A Look at Popular Premium Travel Rewards Cards

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You can get a credit card that gives you a mile in your favorite airline's frequent flyer program per dollar charged for no more than $100 a year. Or you can get a card that returns the equivalent of two cents for every dollar charged with no annual fee. So what do you get that can justify paying an annual fee of $450 to $550 for a premium travel card? Actually, quite a bit.

Premium Credit Cards with High Annual Fees

Here are five of the most popular cards in this premium category:

  • Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, $450 per year. (Disclosure: Citi is an Airfarewatchdog advertiser)
  • Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express, $450 per year.
  • United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase, $450 per year
  • The Platinum Card from American Express, $550 per year
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card, $450 per year.

For the most part, they all provide the usual set of credit card perks you get with any good but less expensive card, including no foreign transaction fee, shopping protection, rental car discounts/upgrades, and such. But they also offer some valuable and unique travel benefits that lesser cards do not provide.

The most important special benefit of these five cards is access to airport lounges—those oases of tranquility that tame the typical big airport's hostile environment. But the premium cards offer other extras: accelerated earning rates, credits for some travel expenses, preferential airline treatment, travel insurance benefits, and such. They all typically offer large one-time enrollment bonuses, which change periodically.

Although the five cards generally provide similar benefits, variations in specific benefits can be substantial and important.

Lounge Access. All five cards get you into lounges. The Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express, and United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase cards get you into sponsoring-line and partner-line lounge programs at an annual feel that's less than what the airlines charge for membership. The Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card gets you into worldwide Priority Pass lounges—with better coverage outside the U.S. than inside. The Platinum Card from American Express gets you Priority Pass plus Delta lounges when you're flying Delta plus its own growing list of Centurion lounges. Most programs allow at least one free companion except the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, which requires a guest to pay $29 per visit—an annoying minus.

Mileage Earning for Airfare and Airline Charges. The three airline cards provide 2 miles per dollar of airfare and airline expenses charged to the card. Sapphire provides 3 points per dollar on airfare and AmEx Platinum provides 5 points per dollar on airfare when charged through AmEx Travel or directly from an airline.

Mileage Earning for Other Charges. Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard and Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express give just 1 mile per dollar on other purchases; United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase gives 1.5 miles per dollar on all purchases—a big plus. The Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card gives 3 points per dollar on all travel charges—another big plus—and one mile on other charges. The Platinum Card from American Express also gives 5 points per dollar on hotels, but only for a limited number of prepaid hotel charges booked through the AmEx travel agency—a minimal benefit.

Mileage Transfer. Points earned with the Platinum Card from American Express can be transferred on a 1:1 or equivalent basis as miles into the Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and 13 foreign airline programs, plus several hotel programs. Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card points can be transferred to United, Southwest, and 5 foreign airline programs, plus several hotel programs.

Points as Cash. When used as a substitute for cash, most credit card miles/points are worth no more than 1 cent; often less. The Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card offers higher values for some purchases. But if you really want to use credit-card earnings for ordinary purchases, you're much better off with one of the several low-fee or no-fee cards that return 2 cents per dollar charged.

Special Credits. Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, The Platinum Card from American Express, and the Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card give a credit up to $100 for enrollment/renewal in Global Entry or Pre-check every five years. The Platinum Card from American Express also gives credit up to $200 per year for fees and charges (but not airfare) on any one airline the holder specifies, plus $15 monthly credit for Uber fees. Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card gives annual $300 credit for any travel-related charges. Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express awards one free companion ticket each year for 48-State travel on "selected" fares.

Complimentary Checked Baggage. Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard and Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express give one free checked bag for the holder plus up to 8 companions; United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase gives 2 free checked bags to the holder plus one companion. The Platinum Card from American Express and the Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card do not provide complimentary checked bags, as such, but the airline fee credits can apply to baggage charges.

Priority Airport Treatment. The three airline cards provide for priority check-in, screening, and boarding, where available; The Platinum Card from American Express and Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card do not.

Insurance. Four of the cards provide a fairly robust combination of trip-cancellation, medical/hospital/medevac expenses, flight delay, and delayed and lost baggage benefits—benefits that most travelers would probably find a sufficient substitute for separate travel insurance. But there's a big minus: Credit-card insurance does not provide for waiver of the exclusion for pre-existing medical conditions, and The Platinum Card from American Express cuts off medical benefits at age 80. Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard also offers $650 coverage for a missed connection—a possible plus. Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express provides for baggage coverage but not cancellation/medical/medevac—a big minus.

Rental Car Collision Coverage. All cards cover collision damage charges, but United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase and Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card coverages are primary—a big plus.

Elite Status. The United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase provides immediate elite status in the Hyatt hotel program, and The Platinum Card from American Express provides elite status with Hilton and Starwood, bypassing the usual prior stay requirements—benefits that sometimes include complimentary breakfast, preferred rooms, and such. Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card users can obtain accelerated membership in the Relais & Chateaux Club 5C program.

Other Stuff. All five cards include a laundry list of other benefits—some the same as you'd get with a less expensive card; others unique but of interest to a limited number of travelers. Anyone considering any of these cards, or comparing them, should check the details on any benefit they might value.

The Take-Away

If you don't value airport lounge access, any of the five cards is probably an overkill. You can find equivalent benefits for a lot lower annual fee. But if you travel more than a few times a year, those lounges make a big difference. It's your call.

Editor's note: The information related to the Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card has been collected independently by Airfarewatchdog. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer. This content is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by the aforementioned entities.

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