This post is by MilesTalk Facebook group moderator Jenny Reed, who will be contributing a bit more on “deep dives” into more obscure credit cards. Stop by the group and let us know how you like these!
In this article
The PenFed family of cards doesn’t get a lot of attention, but they do more than just exist. The PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card is actually a really useful card for just the right person.
The right person is someone who pays for some travel purchases, and wants rewards in the form of free hotel nights at non-chain hotels. Don’t worry, I will explain that.
PenFed Pathfinder Rewards signup bonus
25,000 bonus points when you spend $2,500 within 3 months.
Perks of an Annual Fee Card With No Annual Fee
This card offers a few perks that are very unusual for a card with no annual fee.
- $100 Annual Credit towards Air Travel*
- $100 Global Entry or $85 TSA PreCheck Benefit once every 5 years
These two things alone make the PenFed card a valauble moneymaker. Assuming you purchase at least one plane ticket a year on the Pathfinder Rewards card, it is like they are paying you $100 to keep the card. That’s so much better than paying an annual fee!
* The travel credit is good for “Incidental air travel fees include charges from the airline such as baggage fees, flight-change fees, in-flight food and beverage purchases, airport lounge day-passes, pet-kennel fee, and phone reservation fees. Airline tickets, upgrades, mileage points purchases, mileage points transfer fees, gift cards, duty free purchases, and award tickets are not deemed to be incidental fees.” (HT: Chris C on the group for this clarification.)
The PenFed Points Currency
PenFed has its own ecosystem with its own rewards currency, just as many other banks do. Unlike the big guys, PenFed does not have a transferable currency. All PenFed rewards come directly through PenFed.
While they do offer some “sucker awards” in the form of merchandise, PenFed also offers travel rewards in two flavors.
The first type of travel reward is gift cards to various travel merchants, including but absolutely not limited to American Airlines, Hyatt, Carnival Cruises, and several rental car agencies. If you cash your points in for a gift card, you will get a respectable redemption rate of 1 cent per point. Using the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Card this way makes it effectively equivalent to a cash back card, and you can consider each point earned to be the same as 1% cash back. Therefore, 3 points per dollar is the same as 3% cash back and so forth.
The second type of travel reward offers the opportunity to book through PenFed’s travel portal and pay for the purchase with points. Unlike the gift cards, though, the value of your points here is not fixed. At first glance, it seems like PenFed charges a fairly arbitrary number of points for any given redemption. Values fluctuate quite a bit from option to option. However, there is a distinct pattern to the madness.
Airfare tends to cost between .85 and .90 cents per point when compared to the cash price, making it a poor redemption compared to getting a gift card with those same points. Hotels, on the other hand, cost between 1.15 and 1.27 cents per point when compared to the cash price, with the typical redemption ranging between 1.18 and 1.25 cents per point. Hotels are therefore the very best possible redemption for this card, where you will get the most value possible for your points.
Hotels are a bit of a sticky wicket, though.
Chain hotels generally belong to the chain’s reward program. When you purchase hotel stays through a portal rather than direct from the hotel chain, you do not get any benefits from that purchase. Specifically, you do not receive any hotel chain rewards (even if you paid cash for your stay), you do not accumulate any nights toward earning status with the hotel, and you do not receive any status-related benefits you might be entitled to if you have any status with that chain. For that matter, you may not even be entitled to basic membership benefits such as free wifi given to no-status members. So, as a general rule, especially for people who have status or are on a trajectory to earn it, but true even for happily status-free people, too, because of the chain rewards, it is not usually a great idea to purchase chain hotel stays from a portal. You could certainly make an exception for a single stay at a chain you are very unlikely to use again (at least in the next two years or so, before your points would expire from disuse). But in most cases for most frequent travelers, you’ll be better off with the chain hotel benefits.
By contrast, non-chain hotels usually offer none of that stuff, anyway. There are exceptions where a few non-chain hotels offer something special to people who book direct, of course. But for most non-chain hotels, there is no benefit to booking direct over booking through a portal. There is no status, there is no membership, and there are no points to earn. So, it makes sense to book through a portal, preferably one which gives you something for booking. In PenFed’s case, assuming you have enough points, you get to book the hotel for free, and you get a good rate for the redemption.
The Earn Rate
The PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Card earns points pretty well. Regular cardholders earn 3 points per dollar on all travel and 1.5 points per dollar on everything else. PenFed Honors Advantage members earn 4 points per dollar on all travel and 1.5 points per dollar on everything else.
You can become a PenFed member (and therefore qualify for Honors) even if you aren’t in the military. All you have to do is spend $15-$20 one time to join the National Military Family Association or Voices for America’s Troops and you will qualify.
Comparing these earn rates and the value you get to other cards, you come out ahead when you are an Honors Advantage member who uses the card to pay for travel and redeem for hotel stays. That 4 points per dollar is worth more than the 3 points per dollar you can get from Citi ThankYou Premier or the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which are two top cards for all travel earnings, when used to purchase travel through a portal.
