The Ultimate Credit Card Battle: How the 3 Best Travel Rewards Cards Stack Up
Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, shares his strategies for getting the most out of your points and miles.
Chase sent shockwaves through the credit card industry when it launched the Sapphire Reserve card in August of last year. With a whopping 100,000-point sign-up bonus (now halved to 50,000), a $450 annual fee, $300 in travel credit and three points per dollar on travel and dining purchases it quickly became the gold standard of travel credit cards. Since then, American Express has upped the ante (and its annual fee to $550) with its Platinum Card, and Citi has made some small enhancements to its Prestige Card. All three shine brightly in different ways and can pay for themselves many times over if you know how to maximize both their points and perks. We took a close look at each of the three cards to weigh their strengths and determine the best ways to use each one.
Best for Lounge Access
Winner: American Express Platinum
The Platinum card will be the only one of the three cards to offer elite status on a legacy airline after Prestige loses American Airlines lounge access this July. The Platinum card offers Delta SkyClub membership, which would cost $495 if you purchased it directly from the airline. Platinum cardholders also get access to Centurion lounges in Las Vegas, Dallas, LaGuardia, Miami, San Francisco, Houston, and Seattle, with Philadelphia and Hong Kong opening later this year. Centurion lounges are not your typical airline lounge— they offer great food and allow two free guests unlike most airline lounges, which have subpar food and drink offerings and upcharge for everything.
Additionally, AmEx Platinum cardholders also get a Priority Pass Select membership, which gives access to over 1,000 lounges globally. (Both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige cards also offer this perk).
Prestige comes in second with lounge access because it offers American Airlines Admirals Club access, but only until July 23, 2017. After that the only perk will be Priority Pass Select.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve card only offers Priority Pass Select.
Best for Earning and Redeeming Points
Winner: Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Sapphire Reserve is a powerhouse for both earning and redeeming points. It gives three points per dollar spent on travel and dining— and “travel” is defined broadly to include airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, campgrounds, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, and operators of passenger trains, buses, taxis, limousines, ferries, tolls, and parking lots and garages.
When it comes time to redeem, you get 1.5 cents per point towards airfare and hotels and you can transfer points to seven airlines (British Airways, Flying Blue, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, United and Virgin Atlantic) and four hotel programs (Hyatt, Intercontinental, Marriott, and Ritz Carlton).
Second place: The Citi Prestige card offers three points per dollar on air and hotel and two points per dollar for spending on dining and entertainment. Starting July 2017, it offers 1.25 cents per point towards airfare and one cent per point for hotels (you can redeem at 1.33 cents airfare and 1.6 cents for American Airlines airfare until July 23, 2017).
Third place: The American Express Platinum card offers five points per dollar for airfare and pre-paid hotels booked via American Express’s travel website. Points are only worth one cent towards airfare and 0.7 cents towards hotel. The best value is transferring to one of their airline partners (like Delta, Aeroplan, or ANA). You can also transfer Citi points to programs like Singapore Krisflyer and JetBlue.
Best for Unique Perks
Winner: Citi Prestige
The Citi Prestige offers one of the best credit card perks in existence — if you use it to pay for hotels and stay for at least four nights. The fourth-night free benefit shaves off the cost of a fourth night for any hotel stay, including super-luxury properties.
Here’s how it works: I used it at Nihiwatu and saved $1,500. I also used it at the Park Hyatt Maldives, and saved $1,100 as well. Plus the card comes with $250 in airfare credit, American Airlines lounge access until July 23, 2017, and they added a fourth night free at hostels. Even though I don’t typically stay in hostels, I like the fact that they’re expanding the benefit and I’m hoping Citi Prestige will add Airbnb and villas to this benefit in the future.
Second Place: Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers $300 a year in travel credits that are automatically deducted from your bill.
Third Place: The American Express Platinum card offers $200 in airline fee reimbursements and $200 a year in Uber credit (prorated monthly).
Each card offers unique value and if you know how to maximize the points and perks, it can make sense to have several of these top cards. While people think I’m crazy for paying $1,450 a year for all three cards, right off the bat I get $750 a year in travel/airfare credits and beyond that I juice the lounge access, points, and perks for amazing redemptions. Bottom line: there is no one best card for everyone — it depends on your travel needs and how you want to redeem, but all three are strong options for the frequent traveler.