Update 1/27/15: Some links have been removed from this post if the offer is expired.
There are only three cards big spenders should be using unless they have huge expenditures the would reap category bonuses. I’ll call them cards 1, 2a, and 2b.
2a. United Club Card
2b. Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
These cards offer the biggest returns on spending that is not part of category-bonus categories, which would make up the bulk of most big spenders’ spending.
Why are these the best three cards? Why did I label the last two 2a and 2b?
What constitutes a big spender is not clear cut, but I’d say anyone who spends more than $6k per month would qualify. Below that amount, much if not all of one’s spending should be used to clear sign up bonuses. Above that amount, having great cards for everyday spending becomes paramount.
People who earn hundreds of thousands of points and miles should diversify their miles and points across several programs and across the Five Types of Frequent Flyer Miles.
But people will primarily get the best value from either region-to-region based miles like those offered by United, American, Delta, and other airlines or fixed-value points like Citi ThankYou Points, Arrival miles, or Capital One miles.
Region-to-region miles are always better if you want to fly a premium cabin, and usually better if you want to fly internationally. Fixed-value points are almost always better for domestic economy flights and are occasionally better for international economy flights.
Figuring out which is better for your next trip or style of travel is not as straightforward as you might think.
Let’s take a three-day weekend trip from Atlanta to Seattle this September as an example and compare using Delta miles and Arrival miles earned by spending on the Arrival World MasterCard.
I am using the Arrival World MasterCard because it is by far the best card for earning fixed-value rewards because of its 2x miles on all purchases and 10% rebate when redeeming miles for flights. See my full analysis of the card here.
The cheapest direct flights I found on the days I searched were $389 and were operated by Delta.
Arrival miles are worth one cent each toward any flight any time. If you redeem them for flights, you’ll get a 10% rebate on the Arrival miles you used. And since Delta will see the ticket as a cash ticket, you will earn 4,364 Delta miles for the trip.
Using Arrival miles, the total calculus is 35,010 Arrival miles spent (38,900 – 3,890 rebated) and 4,364 Delta miles gained.
The number of Delta miles for a domestic economy award varies. Each way–assuming a roundtrip is booked–could cost 12,500, 20,000, or 30,000 miles depending on whether Delta releases the seat as low, medium, or high priced. In the case of these flights, one way is the low price and one way is the medium price–meaning a total cost of 32,500 Delta miles.
In addition to the 32,500 miles, the award has $5 in taxes. And since this is an award ticket, it will not earn the 4,364 award miles that a cash ticket or award with Arrival miles on the route would earn.
I pulled out some paper to compare those two prices. And then did a little algebra. Don’t worry; there won’t be a quiz. You don’t even have to understand what I’m doing to understand why one of these is a far better deal.
I reckon the Delta-miles cost at 32,500 Delta + $5 and the Arrival miles cost at 38,900 Arrival miles – 4,364 Delta miles. Through a little algebra, Delta miles are the better option if earning and spending 36,864 Delta miles is a better option and Arrival miles are a better option if earning and spending 38,400 Arrival miles is a better option.
In this domestic economy case Arrival miles are a far better option. It’s not even close.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® earns 2 Arrival miles per dollar on all purchases. That means you can earn 38,400 Arrival miles after $19,200 in purchases. The best card to earn Delta miles is the SPG card, which earns 1 SPG point per dollar, which can be transferred 1k SPG points to 1k Delta miles or 20k SPG points to 25k Delta miles. Earning 36,864 Delta miles would require $31,864 in spending–which is 66% more spending than the Arrival miles option.
If you want to fly lots of domestic economy and you are a big spender, put that spending on the Arrival World MasterCard.
If you want to fly international economy, do a similar analysis to what I just did, or you can take a short cut I’ll discuss later.
United Club Card and SPG Card
If you want to fly premium cabins though, please avoid the Arrival World MasterCard and similar fixed-value rewards cards. I’ve seen International First Class prices of $10k one way. That would be 1,000,000 Arrival miles. Region-to-region based miles will be much cheaper at 100k or fewer miles per direction in almost all cases.
