How to Get the Very Best Perks, Return on Spend, and Take Back What Travel Providers Took From You

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The only mainstream journalists I find that consistently get their credit card recommendations right are Ron Leiber and Stephanie Rosenbloom at the New York Times, Scott Mayerowitz at AP, and Joe Brancatelli whose Business Journals column this past looks at the cards that offer the best perks, the best points earning, and the best ‘make good’ on benefits that travel providers have taken away over the years.

Cards With the Best Perks

Under the heading of best perks, there’s the Platinum Card by American Express. I think the Citi Prestige Card should get equal billing, though Joe includes that one under the group of cards with the strongest points-earning. Here’s what he has to say about the Amex Platinum:

The American Express Platinum card remains indispensable for business travelers. Carp about the $450 annual fee if you must, but the card includes more valuable travel perks and privileges than you can buy with three times that amount.

Platinum confers elite-status recognition at Starwood and Hilton hotels and at National Car Rental locations. It reimburses your fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. It’ll kick back $200 annually in airline ancillary charges, too. You’ll also get complimentary Boingo WiFi coverage worldwide.

And Amex Platinum is the key to free entry at 800 airport lounges from Albania to Zimbabwe, including Amex’s proprietary and much-admired Centurion Lounges.

American Express Centurion Lounge Miami

They’ve just added Hilton Gold to the stable of elite benefits that come with the card. There are even reports that the airline fee credit reimbursement is working with certain airline gift cards (e.g. American Airlines $100 electronic gift cards, $50 Delta gift cards) again even though it isn’t supposed to.

I transit Dallas Fort-Worth more than any other airport, so I get value out of the card for access to the Centurion lounge alone.

The reason I put Citi Prestige right there is because it comes with American Airlines lounge access when flying American, a Lounge Club membership with unlimited visits and two guests (American Express Platinum’s similar Priority Pass Select comes with unlimited visits but guests are paid, and American Express Platinum offers Delta lounge access with flying Delta).

There’s no elite status with Citi Prestige, but you receive fourth night free on hotel stays, 3 free rounds of golf each year, and a $250 airline credit that works on airline tickets without worrying about gift cards or other fees.

In the case of both the American Express Platinum and the Citi Prestige card the reimbursement of airline charges is on a calendar year basis rather than cardmember year. That means if you apply now you still have time to use the credit in 2015, and again once the calendar flips to 2016, all in your first cardmember year. That means double the credits in the first year you pay the annual fee.

Best Points-Earning

I carry an American Express Platinum card, but do not put spending on the card. I love that Joe ‘gets’ that as a smart strategy. He points out that the Platinum card isn’t the best American Express for earning Membership Rewards points.

If your goal is to pile up points and then transfer them to airline or hotel frequent travel plans, there are better cards. Namely, the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express. It offers three points per dollar spent on airfare and two points per dollar at U.S. restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets. There’s also a $100 annual reimbursement for airline fees. The card is free for the first year and then $195 annually. Or, if you can handle permutations, there’s the Amex Everyday Preferred. It gives three points on supermarket purchases, two points at gasoline stations and a 50 percent bonus each month you use the card at least 30 times. The fee is low, too, only $95 annually.

The Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express has a $0 fee the first year — and still comes with the $100 airline fee reimbursement that year. So you clearly come out ahead. (Offer expired)

The point here though is that for earning you want points that transfer to a variety of miles, both to ensure you have the points you need for the award you want (based on where you want to go and what’s available at that moment) but also as a hedge against one program devaluing. My strategy is to earn plenty of points in several programs whose points transfer to miles.

Joe gets in this dig, though:

Membership Rewards now has a nearly fatal flaw. Most business travelers will be tempted to transfer Amex points to Delta SkyMiles and that’s a fool’s errand. Delta has so ferociously devalued SkyMiles and manages it so opaquely that it is nearly impossible to recommend anything aligned with it.

So along with these two American Express cards, I prefer:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card which earns double points on travel and dining, and which has some of the best transfer partners.

    Instead, focus your spending on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. It earns two points per dollar on travel and at restaurants. Plus you’ll receive a 40,000-point bonus when you acquire the card and charge $4,000 in the first 90 days. The card is cheap to carry: $95 annually and that fee is waived in the first year. Sapphire Preferred even has a perk Amex Platinum lacks. Its car rental coverage is primary, which means Sapphire Preferred covers all damages and you never have to invoke your personal vehicle insurance.

    Transfer points to United (redeem across the Star Alliance), Singapore Airlines (good availability in premium cabins on their own flights), Korean Air (best first class award availability, some of the best awards to Hawaii), British Airways (great short-distance redemptions on American Airlines and Alaska Airlines starting at 4500 points) and more.

    Singapore Airlines A380 Suites Class

  • Starwood Preferred Guest American Express because of the largest number of transfer partners and the bonus for transferring points to 20,000 miles. Here Joe cites me:

    Other options? Sagacious blogger and award planner Gary Leff is a proponent of the points-transfer flexibility of the Amex Starwood Preferred card.

