Create the Ultimate Travel Rewards Credit Card Combo Create the Ultimate Travel Rewards Credit Card Combo

Create the Ultimate Travel Rewards Credit Card Combo

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Outside of collecting big signup bonuses, earning the maximum number of points for every purchase should be the goal for points and miles enthusiasts. However, with so many credit cards available in such a wide array of programs, each with different category bonuses and benefits, it’s easy to overcomplicate the process.

If you want the highest return on spending without the complications that come with managing a portfolio of credit cards, you need to simplify your credit card strategy down to two factors:

  • Earn high-value flexible rewards points
  • Select a combination of cards that earn the highest number of points for each purchase

Why flexible rewards? The ability to transfer points to travel partners opens up more destinations, more airlines, and more hotels, typically at better redemption rates than you can otherwise achieve if you stick within a single airline or hotel loyalty program.

Build a Winning Ultimate Rewards Credit Card Combination

We’ve focused this post on Ultimate Rewards as Chase offers high points earning and redemption rates, fantastic travel benefits across its range of rewards cards, and top transfer partners covering the three global airline alliances. You can also apply the same strategy to Membership Rewards or ThankYou Rewards for similar results, topics we’ll explore in future posts.

Ultimate Rewards Hero Image

Chase currently offers six Ultimate Rewards earning credit cards:

Maximizing the category bonuses on each of these cards is an easy way to rack up loads of points quickly. Just keep in mind, to transfer Ultimate Rewards to travel partners you’ll need to pair up the Freedom Flex, Freedom Unlimited, Ink Unlimited, and Ink Cash with one of the three cards that have an annual fee.

Ultimate Rewards Two Card Strategy

If you’re chasing a simple two-card rewards strategy to minimize the number of cards in your wallet, we recommend combining the Sapphire Reserve with the Freedom Unlimited.

Excluding new cardmember offers and temporary promotions, the Freedom Unlimited‘s base earning rate is 5% on travel purchased through Chase, 3% on dining at restaurants and drugstores, and 1.5% on all other purchases, making it one of the most rewarding cards available for everyday spend. Combine that with the Sapphire Reserve’s 3X points on travel and dining, plus the card’s valuable travel benefits – transfer points to partners, $300 travel credit, complimentary lounge access, Global Entry/TSA credit, 1.5¢ per point redemption rate through the Chase Travel Portal, and you have a high earning card combo, outstanding travel benefits, and only need to deal with two cards in your wallet.

Maximizing your Earnings:

Make sure to use your Sapphire Reserve for travel not purchased through Chase, plus dining (3x), and use your Freedom Unlimited for travel purchased through Chase (5x), drugstore purchases (3x), and non-bonus purchases (minimum 1.5x). Keep in mind, you'll want to use your Sapphire Reserve for any foreign transactions as the Freedom Unlimited will pass along a fee for those, while there are no foreign transaction fees with the Sapphire Reserve.

Total Annual Fees:

Note: If you’re just starting out in points and miles, or don’t think you’ll take full advantage of the travel benefits associated with the Sapphire Reserve, you can replace it with the Sapphire Preferred which comes with a lower annual fee of $95. For us, the travel benefits on the Sapphire Reserve justify the $550 annual fee, but if you don't use them to full advantage, you're likely better off with the Sapphire Preferred.

Ultimate Rewards Three Card Strategy

By adding the Freedom Flex to the Sapphire Reserve and Freedom Unlimited, you can take advantage of rotating 5% category bonuses, valid on the first $1,500 in combined purchases each quarter.

While 5% cashback on purchases is an excellent return, Chase allows you to transfer points earned on no annual fee cards to other cards registered in your Ultimate Rewards account. When you transfer those points to the Sapphire Reserve, you can redeem them for a minimum 1.5¢ per point through the Chase Travel Portal or transfer them to an array of travel partners, increasing the return on category bonus spending from 5% to at least 7.5% (towards travel).

Maximizing Your Earnings:

Use your Freedom Flex whenever there is a 5x category bonus, your Sapphire Reserve for travel not purchased through Chase + dining to earn 3x, and your Freedom Unlimited for drugstore purchases and everything else rounding out the 1.5x earning.

Note: The Freedom Flex and the Freedom Unlimited both pass along foreign transaction fees, so you'll want to avoid their use for such transactions.

Total Annual Fees:

Ultimate Rewards Four (or Five) Card Strategy

To take advantage of a four or five card strategy, you’ll need to qualify for Chase’s small business cards – the Ink Preferred, Ink Unlimited, or Ink Cash.

