I belong to the noisy-but-unpopular school that believes everyday spending should properly be a rounding error in the typical travel hacker's overall miles and points strategy. That's because more miles can be earned in an afternoon of light manufactured spending than will be earned in a month or year of trying to earn as many points as possible on actual purchases.
The flip side of that is a blind spot when it comes to the bonused categories of spend on cards that I already carry, either for purposes of manufactured spend or recurring annual bonuses. In the interests of keeping my blind spots few and far between, I decided to take a closer look at a few of those categories.
With increasingly limited access to gas station manufactured spend, you may find that you're not able to manufacture $50,000 in spend in a Chase Ink Plus's double point category of "gas stations and hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel."
Since Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1.25 cents each when redeemed for paid airfare, or more when transferred to Hyatt Gold Passport, Southwest Rapid Rewards, and (usually) United MileagePlus, you're strictly better off paying for your hotel stays with a Chase Ink Plus than with the 2% cash back card you use for your other everyday purchases. One possible exception is if you are having trouble finding eligible expenses to redeem your Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Capital One Venture, or BankAmericard Travel Rewards miles against, although you can always consider refundable reservations in that case.
I'm fond of paying the revenue component of my Hyatt stays with Hyatt gift cards purchased at a discount using cashback rewards, but if you pay for Hyatt stays directly, the 3 Hyatt Gold Passport points earned per dollar with the Chase Hyatt credit card are superior to the 2 Ultimate Rewards points earned by both the Chase Ink Plus and Chase Sapphire Preferred — assuming you plan to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt Gold Passport at any point in the future.
The math is somewhat less favorable when paying for Hilton stays with the American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card, which earns 12 HHonors points per dollar spent at Hilton properties. According to the Wandering Aramean visualization tool, 12 HHonors points are worth a median 5.376 cents, while 2 Ultimate Rewards points, transferred to Hyatt Gold Passport, are worth a median 3.724 cents. That's an edge, but it's an edge that's highly dependent on your actual redemption pattern.
Finally, the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier credit card is by and large not worth holding for either its recurring benefit (one free category 1-5 night each account anniversary) nor for manufactured spending (one elite night credit for each $3,000 spent). But if you do have it for one reason, the other, or both, you are still unlikely to get more value from the 5 Marriott Rewards points earned per dollar spent at Marriott properties than you would from 2 Ultimate Rewards points earned on the same spend — unless, of course, you are already planning to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Marriott for some reason, like booking a 7-night Hotel + Air package.
As I've written before, most of the time one or more rotating cashback bonus card is offering 5% cash back at restaurants, so the idea of needing a particular card "dedicated" to restaurant spend is misleading: you should use your most lucrative card, which will, at least 6 months of this year, be a Discover it or Chase Freedom card. But that leaves the other half of the year, which makes it a legitimate question whether there are better cards than a straight 2% cashback card for use at restaurants.
Using the same median Hilton HHonors point value as above, the 6 HHonors points earned per dollar with the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express at restaurants slightly edges out a 2% cash back card, earning the equivalent 2.688 cents per dollar spent, while the Chase Hyatt credit card earns 2 Hyatt Gold Passport points per dollar spent, or a median 3.724 cents per dollar.
This matters because the Chase Sapphire Preferred, often promoted by affiliate bloggers for its high affiliate payout and earning rate on travel and dining, earns 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar. In other words, for just $75, rather than $95, you can earn 2 Hyatt Gold Passport points at restaurants with a card that also offers a free night at Category 1-4 Hyatt properties worldwide. That's a fact that's helpful to keep in mind the next time someone tells you the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best card to carry for restaurant spend.
Finally, I very rarely find myself booking air travel directly through an airline (preferring to use miles, Ultimate Rewards points, or Flexpoints earned with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card), but if you do book air travel directly, or need to pay the taxes and fees attached to award tickets, you can do better than a 2% cashback card with cards you may already carry.
If you periodically sign up for a "spare" US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, for example during the current Olympics promotion, you can use that extra card to pay for airfare, earning 2 Flexpoints per dollar spent, and transfer the resulting bonus Flexpoints to your primary account for future redemptions.
If you use an American Express Premier Rewards Gold card to manufacture grocery store spend on an ongoing basis, you may as well use it to pay for airfare, earning 3 Membership Rewards points for your airline tickets as well, which can be transferred to potentially lucrative travel partners like Delta SkyMiles. The same goes for a Citi Prestige card you may carry to raise the value of your existing Citi ThankYou points.
And the Chase Hyatt credit card earns 2 Hyatt Gold Passport points per dollar spent on airfare, giving it an edge over a straight 2% cashback card, depending as always on your actual planned redemptions.
I don't think it's useful, let alone necessary, for a travel hacker to stress over every possible bonus point at every possible merchant. But for the kind of purchases that you know you make frequently, it's at least worth considering finding additional value by keeping in mind the bonus categories offered by cards that you already use to manufacture spend, or hold for their recurring annual benefits.
As I indicated above, I don't usually pay for airline tickets or hotel stays with credit cards. But digging into my existing cards' bonus categories, I realized I could replicate the majority of the Chase Sapphire Preferred's "travel and dining" bonus categories with cards I already had: the Chase Ink Plus and Chase Hyatt credit cards. Between the two, they cover hotels, airlines, restaurants, and rental cars.
Obviously that leaves out things like cruises, travel agency bookings, local transportation, and so on. But they do include the bulk of reimbursable business travel, so if you do spend a large amount in those categories each year, you may find yourself coming out ahead by examining the bonus categories on your existing card card portfolio.