How to combine credit cards for rewards

Each rewards card has its own strengths but, often, a tag-team strategy can help you maximize rewards. While one card may shine in certain spending categories or provide glamorous travel perks, another might be more of a rewards workhorse for every-day purchases.

Combining the powers of two cards can enhance flexibility and earning potential. To that end, here’s how some cards might work together.

1. Chase Freedom (or Chase Freedom Unlimited) + Chase Sapphire Preferred

Think of the Chase Sapphire Preferred ($95 annual fee, waived the first year) as the super hero with special powers and the Chase Freedom or Freedom Unlimited (no annual fee) as the faithful sidekick.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred (in addition to earning you 2 points per dollar on travel and dining), has the ability to transform points earned on the card into real loyalty points for several airline and hotel programs:

Chase travel transfer partners

Because it’s a 1-for-1 transfer (each CSP reward point yields one loyalty program point), you can get a lot of value out of your points if you then redeem them wisely.

So how can you get as many points as possible to transfer to these programs? That’s where the Freedom or Freedom Unlimited can come in. The Freedom has rotating 5 percent categories, allowing you to rack up points for gas, dining, holiday shopping and more. The Freedom Unlimited, meanwhile, offers 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points on every dollar spent. Once you have a bunch of points, transfer them from the Freedom to the Sapphire Preferred online:

transfer-pts

… then transfer the points again into the travel loyalty program of your choice.

The bottom line: The Freedom and Freedom Unlimited allow you to farm points, and the Sapphire Preferred allows you to dispatch them where they’re needed.

2. American Express Platinum + American Express Everyday

(American Express is a CreditCardForum advertising partner)

Are you a fan of the travel and insurance perks of the Platinum card (which carries a $450 annual fee)? The roadside assistance, concierge, $200 airline fee credit and lounge access can be quite valuable – but the point-earning rate on the Platinum isn’t that great (1 point per dollar spent).

The no-annual-fee Everyday card, meanwhile, earns Membership Rewards Points (MRPs), just like the Platinum card does. But it earns you 2 MRPs per dollar on groceries, 1 point per dollar on everything else and a 20 percent point bonus after you make 20 purchases with the card in a billing period. Once you hit that threshold, you can start padding your MRP balance quite nicely. The Membership Rewards program is versatile: You can use MRPs to cancel out charges, redeem them for gift cards, convert them to loyalty points in more than 20 travel programs or use them to shop online.

The bottom line: The Platinum packs the perks coveted by frequent travelers, while the Everyday card, for no extra cost, picks up the point-earning slack.

3. A 5% category card (like the Chase Freedom or the Discover it) + the U.S. Bank Cash+ card

If your goal is to earn as much cash back as possible, this combo will keep you earning a pretty steady 5 percent back (the highest you can get on no-annual-fee cards).

The Chase Freedom and Discover it (both with no annual fee) have 5 percent cash-back categories that change quarterly. You earn 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter.

As an example, here’s Discover’s calendar for 2016:

Discover 5 percent Cashback Bonus Calendar 2016

And here’s Chase’s:

Chase Freedom 5 percent cash back calendar

So pick one (or both). Then supplement it with the U.S. Bank Cash+. This card is unique in that it’s customizable. You get to pick two 5 percent categories (good for up to $2,000 in net purchases) and one 2 percent category – and change them each quarter:

US bank cash+ 5 percent

That means you might be able to plug some of the 5 percent holes left in the other cards’ calendars and get 5 percent back on a variety of spend categories year round.

While your Discover it is getting you 5% cash back on category spending your Cash+ could get you 5 percent on restaurants. While your ‘it’ gets you 5 percent on one major spend cateogory, you can recalibrate your Cash+ for another not covered by Discover. You might also be able to flex both cards for a single project. For example, if you’re getting a new house, you might use the home improvement category on the ‘it’ or Freedom and then switch to the Cash+ card to get 5 percent back on all your new furniture.

The bottom line: With a little planning and willingness to maximize categories, you’re getting 5% on multiple categories year round. The Cash+ card adds the flexibility lacking in the ‘it’ and Freedom cards.

4. American Express Blue Cash Preferred + Fidelity Rewards American Express

Consider this duo the counterpoint to the 5 percent-powerhouse combo above –for those who don’t want to mess with changing categories.

The American Express Blue Cash Preferred ($75 annual fee) gives you a rather high 6 percent cash back at supermarkets and 3 percent back at U.S. gas stations and select department stores year round (no rotating categories). For all other spending, you’ll use the Fidelity Rewards American Express card (no annual fee), which lets you earn 2 percent back on everything. You will need a Fidelity cash management, brokerage, 529 or retirement account to get the card. But because Fidelity’s cash management account essentially functions as a checking account, you can consider this card a way to earn 2 percent cash back and have your earnings automatically deposited.

