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With the major fanfare of Chase’s Sapphire Reserve and its 100,000-point sign-up bonus, we think it’s the perfect time to find out which premium travel card is really worth paying the high annual fee and adding the most value to your wallet.
Each travel rewards credit card has its own travel redemption site and point currency locking you into their program. Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and the Citi ThankYou Program each allow traveling enthusiasts a bevy of options when accumulating points. The major players have been making changes and adding new transfer partner options over the last few years, and now with the recently launched Chase Sapphire Reserve, this is an ideal time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each program, all of which carry a hefty $450 annual membership fee.
I’ve been a member of one of these programs for many years, and my criteria for judging them includes the quality of their transfer partners, the ease of earning points, and other factors such as transfer times, bonuses, and the ability to share points with others.
Sign-Up Bonus and Benefits
Chase Sapphire Reserve: 100,000 points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within three months of account opening (worth $1,500 when redeemed directly for travel, transferred to Chase partners it is worth $2,100).
Annual Fee: $450
Point Earning: 3X points on travel and dining purchases; 1X per dollar spent on everything else
Travel Credit: $300 travel credit each year on any travel purchases, including flights. Credit posts instantly.
Hotel Perk: Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection
Redemption: Ultimate Rewards
Lounge Access: Priority Pass Select (unlimited guests)
Citi Prestige: 40,000 points after $4,000 in purchases within three months of account opening (worth $640)
Annual Fee: $450
Point Earning: 3X points per dollar spent on air travel and hotels; 2X points per dollar spent on dining and entertainment; 1X point per dollar spent on everything else.
Travel Credit: $250 airfare credit for any flight-related expense, including airline tickets.
Hotel Perk: 4th night free on paid hotel stays
Golf Perk: 3 rounds of golf per year at select golf courses
Redemption: ThankYou Program
Lounge Access: Priority Pass Select (two free guests or immediate family) and Admirals club access (two free guests or immediate family), this benefit will be ending in July 2017.
The Platinum Card from American Express: 40,000 points after you use make $3,000 in purchases in the first three months (worth $760).
Annual Fee: $450
Point Earning: 1X per dollar.
Travel Credit: $200 airline fee credit toward travel incidentals (upgrades, luggage, etc).
Hotel Perk: American Express fine Hotels & Resorts
Redemption: Membership Rewards
Lounge Access: Priority Pass Select (guests are $27 each), Delta Sky clubs when flying Delta (guests are $29 each), Airspace lounges (two free guests or immediate family) and Centurion Lounges (two free guests or immediate family)
It’s obvious that the Chase Sapphire Reserve is a clear frontrunner with more than double the sign-up bonus. The Sapphire Reserve is double the value when redeemed directly for travel or when you transfer your points to a Chase partner. The Amex Platinum is not even coming close to its competition with a 1:1 earn per dollar spent compared to Citi Prestige and Sapphire Reserve that give you 3X and 2X earn per dollar spent in travel, hotel, restaurant, and entertainment categories.
All three credit cards offer Global Entry/TSA PreCheck Credit, car rental coverage, travel assistance, baggage loss or damage protection, roadside assistance, extended warranty, return protection, and more.
But let’s see once you have achieved the sign-up bonus the first year, what the real value of the cards are and what is worth holding on to for the long haul. Redemption and the partners of each program play a big part in deciding which card is worthy of a $450 and staying in your wallet.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Chase Ultimate Rewards
Redemption. Redeem points directly for travel at a rate of 1.5 cents per point; transfer points to one of seven airline partners or four hotel partners. Chase Sapphire Reserve has the highest value for redeeming points for travel, offering more great value with their program.
Airlines. While Ultimate Rewards offers the fewest airline partners of the three programs, one could make the argument that it actually has the best selection.
Ultimate Rewards features Southwest Airlines, has more domestic flights than any other carrier. It is also the only program that offers transfers to United at a 1:1 ratio. Unlike other airlines United is the only transfer partner among these three programs that does not impose fuel surcharges.
Hotels. Among its four hotel partners, the Hyatt Gold Passport program are the most valuable points, valued at 1.8 cents per point. Hyatt offers award nights with no blackout dates or capacity controls. Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, and IHG Rewards Club points values are slightly less.
Transfer Options. Cardholders can transfer Ultimate Rewards points through the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center for 1.5 cents each towards travel reservations, including flights, hotels, rental cars, cruises, and activities. I also like the ability of members to transfer points between spouses, domestic partners, and other household members. These transfers are free and instant.
