Should the Altitude Reserve be in Nick’s (digital) wallet?


Recently, Greg republished our complete guide to the US Bank Altitude Reserve card. The Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite card is special: given its 3x points on mobile wallet payments — like using Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay at checkout in-store – the guide notes that it is “like getting a 4.5% rebate nearly everywhere”. That’s a great rebate and one that had me very excited before the card launched a few years ago. Yet here we are a couple of years later and while Greg has had the Altitude Reserve in his (mobile) wallet almost since the card launch, it still isn’t in my wallet. Should it be?

Reasons why the US Bank Altitude Reserve isn’t in my wallet

There are a number of reasons why the Altitude Reserve hasn’t yet made its way into my wallet.

I just don’t spend that much in person and when I do I have equal or better options

First (and most importantly), and this is especially true since the pandemic began, I’ve realized that I just don’t spend that much in person (which is a necessity for taking advantage of the mobile payments category bonus). Update: Grant’s comment lead me to realize that I left out something important here: One of the big reasons that I don’t spend much in person is because I hate feeling like I’ve left points on the table. Shopping in-store comes at the cost of missing out on shopping portal rewards and promos. How can I miss the chance to earn 124x Wyndham points at Things Remembered )(caution: read the post before buying). Even before the pandemic, I realized that I just don’t often spend money in person for items that could be bought online while stacking coupons / portal rewards / card-linked offers / etc. That has of course only amplified with the pandemic. I look forward to walking around the mall again at some point (and wouldn’t mine if it were a Simon Mall when I finally get out again), but I just don’t frequently spend a lot in physical stores apart from grocery and gift card purchases.

Early reports were that US Bank was gift card sensitive on the Altitude Reserve (and Simon Malls hadn’t been taking mobile payment for gift card purchases before I stopped going last year anyway). The one category in which we do spend a good deal in person is groceries. Getting an effective 4.5% back on grocery store spend would ordinarily be excellent, but over the past 6-10 months, we’ve had a lot of better options available:

  • 10x Membership Rewards points via the Platinum card offer
  • 3x Ultimate Rewards points on up to $1,000 per month on the Sapphire Reserve
  • 5x spending offers on Chase cards (many of which were tied to grocery spend in past quarters but are more general this quarter)

And more generally, we could do as well or better with our other ordinary options:

  • 4x Membership Rewards points per dollar with the Amex Gold Card (on up to $25K per year, then 1x). Cashed out via the Schwab Platinum, that’s worth 5% back. Note that this also works for our online curbside pickup orders, which wouldn’t have an option for mobile payment.
  • 5x Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on gift card purchased at Office Supply stores which could be used to buy groceries for an effective 5x if the cards are purchased during a fee-free sale. This is worth at least 5% back (or 7.5% back toward travel booked through Chase if you have the Sapphire Reserve card).

While the 5x Ultimate Rewards strategy is theoretically applicable to almost all purchases, it is easier to implement on grocery purchases because the cards auto-drain at many supermarket chains, so you don’t really need to worry about knowing which card still has $48.26 and asking the cashier to split tender. Just swipe a card, let the payment terminal drain it, and on to the next one.

A related problem when it comes to the thought of using the Altitude Reserve for grocery spend: my wife does most of the grocery shopping. Try as hard as I may, I just can’t get her to embrace mobile payment technology. It doesn’t help that since the pandemic began, we’re rarely ever in a store together for me to walk her through the steps. The fact of the matter is that there would be resistance to a mobile-payment-only conversion in my household.

Real-time mobile rewards is great, but not really for me

US Bank’s Real-time mobile rewards system is fantastic. I get excited thinking about how you can book travel however you want (through a shopping portal, directly with the provider for benefits and credit, etc), get a text message, and then redeem your points without being forced to book through a bank portal that makes you forgo loyalty points, elite credit, or other benefits. US Bank has an awesome setup there that I wish they’d market a bit harder so that it would encourage others to compete with them.

