The Lazy Upgrader’s Guide to Lucrative
Credit Card Opportunities

  • FCF’s 2017 premium travel credit card perspective
  • Two new cards make shortlist
  • What you need to know about credit cards but couldn’t be bothered to ask

Let’s talk credit cards.

Yawn. Sounds like too much hard work?

Ok, credit cards aren’t the most exciting of topics. They’re a means to an end, not an end in themselves. So it’s really important to know what the end looks like.

In this case, it’s getting that Business or First Class seat.

And that is exciting. So, we’re going to make it easy. We’ve called it the Lazy Upgraders Guide (LUG) because all you have to do is read, and then go check if your cards are the right cards that you can trust to work hard for you, not that make you keep an eye on every new deal or short-term bonus that comes along.

Who this Special Report is Not For

Full-time Coupon Clippers: Who’ll spend an hour to save or make $10.

Point Pinchers: The person who has ten cards to cover every spend category bonus (and has time to track the latest, modest changes).

Bank-Currency Bound: Those happily locked-in to bank currencies like Capital One (a big no-no for the premium air traveler), as they are largely focused on coach tickets.

Cash-Back Seekers: Also a big mistake for the premium traveler.

Balance Carriers: If you don’t pay off your charges monthly, the Upgrade Game is not for you given the interest fees you’ll pay.

Credit-Card Churners: People who get credit cards only for the sign-up bonus only to cancel afterwards.

Capped Bonuses: Cards that have a low bonus cap, such as the American Express Everyday Preferred Card, which has a $6,000 cap on supermarket bonuses. Getting an extra 10,000 miles or so a year, which can otherwise usually be purchased for around $200, isn’t a great use of time.

Those Living Outside the U.S.: You have similar opportunities at times, but the cards and partnerships are very different, so use this as a conceptual guide. Your place to start is Amex.

FAIR WARNING: This report is NOT about getting cards for airport lounge access, car-rental insurance, airline/hotel elite status, free hotel nights, economy class air travel, sign-up bonuses, two-for-one programs, or cash-back incentives.

The point of this report is to maximize upgrade opportunities for the serious Business and First Class traveler, meaning those who won’t fly coach and won’t pay full price for Premium, and who can amass the necessary points through everyday card spending. Any additional perks that result are frosting on the cake.

In short, we’ve done the lugging for the confirmed premium class traveler, which is why future installments will be called the LUG report.

Why Have a Credit Card for Upgrading?

Upgrading (i.e. improving) your air-travel experience nets a far higher return-on-miles than any other redemption option. For example, a typical return-on-miles for economy class travel is generally 1¢ to 2¢, whereas premium air travel can easily net 5¢ to 10¢ even more if you choose the right route (such as the South Pacific) or airline (such as Emirates).

Of course, a great credit card for one person may not be the best for another. It’s a personal thing, depending on your spending patterns. Which is why you’ll love our new Credit Card Calculator.

It personalizes your category bonus opportunities to see which cards suit you best, based on your spending—together with what matters most…

Upgrading Starts with Having Options:
Options Start with Elastic Plastic

“Elastic Plastic” are cards that FCF has been recommending long before they became popular, because they offer points that can be transferred to more than one airline—and as many as 46 in the case of the Starwood Preferred Guest card!

While there’s no single best card for everyone, in my opinion, my equation for the best card is simply the card’s earning opportunity multiplied by the card’s spending opportunity.

If you embrace The Upgrade Mindset, then the universe of options starts with the programs with the most transfer partners.

 Top Four Elastic Points Programs

  • American Express Membership Rewards points, with 20 airline partners.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards points, with 8 airline partners.
  • Citibank ThankYou points, with 15 airline partners.
  • Starwood Starpoints, with 46 airline partners.

Keep in Mind the Various Upgrade Upsides
That Elastic Points Support

Upside #1: Free Award Options

Transfer Partner Breadth and Quality

Starwood gives you 475% more transfer options than Chase Ultimate Rewards; 206% more than Citibank ThankYou; and 142% more than Amex Membership Rewards. Elastic Points also protect you against Loyalty Program Devaluations—which seem to be occurring frequently, such as Delta’s most recent partner award increase to Europe.

Upside #2: Upgrade Award Options

Best Cards for Upgrade Anomalies

Say you want to upgrade a domestic flight, or any international flight, to or from anywhere—yes, to or from anywhere. Do you think you’ll have the same number of options available to you (in terms of upgradeable fares and award availability) across the board if you only have eight rather than 20 point-transfer airlines?

See recent special reports which many (with the wrong, non-elastic plastic) can’t leverage:

  • When to Use British Airways Mileage Upgrades to Europe here
  • Cathay Pacific Business Class Upgrades to Asia Save Up to $4,123, 54% here
  • How to Save Up to 36% in Business and First Class to Asia on Oneworld Partner Airlines here
  • All Star Alliance Mileage-Upgrade Programs Are Not Created Equal: Witness These Three to Asia here
  • Rating SkyTeam Business Class Award Pricing Between the U.S. and Asia here
  • Comparing Domestic U.S. Mileage Upgrade Awards on American, Delta, and United when Booking 7 to 30 Days in Advance here.