The Ink Preferred earns 3x points per $1 on the first $150,000 spent in combined purchases on travel, shipping purchases, Internet, cable and phone services, advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines each account anniversary year, in addition to offering cell phone insurance covering up to $600 per claim.

The Ink Cash earns 5% cash back at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services, and 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases each account anniversary year. Points earned on Ink Cash can be transferred to the Ink Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, or Sapphire Preferred and redeemed for higher fixed-values or transferred to travel partners.

The Ink Unlimited earns a flat 1.5% (1.5x points) on all purchases, with no limit on the number of cashback/points you can earn.

Maximizing your Earnings:

Take the logic from our previous examples and add in the 2% and 5% earnings associated with the Ink Cash along with the 3x point earning on the Ink Preferred to fit that into your strategy.

Total Annual Fees:

Our pick for the best Ultimate Rewards credit card combo? We think combining the premium Sapphire Reserve with the no annual fee Freedom Unlimited, Freedom Flex, and Ink Cash is the sweet spot for earning Ultimate Rewards.

The Sapphire Reserve provides 3X points on all travel and dining alongside some of the best travel perks and insurances offered by any rewards card. A lot of the $550 annual fee is offset by the $300 travel credit and provided you take advantage of the lounge access and other benefits; we think the card is an all-around winner for any serious traveler.

The Freedom Flex, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Cash offer up to 5% back on bonus categories, essentially supercharging your points earning potential at no additional cost as the cards have no annual fee. And for any purchase that doesn't receive bonus points, you can swipe the Freedom Unlimited and earn 1.5x points.

When points are effectively worth between 1 and 2 cents apiece, you need to spend a lot to make up for annual fees, so ensure you keep the combined cost of your cards as low as possible.

Be Aware of Chase Application Restrictions

Something to be aware of if implementing any of these strategies is the application restrictions when applying for Chase credit cards, particularly the 5/24 policy which applies to every card listed above, even the business cards. Chase business cards are subject to 5/24 but don’t count towards 5/24.

  • 5/24 – If you’ve opened 5 or more new credit cards in the previous 24 months (across any card issuer) it'll be unlikely that you'll be approved for any of the Ultimate Rewards earning cards listed above – see our dedicated post for details
  • Sapphire cards: Chase implemented a new rule in 2017 (and further expanded it in 2018) which prevents applicants who currently hold a Sapphire card, or have received a bonus for one in the previous 48 months, from applying for another card within the Sapphire family of cards. If you have or have had one of the Sapphire products, watch out.
  • 2/30: Chase will typically not approve you for more than 2 cards in 30 days. Business and personal cards are separate. Maximum approval of 1x business and 2x personal in a 30-day period. This information is crowdsourced and based on the information we've gathered along with information provided by our readers/members.

We strongly recommend picking up all the Ultimate Rewards earning cards you can while under the 5/24 limit — they'll be the workhorses of your travel rewards strategy.

Final Thoughts

Chasing big signup bonuses across multiple programs and credit providers can help you accumulate a substantial balance of points and miles quickly, but long-term award travel success is achieved by maximizing the return on everyday spending. By building out a combination of Ultimate Rewards earning cards, you can dominate bonus and everyday spend, collecting bonus points on almost every purchase and amassing a war chest of Ultimate Rewards points to redeem for premium airline and hotel awards.

Have a favorite Ultimate Rewards earning combo? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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  • Jameel Nicholson says:

    I can confirm that Chase will approve you for two cards in the same week, if you stagger it. I applied for the Sapphire Preferred on Tuesday, then the Freedom Unlimited on Sunday, and got approved for both on Monday (it wasn’t an instant approval, because they had to call me and verify my identity prior to giving the cards because I have active fraud alerts due to the Equifax data breach). I have been strategically gunning for the Chase quartet, and will get the Ink Cash and the Freedom in 6 months, once I’m out of 5/24.

    After that, the only card I’m still going to *Chase* is the World of Hyatt card, and then it’s on to the next objective.

  • I have an Amex Platinum for which the annual fee just hit. Reading this blog, I’m now wondering if I should get a CSR instead of renewing. Or combining it with an United Mileage Plus Explorer card to free up additional Saver award inventory as mentioned in another blog.

    The main thing I’m going to miss if I do this are the Amex Centurion Lounges.

    • Depends a lot on your redemption plans and how you like to travel. We hold a Platinum Business Card for the lounge access and the elite status benefits it awards us. With two young kids and no longer traveling full-time, we don’t travel enough to earn status organically, so the lounge access and elite status benefits come in handy the few times a year we travel internationally. It’s not a card we put a lot of spend on as other cards have much better bonus categories that fit our spending patterns, but we hold it for the perks. You need to weigh up the cost of holding the card vs. how much value you get from the card benefits.

