Five Steps to Maximize Your Ultimate Rewards Balance

Chase has some of the best travel rewards cards available. That is partly for its partnerships with strong loyalty programs but also for its Ultimate Rewards program, which ranks, in my opinion, as the most valuable loyalty currency out there.

Ultimate Rewards earns this respect in two ways: First, points are easy to transfer and use with many high value loyalty programs like United, Hyatt, Southwest Airlines, Marriott, and British Airways’ Avios. Second, it is remarkably easy to accumulate Ultimate Rewards points and even combine them from multiple accounts, making high-cost redemptions easier to obtain. I’ve also before that various cards that earn Ultimate Rewards often make more sense than brand-specific cards like the MileagePlus Explorer or the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards cards.

Here are the five steps I use to earn the most Ultimate Rewards points. Since this is a currency that can only be earned with a credit card, not by flying or staying at hotels, you will need to apply for at least one of these cards if you haven’t already.

(1) Get the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

This credit card earns 2 points for every dollar spent on any kind of travel, including flights, hotels, rentals — even parking meters. You also earn 2 points per dollar on restaurants. Those two categories cover a good chunk of my annual spend, and I like that I don’t have to worry about one card for airlines or another for hotels.

You also get a bonus 7% dividend, so make that 2.14 points per dollar on travel and restaurants and 1.07 points per dollar on everything else. This is why I think the earnings rate is superior to the Explorer or Rapid Rewards cards, since they earn only 2 miles/points and only with their respective brands. You can always transfer Ultimate Rewards points to these programs instantly.

Ultimate Rewards Partners

Customer service is amazing, and I think all these benefits are well worth the $95 annual fee. Fortunately, the current offer waives the fee for the first year and also provides 40,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.

(2) Get the Chase Freedom® Visa

You have to wait at least a couple months between applications with Chase, but I think this is a good one to add to the rotation for three reasons. First, it has no annual fee, so it you can keep it for life and build a strong credit history. Second, it also earns Ultimate Rewards points, which are credited to the same account balance as your Sapphire Preferred. Third, there are quarterly promotions that allow you to earn up to 24,000 bonus points per year.

Freedom Bonus Categories

Chase just opened registration for the most recent bonus period, from July 1 to September 30, 2013. You’ll get 5 points per dollar instead of the usual 1 point per dollar on up to $1,500 in purchases at gas stations, theme parks, and Kohl’s. Past bonus categories have included grocery stores, theaters, and Amazon.com. These are things that don’t normally earn a bonus using the Sapphire Preferred (above) or Ink Bold/Ink Plus (below).

The current sign-up bonus for this card is 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $500 in the first 3 months. This is usually advertised as $100 because customers who only carry the Freedom card can only redeem their points for cash. Carrying both the Sapphire Preferred and the Freedom cards allows you to use points for more valuable travel redemptions.

(3) Get the Chase Ink Bold® Business Card and Ink Plus® Business Card

I combined these two because the cards are very similar, yet you are allowed to apply for both and get two bonuses. Ink Bold is a charge card, and Ink Plus is a credit card. You can usually apply for the other version at a later date with a plausible excuse. For example, I have an Ink Bold but plan to apply for the Ink Plus in order to get the added flexibility to pay off balances over time. And while generally you may not apply for two consumer or two business cards at once, you are allowed to apply for one consumer card and one business card on the same day.

Ink Bold and Ink Plus

The catch here is that not everyone has a small business. Fortunately, those who do have one don’t need to be very formal to qualify. When operating as a sole proprietorship, I have applied for multiple business cards by using the name of my business along and my Social Security Number. It’s common that you have to call the bank to answer some questions about your business and its income, but just tell the truth. I didn’t have much income on my first application, so they made me transfer some of my available credit from a consumer card to the new business card.

Once you have an Ink Bold or Ink Plus, you can earn 5 points per dollar at office supply stores, cellular phone service, landline, Internet, and cable TV (up to $50,000 per year or 250,000 points). You also earn 2 points per dollar at gas stations and hotels (up to $50,000 per year or 100,000 points). I’ve found Office Depot is an excellent source for a variety of gift cards I can use at other retailers.

Chase is offering 50,000 points when you open a new Ink Bold or Ink Plus card account and spend $5,000 in the first 3 months. There is a $95 annual fee, but the fee is waived for the first year.

(4) Shop at the Ultimate Rewards Mall

When you log into your Ultimate Rewards account online, you’ll have the option to use their links to shop at various merchants. I’ve found this to be a very easy way to earn extra points for things I would buy anyway. You also don’t have to use a Chase credit card to make the purchase — you just need an Ultimate Rewards-associated card in order to have access to the portal.

This creates some great opportunities to double dip on your purchases. For example, I can buy $200 Nordstrom gift cards at Office Depot with no activate fee and earn 5 points per dollar. I can then use those gift cards to make a purchase from Nordstrom.com through the Ultimate Rewards mall and earn another 6 points per dollar. That’s 11 points per dollar, and since I value my points at 2 cents each, it’s like getting a 22% discount! Use evreward.com to search by retailer to compare the offers from Ultimate Rewards to other shopping portals.

(5) Combine Points with Your Spouse

Finally, just as Ultimate Rewards points are easy to transfer to other loyalty programs almost instantly, you can also transfer points between yourself and a spouse. In the past people were transferring points to all manner of people, but some accounts got shut down — mine was among them (I still have an Ink Bold and Freedom, but I am now an authorized user on Megan’s Sapphire Preferred).

Buried in the fine print was a rule that only spouses could transfer points even if it was loosely enforced in the past. Maybe I’ll try transferring Megan’s remaining points to my account after we’re married. Though I don’t want anyone to get their accounts shut down like mine was, this transfer opportunity remains extremely valuable.

