Big Spenders Should Use One of These Three Cards, and They Probably Aren’t


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.

1. Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

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.

  1. Go to the MileValue Mile Value Calculator.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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  1. The united club card has a $395 annual fee though.
    How about the Hyatt reserve which offers 3 points per $1 on non category spending?

  2. What about FlexPerks? The $389 ATL-SEA is a perfect ticket. If readers donate to charitable organizations (or Kiva), then you can get up to 6% return on spending. $6,666 in spending would be enough to book this ticket (versus ~$17,505 spending req’d on Arrival card). Plus you still earn miles on the trip and receive a $25 statement credit for trip-related fees.

    • FlexPerks would be about equal for this ticket. Overall Arrival miles are quite a bit better. The 3x for charitable donations are nice, but I wanted to ignore category bonuses in this piece.

      • Fair enough! Thoughtful post; I just received the Arrival card in the mail yesterday. 2.2x on everything…. 🙂

  3. I have the Arrival card with a credit limit of $7,500, even if I use the entire credit limit each month, I only get $150/mo in travel credits. While I’m happy to get the ~ $1800/yr in travel credits, I feel like the airline affiliated credit cards are a better deal for me, since I generally use my miles for international business class awards.

  4. Since I have several 2% cash back cards I would consider those as good or better than the arrival card, since you can use cash for anything. The Arrival generates a little extra if you are using the points only for airfare. I have Priceline 2% cash back (Barclays), Fidelity 2% Amex, for example. SPG are good and flexible for hotels. Nights and flights is a great option with SPG. 5 nights hotel cat 4 and 50K airline miles. That is great if you need a hotel for 5 nights in a cat 4 which there are many.

    • Most people reading this site spend more than 2.22% of their budget on travel, so I don’t think a 2% cash back card is as good as a 2.22% travel card for us.

  5. The united club has a $395 annual fee. How does that work in favor of being in the top 3 cards?
    What about most of the Hilton cards? They offer 3 points for each $1 non category spend. Are HH points not transferable to airlines?

    • Hilton points are worth very little–around 0.4 cents. 3x Hilton points is worse than 1x of every type of mile. The $395 annual fee is a lot, but for a big spender that will be swamped. Plus it comes with United Club membership, which has some value.

    • If you spend over $40k per year, 2.22% and $89 annual fee is better. If you spend less than $40k per year, you’re right. This article was for people who spend more than $6k per month.

      • $6K per month is a “big spender”? Crikey. I averaged more than that per day last month…all manufactured spend…

        You’ve missed the PRG, which is much better for churners than the pathetic SPG card.

        For $30K spend at grocery with the PRG, you’ll get 75K MR. By contrast, for same $30K spend on SPG, you’ll get maximum of 35K if you transfer at 1.25. But Amex also often has transfer bonuses (like recent 35% to BA and current not-so-great 20% to Hawaiian). Bottom line, you’ll earn more than 2x the miles at the worst case scenario with PRG vs using the “best” SPG option. If you can leverage Amex bonuses, you can get 2.7x or better.

        And I’d ensure I maxed out the United Explorer’s $25K spend to get 1.4x points (35K UA for $25K spend) before I’d consider the United Club (due to the significantly higher AF).

        Barclay’s fixed value isn’t worth much to me. My days flying back of the plane are over.

        • @Paul – I’m not aware of a 75K Membership Rewards bonus for reaching a $30K threshold on the Premier Rewards Gold card. Did I miss something? Can you elaborate?

          • $30,000 at a grocery store is 60000 MR points. (2x)

            Spending $30,0000 in a calendar year on you PRG Amex gets you 15,000 MR points.

            60,000+15,000 = 75,000.

            Explorer for 25k and PRG for 30k (even non bonused) would be a pretty good year long strategy for a person with 1 bird to fill.

  6. Yeah, the (admittedly small) hassle factor for 2.2% over 2% isn’t worth it IMO. If I wanted to buy domestic airfare with points I’d consider Citibank TYP (and whatever remains of the angle that includes 5% categories). As is, I try to incorporate free one-ways for most domestic transcon, avios for short hops, and book MR-worthy fares. True, the cost of any fares (including the MRs) could be absorbed by Barclay, but there’s some lost opportunity of the higher valued redemption of international travel IMO. I got the barclay card and will use the $444, but that’s it. SPG is great for filling in extra points where needed (and LAN 1:2 was beautiful while it lasted). I spend on SPG when it’s not bonused otherwise, but $65/year still makes me nervous that I’m not really a big enough spender without manufacturing spend.

  7. I used the BofA Platinum Travel rewards card that operates on a similar premise to the arrival card.

    It doesn’t have as big of a sign on bonus, but it does 2% cash back and a 10% annual reward too.

    Instead of redeeming the miles for tickets, you redeem the miles as credits to “travel” purchases that you have already.

    I also like that I can get the annual fee on this card waived.

  8. Interesting analyis. How come one never hears much about the Virgin Atlantic/BOA card ?
    1.5 mpd on everyday spend. Is it too hard to use the miles ?

  9. Since United is my main airline and Southwest is my secondary airline (I’m a domestic flyer only), I assume my Chase Bold Ink card is my best bet for flexibility especially since I can use Chase to book airline, hotel and rental cars to use UR points & cash to book travel. Just wondering why you wouldn’t list a Chase card in your top 3 or 5 since United Mileage Plus miles are becoming increasingly valuable (only airline with one-way rewards).