  • trying to decide if I want to renew my reserve…. without the bonus, tough decision

  • Great article! Thanks for all the tips!

  • Jennifer Finney says:

    I have an old Chase Sapphire card from 2005. I believe it’s pre-Reserve, etc. I have two questions. First, is there any way to know if I would be approved for a Sapphire Reserve if I have good credit with only one new card opened in last two years? Secondly, if so, will my current points be transferable to a Sapphire Reserve or do I need to open one of the other new cards mentioned above?

  • Bryan Austin says:

    I have the CSR and a small business Chase Ink. If I could pick up one or two more cards right now, should I get the Chase Fredom/Freedom Unlimited or go to the Ink Preferred

  • Had decided to use this strategy a few days ago. I have the CFU for 5x, the CIC for 5x internet cable and phone then the CFU for 1.5 all other. Still trying to decide which Sapphire though. Any ideas?

    And would be nice to have something better than 1.5 for groceries.

  • I currently have the CSR, and the Marriott Premier Plus. Is there any reason to keep my Amex SPG card now that Marriott has taken over? By the way, we are very disappointed in what Marriott has done to the SPG program! Yes they trippled your existing SPG points, but also raised the number of points required by 3.30%.

  • The CSR, Freedom, and Unlimited card combination can’t be beat. UR still has the best domestic travel partners and best value.

  • Eileen Kerrigan says:

    Is it possible to PC the Slate card to a Freedom Unlimited? Right now the Slate is just gathering dust, and the FU would certainly be more useful.

  • If I have the Chase Ink Business Plus, should I switch to the Ink Business Preferred? Will I get the 80K bonus?

  • Thanks for the info, great strategies!
    Building up on the UR 5 card strategy.

  • I’m 4/24 as of 2/13/18. I will be 3/24 on 2/16/18 and 2/24 on 3/16/18. I have a SW personal and a SW business card. I applied for and was approved for both SW cards in October 2017. I want get to 5/24 in the next few months. Thinking CSR, Ink. I’m asking for suggestions, both personal and business Chase cards, to apply for. It seem that I read somewhere that if planned properly a person can actually get to 6/24. Maybe applying for 2 cards on the same day after I reach 4/24? All suggestions are greatly appreciated.

  • This is definitely a great credit card strategy.

  • I still need to pick up a Freedom Unlimited. Hoping for a preapproval.

  • I love the UR rewards. Great to see it’s still in the top!

  • Thanks for these strategies. That 5/24 rule is tough one to overcome.

  • Glad I read this. I am going to try the three card Chase strategy. I hope the Chase Reserve card will offer one of there 100,000 mile bonus signup again soon. Thanks!

  • I converted an old card to the Freedom, so I have two Freedoms, so I can spend $3K per quarter in bonus categories, which helps accumulate points even faster.

  • Another nice thing about the CSR is how broad the “travel” merchant classification is; ride-sharing, airbnb, tolls etc. all count, so it’s fairly easy to get your money’s worth out of the travel credit.

  • thanks for the amazingly super advice!

  • Lee Ann Bixler says:

    Great article. I especially like the 3 Card strategy. Thanks for the information.

  • omg! This post has made the light bulb finally go off in my head!!! yes I can now see why to have the Freedom unlimited, freedom and sapphire preferred cards..I see why I should have the reserve but cannot just wrap around the AF. But genius! But with the three cards I may just drive my husband insane with all the charges across multi cards. Any suggestions for his sanity? lol!

  • It is so hard to keep within the 5/24 rules to get Chase cards. There are so many opportunities that one doesn’t wish to pass on and wait two years.

  • Wow. Lots of points to be had!

  • Great research and portfolio. I need to rebalance my cards for maximum effect.

  • UR may be the best currency out there at the moment!

  • There are definitely lots of ways you can play this. While UR are awesome, I’m still a little weary of putting all my eggs in the same basket!

  • The CSR and two freedom cards has served me really, really well. I use the amex EDP heavily as well.

    Some people think I’m nuts…but those points have been racking up!

  • I like the 2 card and 3 card strategies

  • Thanks. I’m waiting for my 5/24 time to expire so I can move forwards.

  • ioanna sioutis says:

    Very helpful advice thx

  • Great strategies, thanks for consolidating all this information. Makes it much easier to understand, and really helpful for leading newbies like me in the right direction to maximize rewards!

