All the smart gaming of the system is happening with cards now, not loyalty programs. But cards are making changes, too, to avoid the churners.
If you’re not obsessed with your credit card’s travel perks, chances are you’re not carrying the right plastic.
Last August, Chase raised eyebrows (and sent travelers scrambling for applications) by launching what many have called the best travel reward credit card ever. The Sapphire Reserve has a hefty $450 annual fee but offers such top-shelf benefits as an annual $300 travel statement credit, access to more than 600 airport lounges through Priority Pass Select, and a Global Entry application-fee reimbursement worth $100.
The move quickly cemented Chase as the top player in the world of travel reward cards—so of course, its competitors reacted.
Come March 30, American Express will begin offering $200 worth of Uber credits to its top-shelf Platinum cardholders, better access to airport lounges, and the opportunity to earn up to five points per dollar on certain travel purchases. Downside: the annual fee is going up from $450 to $550. (You can still get a first-year fee of $450 if you apply before March 30, and existing cardholders with fees due before September 1 won’t see their rates jump until 2018.)
Meanwhile, the standout benefits of Citibank’s Citi Prestige have largely stayed the same, like a fourth-night-free offer at nearly any hotel, and access to American Airlines Admirals Clubs (valid through July 23, 2017).
So, the question remains, which to carry?
For all that these cards have in common—all three carry annual fees of $450 or above, and none has specific airline or hotel partnerships—there are still significant variations among them. So as long as you can decide which amenities you’d like to prioritize, we can help you find the right choice for you.
Travel spending credits are like free money: They help offset an annual fee but come with specific usage rules. For all three cards, the credits must be used within the calendar year and can’t be rolled over.
The Platinum Card from American Express: Each year, Platinum cardholders get $200 to spend with the single airline of their choice. The credit can’t be applied to airfare, but it covers incidentals such as baggage fees, in-flight food, or lounge access. The $200 in annual Uber credits are doled out in monthly increments of $15 per month (plus an extra $20 in December). The only catch? You can’t roll them over from month to month.
Citi Prestige: The Citi Prestige’s $250 credit is automatically applied to the purchases made directly with any airline, including both airfare and incidental fees.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: With $300 of credits per calendar year, this card was the most generous until Amex added its Uber perks. But flexibility makes Chase’s credits especially valuable: they can be applied to any purchase Chase deems relevant to travel, retroactively refunding purchases made with airlines, hotels, rental car agencies, or even taxis, among other points of sale.
Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve
For many, the original Chase Sapphire Reserve sign-up offer—which amounted to 100,000 points or $1,500 towards travel expenses—was the reason to fill out an application. Here’s the latest on that front.
The Platinum Card from American Express: Spend $3,000 in your first three months, and you’ll get a 40,000-point sign-up bonus.
Citi Prestige: It’ll take $4,000 in purchases within three months to get a 40,000 point sign-up bonus.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Starting on March 12, the sign-up benefits get slashed in half—spend $4,000 in the first three months and 50,000 points or $750 towards travel expenses.
Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve, still.
Airline and Hotel Transfer Partners
If you’re as strategic about using miles as you are about your investment portfolio, you know you can get more bang for your buck via currency exchange. The ability to exchange points for airline miles is among the most important to travel insiders—so don’t overlook this benefit.
The Platinum Card from American Express: Amex Membership Rewards points can be transferred to 21 airline and hotel partners, including Air Canada, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Delta, Singapore, Virgin Atlantic, Hilton, and Starwood.
Citi Prestige: Prestige cardholders can transfer their ThankYou points to 13 airline and hotel partners, including Air France/KLM, Etihad, JetBlue, Qantas, and Hilton.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: This card may have only 11 partners, but it has the largest global footprint—especially with its hotel affiliates. The card’s Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to British Airways, Southwest, United, Hyatt, Intercontinental, and Marriot, among others.
Winner: We’ll call this a two-way tie between the Platinum Card and Sapphire Reserve.
Value of the Points Themselves
If you’d rather not worry about exchanging points for miles on partner airlines, prioritize this metric.
The Platinum Card from American Express: Amex Platinum cardholders typically get 1¢ per point on airline bookings and slightly less on hotel bookings.
