Premium travel rewards credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the American Express Platinum, and the Citi Prestige are exciting because they come with an array of bonuses, perks, and protections.
However, they also tend to make miles and points beginners nervous with their high annual fees. (Or at the very least, may require quite a bit of convincing before your non-miles and points spouse relents!)
In this guide, let’s look at 3 of the most popular premium cards and how to reconcile what you’re spending with what you’d get back in return.
Comparing Annual Fees & Benefits:
Chase Sapphire Reserve vs Amex Platinum vs Citi Prestige
I’m practical. Some would say too practical. But, even I admit, it’s easy to be swayed by everything premium travel rewards credit cards offer. Their benefits and perks are listed one after another in order to make you swoon.
Luckily, the numbers can wipe the glaze off your eyes before your trigger finger gets too itchy.
Those annual fees are quite sobering, especially if you’re new to award travel and already feel nervous about any credit cards.
People always want to know:
Ok, the card perks look great, but how do I get my money back after paying this annual fee?
Plain, simple. Go straight to the math. Anything on top of that is icing, also known as money in your pocket, award travel redemptions and/or upgrades on your travel experience.
So, welcome bonuses aside, which they all offer, let’s look more closely at the annual fees for each of the three cards covered in this guide.
Premium Travel Rewards
Authorized User Fee
Chase Sapphire Reserve
American Express Platinum
(Increasing to $495 on 9/1/19.)
For the purpose of this guide, I’m going to focus on just the annual fees. But it’s worth taking a quick look at what’s behind each card’s authorized user fee so you can decide if this is the right option for you.
Authorized users added to your credit card can help to meet the minimum spend requirement and earn points on everyday spending, not to mention build a credit history for the authorized user.
Clearly, Amex Platinum’s high authorized user fee can leave you scratching your head as to why anyone would ever pay another $175 on top of the already $550 annual fee. So, let’s give it some context.
First, it’s important to understand the Amex Platinum authorized user fee covers up to 3 additional cardholders, all for the same $175. Authorized users have all the benefits of the primary Platinum cardholder, except for their own $200 travel credit, $200 Uber credit and $100 Saks credit. (More on these below.)
This means Amex Platinum authorized users each have Hilton and Marriott Gold Status, Centurion, Delta, and Priority Pass lounge access, Hertz, Avis, and National rental car status, as well as their own $100 Global Entry credit.
For example, if you travel frequently with a spouse or other family members, you can add up to 3 of them as authorized users to your Amex Platinum. Each of them will get a $100 Global Entry credit which adds up to $300 total versus the $175 fee you paid to add them to the card.
It’s no fun when 1 person has Global Entry and the rest of the family doesn’t!
And, this doesn’t even take into account the money saved when everyone can enter the Priority Pass or Delta Lounge without paying anything extra for having (too many) guests. (More on this below.)
The Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Reserve authorized user fees are notably less and include Priority Pass Select membership.
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out American Express only allows Membership Rewards point transfers to a primary or authorized user’s airline frequent flyer account. So, if a spouse or a child isn’t an authorized user on any of your Membership Rewards earning cards, you’d need to book them an award ticket through your frequent flyer account.
Premium Credit Card Travel Credits
Whether or not you add an authorized user, hopefully, you have a clearer idea of what each premium card will cost. Let’s start chipping away at that number, shall we?
Each of these premium cards comes with its own version of a travel credit. These credits repeat for each year you renew your card membership.
Premium Travel Rewards
|Annual Fee||Travel Credit|
Chase Sapphire Reserve
American Express Platinum
$200 (airline credit)
|Citi Prestige||$450 (Increasing to $495 on 9/1/19)||
The Chase and Citi travel credits are far less restrictive than the Amex Platinum. Both of them issue an immediate statement credit up to the credit amount for typical travel expenses like flights, hotels, rental cars, trains, cruises, and different types of tours.
However, expenses like parking, tolls, commuter transportation, ferries, subways, taxis, limos, car services like Uber, and buses also trigger the travel credit.
The Amex $200 airline credit only covers fees for a pre-selected airline. These fees are incidentals like bag fees, seat reservation fees, and lounge passes.
So, what does all this mean for recouping value from those premium price tag annual fees?
A frequent traveler will likely have no problem using the Amex airline credit. That’s $550 annual fee – $200 airline credit and you’re down to $350.
If you plan to spend between $250-$300 on any kind of travel at least once a year, it’s money that would’ve been spent regardless of having a premium card or not. That $500 flight you booked becomes $250 on your Citi Prestige statement. An Intrepid Travel tour costs $300 less with your Chase Sapphire Reserve.
