelms you, but you’re ready to jump in the game, I give free credit card consultations for people like you and am happy to get you going in the right direction.

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Start With The Sapphire Reserve

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is the key to earning a higher return from all the other recommended Chase cards in this post. Ultimate Rewards either earned by the Sapphire Reserve or transferred into a Sapphire Reserve account can be redeemed for 1.5 cents each through the Chase travel portal (on cash flights or hotel rooms).

Of course, they can also be transferred to Ultimate Rewards airline and hotel loyalty program partners, which is what I am typically a proponent of doing over redeeming through the Chase travel portal. That’s how you get outsized value, when the ticket is expensive and the mileage price is not set on the cash price but either an award chart determined by regions or the distance flown. But that’s beyond the scope of this post. In this post, we are assuming it costs less points to redeem Ultimate Rewards for 1.5 cents on cash flights through the Chase travel portal then it would to transfer to an airline loyalty program–turning the points into miles–and redeem for an award. Therefore any sign up bonus valuations of Chase cards below are based on a 1.5 cent per Ultimate Reward point value.

Put just your travel and dining purchases on this card longterm. You’ll do better spending in other categories with cards listed below. Travel and dining purchases will earn 3 Ultimate Rewards per dollar spent, which is a 4.5% return when redeeming through the Chase travel portal.

The Sapphire Reserve has a $450 annual fee. But if you’re reading this blog it is highly likely you already spend $300 on travel purchases each year, which effectively lowers the annual fee to $150 as it comes with $300 in travel statement credits per cardmember year (for everything from flights to Airbnbs to parking). The remaining $150 annual fee is well justified by the travel and dining category bonus, Priority Pass Select Membership (lounge access), the TSA PreCheck/Global Entry fee statement credit, and the sign up bonus which is worth at least $750 in travel.

Put Business Expenses on the Ink Business Cash 

Purchases made with the Chase Ink Business Cash card at office supply stores and internet, cable and phone services will earn 5 Ultimate Rewards per dollar, equivalent to a 5% cash back if you redeem them straight out of your Ink Business Cash account. But if you have that Sapphire Reserve, you can move the Ultimate Rewards earned by your Ink Business Cash to the Reserve account and they become redeemable through the Chase travel portal for 1.5 cents each, bringing your return up to 7.5%. That’s an amazing return for a card with no annual fee. It does charge foreign transaction fees however, so divert those purchases to your Reserve.

The sign up bonus on this card is also very impressive for a no annual fee card: $750 in free travel.

Maximize the Rotating Categories on the Freedom Card

The Freedom Card’s schtick is much like the Ink Business Cash, in that the Ultimate Rewards it earns are worth 1 cent cash back on their own. But move them to a Sapphire Reserve account and they turn into that kind of Ultimate Reward.

You will earn 5 Ultimate Rewards per dollar spent on various categories throughout the year, on a max of $1,500 purchases per quarter.

That’s 7,500 Ultimate Rewards per quarter, or $112.50 in free travel per quarter if you maxed out the category bonus and moved the points to your Sapphire Reserve account.

The Freedom has no annual fee, but does charge foreign transaction fees. Its sign up bonus is worth $225 in free travel, but that’s not why you should get this card.

For All Your Other Spending

The Freedom Unlimited is just like the Freedom and Ink Business Cash in regards to the value of the Ultimate Rewards it earns, and how that value changes by moving them to your Sapphire Reserve account.

It earns a simple 1.5 Ultimate Rewards per dollar spent on everything. That’s a 2.25% return on everyday spending if moved to the Sapphire Reserve (1.5 x .015), which is why I recommend the Sapphire Reserve + Freedom Unlimited combo for non-bonused spend instead of the Citi Double Cash Card for its 2% return on everything.

This card has no annual fee, does collect foreign transaction fees, and comes with a bonus worth $225 in free travel. The Freedom Unlimited is crucial to this strategy, as it elevates your return on everyday spending from 1.5% (if you just have the Reserve) to 2.25%. 1.5% is not competitive.  2.25% wins the competition. If you take nothing else from this post, take this: Reserve + Freedom Unlimited is the duo for domestic economy travelers. 

Moving Your Ultimate Rewards Monthly 

The word on the virtual street back in April was that Chase might be changing the Ultimate Rewards program to block us from advantageous transfers between an account that earns less valuable Ultimate Rewards (i.e. the Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, Ink Business Cash, or Ink Business Unlimited) to an account that earns more valuable Ultimate Rewards (like the Sapphire Reserve). Nothing has developed since then, but if you decide to follow the reward earning strategy outlined in this post, it doesn’t hurt to move your points from the less valuable Ultimate Rewards account to your Reserve account after your statement closes each month, just in case.

American Airlines economy on the 787 MAX 8, perhaps an economy you might want to skip with way more seats and less bathrooms than most.
American Airlines economy on the 787 MAX 8, perhaps an economy you may wish to skip with way more seats and less bathrooms than most. Photo by airbus777.

Get these cards for their sign up bonuses over time. 