For example, I have Premier 1K status with United and Diamond status with Hyatt. It is far better for me to book airline and hotel awards than for Megan to do the same because my elite benefits and privileges (like upgrades and free changes) will apply. So she transferred her points to me, and then I booked the award. It will also let us pool points to get more expensive awards.

Conclusion

Now that know how many opportunities exist, I hope you’ll realize the tremendous value of a program like Ultimate Rewards. I’ve earned over 500,000 points in the past two years without trying very hard, and others have done much better. We used them to book trips to visit family as well as our own honeymoon.

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Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Ben L

    When you were shut down for transfers, were you/Megan transferring between UR accounts or between one UR account and one FF/hotel program? And (don’t answer if it’s too personal), do you two not live together? I can’t see how they could prove/disprove your not spouses without them asking for a marriage certificate (which at that point I’d tell ‘em to F off).

    • Scottrick

      The exact size, number, and individuals who were involved in the transfers was never really explained. I can say that Megan transferred points with other non-spouses, too, and escaped punishment. Most of my transfers were with Megan, but a not insignificant number were with friends and other family. There is some threshold, and I don’t know what it is. At the time, it wasn’t worth arguing because they let me keep the points, my annual fee was due, and the card closing was irreversible (an appeal would only have concerned the points). I was invited to reapply in the future.

  • vortix

    Question: how does Chase know whether you are transferring to a spouse or a non-spouse? My spouse has a different billing address and a different last name. Obviously we have our marriage certificate to prove spouse status, but I’m wondering if I should notify Chase in advance of our spousal status so they don’t red flag us in the future?

    • Scottrick

      I would guess it has something to do with the same last name, or the same address. If you are only transferring points with one person, you are probably okay. I had transfers with other people — and I obviously can’t be married to all of them ;)

      • http://travelwithgrant.com/ Grant

        Haha, maybe if you lived in Utah and you know…

  • UAPhil

    The Southwest card has one advantage over UR: Points earned (including signup bonus) count toward Companion Pass status.

  • neminem

    I just found this while originally looking for information about how to increase my limit on my Southwest card (which I have been using as a primary card). I would ask one question: my Southwest card may have a hundred dollar annual fee, but I justify that because it also gives me 6000 extra points a year, which is worth just slightly over a hundred dollars. The Sapphire Preferred card doesn’t give you any sort of annual bonus, does it? (Other than the 7%, which, I’d have to spend a *lot* to get 6,000 extra miles at .07% extra per dollar…)

    • Scottrick

      Correct. You would need to earn about 70K Ultimate Rewards points each year to compensate for the annual fee. But even if you don’t, part of what you’re paying for is access to a better rewards program.

      If you only ever fly Southwest Airlines, great! You don’t need to transfer your points to Avios, United, Hyatt, Marriott, or IHG Rewards. You don’t need to earn double miles when you book flights or hotels with other companies, including online travel agencies or directly with your favorite hotel.

      Furthermore, if you live alone, great! You don’t need to combine your points with your spouse. If you don’t like to shop online, great! You don’t need access to Ultimate Rewards Mall, one of the best online shopping portals.

      I think these extra benefits are worth the annual fee.

      • neminem

        I do fly almost exclusively Southwest (I mostly fly within the country, they fly almost everywhere I go, and I like them by far the most of all the major US airlines.) And while I’m not married yet, me and my fiancee basically share both a card and our miles already anyway, so that’s not a big draw. Earning double (actually slightly more than double) points on hotels and restaurants and having first-tier access to British Airways (one of my favorite international carriers on the rare occasion that I do go out of the country) did sound extremely promising, but I don’t think I’d earn enough additional points compared to currently to really be worth it.

        It does sound like I should at least apply for this card and then see if I can merge the two, though, regardless of which card I would end up keeping.

        • Scottrick

          Well at least you’ll get the bonus points and the first year’s fee is waived! Seriously though, it is my favorite card. Southwest has a great card but it does assume you only fly Southwest. I know some people for whom it makes more sense, but not many.

          • neminem

            Heh. I just came across this post cleaning up old bookmarks – we totally love the Sapphire card now. I ended up canceling my Southwest card and merging the credit limit from that one over to the Sapphire. We don’t earn 70k points a year, but we decided it was worth it anyway, with all the added benefits of the Sapphire (like getting an extra 20% off flights and eligible hotels when booked with points, plus the fact that the card itself just looks fancy as frack.)

            We don’t really use points at any of the major hotel chains, but they have a *fairly* decent selection of smaller and non-chain hotels in their direct purchase-with-points program. We just got back from a major vacation, and while I wasn’t able to find good hotels everywhere, we did stay at a pretty nice hotel in Venice and one in Zurich using points (which we got 20% off of :)).

  • MMG

    The name and billing address probably don’t matter. After all, if you think about, you might have the same last name and billing address as your sister. The marriage certificate would be useless too since they are ok with domestic spouses. Being a banking institution they are probably seeing whether you have accounts under both names, retired accounts where the other person is the beneficiary, etc.

    In any case, how do you combine the points? If only see my own accounts in the combines points section (even of cards that link to joint accounts).

    • Scottrick

      Married individuals might also have different last names and billing addresses if they live apart, and are not required to have joint accounts or list each other as beneficiaries. It’s not obvious how Chase is enforcing this rule.

      Back when I transferred points to my then-fiancee, it was as simple as typing in her name and account number. I don’t know if the process has changed.

  • newbie

    are you sure paying for items purchased at ulitimate rewards mall with gift cards earns the bonus points? the FAQs say you need to pay for the mall purchase with the chase credit card to earn the bonus points