Disadvantages. Ultimate Rewards partners with one Skyteam alliance member (Korean Air), and just two Star Alliance members (United and Singapore), which limits your options of where you can get the most value. In addition, Chase does not offer bonuses for transfers like the American Express Membership Rewards program does.
The Platinum Card from American Express: American Express Membership Rewards
Redemption. The Platinum from American Express has more transfer partners than the other two; transfer points to one of 17 airline partners or three hotel partners.
Airlines. Membership Rewards can be transferred at a 1:1 ratio to all of its many airline partners, simplifying the redemption process while offering many options for air travel.
Hotels. This program offers four different hotel transfer partners: Best Western Rewards, Choice Privileges, Hilton HHonors, and Starwood. Choice and Best Western points transfer at a 1:1 ratio. The Hilton HHonors program transfers at a helpful ratio of 1:1.5. Unfortunately, the Starwood transfer option is practically useless with its 3:1 transfer ratio.
Disadvantages. Cardholders are no longer able to transfer points to each other, even between spouses. Also, this is the only program that charges an “excise tax offset fee” on transfers to U.S. airlines. This is not a tax, but rather a fee that Amex chooses to impose, supposedly to offset the cost of its own taxes. The fee is $0.0006 per point (with a maximum fee of $99). This would equal $60 on a transfer of 100,000 miles.
Citi Prestige: Citi ThankYou Rewards
Redemption. Redeem points directly for airfare at a rate of 1.33 cents per point or 1.6 cents per point on American flights; transfer points to one of 12 airline partners and 1 hotel, Hilton HHonors. This card offers transfer partners that are not very good options when compared to the other two cards.
Airlines. This program has eight airline transfer partners, but none of them are based in the United States, and two of them don’t even offer service to North America. Citi ThankYou partners with EVA Air Infinity MileageLands and Garuda Indonesia and Malaysia Airlines Enrich and Qantas Frequent Flyer – all are niche redemption options.
Hotels. Citi only offers transfers through the Hilton HHonors program at a rate of 1:1.5 (1,000 ThankYou points = 1,500 Hilton HHonors points). This transfer ratio is the same one offered by American Express Membership Rewards.
Transfer options. One unique benefit is that members are free to transfer their points to any other ThankYou Rewards account, in any quantity. These transfers are free and occur instantly. That makes it easier to pool points for award redemption.
Disadvantages. Citi ThankYou Rewards points are not quite as valuable as Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards points, as the number of good uses of them is somewhat limited.
The Amex Platinum and Citi Prestige cards are being left in the dust by the recently launched Chase Sapphire Reserve card when it comes to a sign-up bonus. It’s a big decision to pay $450 a year for a credit card and once you’re locked into a travel program, you have to weigh a big decision if it is worth paying the annual fee for years to come or lose your earned points if you haven’t been able to redeem them for travel.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best for redemption because its partnership with Southwest and United at 1.5 making it a great value. Amex Platinum has 17 airline partners, so you get a greater amount of options. With only one hotel option and mostly non-American airline partners, Citi Prestige is limited to a certain type of traveler that flies mostly on American Airlines. But Citi Prestige does have two added perks that Chase and Amex don’t offer. You’ll get unlimited access to the 4th night free benefit which gets you a complimentary fourth night at a hotel when you book a paid stay of four nights or more. Plus you’ll get three FREE rounds of golf at select golf courses around the world.
The Platinum Card from American Express has been the leader in this premium travel market until now. Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Reserve have launched products that offer a new and improved Priority Pass program that allows you to bring more than just yourself compared to the Amex card. A big negative for Amex Platinum is that you can no longer transfer your points to a family member. Clearly Citi and Chase created programs that allow two people to share their bounty of points, making their rewards sites appealing to a household. Amex Platinum lags behind with the airline credits that is not only lower, but you have to select one airline ahead of time. The longest leader in the market for offering a premium card has some catching up to do – Amex Platinum offers a measly 1X on every purchase while Chase and Citi both offer 3X on travel and/or hotel/dining purchases and Citi Prestige also has a 2X category earn in dining and entertainment.
Amex Platinum is in much need of a revamping their program. I can attest to that since I have been a member since 1998 and want to see my annual fee go further for me to continue carrying this card.
Chase Sapphire ReserveSM
- New! Earn 100K bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $1,500 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases such as airfare and hotels charged to your card
- 3X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases. Plus, no foreign transaction fees
- Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 100,000 points are worth $1,500 toward travel
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Access to 900+ airport lounges worldwide with complimentary Priority Pass™ Select membership
- Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre√®
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions – as long as there’s a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Balance Transfer Fee