Upside #3: Huge Award-Chart Anomaly Discounts

Best Cards for Award-Chart Anomalies

No one has done more to uncover amazing premium air travel savings over the last 20+ years than FCF, and a big part of that is understanding how not only to leverage Elastic Plastic, but to do so through airline partners with big discrepancies in mileage-ticket costs. (Which is why the Starwood card has been at the top of our list from the beginning, even if its spend category bonuses aren’t as big in some cases.)

Refer to FCF’s special reports on award-chart anomalies:

  • Nine Ways Delta Travelers Can Upgrade to Europe for Less than Free or Just a Little More than Coach here
  • The Ultimate Mileage Award Ticket here
  • The Ultimate Oneworld Business Class Mileage Award (Part Two) here
  • How to Save 34% Using Cash or 51% Using Miles to Europe Business Class—with Great Availability Now here
  • How American & Delta Loyalists Can Get Two First or Business Class Tickets for the Price of One to Europe with JAL here
  • How to Get First & Business Class Two-for-Ones to Europe with Starwood Partner Asiana here
  • New Way to Get Domestic First Class Upgrades for Just 5,000 Miles here
  • How to Upgrade on U.S. Flights (Including Hawaii) for Only 5,000 to 10,000 Miles here
  • Three Ways to Get Business Class to Canada, the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico on American—for Less Than the Price of Coach (or Just a Bit More) here

For me, the Starwood breadth and transfer bonus makes up for the fact that it doesn’t offer many spend category bonuses as generous as some of the other cards. Remember, this is the Lazy Upgrader’s Guide; if you want to hustle, there are many other cards that will turn you into a Greyhound chasing a rabbit.

How Anyone Can Get a Business Credit Card

Survey results show that a third or more of FCF’s members are business owners—so there’s nothing extra for you to do to get one of these cards. For non-business owners in California, registering a sole proprietorship is inexpensive and can be done fast online. It’s my understanding that in most states the rules are similar to California’s—so depending on your spending levels, it takes almost no effort to qualify for the Business Card in our top six, in particular, Chase Ink.

Upside #4A: Availability

What Matters Most

The Elastic Plastic advantage can’t be overstated because airlines can be generous or stingy, as it suits them. Recently, American, which usually offers okay availability, has become extremely stingy and Delta and United miles are often worthless—currencies with no backing. Have you tried using them recently?!

 Upside #4B: Availability of First Class with Partners

Avoid Lock-In to Blocked-Out First Class

This is huge. Why value United miles (MileagePlus cards are widely used and are a key Chase Ultimate Rewards partner) if you can’t even book First Class on many of United’s key partners, such as Lufthansa (only within 14 days of departure) and Singapore Airlines? But First Class on these carriers is easily attained through Starwood Starpoints, as you can transfer points directly into the mileage programs of Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, and have much better mileage award access.

Upside #5: Transfer Time

Time is money, as you know

Elastic Plastic points don’t transfer instantly with all cards, which you may not know. There’s often a time-lag, which means the seat you’re eyeing can disappear. For the specific transfer times of all four Elastic Points programs refer to FCF’s Miles Accumulation Ratings for SkyTeam airlines, oneworld airlines, and Star Alliance airlines. This is, in fact, a downside to Starpoints, and must be considered in light of how and where you fly and how you store miles. See report on how to offset risk with cluster availability here.

Upside #6: Reservation Hold Time

Can Offset Transfer-Time Risk

Hold times range from none to 14 days. See What the Humble Pea Can Point Out About Using Miles & Points for Premium Air Travel, and how to buy time.

Marriage Doesn’t Mean Sharing Cards
Many cards have bonus limits. While the Chase Ink card gives you 3X points per dollar on travel, for example, that’s capped at $150,000 annually. If you and your spouse have separate cards, however, you have, in effect, double the bonus opportunity. The same goes with sign-up bonuses; never “add” someone to your account—have them get their own card so you can reap the bonus twice.

Upside #7: Minimizing Award Taxes

The More Options with Lower Taxes the Better

Award taxes vary greatly from one airline to another, say from $50 to $1,200. Navigate your way through this maze with Elastic Plastic. More on that here.

One more thing: FCF receives nothing from credit card providers. No kickbacks. No cash under the table. Our perspective is 100% independent.

So, with those preliminaries out of the way, let’s get down to some serious card dealing.

Two New Cards in the Deck

If this were the Acardemy Awards, FCF would be handing out best new Oscards to:

The new Chase Sapphire Reserve card. It earns 3X points on travel and dining at restaurants—from airfares and hotels to fine dining and cafes, plus it earns 1X point per dollar on all other purchases. Annual fee: $450. (Plus, up to $300 reimbursement for travel, which will offset the annual cost.)

and, (envelope please):

The new Platinum American Express card program has stirred up interest because you now get 5X Membership Rewards points for flight bookings and 5X for prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com. Annual fee: $550. (Plus, perks when you stay at Fine Hotels and Resorts, and you get $200 worth of Uber rides annually and $200 airline fee credit, which will offset the annual cost.)