  10. Don’t forget about train travel. I’ve used barclaycard points traveling by train in Europe, cash portion of spg cash and points, and hotels. I easily spend more than 2.2% on travel a yr.

  11. Not even close to my top big spend cards. I’m planning to hit the spend bonuses on the PRG, the Hilton Reserve ($10k, Diamond isn’t worth it, but I want the extra free night), the UA Explorer card and the Virgin Atlantic card for transfer to Hilton. Despite what a lot of people are saying, Hilton points aren’t entirely without value just because the Conrad Tokyo is 95k per night. And I’m using the CSP for the rest after the bonuses.

  12. I have a question about how many times one can apply for the same credit card and get the signup bonus. I know most cards (UA MileagePlus, for example) in T&Cs say bonus is only for first time credit card holder and no bonus will be awarded to existing and previous UA MileagePlus credit card holders. But I know I have gotten the bonus twice, first time some 7-8 years ago, then again recently. Of course, 7-8 years is a long time to wait. Do you know how long one has to wait before apply for the card again before bonus will be awarded?

  13. Don’t overlook the Southwest cards, currently offering 50,000 point bonuses. WN points are worth 1.7-1.9 cents each for virtually any seat on any flight (any time a Wanna Get Away fare is available). Points bookings are extremely flexible – for example they can be used to book travel for anyone, never expire, and are fully refundable. For me the flexibility of Southwest points makes the Southwest card a much better option than the 2.0-2.2 cent cash back cards discussed in this post. (It is true that Southwest revenue bookings do not have a change fee, but they are much less flexible than points bookings – “ticketless travel” funds expire after one year, cannot be “rolled over”, and can only be used for the original traveler.) And don’t forget that companion pass!!

    Lisa, I also find Hilton points can still offer good value. For example, I’m staying in downtown Minneapolis in a couple of months. With 5th night free, I can pay either 120,000 points or $1,000+ to stay at highly rated Doubletree or Hilton Garden Inn properties. That’s an effective value of 0.9 cents/point.

    • How could 1.7 cents toward any Southwest flight be better than 2.22 cents toward any flight including Southwest flights!? I don’t follow that at all.

      • MileValue – if you never change your plans, then the 2.22 cents option is clearly better.

        But, if you use the 2.22 cents cash equivalent to purchase a non-refundable fare, then your plans change, you have to pay a $200 change fee with most airlines. With Southwest, there are no change fees, but there are very strict rules about when and for who the travel funds can be reused. With Southwest points, you can cancel reservations, then reuse the points with much greater flexibility – no time limits, no restrictions on who can travel, etc.

        I frequently use Southwest points to lock in low sale fares (for myself and my family) for trips when our plans are subject to change.

  14. the chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card offers a bonus of 10K when you spend 25K. So you get 1.4 pts per dollar for the first 25K in a calendar year with a much lower annual fee.

    Club membership is not worth much to me, I have a bunch of club passes I have yet to use.

    • @Andrew – do you need someone to take those extra club passes off your hand? I’m happy to relieve you of the burden. 🙂

  15. Hrm. I’m torn between which card is best for me. I travel primarily United and care most about maintaining elite status. I use the Presidential Plus card because I get 1:1 points plus 1000 EQM per $5k spent, so the rewards on the card are more like 1:1.2. There’s also UA travel and hotel 1:2. And the EQM miles can be crucial in years where I don’t hit elite status on my own. It’s a permanent bank to ensure elite status.

    On the other hand, the biggest part of my spend is on dining and travel, which I can use Sapphire Preferred to get 2 points per $1. That’s easily half of my monthly spend. So on $5k in monthly spending, I’ll net 7.5k in points, or 1:1.5. Plus these miles have a high option value since they’re UR points and you get a 7% rebate.

    Am I missing something? I generally try to split my spend between these two cards and use Sapphire for all dining and travel and PP for everything else in order to earn EQM.

    Not to mention, I have both these cards in the dining rewards at 5x spend, so I average a free flight bonus just from that.

  16. So just to make sure I understand this (did use the Mile Value Calculator). A flight on United from DFW-IAH-SEA would be $234 Economy round trip and $40.60 taxes. This trip is 4196 miles and would cost 25000 United Miles to fly it. That (using the calculator) would give 0.66 cents per mile. So based on above that would mean that United Miles is better than Arrival ? If my understanding is correct, is this economy trip an anomaly ? Just wondering based on the information above about using Arrival for domestic economy what flights now would exceed that (therefore making Arrival better). Thanks for answering this Noob

    • Taxes are $10 on that award. You need to plug in the taxes on the award, not the listed taxes on a cash ticket. It is not an anomaly that Arrival miles are better for domestic economy than traditional miles. That’s something I’ve been trumpeting for a while now.

      • Scott, I guess that is what my question was, with my calculation there (albeit I screwed up the tax piece) is that telling me that at 0.66 cents per mile it would be better to use United Miles instead of Arrival or SPG etc ? I think the answer is yes but wanted to make sure I understood the logic.

  17. […] I plan to get the Arrival World MasterCard in the future because its 40,000 mile sign up bonus is worth $444 in free travel with no blackouts. Additionally, it’s one of the three best cards for everyday spending, since every purchase earns 2 Arrival miles per dollar, which is like getting 2.22% back toward travel on all purchases. This is why I named it one of the Three Cards Big Spenders Should Use. […]