However, real-time mobile rewards would be of more limited value to me personally. Earning 4.5% back that I can use toward hotel stays or other travel is appealing.

The problem here is that while US Bank does not have onerous minimum redemptions for most travel purchases, they require a minimum redemption of $500 for a hotel stay. Unfortunately, at least until I burn through my current pile of hotel points, I just don’t often spend more than $500 on a hotel stay. My multi-night hotel stays are more typically high-end redemptions where I’m using hotel points or free night certificates for outsized value to stay at a place where I wouldn’t want to pay the cash rate. My paid nights tend to be less expensive one or two night stays like on a road trip or near an airport. I’d love to be able to use real-time mobile rewards for a $150 road trip hotel that would otherwise cost 30,000 Marriott or Hilton or IHG points per night — but the $500 minimum makes this less convenient.

US Bank also has a minimum on car rental redemptions ($250). Given the rising cost of rentals, that may not be much of a barrier. However, I’ve seen Stephen Pepper put the Sapphire Reserve’s car rental protection to use, so I feel confident putting a rental on the Sapphire Reserve. The Altitude Reserve should theoretically offer similar coverage, but I’d be at least a bit more hesitant using it for rentals. That said, if rental costs do continue to be significant, the Altitude Reserve may earn reconsideration.

My other paid travel just likely wouldn’t fit real-time mobile rewards. I don’t book that many paid flights and when I do they are more likely to be something like an intra-European fare on a non-qualifying foreign carrier. If I lived in a place served by Uber Eats, I’d almost certainly be excited to redeem Altitude Reserve points for Uber cash purchases. However, I do not have Uber Eats at home and Chase has extended Pay Yourself Back, so I can currently use Ultimate Rewards points to pay myself back for dining purchases if I so choose. The Altitude Reserve would be adding anything for me on that front right now.

While I think real-time mobile rewards is an awesome feature, the truth is that I don’t think I’d make great use of it right now.

Reasons why I may eventually consider the US Bank Altitude Reserve card

I noted Uber above. I know that Uber charges work for real-time mobile rewards, so I assume that Uber Eats charges would work but Uber Eats charges don’t according to our page highlighting what works. Still, Uber Cash should trigger reimbursement which could then be used for Uber Eats – so you could indirectly use points to buy food. I like to eat. As noted above, this isn’t convenient for me at home, but it would be if and when I travel again and that may well happen at some time after Chase ends Pay Yourself Back. At that time, the Altitude Reserve card may be more appealing.

And that same sentiment more broadly applies to the other strengths and features of the Altitude Reserve card. Eventually, I expect to be spending more money in-person again. Someday when I am doing a remodel or reselling more (whether merchandise or gift cards) that requires in-store spend, the Altitude Reserve would once again gain a lot of appeal. And I think I could get my wife on the mobile payments bandwagon with some chances to walk her through the steps, which would help make the Altitude Reserve more appealing.

The new cardmember offer on the Altitude Reserve card is excellent and the effective annual fee is entirely reasonable after using the annual travel credit (which isn’t difficult in a normal year in my household). Given the low ongoing cost, it probably will make sense to add this card to our arsenal at some point. The time just hasn’t been right so far.

But I recognize that times will change (and like everyone else right now, I look forward to the coming change) and when it does the Altitude Reserve may come in handy as our car rental / Uber Eats eraser.

Bottom line

The US Bank Altitude Reserve card looks fantastic on paper. It has a great welcome bonus, a low effective annual fee if you value the easy-to-use travel credit, and one of the most interesting bonus categories on the market in 3x mobile payments. But despite all of those strengths, it just hasn’t been for me because I just don’t spend that much on face-to-face transactions for the 4.5% to be as appealing as I thought it would be. Furthermore, I don’t see redemptions being as much of a slam dunk for me as they are for some folks. It’s interesting to me that a card I consider to be one of the most exciting / interesting on the market has been available for years without being a fit for me. Someday I expect that will change — but for the time being, the Altitude Reserve still isn’t in my (digital) wallet and likely won’t be in 2021.

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