If you can have only one credit card, which one should it be?

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For points and miles addicts like us, posing a question like this is not only highly speculative, but nearly impossible. But let’s give this a shot: if you can have only ONE credit card, which one should it be?

It Depends On Your Goals

This first step to whittling down the huge assortment of cards is to honestly assess your own travel goals. Don’t think about upcoming trips, but the trips you want to take in the future. This will be the foundation for the ONE credit card you should pick.

Do you like long-haul travel in premium cabins? More focused on visiting family and friends domestically? Maybe your company pays for your airfare and you value hotel accommodations more highly than free (or really cheap) flights. Or, maybe you like to take cruises or trains to travel. These are all things to consider. How do you like to travel?

Long-term benefits

Some cards have great signup bonuses, but terrible ongoing benefits. This is another factor to consider in the quest to choose just one card. I’d throw out any card that doesn’t give some kind of ongoing value. The Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®, for example, gives a 10% rebate on redeemed miles each year, up to 10,000 miles. 10,000 AAdvantage miles is worth ~$200 – well worth keeping the card for despite its $85 annual fee. The Chase Hyatt card gives cardmembers a free anniversary night in a Category 1-4 hotel. Similarly, the Chase Priority Club Visa offers a free night annually at any IHG hotel. Considering the annual fee is only $49 a year, keeping this card would be a no-brainer. 

Points currencies

There are three basic types of points currencies: some cards generate miles in one program while others offer points that transfer to a variety of programs. Still others feature fixed-value points: you’ll get the exact same redemption rate every time. This can be beneficial because you’ll know what to expect every time. Points or miles that are part of an airline or hotel program can devalue at any time, so storing them isn’t a good long-term strategy. Mileage accounts should be filled up for specific redemptions, then emptied (earn ‘n’ burn) – not treated as a savings account.

You should consider which points currency you’d like to accrue. Are you super loyal to one program? Prefer flexibility? Or maybe you just want to know exactly what you’re getting every single time. This question is right in line with considering travel goals. Which one points or miles currency will fit your travel goals the best?

Break It Down Even More

If your goal is domestic travel, any of the points currencies could be ideal. In this case, you’d have to get more specific. Do you prefer premium cabins? Typically fly trans-cons? Or do you like short hops in economy?

If you want to travel internationally, would you rather accrue redeemable, status-earning miles or fly for free? Will you have one or two destinations, or many? Are hotels abroad a necessity, or do you like to stay with friends, at hostels, or rent a place from locals?

Other things to consider are typical costs. Are your flights right around the $200-dollar mark, or more? How much travel is normal? Really think on it. After all, you can only have one card!

Putting It All Together

Once you assess your travel goals and what type of points currency you’d like to earn, then you can start to consider specific cards to be the ONE.

Here’s how I’d consider it:

Program points = expensive domestic flights, cheap(er) international flights, hotel nights

Transferable points = domestic flights, premium cabin international flights, hotel nights, other travel

Fixed-value points = cheap domestic flights, hotel nights, other travel expenses

If you’re loyal to one program, that’s easy. Get that program’s credit card. Consider, though, if the program has a transfer partner. For example, instead of getting the United Explorer card, go for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which transfers directly into United’s MileagePlus program. There’s another “unless.” UNLESS you want the United Explorer card to waive baggage fees and to get priority boarding. Again, it’s all about what YOU prioritize.

Here are my top picks:

For program miles:

Hotels:

  • Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature® Card
  • Hilton Honors™ Surpass® Card from American Express
  • Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express
  • Chase Hyatt Credit Card

Airlines:

  • Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®
  • United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
  • Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Transferable points:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (transfers to United, Korean, Southwest, British Airways, others)
  • American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card (transfers to Delta, Aeroplan, British Airways, Hawaiian, ANA, others)
  • Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express (transfers to 30+ airlines – including all US legacy airlines)

Fixed-value points:

  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite MasterCard® (the best for inexpensive or domestic travel)

Bottom line:

If you’re really into flexible travel that comes with a variety of options, transferable points are the way to go. UNLESS you only travel lightly or domestically and are not loyal to one particular airline, then get the Barclay Arrivalcard, for sure. But if you are into one program, get that program’s card.

For transferable points cards, it’s a tie between the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card, and the American Express Starwood card. In this scenario, though, we can only pick ONE – so I’d pick the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. Why? It’s globally accepted more than Amex is, has no FOREX fees, and gives access to Star Alliance award bookings through United. Although the other two certainly have their place, even with their FOREX fees. Still, we can only pick one, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred is it!

The “ones”:

  • Program card if you love certain program points or miles
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite MasterCard® for fixed-value points
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred for transferable points

Which ONE would you pick? 

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About Harlan

Just a dude living in Dallas.

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Editorial Note: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post. The opinions of the commenters are not necessarily the opinions of this site.

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