Evaluating Credit Cards: Points Programs & Travel Benefits

With summer travel season approaching, many people are wondering whether they are getting the most out of their credit card points and benefits. In recent years, many credit cards have added travel-related perks such as travel insurance, lounge access (notice how crowded those “exclusive” lounges now are?), and free or discounted checked baggage. Knowing the points calculations, benefits, and fees of the top travel-related credit cards can help you get the most out of your travel spending. Here is a quick review of some of the more popular cards our clients use. 

American Express Platinum
This card is the veteran of the category, long a favorite of frequent travelers and those who enjoy the perks of elite credit cards. Due to its reputation and variety of benefits, it’s also priced at the top of the category, with an annual fee of $550. Those who use all the perks of the card can more than make up for the annual fee, although it does take some planning to do so. The card’s most popular perk is access to various airport lounges, including American Express’s own lounges, the Centurion line, Delta lounges, Priority Pass lounges, and Escape lounges. The card also offers $200 in Uber rides annually, a $200 airline fee credit that can be used to check bags or purchase in-flight refreshments, a fee credit for TSA pre-check, and some travel insurance for baggage and rental cars. Additionally, having the American Express Platinum Card permits cardholders to apply for Gold status at both Starwood and Hilton hotels. When it comes to points accumulation, this card is best for frequent travelers, as it offers 5x points on eligible hotels and flights. The card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points if you spend $5,000 on the card during the first three months.

Chase Sapphire Reserve
A newer entrant to the travel credit card category, this card is quickly becoming a favorite among value- seeking cardholders. With an annual fee of $450, this card is still one of the higher-fee cards in the category but comes with an impressive array of perks that can exceed the annual fee. The card offers access to the airport lounges that are part of the Priority Pass program, but doesn’t offer its own lounges or access to the Delta lounges. (Delta is an important airline for those of us who frequent the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport). It also offers a $300 travel credit, which is automatically applied against travel-related expenses, including airlines, hotels, car rentals, cruise lines, and trains. Another outstanding feature of this card is its travel insurance related benefits: the cancellation insurance, accident insurance, and emergency evacuation coverage are top notch.
For frequent travelers, the bonus points on this card are noteworthy. The card offers 3x points on all travel and dining purchases. The card’s sign-up bonus is 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months. That adds up to $750 in travel if redeemed through Chase’s rewards portal.

Marriott Rewards Premier Plus
For those travelers who enjoy staying at hotels and may be seeking a lower-fee card, the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus card is only $95 per year. Cardholders are entitled to automatic Silver elite status at Marriott and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) hotels, and a free night every year at the account anniversary. For those who frequently utilize Marriott and SPG hotels, the points calculation of this card is quite valuable. Cardholders earn 6x points at Marriott and SPG hotels, and 2x points on everything else. Additionally, there’s an attractive sign-up bonus of 100,000 points after spending $5,000 on the card within the first three months.

Bank of America Travel Rewards
Our pick for a no-fee, travel-focused credit card, this card is a strong option for Bank of America customers. While it doesn’t offer the perks available to holders of higher-fee cards, it does offer flexibility and an attractive sign-up bonus. The card offers 1.5 points per dollar spent, and 3x points on travel booked through the Bank of America travel center. The current sign-up bonus is 20,000 online points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days. Additionally, Bank of America customers with high balances in their checking or savings accounts may qualify for additional bonuses.

Of course, there are numerous other options in the travel credit card space, and this is by no means a comprehensive review. Having a basic understanding of where you spend money, what perks you’d like access to, and how much you’re willing to spend annually on a credit card will help you decide which card(s) to apply for. As is the case with all credit cards, we urge you to pay down your balances monthly and not allow any balance to build up, as interest rates on all of these cards tend to be very high. If you have questions, please contact your Wealth Advisor to have a detailed discussion about your specific circumstances. We’d be happy to review any card offer you might be considering.