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A Side-By-Side Comparison of Flexible Points Programs When it Comes to Family Travel

  1. Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards
  2. SPG and Citi Thank You Program

When it comes to flexible points, there were once the big three. And now we have the big three plus medium size fourth participant created by brilliant minds at Citi. You can see overview of Chase Ultimate Rewards program here, Amex Membership Rewards here, SPG here, and last but not least, Citi Thank You program here

Yes, a  lot has changed in  one year since these posts were written, but the principles are still the same. So, make sure to take a look (after you read my post), especially if you are a beginner. Side benefit: You are unlikely to fall asleep reading “Devil’s Advocate”  series.

What I want to do here is highlight  strengths and weaknesses of each program  when it comes to family travel. And then I’ll pick a winner (cough, Ultimate Rewards, cough). I decided to break up this post in two parts. Today we are starting with Chase and Amex. Without further ado:

Ultimate Rewards

Best credit card combination: Chase Ink Plus and Chase Freedom

Pros:

1) Points instantly transfer to Southwest, probably the best program for most middle-class families in America. It’s revenue-based, which means every seat is available on points. If you can book far ahead, you can usually get 1.6 cents per point. And let’s not forget Companion pass.

2) Points instantly transfer to Avios 1:1. Avios has a distance-based program where some flights cost only 4,500 points one-way. It also lets you pull miles into one family account, which helps to efficiently use up your stash.

3) Points transfer to Hyatt. I wrote a post on some Category 1 redemptions (cost only 5,000 points).

4) You can combine points with those earned from Chase Freedom. That card doesn’t have an annual fee and offers 5 points per dollar in rotating categories throughout the year. This lets use supercharge your earning potential. There have also been some interesting developments as of late: Staples.com is now selling $300 Visa gift cards and you may be able to buy $500 Visa gift cards with Chase Ink Plus at Office Depot, though this is probably the case of YMMV

5) You can get 1.25 cents per UR point when you redeem for travel.

Cons:

1) No transfer bonuses, ever.

2) No special savings offers in your credit card profile, ever.

3) An annual fee of $95 on a premium card (Chase Ink Plus or Chase Sapphire Preferred) which allows you to transfer points to airline and hotel programs. While some have had success with getting bonus points to offset the fee, generally, it’s a “hit or miss” kind of thing. For high spenders, the cost of this annual fee is probably negligible, for low spenders it absolutely matters. And let’s face it, not too many busy families will have the time or energy to deal with retention calls.

4) Too few partners, which will be even more pronounced with the loss of Amtrak in December.

5) Weak program for Delta lovers (yes, they do exist). The only way to redeem  on Delta is via Korean Sky Pass and Virgin Atlantic programs. Both require  roundtrip redemption, and Virgin Atlantic usually will not show connecting flights (see my post). If you mostly want to focus on miles redeemable on Delta, look elsewhere.

Membership Rewards

Best credit card combination: each spouse gets an Amex EveryDay Preferred

Pros: 

1) Points transfer instantly to most programs, including Avios, Air Canada, Delta and Jet Blue. Those will likely be your main uses of MR points. I wrote about some other good options for family here

2) There are transfer bonuses on a regular basis, which let you extract more value out of your stash.

3) There are quite a few partners, and all three airline alliances are well represented. You can transfer to Singapore program to redeem for flights to Hawaii on United metal (at a  cost of 35K miles roundtrip) Programs like Air France and Iberia open up many possibilities if you want to fly to Europe.

4) Amex EveryDay Preferred earns Membership Rewards points and   happens to be one of my top long-term picks for family. Amex card gives you an access to special savings program. So, with some effort,  it should be possible to offset your annual fee.

5) You don’t have to have a credit card with an annual fee in order to preserve your points. You can get Amex Everyday (or downgrade it from Amex Everyday Preferred).

Cons:

1) Recent cut in transfer ratio to Avios. Instead of getting 1,000 Avios in exchange for 1,000 MR points, it’s now  800 Avios per every 1,000. This is a  big blow, but hopefully, they will have some sort of transfer bonus to make up for it.