But the added benefit with the Chase and Citi is even regular commuting costs like public transportation, parking, and tolls are erased from your statement. Most people, frequent traveler or not, will have little difficulty using these types of expenses to take advantage of these travel credits.
So if you’re considering the Sapphire Reserve, that’s $450 annual fee – $300 travel credit = $150. Or the Citi Prestige at $450 annual fee – $250 travel credit = $200.
Additional Premium Credit Card Credits
All three of these premium travel credit cards come with a $100 Global Entry credit. (Global Entry allows you to go through an expedited line at Customs and Border Control upon returning from international travel.)
The American Express Platinum card goes beyond the other 2 cards to offer a $200 Uber credit for each year you have the card. The credit is broken up, though, to a $15 credit each month, plus a $20 bonus in December. The credit also works for UberEats.
Amex Platinum also has a $100 Saks Fifth Avenue credit, broken up into $50 twice a year between January-June and July-December.
So, for the sake of setting up a math problem, let’s stick with the Platinum card for this next example.
Remember, we did $550 annual fee – $200 airline credit = $350
So, $350 – $100 Global Entry fee – $200 Uber credit – $100 Saks credit = +$50 in your favor!
This is all without considering the value of the Amex Membership Rewards points you’re earning for every dollar you spend on the card.
What about the Sapphire Reserve and Prestige?
Remember from above, the Sapphire Reserve started with a $450 annual fee. Using the travel credit brought the out-of-pocket cost for the card to $150. If you also cash in on the $100 Global Entry fee credit, you’ve shrunk your cost for the card to just $50.
Similarly, using the Citi Prestige numbers from above and subtracting the $100 Global Entry fee credit, you’ve actually spent just $100 to have the card.
As with Amex, your spend on the Sapphire Reserve and the Citi Prestige also earn valuable flexible points to use for award flights and hotel nights. This is in addition to what you’ve been able to offset on the annual fee already.
Premium Travel Credit Card Lounge Access
All three cards come with Priority Pass Select Membership. This allows the cardholder and up to 2 guests access to a participating Priority Pass lounge. There are over 1,200 lounges worldwide.
American Express Platinum also comes with access to Centurion and Delta lounges. (For this last one, you have to be flying Delta that day in order to get into the lounge.) These lounges are unquestionably more upscale than most Priority Pass lounges but they also have to be located at your home or departure airport to get value from them.
Lounge access is a bit harder to quantify than the credits discussed in the above sections. Frequent or luxury travelers will have no problem seeing the value.
On the flipside, an occasional traveler might say they’d never pay for lounge access anyways so it’s not truly bringing value in return. (I’ve had this exact “discussion” with my own family members!)
My counterpoint is, would you buy meals, drinks, or use wifi at the airport? If yes, then having access to lounges can be a true money-saver!
Let’s say you have the Sapphire Reserve and you and a guest enter a Priority Pass lounge or eat a participating Priority Pass restaurant at the airport. If both of you eat and drink before the flight, that’s money you didn’t spend in the food court or airport pub.
With just $50 left to offset the Sapphire Reserve annual fee, eating and drinking just once in a lounge will completely erase your out-of-pocket cost for the card. Use the lounges and restaurants more and you’ve come out ahead.
And, only the Citi Prestige Priority Pass membership includes 2 guests and/or immediate family. This means your spouse, domestic partner, and any children under the age of 18 can get into the lounge.
Remember that $100 left to chip away at with the Citi Prestige’s annual fee? Food and drinks for mom, dad, and the 2 kids just about does it!
Premium Credit Card Hotel Perks
Of the 3 premium cards in this article, the Citi Prestige is the only card to offer a 4th-night free for hotel stays. Currently, this perk is uncapped. Starting September 1, 2019, Citi is limiting this 4th-night free benefit to twice in a calendar year.
Depending on the hotel where you’re staying (and it makes sense to really maximize this perk), a 4th- night free even used 2x can return enough value to negate a huge chunk of the card’s annual fee.
American Express Platinum cardholders automatically get Hilton and Marriott Gold status. Gold members receive perks like free upgrades, early check in and late check out, free breakfast, and higher points earning rates on paid hotel stays. If you travel often and stay at these hotels, you’d end up earning great value back to justify that high annual fee.
Premium Card Bonus Categories and Transfer Partners
Of course, this is likely the most fundamental reason why you were attracted to these premium cards in the first place! And, I’ve certainly mentioned it once or twice throughout the article. 😉
All three premium travel rewards credit cards earn flexible points that can be transferred to a variety of airline and hotel transfer partners and redeemed for award flights and hotel nights! So, in addition to each card’s credits and perks, you obviously have to take into account the value of the points you’re earning.
