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Sometimes it’s difficult to decide whether or not you want to earn points with multiple reward programs or just stick to earning points with one primary program with your spending. On the one hand, you want to build up a big balance to have enough points to actually be able to use them on a redemption but on the other hand you want to have the flexibility that comes with having point balances in multiple reward programs. If you’re still trying to figure out this issue, here are some things to consider.
Different reward programs
In this article, I’m referring to the major reward programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Points. All of these programs allow you to earn points that can be transferred to different travel partners, including airlines and hotels. They also all offer multiple cards with bonus earning potential that span different categories, making it somewhat difficult to decide which card you want to put your spend on.
Spending vs sign-up bonuses
Note that this article is focusing on earning points with different reward programs with spending. This is different from the question about earning points with sign-up bonuses from multiple programs. Earning points with sign-up bonuses for multiple programs is usually a good idea because you’ll be pulling in chunks of 40,000 to 100,000 points at a time.
However, the issue of whether or not you should split up your spending on different programs is more difficult because the earnings are usually far less and the risk for leaving points stranded is much higher.
The advantage to splitting up your spending between programs is that you can be offered better flexibility when it comes to award bookings. This is especially true if you’re planning on booking with partners that allow you to book one way awards. Sometimes it can be difficult finding round trip availability with one airline but if you have the option to transfer points to different partners for each leg of your trip then you might find it easier to complete your booking.
The number one goal when doing this is to avoid having points stranded, so you’ll always be working to avoid that outcome. That can be hard to do if you have no idea what your mileage requirements will be for your future redemptions. For that reason, I’ll show you a few mileage requirements for different redemptions so you can get an idea as to how many miles can be required for different trips.
- If you’re interested in booking economy redemptions to get around the US, 25,000 miles is typically what’s needed for a domestic round trip.
- If you’re wanting to head to Europe it would typically be around 35,000 to 50,000 for an economy round trip and something like 90,000 to 140,000 for a business class round trip ticket.
- If you’re wanting to head to Japan it would typically be around 50,000 to 70,000 for an economy round trip and something like 80,000 to 140,000 for a business class round trip ticket.
So with that in mind, you can quickly get a sense of how much spend you’d need to put on a credit card to have enough miles to actually get somewhere. Let’s say you put $30,000 a year on a card. And 1/3 of that is on 3X bonus spend, another 1/3 is on 2X bonus spend, and the final 1/3 is on 1X. You’re looking at earning 60,000 points. So you’d be able to snag two round trips around the U.S. or a round trip in economy to Europe. Not bad.
However, if you had split that spend up in order to earn points with Chase, Amex, and Citi, you might be looking at something closer to 20,000 points in each program, which could potentially prove to be useless since you might have thousands of points stranded.
Therefore, I recommend most people to stick to one program unless one or more of the following apply to them. (Some of these are just common sense but are still worth mentioning for my beginners out there.)
This one is easy. Obviously if you are going for a sign-up bonus on another card then it’s worth it to ditch your spending on a single award program because you’ll be earning substantially more value from the bonus and more than likely be able to put that to use.
Same airline; multiple transfer programs
Some partners like Flying Blue and Singapore Airlines are partners to all of the major reward programs like Chase, Amex, Citi, and even SPG. If you are eyeing awards with these airlines (and are pretty set on them), then it absolutely makes sense to spread your spend out across several credit cards in order to maximize the bonus categories.
For example, you might put dining and travel on the Chase Sapphire Reserve (3x), gas and entertainment on the Citi Premier (3X and 2x), and supermarket purchases on the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card (2x), and every thing else on the Chase Freedom Unlimited (1.5x). This would be a way to maximize your bonus category earning potential while still working effeciently to obtain a goal, since all points could be transferred to the same airline.
Capping off awards
Another time you’d obviously want to forgo earning potential with your primary rewards program is when you need to cap off earnings for a different program. Either you already have a bonus met or you’re planning on having a bonus met. In either case, you know you need X amount of points and so there’s no risk that you’ll have points stranded.
If you’re a high spender then you might be able to afford to split up your spending. Obviously, you’d still want to monitor where you’re racking up your points and it would help if you had an idea on what redemptions you were working for, but you would stand less of a chance of having points stranded when you’re spending a lot.
I’ve had people email me who spend like $50,000 plus each month on small businesses and I think in instances like that it’s not a bad idea to build up points in different award programs so that you have maximum flexibility when you’re ready to book your trip. Of course, if you’re trying to book multiple premium cabin award seats, even spending a ton won’t necessarily guarantee that points won’t be stranded, so it’s still a good idea to have a plan.
Frequent bonus earner
If you frequently are obtaining bonuses in multiple programs then it might be advantageous to split up your spending between those programs. For example, let’s say you’ve earned a few Chase Ultimate Reward bonuses so you’re sitting at 150,000 Ultimate Rewards and you just hit a couple of American Express bonuses so you’ve got around 80,000 Membership Rewards.
Maybe you still don’t know where you want to travel and how you want to use your points but you just want to keep building up those balances. In that case, you’re essentially like the high spender the only difference is that you’ve racked up a lot of miles with sign-up bonuses. Since you have such high balances in either program it’s unlikely any of those points will end up stranded and it might work out to spread your spending between those programs.
This is my preferred method for splitting and I like to just focus on my two top programs: Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards.
Economy versus business
This is another common sense application here but it deserves to be mentioned. If you’re okay with flying economy it’s going to be a lot easier to rack up enough miles and points to obtain enough for those redemptions. Therefore, splitting up your spend can sometimes be more practical.
However, if you’re interested in booking business or first class then I recommend trying your best to focus on one program. If you’re going to split up your spending, then try to have a clear plan as to how your points earned from bonus spending will fit in with your points earned from sign-up bonuses. It takes a lot of spend to earn enough for business class and first class award tickets, and so it’s a lot easier to have points stranded if you don’t have at least a rough outline of a plan. If you’re not careful, you might end up being forced to use miles on economy just to put them to use.
Overall, splitting up spending between reward programs can be a strategic way to go about earning miles and points. It really helps if you have an idea as to how you’re going to use those points, however, since you don’t ever want to leave points stranded. Still, if you’re earning enough points in different programs via spend or sign-up bonuses, your chances of leaving points stranded will start to go down and sometimes it can make sense to maximize bonus earning potential for multiple reward programs.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.