2) Somewhat weak revenue program option compared to Southwest. MR partners with Jet Blue, but transfer ratio isn’t all that great and value per point is less compared to what you would get with Rapid Rewards. While Jet Blue may be preferable to those who live near one of their hubs, in general, Southwest shines by comparison when it comes to family travel.

3) Delta is the only  domestic program out of the big three (Delta, American, United) that is represented. Award availability has improved, but it’s nowhere near compared to what you would find on those other airlines. While there is a way to redeem MR points on United and American, you will not have access to standard level awards in those programs. That could be problematic if you need to fly last minute.

4) One point is worth only 1 cent toward travel.

5) Many international  routes come with fuel surcharges which can make your search complicated. While there are ways to get great value out of MR points without paying exorbitant fees, it will take time and effort. By comparison, if you have United miles transferred from UR program, you can just look for seats and book them online. There are no fuel surcharges, ever.  Easy peasy!

6) Very weak hotel partner list. Sure, there is Choice. But you can purchase Choice points for 1.1 cents each, so you will most likely want to preserve your MR stash. It’s an option, of course, but not near as lucrative as Hyatt.

Bottom line

I’ve mentioned at the very beginning that I think Ultimate Rewards program is the winner. Why? I don’t like suspense. OK: they partner with Avios (1:1 transfer), Southwest and Hyatt. Those three programs will be  a good fit for most families in America. Hyatt footprint isn’t great, but they do have decent presence in tourist destinations.

If you can redeem your points at a category 1 or 2 property, you will do very well, especially during holidays. Pay cash or use hotel points from sign-up bonuses at other times. If you love Hyatt brand, you should also look into Chase Hyatt credit card, especially if you plan to stay in one of their fancy hotels soon. It earns 2 points per dollar on dining, certain travel purchases, and each year you get a certificate good at category 1-4 property after you pay an annual fee of $75.

That said, I stand by my original statement that Amex EveryDay Preferred is the most lucrative card overall when it comes to flexible points. This is especially true if you are looking to redeem miles for flights to Hawaii and Alaska. But it really does depend on your preferences. If you love Southwest and Hyatt, MR program isn’t going to do much for you. And life is about living and enjoying things, right?

In the second installment, I will analyze SPG and Citi Thank You programs. Neither one IMO measures up to UR or MR programs when it comes to family travel. But they are definitely worth considering, if only for sign-up bonus alone.

P.S. Check out my guest post on Enza’s Bargains site. The original title was “Can travel hacking save you money?” However, it accidentally morphed into “Can travel hacking save you?” Well, it’s official, I am in a cult.

If you found my content beneficial, look at my Support Me page  for ways you can help keep the site running. Also, please, subscribe to receive free blog updates through email and recommend me to your family and friends. You can also follow me on Twitter, like me on Facebook  and download my e-book 

Author: Leana

Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

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11 thoughts on “A Side-By-Side Comparison of Flexible Points Programs When it Comes to Family Travel

  1. I’m not as big on UR. It’s nice for the signup bonus but the annual fee is a big negative because there is no easy way to recover it. Sure, you can hope for a retention bonus but that doesn’t always work out. At least with the Amex Everyday Preferred or SPG Amex you can probably find enough AmexOffer statement credits within a year to offset the annual fee. For people that are not doing MS or don’t spend a LOT of money in the UR bonus categories, I think the Amex cards might be a better alternative for the average family. Amex Everyday Preferred gives 3x groceries, 2x gas, and if you have 30 transactions in a billing period another 50% bonus MR points which is easy to do. Don’t forget that with Amex you also get free 2-day shipping with Shoprunner (good at Toys R Us, Staples, NewEgg, Petsmart, free delivery on Domino’s pizza, and many other stores, plus exclusive discounts.) I have only held onto my UR card because I have a few hundred thousand URs with no immediate use. If Chase added some meaningful benefits (i.e. free or discounted Amazon Prime) or some kind of offer program, then it might be worth keeping. Unfortunately they’ve gone the other way – Chase removed Lounge Club access from Ink and the “First Friday” bonus from CSP. If you want UR for Hyatt points, then just get the Hyatt card – at least the $75 fee is offset by the annual free night certificate. And let’s forget about travel for a moment – Discover has been on a roll this year with some great promotions and generous cash back opportunities in their rotating categories and via Discover Deals. I love getting 5% or 10% cash back at Home Depot, Lowes, Sears, JC Penney, Kohls, LandsEnd, etc. Cash can also be used for tickets!

