I am on the record believing that much of the caterwauling about the end of travel hacking is essentially an artifact of individual travel hackers aging and having more responsibilities in other parts of their lives and less time to dedicate to the game. A person starting today wouldn't miss Vanilla Reload cards, just like when I got started I didn't miss buying dollar coins from the Mint. You can't miss what you never knew.
On the other hand, it's absolutely true that things are constantly changing, and keeping up-to-date on changes taking place is essential if you don't plan on retiring when your favorite credit card, award sweet spot, fuel dump, or manufactured spend technique is killed.
One such important change came about when Chase stopped issuing new Ink Plus small business credit cards.
The Ink Plus is the best Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card
People who currently hold Chase Ink Plus (and an even earlier card, the Ink Bold) earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores. While those cards can come with expensive activation fees, it's possible to turn a profit buying them virtually regardless of the liquidation technique you use, including even the most expensive options like making ordinary bill payments through Plastiq.
The Ink Plus also makes the Ultimate Rewards points you earn with other cards, like the Chase Freedom and Freedom Unlimited cards, transferrable to Chase's travel partners, meaning you don't need to hold a Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve card in order to maximize the value of your Ultimate Rewards points.
I say all this by way of background, and in case you already have an Ink Plus account: don't close it!
Brief aside: the Chase Ink Cash is still available for new signups
I try not to give recommendations around here. Your situation is different from my situation, your needs are different from my needs, etc.
But the no-annual-fee Ink Cash card is still available for new applications, and it still earns 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores (although only up to $25,000 per cardmember year, unlike the Ink Bold and Ink Plus maximum of $50,000 per cardmember year).
If you don't have one or more Ink Plus or Ink Bold accounts (and possibly even if you do!), moving an Ink Cash card up your list of applications in order to get another $25,000 in annual bonused office supply store spend seems like very low-hanging fruit to me at this point.
You can't sign up for new Ink Plus accounts
Chase hasn't given any indication they plan to force current Ink Plus or Ink Bold cardholders to change to the recently-introduced Ink Preferred, but they have stopped opening new accounts with those products.
That means if you have a portfolio of Chase Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Cash cards that are earning fixed-value Ultimate Rewards points, you have to decide which Chase card to use to turn them into flexible Ultimate Rewards points.
So, which flexible Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card is best for someone without access to an Ink Plus? Like I say, I don't give recommendations, but here are four factors you can use to help you decide.
1) Product changes
Chase's proprietary credit cards can be more or less freely changed within the personal and business credit card "silos." That means the Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards can be changed to Freedom and Freedom Unlimited cards, while an Ink Preferred can be easily changed to an Ink Cash card.
On the personal side, a Freedom Unlimited card is quite valuable for earning 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points at otherwise-unbonused merchants, but you only need one since you enjoy that earning rate on an unlimited amount of annual spend. Freedom (not Unlimited) cards meanwhile earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent in specified bonus categories, which have typically included widely-available manufactured spend opportunities like grocery stores and drug stores, but that bonused earning is capped at $1,500 per quarter, per card. That means you're typically best off accumulating as many individual Chase Freedom accounts as possible.
On the business side, as mentioned the Ink Cash is the last remaining Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card available to new customers that earns 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores.
The decisive question then is whether you prefer to earn bonus points on a finite amount of spend or fewer points on an unlimited amount of spend. If the former, an Ink Cash card lets you earn up to 125,000 Ultimate Rewards points on $25,000 in cardmember-year office supply store spend, while a Freedom card lets you earn a maximum of 30,000 points on $6,000 in calendar-year bonus spend. If the latter, the Freedom Unlimited card lets you earn 1.5 points per dollar spent on cheaper, unbonused manufactured spend or, for example, on unbonused reselling opportunities.
I'm not differentiating between the two premium personal cards here, since both can be product changed to either of the Freedom or Freedom Unlimited cards.
2) Signup bonuses
The Ink Preferred currently has a signup bonus of 80,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $5,000 within 3 months, while the Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve cards offer 50,000 points after spending $4,000.
That should give the Ink Preferred a strong advantage if you plan to transfer the points to Chase's travel partners. If you plan to redeem them for paid airfare, the difference shrink somewhat since the Ink Preferred signup bonus is worth $1,000 in paid airfare while the Sapphire Reserve's bonus is worth $750 due to its higher fixed redemption rate of 1.5 cents per point.
Note that unlike with some fixed-value rewards currencies you can combine points and cash on Ultimate Rewards booking portal reservations.
3) Bonus categories
If you plan to hold a flexible Ultimate Rewards credit card, it would be nice if you could earn some bonus Ultimate Rewards points with it:
- Both the Sapphire Reserve and Ink Preferred cards earn 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel;
- The Sapphire Reserve earns 3 points per dollar spent at restaurants while the Sapphire Preferred earns just 2 points (the Ink Preferred doesn't bonus restaurant spend);
- The Ink Preferred earns 3 points per dollar spent on internet, cable, and phone services.
If you're a reimbursed business traveler, especially one in charge of wining and dining clients, the Sapphire Reserve or Preferred has the advantage, while if you can convince your employer to let you put $150,000 in telecommunications charges to your Ink Preferred card that would be a no-brainer.
4) Trip delay insurance
Depending on your own travel habits, this may be a decisive factor or more of a tie-breaker. The Sapphire cards have excellent trip delay insurance (Reserve for delays of 6 hours or an overnight stay, Preferred for delays of 12 hours or an overnight stay), and it applies to reservations paid for with the card, booked through the Ultimate Rewards portal, and award tickets so long as you charge the related taxes and fees to your card.
I've used Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance in the past and it was both fairly painless and fairly lucrative.
How to weigh these different factors in your own travel hacking practice is up to you, depending on your particular earning and redemption needs. Since I already have a couple of Freedoms, a Freedom Unlimited, and an Ink Plus, my advice wouldn't be worth anything to someone new to the game.
That being said, two obvious approaches suggest themselves. You could use a personal card (which one you choose depends on your own situation, including the factors above) as your permanent flexible Ultimate Rewards card, and then periodically apply for Ink Preferred cards before downgrading them to Ink Cash cards.
A second approach would be to alternate applying for personal and small business credit cards every 24 months (in order to be eligible for new account signup bonuses on the personal cards). This way you could product change Sapphire Preferred or Reserve cards to Freedom or Freedom Unlimited cards, and Ink Preferred cards to Ink Cash cards, gradually accumulating a stable of cards that are each subject to separate bonus earning limits. In this strategy, you would always have a flexible Ultimate Rewards card, but it would alternate between a personal and small business card, as long as you could continue to be approved. Of course, this approach may be somewhat riskier since it would always be subject to Chase approving your product change requests and new card applications — no sure thing!