Updated July 17th, 2012: Every major bank is competing in the reward card space and it should come as no surprise that Chase, one the nation’s largest banks, has a pair of strong offerings targeted to the reward travel market. Unlike so many other travel focused rewards cards, Chase Sapphire (SM) and Chase Sapphire Preferred (SM) are not affiliated with a particular airline or hotel chain. Instead, they offer their own proprietary Ultimate Rewards points accrual and redemption system.

The Ultimate Rewards you earn with either Chase Sapphire Card can be used to get cash back, merchandise, gift cards or travel rewards, making this one of the most flexible rewards programs. Plus, consumers can opt for the Chase Sapphire Preferred’s $500 bonus offer or a lesser, though not insignificant $100 bonus with the standard Sapphire (SM) card.

Chase Sapphire (SM) Card Reward Features

As is typical with most rewards cards, cardholders earn one point per dollar spent on most purchases. With the Sapphire Preferred (SM) Card, cardholders also earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining. With the standard Sapphire (SM) card, consumers only earn 2 points on dining. However, unlike most point based rewards programs, Chase Ultimate Reward points are worth one cent each. Chase Ultimate Reward points never expire and, as is typical, you can get extra points by shopping through Chase’s online portal, the Ultimate Rewards Mall.

When it comes time to redeem, rewards earned with either Chase Sapphire (SM) Card can be used to obtain a statement credit, get a cash back check or book travel. (With Chase Sapphire Preferred (SM), points are worth 25% more when used for travel booked via Chase.)  There are also cash back, merchandise and gift card redemption options, but you tend to get significantly less value when you use your points for merchandise. Thus, as with any rewards program, it is best to avoid “shopping” with your points.

As mentioned earlier – and perhaps most importantly – Chase Sapphire (SM) and Chase Sapphire Preferred (SM) also come with fairly substantial sign up bonuses. With the standard Sapphire Card, you get 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points – a $100 value. With the Sapphire Preferred (SM) Card, you get 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points – a $400 to $500 value. For complete details, please see the information tables below.

Chase Sapphire (SM) vs. Chase Sapphire Preferred (SM)

While the standard Sapphire card does not have an annual fee, Chase Sapphire Preferred (SM) offers a handful of redemption options that might make it worth the additional $95 annual fee for some customers. (This fee is waived the first year.) Preferred card holders receive an additional 25% when making their travel purchases through Chase’s website, making their points worth 1.25 cents in those situations. This perk increases the value of the 40,000 sign up bonus from $400 to $500. Preferred Card holders also receive an additional 7% annual bonus, further increasing their rewards return rate.

There are also options to transfer points to a few other programs such as United, British Airways, Amtrak, and several hotel programs. Finally, the Preferred card does not have a foreign transaction fee.  The standard card has a 3% fee on all foreign transactions, but Chase waives this fee on the Sapphire Preferred Card. This is a great value add that international travelers can benefit from significantly, as $3,000 of spend internationally can translate into $90 of transaction fee savings compared to most major credit cards.

Final Thoughts on Chase Sapphire Offers

For most consumers, the no annual fee Chase Sapphire card likely offers the best value. While earning potential is slightly lower with the regular Sapphire card, the lack of an annual fee can more than offset the bonus earning opportunities you get with Sapphire Preferred. Plus, the 10,000 free points is a very generous offer, especially for a card with no annual fee. The only comparable offer is available on two Citi Thank You Card promotions, one of which offers up to a $250 bonus and the other a $150 bonus.

Lastly, one of the key benefits of Chase Sapphire that is difficult to quantify is customer service. I personally use the no annual fee Chase Sapphire Card and love the fact that when I call customer service, a person answers. Seriously, a real live person. This is a truly unique benefit and one that anyone who is frustrated with typical credit card customer service will come to appreciate. Combine this with a generous sign up bonus and the top notch Ultimate Rewards program, and you’ve got one of the better rewards cards on the market today.

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