    • @Erik I totally 100% agree with you. My content is meant for a regular family who puts $15K to $30K per year on credit cards. Most folks will not want to mess with gift cards from Office Depot or any sort of M/S. Of course, the option is there for those who absolutely love UR points. Amex Everyday Preferred does require some work too. There is “30 transactions per billing cycle” requirement and it’s not accepted everywhere.
      Ultimately, it does come down to everyone’s preference. I always stress that families shouldn’t ignore cash back. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I started blogging. I couldn’t find Amex Blue Cash Preferred or Sallie Mae Barclaycard (RIP) mentioned anywhere till I started writing. Maybe they were covered, I don’t know. But it seemed the advice could be summed up by following : Get CSP and Amex SPG and renew them every year without fail, period. Of course, when the points from everyday spending were redeemed, the word “free” was used. Umm, no. You could have gotten cash back. Not trying to be obnoxious, but a family who spends $15K per year does not need to pay $160 in fees. At least, not without considering alternatives first.
      I will say, after interacting with readers, many absolutely LOVE earning UR points and redeeming them on Southwest and Hyatt. There is no way I will be able to convince them to look elsewhere. So, I figured if you can’t beat them, join them! If one is willing to go out of their way to buy gift cards with Ink Plus and pay attention to Freedom’s rotating categories, they can probably do alright. And alright ain’t bad! 🙂

  2. I love Ultimate Rewards, but I feel like Chase is making it harder to get approved for those cards (unless they have gotten more lenient in the past weeks). I wish I could get that darn CSP!! So I guess by default we are working on some Amex MR now.

    • @Shoesinks I love Ultimate Rewards too! My favorite flexible currency hands down, mostly due to Southwest transfer. I think for beginner, it makes sense to go with CSP due to recent Chase crackdown. Unfortunately, I don’t think they have become more lenient with approvals. I wish I got CSP in my name too. I was planning on it, but it was the case of “you snooze, you loose”
      This post focuses on analyzing accumulating various currencies via everyday spending. For the most part, the sign-up bonus on these cards is worth it in the short term. Whether you should renew them, that’s where things get murky. Everyone is different, so it’s hard to make blanket statements.

  3. I think there is another feather in UR’s cap not mentioned here: the UR portal. Having the chance to get 5x+ on things you were going to purchase any way is really a great incentive to stick with the UR program as much as possible, and prioritize its cards over MR earning cards.

    The biggest con is the 5/24 rule. And I am just now truly beginning to appreciate its impact on the game as I start to contemplate our strategy post house closing beginning in early 2016.

    Opening (not applying, right?) 5 cards in 24 months is pretty tame in our game. Even for me, someone who has mostly held off for a year or so. I’ve still managed to open 8 cards in the past 24 months. And I won’t have less than 5 new accounts opened in the last 24 months UNTIL June of next year (and might hold off til July to be safe). Considering AU cards are in the mix, it means both my wife and I would have to wait on any more card applications until at least July 2016 of next year.

    I may give it a shot. Might be a nice “reset” where we will be instantly approved for a good year or so.

    • @Cheapblackdad I hear what you are saying. Many people appreciate that aspect of UR program. I’m not much of a shopper, so this isn’t a huge factor to me, but you do make a valid point. I recommend you shop around and check http://www.evreward.com to see what the payout is through other portals. Something I also like to do is check http://www.giftcardgranny.com to find out what gift cards run for any given online store. Sometimes you can double dip and collect points even when purchasing with a gift card. Obviously, when buying electronics or major items, you would want to use credit card for protection.
      In general, shopping portals are not a huge swaying factor to me. In fact, I try to avoid even checking them as not to be influenced into making unnecessary purchases. But of course, this is a matter of individual preference.
      As far as this new Chase rule goes, it also depends on your goals. For me personally, as much as I love UR currency, it’s not enough to stop me from applying for new cards. The juice is not worth the squeeze as you would say. I can potentially collect 500K points from other banks or I can wait 2 years so I can finally get those 45K UR points on CSP. Guess which one I’m going to go with? But once again, this is something for each individual to decide.

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