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!


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.