But which card should big spenders use to earn these region-to-region miles? There are two main options.
The United Club Card earns 1.5 United miles on all purchases. United miles are probably the single best mile to have if you have to choose one type since United has the most partners, the most award space, and some very good routing rules for awards.
But you don’t have to choose just one type of miles to stockpile, and if you’re a big spender you probably shouldn’t stockpile one type. That’s where the SPG card comes in. It earns 1 Starpoint per dollar on all purchases. But those can be transferred 20k points to 25k miles to Delta, American, US Airways, and many other programs, but not United. (See my full analysis of the card and the SPG program here.)
The drawback of the United card is that you only earn United miles. The plusses are that it earns 20% more miles than the SPG card (1.5 vs. 1.25), and United miles are awesome miles.
The drawbacks of the SPG card are that transfers take time and award space can disappear, you need to transfer in 20k increments to get maximum value, and US Airways is leaving the Star Alliance, robbing SPG of its best Star Alliance partner. The benefit is that your SPG points can be miles in any alliance you want, and you don’t have to decide now.
Which you choose depends on how you weigh those drawbacks and benefits. You can also split the difference and get both and put half of your really big spending on each.
Shortcut to Deciding Whether Arrival Miles or SPG/United Offer More Value
For international economy or other trips where you’re not sure whether you should be spending on the Arrival World MasterCard or the SPG/United Club cards to achieve your goal, I’ll offer a shortcut.
- Go to the MileValue Mile Value Calculator.
- Fill in the four fields for the trip you have in mind. “Value” will be the price of the cash ticket. “Miles used” will be the number of region-to-region miles you would need to use to book the award.
- Compare the cents per mile to these values: If the region-to-region miles used would be American, US Airways, Delta, or another kind you’d earn from Starpoints, the cents per mile needs to be above 1.776 for the SPG card to be better than the Arrival Card for that trip. If the miles used would be United, the cents per mile needs to be above 1.48 for the Arrival card to be better than the United Club card for this trip. (I got these numbers by dividing the miles earned from a dollar of spending on the Arrival card–2.22–by the miles earned from a dollar on the United Club card–1.5–and SPG card–1.25.)
Recap Without Math
If you are a big spender, you should be putting your non-bonused spending on the Arrival card, United Club Card, SPG card, or some combination of the three.
If you want to use your rewards for premium cabins, you should choose the United Club Card or SPG card–which one depends on considerations laid out in this post.
If you want to use your rewards for domestic economy, you should use the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®. For international economy, the choice is less clear cut and depends on math! If you don’t want to do math, let the Mile Value Calculator do it for you as described in the last section.
Application Link: Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
More Info: United Club card
Application Link: Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®
- Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that’s enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit
- Earn 2X miles on all purchases
- Get 5% miles back to use toward your next redemption, every time you redeem
- Chip card technology, so paying for your purchases is more secure at chip-card terminals in the U.S. and abroad
- No foreign transaction fees on anything you buy while in another country
- 0% introductory APR for 12 months for each Balance Transfer made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR will apply, currently 16.24% or 20.24%, depending on your creditworthiness.
- Complimentary online FICO® Credit Score access for Barclaycard Arrival cardmembers
Application Link: Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard
Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express with 25,000 bonus Starpoints!
- Starpoints® bonus: earn up to 25,000 bonus points: 10,000 after your first purchase and another 15,000 after you spend $5,000 within the first 6 months of Cardmembership
- That’s enough for a weekend getaway to a Category 4 Hotel.
- Earn up to 5 Starpoints® for each dollar of eligible purchases at participating SPG hotels and resorts – that’s 2 Starpoints for using the Card in addition to the Starpoints you earn as an SPG member. Earn 1 Starpoint for all other purchases.
- Free Hotel Nights: redeem Starpoints at over 1,100 hotels in nearly 100 countries worldwide – with no blackout dates. Some hotels may have mandatory service and resort charges.
- Free Flights: redeem Starpoints on over 350 airlines with SPG Flights – with no blackout dates
- No limits on the number of Starpoints you can earn
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65
- Terms and Restrictions apply.
Application Link: Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express