    “It’s the best card for earning American Airlines or Alaska Airlines miles, for instance, better than either airline’s own co-brand” cards, he says.

  • Citi Prestige Card (and I would also add the equally-attractive for points-earning Citi ThankYou Premier). Citi Prestige earns [offer expired]

    [T]hree points per dollar on airline and hotel spending and two points on dining and entertainment charges. There’s also a bundle of other perks: a $250-a-year rebate on airline fees; a free fourth night on hotel stays; free greens fees at thousands of golf courses and complimentary access to American Airlines Admirals Clubs and hundreds of other airport lounges. The $450 annual fee is offset by a 50,000-point bonus when you spend $3,000 during the first three months you have the card.

But I often say miles are really the clear winning play for premium cabin travel. If you’re going to travel coach, especially domestically, you are often better off with cash back. The standard winner here is the no fee Citi Double Cash card (1% when you spend, 1% more when you pay off the spend).

And the lesser-known play here: Bank of America Travel Rewards, a no fee card with no foreign currency transaction fees which gives you 1.5% back towards travel… but if you have $75,000 in investment assets with the bank you can get 2.625% instead.

Cards That Offer Perks the Industry Has Taken Away

Joe says,

Like it or not, you probably should acquire a credit card tied to the carrier you fly most frequently. The reason? As airlines unbundled airfares and have made once-standard services “optional” charges, the only way to claw back the fees is by carrying their co-branded credit card.

I think this advice applies if you travel one airline regularly yet not enough to earn elite status on the carrier. Fly half a dozen times on United a year, the United co-brand is a good bet for waived checked bag fees, priority airport services, and two lounge passes a year. (United Explorer technically requires tickets to be purchased with the card for the checked bag fee waiver to apply. One of those your mileage may vary things.)

United Club Houston

Don’t put spending on the card, and there’s only a handful of reasons to bother if you do have even the lowest tier of status — United makes you get the card if you want to be eligible for upgrades on domestic economy award tickets, for instance.

Joe also thinks “it makes sense to carry the co-branded credit card of the hotel chain you most frequently frequent.” Again that’s true if you aren’t earning status on your own. And in the case of Hilton it probably makes sense to pay for those stays with a Hilton co-brand card because the earning is good. (Other chain co-brands don’t over compelling enough earning on their own to get the card for that purpose).

Co-brand cards mostly help those without status get better treatment. Either way, they rarely offer the strongest return on spending. I carry the Starwood and Hyatt cards to help me towards status because I want to keep top tier benefits from both chains and the extra night credits I can earn are helpful.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »

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  1. It bothers me that you continue to trumpet Visas with no foreign transaction fees when Mastercards offer such a better rate on the exchange that any extra rewards from the Visa card are moot.

  2. Not sure how none of the Bloggers don’t cover the United Club card ever. It’s the only card that gives you premier access (check in, early board, and free checked bags) and lounge access. Plus 1.5 points per dollar, not a bad card to set it and forget. If you’re not living the dream with paid travel twice a month but you are earning points with CC then you need a card like this. I flew across the country 6x, once to Alaska, and another flight to Argentina this year but I only managed to rack up 9,000 PQM (or equivalents) across all airlines. Premier access is an under-rated benefit.

  3. In an airline-neutral world, I’ll take the Citi Prestige over the Amex Plat any day of the week. Both are great cards, but Citi’s net fee is lower (and the travel credit easier to use), the fourth night free for hotels is huge and you can take your whole family into lounges. Also, big multiplier for all of your Citi TYPs (not just Prestige points) on air travel (1.25:1), particularly AA

    Like you and the Amex Plat, I never actually use my Citi card. I just keep it for the benefits.

    Downside: Customer service sucks and having the stripe on the front of the card is a PITA for the few occasions when I do want to use it.

  4. @Gary – Unless something changed in the last month, Citi Prestige offers Priority Pass Select with family or up to two guests. My understanding of the Platinum benefit is that you get the same access without guest/family benefits. But the Prestige does not seem to offer “Lounge Club” access.

    @Mike – Very recently, Citi started offering a version of the card design with the stripe in the normal place on a request-only basis. It’s so new your average phone rep might not know about it, so HUCA. All you have to do is ask and they’ll ship it out to you.

    Personally, I’m actually coming to value AmEx’s CS more and more, and find it worth mentioning as being outstanding, without caveat. I’m sure that’ll change over time, but time and again they’ve shown consistently amazing customer service with agents willing to go the extra mile on sometimes small, sometimes large requests. They also have, by far, the best fraud prevention I’ve found of all the issuers, and their excellent customer service skills play strongly into these measures. Call and tell them you don’t recognize a charge; they dispute on your behalf and generally issue you a credit immediately. Compare this with Citi, Chase, or Capital One (the three I’ve experience with) where they tend to send you forms to fill out; I haven’t yet had that happen with AmEx.

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