  • It always amazes me that a great number of people don’t even realise that they can earn so many benefits just by paying for products and services with a credit card.

  • Mr and UR and I’m good to go.

  • Do you think the Chase Freedom Unlimited will waive its FX fees? Would love to see this feature.

  • Bernard Say says:

    I am allergic to paying annual fees so this would only work for me the first year if they have no annual fee for the first year.

    • You should take some allergy medication. Some cards with fees are worth every penny!

      • Couldn’t agree more Howie, especially when you consider that after making use of the annual travel credit, the maximum net AF on the CSR is only $150. For the myriad of benefits the card offers, that one is a no-brainer.

    • The 300 dollar travel credit can be triggered twice in your first year. Or rather, you can trigger it in the beginning of the first month of your 2nd year whereas the annual fee doesn’t trigger until the END of that 13th month statement.

      Which means if you time it right you’re straight up getting $600 of travel credit for the $450 annual fee, and that doesn’t even count the points bonus and other benefits.

      • David Grainger says:

        You may want to check your data on this point. I believe Chase closed this loophole. I believe you now get the $300 every card year, not calendar year. The card still makes sense if you are going to use the travel portal. 1.5 bonus on value through this portal. If you have no plans after year 1 to use the features of the card, you can always product change at the end of the first year to a CF or CFU (which carry no annual fees) and then product change back to the CSR when you wish to use the benefits. You will then pay the annual fee, but would get a new $300 travel credit and all other values as well.

  • Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  • This is a pretty solid combo. Thanks for the info.

  • UR points are really great. Wish I’d discovered them sooner!

  • KRIPAL SINGH says:

    This is a great strategy but it requires lot of work for little money .

  • The biggest non category rewards are on Bank of America’s Travel Rewards and Preferred Rewards cards , if you keep a balance with Bank Of America, including Merrill Lynch. If you have $100,000, your 1.5% is increased by 75% to 2.625%,, redeemable as cash (among options). An easy and cheap way to maintain the balance needed to get the bonus is open a Merrill Edge discount online brokerage account, including an IRA.

  • Great article! I wish I had something like this when I was first starting out in miles and points. I look forward to future articles about the other flexible points programs.

  • It’s funny I haven’t used the Freedom Unlimited at all for several months now… yes it’s 2.25% if I redeem it through the CSR portal, but at this point I’d rather just put it in a 2% cashback card.

    Meanwhile, let’s say you put 4000 dollars on everyday spend. If you put it on a Freedom Unlimited, that gets you 6000 points.

    If at least 500 of those 4000 dollars each month falls on a Chase Freedom bonus category (or 125 dollars/quarter), you are better off using the Chase Freedom over the Freedom Unlimited. At 5% for gas this quarter, I think most commuters can hit that just this quarter.

    Of course the correct answer is to have both the Freedom and the Freedom Unlimited (in addition to your premium card).

  • great strategy when not opening new cards!

  • I got the CSR first, followed by the CFU and CF as soon as I hit the minimum spend for the bonus. Should hit the CF bonus minimum this week. Next up will be the Ink Cash, and then before the wife and I travel to Europe for our honeymoon, the Ink Preferred, so that I can take advantage of its zero forex fees while piling on the minimum spend.

  • I dont think I travel enough to need the multiple cards.

  • I also have the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Freedom. I have been holding off on the Freedom Unlimited as I hope a big sign up bonus offer will be placed into the marketplace by our good friends at Chase.

  • Strategies are unique to each person’s spend patterns, needs, and value. Always great to discuss and weigh the options.

  • Definitely helps to pick up the UR cards before going over 5/24

  • I have the CSR and the Chase Freedom, I would like to get the Freedom Unlimited too, however I am under the 5/24 rule.

  • The great thing is that despite all our different needs/goals/desires, there’s almost certainly a credit card strategy that works best for all of us individually.

  • Nice! I’ve been looking to optimize my card situation — would love to start following this model.

  • Many of these cards do not provide good value.

  • good advice, but maybe add the Fidelity 2% cash back card and the PFCU 5% rebate on gasoline card?

  • great advice, I’ve been following this pretty much for a year and love how many ultimate rewards ive been able to rack up!

  • The wife & I employ a 4-card strategy. I hold the CSR, Freedom Unlimited (converted from CSP), and Ink Cash (converted from Ink Plus), while she also hods the CSR, and the Freedom (converted from CSP). This basically covers all the bases for us, ensuring we’re doing better than 1 point per $1 on essentially every dollar we spend through our Chase cards, and more often than not, 3-5 points per $1.