Cash is king: 45 percent of Ultimate Rewards points redeemed by Chase-branded cardholders have gone toward cash back in 2023. That places cash back ahead of other rewards opportunities such as travel (30 percent of points redeemed) and gift cards. The sample includes the Sapphire, Freedom and Ink families of cards, and it lines up with a late 2022 Bankrate survey which identified cash back as Americans’ favorite credit card reward.

In the past 12 months, Chase cardholders have redeemed 429 billion Ultimate Rewards points worth more than $4 billion in cash back. Small business cardholders were significantly more likely to opt for cash back than consumer cardholders; 60 percent of points redeemed by Chase’s small business cardholders were exchanged for cash.

Travel rewards can be more lucrative, however

While I’m a big fan of cash back, I should point out that it’s not always the optimal use of points, especially on transferable points cards such as the Chase Sapphire ReserveⓇ, Chase Sapphire PreferredⓇ Card and Chase Ink Business PreferredⓇ Credit Card. These cards allow users to transfer their Chase points to 14 airline and hotel partners: Aer Lingus, Air Canada, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Emirates, Hyatt, Iberia, IHG, JetBlue, Marriott, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, United and Virgin Atlantic.

People who thoroughly understand the travel rewards game and have the flexibility to travel on the optimal dates can often extract maximum value from these transfer partners. On Chase cards, the standard ratio for cash back and gift card redemptions is 1 cent per point. But in some cases, you might be able to get a lot more bang for your buck by utilizing the transfer partners effectively.

A high-end example could involve something like an $8,000 international first-class airline ticket for 100,000 points (a whopping 8 cents per point). A more common example would be something like a $150 hotel stay for 5,000 points (3 cents per point).

How the Chase Trifecta works

On a related note, rewards lovers are fond of the “Chase Trifecta” because this can extend the value of their Ultimate Rewards points. This strategy involves combining three different Chase cards in such a way that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. This can include a cash back card, a travel card and a small business card, though some players opt for a second cash back card, instead of a small business card.

Take the Chase Freedom FlexSM* and the Chase Freedom UnlimitedⓇ*, for example. Those are traditionally viewed as cash back cards; they don’t allow transfers to airline or hotel partners. But if you pair one or both of them with the Sapphire Reserve, Sapphire Preferred or Ink Business Preferred, then you can pool your Ultimate Rewards points and transfer them to airlines and hotels, potentially earning much more value than the standard one cent per point for cash back or gift cards.

This is especially lucrative on certain types of spending such as the Freedom Flex’s 5 percent bonus categories that change every quarter (activation required, up to $1,500 in quarterly spending, then 1 percent cash back after that). If you earn 5 percent cash back (5 points per dollar) and transfer in such a way that every point is now worth 3 cents, then you receive an effective 15 percent return on every dollar you spent in that category.

How to make the holidays more rewarding

Chase says that point redemptions on gift cards nearly doubled from October 2022 (2.7 billion points) to November 2022 (5.3 billion). The bank attributes the change to cardholders preparing for the holiday season. Last November and December, Chase-branded cardholders scored almost $100 million in gift cards from close to 9.5 billion Ultimate Rewards points.

Cash back redemptions also increased last holiday season, jumping 23 percent from November 2022 to December 2022. Last December, cardholders collectively nabbed more than $400 million in cash from nearly 42 billion Ultimate Rewards points.

The bottom line

Different strokes for different folks, as they say. As long as you only spend money you would have spent anyway — and as long as you pay your credit card bills in full each month in order to avoid interest — then any rewards you earn represent free money.

When evaluating credit cards, consider what you want to get out of the card, how you spend your money and how much complexity you’re willing to take on. While cash back is Americans’ favorite credit card reward, in large part because it’s easy and universally appealing, travel redemptions can be more lucrative.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at ted.rossman@bankrate.com and I’d be happy to help.

*The information about the Chase Freedom FlexSM and the Chase Freedom Unlimited has been collected independently by Bankrate. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.