MONEY

First look at new Chase rewards program

The credit card industry is on shaky ground right now, with banks fretting over recent legislation that will rein in some of their most abusive practices and a decline in credit card spending on the whole.

But Chase Card Services is hoping to win some customers back by unveiling its new Ultimate Rewards program Thursday. Similar to the Citi ThankYou Network or American Express Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards will serve as Chase’s flagship rewards platform.

The program allows cardholders to earn at least one point for every dollar spent. Points can be redeemed for cash, travel, merchandise, gift cards or statement credits through the rewards portal at UltimateRewards.com. Here’s a closer look at the program:

The good:

• There are no spending caps or tiers to earn rewards. So cardholders will get at least 1 point starting with the first dollar they spend, all the way to the last.
• Points never expire, and there are no limits to the number of points that can be redeemed in a year.
• There are several opportunities to earn more than one point per dollar spent. Airline travel booked through the Ultimate Rewards Online Travel Tool and paid with a Chase credit card will earn two points per dollar. Shopping through the Ultimate Rewards Bonus Mall can earn cardholders up to 10 points per every dollar spent.
• Thus far, it looks like one point is worth about one cent when it comes to cash, statement credit and travel redemption—effectively, 1% back, which is a decent rate, given the times. Redeeming points for merchandise, however, will be more expensive. The fact that cashback is actually cheaper bodes well for consumers.

The bad:

• Chase Freedom used to be one of MONEY’s top picks for cashback cards, when it offered 3% back in three of 15 categories (like groceries and gas) in which you spent the most each month. They got rid of that feature last year, opting for 3% back in categories that revolve each quarter, much like Discover’s Cashback Bonus Rewards program. With Ultimate Rewards, this will continue.
• Cardholders who want to earn a fixed 3% back in the grocery, gas and fast-food categories must pay a $30 annual fee.
• Cardholders must accrue $50 before a cashback check can be issued (though statement credits can be issued at any level).

The unknown:

• The program’s travel tool, which can be used with points, cash or any combination of the two, boasts “no restrictions or blackout dates for airline travel redemptions.” Sounds good, though Chase spokesperson Rob Rosenblatt says that the tool ties into all the airline reservation systems, so it remains to be seen how flexible it will actually be.
• Only two Chase cards operate on this platform (Freedom and the new Sapphire card for affluent Chase customers), though others may be added later.
• While the two cards on the platform don’t require an annual fee, Chase is offering a Sapphire Preferred card for $95 a year. It will come with additional perks, such as the ability to transfer points to other travel rewards programs.

Given the cry from experts across the industry that rewards programs will all but shrivel up, the fact that Chase unveiled this program now is what makes it so noteworthy. “I think this could be a turning point for the reward cards market. There is some scaling back, but for the most part this issuer is trying to make its program competitive,” says Curtis Arnold of CardRatings.com. “When a major issuer like Chase bucks the trend with this announcement, other issuers are likely to follow.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser