What Is in Your Wallet?
And Why Is It in There?
THURSDAY, MARCH 18, 2021 -- No matter what they advertise, claim or promise, the airlines really don't think people should be flying right now.

Know how I know? They won't fly right now.

The airline powers that be--the poohbahs of IATA, the industry global trade group--originally planned to hold their annual meeting in late June in Boston. But that idea didn't, um, fly. IATA announced this week that the conclave won't be held until October 3-5.

So if the guys who control the planes won't get on them to fly to Beantown three months hence, why should you climb on an aircraft now?

Yes, I know. There are deals to do, places to see, people to meet and all the excuses, good or otherwise, we use to justify flying. And as we reach a tipping point--more travelers flew yesterday than on March 17 last year, the first time that 2021 daily volume was higher than in 2020--we can assume people are itching to hit the road. Even though yesterday's volume (1,140,624) was still only around half of 2019 volume, the trend lines are all up. Twelve of the first 17 days of March have registered more than one million travelers. And five million more folks flew the first 17 days of this month than flew during the first 17 days in February.

Still, I hope you slow down if you can. Only 12% of the nation is fully vaccinated, which means nearly 90% of the people you're likely to share airport and aircraft with are a risk. Cool your jets--literally and figuratively--if you can.

Besides, there really is something you should do before you hit the road again. Well, honestly, there are many things, but I only have room for one this week: A card critique.

What is in your wallet now? Why is it there? And what cards should you be using--and acquiring--right now. Let me run you through some of the best current options.

I treat credit cards the same way as I treat airlines and hotels: They are tools. I have no loyalty to them because they have no loyalty to me. I use them when I need them and move on.

Which brings me to two cards being pumped by Bank of America: the Air France KLM World Elite Mastercard and the Sonesta Hotels World Mastercard.

The Air France/KLM card is worth getting just for its acquisition bonus: 50,000 Flying Blue points for $2,000 in spend within 90 days. Even better: the $89 annual fee is offset with a $100 statement credit for the $2,000 spend. The Air France KLM Flying Blue program is useful for a raft of reasons: While it charges co-pays of as much as $300 one-way on international business class tickets, you can often find forward-cabin seat to Europe for as little as 55,000 points one-way. That's notably cheaper than doing business with Delta's rapacious SkyMiles program. In fact, you can sometimes find business class seats on Delta using Flying Blue for half the number of miles that SkyMiles itself charges. Moreover, you can move both American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards points into Flying Blue on a 1:1 basis.

The Sonesta World Mastercard is a leap of faith. The acquisition bonus of 60,000 points only requires $1,000 in spend in 90 days. There's a bonus of 30,000 more points if you spend $7,500 during the first year. The annual fee is just $75 and it's waived the first year. Is the Sonesta Travel Pass worth playing? I dunno. That is where the act of faith comes in. The chain has jumped from fewer than 100 hotels at the beginning of last year to more than 300 thanks to a raft of reflaggings from Marriott, InterContinental and (soon) Hyatt. And today Sonesta completed the purchase of Red Lion and allied hotel brands. Out of nowhere, that'll bring the chain to more than 1,000 properties by the end of this year. It seems worth the risk, especially if your $1,000 in spend is doing nothing else.

American Express has been on a rampage in recent weeks, upping the acquisition bonuses and perks for cards aligned with several travel partners (Delta, Hilton, Marriott) and their own cards.

Now that we are traveling again, the $550 annual fee for the American Express Platinum Card looks justified. Airport clubs have reopened--and Amex Platinum offers free entry to Priority Pass locations and Amex's own Centurion Lounges--plus there is Platinum's five points per dollar earning for airline purchases. The card is larded with mid-level elite hotel status (Gold in Hilton and Marriott); car rental status (National Executive Emerald Aisle, for example); a $200 annual statement credit for one airline's incidental charges; an Uber bonus ($15 a month) and a recently announced mobile phone protection plan. The current acquisition bonus is sweet (75,000 points for $5,000 in spend in the first six months) as is another Amex come-on: 10 points per dollar spent at U.S. gasoline stations and U.S. supermarkets for six months.

At the other end of the scale is the cheap ($95 a year) Hilton Honors Amex Surpass card. Hilton is a low-value program (points are almost always worth less than half-a-cent), but the acquisition bonus is huge (150,000 points for $2,000 in spend in the first three months). The card now has a $150 statement credit after the first purchase, too. But the best perk is ten free visits a year to Priority Pass clubs. That's all many travelers need. The card also confers Hilton Gold Status, good for complimentary continental breakfast.

What's the reservation? Amex is foolishly barring you from these deals if you've ever had the Platinum Card before or had any flavor of Hilton card in the past.

Fred Abatemarco and Will Allen lately made the case for cashback cards over travel cards. I issued an alert to watch relative values at the beginning of the pandemic. But for frequent travelers who desire frequent travel rewards, cashback takes tactical thinking and requires a not-insignificant emotional adjustment.

If you want to test the waters, start with the Capital One Savor Rewards card. For a $95 annual fee, you will get 4% back on dining, 4% back on entertainment spend and 2% back on grocery purchases. Spend $3,000 on the card in the first three months and you receive a $300 statement credit. That's an enticing 10% return--or 6.8% if you factor in the annual fee.

Hyatt eliminated the outsized appeal of its revered Gold Passport program in 2016 when it introduced World of Hyatt as its replacement. But as other hotel chains have chipped away at their programs and Hyatt improved it global footprint via a deal with Small Luxury Hotels and the purchase of brands such as Joie de Vivre, Thompson and Destination hotels, World of Hyatt is looking much better five years on. Plus Hyatt and Chase, which issues the World of Hyatt Visa, have promoted ferociously throughout the pandemic.

Even if you're only an occasional Hyatt guest, the card is worth having. For $95 a year, you will score a 60,000-point acquisition bonus when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. That translates into two free nights worth upwards of $1,500 at Park Hyatt properties in high-cost towns such as New York, Paris, Milan or Tokyo. (At the south end, you can use 60,000 points for a dozen nights at better-than-you-expect entry-level properties.) You can earn 30,000 more points on the first $15,000 of spend over the first six months. Plus the card confers first-level elite status (good for 2pm checkout), awards a free night (worth perhaps $200) each year you remain a cardmember and kicks in another additional mid-level night if you spend $15,000 in a calendar year.