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A reader emailed me to ask what card she should use to pay the taxes on a United award:

I’m trying to book an award ticket on United ORD-EZE-ORD. [Scott: Chicago to Buenos Aires, taxes are about $82.]

Which credit card would you suggest I use to pay the fees and are there any particular advantages to one or the other?  We have United Explorer, United Club, Barclay Arrival, Sapphire Preferred, Starwood, Amex Platinum, and some that I imagine you wouldn’t recommend (Freedom, Citi Aadvantage, Barclay US Airways, Citi Thank You Preferred, Ink Bold).

Of the cards she has, she should use either the Sapphire Preferred or the Barclaycard Arrival(TM) World MasterCard® – Earn 2x on All Purchases.

If she had the American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card or The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN, those would also be great options.

Under no circumstances should she use her United card for this purchase.

Why should she use the Sapphire Preferred, Arrival, Premier Rewards Gold, or Enhanced Business Gold card to pay the taxes on her award ticket?

The reader asked about the taxes on a United award but the advice given will hold for all taxes/fees/fuel surcharges associated with award tickets on any airline.

The four options I’ll consider are:

  • co-branded airline card (ie United card for a United award, US Airways card for a US Airways award)
  • Sapphire Preferred
  • Arrival Card
  • Premier Rewards Gold Card / Business Gold Card

For each option, I’ll imagine a United award with taxes of $100 to make the numbers easy to compute.

Co-Branded Airline Card

You should not use a co-branded airline card–like the United card–to pay the taxes on an award. Co-branded cards generally earn 2 miles per dollar on purchases with their airline, so paying the taxes would earn 2 miles per dollar.

Taxes of $100 would earn 200 airline miles.

We can do better.

Sapphire Preferred

The Sapphire Preferred earns 2 Ultimate Rewards per dollar on travel purchases. Any transaction with an airline including paying the taxes on an award will earn 2 Ultimate Rewards per dollar.

In addition, every January or February, you receive a 7% bonus on the points earned the previous calendar year (excluding the sign up bonus.) That means you can end up getting 2.14 Ultimate Rewards per dollar for paying the taxes.

Taxes of $100 would earn 214 Ultimate Rewards.

Ultimate Rewards are more valuable than United miles for their flexibility since they can transfer to United miles 1:1 or to nearly a dozen other airline miles or hotel points.

Arrival Card

The Arrival Card is an intriguing option. All purchases on the Arrival card earn 2 miles per dollar.

Paying taxes of $100 would earn 200 Arrival miles.

Then you can redeem your Arrival miles to eliminate the $100 from your statement. You would need to redeem 10,000 Arrival miles to remove a $100 charge from your statement. (See How to Redeem Barclaycard Arrival Miles.)

Upon redemption, you would automatically have 1,000 Arrival miles credited back to your account since all travel redemptions get an automatic and instant 10% miles rebate with the Arrival card.

Using the Arrival card means paying nothing in taxes (because we redeemed Arrival miles) and ending the transaction down 8,800 Arrival miles. (10k redeemed – 1k rebated – 200 earned.)

Premier Rewards Gold Card / Enhanced Business Gold Card

Both the Premier Rewards Gold Card and Business Gold Card earn three Membership Rewards per dollar on airfare.

Both charge a 2.7% foreign transaction fee. If you are booking an award with a US-based airline’s miles (like United miles), this fee will not come into play no matter where you fly on the award.

If you are booking an award with a foreign airline’s miles, you will probably have to pay this fee even if the taxes are quoted in dollars. (I unwittingly had to pay a foreign transaction fee on the taxes on a British Airways award priced in dollars because the transaction was considered foreign.)

Paying $100 in taxes would earn 300 Membership Rewards.

Comparison

Here’s a table summarizing the information above. The chart imagines using each card to pay for $100 in taxes on an award. The Arrival entry also includes the effects of redeeming Arrival miles to remove the $100 charge from your statement.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.04.17 PM

You can see that there are two very different ways to go about paying the taxes on an award. You can use the Arrival card and end up not paying the taxes out of pocket.

Or you can use another card that earns a category bonus and try to ratchet up the earnings. Of the “earning” cards, the Premier Rewards Gold and Business Gold are the best as long as the transaction won’t incur a foreign transaction fee.

Which is better between earning points and redeeming Arrival miles?

That depends on whether you want to earn more points or redeem points, which in turn depends on how much cash you have versus how many points you have. It’s an individual question with no answer that’s right for everyone.

I’ve laid out the options–and ruled out several–but it’s up to you to decide which card is right for you when it comes time to pay the taxes on an award.

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