Here’s the math:
The Sapphire Reserve earns 3 points per dollar and redeems at 1.5 cents per point, for a redemption value of 4.5 per travel dollar spent. The Citi Premier also earns 3 points per dollar but redeems at only 1.25 cent per point, for a redemption value of just 3.75 per travel dollar spent. By contrast, the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Card earns 4 points per dollar (when you an Honors member) and typically redeems between 1.18 and 1.25 cents per dollar, for a redemption value between 4.72 and 5 per travel dollar spent. This is obviously a better value than the Reserve.
In fact, even if you find a hotel that’s a little lower than average, you still get a better value as long as you choose a redemption greater than 1.125 cents per dollar. (You get an equal value at exactly 1.125 cents per dollar.) So therefore, as long as you redeem for a hotel at average or better, you are getting a better portal value for your points than the Sapphire Reserve and the ThankYou Premier can offer.
Now, be aware that if you have the Citi Prestige, which earns 5 points per dollar on airfare (but redeems at only 1 cent per point), you are getting a better deal from your airfare points with a redemption value of 5 cents per airfare dollar spent, which is often better than the Pathfinder Rewards portal value. You should also be aware that PenFed does not consider parking as a travel category expense, whereas Citi and Chase do count parking.
For the average travel expense, though, it clearly pays to be an Honors Advantage member with PenFed. The 3 points per dollar you earn if you are “just” a regular cardholder does not match up to the Sapphire Reserve with the same earning rate but a better redemption rate.
You are automatically an Honors Advantage member with PenFed if you are military or ex-military. In their words, you must be active duty, reserve, honorably discharged, or retired to qualify as military.
But if you are NOT military, you can still become an Honors Advantage member fairly easily. All you need is an active checking account with PenFed. You can open one if you do not have one, and you immediately get upgraded to Honors Advantage status. You keep the status as long as the checking account is open. And, as mentioned earlier, just a $15 donation to the National Military Family Association will get you in.
As for the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Card 1.5 points per dollar on all other purchases, well, you can do better if you have a Chase Freedom Unlimited and also a Sapphire Reserve, because you can earn 1.5 points per dollar with the Sapphire Reserve and spend it at 1.5 cents per point through the Sapphire Reserve, for a redemption value of 2.25 per dollar spent.
But, strictly for the purpose of comparing two cards directly, the Sapphire Reserve without the Freedom Unlimited earns just 1 point per dollar on non-travel purchases, for a redemption value of 1.5 per dollar spent. Worse, the ThankYou Premier’s anemic 1 point per dollar on all other spend redeems at just 1.25 cents per point for a redemption value of 1.25 cents. The Pathfinder Rewards card earns 1.5 points per dollar and typically redeems for hotels between 1.18 and 1.25 cents, for a typical redemption value between 1.77 and 1.875. So, for non-bonused spend, the Pathfinder Rewards is better than the ThankYou Premier and Sapphire Reserve, but you can do much better with the Chase Sapphire Reserve plus the Chase Freedom Unlimited.
Of course, all this assumes that you will be using your points to purchase travel through bank portals. As is always the case, you can usually get the best point values by transferring your points directly to airlines and hotels. You simply cannot do that with PenFed points, though, so the Pathfinder Rewards and all other PenFed cards are out of consideration if your goal is to transfer points.
The upshot is, the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Credit Card has a very specific sweet spot, where using it to pay for travel (excluding airfare and parking) as an Honors Advantage member and then purchasing non-chain hotel stays with PenFed points through the bank portal is the best deal available for that particular set of activities.
The PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Credit Card isn’t bad for non-bonused spend and using the points to purchase non-chain hotels, though you can do better.
However, other cards are much better value for redeeming your points for airfare through a bank portal. And, of course, if you want to transfer your points, you are totally out of luck with the Pathfinder Rewards card.
The PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Credit Card is great for redeeming points to purchase non-chain hotel stays, but less great for other redemptions. The best earnings are on travel purchases for Honors Advantage members. If you are an Honors Advantage member (or you are willing to become one) who pays for some travel and wants to get free hotel stays, then Pathfinder Rewards is very much your card. Otherwise, it’s not a bad card, but you can do better.
If you are over 5/24, though, and are looking for new cards, the combination of 25,000 bonus points and the $100 annual airfare credit make this something of a no brainer, especially since that one “hard pull” will give you $100 a year for years and years to come with no annual fees…
Learn more about the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card.
You can find credit cards that best match your spending habits and bonus categories at Your Best Credit Cards.
New to all of this? The MilesTalk “introduction to miles and points” book, MilesTalk: Live Your Wildest Travel Dreams Using Miles and Points is available on Amazon and at major booksellers.