Why a $500-a-year Credit Card Might Actually Be Worth It — and How to Find the Best One for You

Premium credit cards have gone from a mileage-geek obsession to a must-have luxury travel amenity.

A man sits at a lounge table with a laptop
The first Chase Sapphire Lounge by the Club, at Hong Kong International Airport. . Photo:

Courtesy of Chase

Just a few years ago, high-end credit cards like American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve were the subject of Internet message-board chatter, thanks to complex rules and steep annual fees that made them seem inaccessible to regular travelers.

Now these cards are becoming essential, as issuers aggressively compete to unlock new once-in-a-lifetime experiences in travel, dining, and entertainment. “Exclusive access is a perk that money can’t always buy,” says Marleta Ross, the general manager of Chase Sapphire, whose portfolio includes the $550-a-year Reserve card.

These products, which can carry annual fees as high as $695, in the case of American Express, can be the only way to score access to coveted reservations, concert tickets, or premium lounges. “We’ve learned over the last few years that people often value experiences more than things,” says Lauren Liss, head of premium products and experiences at Capital One, which launched the $395-a-year Venture X card in 2021.

But while a focus on premium access is emerging across the board, Liss notes that not all cards are created equal. Choosing the right one comes down to knowing which types of insider experiences each issuer can deliver. Here’s a closer look at where the right choice can take you.

At the Airport

A man stands behind a bar, a view of cocktails
From left: Mixologist Jim Meehan, who has created drinks for Centurion Lounges worldwide; cocktails in a Centurion Lounge.

Courtesy of American Express

Three major card companies — American Express, Capital One, and Chase — have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new airport lounges over the past decade. American Express kicked off the trend in 2013 with its first Centurion Lounge in Las Vegas. Today there are 24 Centurion Lounges around the world, 13 of them in the U.S.

The first Chase Sapphire Lounge by the Club opened in October at Hong Kong International Airport, about a month after the destination dropped its hard quarantine rules. The brand aims to bring the concept to the U.S. in 2023.

A man gives a cooking class, appetizers and wine on a dinner table
Chef José Andrés will partner with Capital One on Capital One Landing, a restaurant-lounge mash-up coming to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport and Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

Eric Mowinksi/Courtesy of The Cultivist/Capital One

Capital One, meanwhile, is going all-in on the food at its lounges by partnering with chef José Andrés on Capital One Landing, a restaurant-lounge mash-up coming to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport and Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

“I believe that everyone deserves to enjoy an incredible meal,” Andrés tells T+L, “and these openings will let us reach travelers from around the world and showcase our creativity.” The company has already opened its flagship Capital One Lounge in Terminal D at Dallas Fort Worth International, with Denver and Washington Dulles locations on deck.

At Hotels — and Beyond

Capital One is also looking outside the airport with a slate of custom-designed small-group trips. “These are curated, once-in-a lifetime opportunities,” says Liss, who collaborated with the boutique travel company Prior to design a roster of cardholder-only itineraries that include private meals hosted by award-winning chefs and hard- to-book hotels.

Furniture in a hotel room
The front parlor of the Madrona hotel in Healdsburg, California.

Matthew Millman/Courtesy of PRIOR

For example, on an October excursion to California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys, guests can expect tastings at wineries such as Aperture Cellars and Ovid and a stay at the newly opened Madrona, in Healdsburg. An Idaho escape slated for the weekend before July 4 will include a stay at the iconic Sun Valley Lodge, plus fly-fishing, a stargazing dinner at the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, and access to the River Ranch Wine Walk, part of the Sun Valley Museum of Art’s Wine Auction weekend.

American Express now has more than 1,300 high-end properties available through its well established Fine Hotels & Resorts program. Cardholders get VIP perks, including complimentary breakfast, spa or dining credits, depending on the property, and guaranteed late checkout.

At Restaurants

A restaurant exterior; oysters on serving plate
From left: The Grey, a restaurant in Savannah, Georgia; oysters at The Grey.

Peter Frank Edwards/Redux

Since its 2019 acquisition of Resy, American Express has been building a restaurant-reservation ecosystem that now affords cardholders the chance to book at more than 550 in-demand spots worldwide, such as Gjelina in Venice, California; the Grey in Savannah, Georgia; and Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco. Holders of premium cards, American Express isn’t shy about saying, get first dibs.

Chase, too, offers access to highly sought-after dining events, one of which the company calls Hit List Dinners.

“Think: a special cocktail hour with passed bites, an interactive Spritz bar or onigiri making, and a three-course seated dinner and dessert,” Ross says, at restaurants such as Chicago’s Alla Vita, New York’s Ci Siamo, or San Francisco’s Nisei.

And Just About Everywhere Else

A tennis match at a stadium
American Express cardholders get VIP access at events like the U.S. Open.

USA TODAY Sports/Reuters/Redux

Lately, big card issuers are going beyond the bounds of what might be called traditional travel with exclusive access to sports, concerts, and film festivals. Chase has partnered with the Sundance Film Festival for more than a decade, developing an ever-evolving lineup of perks including cardholder-only tickets to hot screenings and private events.

American Express rolls out the red carpet at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in New York, where it has an exclusive lounge inside Louis Armstrong Stadium. Past guest chefs at the venue have included Michael Solomonov (Zahav, Laser Wolf) and Ignacio Mattos (Lodi, Corner Bar), while the drinks, from legendary mixologist Jim Meehan (PDT), are riffs on cocktails served at Centurion Lounges across the U.S. and in London.

Capital One has lately pushed into the arts by way of a free six-month trial with the Cultivist, a membership club that grants free admission to more than 100 cultural institutions worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Prado National Museum, in Madrid; and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

The Cultivist also puts on special events that bring together every thread of the card companies’ access arms race: take the gathering it arranged in September 2022, when it hosted Capital One cardholders for an exclusive evening at a Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C. Chef Dominique Crenn, owner of the Michelin three-starred Atelier Crenn, in San Francisco, was there to prepare the evening’s four-course dinner.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Your New All-access Pass.”

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