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The 2 Churning Reward Options: 
Cash Back vs Travel Rewards

cash back vs travel rewards featured

Credit card churning can be a rewarding venture if you are willing to put in the efforts of maintaining a portfolio of plastic.  Everything in the churning game is a moving target and often you will find that the margin between a successful card event and a bust can be attributed to timing.

Unpacking Cash Back vs Travel Rewards

Regardless if you are churning for travel points or for cash back, the goal is to maximize your rewards.  Properly timing your moves is the key to making the most out of your experience.  You’ve got the high credit score and you’ve got the room to absorb a few dings against that score from hard pulls, but there are plenty of other timing choices that can impact your ability to rack up all those multiplier points and sign-on bonuses.

Most of the premium card issuers have instituted limitations on how many cards you can possess or apply for within a specified time period.  Become intensely familiar with these various rules and stay abreast of any changes made to the system.  Knowing when to apply and when to wait can mean the difference between an approval, denial or worse, a shutdown of existing cards.

You may be eager and able to jump in and get started, but sometimes waiting is the intelligent move.  You can’t simply apply for all the cards and expect to be approved.  If the calendar brings you close to clearing one of the premium issuer’s limitations, stand your ground and wait.  Applying for lesser cards may give you that instant gratification but cost you the big fish because you crossed another threshold limit.  Timing your cards is critically important to successfully churning.

When you begin churning credit cards, one of the biggest targets in your sights will be Chase.  There are plenty of premium issuers you will be applying for, but the big fish in the room is JP Morgan Chase.  Robust sign-on bonuses, rich points and cash back offers and a wide menu of available cards means you will likely be centering your churning around a rotating portfolio of Chase credit cards.

This veritable smorgasbord of credit card bonuses comes with plenty of strings.  Chase knows we’re out here salivating at their offers, so they have some of the more restrictive rules in the business.  Learn them, know them, obey them.  Aside from failing to get a card, Chase can also issue a “shutdown” of all your existing Chase cards.

The 5/24 rule is amorphous and opaque, but it is a very real obstacle you must navigate while applying for credit cards.  When applying for most Chase cards, the bank will investigate your existing credit card portfolio.  If you have opened up five new cards with any issuer in the last two years, your latest Chase card application will be denied.  Through experience, people find that some cards are exempt, but Chase does not issue any hard and fast rules on the 5/24 rule so be wary when approaching that limitation.

The Sapphire cards are premium targets for any credit card holder, especially for churners as the Sapphire line offers significant bonus points and multiplier earnings.  However, you can’t have more than one Sapphire card.  There have been reports of workarounds that result in two Sapphire property cards, but there have also been just as many reports of violations leading to denials and shutdowns.

The Chase shutdown is the bane of your credit card churning existence.  You’ll receive notification that all your Chase and affiliated cards have been closed and that you have 30 days to use or lose any accumulated points that remain after an investigation into program misuse determines that you still even have any points remaining.  Yes, it can be devastating to lose all your biggest earners in one fell swoop, be sure to stay on Chase’s good side even if that means being a little conservative in the face of seemingly unlimited earning potential.

Here are the five credit cards you must have in your wallet if you are pursuing travel rewards:

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Signing up for the Chase “Sapphire Reserve” currently gives you a plump 50,000 points on a three-month, $4000 purchase term.  Long haul, you get 3x points on travel and dining.  These Ultimate Rewards points each count as one and a half cents toward redemptions.  Sapphire Reserve gives you a $300/year statement credit against any travel expenses.  $300 free travel every year, that’s reason enough right there, but in addition, they’ll also reimburse you up to $100 against your fees for “Global Entry” or “TSA Pre-Check”.

Chase has a broad and generous definition of travel and dining.  You can gain points on nearly any travel accommodations from booking flights and hotels down to the bridge tolls and parking garages.  Purchasing a meal just about anywhere counts too; diners, bars, five star establishments and even vending machines.  Interesting to note, we found that meal subscriptions like “Blue Apron” and “Hello Fresh” do not count as dining but paying meal delivery services like “GrubHub” does.

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select

If you’re traveling American Airlines, the card perks are a welcome addition to the mileage earning potential in this Citi “AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite” card.

Sign up bonuses vary by season but they are always generous in initially granted miles, current offers are 70,000 miles for business cards and 60,000 miles for personal cards, all for spending $1000/month for the first three months.  The first year of issue there is no annual fee, but does go up to an annual $99 fee after the introductory year.

The American Airlines bonuses are worth the card fee if you fly domestically, especially if you’re a regular traveler.  You and up to four traveling companions get preferential boarding on flights, each of you gets a free checked bag, and 25% off of in-flight food and beverages.

You earn double mileage on American Airline flights, gas stations, and restaurants.  All other purchases earn you one AAdvantage mile on the dollar.  Every year you renew your card, you get a $125 discount on any American Airlines flight.

All of this adds up to a robust travel card.  The American Airline perks and double points earnings make this a must-have card for the regular passenger.

US Bank Altitude Reserve

As a member of US Bank you’ll want to open up a US Bank “Altitude Reserve” card.  Spend $4500 in three months and you get the 50,000 enrollment mileage.  The earning potential for this card is strong with triple points on travel purchases in addition to triple points for any purchase made with approved mobile wallet apps like Apple-Pay, Google-Pay and others.

You signed up for a travel card, but you’re getting some excellent cash-back rewards.  $100 back on your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fees and up to $325 annually on general travel expenses so it’s like getting paid to travel!  And while traveling this card offers plenty of top tier perks like priority boarding, complementary in-flight wifi, terminal lounge access, and other VIP benefits such as 15% discount and a one time $30 credit toward chauffeured BlackCar service or %30 discount on SilverCar rentals.