Don’t have a Fidelity account and don’t want one? The no-annual-fee Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card gives you 1.5 percent cash back on everything, or the Citi Double Cash card, which gives you 1 percent back when you make a purchase and another 1 percent back on when you pay it off.

The bottom line: You’re getting elevated cash back in three very common spending categories and 2 percent on everything else. No need to plan for categories – you’ll reach for the same card for the same types of purchases year round.

5. Chase Sapphire Preferred + Starwood Preferred Guest card

Airline cards with their generous sign-up bonuses can be great for those who live in a hub and know which airline they’re using for a big trip. However, if you’re a frequent traveler but not a frequent flier on a single airline, you’ll need reward points that are a bit more flexible.
Both of these cards let you transfer your points into travel loyalty programs. We covered the CSP’s partners above. The Starwood Preferred Guest card ($65 per year) covers more than 30 airlines (and all but a couple let you transfer on a 1-for-1 basis). Between these two cards, you’ve got United, American, Delta and Southwest covered, in addition to a slew of international carriers. Marriott, Hyatt and Starwood hotels are covered, too. If your carrier or hotel isn’t on the list, you can also use your CSP to book travel via Chase Ultimate Rewards – and get a 20 percent discount.

One caveat is that you’ll basically have two currencies of rewards – one cache with Chase and the other with AmEx – and no ability to move them from one card to the other before converting to airline miles. You might be able to find a work-around, though. For example, you could transfer points from both cards into British Airways Avios – and then redeem your Avios with American Airlines (a British Airways partner).

The bottom line: Together, these cards encompass nearly 40 hotel and airline transfer partners, and Chase Ultimate Rewards offers a back-up option for any travel that’s not included. That means just two cards are basically doing the job of a wallet full of airline and hotel cards.

What are your favorite card combos?

The most effective card combination for you will depend on your rewards preferences and your tolerance for annual fees, and our list is by no means comprehensive. Tell us in the comments: what’s the most dynamic duo in your wallet?

Updated June 30, 2016

 
Comments
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Great article! Thanks Kristin! What do you think of the Barclaycard Arrival Plus and Costco Citi Anywhere Visa Card combination? Barclaycard has 2% rewards on everything and Citi has 4% on gas, 3% travel/dining, 2% on Costco purchases (and if with an executive membership another 2% on Costco purchases, which I think will pay for the entire $110 annual fee since I spend at least $5,500/year), and 1% other purchases. I plan to use the Citi Costco card only for gas, travel, dining and Costco purchases and use the Barclaycard for the rest of my purchases like rent, utilities, auto/renter’s/disability/umbrella insurances, auto repairs, entertainment subscriptions (Netflix, Amazon, Google Music, Audible) and outside-of-Costco shopping all of which will probably cost me approximately $37,000/year. Another reason why I like the Barclaycard is that it has no foreign transaction fees. It does have an annual $89 fee.

I am also considering Citi Double Cash Card as my US card then partner it with Discover it Card which I will only use when it is in a 5% category and also when I travel abroad as it has no foreign transaction fees. Also both cards have no annual fees.

Which credit card combo do you think is better? I would appreciate any input from you and the other readers. Thanks!

Both those combinations could be quite lucrative!

A couple things to consider:

-With the Costco card, there are some strings attached to redemption. You are mailed your rewards in the form of a voucher and it must be taken to a Costco location to be used. You also have a timeline to use it. If you frequently shop at Costco, that may not be a big deal. Otherwise, consider another cash back card that lets you redeem rewards as cash back or statement credits.

-Discover’s acceptance abroad can be spotty, which might throw a wrench in your plan to use it abroad.

Chase Freedom + Chase Sapphire Preferred + Chase Ink

If you have a small business, you can grab a Chase Ink card. The Chase Ink offers 5% rewards on office supplies, TV/internet, and cell phone service. It also gives 2% back at gas stations. It fills big gaps in the CF + CSP formula and allows you to get bonus points and a LOT of categories where you’re usually spending money, anyway. Just like the CF, you can transfer rewards into the CSP to redeem for awesome stuff. It’s like a holy credit card trinity.

All the Chase Ink cards offer these bonuses, but only the most basic version doesn’t have an annual fee. So this allows you to keep three cards working together and only have to pay a single annual fee.

To clarify on the last post, the third card is called the Chase Ink Cash card. It gives cash back, but in the form of Ultimate Reward points that can (in theory) be transferred out.