Every dollar you spend should be maximized to bring back the greatest return. That’s why it’s important to have credit cards with bonus categories to cover different areas of your spending.
The Citi Prestige earns:
- 5x the ThankYou points per dollar spent on air travel bookings and restaurants,
- 3x for cruises and hotels,
- 2x on entertainment (ending 8/31/19), and,
- 1x on everything else.
Chase Sapphire Reserve earns:
- 3x the Ultimate Rewards points for travel and dining, and,
- 1x on all other purchases.
And, the American Express Platinum earns:
- 5x the Membership Rewards points for flights booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel,
- 5x on prepaid hotels also booked with Amex Travel, and,
- 1x for everything else.
At a glance, who wouldn’t want to earn 5x the points for airfare over 3x? Sapphire Reserve, though, includes 3x on all travel expenses, whereas the other cards don’t.
Citi and Amex both offer 5x the points on flights but Citi (and Chase) offer travel protection for that flight, while Amex doesn’t.
Citi’s 5x at restaurants is stellar. However, some of their airline transfer partners might be harder to use than Amex or Chase’s partners.
All of these earned points transfer to airline and hotel partners to redeem for award travel.
The Membership Rewards transfer partners include 18 airlines and 3 hotel brands.
Chase Ultimate Rewards has 9 airline and 3 hotel transfer partners.
And, Citi ThankYou points can be transferred to 15 Citi airline partners.
In almost all cases, all points earned with these premium cards transfer at a 1:1 ratio. Sometimes, American Express and Citi have transfer bonuses to specific partners, which makes the transfer ratio even more favorable. Chase appears to be joining in with its first transfer bonus, as well. Fingers crossed they continue to offer more of them!
It’s also worth noting, of the 3 premium cards in this guide, the Sapphire Reserve also gives you a 50% bonus when using your Ultimate Rewards points within the Chase travel portal. Typically, you’ll get much more value from the airline transfer partners, but in some cases, this portal might make sense for your travel bookings.
So, what are all these points worth?
When you’re not sure what award flights and hotel nights cost, it’s hard to know what these flexible points are worth. It makes sense why many people prefer to stick with cashback rewards. It’s fixed and straightforward.
But, flexible points transferred to airline partners can help you book flights all over the world or reserve hotel nights in your bucket list destinations. Among all the travel rewards available, flexible points are king.
Personally, I could never travel as often as I do without earning and redeeming flexible miles and points for flights and hotel nights. From Patagonia to Rome, and everywhere in between, miles and points have helped me get there!
Using frequent flyer miles also puts expensive premium seats within reach to more people who otherwise couldn’t afford them. Not many people can afford to pay cash for First Class suites to fly across the globe!
A Few Last Things…
Throughout this guide, I’ve highlighted the credits and perks that most obviously reduce or eliminate the annual fees associated with these premium cards. But this doesn’t mean that’s all the cards offer.
I’ve bulleted a few other notable highlights for each card that could save you money and further justify the annual fee.
- Car rental discounts at Avis, National, and Silvercar
- Primary Collision Damage Waiver on car rentals
- Trip Cancellation/Interruption/Delay protections
- Lost/Delayed luggage
- Fine Hotels & Resorts Collection offers special perks and savings at hundreds of luxury hotels.
- Elevated status with Hertz, Avis, and National
- Amex offers added from your account to your card earn bonus points and even more statement credits.
- A Premium Global Assist hotline can help you with everything from special requests to travel emergencies.
- Cell phone protection
- Citi Price Rewind automatically tracks purchases and refunds you if a better price is found.
- Citi Private Pass gets you early access to tickets for performances and events.
- Trip Cancellation/Interruption/Delay protections
So what’s the verdict?
First, it’s clear when used to the fullest, each of these premium travel rewards cards return a ton of value. There’s a case to be made for each card, as well as have more than 1 of them in your wallet. And, I only highlighted what I think of as the most valuable card perks!
Platinum cardholders earn $600 in credits every year, which when used fully, negate the entire annual fee. Centurion Lounges are in limited locations but are a traveler favorite!
All three cards in this guide come. with Priority Pass Select. But, only the Citi Prestige allows immediate family access, too. Family travelers could save a ton at the airport with just this perk alone!
Sapphire Reserve’s travel credit is the largest and easiest to take advantage of. From campground fees to train tickets to flights and car rentals, you’re sure to put all $300 to good use.
Regardless of the card, it’s important to move past the annual fee and know which card(s) is best suited for your spending and travel style. When you maximize what each card offers and redeem the flexible points for award flights and hotel nights, the math more than works out in your favor.
What do you think about the benefits of each card?
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