Four More of FCF’s Top Cards That Offer
Elastic Points + Spend Bonuses

American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card
Spend Bonuses: 3X for flights booked directly with airlines; 2X for hotels (when you book at least two nights with The Hotel Collection through American Express), restaurants, gas and supermarkets; 1X for all other purchases. (Keep in mind that Amex Membership Rewards offers periodic transfer bonuses—30% to 50%—with airlines such as British Airways, Delta, and Virgin). Membership Rewards is my second favorite card. Annual fee: $195.

American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Card
Spend Bonuses: up to 5X points at Starwood Hotels (2X from Amex, 2X from Starwood; and 1X bonus for Gold or Platinum members); 1X points for other purchases. PLUS: a 25% bonus when transferring in 20,000-point increments. Annual fee: $95.

Chase Ink Business Preferred 
Spend Bonuses: 3X ($150,000 annual limit in combined purchases in the following categories) for: travel, including airfare, hotels, rental cars, train tickets, and taxis; shipping purchases; Internet, cable and phone services; and advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines; 1X on other purchases. Yes, it is a Business Card, but almost anyone can get it. Annual fee: $95.

Citi ThankYou Premier Card
Spend Bonuses: 3X on airfare, gas, hotels, cruises, car rental, bookings via travel agencies, parking, taxis, railways, and tolls; 2X for restaurants and entertainment (includes Netflix, iTunes, sporting event tickets, movies, and concerts); 1X on everything else. Annual fee: $95. 

FCF’s Play Your Cards Right Cribsheet

Top Six FCF Cards:Amex PlatinumAmex Premier GoldAmex Starwood Preferred GuestChase Ink Business PreferredChase Sapphire ReserveCiti Premier
American ExpressVisaMasterCard
# Of Airline Transfer Partners2020468815
# Of Partners with First Class Cabin8816449
Partners = Options = Upgrade Opportunities

Spend Categories & Bonuses:

Super-Point Currency:Amex PlatinumAmex Premier GoldAmex Starwood Preferred Guest*Chase Ink Business PreferredChase Sapphire ReserveCiti Premier
Airline5X3X1.25X3X3X3X
Hotel (Non-Starwood)5X2X1.25X
(Marriott hotels: 2.5X)
3X3X3X
Starwood Hotel (Non-Elite Status)5X2X6.25X3X3X3X
Gas1X2X1.25X1X1X3X
Supermarket1X2X1.25X1X1X1X
Dining1X2X1.25X1X3X2X
Entertainment1X1X1.25X1X1X2X
Phone / Internet1X1X1.25X3X1X1X
Office Supply1X1X1.25X1X1X1X
Other Spending1X1X1.25X1X1X1X
Foreign Transaction FeesNoNoNoNoNoNo
Anual Fee / Waived 1st Year$550 / No$195 / Yes$95 / Yes$95 / Yes$450 / No$95 / Yes
Link for DetailsAmex PlatinumAmex Premier GoldAmex Starwood Preferred GuestChase Ink Business PreferredChase Sapphire ReserveCiti Premier
*Includes 25% transfer bonus when transferring 20,000 miles.

The More You Spend, The Thicker Your Wallet

But not in the way you might be thinking. Here’s a rule of thumb: The more you spend, the more cards you should have that match the spending. If you spend modestly, the bonus opportunities will not outweigh the effort of getting a lot of cards.

If you spend a lot for dining at restaurants, for example, how can you pass up Chase Sapphire Reserve card’s 3-points-per dollar bonus? (If you don’t, the card is not for you.) In the same way, if you spend heavily on air travel, you want a Platinum American Express card.

Elastic Plastic Partner Cheat Sheet

AllianceAirlineCredit Card Transfer Point Partner
American Express Membership RewardsChase Ultimate RewardsCiti ThankYou RewardsStarwood Starpoints
OneworldAir BerlinX
American AirlinesX
British AirwaysXXX
Cathay PacificXXX
IberiaXVia BA Avios
transfer
Japan AirlinesX
LANX
Malaysian AirlinesX
QantasX
Qatar AirwaysXX
SkyTeamAeromexicoXX
Air FranceXXXX
AlitaliaXX
China Eastern AirlinesX
China Southern AirlinesX
DeltaXX
Garuda IndonesiaXX
KLMXXXX
Korean AirXX
Star AllianceAir CanadaXX
Air ChinaX
All NipponXX
Asiana AirlinesX
Austrian AirlinesX
Brussels AirlinesX
EVA AirX
Lot PolishX
LufthansaX
Singapore AirlinesXXXX
SWISSX
Thai AirwaysXX
UnitedXX
NoneAlaska AirlinesX
El Al IsraelX
EmiratesXX
Etihad AirwaysXXX
Hainan AirlinesX
Hawaiian AirlinesXX
JetBlueX
Virgin AmericaX
Virgin AtlanticXXX
Virgin AustraliaX
*Due to space, FCF omitted a few airline mileage programs in the chart, which have little relevance to premium air travelers, like Southwest and Frontier.

 

 

Rate this report

Help FCF help you.