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We cover a lot of credit cards on this site. That's because getting the most points and miles possible requires using a multitude of cards. The Chase Freedom always earns 5X points on some category, though the specific category changes quarterly, so maximizing points usually requires put those expenses on a Chase Freedom and not, for example, a Chase Freedom Unlimited that earns 1.5X points on all purchases.
But we get that you might prefer to carry just one card for the rest of your life and use the points for Disney travel. If you have to pick a single card for all your spending to earn the most for a Disney vacation, what should it be?
This Is An Individualized Matter
Picking the single right card based on your spending is going to be an individualized task at the end of the day. A simple way to see this is to compare the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Citi DoubleCash. The Citi DoubleCash is a no-fee 2% cash back card. The Chase Sapphire Reserve has an out-of-pocket $150 annual fee ($450 minus $300 travel credit) and earns 3X Chase Ultimate Rewards points on dining and travel and 1X points on everything else.
Those points have a minimum value of 1 cent each as a statement credit (this would be a horrible redemption, though), so effectively it is like getting a minimum of 3% back on dining and travel and 1% back on everything else. Choosing between those two cards, then, will largely come down to how much you spend on each category of dining, travel, and everything else.
What Does Your Family Spend?
Let's say you spend $10,000 annually on groceries, $3,000 annually on meals out, and $5,000 annually on travel. Here's what you'd earn across a selection of cards we like:
- 34,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points conservatively worth $360 (when you purchase travel through the Chase travel portal) after the out-of-pocket annual fee using the Chase Sapphire Reserve
- $360 cash back using the Citi Double Cash
- $395 cash back after the annual fee using the American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card
- 18,000 Starwood Starpoints conservatively worth about $360 but up to $800 for Disney World travelers using the SPG Amex personal card
- $261 Disney rewards dollars (after annual fee) using the Disney Premier Visa
So what we get is a mixed bag, unfortunately. If you tweak those numbers, you'll see changes. Shift from groceries to travel, for example, and the Sapphire Reserve (1X on groceries, 3X on travel) will earn more than the Blue Cash Preferred (6X on groceries, 1X on travel).
But what you spend is only half the equation, next up is how you use your points.
How Do You Use Your Points?
Cash back is always worth its face value. Similarly, if you spend enough on Disney anyways, Disney rewards dollars are worth face value. Points, though, have a wide range of values.
Many points, including Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for a statement credit at 1 cent each. If you never travel, then that's the most value you'll get out of points. Sometimes you'll see bonus offers to use points for 1.25 cents each for gift cards, sure, but you're not beating a 2% cash back card unless your spending falls neatly into the right categories.
Still, some points can be used for more than 1 cent each for travel. Citi ThankYou points (and Chase Ultimate Rewards points) are some examples of this. If you travel infrequently and need to use your points on specific trips, you'll usually get between 1.25 cents and 1.5 cents of value using your points this way.
But the best way to use points is to redeem them for travel through loyalty programs. For example, a flight from Chicago to Orlando that costs $150 can be paid for with 7,500 Chase Ultimate Rewards points when you transfer them to British Airways. That's 2 cents per point. If you use all your points that way, your Chase Sapphire Reserve would easily beat most cards due to its generous bonus categories.
If you have international travel, your savings can be even greater. We easily get 5 to 10 cents of value booking long-haul, premium cabin flights. One Disney-related example is when we flew Korean Air's A380 business class from New York to Shanghai (via Seoul) using points, getting 5.5 cents per point.
Should I Go With a 2% Cash Back Card?
Probably not. There are a few reasons 2% cash back cards don't get much attention in the blogs.
- They don't tend to have generous signup bonuses. Signup bonuses are the single best way to earn points because you're earning around 11X your spending, way better than 2% back.
- A return of 2% is pretty easy to beat with the right combination of cards. This post is about owning a single card, which is why a 2% cash back card is maybe more appealing.
- Points have value beyond cash redemption, as we covered above.
- Finally, cash back cards often don't have as generous perks as some other cards. You won't get lounge access, hotel/airline perks, as good trip insurance, special event invitations, or concierge services.
Unless your spending heavily tilts in favor of using a 2% cash back card, you lose way too many options by going with cash back rather than points.
How About Cards With Great Bonus Categories?
This is where things get interesting. Putting 2% to the side, you want to pick the card that best fits your spending. Here are some contenders:
- The Chase Freedom has 5% cash back on a new category every quarter
- The Amex Blue Cash and Blue Cash Preferred Earn 3% and 6% back on up to $6,000 of groceries annually
- The Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve earn 2X and 3X (respectively) on dining and travel
There are more options out there, but these are some notable ones. While we prefer points to cash back, the 5% and 3-6% returns of the Chase Freedom and Amex Blue Cash cards could be worth it if your spending falls heavily in the bonus categories, though you'll only know the Freedom categories about a month in advance. As we travel a lot, we still favor the Chase Sapphire cards.
What about the Disney cards?
We've fully reviewed the Disney Rewards Chase Visa card to give you a sense of whether you should get one or not. The Disney Visa has great perks, and you should review those perks as part of your analysis of the card.
But, regardless of which of the two Disney Visa cards you choose, they don't have a great rate of return (2% on some categories, 1% on most spending). And their return is in the form of Disney reward dollars and sometimes a travel credit. If you can make up that 1% using the perks, then the Disney cards might be good to consider.
Walt Disney World Travelers Have The Edge, Though
We brushed over this until now, but scroll back up and check out how much value our example family would get out of using the SPG Amex. We said up to $800 for Disney world travelers. That's more than double what the other cards we getting.
If you're a die hard Walt Disney World fan, you'll need to consider the American Express SPG card. Although we usually talk about this card for its signup bonus, the SPG Amex is widely considered one of the best cards for a travel hacker's wallet, mostly because of how powerful Starpoints are. For Disney travelers, the major perk is that the Starpoints you earn can be used to redeem stays at the Swan and Dolphin hotels, starting at 8,000 per night.
This is a steal on some nights. Here's an example where you'll spend 8,000 points per night for an average nightly rate of $343. That's over 4 cents per point. We've seen redeemable nights for the Dolphin reach over $400!
What's more, even if you ignore fluctuating nightly rates across hotels, you're still getting a great deal for an on-property Disney stay. For four night during Disney's Fun & Sun deal, for example, you'd have to spend roughly the following amounts on a 2% cash back card for five free nights at the corresponding hotels:
- Pop Century, $35,000
- Caribbean Beach, $58,000
- Beach Club, $125,000
Conversely, putting $40,000 on your SPG Amex will get you five free nights at the Dolphin. Of course, you can only redeem your Starpoints for the Swan and Dolphin, so you're sacrificing flexibility for a better rate of return.
Do You Have Other, Specific Goals?
Picking a card always comes down to what your end goal is. It's much easier to travel hack with a specific goal in mind. That's why we have posts like how to do Walt Disney World with points, how to do Aulani with points, and how to fly to Disneyland Paris with points.
In general, Aulani and international destinations are best reached with cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Preferred, which can be used to get massive amounts of flexible points in a short time.
The Bottom Line
What we're left with is still a mixed bag of results:
- If you're an infrequent traveler who favors Disneyland over Disney World, we'd hesitantly go with a cash back card that fits your spending.
- If it's even close, though, go with a card that earns flexible points, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred
- If you're more into Walt Disney World, you'll want to consider the SPG Amex as an alternative if you're willing to be locked into staying at the Swan and Dolphin.
If you're at all interested in international destinations or Aulani, the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve is probably the way to go.