Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, or Ink Preferred for Ultimate Rewards transferability?

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.

Conclusion

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!

Finding the value in the Chase Sapphire Reserve

Now that everyone's had a chance to calm down about the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, let's take a look at the card's features and see what, if any, value it might have to a travel hacker.

Keep in mind that since the Sapphire Reserve has a $450 annual fee, you don't need to get $450 in value to make the card worth getting. You need to get $450 in value to break even.

Ultimate Rewards flexibility

When you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, or Sapphire Reserve, you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Chase's travel partners.

I won't relitigate the question of who qualifies for a Chase Ink Plus credit card. But suffice it to say, some readers cannot or feel they cannot be approved for Chase Ink Plus cards, in which case their only option if they want to make their Ultimate Rewards points flexible has been to carry a Sapphire Preferred, with its $95 annual fee.

If carrying a Sapphire Reserve allows you to downgrade your Sapphire Preferred to a Freedom or Freedom Unlimited, that brings your Sapphire Reserve's annual fee down by $95, plus the value of any additional points you earn with whichever of the the two, far superior, credit cards you change your Sapphire Preferred to.

Note that this is not true if you have access to an Ink Plus, since its accelerated earning rates at gas stations and office supply stores makes it worth carrying whether or not you have a Sapphire Reserve.

100,000 Ultimate Rewards-point signup bonus

After spending $4,000 on purchases within 3 months, you'll earn 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $1,000 in cash. Since the annual fee of $450 isn't waived the first year, this is the equivalent of a $550 signup bonus, less the difference in value between the cashback you'd otherwise earn on the same $4,000 in spend. Assuming you have a 2% cashback card you'd otherwise manufacture spend on, the total value of the signup bonus drops to $510 in cash.

Is a $510 signup bonus worth pursuing? Maybe! But I walked into a Citi bank branch today and picked up a brochure for a $400 cash bonus for opening a new Citibank Checking account. Doctor of Credit has a list of a few thousand dollars in bank account signup bonuses. The Chase Sapphire Reserve signup bonus is a bit higher than those signup bonuses, but a bit harder to get — you have to be approved, after all!

In short, if you chase signup bonuses, the 100,000 Ultimate Rewards-point signup bonus is probably all you need to know about this credit card. If you don't, you'll need to find the card's value elsewhere.

Increased value of Ultimate Rewards travel reservations

With a Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus credit card, there are exactly two reasons you would redeem Ultimate Rewards points to book travel through the Ultimate Rewards booking engine:

  • you are booking paid air travel on an airline or a stay at a hotel without award availability;
  • or, although there is award availability, transferring Ultimate Rewards points to one of Chase's transfer partners would yield less than 1.25 cents per point in value.

The two situations have different implications, and need to be treated differently.

If you regularly use Ultimate Rewards points to book travel when there is no award availability with Chase's travel partners, then the move from a 1.25 to 1.5 cent-per-point redemption means saving Ultimate Rewards points: every $1,000 in paid reservations you make costs 13,333 fewer Ultimate Rewards points (66,667 instead of 80,000). If you currently book $3,375 in paid Ultimate Rewards reservations per year, the Sapphire Reserve will pay for its annual fee in the cash value of those savings.

In the second case, you are moving the threshold for points transfers compared to paid bookings. With a Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus card, at all redemption values above 1.25 cents per point, accounting for taxes and fees, you'll get more value transferring Ultimate Rewards points to a travel partner than booking through the Ultimate Rewards portal. For example, a simple domestic United one-way costing 12,500 Mileage Plus miles and $5.60 in fees is a better value than redeeming Ultimate Rewards points for the same flight at any price higher than $161.85. At 1.5 cents per point, that breakeven point moves to $193.10. This is a very small change in the breakeven point!

The fact that taxes and fees are levied on both paid airline reservations and award flights means that the breakeven point increases by less than the 20% increase in the value of Ultimate Rewards points redeemed for paid travel.

Thus the difference between the first and second situations becomes clear: if you already find value redeeming your Ultimate Rewards points for paid travel, the Sapphire Reserve generates genuine savings compared to what you're currently paying. However, the increase in breakeven point is not significant enough to change the value calculation for Ink Plus and Sapphire Preferred cardholders who already get more than 1.5 cents per point in value from their United Mileage Plus and Hyatt Gold Passport points transfers.

