"True" credit card earning rates

Nothing's ever simple in the world of loyalty programs, and that's doubly true f credit card rewards.  While most cards seem to offer a straightforward earning structure of 1 point per dollar, in fact that number can be somewhat higher because of bonuses that accrue either annually or at certain high levels of spending.  If you don't take those bonuses into account, you're not correctly evaluating the earning rate of your rewards credit cards.

Today we'll take a look at several popular rewards-earning credit cards nd compute the true earning rate on each.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

The Sapphire Preferred is a good example of a card with a "hidden" bonus.  Every calendar year (not cardmember year) in early January you're awarded a 7% bonus on all the Ultimate Rewards point you earned the previous calendar year.  This means that on unbonused spending, you earn a total of 1.07 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar, and on bonused spending (travel and restaurants) you earn a total of 2.14 points per dollar.

After the first year of card membership, the Sapphir Preferred has an annual fee of $95.  Valuing Ultimate Rewards points at 1 cent each (their cash redemption value; much higher value can be realized by redeeming them for travel or transferring them to airline, hotel, and rail partners), the first $9,500 you spend on the card each year only earns you enough points to pay your annual fee.  Taking into account the 7% annual bonus, however, you earn enough Ultimate Rewards points to pay the annual fee after only $8,879 in spending, a fairly low amount if you're manufacturing spend.

United MileagePlus Explorer

The MileagePlus Explorer card earns 1 mile per dollar on most spending.  However, if you spend $25,000 in any calendar year on the card, you earn an additional 10,000 bonus miles.  This makes the true earning rate on the card 1.4 miles per dollar, if you are able to spend exactly $25,000.  This card is essentially only worth spending any money on (after meeting the minimum spending required by the bonus you signed up for) if you intend to spend exactly $25,000, since the Sapphire Preferred has the same annual fee and allows transfers to United, while also allowing you to redeem your points for cash, travel, or transfers to other travel partners.

Platinum Delta American Express

Like the nited MileagePlus Explorer, the Platinum Delta card gives a bonus of 10,000 redeemable miles after spending $25,000 on the card in any calendar year.  However, along with the bonus redeemable miles, it also awards 10,000 valuable Medallion Qualification Miles (MQM), which can make a huge difference when qualifying for elite status.  Unlike the MileagePlus Explorer, the Platinum Delta card awards another 10,000 redeemable miles and 10,000 MQM at $50,000 in calendar year spending.

Most travel hackers who carry the Platinum Delta Amex therefore attempt to spend exactly $25,000 or $50,000 on the card each calendar year.  t those levels of spending, the card earns 1.4 miles per dollar, plus 10,000 or 20,000 valuable MQM.

Reserve Delta American Express

The Reserve card has a similar earning structure to the Platinum card, except instead of earning 10,000 mile bonuses at $25,000 and $50,000, the card earns 15,000 bonus miles and MQM after $30,000 and $60,000 in spending.

At those evels of spending, the Reserve card earns 1.5 miles per dollar, plus 15,000 or 30,000 MQM.


American Express Premier Rewards Gold

The Premier Rewards Gold card earns 1 flexible Membership Rewards point per dollar on ost spending.  At $30,000 in calendar year spending, the card earns an additional 15,000 Membership Rewards points.  If you are able to spend exactly $30,000 on the card, then you'll earn a total of 1.5 points per dollar.

Bank of America Virgin Atlantic Credit Card

The Virgin Atlantic card has a quite complicated earning structure.  On most purchases, the card earns 1.5 miles per dollar spent.  Then at $15,000 in purchases per cardmember year (not calendar year, like with the American Express cards), on the card anniversary, the card also awards 7,500 miles if you reached $15,000 in spend and another 7,500 if you reached $25,000 in spend.  However, you must renew the card for an additional year in order to receive the miles (unless you are able to cancel the card after the miles post and have the annual fee waived).  So the true earning rate of this card is 2 miles per dollar if you spend exactly $15,000 and 2.1 miles per dollar if you spend exactly $25,000 each year of card membership.  Since these miles transfer at a 1:2 ratio to Hilton HHonors points, this is like earning 4.2 HHonors points on all purchases, slightly better than the fee-free Hilton American Express card.  However, since the Virgin Atlantic card has a $90 annual fee, you would have to value the marginal 30,000 Hilton HHonors points at over .3 cents each in order to justify paying the annual fee each year and claiming the anniversary bonus.  

he card is probably not worth getting just for the 20,000 miles signup bonus, since the annual fee is not waived the first year

Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard

The Arrival World MasterCard earns 2 points per dollar spent on the card, and each point can be redeemed for 1 cent towards travel purchases ade with the card.  However, the card also gives a 10% rebate on all redemptions, meaning you earn approximately 2.22 cents for each dollar spent on the card.  I say "approximately," since when you redeem points received from the 10% point rebate, you'll receive another 10% rebate on those points, ad infinitum.  Thus if you redeem 100,000 points you'll receive a 10,000 point rebate, and when you redeem those points you'll receive another 1,000 point rebate, then a 10 point rebate, then a 1 point rebate.  Add it up and  $50,000 in spending earns 111,111 points ($1111.11 towards travel redemptions), a 2.22 point per dollar earning rate, which gives it a slight earning advantage over the 2% cash rebate Fidelity Investment Rewards cards.  However, the Arrival World MasterCard has a $89 annual fee after the first year of card membership.  To pay for that annual fee with the marginal earning advantage, you'd need to spend $40,050 on the MasterCard!  In other words, after the first year only spending above $40,000 is more lucrative than the Fidelity 2% cash back cards, which is probably unrealistic unless you have high business expenses you can charge to the card, or enough spare cash to consider aggressively making Kiva loans with the card.


However, the annual fee is waived the first year, so thanks to its competitive earning rate this is a good card to consider including in a credit card application cycle, as long as you're sure to cancel it before you pay the annual fee for the second year.