Finding the best card for travel upgrades


Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I recently started a business. I have investors who will pay for my expenses including travel and office supplies, and I can keep the credit card rewards from those expenses. What card would give me the most flexibility in obtaining airline or hotel upgrades? I would ideally pay for a regular flight or room, then use points to get a better seat or a bigger room. -- Sam

Answer Dear Sam,
That sounds like a good deal for you: Charge your new business's expenses, have them reimbursed, then use the reward points you earned on purchases to make your travel a little more comfortable.

For cards you might select, you have a lot of options. It might make sense to review your spending patterns or your budget to see what areas you spend the most on, then find a card that gives bonus points in those areas. If you spend the most on travel, find a card that gives extra points for travel. If it's office supplies, find a card that gives extra points for office supplies. That kind of thing.

By the way, this is solid advice for anybody, not just those starting a business: Examine where you spend the most money, then get the card or cards that reward spending in those categories.

In your case, Sam, let's focus on business cards. Now, you don't necessarily need to use a business card. You could use a personal card and take the reimbursements and points from that. But a business card might be cleaner from an accounting point of view, if you use it only for business expenses, because you won't have personal expenses commingled on the statements.

Because you say that room and flight upgrades are your main interest, we need to look at how you would obtain those using points. The answer is that you're going to need points or miles from the company that is providing the service -- the airline or hotel. So you'll need to be a member of the airline or hotel's loyalty program, since the airline or hotel is going to be the one controlling the inventory of seats or rooms -- and putting you in the more luxurious accommodations.

It would make sense on your part to try to pick one airline and one hotel chain to be your main focus so you don't dilute your points. Maybe pick the airline that has the most flights out of the closest airport to your home, and the hotel chain that has the most properties where you typically travel. Let's use, for example, Delta and Hilton.

For upgrades on Delta flights, you'll need Delta SkyMiles. You'll earn them from flying, but you can also earn them from charging. The American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles Business Card ($95 annual fee, waived first year) gives you two miles for every $1 spent on Delta, plus one mile for every other $1 spent, and it has perks such as a free checked bag and priority boarding.

But you might also consider the American Express Enhanced Business Gold Rewards Card ($175 annual fee, waived first year), which you can configure to offer three points per dollar on airfare, two points on a few other business categories and one point for everything else. The rewards are in the form of Membership Rewards points, which you can convert into Delta SkyMiles for those upgrades. Membership Rewards points can also convert to Hilton HHonors points for your hotel upgrades. So that's a single card that would give you flexibility for both.

This strategy works for a number of combinations. Find a card associated with the airline you fly. And also consider a card that lets you transfer points to that airline's program and perhaps to a hotel chain. For instance, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United, Southwest, Marriott and Hyatt. American Express Membership Rewards points transfer to Delta, JetBlue, Virgin America, Best Western, Hilton and Starwood Hotels (including Westins and Sheratons). Starwood points, in turn, transfer to American Airlines.

In addition, cards associated with hotel chains often come with frequent traveler status that gives you automatic upgrades.

Sam, I suggest you look into some of these networks and apply for a card or two that are well-suited to your spending and redeeming patterns.

And, of course, take into consideration any sign-up bonuses you would receive when you get a particular card. Those can get you well on your way to that bigger hotel room or to the front cabin of the plane.

See related: Adding a separate rewards card for business travel, For foreign travel, go for the chip, don't hold out for a PIN

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Published: April 21, 2015

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