American Express Personal Platinum

Apply for the American Express “Personal Platinum” card and you’ll be earning 5x points on travel reservations.  Flights made through the airlines or through American Express Travel and hotels booked at the American Express online travel site.  Other purchases add up at a standard one for one Membership Reward Point/dollar.

The sign on bonus is a whopping 70,000 points after spending $5000 in three months, already establishing a growing bank of points to spend on travel.  You’ll receive a $200 credit against any charges made with an airline of your choosing so you’re not stuck traveling with an airline simply because it’s part of the program, you get to choose your own.

You get your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fees credited back on the card and access to a variety of cushy airport lounges.  Once you arrive in a new city, you’ll need to call in you Uber.  Every month, the AmEx Personal Platinum credits $15 against Uber rides, $20 in December, and who couldn’t use $200 in free Uber rides?

CNB Crystal Visa

The City National Bank “Crystal Visa” card offers you 50000 points for signing up and spending $5000 in three months.  You get three points for every dollar spent on travel and food such as airlines, hotels, taxi, Uber, rentals, gasoline, groceries, restaurants and even fast food.  Other purchases earn one point per dollar.

A $250 credit can be earned annually for airline fees such as baggage and other incidentals and $550 annually for airline lounge fees.  Free in flight wifi, priority boarding, and access to airport lounges make this card a relaxing way to travel.

This card grants you access to the “Broadway League”.  You get access to select seats not available to the general public for large New York City shows as well as national touring productions.  Elite meet-and-greet opportunities and invitation-only events are available as a Crystal Visa card holder.

Here are the five credit cards you must have in your wallet if you are pursuing cash back rewards:

Chase Freedom Unlimited

Reach out and get that Chase card first.  The
Chase Freedom Unlimited” is one of the elite premium credit cards and you’ll want it at the top of your cash-back earning stable.

New cardholders earn 3% cash back on everything they purchase in the first year up to $20,000 but with no minimum to reach before you begin earning those bonus points.  Day one, purchase a pack of gum and you’re earning 3%.  The APR for that first year (and then an additional quarter for a total of 15 months) is 0%.  On top of all this financial good news is that this premium card has no annual fee.

Once your introductory year passes, you’ll still be earning 1.5% on all your purchases.  As a cash-back card, the Chase Freedom Unlimited a heavy earner.  Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points count as one and a half cents each and they never expire.  When it’s time to redeem your rewards, there is no pesky minimum point spending threshold or hoops to jump through.  You spend your points as you see fit without the hassle of having to micromanage your point rewards account.

Capital One Spark

Business cards routinely offer cash back as an enticement for membership.  The Capital One Spark Business series is a solid preforming card that is fairly straight forward and easy to manage.  The “Spark Cash” business card is an unlimited 2% cash back card with a sign-on bonus of $500 cash back after spending $4500 in three months.  The introductory year has no annual fee but year two and onward it’s a $95 annual fee.

Employee cards are free, and an excellent way to earn those points.  Issue these cards out to your employees and every purchase they make, you’re earning 2% cash back on their purchases.  With the unlimited earning potential, if you’ve got a small business spending money, you’ll be earning 2% back across the board and that adds up quickly.

The Spark Cash card is the premium cash-back business card available from Capital One.  The Spark Cash Select is the little brother card earning 1.5% unlimited but with a nine month 0% APR.

Discover it Cash Back

If you have flexibility on where and when you make your credit card purchases, the “Discover it Cash Back” card can really rack up some cash-back rewards with minimal research.

The card appears to be a solid mid-range earner with no annual fee, 0% APR for 14 months and unlimited 1% cash-back on all purchases.  At the end of the first year, they match the entirety of your cash-back.  All of this makes for a really good card but does it belong in the top echelon of churning cards?  Yes it does when you factor in the 5% cash-back calendar.

Activate your 5% earnings every quarter with new purchase options.  January to March you earn 5% on $1500 purchases at grocery stores.  April to June, it’s gasoline and ride sharing.  July and September gives you restaurants, and that’s easy enough to spend $1500 but in case you’re not a big “dining out” person, that quarter also includes all your PayPal purchases!  And just in time for the shopping season, October to December the bonus is on Target, and

Max out the quarterly options and that’s an annual addition $300 cash-back on things you were already going to purchase anyway.

Bank of America Cash Rewards

Here’s your card if you make very specific purchases every quarter and need a card that can be shaped to fit your purchase profile.

The Bank of America “Cash Rewards” card lets you choose which category of vendor you want to earn 3% cash back from. The categories span the gamut from daily purchases like gasoline and dining, occasional purchases like travel or home improvement, reoccurring expenses like drug stores, and if you don’t fit any of those categories you can choose online shopping where you’ll be earning your 3% on many online retailers.  Grocery stores aren’t a category because you automatically get 2% cash back on them and 1% on all other purchases.

Signing up gives you $200 cash back bonus with a low minimum of $1000 spent in 90 days, no annual fee and a one year 0& APR.

Wells Fargo Business Platinum

When you sign up for the Wells Fargo “Business Platinum” card you have the option of selecting 50,000 bonus points or the $500 cash-back bonus.  If you’re churning for cash-back, it’s obvious you’ll be selecting the $500 sign-up bonus.

The card earns unlimited 1.5% cash-back on every purchase.  No worries about which card earns on which purchase, this card earns on every dollar you spend no matter where you spend it.

With no annual fee, free employee cards and an introductory nine month 0% APR, this is a good card for small business owners looking to maximize their cash back rewards.

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