How to Pounce on Best Credit Card Offers (Before Banks Pull Them)
While many of us weren’t paying attention, some credit card sign-up bonuses became so eye-poppingly large that the analysts at Bernstein Research wondered in November if the industry was afflicted with temporary insanity.
One particular bit of madness — a Chase offer that effectively puts $1,500 in your pocket without a lot of effort, if you are a relatively big spender — is close to ending, and many people have just a few more days to take advantage of it.
But the mere existence of four-figure bonuses on top of the points and perks that come with everyday spending raises a number of questions for consumers.
Even if you thought you had had enough of card-hopping to get the best deals, shouldn’t you at least grab those 15 100-dollar bills if you have the means? Or might the offers actually get better? And is it time to bet against the stocks of the maniac bankers who are tossing around offers like this?
CHASE, TODAY? First things first: That giant bonus comes from the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Here’s how it works (and don’t confuse it with the similarly named Preferred card): If the bank accepts your application, you have three months to spend $4,000. Once you do, Chase hands over 100,000 of its proprietary rewards points. Then you can trade them for $1,500 worth of travel, as long as you book your flights or rooms through Chase.
The card has a $450 annual fee, but it gives back $300 of it each year once you purchase at least that amount in travel. It also gives out a generous amount of points — three per dollar spent — on travel and dining. Plus, you can swap points for miles on many airlines if you want to take your chances with seat availability in those reward schemes. Other perks include access to some airport lounges and a rebate for fees you pay for TSA PreCheck, the expedited security screening, or Global Entry, which speeds international returns.
In cardland, any offer this lucrative tends not to last. This week, Chase said it would cut the 100,000-point bonus in half for anyone who applied online after Jan. 12 or in a branch (which isn’t possible for people in parts of the country where there are no Chase branches) after March 12. To be safe, the company suggests applying online by Jan. 11, before it flips the switch the next day.
Why the change of heart on a product Chase introduced last summer? The company always said the bonus was an introductory offer, and the bank’s generosity led to a $200 million to $300 million hit to its earnings. So the window on a good thing is partly closing.
So should you take advantage of it while you can? My wife and I both have done it and are glad we did. It has required some mental energy to channel the right amount of spending away from our current card and track the new bills so we don’t end up paying late. But there is nothing that focuses the mind quite like feeling that you are beating the system.
This feeling of superiority may be delusional, given the amount of research that suggests that we pay more when we put things on plastic than when we pay with cash. But I consider myself above average in this regard, as we all probably do.
Another big question: Does it make sense to stick with the Chase card, or ditch it after the bonuses clear? One useful exercise is to run your spending patterns (which your card company’s website ought to be able to divide into categories like dining, travel and groceries) through creditcardtuneup.com to compare the results with those of a number of leading rewards cards.
It’s a great tool, but the site’s operator has its own opinions about how much a Chase point is worth versus the Starwood points that I collect on my primary American Express card. Your mileage may vary if you, say, swap Chase or Starwood points for frequent-flier miles and then redeem them for $10,000 first-class plane tickets to a faraway country. Think about your goals for the next couple of years and evaluate accordingly.
In our household, we are reserving judgment. That is (in part) because Starwood is in the middle of being acquired by Marriott, which faces the challenging task of combining two loyalty programs without driving away big-spending frequent travelers. Sometime in the next year or so, we will find out what it is going to do.