Southwest Airlines presents a slightly different case, recently discussed by Trevor at Tagging Miles.

$300 annual travel credit

I'm the only blogger who says this, which either means I'm wrong or that I need to keep saying it more loudly and convincingly: statement credits are worth much less than cash.

How much less? Well, we've already established that with the Sapphire Reserve, $300 in travel booked through the Ultimate Rewards booking engine costs just $200 in Ultimate Rewards points.

If that is true, then how can it be the case that a $300 annual travel credit is worth $300, rather than $200?

There are lots of ways to get $300 in travel out of the $300 annual travel credit:

  • Buy $300 Alaska Airlines tickets and refund them to your travel bank.
  • Buy $300 in Southwest Airlines tickets and redeposit their value to your account.
  • Buy $300 in gift cards from a travel provider that sells its own gift cards (Marriott properties all sell Marriott gift cards, for example).
  • Pay $300 for travel.

The card is too new to know whether this would work, but you could theoretically even book an Alaska Airlines ticket more than 61 days out, or a fully refundable airline ticket, or a refundable, prepaid hotel reservation, wait for the credit to hit your account, then refund the reservation. I consider that an excruciatingly bad idea, but that's up to you.

The point is, $300 in travel is not worth $300 in cash to a travel hacker, but credit card annual fees have to be paid for in cash!

Conclusion

There are a lot of places a travel hacker can look for value with the Sapphire Reserve, but the card's benefits are not additive in the way affiliate bloggers suggest: 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points are not worth $1,500, a $300 travel credit is not worth $300, and the increased value of Ultimate Rewards points through the Chase booking portal is only valuable to the exact extent you redeem Ultimate Rewards points through the Chase booking portal.

This doesn't mean the Sapphire Reserve is a bad card or that you shouldn't get it.

This does mean you should look at your own pattern of earning and redemption, then think for yourself before jumping on the latest credit card affiliate bandwagon.

I moved. What did I miss?

Well, faithful readers, I'm back. For the past week I've been packing all my earthly possessions and transporting them 904 miles eastward. They're now, mostly, unpacked, and life should be very slowly returning to normal. Here's what I've learned in the past week.

Pay people to load and unload trucks for you

Packing your possessions into boxes for transport is a long, hard, chore, with a correspondingly high payoff. You can discover long-lost mementos, dispose of mountains of clutter, and get the opportunity to thank your old clothes and books for their service before disposing of them.

Loading and unloading trucks is an utterly thankless task that has no redeeming value. Pay someone else to do it for you. Don't try to help. Just watch.

There are only 81 Ritz-Carlton properties where you can use their new free night bonus

The new Chase Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card has a signup bonus of 3 nights at any "participating" Tier 1 to Tier 4 Ritz-Carlton property after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months.

According to my brute force calculations (Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, Tier 4), that leaves you with 81 properties in the world where you can use your 3 free night certificates.

Maybe you're planning to visit one of the 81 locations where you can use your free night certificates anyway. That makes the credit card a no-brainer, with a signup bonus worth thousands of dollars.

But if you aren't already planning to visit a Ritz-Carlton property, why would you be interested in a credit card that forces you to plan a whole vacation around it?

Travel is too cheap to chase signup bonuses that make you play by the loyalty industry's rules.

Chase Sapphire Reserve seems fine

Now that the details of the Chase Sapphire Reserve have been more-or-less-or-more officially confirmed, I can say with absolute conviction that it seems fine.

The 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel and dining seems fine.

The $300 in annual statement credits seems fine.

The ability to get 1.5 cents per Ultimate Rewards point when redeeming them for travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal seems fine.

I personally don't chase signup bonuses. But I know a lot of people do! They'll no doubt enjoy the 100,000-point signup bonus after spending $4,000 within 3 months. That seems fine too.

I apply for cards that either help me earn more points or help me leverage the points I already have. The Chase Sapphire Reserve does neither, so I won't be getting it.

Conclusion

I'm sure I'll have more to say about all this (well, probably not about moving trucks) as time goes on and the affiliates continue harping on these cards' supposed benefits. But since I've been out of touch for over a week, I thought I'd get started by sharing my 10,000-foot view of these latest fads in the credit card marketing blogosphere.