I’m on the record as one who prefers cash-back credit cards over travel cards. Their simplicity and flexibility are perfect for my “lazy optimizer” ethos. And I know cash-back cards are the best option for the majority of Americans. But a month ago, I broke my own rule and signed up for a travel card, the new Chase Sapphire Reserve®.
Why did I break from my own advice?
For one, the Chase Sapphire Reserve®’s offer was too good to pass up. Secondly, I’m planning to travel next spring and summer, and it turns out that the best time to sign up for a travel card given my timeline is now.
How I rationalized a card with an annual fee of $450
The Chase Sapphire Reserve® launched in August 2016, and it’s one of the most talked about cards on the market, thanks in large part to its eye-popping sign-up bonus, generous rewards rate and slew of outstanding perks.
Of course, you’ll pay an annual fee of $450 to carry it — but for me, the math just made sense.
Here’s how I justified it to my wife:
1. Its travel credit of $300 per year effectively brings that annual fee down to $150 per year, as long as you use it. I’ve already used my 2016 benefit, and I have plenty of travel plans after the new year for my 2017 benefit.
Pro tip: The travel credit resets with the calendar year, not on your anniversary of holding the card. That means if you’re considering applying for the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, I’d recommend you do so quickly; you want to get the card soon enough to give you time to use the 2016 travel credit. If that deadline won’t work for you, I’d wait a few months into the new year before applying, so your first 12 months as a cardholder spans both 2017 and 2018 and you can use the travel credit in each year.
2. The card offers a rich sign-up bonus. When the Chase Sapphire Reserve® launched, it offered a sign-up bonus of 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points, worth 1.5 cents apiece when redeemed for travel booked through Chase. I’m happy to use the Ultimate Rewards booking portal, which feels very much like a Kayak or Expedia experience, so I was getting $1,500 in value upfront for an effective annual fee of $150 (after the $300-per-year travel credit) — or a 10x return. Another way to look at it: The sign-up bonus covered the first 10 years of holding the card, when you think of the annual fee as $150. (Chase has since reduced the bonus on the Chase Sapphire Reserve®. The current bonus: Earn 50K bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards® .)
3. It’s the ongoing rewards rates that sealed the deal for me. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers 3 points per dollar spent on travel and dining and 1 point everywhere else. But each of those points is worth 1.5 cents at the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, so the effective rewards rates are 4.5% back on travel and dining and 1.5% back everywhere else. The 1.5%-back base rewards rate puts this card in the same league as some of the best cash-back cards on the market, and no card comes close to matching 4.5% back on travel and dining.
4. The card’s additional perks have clear use cases for our little family. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® reimburses you up to $100 every four years to cover the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. My wife has long coveted my TSA PreCheck status, which I got via The Platinum Card® from American Express a few years ago, and now she can get it for free. The card also grants you Priority Pass Select access to hundreds of VIP airport lounges worldwide. We have at least three trips planned for next year, so we’ll make good use of that benefit. (Tip for parents: Lounges make travel significantly more comfortable for everyone.)
5. Oh, and it’s made out of metal, which is just cool.
I recognize the card isn’t for everyone. The annual fee of $450 is too much for many Americans’ budgets, regardless of long-term value. Plus, the card requires a credit score over 720, and many credit card enthusiasts may have disqualified themselves by signing up for too many cards in the past two years (thanks to Chase’s “5/24 rule”).
But if you have the credit, can afford the bill at the end of the first month, and know you’ll spend at least $300 on travel this year, I’d recommend you apply. The math is firmly in your favor for the first year. But examine your spending and decide for yourself whether it’s the right fit.
To fund 2017 travel with a sign-up bonus, sign up now
An important part of the value of the Chase Sapphire Reserve® for me was the fact that I had a clear path to using the points. I already had travel plans for both 2016 and 2017, so I knew I’d use the $300 annual travel credit. And I knew I’d be able to use the sign-up bonus toward next year’s travel, as well.
In fact, if you’re considering travel in 2017 and would like a new credit card’s sign-up bonus to help you get there, it turns out that now is actually the best time of year to pick a new card. A NerdWallet study found that credit card issuers follow a predictable pattern of increasing their sign-up bonuses for travel cards in November.
Another reason to consider getting a card sooner than later? You need a head start to accrue your points and use them in time for future travel. NerdWallet’s study recommends giving yourself at least a five-month lead: a couple of weeks to receive the card, three months to earn and receive the sign-up bonus, and a month or two to book the travel far enough in advance to get a good price.
Tip for last-minute travel: If you have enough time to sign up for a card but not enough to wait three months to earn the sign-up bonus, travel cards that provide statement credit on existing purchases — like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card — can help. Those cards let you erase existing travel purchases with points as you earn them, and you can use their sign-up bonuses retroactively.
When to break your own rules
Rules of thumb for finance, and for life in general, are helpful because they simplify regular decisions. I generally recommend cash-back cards, but I found a travel card that will meet my needs for 2017, so I applied.
Remember that personal finance is personal. What matters is taking the time to think through your options and finding the best one for you.
Sean McQuay is a credit and banking expert at NerdWallet. A former strategist with Visa, McQuay now helps consumers use their credit cards and banking products more effectively. If you have a question, shoot him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The answer might show up in a future column.