Before we get started, we’d like to answer a question we are often being asked: Is it ok to upgrade to macOS 10.15 Catalina? We think you should still hold off, unless you really want it, or you have a specific need (such as you depend heavily on Notes, and they no longer synchronize with your phone).
Catalina still has bugs, and Apple is still fixing them. If you do upgrade, please make sure you have a full Time Machine backup first, so that you can get back to where you were if you have problems.
Also, a word of caution: if you see charges from Apple on whatever credit card you use that you are unsure of, don’t dispute them with your bank — take it up with Apple first. For App, Music, Movie/TV, and Books purchases, you can request a refund at reportaproblem.apple.com; otherwise, give them a call. If you simply dispute the charge, Apple may shut down your Apple ID from being able to use the App and iTunes Store, possibly permanently. We’ve seen this twice so far this year.
Late last year, Apple unveiled Apple Card, a new branded credit card backed by Goldman Sachs. As with the iPhone, Apple has pitched Apple Card as a “think different” reinvention. But is Apple Card really that different from other credit cards?
Apple Card is distinct in that it is intended to seamlessly integrate with Apple products. The expectation is that you will rarely handle the physical card, but instead use Apple Pay for in-person and online transactions. (Of course, this is already possible if you have added a credit card to your iPhone Wallet, so it’s not a very dramatic step forward.) Apple Card rewards spending with cash back, though less than you can get with competing cards for most purchases.
Apple really drives the Apple Pay point home by making the card application and approval process an all-iPhone experience — you apply in the Wallet app, and, if you’re approved, the new card appears instantly. The physical card you’ll receive later by mail is a pretty, fragile, minimalist, titanium bauble that doesn’t even feature any numbers on it. If you use it, you’re effectively punished — you only get half the cash back as you would have if you’d used Apple Pay. And the physical Apple Card scuffs easily if you actually keep it in your (lowercase-w) wallet. You’re not supposed to actually use the physical card; you’re supposed to admire it.
Digital orientation aside, Apple presents Apple Card as a kind of “luxury card for the rest of us.” It has no annual, late, or overage fees — only the expected finance charges if you don’t pay in full, and Apple claims those are comparatively low. Apple is also emphasizing a financial well-being angle, by providing self-help spending analysis in the manner of Health or Screen Time. There’s no question that Apple’s presentation of your spending on your Apple Card is exceptionally clear and attractive. (For more on this, and a more enthusiastic take than mine, see the TidBITS article, Apple Card: More than Just a Credit Card.) Apple is also emphasizing personal privacy as an aspect of Apple Card, as they do with their other products.
I wish I could say more good things about Apple Card. I’ll be curious to see if the company takes it anywhere truly interesting. As it stands, though, Apple Card isn’t a paradigm-shifter like the Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, or even AirPods. It’s just an iPhone-centric credit card, with middling-to-average rewards, and not much more.
But maybe Apple didn’t make the card for me. Because what I truly care most about in a credit card, more than how well it integrates with my phone, is whether my spending on that card is going to let me fly in business class. That ain’t Apple Card. Apple Card yields 3% cash back on Apple products (but it was a very nice 6% during the holidays), 2% back on Apple Pay purchases, and 1% back on physical card purchases. If you buy an absolute ton of Apple products and use Apple Pay almost exclusively, and want an Apple-ecosystem rewards card with zero fuss and built-in financial analysis, well, it’s ok. If this doesn’t describe you, you can almost certainly get better rewards from other cards.
Those of you who know me well may be aware that I know the ins and outs of credit card rewards and frequent flyer programs nearly as well as I know Macs and iPhones, and sometimes I consult on this topic, because, well, who doesn’t want to fly international business class for free?
So, for the rest of this newsletter, I’m going to pivot to some of my recommendations for highly rewarding credit cards. If that interests you, read on — if not, I’ll see you next month!
Personally, I want flexible travel points, which I’ll go into below. But if you prefer cash back, and want to do better than you would with Apple Card, the Alliant Visa Signature card earns 2.5% back on everything for $99/year. No-fee alternatives that yield a steady 2% are the PayPal Cashback MasterCard and the Citi Double Cash; the former doesn’t levy a foreign transaction fee. And, if you hold $100,000 with Bank of America, their Premium Rewards card ($95/year) earns 2.625%-3.5% back on everything. You could also supplement any of these cards with a Capital One Savor ($99/year, first year free), which offers 4% back on dining, and/or the no-fee Amazon Prime Rewards card, which offers 5% back on Amazon and Whole Foods purchases.
The best known flexible travel points program is Amex Membership Rewards. Contrary to intuition, and despite their nice perks, Platinum ($550/year) and Centurion (aka Black, available by invitation only) cards earn points slowly for your spending: a minimum of 1% back towards travel for most purchases. However, Gold ($250/year) earns at least 4% when spending at restaurants and supermarkets, and Everyday Preferred ($95/year) can earn at least 1.5% on all other purchases if you put 30 charges on it per month. Or, if you’re eligible for a business credit card, the no-fee Blue Business Plus gets at least 2% on all purchases for your first $50,000 spent per year. All cards contribute to the same pool of points, so, if you can stomach the multiple annual fees, you could hold a combo of these, and pick your spending spots. Amex points can be converted to frequent flyer miles at Delta, JetBlue, and several international airlines, or used (usually with less value but greater ease) as cash to buy tickets on any airline.
Chase has a similar scheme called Ultimate Rewards, whose points are earned with their Sapphire, Freedom, and Ink cards. The winning combo is the Sapphire Reserve (seemingly $550/year, but functionally $250), which you should use for dining, transportation, and travel because you get a minimum of 4.5% back in those categories when you use the points towards travel, plus the no-fee Freedom Unlimited for everything else because it gets at least 2.25% back on everything. You can convert points into frequent flyer miles at United, JetBlue, Southwest, and some international airlines (though not as many as offered by Amex). I like Chase points best because they are easily pooled among family members, are worth 50% more than Amex points when used as cash, and don’t require multiple cards with annual fees to get maximum benefit.
Redeeming your points smartly can be a complex affair, so if you need help, please ask. And, here’s a tip: using your Amex or Chase cards for gift cards or Amazon purchases is a poor value relative to using them for travel. With Chase, the next best value after travel is, in fact, just exchanging the points for cash. (This is not as easily done with Amex points.)
Many other banks offer their own rewards cards, and there are of course also airline-branded cards that earn miles. I’ve looked at most of the options, and in general you don’t do as well as with the cards I discuss above. (If you’re married to American or Alaska Airlines, however, then it may make sense to have one of their branded cards.)
I wish that Apple Card were just a little bit more rewarding. Fortunately, Apple still makes very nice computing devices, and there are many credit cards that provide more rewards and work with Apple Pay. Though none are made of titanium.