Citi Prestige: For now, Citi Prestige cardholders can redeem their ThankYou points for 1.33¢ apiece on airline tickets, or 1.6¢ apiece on American Airlines tickets specifically, though both rates will be decreased to 1.25¢ apiece on July 23, 2017. Some cardholders find Citi’s travel portal difficult to use with unreliable flight availability, so this redemption method might not be for everyone.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can redeem their points at a rate of 1.5¢ on all travel purchases made through the Ultimate Rewards portal, which includes most major airlines, hotel companies, car rental companies, and even local tours.
Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve, no question.
Each of these cards offers bonus points on certain travel purchases.
The Platinum Card from American Express: Cardholders now earn five points per dollar on airfare purchased through Amex Travel, and starting March 30, they’ll earn the same bonus on hotel purchases made through the same agency. However, the hotel bonus is only eligible on prepaid rates and not on bookings made through American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts (more on that below). Book anywhere else? It’s still one point per dollar.
Citi Prestige: Earns three points per dollar on purchases from airlines, hotels, and travel agencies and two points per dollar on dining and entertainment (think concerts, sports events, movie theaters, amusement parks, and museums).
Chase Sapphire Reserve: For all travel and dining expenses, you’ll get three points per dollar spent. Chase is generous with its assessment of “travel expenses,” too: It includes buses, trains, taxis, tolls, parking garages, and even Uber rides.
Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve
If you don’t fly business class regularly, lounge access can be an important consideration.
The Platinum Card from American Express: Cardholders get complimentary access to Delta SkyClubs (when flying Delta). They can also bring two guests to Priority Pass and Airspace lounges and their entire families to Amex’s excellent Centurion Lounges .
Citi Prestige: If you already have this card, you (along with immediate family or two guests) are eligible for American Airlines Admirals Club lounge access until July 23, 2017—a perk worth enjoying while it lasts. New and old cardholders also have a longer-lasting benefit: Priority Pass Select membership that includes access for two guests.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Primary cardholders and authorized users get Priority Pass Select membership, along with access for their travel companions.
Winner: American Express
Free Hotel Upgrades
If you’re swimming in airline miles, you might care more about on-property perks.
The Platinum Card from American Express: Cardholders who book stays with partner hotels through Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program get such perks as room upgrades, late check-out, spa or restaurant credits, and even free nights on multiple-night stays. (Those perks may be subject to availability.) Primary and additional cardholders are also grandfathered in to Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status and Hilton HHonors Gold status, which add additional perks such as complimentary breakfast or Wi-Fi.
Citi Prestige: Citi Prestige’s cardholders get the fourth night free on any paid hotel stay if they book through Citi’s concierge service. This can equate to thousands of dollars per year in savings, as the perk can be employed on an unlimited basis.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: These benefits are subtler. You’ll get Relais & Châteaux elite status after just two nights (within a 12-month period), earning such benefits as room upgrades and complimentary breakfast. You’ll also get other potential perks, such as meal vouchers or third- and fourth-night-free offers if you book through Visa’s Luxury Hotel & Resort portal.
Winner: If you want bonus perks, go with American Express. To decrease your bottom line, go with Citi.
Insurance Protection—for Rental Cars and Beyond
For road warriors, trip delay or cancellation coverage can be invaluable benefits that save time and worry. Rental-car elite status and insurance are icing on the cake.
The Platinum Card from American Express: The Platinum Card comes with trip cancellation and interruption insurance of up to $10,000 and trip-delay reimbursement of up to $250. Lost or stolen luggage coverage ranges up to $3,500. Cardholders are also eligible for Emerald Club Executive status with National Car Rental and get free secondary rental car insurance. Primary coverage covers up to $100,000 and costs up to $25 per rental.
Citi Prestige: This card offers trip cancellation and interruption insurance of up to $5,000 and trip-delay protection up to $500. Lost luggage is insured up to $3,000. Primary car insurance is included outside the U.S., and cardholders get elite status with Avis, National, and Sixt.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: The new card offers trip cancellation and interruption insurance of up to $10,000 and trip-delay protection up to $500. Lost luggage insurance is up to $3,000. But the fine print associated with these protections offers the highest potential for reimbursement if anything should go wrong.
Primary rental car insurance is also an automatic perk no matter where you are and covers up to $75,000.
Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve
So which card is the overall winner?
Chase’s Sapphire Reserve sweeps the most categories. But the answer is highly personal and depends on your individual travel goals. Analyze your travel habits, focus on the two or three benefits you value the most, and pick the card whose benefits best address your specific needs.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.
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Photo Credit: The Sapphire Reserve credit card from Chase is a top choice for business travelers. Chase Bank