The cards below have lucrative sign up bonuses in the context of domestic economy travel, but I probably wouldn’t spend on the majority of them past earning the bonus as they don’t offer an interesting enough return compared to the cards detailed above. Of course, bonus offers change all the time, so if you decide to open one of these cards at a later date make sure you double check that it’s worth it.

Consumer Cards

Barclaycard Arrival Plus 

Along with the spend it takes to unlock the 60k Arrival “miles” bonus, you’ll earn $660 worth of free travel. It earns 2 Arrival miles per dollar spent, representing a 2% return as each Arrival mile is worth 1 cent each. Technically the return is a tiny bit higher than that, with a 5% rebate of miles each time you redeem, but it’s still lower than the 2.25% you get on everyday spending with the Reserve + Freedom Unlimited combo. Not to mention you have to redeem Arrival miles in chunks of 10k, which is annoying, and it’s got an annual fee of $89.

60k Arrival miles is the highest I’ve ever seen the bonus on this card, though, so now is a good time to snipe it if you’re eligible.

Capital One Venture Card

Along with the spend it takes to unlock the 50k Venture “miles” bonus, you’ll earn at least $560 worth of free travel. Like the Arrival Plus, it earns 2 “miles” per dollar spent, equal to a 2% return on everyday spend as each is worth 1 cent towards travel purchases. This may be worth keeping open past the first year if you book lots of hotels on hotels.com, as they’ll earn 10 Venture miles per dollar spent.

The card has no annual fee the first year, and $95 thereafter.

Bank of America Premium Rewards Credit Card

Along with the spend it takes to unlock the 50k point bonus, you’ll earn at least $545 worth of free travel. Its points are worth 1 cent each, and the card earns 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining purchases and 1.5 points per dollar on everything else. That’s somewhere between a 1.5 and 2% return on all spending…definitely not worth keeping open long term with a $95 annual fee.

Business Cards

Chase Ink Business Preferred

Along with the spend it takes to unlock the 80k Ultimate Reward bonus, you’ll earn at least $1,275 worth of free travel if you transfer those points to the Sapphire Reserve. If you are eligible to open business cards, I would make this one a top priority as it has by far the biggest bonus out of any of those in this get for the bonus list.

While you hold the Ink Business Preferred, you may as well maximize its category bonuses that are better than the longterm holders described above: Shipping purchases and advertising purchases with social media sites and search engines will earn 3 Ultimate Rewards per dollar, equivalent to a 4.5% return if transferred to the Sapphire Reserve. If your business has a lot of spend in these categories, then it could be worth keeping this card open despite the $95 annual fee.

Chase Ink Business Unlimited

Along with the spend it takes to unlock the 50k Ultimate Reward bonus, you’ll earn at least $795 worth of free travel if you transfer those points to the Sapphire Reserve.  This is the business version of the Freedom Unlimited, so it has the same earning structure of 1.5 Ultimate Rewards per dollar spent. I put this card in this get for the bonus list simply because more people are eligible for consumer cards than business cards, but of course, it could easily replace or exist in addition to the Freedom Unlimited in your longterm hold lineup as it has the exact same longterm value proposition as the Freedom Unlimited when paired with the Reserve: 2.25% return on everyday (business) spending and no annual fee.

Capital One Spark Miles for Business

Along with the spend it takes to unlock the 50k Spark “miles” bonus, you’ll earn $590 worth of free travel. Each “mile” is worth 1 cent towards travel, and you’ll earn 2 miles per dollar spent on everything. Its $95 annual fee is waived the first year. Not much else interesting to report or make it worth keeping open past the first year.

One Last Curveball

If you live in a city served by Southwest and travel often to places served by Southwest, then securing a Companion Pass could be a good route for you.

Bottom Line

If you travel within the United States in economy more often than not, and especially if you have very little to no flexibility on travel dates due to school schedules that push you to travel during peak seasons, I recommend you focus on earning rewards that can be redeemed for a fixed value on cash flights. Earning traditional miles is going to prove inhibitive in more ways than one.

The Sapphire Reserve + the Freedom Unlimited combo will give you a solid return on everyday spending of at least 2.25% that you can’t get with any other card I’m aware of (in terms of a return that doesn’t involve any redemption of airline miles), that’s available to the majority of the public. What’s even better is that having Ultimate Reward points in a Sapphire Reserve account also gives you the option to shop around and see if transferring your points to an Ultimate Rewards airline transfer partner would provide more value, like…

  • to United for redemption on United,
  • British or Iberia for redemption on American,
  • Flying Blue for redemption on Delta, or
  • Southwest for redemption on Southwest.

Check out How to Maximize Domestic Award Redemptions: Ultimate Rewards for ideas.

Then again, some people want simplicity, which is 100% understandable. The Citi Double Cash Card is the answer for those people. I imagine that’s not the majority of you regular readers, but you can tell your friends and family that can’t be bothered that the Citi Double Cash Card is an easy way to get 2% back on all their spending.

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Chase Sapphire Preferred

Earn 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points after you spend $4,000 spend in 3 months

Just getting started in the world of points and miles? The Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best card for you to start with.

With a bonus of 80,000 points after $4,000 spend in the first 3 months and 2x points earned on dining and travel spend, this card truly cannot be beat for getting started!

Learn More

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